HC Deb 23 April 1970 vol 800 cc736-46
Mr. Deputy Speaker

The next Amendment selected is Amendment No. 48, with which we may discuss Amendment No. 49, in page 8, line 32, leave out subsection (2).

Mr. Booth

I beg to move Amendment No. 48, in page 8, line 27, leave out from 'matters)' to end of line 31.

The Amendment seeks to remove from the Bill that part which excludes pensions from those factors to be covered in determining equal remuneration.

I am not unappreciative of the tremendous difficulties raised by the question of pensions in connection with the determination of equal pay. Knowing how keen my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to achieve complete equality of remuneration for men and women, I feel certain that she will not resent the Amendment in so far as it tries, even at this late stage, to deal with what is still a very difficult problem. I am sure that if there had been a simple way to define equality of treatment of men and women in receipt of pensions it would already be in the Bill. Therefore, I do not suggest that the Amendment is a complete solution. It is something on which to hang a very serious attempt to deal with this very serious problem in the legislating of equal pay.

In spite of the difficulties of amending the Bill so as to cover the question of pensions properly, we must try to achieve such a definition. If we fail to reach a definition on this question, we must inevitably leave open the door to those employers—and I do not say that they are a majority—who would wish to compensate a man to a far higher degree than a woman for equivalent work by giving that man much more favourable pension conditions. If it were possible for that to happen after the Bill comes into effect, I am sure that the legislation of equal pay would not have achieved the end my right hon. Friend wishes.

We must first agree those aspects of pensions where there must inevitably be a difference between men and women. First, there is the difference in the statutory age of retirement. The Bill does not make the retirement age the same for men and women. Therefore, in trying to define what is a proper and equal approach to pensions as between men and women, we must recognise that statutory difference.

Second, there is the question of the life expectancy of men and women. Unless we can include within the definition a recognition of the differences of payment of pension in relation to life expectancy, we cannot create a proper basis of equality.

There are two fields in which I feel we can define very clearly certain aspects of treatment of men and women in which we could expect complete equality. The first is an equal entitlement and eligibility to become a member of an industrial pension scheme appropriate to the grade of employment concerned. That is, we can ensure that men and women have equal opportunity to join a pension scheme for the grade or class of work in which they are engaged. We cannot, of course, ensure that they will pay the same contribution or receive the same pension per year, but we can achieve a fair definition of entitlement and eligibility to become a member.

Second, we should also enshrine within legislation the right to contribute on an equal basis. If there is to be equal pay, there can also be an equal ability to pay contributions to receive certain benefits.

I know that the General Council of the T.U.C. has carefully considered those two points, and I believe that it has raised them with my right hon. Friend. I feel sure that she will bend over backwards to meet the General Council on this point, because I am sure that that is what she wants to do. I am confident that, with reasonable co-operation between those with experience in this matter and my right hon. Friend and her fellow members of the Government, and the desire to bring this about, if my Amendment cannot be accepted at least its purpose can be carefully re-examined before the Bill goes on to the Statute Book.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Holland

When I read the Amendment, I was rather pleased because, in view of the prevailing harmony and light existing on the Bill, I thought that it would give me the opportunity to support the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth). But, having heard his argument, I am in the somewhat difficult position of wanting to support the Amendment still but of being opposed to some of the things he said about it. However, my view is entirely in accordance with the proposed deletion of these words in the Bill. I feel that there is no reason why we should not have equality between the sexes for the purposes of pension funds and so on. Yet I do not think that his arguments on that proposition necessarily hold up.

I think that benefits and contributions should not have any distinction or differential as between men and women. There should be differences, of course, in relation to the ages of retirement, but that in itself is not necessarily an issue between men and women. A man who chose to retire at 60 would have to pay higher contributions or receive lower benefits. A woman would be in the same boat. If either wanted to stay on until 65, he or she would pay the same rate of contributions and get the same benefits.

It is sometimes argued that a man has dependent relatives and if he wants to make partial provision for them he takes a smaller benefit himself. But many women have dependent relatives as well and want to do the same thing. Why not, therefore, have the same provision for men and women for variation of provision, depending on requirements or benefits of the individual, irrespective of whether that individual is a man or a woman? This is why I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on some of the things he said, though certainly not on his Amendment.

When I first read the Amendment and when he started to move it, I thought that I could obtain absolution from him for opposing his last Amendment by supporting him on this one. I am still inclined to support him on the Amendment. I am being consistent in this because I made the same point on Second Reading. I support him in asking the right hon. Lady to look at this proposal because, the more we can reduce the differences which exist, the better is the chance of doing what she wants to achieve with the Bill—the removal of all discrimination so far as humanly practicable.

I accept that obviously there have to be certain differences, but unless there is some basic reason for a difference, let us throw out all the other differences and have absolutely no restriction in the terms and conditions of employment, in which pension rights are a major matter. I support the Amendment and I hope that the right hon. Lady will smile favourably on the hon. Gentleman as she has done this evening on some of us on this side of the House.

Mrs. Castle

I am grateful for the spirit in which my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) moved the Amendment. I perfectly understand his motives and sympathise with his aims. Indeed, I said on Second Reading that, on the face of it, it seems entirely right that any provisions for equal pay should cover pensions as well. But I also went on to point out that, as far as I am aware, no other country has included pensions in its equal pay legislation. The reason for this, I think, is that this is another of those issues which seem deceptively simple but in which the process for securing equal treatment is highly complex.

I am sorry that this point was not discussed in Committee because no Amendment to this effect was put down there. That is a pity. Here we are, with a very small House, at a late stage in the Bill, raising points of major complication in the legislation. I want to stress the complexity strongly. I think that perhaps we should have taken a whole morning in Committee on an Amendment such as this in order to probe all the implications.

In all friendliness and sincerity I say to my hon. Friend that, although he showed an appreciation of the complexities of the problem, he did not, in moving the Amendment, fully probe all the implications. He admitted that the Amendment does not begin to face the issues. He was perfectly genuine about that when he said that the Amendment would not be a complete solution. But I shall not try to fault him on technicalities. I want to point out to him, however, that, if the Amendment were accepted, there would be a total policy vacuum in relation to the pensions aspect.

My hon. Friend made two suggestions. All we would have if we removed this qualification for equal treatment would be a position in which a woman would be able to go to a tribunal and claim that she had not been given her pension rights. No one, however, would have defined what those rights should be. She would be given the right to join a pension scheme, but it would be the existing scheme. Yet, as we know, the existing schemes in which women at present are not participating do not cover women. They are based by definition on length of service, retirement age, family responsibilities and life expectancy of men.

They are masculine features. As my hon. Friend fairly admitted, there are differences of requirement in pension treatment between men and women. Any sensible scheme would have to pay regard to those differences. This brings me to what is not merely a technicality on the Amendment. We cannot begin to decide even the principle of including this in the Bill until we have decided who should examine the existing schemes and who should decide what is equal treatment under a pension scheme.

If we are to give a woman the right to go to a tribunal and enforce her pension rights, we would have to decide among ourselves what we thought those pension rights should be or, at any rate, identify the person who shall decide what those pension rights should be. The tribunals will enforce specific rights. Who should decide? I want to put this seriously to my hon. Friends. Should it be my Department? If so, this is a most revolutionary suggestion to make at this stage of the Bill when it has not even been discussed in Committee. No government have ever dictated the terms of occupational pension schemes. It would be a major innovation.

Secondly, who should enforce this? The tribunals? I suggest that it is inconceivable that the sort of tribunals we are to set up under the Bill to adjudicate on whether a woman has her rights are the appropriate bodies to evaluate equal treatment in the pension sphere.

My hon. Friend argued cogently yesterday for less legalistic tribunals, for ones taken from industry, reflecting the practical experience of the shop floor. This is a highly technical area. It would be necessary for us to enforce women's rights under this heading by special adjudication undertaken by people with the necessary special expertise. I mention this because it is this kind of practical difficulty which has inhibited me from obeying my natural instincts and including pensions in the Bill. I am sure my hon. Friend realises that we are far from clear in our own minds as to which items in a pension scheme should he equalised. He referred, for instance, to the difficulties of equalising the age of retirement.

The T.U.C. in the document that we have all been quoting from, the one that has gone before the women's conference, has specifically dodged the issue. What it says is that where men and women retire at the same age, the pension should also he equal. I do not think that any of us would disagree with that but where do men retire at the same age as women? In how many occupational schemes in this country? The figure is absolutely negligible, if not non-existent.

Mr. Holland

The point is that if the reason for either higher contributions or smaller benefits is due to the early retirement of an individual, it is not on grounds of sex and, therefore, admissible—

Mrs. Castle

I agree that there can be permutations and combinations which might be different in different schemes. Are we to lay down the laws in this House through this Bill? That is what I am asking. Suppose that we were to say that we accept that women should retire at the age of 60. That means either that their pensions would be smaller or their contributions greater, to get equality. I ask: by how much should the pension be smaller or the contribution greater to meet the definition of equality of treatment?

I quote this merely to show the complexity of making progress here. There are other difficulties. The T.U.C. says that it is impracticable to suggest that pension amounts should be equalised. I do not see why that should be any more impracticable than some of these other problems. The T.U.C. then refers to the point which my hon. Friend has raised. He said that he recognised that there were difficulties in getting complete equality of treatment but thought that there were two areas in which we could expect completely equal treatment. I think that 1 am quoting him accurately. First he said was equal entitlement and eligibility and secondly the right to contribute on an equal basis. I want to ask my hon. Friend a question that neither he nor the T.U.C. has answered. We are talking about rights but in a vast majority of occupational pension schemes equality of pension treatment would not mean the right to join but the obligation. In the vast majority of schemes, a chap has no choice. Schemes would not work if one could opt in and opt out. It is a condition of employment. The House would not wish to legislate for equality of treatment and then say that men have to join but women can pick and choose.

8.45 p.m.

Is my hon. Friend asking us to impose an obligation on all women workers in a factory where there is an occupational pension scheme to join that scheme? Have we consulted enough? Have we thought it through? It is conscription we are talking about, not voluntary membership. The subject bristles with complexities.

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South West)

I do not often come to the right hon. Lady's support in these matters, but there is a further point which she might have in mind. An occupational pension scheme, being funded and depending on contributions throughout service, presents a particular problem. If we suddenly made pension benefits equal, there would be a large uncontributed liability in respect of past service. This is a further problem which creates difficulty.

Mrs. Castle

I assure the House that I have given a lot of thought to this matter. My hon. Friend was quite right: my whole instinct is to include this in legislation. But I have had to face all these complexities, and not least the practical fact that under the Government's new national superannuation scheme we are about to impose a new range of rights and obligations on women in relation to pensions which will prove a financial burden to some of them.

Are we satisfied that it would be right to say tonight, even in principle, that we have decided to put another obligatory burden, through this Equal Pay Bill, on women who are only just facing up to the realisation that to secure greater equality under a national superannuation scheme they will have to meet additional burdens?

Mr. Booth

I apologise for not making this point clear in moving the Amendment. My suggestion is that the same options should be open. If it is a condition for a man in a certain job it should be a condition also for a woman, and if it is regarded as oboxious to conscript women, it should be regarded as obnoxious for men.

Mrs. Castle

My hon. Friend is honest and logical, but this question has been confused by the use of the words " right ", " eligibility " and " entitlement ". If my hon. Friend had said, " I want to place a statutory obligation on women working in factories where there is an occupational pension scheme to join that scheme ", I imagine that the reaction of the House—and, perhaps, for all I know, of the T.U.C.—might be different.

I do not want to detain the House further. Obviously, we cannot tonight come to a decision on an issue of this far-reaching importance. I can, however, give my hon. Friend this assurance. I had another letter from the T.U.C. only a few days ago asking that this matter might be reconsidered in the sort of terms my hon. Friend indicated. I am prepared to have another talk with the T.U.C., but it must be understood by the House that that is without any commitment on my part that I shall find it possible to promote an Amendment in another place. I can give no commitment that I shall not at the end of that further discussion find insuperable the sort of difficulties which I have outlined in relation to the Bill. That does not mean that the door is closed for all time.

This is a very late stage to attempt something in present legislation. There would have to be far-reaching Amendments on adjudication and so forth. I cannot give any commitment about being able to amend the Bill, but I give an undertaking that I shall have another discussion with the T.U.C., putting to it the sort of points which I have put to the House, to see whether there may be anything which we could do in the Bill, without going as far as some of my hon. Friend's proposals would take us. I hope that the House will agree that that is a fair way to leave the matter at this stage. We are not, after all, concluding, with this Bill, all the battles for equality for women. We are only starting them.

Miss Quennell

I intervene briefly to ask the right hon. Lady whether she would have a sufficient staff of experienced actuaries in her Department to enable her to advise the councils arising from the consequences of the Amendment. One will only get equality of pensions in an actuarial sense and, therefore, the right hon. Lady will require actuaries. How many actuaries has the right hon. Lady tucked away under the table in her Department?

Mrs. Castle

There is obviously actuarial advice available to the Government as a whole. Quite clearly, other Departments are interested in the point raised by the Amendment. I repeat that discussions have gone on between Departments on whether it is possible to include pensions in the Bill and we have become bogged down in these difficulties. I repeat my offer to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth). I shall certainly talk about it with the T.U.C. again without commitment, and I hope that in the light of that my hon. Friend will withdraw his Amendment.

Mr. R. Carr

I agree with the right hon. Lady that it is obvious that we cannot come to a decision tonight. I agree with her, for example, that if we were simply to accept the hon. Gentleman's Amendment we should leave, as she put it, a total policy vacuum in the pensions field. Quite apart from that, it is also obvious that we have not yet given the matter enough thought to know what we would put into that vacuum. It is clear, therefore, that more thought is necessary.

The right hon. Lady almost chided the Committee—in the nicest way—for not having probed this enough in Committee. As it is the Opposition's job to probe in Committee stage, I take the chiding. But let me assure the right hon. Lady that I shall make quite sure that we do not make a similar mistake—because in the late Clauses hon. Members can get exhausted—and that there will be no such error in the late Clauses of the C.I.M. Bill which we have recently begun discussing.

Returning to the Amendment, the right hon. Lady said that she sympathises with its aim. So do I. The difficulties are admitted, and they are great, but I am sure that one day they must be overcome. I believe that the difficulties arise much more from past custom, practice and convention than from real difficulties. That means that because of the nature of pension schemes the difficulties, even when we see how to overcome them, cannot be overcome on anything like the time scale upon which equal pay can be achieved. That has to be admitted.

What I am nervous about—this is no party point—is that we all know in this House that when we have had a Bill on one subject it may be a very long time, whichever Government is in power, before we have another Bill on the same subject. I am nervous that if we let this Bill get on the Statute book it may be a long time before we make a begin- ning on the subject again. This is the trouble with a difficult problem, particularly one which is enshrined in custom, convention and practice, and there is a considerable amount of inertia to overcome before one can get down to a solution. I have a hankering for getting into this Bill somehow before we leave it some Clause—even if it is only an enabling Clause without dates fixed—which is both a prod and a power to a future Secretary of State to get this going without the whole paraphernalia of complete new legislation. We cannot do it in this place, but there are occasions—I shall not be controversial about this—when another place is valuable.

We cannot ask the right hon. Lady to make a commitment. She has said that she will think about it, and I am sure that she will. I ask her to bear in mind that if we do not have something in the Bill, even if it is rather indefinite, without a fixed date, something which is an enabling power, we may be leaving a vacuum, in a different sense from the way in which she used the word, and one which will not be filled for far too long.

Mr. Booth

In view of the undertaking given by my right hon. Friend to discuss this matter with the T.U.C. without any commitment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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