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The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): We are continuing to work with the construction industry, particularly through the rethinking construction initiativeusing demonstration projects, case studies and best-practice dissemination to help companies improve their productivity and competitivenessespecially by making better use of the people available to them. One strand of that initiative aims to demonstrate the business benefits of diversity in the workplace, including of course the employment of women.
Mr. Brown: Like my right hon. Friend, I am well aware of the number of women who are becoming involved in civil engineering in particular. There is, however, a major skills gap in the construction industry: there is a desperate need for electricians, plumbers and bricklayers. May I urge my right hon. Friend to have discussions with the trade unions, particularly the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians, to establish exactly where the gaps are and what the unions can doin conjunction with her own good workto achieve the aim of bringing more women into the construction industry?
I will ensure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Construction picks up on the discussions with the union, as well as those with the companies concerned. I remind my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is ensuring that, through the training and new deal programmes, we reach out to bring more women who are currently not in work into the very jobs to which he refers.
Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Given the importance of the role of women in industry, does the Minister realise that the number of women directors in the top 100 FTSE companies has fallen for the second year running? According to the Cranfield school of management, 64 per cent. of Britain's leading companies had women directors in 1979; that figure has fallen to 57 per cent. today. What do the Government propose to do to arrest that decline in the role of women in British business?
Ms Hewitt: It is disappointing that at a time when more women are taking up senior positions in business and in government the number of women in the boardroom in so many leading companies has fallen. I recently asked Derek Higgs to undertake a review of the role of non-executive directors. He and I are most concerned about the failure of companies to appoint a wide range of people to the boardroom. Getting more women there is high on our agenda.
The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt): As I said earlier, we are taking steps to tackle the pay gap between men and women, which currently stands at 18 per cent.slightly down from 20 per cent. in 1997. The national minimum wage has made a genuine difference to the pay of more than 1 million low-paid women. We are also strengthening the Equal Pay Act 1970 through the Employment Bill, working with the private sector to promote equal pay audits and ensuring that that happens throughout the public sector.
Hugh Bayley: Does my right hon. Friend realise that the pay gap between men and women is even greater for older women? That is not simply because older women tend to have fewer qualifications than younger women; the pay gap between male and female graduates of a
Ms Hewitt: We have already published useful research on the underlying causes of the pay gap. My hon. Friend's point about the difference in the pay gap for younger and older women is correct. The gap between younger women and men is narrowing significantly. The big challenge is ensuring that as the younger generation of women start to have families the pay gap that has afflicted older generations does not reopen.
Mrs. Betty Williams: If the Equality Opportunities Commission is combined with the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality in a single body, can my right hon. Friend assure us that women's pay will not be sidelined?
Ms Hewitt: I readily give my hon. Friend that assurance. As she would expect, my hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and I will ensure that, as we consult on the proposal for a single equalities commission and if we subsequently decide to accept it, we have a structure that enables women's pay and the broader issues of work-family balance that lie behind it to remain high on the agenda.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Minister said that the pay gap had narrowed from 20 per cent. to 18 per cent. in the past few years. Instead of warm words, will she give us a target to reduce the gap even further in the next few years?
Ms Hewitt: As I have said, we are continuing to act on the causes of the problem. As an employer, the Government ensure that every Department and public agency conduct a proper equal pay audit to tackle the pay gap in the public sector. We are also working with the private sector to ensure that it takes the same steps and, beyond that, to provide the child care provision in which the Conservative Government never invested, to ensure that women can make choices about balancing work and family.
Sandra Gidley (Romsey): The hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) has already highlighted the problem of the graduate pay gap. Will the right hon. Lady ensure that our own House is in order? Figures that I have recently obtained show that 21 per cent. of senior officials in the House of Commons are female. That figure has remained static for the last four years. Will the Minister ensure that this is not, in effect, exacerbating the pay gap by stealth and that the House of Commons is an equal opportunities employer beyond reproach?
Ms Hewitt: That is a very important point. It is a matter for the whole House, and one that I hope all parties will take seriously and take appropriate action on. I am glad to say that, in my own Department, the number of women in the senior civil service is increasing significantly. The arrangements for pay, recruitment and promotion within the House of Commons are, however, a matter for Parliament and not for the Government.
Wednesday 19 JuneOpposition Day [3rd Allotted Day-2nd Part]. Until 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the reduction of world poverty through trade, on an Opposition motion. Followed by a motion to concur with their Lordships on the establishment of a Joint Committee on the House of Lords.