HC Deb 11 June 1947 vol 438 cc1069-75
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Dalton)

His Majesty's Government desire to thank the members of the Royal Commission on Equal Pay for their valuable Report. This Royal Commission was not asked to make recommendations. Their terms of reference—I quote—were: To examine the existing relationship between the remuneration of men and women in the public service, in industry, and in other fields of employment. and To consider the social, economic, and financial implications of the claim of equal pay for equal work. The Government are, of course, primarily concerned with the problem of equal pay for equal work within the field of public employment, and especially in the non-industrial Civil Service, the local government service, and the teaching profession, but, in the Government's view, there could be no question of confining equal pay to these occupations. Its introduction in industry and in other professions would inevitably follow.

As a broad affirmation of a general principle, the Government accept, as regards their own employees, the justice of the claim that there should be no difference in payment for the same work in respect of sex. But such acceptance leaves unsettled many difficult questions of interpretation. It also leaves open the very important practical question of when effect should be given to this principle, and over what range of cases. The Government are definitely of the opinion that this principle cannot be applied at the present time. In making proposals to Parliament for incurring additional expenditure and for extending the social services, the Government must be the judge of priorities.

In the light of the Royal Commission's Report, the estimated cost of the immediate introduction of equal pay in the public services alone would be more than £24 million a year—that is to say £10 million for the Civil Service, £11 million for teachers, and £3½ million for other local government staffs. Of this total, some £16 million would fall on the Exchequer, and the rest upon the rates. The cost of equal pay for teachers would gradually rise by a further £6 million a year. When the National Health Service comes into force, the Exchequer will take over the cost not only of the local government nurses, for whom equal pay would cost £2,750,000 out of the £3½ million already mentioned, but also of the voluntary hospital nurses, for whom it would cost a further £5 million a year.

The cost of equal pay for all these public services would, therefore, be about £35 million a year, of which at least £8 million would fall on local authorities. This would be equivalent to an average rate of about 6d. in the £, and a good deal more in the poorer areas. In addition, the cost of equal pay for women in the Armed Forces would be between £3 million and £6 million a year. Moreover, if the pay of unmarried women were raised to equality with that of married men, a married man with a family would be left in a relatively worse economic position than any other section of the community, and there would undoubtedly be claims, which might soon be of universal application, for a system of occupational family allowances. The cost of these right well reach a very high figure.

This heavy burden on the Exchequer and local rates would be increased, as equal pay extended to the industrial employees of the Crown and of the local authorities. At the same time the new public boards and the whole body of occupations and trades in private industry would also have to face heavy expenditure on equal pay, with the result of a further increase in production costs, without any assurance of a compensating increase in production.

The Government do not consider that this is the time when it would be in the national interest for these additional burdens to be undertaken. With the authority of Parliament, the Government are now pressing forward with important developments of the social services and with plans for redistributing more justly the purchasing power of the people. Family allowances have been introduced, a National Health Service is being established, new schemes of national insurance and public assistance are being brought into effect. The Government are proud of these achievements, but their cost is substantial, and some limit must be set to the rate at which new projects, involving fresh expenditure, can be undertaken. One of the principal factors fixing this limit is the rate at which production ex- pands. So long as there is no corresponding increase in output, any step which adds to the total of money incomes is wholly inflationary in its consequences, and thus tends to cancel through higher prices the gains already conferred.

The introduction of equal pay in the services for which local authorities are responsible would also necessitate reexamination of the relation between national and local finance, and so might postpone the much-needed reforms in this field which the Ministers of Health and Education are now discussing with the representatives of the local authorities.

This then, in the view of the Government, is not the time to introduce equal pay in the public service. This question should be further examined at a later date, in the light of the development of social policy and of the economic and financial circumstances of the country.

Mr. W. J. Brown

In view of the fact that it is now 26 years since the men and women in the clerical, executive and administrative grades in the Civil Service were put into a common class, recruited by a common examination at a common age, and were employed interchangeably on common work, does the Chancellor think that there is any point in his saying that the Government accept the principle of equal pay, when, after 26 years, they propose to do nothing about it?

Mr. Dalton

I think we must distinguish between one Government and another. I am not concerned today with what any past Governments may have said, I give the view of His Majesty's present Government, who have been in office for a comparatively short time. In that time they have performed tremendous benefits to all sections of the community, including women. It has been a peaceful revolution in this country in which the majority are behind us; we are setting up a social security system second to none in the world, and the view of the Government is that we must assimilate this great wave of social improvement first before we go forward.

Miss Jennie Lee

Is the Chancellor aware that the problem which really confronts us at this moment is the danger that both the wages of women in industry and the salaries of professional women will fall if there is any reduction in real money wages, and, therefore, cannot he reconcile the just and impatient demands of women that they should be paid the same amount when they are doing the same work as men by putting the emphasis on the principle that for every pound of additional money put into circulation at the present moment, there should be a corresponding increase in production, which I suggest means that the emphasis should lie on incentives? In the cotton mills, where the rate for the job applies, the incentives are inadequate.

Mr. Dalton

I am sure the hon. Lady has most admirably expressed the views many of us take in this matter. In the case of the cotton industry, equal pay for equal work has applied for a great many years, yet we are still short of operatives, particularly in the spinning section. The sooner we get them in, the sooner we shall be better clothed and able to export more textile articles.

Mr. Hogg

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, not for the first time, he has claimed the credit for a number of social improvements agreed to during the time of the Coalition, and does not his answer mean that the principle of equal pay for equal work, like other social advances, will have to wait for the return of a Conservative Administration?

Mr. Dalton

If that were indeed so, I should despair of this principle ever being put into operation.

Mrs. Castle

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while the women affected by his statement fully appreciate the economic difficulties which face the country, they will be deeply disappointed by the suggestion that they alone should be expected to forgo any satisfaction of.a just claim so long as inflationary pressure lasts, and will he not consider making a partial beginning by one or other of the methods which have been put to him from various quarters, in order to distinguish this Government from previous Governments, which have had the opportunity but have not made use of it?

Mr. Dalton

I think there are already sufficient grounds for distinguishing between what we have done in our short term of office and what others were able to do in much longer periods.

Mr. Frank Byers

Since the introduction of equal pay for equal work depends on increased production, is it not about time that the Government produced a proper plan for increasing production?

Mr. James Callaghan

As the Chancellor's twin objections are cost and inflation, will he consider putting into force at some future date a scheme which would cost very little and would not create inflationary pressure, for example, by giving the women the men's rate of increment, which in the case of the Civil Service would mean giving them four shillings a week instead of three shillings? It would cost very little and would not raise the inflationary bogy.

Mr. Dalton

I am always ready to discuss with my hon. Friend, or with hon. Members in any part of the House, any constructive suggestions in matters of public policy. That is a new one on me.

Mr. David Eccles

In view of the fact that all parties are agreed on the principle of the rate for the job, and in view of what the Chancellor has said, is not this wrongly described as a social service? Is it not a question of economics, or whether it is good for the production drive or not? As the whole matter is extremely complicated and many of us do not believe that the Chancellor's arguments would stand up to criticism, may we have a Debate on the subject in the House?

Mr. Dalton

That question should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mrs. Leah Manning

In view of the very great disappointment that the Chancellor's statement will mean to millions of women in this country, may I press him to make, at a very early date, some gesture such as has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cardiff (Mr. Callaghan), namely, to put women on the men's scale of increments, which would cost very little and would not lead to inflation?

Mr. Dalton

I can only repeat what I have already said. I am always most willing to confer with any hon. Member of this House on contributions which they can make. This is a new suggestion and I shall be very happy to look at it, but that must not be taken as diminishing the emphatic statement I have made on behalf of His Majesty's Government that this is not the time tot assuming heavy additional burdens.

Mr. Frederick Lee

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in certain skilled industries there is reluctance on the part of the men to teach the women the most skilled jobs, because of their unfortunate experience in the past, which indicates that women may be used as cheap labour?

Mr. Dalton

I think I would rather confine myself this afternoon to the question of the views of His Majesty's Government.

Mrs. Middleton

While recognising fully the economic arguments put forward by the Chancellor, I would like to ask him whether he has taken into consideration any system of deferred credits, by which when production reaches the level which we hope and believe it will before long the women will have made up to them what they are losing at the present time by the deferment of equal pay?

Mr. Dalton

I have no ministerial responsibility for the system of postwar credits for Income Tax. If I had, it is conceivable that that system would never have been introduced, as I regard it as being administratively very difficult. I hope we shall not go any further in putting out these post-dated cheques, post-dated without any reference to the situation as it may be when the cheques fall due for payment.

Mrs. Nichol

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while it may be true that the rate for the job is paid in the cotton textile industry, that state of affairs does not apply to the woollen industry, and that there is a great desire on the part of the men in the woollen industry that there should be the rate for the job?

Mr. Dalton

They have only to follow the example of the cotton industry. They are free to do so.

Mrs. Ayrton Gould

Is the Chancellor aware of the disappointment which will be felt because he is giving no assurance of any kind that the principle to which the Government are bound will not be implemented, even in the smalle[...] part, in any measurable time?

Mr. S. Silverman

In view of my right hon. Friend's reference to the cotton industry, does he appreciate that the reluctance of women to return to the industry, which is not being overcome, is not due to the fact that they get equal pay, but that the pay, though equal, is very low?

Mr. Dalton

That illustrates the possibility that perhaps we attach undue importance to the principle now under discussion.

Mr. W. J. Brown

Admitting that the cost of applying equal pay in the public service immediately would be very large, is the Chancellor aware that many years ago proposals were made to the Exchequer whereby equality would be attained by stages, spread over a period of years, and if it is impossible to apply it altogether immediately, would the right hon. Gentleman be kind enough to disinter those proposals from the pigeon-holes of the Treasury and see if he can help us in that direction?

Mr. Dalton

I am always prepared for historical research in old files.

Mr. Usborne

Is it not a fact that there is unnecessary confusion on this issue, because we seem to use two definite phrases meaning two different things indiscriminately—"equal pay for equal work" and "the rate for the job"? Is it not the rate for the job we want to establish, regardless of sex, and not equal pay for equal work, which means a totally different thing?