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Column 916So much good could have been done through a new Employment Bill. The Minister could have used it as an opportunity to correct the mistakes that the Government have made in employment policy over the past 10 years. At the heart of the Bill is a desire to turn the equal partnership that has developed in industry between employer and employee into one of master and slave. That destroys the real need for both parties to a contract of employment to respect each other. The Government should be ashamed of themselves.
Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South) : Unlike Opposition Members, I interpret the Bill as another example of the way in which the Government are prepared to carry out measured reform where that is necessary and desirable. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), I want to concentrate on the parts of the Bill which advance the principle of equal treatment for men and women in vocational training, promotion and working conditions.
I have always been surprised at the resigned and docile way in which so many women, having carried out virtually every conceivable task in factories and elsewhere during the last war, then resumed in the main the traditional roles in the home and bringing up children. That is fulfilling, needs to be done and is in no way to be devalued, but for so many it was considered to be a "woman's place" without choice or relief and leading to absolute dependency regardless of inclination or ability, intellectual or physical.
There has been a tremendous advance since 1945 in the number of women in work and more recently in the number of women in top jobs, but the docility of women after the war created an attitude which still prevails about what women do and how successfully they do it. The regulations that were originally designed to protect women have become discriminatory, and these were and have been tolerated to a remarkable extent.
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt in recent years to promote equality of opportunity between men and women was the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 which had all-party support. Even that legislation allowed obvious inequalities to continue, not to protect women from harm but to protect and preserve jobs of male union members from women. That was the burden of much of the protection in that legislation and why it did not go far enough. I recall that in 1975, when the Conservative party was in opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) referred to the few genuine arrangements to remove the discrimination incorporated in that legislation, particularly in relation to matters which this Bill addresses with regard to working hours and the employment of women in mines and elsewhere.
Those restrictions are to be swept away at last in a long overdue reform. It is easy to misrepresent the reforms by stating that there are no suitable arrangements for women working in places like mines. That has always been used as an excuse as to why women should not, in respect of many activities, do that of which they are plainly capable.
The proposed legislation will not deal entirely with those women who have no wish to take wider employment opportunities but who require assistance because they are not willing or able to work and who wish simply to stay at
Column 917home to look after their families in the traditional way. In my view, their preference should always be respected and supported. I refer finally to the Equal Opportunities Commission, which was created by a Conservative Government. Its duties were increased by the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, when the commission was given its present wider role. On Second Reading of that legislation, the then Home Secretary gave the commission not a permanent life but a life "for however long that continues to be necessary."--[ Official Report, 26 March 1975 ; Vol. 889, c. 521.]
He therefore envisaged that at some time there would be an end to the Equal Opportunities Commission, and so do I. I hope that this Bill will hasten its redundancy.
I do not expect that view necessarily to be shared with enthusiasm by Opposition Members. I remember the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) making a speech on the Loyal Address on 22 November in which, far from looking forward to the end of such catalysts as the Equal Opportunities Commission, she envisaged a Ministry for women "which will have the power and the duty to examine all Government policies for their impact on women and ensure alterations when necessary. For this purpose, it will have outposts in each Government Department. The Treasury will no longer reign supreme. Such a Ministry will inform women about Government actions and ask for their views, and, for these purposes, will set up regional offices."-- [ Official Report, 22 November 1988 ; Vol. 142, c. 39.]
I suspect that the hon. Lady will have a hard task persuading her right hon. and hon. Friends to implement such arrangements, particularly in meeting the kind of union objections that stopped the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 going much wider. In any event, we have been warned by the hon. Lady that her intention is that commissarial busybodies would be set to work in every central or regional Department.
If a Labour Government are ever returned in the distant future, I hope that by then women will take for granted equal status, rights and opportunities and will view with contempt such patronisation as something belonging to an older and unenlightened age. I hope that we may continue with measures such as the Bill to advance the cause of women until such time as there is no distinction whatsoever in their opportunities.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : I am grateful to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Martin) for his free advertisement for Labour party policy. He may be interested to learn that the trade unions support our policy for a Ministry for women and will be pleased to see the impact of Government policies on women examined in the way that I described.
The Bill is presented as something that will improve women's opportunities. We are told over and over again that it will open doors, and that it introduces no element of compulsion. Plainly, that is not true. The factors that prevent women enjoying equal opportunities have nothing to do with the protection offered by the Factories Act 1961. It is not that Act which ensures that 93 per cent. of Members of Parliament are male. It is not that Act which ensures that 87 per cent. of gynaecologists--of all things--are male. It is not the Factories Act 1961 which ensures
Column 918that the majority of managers in retail distribution are male, although the majority of their employees are female. That Act has nothing to do with such inequalities--and I could go on and on, describing many more examples.
The Factories Act 1961 offers women some protection. Women are not, in practice, queuing up anxiously to do jobs that will involve them in constant night work in factories. Men put up with many conditions of work that they should not tolerate. We could do with a levelling up of some working conditions, to improve those of men. What we are being given in the name of equality is a levelling down of working conditions--so that, for example, women will be permitted to clean moving machinery. Nobody should be expected to clean moving machinery--it should first be turned off.
We are not bowing or curtseying with gratitude for the provisions of the Bill. It is no big deal. Instead, we view it alongside the Social Security Bill which was before the House for its Second Reading yesterday--and it is here that the element of compulsion is introduced. Under existing legislation, it is illegal for women to undertake certain jobs--but with this Bill, they will risk being deprived of social security benefits if they refuse them in future. The two Bills between them will deprive women of the right to say whether certain work is suitable for them. It is an insult to our intelligence and to our common sense to suggest that the Employment Bill has anything to do with equality.
One can say the same of the so-called advances for young workers. One hon. Member said that work should fit the worker and that the worker should not be forced to fit the job. I entirely agree. I am waiting to hear which young workers need to be permitted to work 50 hours a week!
What protection do young workers have? Forty per cent. of 16 and 17-year- olds work in shops. They are given magnificent protection. They must have a 20-minute break after working five or
five-and-a-half hours, whereas adults have that entitlement only after working six hours. There is little help there for the young person. Young workers may not be employed for more than 48 hours per week but there are exceptions in times of unusual or seasonal pressure. In general, young people may not work between 10 pm and 6 am, and they must be allowed an interval of rest of 11 consecutive hours in every 24. Those are the extravagant restrictions and protections that are being swept away by the Conservatives. I am sure that young people will hardly be extraordinarily grateful to them. In factories young people at present may not work for more than nine hours a day or possibly 10 or 10 with overtime in five-day factories, or 48 hours a week exclusive of breaks. They cannot start work before 7 am or after 8 pm, and they must have a half-hour break after four- and-a-half hours' work. Those are the protections that are being swept away with the excuse that the obligations on employers make them wholly resistant to the idea of taking on young people. I think that the employers who will take advantage of the lifting of such restrictions are employers whom we do not want in this country. I would prefer that they all went bankrupt and left the way clear for the good employers--or at least better employers--who will be undermined by the Bill. The Bill is a charter for the worst, most scurrilous and most exploitative employers.
We talk loosely about 16 and 17-year-olds, but these young people can be as young as 15 years eight months.
Column 919According to the Library, the age is between 15 years eight months and 16 years seven months, depending on the relationship between a pupil's birthday and the statutory school-leaving age. Just in case people do not realise this, let me point out that that person of 15 years eight months will be an adult in employment law, working in adult conditions but not for adult wages. If that person is a girl, however, and is unfortunate enough to give birth to a baby, in social security law she does not exist at all. Although she is a mother she cannot claim for herself or her child through the social security system. She is entirely dependent on the attitude of her parents. Young people of 16 or 17 have had their entitlement to income support removed. It is not simply that they are not treated as adults in connection with rates of entitlement ; they are treated entirely differently in principle. Social security law says, "You are not an adult," but employment law says, "Oh yes you are : stand on your own two feet." Hon. Members have used that expression in the Chamber tonight. When we object, we are told that we are being patronising to young people. But it is not their young people who find themselves working in grotty jobs in shops or factories, and who will suffer from these employers. Their young people, in fact, will grow up to be such employers, if their parents are anything to go by.
I believe that we are speaking not only in the best interests, but with the full support, of today's youngsters--when they realise what is happening. We want more opportunities for women and for young people. We want access to training. We want child care provision and humanity at work. What we do not want is this charter for scurrilous and exploitive employers. A Conservative Member has said that times have changed : they certainly have. Every day, with every Bill that Conservative Members bring forward, times change for the worse. 9.1 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : Time is running a little short, so I shall not make all the comments that I hoped to make. Let me say, however, that I am pleased that the Government are able to call on the National Council for Civil Liberties for support on the relaxation of regulations relating to women.
The NCCL is accusing opponents of the lifting of restrictions on women working in mines of stereotyping. The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) refused to answer my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who asked where he stood on that provision : did he or did he not support women being allowed to go down the mines? I hope that whoever winds up for the Opposition will make it clear exactly where the Labour party stands, but having listened to Opposition Members it seems to me that by and large the party is very much opposed to the new provision.
It must be somewhat embarrassing for the TUC and the Labour party, because the Labour party did not really know which of its lines of dogma to abandon --its opposition to all forms of deregulation or its obsession with anything vaguely connected with equal opportunities. Conservative Members believe that women should at least have the freedom to choose whether or not they wish to apply for jobs down the mine.
Mr. Eric Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Rubbish.
Mr. Riddick : I hear an Opposition Member shouting, "Rubbish." It sounds to me like good old-fashioned Labour chauvinism coming to the surface. Women should be free to apply for those jobs. Then it is up to managers to decide whether an individual is capable of doing the job.
It is interesting to note one major difference between this Employment Bill and previous employment Bills introduced by the Government. This Bill is not primarily concerned with trade unions. There is now a proper equilibrium between trade unions and employers, between trade unions and their members and between trade union activities and the law, but the law on the closed shop remains glaringly inadequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) has already referred to that fact. Like him, I believe that the omission of any reference to the closed shop must be remedied before the Bill completes its passage through the House. The closed shop, in any shape or form, is a denial of personal freedom. Every individual should have the right to belong or not to belong to a trade union. In the 1970s, the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) gave the unions carte blanche to ride roughshod over the rights of ordinary working people and to force millions of them to belong to trade unions, whether or not they wished to do so.
My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench believe that clauses 10 and 11 of the Employment Act 1988, which made it unlawful for trade unions to take action to maintain closed shops, and which made it unlawful for employers to sack employees for not belonging to trade unions, will effectively result in the demise of the closed shop. I realise that those two clauses have been in force only since July of last year--about six months--but so far as I can ascertain from my inquiries those provisions have made no difference whatever to the closed shops that were in existence then. They are still in existence ; they are still alive and well. My right hon. Friend announced recently that he intends to review the operation of the pre-entry closed shop. I welcome his announcement. I hope that his review will be completed shortly so that appropriate amendments can be included in the Bill.
About 3.7 million people are estimated to be captive within the closed shop arrangements. That information was provided by the Labour party's research department. [Interruption.] The fact is that a host of Labour- controlled councils--such as Sandwell, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Darlington and my own local council of
Kirklees--continue to hoodwink their employees into believing that they must belong to a trade union.
Kirklees metropolitan district council does everything in its power to operate a closed shop and to hoodwink its employees into belonging to a trade union. A Kirklees council employee recently sent to me a copy of his contract of employment, which says :
"this authority is party to a trade union membership agreement and it is a condition of your employment that you join one of the appropriate signatory trade unions for your employment group within 13 weeks of commencement of your employment".
In addition, every job advertisement in the local press states that Kirklees council operates a union membership agreement. The final proof is that Kirklees attempts to operate its closed shop by allowing unions to use its own
Column 921mailing facilities, reminding Kirklees employees that a closed shop operates and that they should therefore join a trade union. There can be no doubt that Kirklees council is operating a closed shop, yet that closed shop has no legal standing whatsoever. If it were challenged in a court of law, it would be thrown out in a matter of minutes because there has been no ballot of employees to approve the closed shop. The vast majority of existing and new employees believe, and will continue to believe, that union membership is compulsory--in the absence of any information to the contrary from their employer, or in the absence of legislation which make it abundantly clear that all closed shop arrangements are unlawful. I believe that there is a solution to the problem and that it would not be too difficult for the Government to provide that solution. They should write into the Bill that it shall be unlawful for any person to maintain a union membership agreement. I moved an amendment to that effect to the Employment Bill last year.
I realise that Ministers are concerned that disgruntled individuals might make malicious or erroneous claims stating that they failed to obtain a particular job because they refused to join a trade union. The way to overcome such problems is to give any person who believes that a union membership agreement exists the right to draw it to the attention of the commissioner for the rights of trade union members. The commissioner will investigate the claim and, if it is substantiated, he will apply for a court order banning the trade union membership agreement. If the employer or the union failed to comply with the court order, they would be in contempt of court, with all the serious implications that that involves.
Since the Government took office, they have enacted four major pieces of trade union legislation. It is time for them to stop skirting around the vital issue and legislate to make the closed shop illegal.
I heard the noises made by Opposition Members when I talked about the closed shop. They talk about trade union rights, but they are not interested in the rights of trade unionists. They want to see people in a union whether or not they want to be there. We should make the closed shop illegal so that British trade unionists and employers know where they stand. Once we have done that, we shall have achieved a massive extension of personal freedom.
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East) : There is an aphorism that things mellow with age. That is not true of this Government or the Prime Minister in their attitudes to women and working-class youth. The Bill is the sixth major attack on workers' rights in the past 10 years. It is nasty and vindictive and follows the pattern of the past decade. Time will prevent me from turning my attention to all the clauses, but if I am fortunate enough to be selected to serve on the Committee I shall deal then with those that I am unable to mention now.
One clause increases from six months to two years the service needed before an employee is given written reasons for his dismissal. There are clauses attacking the right of people to take time off for trade union duties.
Column 922Clause 18 deals with the dissolution of the Training Commission. I am not too upset by its demise, but I am not happy with the Government's plan to hand over to the private sector almost all aspects of industrial training. I am also unhappy about the new training task force set up to advise the Government on training--it is a successor to the Training Commission--on which employers will have two thirds of the seats.
My feelings on the axing of the Training Commission have been coloured by nearly six years as a Member of the House. During that time I have campaigned on health and safety, particularly as it affects young workers on youth opportunities programmes or youth training schemes. Safety is currently the responsibility of the Training Commission. The House may remember the debates I have initiated on the number of deaths that have occurred. It may remember the delegations I have led to Ministers and the correspondence I have had with the MSC. I do not apologise for repeating some of the points made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). He referred to the senseless and tragic death of Derek Cain, a 17-year-old Sheffield lad who died in December 1982 at the waste disposal firm of Plumb and Son in Sheffield. That death has national implications, and so has the Bill.
Derek Cain's father, Richard, helped me to draft a private Member's Bill on health and safety and on the role of the MSC. Derek died from a massive injury caused by the revolving blades of a paper shredding machine. His father was not satisfied with the derisory compensation offered by the MSC. As a single parent he was offered £52. The other parents I have met after similar bereavements have received £78 when there are two parents. His father was also unhappy with the MSC's abdication of its responsibility for health and safety. He spent six years taking court action against the MSC which concluded a few days before Christmas.
The MSC's main argument--it is reflected in the contributions made by Tory Members to this debate--is that health and safety is the responsibility of the provider of training schemes. An MSC official in the court said that once the MSC had passed the scheme as being safe, it was up to the sponsor to keep its end of the bargain. The MSC's other main argument was that Derek was partly responsible for his own death because he should not have been on a baling machine in a paper shredding factory. Fifteen MSC officials attended that trial. They were so sure of winning that--this was reported to me--the solicitor representing the MSC was grinning like a chimpanzee before the trial began. What he found funny about the fact or the circumstances of the death of a 17-year-old escapes me.
Richard's solicitor was able to find letters from other former YOP trainees confirming that every young worker in that plant was asked to work on the baler. He was able to prove that the MSC checked the premises only from the outside of the factory. When the MSC was asked why it did not even write to the factories inspectorate to find out whether Plumbs was on its list--and it was not--the MSC official responsible responded in court by saying, "It would have meant too much paperwork." A lad of 17 was killed because of a lack of paperwork. The Bill is full of similar excuses such as paperwork being a burden on business. Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate he would like to tell Derek's father Richard about paperwork.
Column 923In summing up, the judge said that he was appalled at the number of deaths and injuries on YTS, and so am I. More than 50 families have been bereaved over the years. In the past three months, YTS was the most dangerous occupation in Britain--outranking construction or shipbuilding. The judge also said that the MSC had been negligent in placing the young lad in those premises. I agree. That is another reason why I am not too upset about the abolition of the ineffectual Training Commission.
In 1972 Richard was offered £52 compensation. In deciding the outcome of the case, the judge awarded £20,000 compensation and costs against Plumbs, which could run to £100,000. That case has major national implications. Because it happened in the same week as the Lockerbie disaster, the press were rightly engaged in other matters, but surely the other 50 families should be told about the level of compensation and other firms throughout the country who have acted in the same cavalier way should know that they face the risk of incurring costs of £100,000 if found guilty in court.
The Bill should have contained what Derek's father got me to put into the private Member's Bill three years ago. Time prevents me from reading it out, but it made the MSC legally responsible for checking. It meant that no scheme would have gone ahead unless the health and safety inspector and a trade union health and safety steward had seen the premises. In answer to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), may I say that had it become law instead of the Bill we are discussing tonight, no scheme would have gone ahead unless it was in a workplace approved by the trade unions. The hon. Gentleman may call it Victorian dogma. I call it saving the lives of 50 young kids and stopping the maiming of thousands more.
The Bill is riddled with attacks on the conditions of workers. A recent study in the Labour research department's bargaining report showed that particularly after the Bill is passed working conditions in Britain will become some of the worst in the EEC. If the Bill becomes law, it will be virtually impossible for workers to establish why they have been dismissed from jobs unless they have been employed for two years. It will make it much harder for trade unions to represent workers. Workers will be discouraged from challenging gaffers dismissing them, and it will be a sweetener and an encouragement of employers to dismiss workers on a whim. It is very bad news indeed for workers. If they are dismissed with no written reason of dismissal, under the most recent social security legislation they face a cut in unemployment benefit for up to 26 weeks.
The Secretary of State talked about industrial tribunals and the £150 pre-tribunal deposit. He said that that was a maximum and not necessarily a fixed amount. When I asked the Secretary of State for Social Security how many workers had lost social security for 26 weeks, he said, "I cannot tell you. We do not keep statistics." I know why the Department does not keep statistics. Virtually every case I have come across has been on the fixed level of 26 weeks. The pre-hearing assessment industrial tribunal deposit will be similar. The Bill refers to the concept of freedom. The Secretary of State made an attempt sarcastically to list the current regulations affecting young workers. Those regulations restrict the starting time for young workers to no earlier
Column 924than 7 am and the finishing time no later than 8 pm. They restrict the working day to nine hours, and limit weekend working and the total hours worked in a week to 54 hours.
Instead of removing them, if the Government had any respect, understanding or compassion for young workers, they would extend the rights of young workers or all workers and produce such measures as a maximum working week of 35 hours to share out employment, the elimination of systematic overtime and bringing retirement down to 55 for all workers so that, unlike me, some youngsters could grow up and see both their grandparents instead of seeing one die down a pit at 52 from lung disease without the chance of reaching a retirement age of 60 or 65.
The Secretary of State and some of his acolytes among the younger Tory Members seem, from their echoes of humour, to think that those are Victorian attitudes, but they have no concept of the causes of accidents and no understanding of what tiredness means. A standard ergonomics textbook, entitled "Fitting the Task to the Man", says : "Our physiological knowledge and present-day experience point to the conclusion that a working day of eight hours cannot be exceeded without detriment."
As my right hon. Friend the member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, the evidence of the Health and Safety Executive to the Government in March last year said :
"In relation to hours of work, a broad measure of control should be retained to safeguard young people's welfare and opportunities for their education and social development."
Those are difficult aims to achieve for young people if, through tiredness, they are maimed or dead.
I cannot view the attacks in the Bill in isolation from other similar measures. Time precludes me from talking about them in detail. No doubt by the time we get to Report the Government will table amendments for the abolition of the wages councils because the period of statutory, but superficial, consultation finishes on 3 February. We already know that 2.5 million workers--mainly women--on a few pounds either side of £80 a week face cuts in wages if the wages councils are abolished. In the past 10 years, more than 88,000 factories were found to be under-paying their workers under old and existing wages council settlements. How many were prosecuted? Only 56. This is the Government of law and order, but do they enforce existing laws? When they affect their mates, they abolish the laws and get away with under-payment.
The Bill is rife with such points. Clauses 1 to 7 deal with the repeal of what the Government call unnecessary obstacles to employment, particularly for women. My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) will deal with that subject better than I, so I shall make only one point about it. The Government say that the rationale for clauses 1 to 7 is to comply with European Community legislation on sex discrimination, but there is an alternative. Instead of equalising down to comply with European legislation, they could equalise up and raise the rights of men to those of women where protective legislation has been deemed necessary in the past. Time prevents me from examining properly all the issues. Tory Members may think that it is being kind or considerate to give 16 to 18-year-olds the freedom to work longer hours and the joys of unlimited overtime. They may be surprised to learn that young people do not see the matter in that way. The 16 to 18-year-olds are conscripted into the youth training scheme on pain of losing benefit. One lad in Coventry tried to join a YTS scheme for the
Column 925eight weeks before his 18th birthday at Christmas. He was turned down because every employer asked why they should take him when they could take on a 16-year-old for two years. He was told by the Department of Social Security to go to the Salvation Army hostel for eight weeks. So even when young people try to get on a scheme, the loss of benefit works against them.
The abolition of wages councils for under-21s has pressurised youth wages down, and the Bill will make their life harder. Shops will increase their use of part-time young workers, especially if the Government allow Sunday and late evening opening. Many employers will use the Bill to threaten the wages and job security of their permanent staff through substitution. National pay bargaining, which is anathema to the Secretary of State, will be further undermined and accidents will increase as the Government legislate to allow the bosses to get away, literally, with murder.
But pressure will also increase from another direction. The trade union and labour movements will campaign for decent training and safe working conditions for young workers and for minimum wages that reflect the cost of living--not the cost of existing. The Secretary of State should widen his reading on European matters and should ask his officials to make an analysis of the Spanish press during the past four weeks. On 14 December, inspired by the elan and enthusiasm of young workers, apprentices and school students in their campaign against training schemes which are modelled on the YTS, Spain was rocked by a general strike of millions of workers for the first time in 50 years. Politicians there said that it could never happen, as they have said here. [Interruption.] The Spanish Government are termed a Socialist Government.
One can stretch a piece of elastic only so far. This clutch of proposals on safety, training, hours and conditions of work may yet be the catalyst for a similar movement among young people in this country. I hope to fight the Bill line by line in the House, without any expectation of changing the minds of Tory Members who may serve on the Committee. Perhaps more important, I hope to spread the message outside the House about the draconian implications of the Bill and to warn workers, young and old, male and female, of the Government's absolute and sustained contempt for them.
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking) : When the Secretary of State opened the debate, he waxed quite lyrical about his commitment to equality for women. He recounted the number of women in the work force as if we did not know ; he talked about the projected number of women in the work force in the 1990s, as if we did not know ; he talked about the need to update legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, as if we did not know ; and he spoke of the need to sweep away prejudice and to open up opportunities for women, as if we did not know.
We have been saying all that for years. I have to remind the House that the Secretary of State abstained when the House voted on whether to give what became the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 a Second Reading. I do not know where he was, but his commitment to women was obviously not very great on that occasion.
Column 926I would have been impressed by what the Secretary of State said earlier if I did not know what was in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, the Bill provides a golden opportunity to grasp the nettle. I have never heard so many Conservative Members make speeches about the need to improve conditions for women. I am truly amazed. I have spoken from the Dispatch Box and from the Back Benches for many years and have been laughed at--as have been my colleagues--when I have spoken of the need to improve conditions.
Anybody who listened to the Secretary of State would think that he and the Government would tackle low pay, introduce universal child care, outlaw sexual harassment at work, provide proper and affordable transport, introduce decent maternity leave and maternity benefits and bring in parental leave. A combination of all those is needed. What do we have instead?
The Bill is split into four bits. The first apparently affects women, the second affects young people, the third affects employees and the fourth concerns training. I have news for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The whole Bill is about women--as employees, trainees, trade unionists and young workers. Even the clauses which seem to concern women alone will, in practice, affect the whole of the work force. The Government are introducing a mixture of measures. Some they do not want to do but have been forced to do, and others they have always wanted to do but have not had the nerve to do before. They have, as usual, delayed acting on rulings made in Europe until they can delay no longer, and they have drowned the progressive aspects from Europe in a sea of ideas entirely of their own imagination. I welcome the decision to repeal section 51 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 insofar as it concerns employment and vocational training. It has been clear for a long time that it is ridiculous that women can be discriminated against by laws which predate 1975, but it has taken the Government until now to do something about it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) said, the Government have been in office for 10 years. They could have acted before, but they have dragged their heels until Europe said, "Enough." Once again, the Government have done the very minimum. Why not repeal section 51 altogether? That is what a genuine commitment to ending discrimination entails--not the introduction of a new section 51A. What is the Minister's objection to the Equal Opportunities Commission's proposal of a full repeal of section 51 with limited exceptions reviewable every five years? After all, that is a sensible way forward.
I welcome the Government's acceptance of positive discrimination, by allowing the appointment of women to certain academic posts. I know that they do not call it positive discrimination, but it is that in all but name. It is designed to correct the under-representation of women. What a pity that the Government did not accept this principle when they outlawed contract compliance in last year's Local Government Act. The Government's commitment to the employment of women is confined to just four Oxbridge colleges, and I should like to know why.
A large amount of media and Chamber attention has been concentrated on the provision of the Bill that will allow women to go back down mines. I do not know whether the Secretary of State realises that on this issue
Column 927both the National Union of Mineworkers and British Coal are united. Neither wishes women to go down mines. Conditions in the mining industry have improved dramatically since the last century, and must be judged as either fit for women and men or not fit for anybody. For these improvements, no organisation deserves more praise than the NUM. For decades it has struggled against hostile Governments and employers to make the health and safety conditions as high as they can be in such a dangerous industry. The NUM and the Trades Union Congress have borne the brunt of the Government's decimation of our coal industry. They have first- hand experience of the Government's policies and have done more than anybody to offset them. That is why I listen to, and respect, their opposition to women returning underground. However, on balance, I disagree with them, provided that the conditions for women working underground are right.
Mr. Lofthouse : If it were possible, I would agree with my hon. Friend. However, after a lifetime in the industry, although I recognise the improvements that have been made, I know that it is still impractical, inhuman and indecent for women to work in coal mines. I hope that we shall never see that. I know that some Conservative Members say that it will never happen. I want to know the Government's motive for putting in this clause. The Bill comes in the lead-up to privatisation, and I wonder whether the motive for this clause is cheap labour for a privatised coal industry, if that should ever happen.
Ms. Richardson : My hon. Friend has a point. He is an ex-miner and speaks with great experience. If the conditions below at the coal face are bad, I agree that women should not work down there, but neither should men. We should ensure that the conditions for men are right in such a way that women are enabled to take their place there if they so wish.
It is patronising to talk about women not being capable of working underground because they are not physically capable of doing the job, as some Conservative Members have done. They are physically capable of doing the job, so that suggestion is monstrous. I want to know what negotiations the Government have entered into with British Coal to ensure that conditions are right for women to go down the mines if they so wish.
Have the Secretary of State and his Department had discussions with British Coal--I understand that it is opposed to women going down the mines--to ensure that it provides proper changing rooms for women and that all the health and safety conditions are satisfied? Has the Secretary of State, who has made recent speeches about the need for employers to provide child care at the workplace, had discussions with British Coal about providing workplace nurseries at the pithead? The right hon. Gentleman should do such things before he comes to the House and talks as though it is an easy option, under present conditions, for women to go down the mines to work. We want to see opportunities available to women in traditional non-female employment, but the conditions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) has said, must be right for men as well as for women. We would then be satisfied.
Women play a role in the mining industries of countries such as the United States and Sweden, and there is no
Column 928reason why they should not do so here. British Coal must end its list of feeble protests and create the conditions to ensure that women can work in the mines.
Clause 16 will allow an industrial tribunal to charge a deposit of £150 before certain cases can proceed to a full hearing. A number of my hon. Friends have already referred to this. The tripartism of the pre- assessment hearing is to give way to Diplock-style "pre-hearing reviews" with just the chair hearing the case. When the Minister replies I hope that he will tell us what is wrong with the current procedure. When the Secretary of State discussed clause 16, he did not give the reasons behind the change.
Presently, costs can be awarded when the tribunal decides that a case is frivolous, vexatious or otherwise unreasonable. Therefore, why do we need the new provision? It has nothing to do with eliminating half-hearted complaints, but everything to do with reducing the incidence of those complaints. The simple truth is that many people will either be deterred from or just unable to afford to bring a case. Some 75 per cent. of cases heard by industrial tribunals relate to unfair dismissal claims. If a claimant is unemployed, how can she afford the deposit? In Committee, do Ministers plan to introduce any financial assistance for those on social security who wish to proceed with a claim? Are there any plans to introduce guidelines to assist the chair of the tribunal to decide what is a reasonable claim?
Equal pay and sex discrimination claims are already notoriously difficult to pursue. Will the Secretary of State draw up special guidance to assist in those cases? Above all, will the Secretary of State see to it that more women are appointed as chairs to industrial tribunals, because, presently, out of about 80, only about three are women?
The deposit of £150 is a logical complement to all the Government's actions during the past decade. First they got rid of as many rights as they could and now they dispense with the channel of complaint. That is a classic piece of totalitarianism by the back door. The House should also note that clause 16(3) allows the Secretary of State to change the £150 deposit from time to time. The right hon. Gentleman's movements will be more akin to perpetual motion rather than time to time. The House should remember that it is only two and one half years since the Government in their document "Building Businesses Not Barriers" suggested a fee of £25. Obviously, at this rate of increase, the fee will be more than £1,000 by the next general election. I suppose that that is what the Government want, because the more the price goes up, the fewer will be the people who will be able to afford to take cases to tribunal.
Most employer organisations did not care for the £25 charge, but a change to six times that figure has an appeal. Employers will be able to flout the law and each time they are summoned before a tribunal they will merely ask the complainant to place a deposit.
Mr. Riddick rose --
Ms. Richardson : I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way ; little time remains for the Front Bench closing speeches.
I come to the question of deregulation. The limiting of paid time off, the proposals on dismissal and disciplinary statements and the changes for industrial tribunals were all trailed in the document "Building Businesses Not
Column 929Barriers." I recall the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1986, which was in part a result of the fundamental philosophy that underpinned the White Papers to which I have referred. In debating that measure, the Minister claimed time and again that he was ridding businesses of the burdens that were prohibiting the creation of jobs, and on each occasion we asked for proof to substantiate his claims. The trouble was that neither the Minister nor his colleagues nor his civil servants could produce one small scrap of evidence to support his dogmatic assertion, for that is what it is--an almost ritualistic, parrot-like assertion to be repeated three times a day--and taken, as we always must take legislation introduced by the present Government, with a pinch of salt. Even the Government's own research paper, "Unfair Dismissal Law and Employment Practice in the 1980s" found
"very little sign that employment protection legislation was inhibiting industrial recovery or contributing to the high level of unemployment by discouraging employers from taking on new people." I have recently received a copy of the response to the Bill by the British Institute of Management. It describes an October 1988 survey--so it is only three months old--of a representative sample of its 70,000 members which shows that only 11 per cent. thought there was too much employment protection legislation. That is a significant and telling figure.
We have reached the stage when many bodies, organisations and individuals feel that the Government's proposals are not the right way to go about it, and I could spend all night describing the evidence that is available to counter the claims being made by the Government. The Government are disregarding all advice that is offered to them.
This could have been a golden opportunity to introduce a Bill on employment, which would have tackled properly the whole question of women's low pay, their under-representation at all levels in the work force and in decision making, the whole field of child care--not just the question of workplace nurseries provided by employers but the wide provision that is required--and the outlawing of all discrimination. That would not have been costly because much of the discrimination is based simply on prejudice.
What an opportunity the Bill could have presented to a decent Government, who, unfortunately at present we do not have. The Bill will disadvantage young people, will deregulate across the board and, in so doing, will disadvantage women. I invite my hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby in opposing it, and in Committee we shall fight it line by line.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. John Cope) : This has been a wide-ranging debate in which hon. Members have made a great number of suggestions about what might be added to the Bill. Some thoughtful speeches have been made, particularly by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and others on topics touching almost the whole of our responsibilities in the Department of Employment.
Column 930The Bill is about the creation of opportunities for employment. It sets out to reduce discrimination, to remove restrictions and to help improve our training arrangements. Many of its provisions involve sorting out old legislation. Many of the individual provisions will have only small effects on their own, but collectively they will help to reduce the tangle of legislation governing employment. Any hon. Member who has read the consultative document that we issued in 1987 will have seen the necessity to examine all these issues. We have looked at every law and regulation affecting young people and women to discover which of them we still need. Our aim is to get rid of every one that we do not need.
The first group of clauses is all about discrimination against women in employment. Anyone who heard some of the Opposition speeches might have thought that few women were able to work in this country. The fact is that women are taking full advantage of the economic upturn. Since 1983 the number of women in paid work has increased by nearly 1,500,000. A higher proportion of women are active in the labour force in Britain than in any other country in the European Community except Denmark. I recognise that women are still under-represented in senior jobs and over-represented in less skilled ones. Only about 6 per cent. of senior managers are women, but I believe that that is changing. More women and girls are obtaining higher level skills and qualifications, and more are training for and working in occupations traditionally regarded as men's work. The Government have an excellent record on equal opportunities for women. The growth of women's employment and the fact that this country is unique in the European Community in having lower unemployment among women than among men is evidence of that. On an EEC standardised basis--for those sceptical about our
statistics--women's unemployment is 13.3 per cent. in the other countries of the Community and 7.4 per cent. in the United Kingdom--only a little over half that rate. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) thought that we should take lessons from our European partners, but I think that they can look to us in this matter.
This Bill takes the promotion of equal opportunities further. As I said, our record as a Government is already good. We have made many changes that help women--the removal of restrictions on women's hours of work, extending the sex discrimination and equal pay legislation to offshore employment, equalising retirement ages, and freeing single sex training from bureaucratic intervention. All Government Departments are committed to ensuring that all their policies avoid discrimination against women.
Clause 1 gives priority to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 over all other legislation except for specific provisions in employment and training, such as safety risks, that specifically affect women. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) pointed out that general protection is now given to all employees under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. So general protection for women, as for all other employees of all ages, is covered by that. Extra protection is no longer required, but specific extra protection for women--for instance, pregnant women--is retained in the Bill in clause 4 and schedule 1.
As was only to be expected, we heard a great deal today about women in mines--