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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) indicated assent.

Ms Hewitt: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has an interest in the subject that he would like to declare, in which case I readily congratulate him.

In the Employment Bill, we are also putting in place new legal standards for family-friendly working, to make it much easier for fathers and mothers with children under the age of six, or with older children who have disabilities, and to ensure that every workplace and manager has to consider how to reorganise work to suit their employees as well as their business.

Much has been done to ensure that parents and families have the time that they need. Much has also been done to ensure that they have the money they need: the record increases in child benefit; the working families tax credit, which benefits one and a third million families; the national minimum wage, which has given a pay rise to about 1 million women and 500,000 men; the sure start maternity grant, which is also to be introduced in April 2003 for families on lower incomes and will deliver an increase in the maternity grant to £500, which is five times the level that we inherited in 1997; and, crucially, for older women the increases in pensions and the introduction of the minimum income guarantee. As I well remember from my first job with Age Concern, women are the majority of pensioners and, above all, the majority of pensioners living in poverty. They live longer, they have much less chance of a decent occupational pension and they have fewer savings on which to rely.

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We have provided not only time and money but the services that women and families need. I am particularly proud of our Government's achievements in child care, and pay tribute to the work of the Minister for Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who was responsible for child care issues in our first term, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who has taken over that responsibility. We have already created new child care places for more than 750,000 children. By March 2004, we will have places for about 1 million extra children.

Much has been done, but because we listen to and represent women in our constituencies and our Government listen to women throughout the country, we all know how much more remains to be done, for instance, on the pay gap. When I was campaigning on equal pay and sex discrimination nearly 30 years ago, that gap was 37 per cent. Now, it is down to 18 per cent., but it is still far too high. The penalty paid by women in their lifetimes in forgone earnings is enormous. Research carried out by our women and equality unit found a staggering difference between the lifetime earnings of a woman with medium-level skills and two children and those of a man of similar experience. The gap in her earnings compared with his was about £380,000—a gender gap of £240,000 and a motherhood gap of a further £140,000.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office is doing so much to take forward the pioneering work of Baroness Castle, which will now be recognised again with the introduction shortly of the new Castle awards for employers who are making strides to close that pay gap. I certainly do not want my daughter to be campaigning on that issue in another 20 or 30 years.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I thoroughly support all that the Secretary of State has just said about equal pay. Does she agree that that is a cross-party issue and that all parties in the House want women to be treated equally as regards pay? Indeed, a Conservative Government introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1983.

Ms Hewitt: I was entirely with the hon. Lady until her last remark, as the Equal Pay Act was introduced by Baroness Castle in 1970 at the end of a Labour Government and was brought into effect in 1975 under the then Labour Government. However, I strongly welcome the hon. Lady's support for the action that we are taking to strengthen equal pay.

One reason why we have already delivered a great deal and will go on to deliver a great deal more—there is much more to be done—is that we have done more than any previous Government to engage women in policy making. If public policy is to deliver for all our people, policy making must be done by women as well as men. This matter concerns not simply individual women or the fate of political parties; it directly concerns the health of our democracy and the legitimacy of our political institutions.

In my constituency and throughout the country, I have been struck by the number of women who are engaged in neighbourhood and community leadership in, for example, tenants associations, community groups, the voluntary sector and faith organisations. As my hon. Friend the

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Minister for Lifelong Learning said in an excellent article this morning, it is wrong to think that women are disengaged from politics. They are not.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I note with interest what you said about women being at the heart of policy making—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Lady must sit down when I am on my feet and she must use the right parliamentary language. She should address the Minister in the third person as the right hon. Lady.

Sandra Gidley: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Will the right hon. Lady give us an update on the mainstreaming commitment that was announced early in the last Parliament?

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question because it is important. We have combined the appointment of the two Ministers for women and the establishment of the women's unit, now the women and equality unit, with moves to ensure that in every Department real attention is paid to the different lives, circumstances and needs of women and men, and that is working well. Gender analysis is thus taken seriously in policy making in every Department. The fact that we have so many women Ministers helps to ensure that that actually happens.

To return to the wider issue, women throughout the country are engaged locally in politics with a small "p"—in their own neighbourhoods and communities—but too many of them are disengaged from party politics, politics with a big "p", whether in the town hall or Whitehall. It is not surprising that that should be so. Too often when women look at their local council, or, in the past, at this House, or when they look at who is running big business, they see white men in charge, with some honourable exceptions. Women's representation as well as representation from our minority ethnic communities, for both men and women, is not a matter of political correctness; it is about the health of our democracy and the success of our economy.

Our Government and the Labour party are doing their bit. I was proud, as were many of my hon. Friends who are present today, to be part of that historic intake in 1997 when more women Members were elected than ever before. I hope to be around long enough, but not too long, for that record to be broken and for us to be part of it.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we took a backward step at the last general election, especially as regards the representation of women from Scotland in this House?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Like her and many of my hon. Friends, I am disappointed that slightly fewer women were elected to our Labour Benches in last year's election than in 1997, but I have no doubt that action will be taken to redress that imbalance over the years to come.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does my right hon. Friend share my hope that not only the Labour party but other parties will take advantage of the Sex

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Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, which we introduced, to increase the number of women representatives of all parties in this place?

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I was just about to refer to that measure—I think it should have been called the women's representation Act—which had all-party support. I am sure that we shall hear from the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) about how the Conservative party intends to use its provisions. The Act will enable any political party to take whatever positive action it considers appropriate to redress the imbalance that exists even now in the representation of women and men in this place.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that next week the Welsh Labour party conference in Llandudno will vote on a proposal for all-women shortlists for the Welsh Assembly elections? Does she agree that that is a direct result of the legislation introduced by the Government and a first step towards enacting it?

Ms Hewitt: I entirely agree with the points made by my hon. Friend. I think that the Welsh Labour party is the first political party body to take advantage of the new law that we introduced.

I am proud to be one of the seven women in the Cabinet—more than ever before in our history. I am proud to be part of a Government where one in three Ministers are women. We are doing significantly better than big business. My right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor–General has done pioneering work on that subject. When we consider the FTSE 100, we find that for each woman on a board there are 17 men—not so much "Sex in the City" as sexism in the City.

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