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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has done so much for women that I feel anxious about putting another request to her and asking for more. There is already a public sector duty to promote racial equality, and one is planned for disability. Can she yet respond positively to the campaign by the Equal Opportunities Commission for a public sector duty of gender equality?

Ms Hewitt: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the enormous work she has done, both as one of the first Ministers with responsibility for women and more recently with women in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am glad to say that we are clear in principle that we shall extend the duty to promote equality within the public sector to the issue of gender equality. We need to see when we can make parliamentary time to put that into legislative effect, but we have accepted the principle.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the right hon. Lady told the House on 1 May last year that, as a result of the important equal pay reviews that the Government had conducted, serious problems of unequal pay had been unearthed, will she update the House on progress in the implementation of action plans submitted to the Cabinet Office on this matter? While she is about it, will she be good enough also to address the issue of whether the Government intend to extend the search for equal pay reviews to contractors and subcontractors to government, a subject in which her deputy took a great interest in Westminster Hall on 25 June last year, but which she acknowledged to be tricky? I would welcome an update.

Ms Hewitt: As the hon. Gentleman will know, because we have published summaries both of the equal pay reviews and the action plans, we are now taking steps within every Government Department. For instance, in this year's pay negotiations, some of which will cover more than one year, we are taking steps to deal with the equal pay problems that have been unearthed. Some, which are in a sense easiest to remedy, occur within particular grades. They will be dealt with through pay restructuring and the pay increases now being put in place. Others are more difficult to tackle, because they arise in part from job segregation, a point that I shall come to.

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We are considering whether equal pay reviews should be extended to contractors and subcontractors. Many different organisations make a strong case for using what used to be called contract compliance to ensure not just better pay and equal pay, but compliance with environmental standards and so on. As the hon. Gentleman will readily acknowledge, we need to balance the benefits that could arise from that action with the possible costs to the businesses involved. I hope that he will acknowledge the need to do a proper regulatory impact assessment before contemplating going down that route.

One of the biggest underlying problems of the persistent equal pay gap, particularly as it affects part-time workers, is job segregation.

Mr. Bercow: I genuinely appreciate the right hon. Lady's giving way again. I am not seeking to be difficult. Her point about the regulatory burden is important, and it would be very curious if I, who have often challenged her on it, were to dissent from what she says. May I, on a more modest level, put the matter to the right hon. Lady in the following terms? Recognising that the process of government is difficult, we nevertheless want to make progress. Does she accept that, as a matter of principle, any contractor or subcontractor discovered to have breached the existing law would manifestly be unsuitable for continued work for the Government?

Ms Hewitt: That is a very modest proposition, with which I would certainly assent, as I am sure my colleagues in the Treasury would. We shall continue to look at this and see how we can spread the good practice that we have initiated in central Government departments much more widely.

I turn to the problem of job segregation. Six out of 10 women in paid work are working in just 10 occupations—typically, those that pay the least. Within the pay grades and structures of those occupations, women also tend to be concentrated at the bottom, so we need to look at the choices that girls and women are making about the subjects they pursue at schools and the careers and jobs that they then go into, as well as at what we can do about the pay levels within those occupations where women are already concentrated.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): In the most senior ranks of the judiciary women are largely absent. Of the 12 Law Lords, just one is a woman; of the five heads of division, one is a woman; of the 37 Lords Justices of Appeal, two are women; and of the 107 High Court judges, only eight are women. Would it not have been useful if last night Lord Woolf had dealt with that matter instead of making his outburst? On one point, of course, he was right, and I voted against the Government accordingly on Monday. Is it not unfortunate that, despite all the progress that has been made, there are so few women among the most senior judges? Whatever progress has been made—and it is very limited—it has been made only since 1997.

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point about the paucity of women in the senior ranks of the judiciary. We could say exactly the same about the virtual absence of women within the boardrooms of our top companies, although I am glad

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to say that there are finally more than 100 women directorships within the FTSE 100. But there are still far too many companies with very few women in senior positions. My noble and learned Friend Lord Irvine, the former Lord Chancellor, and my noble and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs have taken and are taking steps to encourage and promote women within the judiciary.

Just as we are concerned about the under-achievement of boys in school, we have to remain concerned about the lack of girls going into non-traditional areas of work, such as engineering and technology. Indeed, 95 per cent. of those graduating in engineering are men, while 90 per cent. of students taking a health and social care vocational qualification are women. We know very well the utterly different pay paths and career and training opportunities that will follow from those two facts.

Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Equal Opportunities Commission is now undertaking a general formal investigation to see how women and men continue to end up in these traditional gender roles and to probe some of the barriers to change. I also welcome the fact that over the last 10 years, remarkably, the percentage of women graduates in science, engineering and technology subjects has increased from well below 5 per cent. to nearly 30 per cent. Over the same 10-year period, the number of girls taking technology at A-level has increased by just over a third. We need to go on encouraging girls and young women to choose those harder but none the less intensely interesting and human subjects.

I had the opportunity this morning to hear Professor Sir Harry Kroto, one of our Nobel prize winners and an extraordinary chemist, speaking about the dramatic improvements that breakthrough discoveries in his field of chemistry and nanotechnology, and more widely in science, can make to human well-being and to conquering disease, improving our environment and feeding starving people around the world. If we could create that sense of excitement and human possibility among young women and girls, we would see far more of them choosing to go into those subjects. It is important that they do, and that we continue our efforts to bring women who already have those qualifications back into science and technology-based employment, because as we look ahead in this increasingly competitive global economy we need to increase the number of businesses and the number of jobs based on science and technology. That is how we will raise, in the jargon, the value-added of our economy, create better-paid jobs and keep ourselves competitive in a competitive world. We will struggle to do that if we are recruiting from only half the human talent pool.

The work we are doing on equal pay and family friendly working, and the improvements we are making in child care, are all about ensuring that women can fulfil their potential and make the contribution they want to make, earning a living for themselves and their families but contributing to broader economic success. Those improvements are also about ensuring that women and men have much greater choice in how they balance earning that living with bringing up their children.

Much has been done—and despite having spoken for a considerable time, I am conscious that there is much else I could have said, which other hon. Members will no

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doubt cover this afternoon—but much more needs to be done. Before closing, I want to acknowledge and pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality has done as she leads the creation of our new commission on equality and human rights. She will have more to say about that later. That new body, which will bring together all the strands of our work on equality and put it in the much broader context of human rights, is the result of the most significant review of our work on equality in a quarter of a century. I am very grateful not only to my right hon. Friend, but to the chairs of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the newer Disability Rights Commission and other members of the taskforce for the enormous amount of work that they are putting into creating the new single commission.

Finally, this is a wonderful opportunity to pay our own tribute to the women who, in each of our constituencies all over the country, work day in, day out to improve the lives of their families, friends, communities and wider neighbourhoods. We heard just before this debate a little about the so often unacknowledged work that women do as carers of elderly or disabled relatives. Millions of women work in voluntary organisations, faith groups, tenants and residents' associations, as women councillors—too few of them—and as governors of schools, on the boards of hospital trusts and so on.

I am thinking in my own constituency of Councillor Manjula Paul Sood, who is the only Asian woman councillor in one of the most multiracial and diverse cities in our country, and who has played a leading role in the interfaith forum that has helped to ensure that Leicester continues to enjoy strong and good community relations. I am thinking of Dr. Angela Lennox, who founded a pioneering health and community centre in one of the most disadvantaged wards of our city in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and who is now a director of the urban regeneration company that is helping to rebuild the city.

In my own city we will be celebrating tomorrow and on Saturday through LeicestHER day, which is now in its third year and brings together 1,000 women from all walks of life across the city and the county—groups such as Turning Point in my constituency in Braunstone, which is one of the most disadvantaged wards in the entire country, the Bhagini centre, also in my constituency, the Sharma women's centre and many others. It is a great pity that the new city council in Leicester, which is a coalition of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, has decided, despite all the representations and pleas, to cut the funding to those and many other groups and within a month force their closure.


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