The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle): The most recent step was taken last week, when the national minimum wage was increased to £5.73 an hour, which is 60 per cent. higher than when it was introduced. Two thirds of beneficiaries of the national minimum wage are women, including many who work part time.
Mrs. Riordan: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply and congratulate the Government on consistently and successfully challenging discrimination and tackling the pay gap. However, while the pay gap experienced by women continues to narrow, its underlying causes persist. Will she therefore give a commitment that the Government will implement a widespread cultural change to tackle the undervaluation of womens work?
Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to note the significant progress that has been made and to highlight the fact that it remains difficult to close the gender pay gap completely and to ensure that discrimination does not affect disabled people and black people, who are significantly disadvantaged in the labour market as a result of discrimination and in other ways. She is right to say that promoting cultural change is important, but it cannot be achieved overnight. However, that is the entire purpose of the new equality Bill, which will introduce a new equality duty, end age discrimination, require transparency, extend the scope for positive action, and strengthen enforcement. All those measures, which will be dealt with in the new Bill, will enable us to take a major step forward in closing the pay gap, and I hope that we will have my hon. Friends support.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment, and I wish her well in fulfilling her responsibilities. I applaud the efforts that are being made to tackle the gender pay gap, but note that the problem remains naggingly and infuriatingly persistent. Will she tell the House why the gender pay gap among part-time employees is worse in the public sector than in the private sector?
Apart from the fact that many women are crowded into part-time occupations, which are generally lower paid, which accounts for the greater extent of the gap between part-time working, whether by men or women, and full-time male working, which is the biggest of the gender pay gaps, what the hon. Gentleman says illustrates the complexity of some of the issues. Not only discrimination, but work patterns and all sorts of other factors are involved. That is one reason why we have the national equality panela group of independent academics who are trying to help us to understand fully what we need to do to rid our society of those unacceptable gaps in pay based on gender.
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman has a contribution to make and his record in the House in this respect is good. I look forward to working with him across the usual boundaries to try to make a real difference to our society as a whole.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I add my welcome to those given to the Minister. Aberdeen has one of the widest gender pay gaps in the country, if not the widest. That is true of part-time and full-time work. How might the public procurement potential contained in the proposed equality Bill help to deal with that problem?
Maria Eagle: I can see why my hon. Friend is interested in the matter, given what she says about her constituency. She has highlighted an important lever that the public sector can use to lead by example. Every year, £160 billion-worth of contracts are let by the public sector, and some are let to the private sector. The equality duty will require, as the gender equality duty already requires, that goods and services are not distributed in a discriminatory fashion, so there is real potential to use public procurement to encourage the private sector to make much better progress in that respect. I hope that that is something we will look at.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant):
The Cabinet Office produces guidance for Departments on handling correspondence from Members of Parliament, Members of the House of Lords, Members of the European Parliament and Members of devolved Assemblies. All Departments should set targets, which should not exceed 20 working days. A copy of the
guidance is in the Library of the House, and earlier this morning I placed a copy on the letter board for the hon. Gentleman.
Andrew Selous: First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. I am aware of the guidance and I have a copy of it. As he rightly says, the figure is 20 days, but I wrote to the Department of Health on 28 July on a serious matter with national implications for the treatment of NHS patients. Seventy-four days10 and a half weekshave passed and my office has chased the matter up 10 times to try to get a reply, but we have not had one. Will the hon. Gentleman help me to get a reply and will he remind all Ministers that replying to Members letters is not just something that they should get round to, but a constitutional duty to perform out of respect for our constituents?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans kind comment at the beginning of his remarks. What he describes is clearly not acceptable, and I shall ensure that he gets an answer as soon as possible. The guidance is extremely clear:
Departments must ensure that:
(i) all replies to letters from MPs are of the highest qualityaccurate, clear and helpful.
(ii) every effort is made to reply promptly and in line with departments own published standards for answering ministerial correspondence.
Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): On 22 January, I wrote to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on behalf of my constituent, George Young. My office chased the letter up four times, and I finally received a reply on 8 September. I welcome the Minister to his new post, but will he encourage the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to send one of his minions to the Dispatch Box to make a statement confirming that that delay and others like it are completely unacceptable, and that the Department will remove its collective finger from wherever it may happen to have inserted it?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I will not go down that route. It is clear that hon. Members must have swift answers. Those who are elected to the House should get swift and substantive answers to the questions that they ask on their own behalf or on behalf of their constituents. Previous Leaders and Deputy Leaders of the House have made it absolutely clear that we intend to pursue this matter to ensure that Members get replies as swiftly as possible. That is as true for the Department that the hon. Gentleman mentioned as for any other. When there are pinch points, I would be grateful if hon. Members mentioned them to me so that we can sort them out and ensure that all hon. Members get swift replies.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): We have made an assessment of the effectiveness of the new system of Public Bill Committees taking oral and written evidence, which seems to be working well.
Michael Fabricant: I have pleasure in agreeing with the Minister, and I too congratulate him on his appointment. We have known each other for a long timein the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on which we both served, I hasten to add. But does he accept that while the innovation is to be applauded and welcomed, it can only be acceptable if there is sufficient time to take evidence? Often, such Committees have insufficient time and the people whom Members want to interview are unavailable. What can we do to extend the amount of interview time?
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I think that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we are delighted that the Colombian police have released him so that he can be with us today.
I accept the hon. Gentlemans point. The system is new. Clearly, it is considerably better that Committees are able to take written and oral evidence, and it is entirely up to Committees whether they choose to do so. In the past year, most Committees that have had the opportunity to take such evidence have done so if pre-legislative scrutiny has not already taken place. In the Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made it clear that he was extremely happy with the amount of time and the organisation of the witnesses provided. Likewise, in the Education and Skills Public Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) was absolutely delighted with the consensus on the programme motion. Perhaps we need to consider some points, but I think that the system is working well.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): Successive Leaders and Deputy Leaders of the House have made it a priority to oversee the effective operation of the questions process and to ensure that Ministers and Departments are fully aware of their obligations to the House. Inquiries are made of particular Departments when problems are known to have arisen, or when hon. Members make representations. Most recently, steps have been taken to follow up the pattern of the answering of written questions tabled by the hon. Gentleman in July and September.
Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, and I too welcome him to his post. I acknowledge the work of the Leader of the House in chasing up Departments following my letter to her. Having said that, I am still waiting for answers to 17 questions tabled a week before the summer recess. Of the 85 named day questions that I tabled, 55 were not answered on the named day, and on average the answers were 19 days late. That is not acceptable. What will the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Lady do to ensure that Ministers deliver on their promises to the House?
Chris Bryant: My gratitude continues, this time to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He has shown the House that he is an extremely assiduous Member, including during the recess. Many members of the public might think that Members of Parliament work only when the House is sitting, but he was assiduous in tabling questions even during the bank holiday week. During the three days in September, 807 questions were tabled. That is a good innovation, but it is clear that further work is necessary to ensure that a greater number of questions are answered more swiftly and substantively. As the hon. Gentleman has taken a long-standing interest in such issues, with two debates in Westminster Hall on ministerial accountability, I am happy to take forward some of those issues jointly with him.
I have had experiences similar to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). Quite often in the past I have written to Ministers but have not received replies in time, so I now table more written parliamentary questions. It really is not satisfactory for the hon. Gentleman to say that he will examine the position and try to improve it; he must take action, because otherwise Back Benchers will continue to be let down by the Government.
Chris Bryant: I think I can do no better than to repeat the invitation that I issued earlier. I understand that there are pinch points in particular Departments, and I shall be happy to work with any hon. Members to ensure that they receive swift and substantive answers.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I too welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. Can he explain why two or three goes at a Department are so often needed for a Member to obtain an answer that could have been provided in the first instance? Can he also explain why certain Departments, particularly the Northern Ireland Office, are so reluctant to give details of meetings that Ministers have held with third parties? Although such information is widely promulgated in the press, Members of Parliament experience great difficulty in finding out directly from Departments what has been going on.
I will look into the second point that the hon. Gentleman raised. Perhaps if we have a
conversation outside the Chamber, he could explain more fully the sort of issue that worries him.
It is true that written parliamentary questions are an important part of holding the Government to account and of holding to account other organisations that are accountable to the Government. It is also true that the number of tabled written questions has risen dramatically, from 46 a day in the 1960s to 139 a day in the 1980s, and to 439 a day this year. I welcome thatI do not decry itbut obviously, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, if that is because Members have to ask the same question three times, Ministers may sometimes be making a rod for their own back. It would be better to sort the matter out promptly on the first occasion, rather than make Members return to it again and again.
Last year when Parliament prorogued, 263 written parliamentary questions remained unanswered, 23 of them for more than three months. Notwithstanding what the Deputy Leader of the House said earlier, will he or the Leader of the House undertake to prevail on their ministerial colleagues to ensure that this year they do not hide behind the veil of a prorogation, and that they give proper replies, even if the replies are inconvenient to the Government?
Chris Bryant: I do not think it is a question of convenience. The simple fact is that the Leader of the House and I are determined to deliver swift and substantive answers to hon. Members as soon as possible. However, I will look specifically into what happened before prorogation last year so that, as far as is humanly possible, we can ensure that it does not happen again.
22. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): How many bottles of House of Commons (a) sparkling and (b) still water were supplied for use by Committee members during meetings of Committees of the House in each of the last three years. 
Nick Harvey (North Devon): In 2007-08, some 10,000 bottles of sparkling water and 11,400 bottles of still water were supplied for use in Committee Rooms. That is broadly in line with the amounts supplied in the previous year, but an increase on the amounts supplied in the year before that. The Commission is well aware of the concern about the matter, and the Department of Facilities is exploring other options.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response. He has good environmental credentials and he will know that bottled water can generate emissions up to 600 times greater than those from tap water. It is particularly embarrassing when representatives of the water industry attend meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on water. There is perfectly good
water in our taps. May I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do all he can to make tap water available at our meetings, where the work can be very thirst-making?
Nick Harvey: The hon. Lady may know from previous exchanges on this matter that I have a lot sympathy with what she says. The Administration Committee looked at the issue in April and decided at that stage to make no change, but as I have mentioned, the Department of Facilities is looking at other options and this will provide another opportunity for the matter to be considered. I urge the hon. Lady and anyone of the same view to lobby the Administration Committee when the time comes for it to look into the matter again.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Although I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is sympathetic, it was several months ago when he said in response to a question from me that other options were being looked at. The wheels are turning very slowly on this serious matter. Out in the real world people are turning from bottled water for environmental reasons, but we do not seem to be able to do the same. Can we speed up the process?