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Lady Olga Maitland : The hon. Lady should not get too excited. She thinks that I shall ignore all the initiatives that the Government have taken so far. I shall not. I welcome the Government's achievements in that regard. I welcome the fact that they have been imaginative and have an excellent record in encouraging pre-school provision, so that 90 per cent. of all three to four-year-olds take part in some form of group activity with their peer group. No one can deny that there are more day nurseries and more child minders. There is tax relief for employers' nurseries, and the Budget introduced a child care allowance, beginning in October, worth £28 a week to people on family credit.
The National Council for One Parent Families was reported in The Daily Telegraph on 11 December as describing that allowance as "a step in the right direction".
The measure will help 150,000 families and it is specifically aimed at encouraging single mothers to go to work and to move away from total dependence on state benefits.
Column 470I approve of another imaginative scheme--the out-of-school child care grant, which will help 50,000 children to have somewhere to go after school hours.
Nevertheless, we have some way to go and child care is an issue that I wish to watch carefully. I shall watch in particular the cost of child minders, because I have a feeling that they are operating something of a scam. I cannot understand how they can charge such high fees for taking care of a toddler. Indeed, their charges put them out of range of women who cannot easily afford them. What I would us like to do--it may not be possible yet, but I would like to consider it--is look at other ways of providing child care, for example, with nursery vouchers. Indeed, why cannot we have tax relief ? It has been talked about for some time, but the time has come to look at this matter more seriously.
In conclusion, I welcome the Government's commitment to help women without being patronising. No one is more supportive than the Prime Minister. Ironically, he has done more to help women than his predecessor who, as we all know, was the first woman Prime Minister--Baroness Thatcher. The Prime Minister has shown his concern in this area by promoting more women to top jobs, be it in the Cabinet or his personal office. Indeed, he gave an enormous boost to the public appointments unit by appointing more women to public bodies. Our concern is to maintain the dignity of women and give them the very best opportunity to use their undoubted talents.
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) : The debate has shown the Conservative party at its worst. The hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) illustrated something very interesting. As 22 hon. Members wished to speak in the debate, we were all asked to keep our speeches short. However, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam bored on for 29 minutes. That is the height of selfishness in a debate where so many hon. Members want to speak, bearing in mind that this is the first debate on sex discrimination in the House since 1975.
As the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie) said, the Second Reading of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was 19 years ago next week. That debate and today's debate were initiated by the Labour party. The degree to which the Conservative party is embarrassed by that is shown by the fact that we have more women Members in our party than all the other parties put together. The Tory party busily reassembled its women Members to stick a few behind the Front Bench today because they have such a shortage of women Members and they are embarrassed.
In 15 years of Conservative Government, there has not been a single half- day committed to debating sex discrimination. Tory Members are being asked to support a Government amendment which says that women in Britain now enjoy exceptionally wide and increasing opportunities, and asks the Government to continue to pursue the policies that have made that possible.
Column 471That is spitting in the wind because the United Kingdom Government have been referred to the European Court of Justice on issues of women's equality more often than any other European Union Government. For example, they have been referred on pension age, retirement age, equal pay for work of equal value, invalidity pensions and housing benefits. Last week, the Law Lords ruled that part-time workers, almost all of whom are women, are discriminated against by the Tory amendments to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, which weakened and eroded women's rights on matters such as unfair dismissal and redundancy.
The Government have constantly stressed the burdens on employers of treating women equally. It is interesting that they never tell us about the employers who do not agree with them. In the Financial Times of 4 March, the operations director of one company that had restructured its work force to increase the number of part-time workers to respond to daily fluctuations in customers' demands is quoting as saying :
" When we took this strategic decision it did not even enter our considerations that employing people part-time would make it easier to dismiss them. Our whole objective was to produce the goods that our customers wanted at the right time. As to increased potential costs--we are not looking to get rid of people.'"
Despite 24 years of equal pay legislation, the United Kingdom is at the bottom of the league, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) said. When we look at women's earnings as a percentage of men's earnings--this covers all women ; it is not only professional women whose salaries may be as high as 80 or 100 per cent. of men's salaries, as is the case with Members of Parliament and if it is good enough for us, it should be good enough for everyone else--we find that in the United Kingdom, women's pay as a percentage of men's overall pay was 67.1 per cent. in 1991. In Denmark, it was 84.7 per cent ; in France, it was 80 per cent ; and in Greece, it was 75.8 per cent. That is what the Government are boasting about.
We have seen the Government presiding over and encouraging the casualisation of the work force and job insecurity. They abolished the wages councils which were the last protection for hundreds of thousands of women working in low-paid jobs where it was difficult for them to be organised. We have now seen the sinister emergence of things called zero- hours contracts and key-time contracts which are offered to women, especially those in hotels and catering, and shops. A key-time contract guarantees some work but not regular hours. A zero-hours contract does not guarantee any hours at all.
Employers who provide zero-hours contracts provide no commitment to employees to provide any work. Equally, employees do not commit themselves to work any hours at all. They are not contracted to work any hours at all. They are expected to be available for work at short notice, but they are not contracted so to be. Therefore, they must be available for work all the time, but they have no guarantee of work at any time. The Government boast about that.
By 1983, it was clear that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 needed consolidation and strengthening. Jo Richardson, a friend of Labour Members and someone whom we miss very much--she would have been in the House 20 years a few days ago--introduced the
Column 472Sex Equality Bill on 9 December 1983. That Bill was opposed by the Government. It is to her great credit that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) supported Jo Richardson's Bill. That Bill recognised that the legislation needed consolidation. Jo Richardson proposed definitions of discrimination, including one that encompassed sexual harassment and pregnancy. She referred to the necessity for enforcement provisions in the Bill to include a procedure for assessing claims for equal work of equal value, and introduced the power to refer discriminatory or indirectly discriminatory collective agreements to the central arbitration committee. She said :
"People's attitudes have changed. We feel that the time has come to move on and make the legislation better than it was. Groups of people and individuals have become more frustrated at what they see to be an unfair and unwarranted limitation on their rights as individuals, and the continuing domination by men, confirming the traditionally accepted role of women as dependants and the inferior sex."--[ Official Report , 9 December 1983 ; Vol. 50, c. 581.] That Bill was not supported by the Conservative Government and, as a private Member's Bill, it fell.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and other hon. Members said that quotas are unnecessary. That has been the approach of several hon. Members, especially the Member who is probably the most senior of us all--if one likes, the first among equals. However, Barbara Castle who is much revered by Labour Members takes a different view. Last year, she wrote an article in a Sunday paper in which she said that throughout most of her political life she had been against quotas because she did not need any help. However, the older she got, the more she realised that that was an extraordinarily self-centred and selfish view, and she had received a lot of help to get in the House, as did many of us. She cited the case of one of her secretaries who, every time selections for a general election came around, tried to be selected to get in the House but who failed for years. That secretary was eventually elected in 1969, and is now the Speaker of the House. If Barbara Castle thinks that the experience of her secretary persuaded her to argue for quotas, it must be a convincing argument.
I did some research into sex discrimination at work in 1989. I found that women in middle management consistently came up against what could be called a glass ceiling, while other women were condemned to a life of low- grade, low-status jobs.
Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, who is no longer in her place, and I were part of a group of hon. Members who visited Holloway women's prison, which has a record number of 479 inmates. I asked for the proportions of men and women who were working at Holloway. I was told that there were 226 people in the lower grades of staff, 90 per cent. of whom were women. I was also told that there were 10 governor grade jobs in Holloway, only one of which was held by a woman. That says it all.
We have heard much about women's opportunities and child care, and the way in which women ought to be playing a part in the work force. However, Government policies place women in what I can only describe as a kind of guilt. If a woman is not working and has children, she feels guilty because the Government have eroded the concept of the family wage and driven down wages. She feels that she ought to be working, and that happened to me when my children were small and I wanted to improve my education. I did not have an opportunity to go out to work.
Column 473If a woman does work, she is made to feel guilty and told that she should be at home. There is no way for a woman to square that circle.
There is also the question of the skills that women acquire while bringing up a family. Women learn conflict resolution, dispute avoidance, time management and budgeting--all things which organisations such as Lloyd's bank spend a fortune training men to learn. Yet when women do get jobs, they are condemned to low-grade, low-status jobs. The attributes of women ought to be recognised. We want legislation that gives part-time workers equal employment rights to full-time workers, strengthens the Equal Pay Act 1970, speeds up and simplifies equal value places, restores pay protection through wages councils, gives statutory parental leave, extends maternity leave to 18 weeks and ensures that all children have access to a nursery from the age of three. Above all, we want legislation that reforms the state pension system, because far too many women in this country are poor pensioners.
People come to my surgery who cannot afford a pair of shows, and no hon. Member should be proud of that. Those people have each week the kind of money that most Conservatives would spend on an evening out. An old Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. That is at the very least true, and it is a pity that the Government have done nothing to recognise that.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford) : I have listened with great interest to the speeches of hon. Members of all parties, and I hope that the House will bear with me if I depart slightly from what has gone before.
Many of the major issues of dispute between the parties have been trotted out for display on the specific issue of sexual discrimination, and I do not intend to go back over them. Suffice it to say that I think we sometimes make greater issue about this matter than we need to.
The reality is that there has been a natural progression during the past 30 to 40 years. There has been greater freedom for women in the workplace, and much of that has been brought about without Government legislation.
There has been a deep change in the nature of work across the western world. The old, heavy, industrial, metal-bashing, smokestack industries are producing less of the work in this country. Service sector jobs, such as banking, require less muscle and a great deal of brain and co-ordination, and they have taken over and are continuing to grow. They will produce the increases in employment during the next few years, and the reality is that, in those jobs, women are every bit as capable as men of producing the goods and, in some respects, are probably far better.
Companies must come to realise that there will be no excuse for them in the next few years. If they discriminate in any shape or form, they will only discriminate against themselves because the pool of talent is always limited and finite. It is up to companies to recognise that they need to make use of whatever talent is out there.
That is a natural progression, and I wish that the Opposition would recognise that as much the Government have. It is absolutely critical that companies recognise that the talent among women is every bit as great as that among men.
I often talk to my wife about aspects of sexual discrimination, and she says time and again that she wishes
Column 474that women who go on about discrimination would not decry the role of women at home. She often talks to women who hold down jobs and, during the conversation, they ask her what she does. When she replies that she is a housewife, the career women immediately freeze and move away. That is important, for having watched my wife looking after four children and running a home, I know that she is not my equal-- she is my superior. There is no doubt that I could not possibly do it, and without her I would not be here. Some Opposition Members may wish that that was the case.
Mr. Burns : My hon. Friend is right in noting that no one should be criticised or demeaned for deciding that they wish to be--for want of a better word--housewives. On the other side of the coin, does my hon. Friend agree that it is equally distasteful that women who decide that they wish to pursue a career and a family are more often than not also treated in certain quarters with some contempt, and are made to feel that, in some ways, they too cannot play a full role in bringing up a family and pursuing a job ?
Mr. Duncan Smith : My hon. Friend raises an interesting matter, which, while it follows the point that I made, stands on its own. There was a momentous event last week when I noted, with some horror, the ruling of the Law Lords on the rights of part-time workers under the Employment Protection Act 1978, which, it was suggested, resulted in inadvertent sexual discrimination. I notice that the Opposition mentioned that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had not referred to that decision. I hope that, by the end of my speech, they will perhaps have had enough of the matter. I wish to go into the basis of the ruling, because it is critical that we understand fully what the Law Lords have done. They said that the majority of part-time workers are women and the majority of full- time workers are men, using the 16-hour break point.
The Law Lords went on to say that the difference in treatment of part-time and full-time workers accordingly tends adversely to affect more women than men. They said that, unless the difference of treatment is "objectively justified"--a critical point to which I will come back--it constitutes indirect discrimination on the grounds of sex contrary to European Community law.
Finally, the burden of proving objective justification being on the Government, the evidence submitted by the Department did not establish that. It is important to note that the evidence consisted of an affidavit. I would ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to explain when she replies what constituted that affidavit, and what evidence was given to disprove that point.
My big worry is that the width of the judgment is quite staggering. It does not just deal with redundancy and unfair dismissal. I believe that it will also back into occupational pensions in a dramatic way. Although the case did not relate to occupational pensions, there seems no reason under article 119 why part-time employees may not sue both public and private sector employers for equivalent occupational pension rights to full-timers and for equivalent holiday pay.
Column 475had to stand by them. In the same way, if the Labour party had been elected to government and carried through the House a decision to give part-time workers equal rights, that would have been the right way to proceed. The right way is not through the back door by means of a ruling based on European law, which has widened the aspect of the debate.
Secondly, the ruling has immediate effect on occupational pension and holiday rights and also on redundancy rights. Part-time workers will now be able to claim redundancy pay from both public and private sector employers after only two years employment. New amending legislation will not be required. It has already been proved in several cases such as de Freyn and Barber, that article 119 is held to have had direct effect. That is critical. Those in the public employ will be able to sue with immediate effect as a result of the ruling.
It is also possible to examine unfair dismissal. Public sector and private sector part-time employees who believe that they have been dismissed unfairly will be able to make claims again for unfair dismissal if employed for two years or more. Again, no legislation is required. It is also apparent that it will be possible to make some of the claims, if not all of them, retrospective. As a result of a decision taken not by my Front-Bench colleagues but by the Law Lords on a fairly debatable point, we may find that claims will feed through certainly for redundancy pay which are retrospective for up to four years. That will load costs on to industry in a way that I do not believe was ever entertained by the Law Lords.
The ruling is a major step. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is thinking hard what to do on the issue. The Government would not necessarily have taken that step, but if we had done so we would have been justified in taking that step through the House, having carried the House with us. After all, the House is elected by the public on that basis. I hope that Opposition Members accept that this is another matter in which our powers to decide such matters have been stripped away. It is a critical decision. I shall deal with some of the main reasons why it is critical later.
I hope that, instead of saying that a great decision has been made which has forced something that they wish to see come through into legislation, Opposition Members will see that if they were in our position they would consider that the ruling was not the right way to go about it. It is up to the Government to make such decisions and carry the House with them.
I shall not go into detail on inadvertent sexual discrimination, but it is a dubious point. I should like to know a little more, if possible, from my hon. Friend the Minister about what we presented to justify our case. Once the Law Lords decided that it was right to rule on the procedural matters, we had to put forward a defence that the current position was objectively justified. I believe that we would have been able so to justify it. Time and again, we have demonstrated that our employment policy is based on flexibility. That is to say that the work force should be able to meet and match the jobs that are available. As employment prospects grew, part-time work would develop into full-time jobs ; it was economically vital. Our position has been justified time and again. As we have moved out of recession we have been able to take
Column 476advantage of the employment policy. Employment has moved up quickly immediately. We are not seeing that in other countries in Europe. The rate of unemployment in Britain is dropping. Much of that is due to the fact that we have a more flexible work force than probably any other country in Europe. That has a lot to do with our position on part-time work. Therefore, although the Law Lords ruled that there was inadvertent sexual discrimination, we could have objectively justified that. We had good economic grounds for it.
Once we have dealt with the basis of the ruling, it is important to consider why the ruling came through. There has been a major progressive change over the years. It has come from the European Court of Justice. As Lord Denning said many years ago :
"The Treaty of Rome is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back."
The judgment from the Lords in the past week has demonstrated clearly how that tide of law affects the divisional courts. The decision was based wholly on European treaties and declarations, not on any British legislation.
Last year, in January, I made a speech in which I pointed out that, in many of the social provisions, sexual discrimination being one of them, we would see the tide of legal expertise flowing back from the court and avoiding our social chapter opt-out. Article 119, which I quoted on that occasion, article 118 and every other directive have thrown back all the social provisions that we would not necessarily wish to implement. Perhaps the Opposition would wish to implement them, but they should do so if and when they were ever elected to government. That is the key point. Opposition Members should not seek to introduce measures through the back door. They should seek to do so through their position in government.
Ms Short : My understanding of the House of Lords ruling is that the Lords interpreted the British law as incorporating the treaty of accession into British law. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's speech is that he wishes Britain to leave the European Union. Is that what he is saying ?
Mr. Duncan Smith : No. The point that I am making is simply that while we signed up to several articles and declarations in the treaty of Rome, and subsequent amendments. The idea remained that we as a Parliament and a Government should be justified in making the decisions on how we believe that the economy should work here, as long as that does not affect other member states. That is clearly the case here. We decided to go for a flexible work force. We have produced such a work force. I believe that it has had beneficial results. We have more people in employment than ever before and a falling level of unemployment.
I accept that Conservative and Opposition Members will never agree on that point, but if the people of Britain had elected a Government to follow their views, that would be fine. That is exactly what the Opposition would have been justified in doing. However, it is not what the people elected us to do. That is the problem for us. I wish to deal with that point.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) : Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the judgment about which he complains and the legislation about which he is worried would not have been invoked if the British Government
Column 477had treated women equally ? Is he saying that, when the electorate last went to the polls, people consciously voted for a Government who would deny women equal treatment within the work force ?
Mr. Duncan Smith : No. The problem with this is the contrary. The principle of long standing that no Parliament may bind another has clearly been broken. The equal opportunities legislation was passed during a Labour tenure. The Labour party was in government, as it was for the 1978 Act. The point is simply that the articles referred to pre-date the Single European Act by a long time and bind us on the issue. The matters were dealt with under Labour. Therefore, it is up to the Government to decide whether we wish to see such provisions implemented.
With respect to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson), I said earlier that I did not believe that the law on part-time work demonstrated sexual discrimination in the way that has been suggested. That is the key. It is not that we believe in sexual discrimination. We do not believe that there was sexual discrimination. The matter is simply about part-time workers. The economic justifications for a flexible work force speak louder than ever before.
If I might make some suggestions to my hon. Friend, I think that we ought to fight the issue again rather than implement the judgment of the Lords. There is the opportunity to do that. In terms of legal precedence, the decision of their Lordships on that point is not a finding of law binding on other courts. It would be possible to allow those people who wish to do so to pursue the matter through the divisional court, to defend on the basis of justifiable reason, as we did previously, but to put more emphasis on the economic aspects. I wish that my hon. Friend would take consideration of that, bearing in mind that we do not believe that it is in reality sexual discrimination, but that it is economically justifiable as it exists at the moment. We should watch that come through the divisional court and make a decision afterwards, rather than jumping now. It would be open to a sued employer to fight on that basis from there. I would therefore support the Government in trying to do that. It would have grave economic consequences were we to accept the decision, not just in the aspects that I discussed earlier, but also as regards pension rights, the position as to which has yet to be quantified. We do not know what that would cost.
There is a possibility that we can produce a declaratory or clarificatory Act which may help with regard to the 1978 Act. It would be important to ensure that we had the opportunity of saying that the House should be able to speak about justifiable reasons and tell the court clearly that that was the case. It would be a good position to take and it would help with regard to the case. My hon. Friend should bear in mind that it is time for us to think carefully about discussing again articles 117 onwards with our colleagues and friends in the European Community, because we would not wish all the social aspects of the treaty of Rome to be imported here. We believe that they will lead to an uneconomic and uncompetitive Britain. We also believe that the whole of Europe will become uneconomic, so we have to inform them that now is the time to ensure that we drop those aspects of the treaty. We should push for them to be taken out. They are not fields for common debate. They are fields in which national Governments must make all the decisions.
Column 478If the Labour party is elected, it will have to make a decision, simply on economic grounds, that its social policy is justifiable. It may well do so. It may be elected on that basis--I doubt it --but we have justified to our electorate that we believe that a flexible work force will be the one that will take us forward into the 21st century.
I believe that the problem is that the Law Lords have taken unto themselves the position as a constitutional court now, and we need to take careful consideration of what they have been able to move into--with the social aspects. I wish to put it to my hon. Friend that we should fight, to ensure that we establish the justifiable reasons that we believe are there. I hope that she and her hon. Friends will come up with the sort of decisions that I have outlined.
Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : The hon. Gentleman--I regret that I have temporarily, if I ever knew, forgotten his constituency- -[ Hon. Members :-- "Chingford."] The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) referred to the Law Lords' decision in the case that was taken to them by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which related to the differences that the Government have created in wages and conditions of work between part-time and full-time workers.
In its extremely helpful little briefing pamphlet, "The Inequality Gap," the Equal Opportunities Commission says :
"Britain has over 5 million part-time workers, 87 per cent. of them women, and the numbers are rising."
More than 2 million of those part-time workers
"earn so little, or are so sporadically employed, that they do not pay National Insurance and have no entitlements to unemployment and sickness pay, or to a State Pension, for which if not working they might have got credits."
Another extremely helpful briefing document published by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, entitled "Unequal Opportunities," says :
"The Equal Opportunities Commission's Annual Report for 1992 talks in terms of a surge in complaints about workplace sex
discrimination' . . . The level of employment-related complaints and enquiries stood at 13,320, an increase of 47 per cent. on the previous year. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service reported a similar trend--sex discrimination complaints referred to the Service for arbitration rose by 67 per cent. in 1992." At the beginning of our debate, the Minister who has found Detroit more attractive than his duties as Minister for women spoke of Jo Richardson and of her struggle and her constant fight for the needs of women. I believe that Jo Richardson would have called for the rights of women--rights to equality in education and to equal pay for work of equal worth ; and to equality in promotion prospects, in pensions, in access to justice and in health.
Today I had the pleasure of declaring open--if that is the correct word for a piece of medical and scientific equipment--a new mammograph machine at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital, the women's hospital on the fringes of my constituency. It is a very pleasant duty for any Member of Parliament actually to be able to welcome an improvement in a national health facility these days, as opposed to endlessly standing in cold vigils attempting to prevent closures. Another aspect of the basic inequalities that still work against women in this country is that 15,000 women die from breast cancer every year, 25,000 cases are reported
Column 479every year and, in the nation as a whole, the treatment, screening, after-care and counselling are patchy in the extreme.
That is why, I am happy to say, a couple of weeks ago an all-party group was formed in the House to deal with the issue of breast cancer. I am equally happy to say that the group has representatives from both sides of the House, male and female, because that seems to emphasise something that has tended to be ignored in our debates, at least from the Conservative Benches this afternoon.
Reference has been made to the value of women as housewives, almost as though women's work in the house, because essentially it is unpaid work-- women in the house do not receive a brown envelope at the end of the week-- is not really work. I assure Conservative Members that it is real work, and a great many women undertake it. [Interruption.]
Obviously I did not make sufficiently clearly the point that there has been a great deal of patronage and patronising attitude swishing around the Chamber this afternoon on women's rights for equal treatment under the law in a range of our national life. One of the aspects that I have found especially patronising is the way in which men seem to think that, if they endorse our activities, that is the only validation we need, and that if they say that it is okay for women to work in the house, that is all we ever need to ask for. I have to tell Conservative Members that I am of an age when I can remember that women on their own were lauded. It was, of course, during a war. The men were away fighting. Then, women attempting to raise their families on their own were little heroines. I have found it especially shocking during the past few weeks that Ministers of the Crown have attempted to blame all society's ills on women who, for three main reasons--death, divorce and desertion--are responsible for raising 2.2 million of the nation's children on the most scandalously low levels of financial support that could be conceived of.
I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion, as I realise that many other Members wish to take part in the debate. I must say, however, that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) spoke as though the fight was over. She reeled off 10 or 15 women--I do not remember the precise number-- who have achieved public recognition because they are successful in their chosen professions. Let us say that the number she gave was 15, and let us assume that the average age of those women is between 25 and 35. Let us assume also that women constitute half of the population of the country--in other words, 27 million human beings.
If we were to invest £27 million in a bank and after 25 or 30 years our return were £15 there would be an absolute outcry at such a shameful rate. That is what we are discussing--the shameful rate of return on the vast pool of talent that is female. It is the equality of women in society
Column 480that we are discussing. Sadly, under the Conservative Government, the equality of women has taken many huge steps backwards. That is why I support the Opposition amendment, and why, if the House divides, I shall vote against the Government.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : In the end, the speech of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) presented a rather utilitarian view of womanhood. Perhaps it is the over-emphasis on mechanical feminist issues that puts some Conservative Members off women's affairs. However, I welcome this debate. It has been a good discussion, and it is good for men to sit through such an occasion. I have listened and learnt.
I endorse wholeheartedly the way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State responded to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). In a later intervention, the hon. Lady criticised my right hon. Friend for failing to say anything about the Law Lords' ruling. The extraordinary thing about the hon. Lady's speech was how little she dwelt on how that ruling had come about. It was a massive constitutional innovation, and surely it merited more than the cursory glance that she gave it. From my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a welcome pause is extremely appropriate. A decision of such constitutional magnitude requires some thought before it is responded to.
I shall support the amendment in the names of my right hon. Friends, not least because it calls upon the Government to continue their successful policies in the field of opportunities for women. The last 15 years have seen a number of successful initiatives to enhance and promote opportunities and equality for women. Women now have independent and equal taxation ; Opportunity 2000 will expand women's opportunities with employers ; and there is a drive to increase the number of women in public appointments--to mention just three initiatives.
We are not averse to generous measures such as were provided earlier this week under an EC directive on pregnant workers. The United Kingdom now gives qualifying women a longer period of maternity absence than any other EC member state and, at 18 weeks, one of the longest periods of paid maternity absence. Unlike the law in many member states, United Kingdom legislation gives all women, regardless of length of service or hours worked, a right to paid time off for antenatal care.
But a key part of our policy has been a more laissez-faire attitude to some areas of policy that have benefited women. A higher proportion of women go out to work in Britain than in any other European Community country, except, as has been said, Denmark. Between March 1983 and September 1992, there was an 11 per cent. increase in the number of women in full-time employment and an increase of 29 per cent. in the number in part-time employment. Many women choose to work part time, and the Government's policies have encouraged the development of part-time work within a framework that safeguards employees against exploitation.
The irony of this debate, however, lies in the fact that some of these very opportunities may be choked by last week's court ruling in the name of sex equality. The substance of the Law Lords' ruling on the Equal Opportunities Commission case has serious political and
Column 481economic implications for industries dependent heavily on part-time workers. Businesses in my constituency that would be affected include retailers--not just the big ones but the small ones as well. Small business was the main job generator of the 1980s. This ruling strikes a blow against the interests of all small businesses, which hitherto have benefited from the lower costs and flexibility of part-time workers.
Whole industries, such as the restaurant and hotel industry, will be badly hit. The British hospitality industry plays a huge role. In fact, it is our biggest foreign exchange earner, bringing some £8 billion to £9 billion per annum into the United Kingdom. It may be that some Opposition Members do not attach much importance to these aspects of the argument, but many hon. Members support the Government's policy of leaving things as they are. Labour now wants everyone in one form of part-time work or another on a compulsory 35-hour week basis, but we believe that flexible labour markets assist economic growth and add to the general prosperity. The Opposition may feel gleeful about the court's decision, but surely they should show a hint of anxiety at the fact that their policies do not have the usual democratic consent. We believe that these matters, along with overall conduct of Government policy on labour relations, should be decided here--by Government and Parliament, which are accountable to the electors.
Ms Short : Tory speech after Tory speech has subverted the rule of law. The House of Lords, on a judicial review, was interpreting British law. Tory Members of Parliament are saying that this is intolerable and will have to be overturned. The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) suggested that the Government should subvert the ruling.
Mr. Jenkin : The hon. Lady demonstrates that she--along with most of her Front-Bench colleagues, I dare say--has absolutely no appreciation of how this ruling has arisen. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady listens, she may learn something. Opposition Members cannot claim that this ruling was achieved on the merits of the argument. They will find that the Government made little or no effort in court to establish that the alleged indirect discrimination against women was--in the jargon--objectively justified. The Government were principally contesting the vires of the United Kingdom's courts to rule on this matter at all. [Interruption.] If hon. Members listen, they may learn something.
The House of Lords ruled that aspects of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 are incompatible with Community law. As the leader in The Times of 5 March pointed out, the ruling has, in effect, struck down as "unconstitutional" an Act of Parliament. That the Law Lords did such a thing demonstrates a new and perhaps alarming boldness. They could more tactfully have referred the matter to the European Court of Justice for adjudication. Instead, as The Times suggests--correctly, I believe--Britain now effectively has a constitutional court
"which opens up the possibility, which many would regard as alarming, of Acts of Parliament being subjected to trial by judicial review, by pressure groups of all descriptions, such as the Commission for Racial Equality, the Child Poverty Action Group", or the CBI, the National Association for Freedom, the National Front,