Previous Section Home Page

Column 482

"various trade unions, Greenpeace and even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds",

come what may.

When we wanted to join the European Community, it was not explained that we would be setting up our own courts to compete with us as law makers in matters such as this. I invite hon. Members to speculate on the outrage and uproar that would have been caused had it been explained during the passage of the European Community's legislation or the subsequent referendum that that was how European Community law would develop. We should feel that sense of outrage now.

Mrs. Currie : Does my hon. Friend realise that one of the reasons why we signed up to the treaty of Rome and why people voted in the referendum to continue to accede to it was that we agreed with much of what it said, including its clear statement on equality ?

Mr. Jenkin : When the argument was made for Britain to join the European Community--it is extraordinary how this relates to sexual equality, but it does--we were told that we were giving up certain aspects of our trade policy so that it could be handled together and that we were handing over control of agriculture and fishing because those matters would be better organised together. It was not explained in detail that we could finish up with new bodies creating legislation in our land. On the contrary, the cry during the referendum was, "You've always got a veto. No decision that affects British interests can be made without a British Minister being present."

My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said in the House that there would be no federation. He wrote in the White Paper that there would be no loss of essential national sovereignty. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) must try to justify those matters in her own mind as we carry on down this road.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my hon. Friend surprised that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) appears to want this country to be run from Brussels ? The Opposition are federalists.

Mr. Jenkin : In the unlikely event that the Opposition were ever elected and had to face the stringent free market discipline that the Community also embodies, which is why the Conservatives always were a pro- European party

Ms Short : They are not any more.

Mr. Jenkin : We remain pro-European because we understand how free trade binds nations together. If the Opposition ever suffered the monetary discipline embodied in stages 2 and 3 of monetary union

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : Order. I have heard the hon. Gentleman's speech once before on that issue and it was certainly not about sex discrimination. I hope that he will return to the issue that we are supposed to be debating.

Mr. Jenkin : I accept your admonition, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will return to the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) is right. The Opposition want this country to be run from Brussels because they cannot themselves get elected.

Column 483

We should feel a sense of outrage because, only last summer, Madam Speaker gave a ruling to uphold article 9 of the Bill of Rights. An Opposition Member had complained that a court was questioning parliamentary privilege. Madam Speaker considered the matter to be of sufficient gravity to rule on it herself rather than refer it to the Committee of Privileges. She said :

"There has of course been no amendment of the Bill of Rights, and that Act places a statutory prohibition on the questioning of our proceedings. Article 9 of the Act reads :

that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.'".--[ Official Report , 21 July 1993 ; Vol. 229, c. 351- 2.]

Who can possibly say that the Equal Opportunities Commission or their Lordships have respected article 9 of the Bill of Rights ? [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wishes to question the Speaker's ruling, I suggest that she rises to her feet and does so.

Mrs. Currie : I am delighted to do so--another sex change tonight. I merely wish to point out that their Lordships are part of this Parliament, so the hon. Gentleman's criticism is misapplied.

Mr. Jenkin : The case was originally brought in the Divisional Court and the affect of the ruling is that the Divisional Court can now rule an Act of Parliament illegal. The hon. Lady must accept that she is wrong on that point.

The Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 was passed after the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1971 and presumably in the full knowledge of it, and after the relevant Community legislation had also been agreed.

So what can we do in the light of that ruling ? We can choose to accept the ruling. What that means for sexual equality and employment policy in the United Kingdom is that, as the Labour party wants, hon. and right hon. Members who sit on the Treasury Bench, whether they be Conservative or Labour, are to become mere agents and emissaries of a policy that is decided elsewhere. Instead of being servants of this House, they must be the apologists of others.

Under that ruling, the Law Lords have treated Parliament no differently from an errant local authority that has passed some unreasonable bye-laws or an employment scheme run by a private company. In the forthcoming European elections, let the Opposition parties tell voters that that is what they want Parliament's status to be.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not negotiate an opt-out of the social chapter for it to be nullified so quickly in this way. In The Economist of 25 September 1993 he wrote that Britain had successfully used the Maastricht negotiations to reassert the authority of national Governments. One must assume that he was talking about sexual equality legislation as much as anything else. He went on to say :

"It is clear now that the Community will remain a union of sovereign national states. That is what its peoples want : to take decisions through their own Parliaments.

It is for nations to build Europe, not for Europe to attempt to supersede nations."

I applaud those comments.

For the Government now to continue their successful policies they must pursue a number of options. They could reassert Parliament's authority by ignoring the ruling, and

Column 484

contest the claims on substantive information as and when they arise, objectively justifying the case that we wish to make. Better still, we could enact a declaratory Bill in which we deem the Government's policy to be "objectively justified"--the correct term--but this would only buy time. What we need is to extend the social chapter opt-out into something much more comprehensive in order to regain control of sex equality and employment legislation. We must opt out of articles 117 onwards of the Rome treaty, for this judgment was based not on the Maastricht treaty or even on the Single European Act but on articles contained in the original treaty of Rome. Subsidiarity is perhaps an argument that we should use, that these policies should be handled at the level of the nation state and not be in the treaty at all. Why was subsidiarity an argument not used in the ruling ?

I agree with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade who, in his Stockton lecture last Thursday, attacked "Eurosclerosis" and complained :

"We burden our business with extra costs, preventing labour markets from working properly, stifling the regenerative processes of the capitalist system".

He could have been talking about this ruling. Emboldened by those words, these options surely merit his further consideration. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who said on Monday in Brussels : "We should make our labour markets more flexible and job-friendly . . . That means not introducing new limitations on the labour market."

The Secretary of State exactly echoed those sentiments this afternoon, but since this ruling does exactly what he abjures, the proposals to scale down the Community's social ambitions surely invite his further judgment.

I applaud the Foreign Secretary's remarks in Brussels : "A community which forgets that its legitimacy derives from its electors"

Opposition Members would do well to remember this

"is turning its back, not just on the constraints of democracy but on the wisdom of democracy."

What sort of Government will the British people be able to elect if they are compelled by the interpretation of European law to pursue policies to which they would otherwise be fundamentally opposed ? We all agree that sovereignty requires to be pooled for a common good, but should it be a crime to ask "How much ?" or perhaps to say, "Too much" ? The one real chance that we have to express this is at the intergovernmental conference in 1996. I have no doubt that we shall be reviled and hated by the chattering classes of all the European nations for standing up against the inevitable march, so-called, of European history. We should, however, make sure that future Governments are able to carry out the policies on sexual equality and employment, as all else, for which we are elected. 9 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : I think that we have just heard a speech in favour of sex discrimination--I found it really sad. May I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) and for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) on initiating this debate ? Given that it is the

Column 485

first of its kind for 20 years, I hope that we will not have to wait another 20 years for the next. I hope that we can repeat it every six months.

I begin by paying tribute to the last Labour Government who gave us equal opportunities legislation. It is sad that the past 15 years have seen no improvement whatever. If anything, we have gone backwards under the Conservative Government. In 1970 I worked in a factory where I was paid less for doing exactly the same job as the men there. Many of my women friends deeply resented this. Some of them felt undervalued and inferior. I felt very angry, and I was very pleased when we had the first equal opportunities legislation. The Government, however, have not built on it.

In the area that I want to concentrate on--low pay and how the gap has widened and the discrimination worsened--it is still the case that women in full-time work earn, on average, only 72 per cent. of men's full-time salaries. It means that two thirds of the six million workers earning less than the European decency threshold are women. Black women take home less pay than white women, so there is a further level of discrimination there.

In the public sector, where women do the majority of jobs and where some occupations are almost entirely female, the picture of poverty pay in women's pockets still holds true. Three-quarters of ancillary health workers, two-thirds of local government manual workers, and most nurses and administrative and clerical staff, are women. In 1993, 61 per cent. of women in the health service's administrative and clerical jobs earned less than £220 a week, compared with 27 per cent. of men. These are some of the better paid jobs in the national health service.

The Minister told us that the average wage was £250 a week. They would have been glad to see that. In ancillary work, where part-timers form two thirds of the workforce, part-time women earned 42p an hour less than full- time men. On high or low grades, the story is exactly the same. The Government bear a large responsibility for this discrimination continuing and worsening. Their worship of the free market at the expense of all other considerations has increased inequality and encouraged discrimination.

The contracting out of ancillary jobs has left domestics, laundry workers and others taking a direct cut in wages as contractors put in lower bids than in-house tenders. It has also led to cuts in sickness benefit and holiday pay and a lack of pension rights. It has been hailed by the Government as a success story--but not for low-paid workers.

Over the years, I have tabled amendments to the employment legislation on the plight of home workers, who represent the lowest paid, least protected, most exploited part of the sweatshop work force that the Government have done so much to encourage. The majority of home workers are women. I have found women home workers working for 28p an hour packing Christmas cards that are sold in Woolworths. I interviewed a pregnant woman who sat up all night for as little as 50p an hour knitting garments that sold in the high street for £100. That is not the world of Tory ladies such as the hon. Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) or for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). As the debate has progressed, I have realised that we come from different worlds.

In Britain we have gender segregation, grade inequality, a lower value placed on many jobs where women are in the majority and job evaluation schemes that discriminate

Column 486

against women. Unequal access to pay enhancements such as bonuses, weekend additions and overtime pay account for most of the difference between the pay of men and women in manual work. There is a great deal of work to be done to end that discrimination in pay.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : Will the hon. Lady give way ?

Mrs. Mahon : Certainly not.

There is also discrimination against part-time workers in grading and enhancements.

The abolition of the wages councils has already been mentioned. Wages councils were the only protection for the lowest paid people in Britain, who are mainly women. The Yorkshire and Humberside low pay unit carried out a survey in my constituency of Halifax--a very low-paid area. It found that since last year when the wages councils were scrapped, nearly one fifth of the vacancies in former wages council industries are now on offer at the Halifax job centre at 20 per cent. below the old minimum rate.

A hairdressing job that last August paid £2.88 per hour is now on offer at £2 a hour. Is that progress ? Is it what the Government think is good for Britain ? Those women shop in the same marketplace as Conservative Members. They will be paying the same increased VAT on their domestic fuel, yet their pay has been reduced by 20 per cent.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) : Does my hon. Friend accept that it is now an essential part of the Government's economic policy ? Only two weeks ago, I happened to overhear a conversation in one of the male toilets in the House. Two Conservative Members were somewhat irate about the accusation that they were anti-women. One of them said to the other, "For God's sake, don't they understand that the vast majority of jobs that do not go to the third world go to women ?" Does not that reflect their dependence on widening, not narrowing the gap of exploitation ?

Mrs. Mahon : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It says it all about Conservative Members and what they think the British work force is worth. That is the value they put on workers. The Tory record

Mr. Duncan : That is the economic reality, luvvy.

Mrs. Mahon : The hon. Gentleman said that that is the economic reality. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) made £50,000 out of selling a council house. Opposition Members know too well the economic reality of that kind of chicanery from watching the antics on the Conservative Benches.

The Tory record on low pay has been well argued by other hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood, who is on the Front Bench. I shall dwell on what I believe needs to be done to end low pay and the discrimination against women in the work force. We need urgent reform of equal pay legislation.

It was interesting to see the attack by Conservative Members on the House of Lords decision. The House of Lords simply found the Government guilty of discrimination against part-time workers.

Mrs. Helen Jackson : Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the important thing about the Law Lords' ruling was that it was linked to European legislation ? The key thing that the European Community has done for sex

Column 487

discrimination legislation is to insist that countries keep records. The statistics again and again place Britain at the bottom of the league. Does my hon Friend recognise that the Law Lords have, for once, done a major service in recognising what I would have expected the whole House to recognise ? Labour Members would have expressed delight ; Conservative Members would have said, "Well, it's a fair cop." I would have expected the House to accept that the ruling has at least done something for low-paid workers in this country.

Mrs. Mahon : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Law Lords recognised what was a clear injustice and put it right. I found it quite distasteful that very privileged younger Conservative Members, who clearly have no idea of working for the wages that we are talking about, spent 20 minutes filibustering to keep people out of the debate. I found that so disgraceful.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. There has been no filibustering this evening.

Ms Rachel Squire : In view of her last point, does my hon. Friend agree that having listened at length to the comments of Conservative Members, perhaps we should propose that the industry and Parliament trust scheme is extended to enable Conservative Members to spend 28 days working as low-paid part-time workers in offices, shops and factories to help them appreciate the real world ?

Mrs. Mahon : What a splendid suggestion.

Mrs. Gillan : Will the hon. Lady give way ?

Mrs. Mahon : There are no circumstances under which I will give way to the hon. Lady, who took half an hour to make a speech that completely trivialised what is a very serious inequality. She had her time. If she could not make a case--and she certainly did not--I am not giving way.

I think that, first, the equal opportunities legislation needs to be simplified, and, secondly, the burden of proof for justifying inequality in pay should rest clearly with the employer. We should end the nonsense where the employee has to go out and make a case. It should rest fairly and squarely where it belongs--with the employer. Perhaps we could then see some more decent employment practices coming into being.

I feel very strongly that the law should allow for group actions, and shift away from individual remedies, because women have become absolutely exhausted over the years going through the hoops of the law on an individual basis--we are pleased with the cases that have been won, and applaud them--only to find that when they return to the work force, they have to start all over again. How much better it would have been had they been acting for a whole group of women, and did not have to start all over again to get some justice. There must certainly be an end to the system that allows employers to circumvent equality legislation. Following the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970, job segregation increased. I welcomed the legislation of the mid-1970s, because I had been a victim of inequality ; there is no doubt, however, that the five-year lead-in to implementation of the Equal Pay Act resulted in unprecedented arrangements in which bad employers segregated the sexes, putting women in "women's jobs" and men in "men's jobs".

Column 488

The "equal value" amendment was designed to deal with that ; but there is increasing evidence that young men are being employed in what are traditionally female jobs--for instance, as hospital domestics. A deliberate attempt is being made to prevent the pursuing of equal-value cases. The labour market is being desegregated to perpetuate low pay and avoid the achievement of equality.

Ms Rachel Squire : A good example of that is provided by the equal value claim made by five hospital domestics at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. Ten years ago, they had the audacity to claim that their work was of equal value to that of a hospital porter and a hospital groundsman. The Government and the health board involved have wasted £1 million of public money in doing everything possible to prevent the making of equal value awards. That is an example of the Government's commitment to equal value and equal pay.

Mrs. Mahon : My hon. Friend has made her point very well ; that is indeed a shameful example.

If the Government are serious about ending sex discrimination, especially in regard to pay, I believe that they could take many steps now to improve the position of women. Let me list them : I do not expect that the Government will do anything, but I think it is worth putting them on record.

All Opposition Members believe that a minimum wage is desperately needed. People are having to sweat to take home the rates that I mentioned earlier : following the abolition of wages councils, people who were earning as little as £2.88 an hour now earn £2 an hour, after just a few months. They desperately need protection. We are out of step with the rest of Europe and with America, which has a minimum wage. Surely the minimum wage is a basic right.

I also think that part timers and home workers should be given equal employment rights--which means extending some form of health and safety cover to the people, mainly women, who work at home and who are currently the most exploited workers in the country. Home working is on the increase. It is very convenient for spivs who want to make a fast buck ; those whom they persuade to work at home have no protection. The work is completely flexible, and the women concerned are using their own light and heating. It is a truly exploitative, third-world practice.

We should bring back pay protection for workers in all low-paid industries. We should also extend maternity leave to 18 weeks, and bring it into line with maternity pay. We should ensure that all children have access to nursery places. We should make a commitment to improving and protecting universal child benefit, which is very important to women.

Conservative Members have praised the women who stay at home to look after their families, and Opposition Members would do the same ; we do not force women to go out to work if they do not wish to do so, and it is nonsense to suggest that we do. Women at home with children, however, are the only women with no access to any form of benefit apart from child benefit, which they go and collect themselves rather than waiting for their husbands to give it to them.

The Government should reform the state pension scheme, although there is little hope of their doing so. I think that the pension age should be equalised at 60 for both sexes.

Column 489

We have to keep low pay in the news. We have to keep showing what is happening to the flexible third-world work force that the Government have done so much to promote. We have to keep examining low pay, its growth and its effect on the work force because it is not good for Britain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood said.

Mrs. Helen Jackson : Does my hon. Friend agree that women are most likely to spend their disposable income locally and in local shops ? Cutting women's disposable income, therefore, does more to damage small businesses, which the Conservative party claims to support, than anything else.

Mrs. Mahon : I agree with my hon. Friend. That was well said. If the Government believe that their strategy of promoting a low-pay, flexible work force will enable Britain to compete equally with its competitors in Europe in the next century, they are mistaken and they will damage our chances.

9.21 pm

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) on her speech. She spoke very much from her own experience and with considerable knowledge, unlike many Conservative Members.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to Jo Richardson. I was in her team for a year and I know how fiercely she fought her disability and how she continued to carry the banner high for women in the House and outside. She was committed to equality of opportunity. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingam, Ladywood (Ms Short) is carrying the banner in her place. It could not pass to a better person.

Everyone knows that ideas on men and women start almost in the cradle. Jo Richardson would have enjoyed part of this debate, but would have despaired at some of the attitudes expressed by Conservative Members. Recently, two primary school teachers in Wales asked the boys in their classes to write about the girls and the girls to write about the boys. Some of the pieces that were written, especially those by the younger children, are worth reading. They wrote :

"girls wear beads and high heels . . . Boys stand up at the toilet, girls sit down."

Some children wrote "no good" or "rubbish", and quite a lot used the description "fat". Boys were frequently described as

"strong, noisy and keen on sport."

Girls were described as "weak, quiet and scared." Some boys said :

"girls are cissies, boys aren't, they're brave".

It is not surprising that, even now, the GCSE education choices of English school children show substantial gender stereotyping, a matter that concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who unfortunately was unable to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. More than twice as many boys as girls study computer science and physics, whereas nearly twice as many girls as boys study music, drama and biology. The degree courses of students are also divided on gender lines.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) mentioned discrimination in sport. Despite their tremendous achievements, women are too

Column 490

often treated as second-class citizens. That is totally unacceptable at the latter end of the 20th century, but there has been one good piece of news today. Jill Bridge, who is 27, today became the second woman managing director of an English football club--Blackpool. Only two of the 92 clubs in England have women managing directors, so there is still a long way to go.

According to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaints about the sexual portrayal of women in advertisements trebled from 180 in 1992 to 536 last year. Last year, 56 complaints were upheld against one advertisement showing a young woman and the words :

"She's terrific in bed. She's witty, intelligent and makes her own pasta. She doesn't have a Linn Hi-Fi, but her sister does, and she's the one I married."

However, the Independent Television Commission let Danepak bacon off the hook despite complaints. Its advertisement showed a family of nudists cooking bacon and giving thanks that the low-fat product was less likely to spit in the pan.

There have been few changes on television. Presenter Fiona Armstrong left GMTV rather than shorten her skirts, as she was instructed to do by her bosses. There is, of course, a different set of standards altogether for women performers. The policy still seems to be, "Hire them for their age and looks and fire them for their age and looks." How many women can we recall who appear regularly on television and look like some of the men-- grey haired, balding and with bags under their eyes ? It seems that only men can grow old and show it on the box.

It is therefore not surprising that, after 60 years of campaigning, Millicent Fawcett wrote to a group of women :

"You know from your own experience that equal pay and equal opportunity are still withheld from us. I shall expect to see you, individually and collectively, putting your shoulders to that wheel, and pushing the car of progress along in your generation as we did in ours."

That was not advice that the former Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, thought worthy of note. In 1982 she claimed :

"The battle for women's rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever."

As many of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), have said, we have made some progress, but there is still a long way to go.

There was a time when it was believed that the Almighty had designed men especially to be judges, Prime Ministers and captains of industry and women to be secretaries, housewives and hairdressers, but not, it seems, to be priests in the Church of England. The Under-Secretary of State for Employment, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), has shown her lack of commitment to women very clearly. She said that she was opposing the ordination of women because she believed that

"it is theologically impossible for women to perform the specific role of sacramental priesthood."

She went on to explain her outrage by saying :

"considering the way the Church of England has been going over the past 2 or 3 decades, it would not in the least surprise me if one day I attended a nativity play and found that the Virgin Mary had a beard."

Next Section

  Home Page