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Minister For Women

Volume 404: debated on Thursday 1 May 2003

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The Minister was asked—

Public Health


How many discussions she has had in the past year with the Secretary of State for Health regarding women's public health issues.[110644]


How many discussions she has had in the past year with the Secretary of State for Health regarding women's public health issues.[110647]

My officials have been working closely with the Department of Health and other Departments to draw together targets to tackle gender equality, including in public health. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for public health has ensured that women's needs are taken into account throughout our public health programmes, including those on breast cancer, cervical cancer and osteoporosis, and in our broader work on mental health, health inequalities and domestic violence.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Does she accept the comments that were recently made by Professor Adler of the Royal Free University medical college, who said that levels of sexual disease in England have reached crisis point, and that the Government's current levels of funding for sexual health will not even cover the costs of a chlamydial screening programme, let alone other sexually transmitted diseases? In her forthcoming discussions, will she and her officials raise the need to consider further funding for the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases?

The increase in sexually transmitted diseases, particularly among young women, is a matter of enormous concern, and I will of course discuss it further with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

The Minister will be aware that in 2001 heart disease killed 54,000 women—it was the single biggest killer. What work is she doing with the Department of Health on that subject; and does she have a view on whether the much-publicised "eat chocolate to get fit" campaign will help to reduce heart disease among women?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw attention to the prevalence of heart disease and the number of deaths that it causes among women. As we know, heart disease is all too often seen as a male, not a female, disease, and in some tragic cases it is simply not diagnosed in women. The need to ensure that the medical profession pays attention to heart disease among women is an important part of the programme introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to improve services and to cut the rate of preventable death from heart disease.

The Minister will probably be aware that yesterday there was an immensely successful conference in Parliament on endometriosis, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears). It was organised by the all-party group on endometriosis, the National Endometriosis Society and the SHE Trust, and proposed a programme of work to raise the profile of that condition, which affects 2 million women in this country. Would she be willing to meet a delegation from the all-party group to discuss that programme?

I am aware of the conference and I congratulate everyone who was involved in organising it. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence is already considering how it can improve advice to GPs on an extremely painful and common condition. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health would be delighted to receive a deputation on such an important issue.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the specific problem of secondhand smoke in her discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on women's public health issues? It carries additional risks for women of increased lung cancer and heart disease. What proposals is she examining to tackle that problem? Has she considered the possibility of a ban on smoking in restaurants and cafs?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, he has a Bill on the subject. The increase in smoking among young women is especially worrying not only for their health but for that of the children they will have. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is considering my hon. Friend's proposal for a ban on smoking in all public places. Those of us who are not smokers welcome the opportunity to enjoy smoke-free environments.

The Minister recognises the importance of sex education in schools in helping to deter immature and promiscuous sexual behaviour and reducing unwanted teenage pregnancies. What discussions has she held on the subject with her colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills?

I have discussed the matter with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills for some years. It is clear from experience not only here but in other countries, including the Netherlands, that the best way to ensure that young people do not engage in risky and premature sexual behaviour is to enable them to have an open discussion about not only sexual activity but the emotions and relationships associated with it and the desirability of a strong and loving relationship within which sex can take place.

Equal Pay


If she will make a statement about the Government's targets for equal pay.[110645]

The Government are working to reduce the gender pay gap through a variety of measures, including equal pay reviews throughout the civil service by the end of April, working with the Equal Opportunities Commission to promote equal pay reviews by other employers, introducing an equal pay questionnaire as part of the Equal Pay Act 1970 and providing trade unions with additional funding for training representatives in equal pay issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Doubtless she is aware that, despite the Equal Pay Act, which a previous Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, effected in 1976, women who work full time earn only 81p for every pound that men earn and women who work part time earn only 59p for every pound that men earn. More worryingly, within three years of graduation, women earn on average 15 per cent. less than their male counterparts.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Fawcett Society that unless the Government set firm targets, at the current snail's rate of progress, it will take 75 years before equal pay for women is truly achieved?

My hon. Friend is right about the shocking extent of the continuing pay gap. However, in order to reduce it, we need to take action, especially on the problem of low pay from which so many women suffer. The introduction of the national minimum wage on top of Barbara Castle's Equal Pay Act has already meant significant pay rises for nearly 1 million women. I am delighted that, a few weeks ago, I was able to announce further increases in the national minimum wage for this year and next year, following the Low Pay Commission's recommendations.

At the top of the labour market, far too few women have access to the best paid jobs. Tribunal cases in the City have shown that even those women who get to the top do not receive equal pay. The cases that are being brought for equal pay for work of equal value—

The Minister for Women has just commended the civil service's progress towards achieving equal pay targets. In the light of that, how does she explain that only 19 of the 93 Government Departments or agencies conducted an equal pay review by the deadline last Wednesday, despite being given a year to do it?

All Government Departments are undertaking equal pay reviews. Those that have not completed them will shortly do so and put in place action plans to ensure that the equal pay gaps revealed by the reviews are closed. With the involvement of ACAS, we have put in place the new grading structure and phased pay rises that will ensure that the women as well as the men in the Department receive fair pay.

Following that answer and the Government's initiative in trying to deal with the unacceptable gender pay gap through independent audits, can the Minister say how many corporations have agreed to conduct or have carried out independent, rigorous assessments of the type that she is seeking? How many of the rather limited number of public sector reviews passed the test of being independent and rigorous?

The Equal Opportunities Commission and the Government are monitoring the take-up of equal pay reviews in the private sector. When we have that information, we will, of course, publish it. In the civil service, we have sought independent assistance in ensuring that reviews are carried out properly. They have revealed serious problems of unequal pay and we are putting in place the action needed to put that right.