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The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act received Royal Assent on 26 February. I hope that all political parties will seize the opportunity that the Act presents to increase the number of women candidates.
Mrs. Lawrence: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that she accepts that women from all walks of life can make a valuable contribution to public life and to public bodies. Will she give an outline of what
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, and I have been organising meetings and seminars around the country that are designed to encourage women from a variety of backgrounds to think about possible public appointments for which their skills in the family, in their local neighbourhoods and in voluntary organisations have made them well fitted. I am pleased to say that that programme of seminars has been such a success in attracting women to apply for public appointments that I shall do three more meetings targeted at women from the black and Asian community, women from business and women from trade unions.
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): The Minister will know that in 1997 33 per cent. of public appointments were held by women, and that this year the figure is 34 per cent. Does she acknowledge that, at that rate of progress, it will take till 2082 to reach the Government's target of 50 per cent. of public appointments being held by women? What progress does the Minister claim for herself?
Ms Hewitt: We are making faster progress than the Conservative party, which has just gone through Trade and Industry questions with no women present. It is precisely because the rate of progress in the past has not been fast enough that we are taking much stronger measures to improve the recruitment of women and of men and women from ethnic minority communities to public appointments. That is why we have targets across all Departments and public agencies for the appointment of women and people from minority ethnic communities to public appointments. I am glad to say that the majority of Departments are well on track to reach that target of 50 per cent. of public appointments being held by women.
Fiona Mactaggart: I welcome the steps that have been taken to help women to return to work, one of the most significant of which is the improvements in child care provision, especially after school child care. May I urge the Secretary of State to do what she can to ensure that, as new opportunities funding runs out for after school child care schemes, support for mothers, especially low-paid mothers, through such schemes continues so that we carry on making the progress that we have started to make in opening up work opportunities for women?
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have begun to make real progress on child care. We have created additional child care places for almost 880,000 children since 1997, and we are on track to help more than 1.5 million children with child care places by 2004. The specific issue of new opportunities funding in disadvantaged areas and how we sustain and grow provision in those communities is being reviewed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and is also the subject of a study by the performance and innovation unit.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that parents returning to work often prefer informal child care arrangements, and, if possible, leaving their children with a relative. Does she accept that we were right to criticise this gap in the arrangements for the working families tax credit, and that yesterday's announcement that child care tax credits might be extended to grandparents represents a welcome climbdown?
Ms Hewitt: I am delighted that the hon. Lady has told us that she and the Conservative party strongly support the working families tax credit and the child care tax credit that goes with it. When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor first announced the working families tax credit, he made it clear that he would keep its operation under review. It is already enormously popular and it is helping more than three times as many people as the Conservatives' family credit was helping. The issue of whether it can be extended to family carers including grandparents is of real concern, for instance, to some of my constituents in low-income communities. That is why we are looking precisely at that possibility.
A Second Reading debate on the Enterprise Bill on 9 April has been announced. I am led to believe that that Bill has not yet been published, but it is rumoured that it may contain more than 250 clauses and in excess of 20 schedules. The Leader of the House is putting us in a position whereby a major Bill containing enormously complex material, which, I gather, has had no pre-legislative scrutiny, will not be published until next week when the House goes into recess for two weeks. Immediately on the House's return, it will be asked to conduct its Second Reading debate. Surely that flies completely in the face not only of all parliamentary convention but of the Leader of the House's principleswhich he likes to set out frequentlywhich include a belief in the value of pre-legislative scrutiny and in the necessity for the House to have a proper opportunity not only to debate and to scrutinise but to consult legitimate outside interests before doing so. I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the matter.
There is an item in a newspaper today headed: "Labour peer quits in job row". Apparently, the peer in question is a nice man called Lord Warner, who is a Labour peer. I gather that, at one time, he was a special adviser to no less a man than the Foreign Secretary. Lord Warner lists law and order as his special interests in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", so he is obviously a good chap. I am really inviting the Leader of the House to tell me that the story is completely wrong. It is reported that this nice man was going to be offered the job of head of the Audit Commission, and that that was endorsed by No. 10, no less. However, it is alleged that another nice man, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regionsto whom the House has had to get used, as he comes here so often to grovelfor some reason vetoed the appointment of the nice Lord Warner.
We really must get to the bottom of this. If that Secretary of State is messing things up again, defying No. 10 and disappointing one of his colleagues so much that a Labour peer has resigned from his party and joined the Cross Benches, we need to know more about it. Moreover, if that nice man has seen fit to resign, what has happened to the Labour Chief Whip in the Lords? Some very serious allegations were made last week