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House of Commons

Friday 14 October 2005

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

[Sylvia Heal in the Chair]

Orders of the Day

      Employment Tribunals (Representation and Assistance in Discrimination Proceedings) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is with great pleasure that I present the Bill to the House. Its purpose is self-evident in its title. If it is successful, it will address an imbalance between England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish Parliament has recognised that failure to provide assistance to victims of employment discrimination contravenes article 6 of the European convention on human rights, which establishes the right to a fair hearing. In Scotland the problem was tackled by extending legal aid, but I believe that there is a viable alternative, which I propose in my Bill.

Citizens Advice gets to the heart of the issue in a simple statement:

I stand for social justice above all else. There can be no principled justification for failing victims of discrimination. We cannot continue to confer rights and not provide the wherewithal to exercise them: access to justice should be—must be—a fundamental right.

A veritable mountain of evidence demonstrates the need for my Bill. Despite 30 Acts, 38 statutory instruments, 11 codes of practice and 12 European directives and recommendations, widespread employment discrimination persists. That the legislation is so complex and inaccessible is one of the strongest points in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): One way of dealing with the problem would be for the Government to review the law of discrimination to make it much simpler. Discrimination law has grown piecemeal, which has led to a large and complex body of law. Would it not be better to review the whole area?
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Mr. Singh: I would not oppose such a review, but in its absence we need to do something to ensure that the victims of discrimination have some way of exercising their rights and challenging that discrimination. That is what the Bill is intended to do.

Unfair dismissal accounts for just over a quarter of all employment claims in recent years—a proportion that has remained fairly constant. Such cases are the most successful, whether they reach the tribunal or are settled by conciliation: almost 60 per cent. are successful, of which 47 per cent. are settled by conciliation. Discrimination claims are increasing, however, from just over 11 per cent. of claims in 2002–03 to more than 13 per cent. in 2004–05, with the largest increases occurring in equal pay and sex discrimination claims. More than 10,000 claims went to tribunal in 2004–05. In 2001, there were more than 1,434 pregnancy claims alone.

It has been well documented that women continue to earn significantly less than men—18 per cent. less in 2003—and they are concentrated in lower-paid jobs, but that is far from their only disadvantage in the workplace. New research published by the Equal Opportunities Commission in February this year illustrated the shocking fact that, each year, approximately 30,000 women lose their job as a result of pregnancy; this includes being sacked, forced to leave or made redundant. Only a quarter of women surveyed did not experience any problems.

That is only the tip of the iceberg. The EOC research indicates that the majority of women do not pursue a claim because it is so difficult and costly and, in some cases, because they are not fully aware of their rights. Two BBC website readers described what happened when they told their employer they were pregnant. Clare, 29, from Bristol, had been working for an internet company as a project manager for six months when she became pregnant. Off sick because of morning sickness, she phoned work. She says:


Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend have further information on that case? Was the woman represented by a union, and was she able to pursue it through that means?

Mr. Singh: I am sorry, I do not have those details, but I can try and get them. If my hon. Friend will be patient, I shall come to trade unions later in my speech.

Sarah, aged 28, from London had worked in public relations for eight years and for her current employer for eight months when she became pregnant. Within a fortnight she was called to a disciplinary meeting and given a list of grievances. She reported:

Two weeks later she was sacked. Her solicitor advised her that she had a good case for sexual discrimination but would need to find between £7,000 and £10,000 to fight it.
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Similarly, the Birmingham Evening Mail reported in April 2003 the case of Carol Bonehill, who received a card from work congratulating her on the birth of her baby, only to find that her P45 and a dismissal letter were enclosed. The northern complainants aid fund took up her case.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I used to practise regularly in industrial tribunals. My hon. Friend mentioned someone who was told that the case would cost £7,000. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with industrial tribunals is that lawyers have turned them into a feeding frenzy for themselves, not for claimants?

Mr. Singh: I entirely agree. One aspect of the Bill, to which I shall return, is that it does not put matters back into the hands of lawyers, but introduces a different system of advice and support.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Although my hon. Friend said that he did not have all the information about the representation in those cases, one of the main issues is trade union representations. Unions have made great strides, but does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should consider improving the competence of trade union representatives? Does he recognise that a major issue is representation in non-unionised work forces, which are increasingly common?

Mr. Singh: I agree. I wish more people were union members. As I shall show, large parts of the work force, especially the most vulnerable workers, are not unionised. We have a duty and a responsibility to protect those workers as well.

On the case taken up by the northern complainants aid fund, although the employers denied dismissing the woman for being pregnant, she won her case at tribunal. The case was instrumental in prompting the equal opportunities investigation that I mentioned.

Citizens Advice told me about the case of Jean, a nursery worker who was eight months pregnant and a single mother-to-be when she sought advice from her local citizens advice bureau. Her employer of two years had been paying her less than the national minimum wage, had been making illegal deductions from her wages in respect of her attendance at antenatal clinics, and had never provided her with a written statement of her terms and conditions. Shortly before Jean was due to start her maternity leave, she had been summarily and unfairly dismissed—at a time when the Government are promoting the new deal to enable single mothers to go to work, instead of relying on state benefits. Here was a woman who had a job and lost it on spurious grounds.

The treatment of that young woman highlights other issues. It is not just about losing one's job. Unfair treatment can take other forms. A young pregnant woman who sought advice from a citizens advice bureau in London was working for a cleaning company. After she fell ill because of her pregnancy, her employer had suggested a reduction in her hours. She asked whether that would affect her maternity leave or pay, and her
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employer stated that it would not. However, shortly before the expected date of birth, her employer told her that she no longer qualified for statutory maternity pay as her earnings were now below the qualifying level. Clearly, the woman had been atrociously misled. We can only imagine the impact that the loss of pay would have at a time when a new baby is due.

Both the last two cases highlight important issues for wider social policy. We have made huge advances in ensuring access to antenatal care. Research has proved time and again that that is essential to the well-being of mother and child. If women suffer loss of wages by attending hospital appointments, we risk that progress being set back decades. We are committed to ending child poverty. Maternity pay is a crucial element in that quest, yet we see women being manipulated into losing that right.

Discrimination continues after maternity leave is over. The employer of a woman who approached a citizens advice bureau in Dorset in May 2000 had refused her request to work part-time on her return from maternity leave, on the grounds that there was no part-time culture in the firm. A citizens advice bureau in Wales reports the case of a woman working as a mechanical draughtsperson, whose employer had refused her request to return to work from maternity leave on a part-time, job-share or reduced hours basis. She felt pressurised into resigning and wrote to the company to say so, but received no reply. When she telephoned to try and discuss the matter, she was told that her employers were too busy to talk to her.

Bringing a case is costly and beyond the resources of most complainants. A three-day tribunal in London costs between £15,000 and £40,000.

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