§ 31. Hugh Bayley (City of York)
What progress the Government have made in narrowing the pay gap between women and men. 
§ 33. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)
What initiatives she is promoting to reduce the gender pay gap. 
§ 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 998 similar age is even greater than that among non-graduates. What are the Government doing to investigate the reasons for the problem and to tackle it?
§ 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.