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10.16 pm

The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on securing this debate, on bringing the issue before the House and on the eloquent way in which he set out the case. This is an important issue, which deserves attention, and I am not surprised that more than 20 Labour Members are here at this late hour.

I fully understand the strength of feeling in coalfield communities around the United Kingdom. The issue has a long history; it is surrounded by a great deal of confusion in some areas. My hon. Friend set out the case very clearly, but if he will allow me I will go over some of the points from the Government's perspective, to ensure that we have clearly placed on record what has happened.

The issue arose in the early 1980s. Originally, certain British Coal women workers, mainly cleaning and canteen staff, lodged claims under the Equal Pay Act 1970 which required like pay for like work. Those claims proved unsuccessful and, in the event, British Coal won the litigation. The 1970 Act was amended so that claims could be made on an equal value basis. Subsequently, the majority of those women who had lodged the earlier claims went on to lodge equal value claims.

In all, about 1,300 women lodged claims at the employment tribunal between 1986 and 1992. The Act, as amended, enabled the women to seek compensation if they could show that they were being paid less than men in comparable jobs. British Coal initially resisted this on the ground that the legislation did not apply to its situation. The arguments about the legal technicalities went on for many years, culminating in hearings in the Court of Appeal and the other place.

The eventual ruling on the issues of legal interpretation went against the British Coal arguments, clearing the way for a consideration of the merits of the individual claims of comparability. Recognising the complexities that that involved, the courts encouraged the parties to settle the matter without recourse to further proceedings, and on a broad-brush basis. The members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers settled at an early stage, and a number of members of the National Union of Mineworkers subsequently settled as well. However, the NUM urged the majority of its members not to settle.

A deal to settle the claims was finally brokered in April this year by the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain). Under that agreement, all the women with valid claims stood to receive settlements based on length of service. The average settlement, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh said, was about £10,000. It was also agreed that those who had accepted British Coal's earlier offer would receive top-up payments ensuring that all those eligible would receive settlements on the same basis.

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The issue raised by my hon. Friend relates to the position of women whose claims were not registered in accordance with the legislation. The legal position is clear: the terms of the Equal Pay Act impose a time limit on bringing a claim before an employment tribunal of six months from the termination of employment. There is no discretion to extend that limit.

My hon. Friend suggested that that element of the Act should be reviewed in future. I am thinking on my feet, but in some respects such a review might be sensible; in future we should perhaps reconsider that provision. However, the law as it stands allows no discretion: anyone who fails to register a claim in the employment tribunal system within six months of termination of employment does not have a legally valid claim to equal-value pay under the terms of the Act, and is not eligible for a payment.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): There are 84 women canteen workers in my constituency who fall into that invalid claim category and I have been in constant correspondence with them. I have received pro formas from 68 of those former canteen workers, 53 of whom tell me that they never realised that they could make a claim. Surely, if people never knew or realised that they could make a claim, it is natural justice that they should be considered for compensation under the Equal Pay Act.

Alan Johnson: I appreciate that point, and shall talk about some of the individual cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Leigh. However, both the UDM and the NUM would have been well aware of the equal value rules and of the procedures to be followed under the Act. As in all such matters, it was their responsibility to keep their members informed, although obviously that is no comfort to the individuals involved.

Jeff Ennis: But of 68 claimants, 20 were not members of a trade union, 34 were in the NUM and 11 were in other trade unions. It is not merely a question of trade union membership: we should treat all the former canteen workers equitably whether they are trade union members or not.

Alan Johnson: I take my hon. Friend's point, but he will appreciate that we have all heard of many cases of claims that were submitted after the six months—there is no discretion to extend the current terms of the Equal Pay Act.

I can understand the consternation of women who find themselves in that position. There may be a variety of reasons why they did not register a claim: my hon. Friend has just mentioned one. Some of them may not have been informed that it was possible to make a claim; others may have been let down by people acting on their behalf. I do not want to comment on the avenues that might be available to pursue claims against such advisers or agents. However, the point at which fateful actions were taken—or, more likely, not taken—will usually have been many years ago.

The case that has been put to the Government by several of my hon. Friends recognises those facts. The suggestion has been made that the Government, standing behind the British Coal Corporation, should make some

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form of ex gratia payment—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I point out that the corporation itself, although still in existence, has neither the resources nor the statutory powers to make such payments.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy has given those requests considerable thought. Having done so, however, he has concluded that it is not possible to pay money on such a large number of claims that have turned up more than a decade late. To make an exception of that group and to pay out on what are now invalid claims would be grossly unfair to all the other people who have had similar claims disqualified under the tribunal system on the grounds of time barring.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made one simple request of the Minister: that he would meet us as a group to discuss the problem and consider a way forward. Will my hon. Friend accede to that request?

Alan Johnson: I shall return to that point in a moment, before we run out of time.

I stress that if the unregistered claims had been lodged in a timely manner, the problem would not have arisen and much anxiety would have been avoided. Nevertheless, we are in the situation that we are in, and I hope that I have made it clear that the position that we have adopted is not one that we have taken lightly. It is not the case that my Department is unwilling to meet its responsibilities. The fact that we will be paying out on settlements worth around £14 million is ample evidence of that. What was promised is being delivered to all the women with valid claims, and to the NUM. Moreover, we continue to make every effort to locate those women with valid claims who have either not come forward or up to now are not traceable, in order that they can get what they are entitled to. I am pleased to report that, at the end of October, more than 90 per cent. of the registered cases had been settled.

None of this is any comfort, of course, to those women who do not have valid registered claims.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): We have arrived at this situation after many years. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to take legal advice on whether the lack of discretion in the six-month time limit puts us outwith European legislation, in particular article 118, and if so whether any moves will be made to amend domestic legislation with regard to equal treatment.

Alan Johnson: I am not in a position to answer that question, but my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy will be at the meeting that I shall refer to in a second.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Minister saying that special cases of any kind have never been made in

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employment law? I would just remind him about GCHQ. If it is a question of money—I do not think it is—just remember that the Government are taking half of the additional pensions that accrued over many years, and we are talking there about loads of money. I hope that the Minister will look at the ex gratia solution.

Alan Johnson: There have been ex gratia payments. As far as I am aware, we have never dealt with claims registered outside the six-month limit at employment tribunals in any different way, because to do so would affect all those people whose claims were debarred in the past.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): A number of women in my constituency did not have their claim registered because they were not represented properly by their trade union. I understand that the NUM was given a sum of money to cover its costs, and asked for that not to be disclosed. Is it not about time that we knew what money it received? If it was at fault, it should pay the women itself.

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