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31 Oct 2002 : Column 998continued
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): In the last month I have launched the public consultation on the new equal pay questionnaire. This week, the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women and I hosted the first annual Castle awards ceremony, which recognised steps taken by employers to address pay inequality. I am also working with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and other colleagues to develop child care policies that will also help to close the pay gap.
Michael Fabricant : The Secretary of State did not answer my question about what proportion of her time was spent on the pay gap. I am tempted, Mr. Speaker, to ask her question 10, which I had hoped to ask her a little earlier, but I suppose that would be out of order.
Is the Minister aware that there is now a 17 per cent. pay gap between men and women as early as age 24? How does she intend to narrow that gap, given that under this Administration so many gaps have widened, including, as the Rowntree Foundation pointed out, the gap between rich and poor in this country?
Ms Hewitt: I would be delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the league of equal pay champions whom we are appointing. We are doing a great deal to try to close this extremely stubborn pay gap. Every Department and public sector agency is carrying out an audit of its pay system to uncover the causes of the gap.
We have also, in the Employment Act 2002, strengthened the Equal Pay Act 1970 by introducing the questionnaire procedure to which I referred. Through the fair pay champions and the Castle awards we seek to do far more to spread good practice in the private sector so that the pay gap, which has been narrowing over the years but has not been eliminated, continues to decrease and ultimately to disappear.
34. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Article 13 Directives on Race and Employment and the feasibility study on a single equality body. 
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Last week the Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women) published a summary paper setting out the Government's plans to
Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The draft regulations to implement the directive on which we are consulting provide that where, for instance, a pension scheme provides benefits to unmarried partners, it will need to do so whether the partner is of the same sex or the opposite sex. We will also outlaw direct discrimination against same-sex couples. We are examining civil partnership registration and the associated rights and responsibilities, which as my hon. Friend knows, raise a number of complex issues. We are taking on board her concerns and those of her constituent.
Mr. Cook: It was carried to acclamation, may I tell the hon. Gentleman, with a just majority that any of us would settle for. I am now announcing for the first time a Commons calendar for a whole year. [Hon. Members: XHear, hear."] I am grateful for support on both sides of the House.
We plan to rise for the Christmas recess on Thursday 19 December and return on Tuesday 7 January. For the half-term week, the House will rise on Thursday 13 February and return on Monday 24 February. I am grateful for the attention of the House; I do not usually encounter such silence when I address it[Laughter.] For Easter, we will rise on Thursday 10 April, and that will be combined with the constituency week, with the House returning on Monday 28 April. For Whitsun, we will rise on Thursday 22 May and return on Tuesday 3 June. For the summer recess, the House will rise on Thursday 17 July and return on Monday 8 September. Finally, for the conference recess, the House will rise on Thursday 18 September and return on Tuesday 14 October. I must repeat the health warning that while we on this side will use our best endeavours to meet those dates, our success in doing so will depend on the progress of business.
Mr. Forth: We are grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week, and are particularly grateful that he has honoured his undertaking to tell us the dates for the year aheadwe all very much welcome that. In that context, something has just occurred to me. Does he anticipate that each of these Thursdays on which he has announced the House
While the right hon. Gentleman is in this looking-ahead mode, can he say anything about the pre-Budget report? Last year, we had quite a lot of notice of it. It is an important event that we all anticipate eagerly. If he cannot tell us now when it might be, perhaps he can undertake that we shall be given full and adequate notice of the report so that appropriate dispositions can be made.
Representations have been made to me about an overlap or conflict in business that appears in today's Order Paper. In the Chamber this afternoon, we are debating defence matters. Simultaneously, in Westminster Hall, there is a debate touching on matters related to terrorism and foreign policy. A number of my right hon. and hon. FriendsI suspect that this applies to Members throughout the Househave a great interest in both debates. It is especially unfortunate, therefore, that business of a similar nature has been scheduled in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall which will require many Members to make a difficult choice.
I make this plea to the Leader of the House: will he use his best endeavours to ensure that such overlap or conflict will not arise in future? Whatever our views about Westminster Hall may beI suppose that even I must accept that it is now a permanent feature of our livesplease let it not become a negative rather than a positive in terms of what Members can do on the same day.
The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill is in another place and, as the Leader of the House announced, it is about to head in our direction next week. The Bill has been hugely changed. I think that it is fair to say that it is now in a bit of mess. As a result, I gather that one of the measures that has been inserted in it is what we used to call in the trade a Henry VIII provision, although I understand that it goes even further than that. In other words, such a mess has been made of the Bill that the Government had to insert in it something to this effect: XIf we discover that it is unworkable in future, we can change it at will without having to return to the House."
Given those factors, will the Leader of the House give me an undertaking that we shall have enough time fully to scrutinise the changes that were made in another place and to deal with the very broad provision that has been inserted in the Bill? I hope that he can, and that we will not, even at this late stage in the Session, be forced to truncate or restrict our scrutiny of the Bill, important as it is in its own right but even more so because of the provisions that have been inserted in another place.
The changes that we voted for the other day will be new to us all, especially the 11.30 am start and the 7 pm finish. I ask the Leader of the House to give a guarantee to the House that we shall always have Secretaries of State in the Chamber for departmental questions and other related business at 11.30 am each day, and that we shall not start in any circumstances to have excuses being made such as, XWell, it was a bit inconvenient" or, XThe Secretary of State had to be elsewhere" or, XThere was something else happening", particularly if it happened to be in a media studio or something of that