Women's minister and DTI secretary Patricia Hewitt told MPs that 2,000 women interested in public appointments had already attended events around the country, hosted by herself and her deputy, the minister for social exclusion Barbara Roche. The vast majority of participants now intended to apply for positions in public life.
Helen Jackson, Labour MP for Warrington North, asked the minister to encourage local authorities to hold meetings at a time when more women could attend. She urged the government to pay attention to encouraging more women from deprived areas to put themselves forward for public office so there was a proper spread of representation throughout the country.
She said a great deal of the skills needed on public bodies included common sense and the practical daily experience of bringing up a family and using public services.
Andy Reed, Labour MP for Loughborough, asked what progress the minister had made in increasing the number of appointments of women to public bodies. He said more people from ethnic minorities, especially women, should be encouraged to come forward.
Ms Hewitt said she had attended an event in Leicester with 200 women from black and Asian communities, all of whom were eager to seek appointment to public bodies and who had 'an extraordinary range of energy and experience to offer. Any headhunter would have been proud of them'.
Sue Dougherty, Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford, welcomed the initiatives, but said that the number of women on public bodies had increased by only 2.7% since Labour came to power. She added: 'We may compare that with other countries, such as Iraq. In the United Kingdom in 2001, the percentage was 34%, but Iraq surpassed that figure in 1990. By 1998, the figure for women in the public sector was 40%'.
Ms Hewitt responded that a regime that employed professional rapists in its military should not be an exemplar that any MP should wish to quote. However, she said that since she became DTI secretary she had been able to appoint women to important posts on the Competition Commission, the Low Pay Commission, the Post Office and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The DTI had a target to ensure that between 45% and 55% of appointments made each year would be women.
But Ms Hewitt said she was wary of a suggestion from Margaret Moran, Labour MP for Luton South, that women working in local communities - for example, on the new deal for communities, in neighbourhood renewal zones an on regeneration projects - should have there skills acknowledged by an accreditation scheme that would be recognised by public bodies.
Ms Hewitt said such a scheme could complicate issues further. What was more valuable was ensuring that every public body recognised the value of neighbourhood and community-based experience.
She said the government was studying the report by Baroness Greenfield on improving the recruitment and retention of female scientists and engineers. She had already commissioned research on the numbers and percentage of scientists, engineers and technologists employed right across the private and public sectors.
Hansard 5 Dec 2002: Column 1044-1049