HC Deb 12 December 1973 vol 866 cc421-4

3.48 p.m.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it unlawful to provide occupational pensions to male workers on terms, including the scale of contributions, the vesting period and the date of entitlement, in any way different from those offered to female workers. The Government issued a consultative paper in September of this year. The initial response to the paper was summarised by a Guardian article which said that there were attractive political reasons for the Government to present a consultative paper on equal rights for women. The article suggested that the Government were perhaps trying to recoup the loss of support from women who had been taken in by the "at a stroke" promise of the last General Election.

The Government have been pushed into this position by heavy pressure from hon. Members over the years. In the foreword to the paper, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary says that over 52 per cent. of the population are women and that to enable them to play a full part in the life of the country, and to remove the barriers which prevent them from doing so, are the objectives of the paper. The objectives of the paper are as follows: to widen the range of opportunities to women; to help to remove unfair discrimination against women in such important areas as employment and training…". Paragraph 2.5 states that the first objective——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Conversations between hon. Members are making it difficult for me to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Michael Cocks).

Mr. Cocks

Paragraph 2.5 says that there should be equal access to potential benefits and paragraph 2.8 says: the Government does not believe that it is necessary to require occupational pension schemes to provide benefits for women and men on the same basis…". It is that which my Bill is seeking to correct. There have been a number of comments received by the Government on the consultative document. The National Labour Women's Advisory Committee said: It is difficult to see how equal access to potential benefits is to apply if women are to be excluded from equal rights in occupational pension schemes…". Another comment, submitted by the General and Municipal Workers' Union, states: We have always viewed pensions as 'deferred pay' and therefore we regard the exclusion of women from occupational schemes as being an intolerable barrier to their claim of access to all 'potental benefits'. Neither the Social Security Act nor the Equal Pay Act requires equal treatment. They seem intent on continuing to encourage discrimination over pensions in this forthcoming legislation.

What is the female labour force to make of this? I cannot help feeling that women will be suspicious——

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Hon. Members


Mr. Cocks

—of a Government who are prepared to remove protective legislation in the name of equality to "expose" them to equal access to potential benefits but who do not require employers to include them on an equal basis in pension schemes.

When we probe beneath the surface of the Government's new interest in equal rights, we find that instead of challenging entrenched prejudices, a major effort is being made to remove any obstacles to the short-term exploitation of female labour. Instead of accepting the long-term rights of working women, the Government seem to be accepting the discredited and outmoded idea that a woman is ultimately provided for by her husband, ignoring the position of the unmarried and of young widows, and also, by implication, supporting the excuse that has kept women's earnings at an abysmal level for so many years. They also deny and ignore the valuable contribution that women make throughout their working lives to the industrial and commercial life of the country. It is ridiculous that such women, on reaching retirement age, should have to adopt a position of dependence.

The country cannot have it both ways. We cannot encourage women to go into the labour force by offering treatment on an equal basis with men and then suddenly withdraw support for this principle from women when they reach the end of their working lives. This is cynical, callous, treatment that makes a mockery of equality. Either the Government are serious about social justice or they are not. If not, they should cut out this pose of being interested in women's rights.

Occupational pension schemes should offer equal access to all workers and benefits should be paid on a pro rata basis. Equal contributions should yield equal benefits. Equal rewards for equal service are esential. This will mean the equalisation of contributions and benefits, equal dates of entry to schemes, and the preservation of accrued benefits over a period when a woman may leave—perhaps to have a child. If and when she then returns to work, contributions paid in the earlier period should count towards pension. At the moment they are often lost.

The fact that women tend to live longer than men is no justification for discriminatory treatment. White collar workers tend to live longer than manual workers, but nobody has suggested that this should lead to white collar workers being discriminated against. Indeed, the reverse is usually the case, because they not only get better pensions when they retire but they live longer to enjoy them.

It should be unlawful for an employer's pension scheme to be calculated on the assumption of a longer life span for women. It should be possible for both men and women, when they retire, to receive pro rata pensions based on equal contributions for equal pensions.

The Government can make a start by ensuring that public sector pensions are set on the basis of equality. In asking that such schemes be made unlawful if they practise discrimination through exclusion or unequal benefits, all that we are asking for is a consistent policy on equal rights. I ask the Government to bring this policy into their thinking and to cease to devalue the principle of equal rights by callously selective application.

The Government's attitude to the Bill will show the country how serious they are in their efforts to do something about women's rights after extremely heavy pressure from hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Michael Cocks, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Miss Betty Boothroyd, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. James Johnson, Mr. A. E. P. Duffy, Mr. Michael English, Mr. William Rodgers, Mr. Brynmor John, Mr. David Clark and Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick.