Previous Section Home Page

Ms Short : I am coming to an end.

The strain on families throughout the country is great. Women have borne the burden of much of that deregulation and wage cutting. The strategy has been a failure. Our economy is a mess. The quality of life is low. We have been less successful than our partners in Europe in generating jobs. Simply, what women want is the chance

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : What about Spain ?

Ms Short : We have the worst record on such matters of all the countries in Europe. The hon. Lady should examine the true historical record, instead of the propaganda that Conservative Members consume. Women simply want the chance to be equal at work, in public life and in the family. To achieve that, we need a Government who are committed to equality. Instead, we have a Government who claim to support women's equality, but, in practice, oppose all proposals from British organisations or from Europe which would help to deliver equality. It is in the interests of men and women in Britain that we change that situation. The Government's failure is hobbling the British economy and women in the work force.

We need a U-turn from the Government ; an admission that their economic strategy has been a terrible tragedy for our country. If they are not big enough to deliver it, women in Britain will vote to get rid of them and will start to put things right.

5.22 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Hunt) : I beg to move, to leave out from House' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof :

'notes, in the week of International Women's Day, that women in Britain now enjoy exceptionaly wide and increasing opportunities underpinned by comprehensive and effective legislation ; and calls on the Government to continue to pursue the policies which have made this possible.'.

It is sad that today we should hold a debate on this subject without Jo Richardson, who died recently, because she spoke for the Opposition on women's rights for 11 years, from 1982 to 1993. She campaigned indefatigably for the needs of women and I believe that I speak for everyone in the House when I say that she was much loved and much respected. Her especial interest was in women in lower-paid jobs who were trying to combine work and family responsibilities ; and she served as a member of my Department's advisory committee on women's issues. I know that her presence always ensured a lively and stimulating debate. She was a doughty champion of the cause that we are debating today, and she will be sorely missed by everyone in this place.

There have been co-ordinating arrangements for women's issues at ministerial level for some considerable time, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) pointed out. However, in April 1992, my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mrs. Shephard), became the first Cabinet Minister with responsibility for women's issues. I am proud to follow her in that capacity.

If the country is to be truly competitive and to achieve the highest possible standards, we must recognise the

Column 434

ability of all our people. Equality of opportunity is a vital principle. Discrimination against women is not only inefficient, but clearly wrong. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will agree with those simple statements.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon) : What my right hon. Friend has just said is absolutely right. Does he agree that it must be as wrong to discriminate against people on the grounds of their sexuality as on the grounds of their sex ? Will he develop initiatives from his Department to encourage employers to eliminate discrimination and harassment against gay men and lesbians ? Is it his view that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 should be amended to make clear beyond doubt that its provisions cover sexuality discrimination ?

Mr. Hunt : On 21 February, we had a lengthy, detailed and in-depth debate on the age of consent, when many issues relating to sexuality were raised. I know that my hon. Friend speaks for many Members on both sides of the House. I wish to show that I believe that, in its present form, the Sex Discrimination Act is right and is working. I shall explain why to my hon. Friend and the House.

In 1975, when the Bill was introduced, it was welcomed on both sides. It was recognised that it was an Act much built on the achievements of a Conservative Government and that its principles were wholly in line with Conservative philosophy. I wish that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) would recognise that there are strong views on the subject on both sides of the House. There is great scope

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) rose

Mr. Hunt : Just one second.

There is great scope for a bipartisan policy. I felt that many of the hon. Lady's comments, which were founded on incorrect statements, sought to trivialise the debate to a considerable degree.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) rose

Mr. Hunt : I am about to give way to the hon. Lady.

I believe that the Sex Discrimination Act is about creating equality of opportunity for individuals and about giving everyone a fair and equal chance to be judged on their merits and to rise as high as their abilities will allow them in the job that they choose to pursue. It is also about challenging preconceptions which say that a woman cannot do this or that a man cannot do that simply because of their sex. Those are out-of-date attitudes and the Act makes that absolutely clear.

Mrs. Roche : The Secretary of State says that the Conservative party has given rise to much of that legislation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Will he acknowledge the contribution of my predecessor, Joyce Butler, who was the Member of Parliament for Wood Green until 1979 ? She was an early pioneer of that legislation and made strenuous attempts to get it into the parliamentary framework.

Mr. Hunt : In the course of the debate, tributes will be paid by hon. Members on both sides of the House to all hon. Members who have worked for the cause. I am seeking to point out that, in the past 15 years, there have been considerable achievements for women. The hon.

Column 435

Member for Ladywood was not doing justice to the debate by denying those achievements. I shall give a few simple facts to illustrate that.

Mr. Cryer rose

Mr. Hunt : Let me give a few simple facts and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

First, more and more women want to work. The economic activity rate for women of working age has increased over the past 10 years from 66 per cent. to 71 per cent. Secondly, more and more women are working. The number of women in employment has risen by 16 per cent., or more than 1 million, over that same period. The number of women in full-time jobs has risen virtually identically with the number of women in part-time jobs--a fact that the hon. Lady did not acknowledge.

Thirdly, more and more women are expected to work in the future. Our projections show that about 80 per cent. of the labour force growth between now and 2006 is likely to come from women. More and more women will be able to contribute their talents in the workplace.

If we compare our record with that of our European partners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) said, the United Kingdom at present has the second highest proportion of the female population in work in the European Union--65 per cent.--behind Denmark.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : I shall give way in a moment.

Between 1983 and 1991, female employment in the Community as a whole--now the Union--grew by 8 million, and a quarter of that was accounted for by the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has nearly 11.5 million women in paid employment--more than any other member state except Germany ; and it is the only member state in the Union where women's unemployment is lower than men's.

That is an impressive record, and it is one of which the Government are proud. But it has not been achieved by chance. Job opportunities are greater here because the Government have steadfastly pursued the right policies.

Mr. Cryer : The Secretary of State said earlier that he wanted to promote some sort of bipartisan policy. Despite his continual sneering and sniping at the minimum wage legislation proposed by the Labour party, which is repeated by his hon. Friends on the Back Benches, does he know that such a measure would immediately benefit more than 2 million women who are paid rock-bottom rotten wages which no Conservative Member would even look at, and that the Government can embark on a bipartisan policy only by recognising the importance of a minimum wage for women ?

Mr. Hunt : How can the hon. Gentleman expect me, as Secretary of State for Employment, to endorse a policy that would destroy 2 million jobs ? That is what a statutory minimum wage would do. Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : Just a moment.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) talked about wages. Let us look at the facts, because they

Column 436

were noticeably absent from the speech by the hon. Member for Ladywood. What is the average wage for women in the United Kingdom ? The average weekly gross wage for women is £252.60. What was it in 1979 ? It was £63. There has been a cash increase of 301 per cent., and an increase in real terms of 54.9 per cent. Women's real wages have grown faster than men's since 1979, and it is about time that Opposition Members recognised that fact.

We have worked to create a labour market in which employers have minimum constraints on the jobs they can offer. We want minimal structural constraints on pay levels, which is why we have abolished wages councils. We want minimal structural constraints on hours of work which is why we are challenging the working time directive before the European Court of Justice. We want minimal extra costs, which is why we oppose the parental leave directive and other extensions of burdens on business.

Unlike some others, we do not have preconceptions about the sort of jobs that should be created, based on the stultified stereotypes of 20 or 30 years ago. We do not assume that a "proper" job lasts 48 or 35 hours a week, or that everybody wants to work full time, or that the service industry is a poor relation to manufacturing industry. We do not assume that women, simply because they are women, cannot work at night.

Those are the old assumptions of an out-of-date, out-of-touch male- dominated society. They are above all to be found in countries that have old-fashioned, highly regulated labour markets.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : Just a moment ; let me put this point to the hon. Member for Ladywood. She referred to Europe.

I see that the European Commission has recently threatened Belgium, France, Italy, Greece and Portugal with legal action because those countries still ban women from night work. The United Kingdom swept away such outdated restrictions years ago.

Under the Conservative Government, the United Kingdom labour market has been able to offer a wide range of opportunities, and that has benefited women especially. I recognise that women often want to combine work with family commitments, and need an employer who can offer the necessary flexibility.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : Will the Secretary of State give way, on that point ?

Mr. Hunt : No.

In the United Kingdom, there is no such thing as a standard working week. There is a wide spread of jobs available, with a whole range of different hours. We have far greater diversity than have other European countries with more highly regulated labour markets. Employers and employees therefore have a better chance of finding the working patterns that suit them both.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : No, I want to make progress.

For example, for most women part-time workers, especially if they have children, part-time work is their preferred option. More than 92 per cent. of part-time working mothers say that they do not want a full-time job.

Column 437

That is why I am so pleased that Conservatives have created more than 2 million part-time jobs in the past 10 years

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : No, I want to make a little progress.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The Secretary of State has made it clear

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : What is he frightened of ?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he does not intend to give way.

Mr. Hunt : I am very pleased that the Conservatives have created more than 2 million part-time jobs in the past 10 years, and that so many part-timers are women. That is because it suits them. Overall, only 13 per cent. of those working part time would prefer to work full time.

Ms Short : Will the Secretary of State give way ?

Mr. Hunt : Let me finish my comment first.

We believe that individuals, not Government, should decide their patterns of work.

Ms Short : The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that many women with young children want to work part time. What they do not want is rotten wages, no training, no promotion and no access to pensions, or to be sidelined in the labour market for the rest of their lives. That is why full-time rights for part-time workers are crucial to the equality of women in the labour market.

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Lady does not acknowledge the statistics that I have given the House, based on the independent figures produced by my Department, which demonstrate how much women's wages and overall earnings have risen in the past 15 years.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hunt : I am not giving way at the moment.

Of course women need a fair chance to fulfil their potential. Prejudice must be countered. The Government want fair play for women--I cite the English translation of the programme "Chwarae Teg", which I introduced when I was Secretary of State for Wales, in combination with Opportunity 2000 and the Equal Opportunities Commission. We also fund a nationwide campaign, New Horizons for Women, to promote opportunities for women at all levels in the work force and in public appointments--as one of my hon. Friends pointed out.

We fully support the employer-led Opportunity 2000 campaign. The civil service as a whole and many Departments, including my own, are active members. We are spending £45 million on increasing out-of-school child care facilities. We are glad to fund the work of the EOC.

I turn now to the role of the law in underpinning and guaranteeing equality of opportunity. We are fortunate in having the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It is wide-ranging and covers discrimination not only in employment and training but in education and in the provision of goods and services. That goes well beyond any obligations that we have under any EC directive

Column 438

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) : Will the Secretary of State give way on that very point ?

Mr. Hunt : No.

Those provisions go well beyond the practice in most member states.

The Act also established the Equal Opportunities Commission, to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred. As we all know, the EOC's powers include taking up cases against the Government themselves. It would be hard to find a more visible example of independence in action. I do not complain about the EOC's pursuing the statutory role that Parliament gave it, but I believe that its powers and independence make a mockery of suggestions that the United Kingdom is somehow soft in its legislative arrangements for guaranteeing equal opportunities.

The hon. Lady suggested that our equal pay legislation is ineffective and lacks teeth, especially in delivering equal pay for work of equal value. I do not accept that. Equal value claims are recognised throughout Europe as very difficult to tackle, and the United Kingdom does much better than most. Those are not my words. I have a report produced by the European Commission's equal opportunities unit which discussed the difficulties of equal value claims. The report said that there was no case law at all on this subject in France, Luxembourg, Italy and Greece.

Mrs. Mahon : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has been drawn to my attention that the reason why the Secretary of State is not giving way to interventions from women Members is that he has a plane to catch to Detroit.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : That is not a matter for the Chair. It is for the Secretary of State to decide whether he gives way.

Mr. Hunt : It also said

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is it true ?

Mr. Hunt : I am returning to the real subject of this debate. The report said that the concept of "equal work, equal pay" was not properly defined in Belgium, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Luxembourg. I commend the report to the hon. Member for Ladywood. It also said that the United Kingdom was one of the few states where the basic concepts were understood and where case law was extensive. Our law lays down in detail how equal value claims are to be decided. It gives particular weight to a tribunal receiving a job evaluation report from an independent expert. The hon. Lady will know that the idea of using job evaluation is still very new. The whole idea of one job being equal in value to another is full of difficulty and ambiguity. Different experts take different views. There is room for argument and appeals, and all of that takes time. But the United Kingdom has genuinely tried to make the concept work. I shall explain why.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : Will the Secretary of State give way ?

Mr. Hunt : I shall give way in a moment--I am dealing with an important principle.

We have seen more than 100 cases presented to independent experts since 1984. Some of them have been resolved by the tribunals ; many more have been settled out of court by the parties concerned. Those cases will have a

Column 439

knock-on effect on the pay of other workers. I simply say to the hon. Lady, if she would pay attention for a moment, that thousands of women have benefited from employers voluntarily restructuring their pay scales so as to value more highly work which tends to be done by women. We have seen that particularly in the retail sector.

Ms Glenda Jackson : The Secretary of State said that the Government funds the Equal Opportunities Commission. Therefore, why do they not take on board the commission's recommendations with regard to equality ? The commission, in its very helpful briefing document, said that the existing law on equality is very complex, the legal procedures take so long and it is virtually impossible for people to obtain legal aid.

Mr. Hunt : I shall deal directly with what I have been discussing with the Equal Opportunities Commission. I acknowledge the work that Kamlesh Bahl and her colleagues in the Equal Opportunities Commission have done in examining the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970, and the formal recommendations that they put to the Government.

When I replied to Kamlesh Bahl last July, soon after I became the Secretary of State for Employment, I said that I would be pleased to discuss many of the Equal Opportunities Commission's proposals. We have already had discussions on the Equal Pay Act and I have agreed some changes to speed up equal value cases as far as possible. I shall consult on further possible changes. I am happy to give the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) that assurance. I look forward to more discussions with the Equal Opportunities Commission on some of its proposals on the Sex Discrimination Act. In July, I said that most of the proposals can be either accepted fully or discussed further. I am happy to confirm that.

I do not believe that we should substantially reshape the legislation that we have. As I wrote to the Equal Opportunities Commission in July, I do not believe that that would help those who have to use the legislation. By and large, it has served us well. Important questions of interpretation have been settled by the courts over the past 15 years. More questions are still at issue, either here or before the European Court of Justice. Starting again from scratch would be a massive task, and I suspect that it would be of little use to most people. That is the extent of my commitment. I am happy that I will be discussing this further with the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) : As the Secretary of State said that he thoroughly approves of women taking their cases to industrial tribunals, will he congratulate the two Scottish women who won their equal value case against Scottish Power last week ? Will he also deplore the fact that it took them four years to do so ? Will he commit himself to improving the legislation so that such cases can be dealt with much more speedily ?

Mr. Hunt : I am very happy to give the hon. Lady that assurance, because I want to see such delays removed and the whole procedure speeded up. I also commend the many cases and awards that are reported in our newspapers. This morning, I saw that a girl won £24, 000 in a discrimination

Column 440

case. The United Kingdom has a strong and comprehensive framework of anti-discrimination legislation and I believe that the decisions of tribunals confirm that.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : Before my right hon. Friend leaves his discussion of the law of this country, will he say that the Government have no place whatever for a consideration of quotas in this matter of equal opportunities ? Of course, it works both ways--equal opportunities for men and equal opportunities for women. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) made no mention of the Opposition's position on quotas, although at their last party conference they put in place a quota system for the selection of their parliamentary candidates.

Mr. Hunt : I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the general theme of this debate will be a clear message that if the United Kingdom wants to be truly competitive in a fairly tough competitive world, it must recognise the abilities of all of its people, men and women. That is why we need equal opportunities and that is why I moved the amendment.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call any hon. Members in this debate, I must tell the House that no fewer than 22 Members wish to catch the Chair's eye, of which 15 are hon. Ladies. Although there is no time limit on speeches, a little self-discipline would be of some assistance.

5.48 pm

Ms Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : When my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) raised a point of order about the Secretary of State not giving way because he was in a hurry to catch a plane to the United States, the Secretary of State had nothing to say. He was kind and polite enough to write a letter to me apologising because he may not be able to stay and listen to my speech because he has to get to the United States and must therefore leave the Chamber soon after his speech.

When we are debating such an important issue, which affects more than half the population of this country--it affects not only women but their partners and children--it seems to be the wrong occasion for the Minister to race off. I do not want to take advantage of his courtesy in writing to me but the point must be made that it is the wrong time for him to leave. He should listen to what is said today because it is very important to all women.

Although the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was a huge advance, it never worked as well as we hoped. It takes nearly three years for the average case to come to a hearing, and one case in particular took more than eight years. The Act that runs in tandem, the Equal Pay Act 1970, was followed by a huge regrading of jobs so that men who were doing the same work were given a new title and paid more than women. A tightening and an alteration is needed to make these two laws more effective.

The Secretary of State twisted the figures. He said that the average wage for women when compared with that for men had increased, and that is true. However, the average wage for women is still 30 per cent. lower than the average wage for men. For part-time workers--most women now are in part- time employment--the hourly pay for women is half the hourly pay for men in full-time employment. That is a huge gap and a huge difference.

Next Section

  Home Page