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Queen's recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

7 Nov 2001 : Column 338

Question agreed to.


Political and Social Clubs

10 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Members of political clubs, social clubs and other clubs in my constituency have expressed concern about their financial viability. This petition comes from the five remaining Labour clubs in my constituency; they are the Farnworth and Kearsley Labour Club, the Derby Ward Labour Club, the Rumworth Labour Club and Institute Ltd., the Dixon Green Labour club, and the Bradford Ward Labour Club and Institute. Unfortunately, Little Lever Labour Club closed recently because of financial problems. The petition of members of non-profit-making members' clubs in south-east Bolton

To lie upon the Table.

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Equal Value Pay Claims

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

10.1 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh): The Equal Pay Act 1970 is a landmark piece of legislation and one of the most progressive measures passed in the House in the last century. It enshrines in law a simple moral principle: that all human beings should be treated the same on the basis of their merits and rewarded on the quality of their work alone. I am proud of the fact that it was the Labour party in government that passed that principle into law and of how it has helped to build a fairer and more equal society in Britain.

Today the principle is taken for granted, but it was not always thus. A measure of how times have moved on and of the success of the Act in changing attitudes and practices is that any young person entering the labour market today would find it almost unthinkable that there was a time when that principle was not the norm. People have come to understand both the social and the business case in respect of women's incomes over their lifetimes. If employers do not pay women fairly, it is more difficult for them to retain and motivate their staff. If women receive unequal pay, they are less able to make provision for their old age through pensions and savings and therefore more likely to be dependent on the state.

In 1970, however, the practices in setting pay belonged to a different era. That was perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the coal mining industry. One of the biggest claims brought under the Equal Pay Act 1970—if not the biggest—was initiated by the National Union of Mineworkers on behalf of women canteen workers and cleaning staff at collieries across the country. Soon after the Act was introduced in 1973, two canteen workers brought a successful equal pay claim against the National Coal Board. On the back of that, many canteen workers were encouraged to submit similar claims.

It was not until 1983 that the possibility of securing redress for women working throughout the mining industry really opened up, with a ruling from the European Court of Justice that had to be incorporated in British law. It extended the scope of the Act to cover equal pay for work of equal value. Between December 1985 and April 1988, nearly 1,300 canteen workers and cleaning staff from 47 different establishments across the country submitted equal value claims, comparing their work to that of 150 male colleagues who were employed either as clerical workers or surface mine workers, including bath attendants, laundry workers and maintenance staff.

Many of the claimants worked at pits in my constituency, including Parsonage and Woodend in Leigh, Bickershaw and Golborne, and also at Anderton House in Lowton, the north-west regional headquarters of the National Coal Board. Others worked at nearby Parkside colliery in Newton-le-Willows, Astley Green, Chanters, Mossley Common and Maines.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): In addition to the cases cited by my hon. Friend, I gathered information about 124 others last week as a result of meetings that I held in my constituency. I note that no Conservative Member is

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present for the debate. Will my hon. Friend join me in asking my hon. Friend the Minister to consider all those cases, so that the problems inherited by the coal industry can be sorted out once and for all? In that way, we can look forward to the future use of coal and the development of our areas, rather than having our surgeries full of cases from the past that have not been remedied yet.

Andy Burnham: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I look forward to meeting the coach-load of people from Bassetlaw who will come down to the House to join us in raising this matter.

It was not until May 1996 that the breakthrough came, when the House of Lords ruled in favour of the claimants and the NUM. The Lords rejected British Coal's argument that the male comparators were not valid because of the lack of standard terms and conditions across the industry.

Because the Equal Pay Act 1970 requires that claims be pursued by individuals, however, it was expected that each case would have to be referred back to an industrial tribunal. That process would have been extremely time consuming and bureaucratic, and an agreement was reached between the union and the Labour Government on a compensation package.

According to the terms of that package, women who had lodged valid claims would receive £1,000 for each year of full-time work, and part-time workers would receive a pro rata payment. As a result, more than 1,000 women have received substantial payments, many of them in the region of £10,000.

It took 16 years from start to finish to resolve the matter, but a combination of the efforts of the individual claimants, the NUM and Labour in government succeeded in using the 1970 Act to bring redress to almost 1,300 underpaid women. That is worth celebrating, but my purpose in this debate is to raise the issue of the estimated 2,600 women—almost twice the number who have so far received redress—who, although they worked in the same places, did the same jobs and were paid the same money, did not receive anything.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that people from Stoke-on-Trent and the north Staffordshire coalfield, and from mining areas all over the country, also fall into the category of those who have received no redress in this matter?

Andy Burnham: I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. I am not talking only about people working in the Lancashire coalfield. Many hon. Members present tonight represent constituencies in the east midlands and the coalfield areas of Yorkshire.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): And Scotland.

Andy Burnham: Yes. In recent weeks I have been contacted by about 30 people who fall into the category of those who have received nothing. The reasons for that are many and various. Some registered claims that were rejected at industrial tribunal, often because of the time limit set down by the 1970 Act. Some claimants registered for equal pay claims in the 1970s, and had assumed that their names would carry over automatically to any later claims. Some people—especially the more elderly—only found out last year that they were eligible to make a claim at all.

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To show how the circumstances of each individual vary, and to explain why I do not think that many people can be blamed for failing to lodge a claim, I shall spend some time recording the working experiences of three constituents who have contacted me. It is important that the House should have a clear idea of the difficult nature of the work that they undertook, and of the pay that they received.

My constituent Brenda Worsfold worked at Parsonage colliery between 1978 and 1981, at Bickershaw colliery between 1981 and 1985, and at both pits between 1990 and 1992. In her final job, she would rise at a quarter to five, travel to work on her own, open up the kitchen and begin to provide breakfast, and then lunch, for 30 to 40 surface workers. Mrs. Worsfold was paid £66.21 for 20 hours' work a week. She remembers signing a form to allow her name to go forward, but no record of that could be found.

Mrs. Margaret Hughes of Lowton worked as a cleaner at Anderton house, Lowton, for 22 years between 1966 and 1988. When she was made redundant, she was receiving about £38 a week for 15 hours' work a week. Because of the number of hours that she and other colleagues worked, they received redundancy packages far inferior to those given to the men employed at Anderton House when it was closed. A case was brought to an industrial tribunal, but it fell because of the delay in registering the claim.

Mrs. Alice Kelly of Golborne worked in the canteen at Parkside and Golborne collieries from 1973 to 1983. She worked 40 hours a week, often starting at 5.30am passing her husband in the hallway as he came in from the night shift. She was never paid more than £100 a week. She left work to look after her husband full-time because, like so many other miners, he had succumbed to ill health, so she was no longer at work when people were being encouraged to submit equal value claims. It was not until last year that Mrs. Kelly heard about the possibility of making such a claim.

Although 1,300 people have made claims—make no mistake, that is very welcome—2,600 women have not. For every three people working alongside each other in a colliery canteen, one has received up to £10,000 while two others have received nothing. It is a cruel irony that legislation intended to secure fair and equal treatment for all people has led to such unfairness and unequal treatment.

In many cases, it was the older people who had been working the longest and had just retired, like my constituent Mrs. Kelly, who received nothing. Nearly all the people who have contacted me have been at pains to stress that those were difficult times, and the backdrop to the claims being pursued was one of great upheaval in the British mining industry—and, by extension, in communities such as ours which were dependent on that industry. For that reason, nobody can be surprised that many valid claims could not be lodged within the time limits laid down in the Act.

In considering how to move things forward, it is important to keep those exceptional circumstances in mind. In my constituency at least, the mining industry was coming to an end. The establishments and the jobs in question no longer exist. That brings me to my central point. The rights and wrongs of the issue will continue to be raked over, but it all boils down to the inadequacy of

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the Equal Pay Act as a mechanism for providing redress to a whole group of people throughout an entire industry who were underpaid for work of the same value as that of their male colleagues.

There are two particular problems. The first is the six-month time limit after termination of employment for lodging claims. The second is the requirement that every case be pursued by an individual. That, by definition, means that the Act is poorly equipped to address systematic underpayment across a whole industry. To achieve the objectives of the Act and fulfil its principles, it would have made much more sense for a class action to be brought.

I know that the Government have been keeping equal pay, and the working of the Equal Pay Act, under close scrutiny. I understand that on 5 December there will be an equal pay summit, where further consideration will be given to how the pay gap can be eradicated for good. I ask the Minister to ensure that the experiences and issues that I have touched on tonight are raised at that summit, and that some consideration is given to the problems in this case and to preventing them from happening again in the future. That would at least give some comfort to the people affected, and some recognition of what they have been through.

I hope that we can still go further and explore whether there is a way of making a gesture to the people concerned, in recognition of the moral principle so clearly at stake in this case. Nobody doubts that thousands of women were underpaid for work that they undertook in the 1970s and 1980s. Some recompense in recognition of that would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Equal Pay Act, and would be justified, given the exceptional circumstances of the time.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to raise this important issue tonight, and place on the record the experiences of my constituents. It may seem obscure to some, but I assure the House that it matters a great deal to the people who have lived through every stage of it.

As a new Member of Parliament I have come to the issue late, but I know that it has involved Members from coalfield communities throughout Britain. I am pleased to see in the House tonight so many Members who represent those communities.

My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), for Selby (Mr. Grogan), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) have pursued this issue assiduously for many years, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) since they were elected. Their efforts, I know, have been much appreciated by the people involved. I hope that the Minister will ask the Minister for Industry and Energy whether he will meet us all soon to discuss further some of the issues I have raised tonight.

The Government have already done a great deal to help mining communities. Progress is being made with the miners' compensation scheme. We welcome the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy and the positive developments that he announced last week.

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Earlier today, the Prime Minister referred to the £1.5 billion being invested in helping mining communities towards a better future. My hon. Friends and I are extremely grateful for that continued help and commitment, and will keep on working with the Government for the betterment of the people and the communities we represent.

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