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The Minister for Women was asked—

Public Appointments

19. Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): What steps she is taking to encourage more women to apply for public appointments. [143336]

The Deputy Minister for Women and Equality (Jacqui Smith): We have set a target for every Government Department to increase the numbers of women sitting on the boards of their public bodies. The aim is that by 2005 women should hold 45 to 50 per cent. of all appointments in most Departments. We have also commissioned research to look at the barriers that women face, following a national outreach campaign that we ran in 2002.

Sue Doughty : I thank the Minister for her reply, but I am rather concerned about this issue. In 2002–03, there were 1,357 female appointments, representing 39 per cent. of the appointments made. That is the same percentage as in the preceding year. Only 3 per cent. of major appointments attracting more than £50,000 a year go to women. Most women take on very low-level appointments. Can the Minister offer me any more optimism than the Government's record gives me?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Lady rightly pushes us to take action, but it is precisely because we have identified this problem and are keen to make progress that we have set out the action that I outlined in my previous answer. Only 20 per cent. of jobs come up for replacement each year, so progress will not perhaps be as quick as the hon. Lady and I would like. For the first time, however, there is a significant programme of action, information, training and monitoring within government to ensure that we make progress on getting more women on to national public bodies, not just because that is right but

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because it will mean that those bodies are better governed and more representative of the people that they serve.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the recommendation of the Wales Women's National Coalition that there should be shadowing, pre-application training, mentoring, and provision for the payment of expenses relating to child care and the care of the elderly? Does she agree that we need to tackle this issue from every angle, and does she agree with any of those recommendations?

Jacqui Smith: The recommendations that my hon. Friend has outlined involve extremely sensible and practical ways in which we can ensure not only that women get appointed on to public bodies but that they are in a position to be able to put themselves forward for appointment and take up the positions. The proposals are similar to those put forward by the Select Committee on Public Administration report on public appointments, to which the Government will shortly publish their response. Recommendations such as those involving apprenticeships and shadowing and mentoring schemes are very welcome and will ensure that we increase the representation of women on our public bodies.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The 300 Group has an excellent website that lets women know about the latest public appointments that are coming up, and the dates by which they should apply for them. I was sad to read on that website, however, that the public appointments target set by each of the Departments falls far short of the 50 per cent. target that the Government set in 1999. This includes Departments such as Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Defence, whose targets are only 20 per cent. and 15 per cent. respectively. Will the Minister reassure me that she will look at those targets, that they will be revised, and that this is not a case of the Government saying one thing and the Departments doing another?

Jacqui Smith: I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady that it certainly is not. We expect transparency from Departments, and each one has produced an action plan, which can be found in the Library, supporting the targets that I have outlined.

It is not only the 300 Group that has a website; the Government have one, and in March launched a public appointments site making information about current opportunities available to all. I understand that it is currently registering some 9,000 visits a day. That is another element of our practical action to provide access to both information and opportunities.

National Minimum Wage

20. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What contribution the national minimum wage has made to reducing the gap between male and female earnings for low-paid workers. [143337]

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The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Around 70 per cent. of those who will benefit from the latest uprating of the national minimum wage are women. There is no doubt that the national minimum wage has contributed significantly to the closing of the pay gap for part-time workers, the vast majority of whom are of course women.

Hugh Bayley : Given the important role played by the minimum wage in closing that pay gap, especially for lower-paid and part-time female workers, would the Minister consider instructing the Low Pay Commission to consider specifically the impact of its recommendations on future minimum wage rates and on the gap between men's and women's pay?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. The Low Pay Commission is well aware of the extent of the problem of the gender pay gap. When advising on upratings, it pays particular attention to the balance that must be struck between helping the low paid by increasing the minimum wage and ensuring that employment levels are maintained. I will, however, reflect further on what my hon. Friend has said, and discuss it with Adair Turner, chair of the commission.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): When women take leave to care for their children, the issue of pay on re-entry to the workplace becomes a real problem. According to figures from the British household panel survey, a woman rejoining the work force after taking time off to serve as a full-time carer is paid, on average, 16 per cent. less than her previous wage. Does the Minister agree that such discrimination against female returners must be tackled if we are to see a significant reduction in the pay gap?

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The longer women stay out of employment to care for children or elderly relatives, the worse will be the difficulties that they are likely to encounter on their return. We need to think carefully about what we do to strengthen their rights. The extended maternity leave package that we introduced in April—maternity leave of up to 12 months is now possible—ensured that more women would benefit from the right to return to the same job, or a job at the same level. I look forward to receiving help and support from the Conservatives, rather than their usual whingeing about red tape when we discuss proper standards for people at work.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (Lib Dem): The national minimum wage has been welcomed and has improved the lot of many women, but 4.7 million women—43 per cent. of female employees—still earn less than £5 an hour. Many work in the care industry, in jobs that are traditionally low-paid. What is the Minister doing to bring about fairer pay levels in industries in which women employees predominate?

Ms Hewitt: My memory may be faulty, but I do not recall our having the enthusiastic support of Liberal Democrats when it came to legislating for the national minimum wage. Nevertheless, I welcome the hon.

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Lady's belated conversion.

On low-paid occupations, the hon. Lady is quite right: 60 per cent. of women work in just 10 occupations, and those are typically much lower paid and account for the bulk of the pay gap. Of course, we are not only ensuring fairer pay for women in public service occupations through our investment in public services;

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through our skills strategy, we are also making it much easier for women to get better skills, and therefore to get better and higher paid jobs. The hon. Lady should not forget the very important role of the child tax credit and the working tax credit in helping to ensure that, even for people in low-paid jobs, work pays and enables people to support themselves and their families.

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Business of the House

12.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: I must inform the House that I am of a mind to protect the business of the Select Committees, which is due for debate. The business statement will therefore be shorter, and I ask Back Benchers—and, of course, Front Benchers—to be very brief in their questions.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 15 December—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill followed by Second Reading of the Child Trust Funds Bill.

Tuesday 16 December—Remaining stages of the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill.

Wednesday 17 December—Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants Etc) Bill.

Thursday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week after the Christmas recess will be:

Monday 5 January—Second Reading of the Traffic Management Bill.

Tuesday 6 January—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions and Statutory Payments Bill.

Wednesday 7 January—Opposition Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 8 January—Second reading of the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Bill.

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