HC Deb 14 December 1973 vol 866 cc907-12

3.43 p.m.

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I beg to move, That this House, regretting the slow progress towards the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and the Government's refusal to activate section 9 of the Act, calls upon the Government to remove the restrictions to future progress which have been imposed by the Government's Incomes Policy, Stage Three. I have been talking in the House about equal pay for the past nine years, and I have noticed a slow improvement in the general atmosphere and climate of opinion on the subject. When I first used to mention it, for some reason it was a subject of amusement to hon. Members, not only to hon. Members opposite but, I regret to say, to hon. Members on this side of the House; but gradually, over the years, it has been taken more seriously.

The history is extremely long. More than three-quarters of a century ago, in 1888, the Trade Union Congress passed its famous resolution on equal pay, and I think that it has been passing similar resolutions every year since. Political parties have paid lip service to equal pay for women for many years and included it in their election programmes.

The industrial action of the women at Fords, which is now a famous milestone in the history of women's struggle for equality brought home to politicians and Members of Parliament not only the strength of the purpose among women who want the rate for the job, but the fact that they are indispensable to industry. That handuful of women who were employed stitching the covers of car seats were able to halt the whole export drive at Fords. They played a small but vital part in production. The Minister of the day had to go and talk to these women, uging them to resume work so that our export drive would not be seriously affected.

Finally, I am proud to say that it was a Labour Government who introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1970. This made it the legal responsibility of the Government of the day to see that equal pay was implemented by the end of 1975 There are about 9½ million women working in this country, 5½ million full time. They make up 38 per cent. of the labour force. It is now three years since the Equal Pay Act was put on the statute book. On the last day of October we had the findings of the new earnings survey of the Minister's Department. This revealed a shameful situation in view of the fact that the Act has been on the statute book for three years.

It revealed that the average weekly earnings from men in full-time work, including overtime, is now over £40 a week while the comparable figure for women is only £23.10p. This enormous gap is difficult to understand if the Act is being implemented. A few weeks before that a survey was carried out by the Institute of Administrative Management, which showed that the practical implementation of the Act is as far off as ever and that during the last year in some instances there has been a move away from rather than towards equal pay.

Is this gap because the Act has not been enforced or because women's jobs are paid at women's rates? Here I refer to the jobs that women are doing and men are not doing. We all know that there are jobs reserved for women which inevitably have low rates of pay. They are unattractive to men. So we have the two sections among the women's working force—those who are doing the same jobs as men, or their equivalent, and those who are doing women's jobs. Whatever interpretation is placed upon this gap it seems that nine in 10 women were not being paid the rate for the job when the Act was brought in. I want to know the proportion of women not being paid the rate for the job now, particularly in view of these figures.

The Government profess that through their incomes policy they want to help the low paid. But the low paid are the women, as these figures show. How can any incomes policy be fair if it clearly relies on the exploitation of a third of the labour force, as revealed by the figures in the earnings survey? Whom do we blame for the non-implementation of the Act? No doubt to some extent we could blame the trade unions for not urging its enforcement. To some extent we could blame the employers. But it is the Government's duty to see that the Act is enforced and it is the Government whom I primarily blame for this state of affairs.

In many countries there is a theoretical Equal Pay Act on the statute book, but often it is not enforced. I do not want this country to join those countries which feel that they have done their duty by legislating but are not bothering to implement the legislation.

The history of the Government's attitude to the Equal Pay Act is not attractive. It is three years since the Government had the opportunity to implement it. We have urged them again and again to introduce an interim order, which is possible under Section 9 of the Act, which would have made it possible by the end of this month for women to be paid 90 per cent. of the men's rates. Women's organisations, the trade unions and we in this House have urged the introduction of an interim order, but because of stage 2 of the stubborn incomes policy this is being refused.

We are now faced with stage 3 of the incomes policy, and again the Equal Pay Act will be affected, because it interferes with collective bargaining. It will prevent free negotiation of equal pay before the end of 1974. It will also prevent implementation of long-term phased collective bargaining agreements already providing for the achievement of equal pay in 1974. Therefore, it will interfere with what is already in progress.

Ironically, a few weeks ago, with a great flourish of trumpets, the Government introduced their consultative document on equal opportunities. But the basic discrimination against women is the economic one. We are told that the consultative document is an essential complement of the Equal Pay Act and is based upon the Act. It does not give much hope for implementation of any successful legislation if it is based on an Act which is clearly not being implemented as it should be.

I ask the Minister of State to answer three questions in the time available to him. Does he claim that there has been progress towards equal pay, in view of the shameful figures revealed in his earnings survey? If he does, how does he equate equal pay with the gap in earnings? Does he think that if the Act had not existed the gap would have been even greater than it is? Secondly, will he issue a second report on progress on the Act through the Office of Manpower Economics, because the first report was vague and unsatisfactory? Thirdly, can he confidently assure the House that the Equal Pay Act will be fully implemented by the end of 1975? If he can, how does he intend to ensure that it is implemented?

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. R. Chichester-Clark)

The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) has set me quite a task. In other circumstances I might well have welcomed a longer debate to clear up the many points she has raised. I acknowledge at once her long interest in this matter. Apart from certain references in the Queen's Speech and at Question Time there has been little opportunity for a debate on this subject in the last few months, so I welcome even this truncated discussion.

Despite the terms of the motion, which bear a little investigation, it is gratifying that this is not a party political issue. I certainly accept, as the hon. Lady implied, that there is unqualified support on both sides of the House for the Act. The Government are behind it and there is no retracting from that position. I have made that position clear at this Box on many occasions.

I do not share the hon. Lady's pessimism as to the timing of the fulfilment of the Act. She will realise that I shall be unable to answer all her questions this afternoon and shall have to communicate with her in some other manner, which I hope will get as much publicity as her speech this afternoon will receive.

The hon. Lady made great play of the New Earnings Survey. She pointed out that—ostensibly—the difference between women's and men's earnings had widened in absolute terms. It is not the aim of the Equal Pay Act to equalise men's and women's earnings regardless of the work they do. Progress has been made in national agreements towards bringing men's and women's rates of pay closer together. In spite of what the hon. Lady said, the progress is reflected in the New Earnings Survey. Between April 1972 and April 1973, as in the corresponding period of 1971–72, average weekly and hourly earnings of women increased relatively more than those of men, both among manual and non-manual workers, when the effect of increased overtime working on the weekly earnings of manual men is discounted.

Between April 1972 and April 1973 weekly earnings, excluding overtime for manual men, increased by 15.1 per cent. The corresponding figure for women's earnings is 16.2 per cent. Similarly, the weekly earnings for non-manual men, excluding overtime, increased by 12.8 per cent., whilst women's earnings increased by 13.7 per cent.

The hon. Lady, perfectly understandably, mentioned the survey of the Institute of Administrative Management, to which her distinguished relative referred in another place in a recent speech on the Gracious Speech. The hon. Lady said that the report showed that the gap between men's and women's rates in the higher grades of office workers had widened by between £27 and £70 a year in the 12 months to March 1973. I cannot deny that, but I stress that from that one cannot draw the conclusion that progress towards equal pay is not being made. It has to be remembered that a greater proportion of women than of men are employed in jobs in the lower earning bracket, even in the higher grades of office workers. If a small number of very senior staff obtain more substantial increases, the differential between men's and women's pay is likely to widen, and that may well have happened.

However, it is not the aim of the Equal Pay Act to equalise the men's and women's rates regardless of the work they do; it is to give equal pay where women are employed on the same or broadly similar work as men, or where particular jobs have been given an equal value under a job evaluation scheme.

The hon. Lady is of course aware that women are not yet to be found in large numbers in the comparatively better paid jobs traditionally associated with men. She referred to this when she spoke about equal opportunities. There are several reasons for this, including the unreasonable reluctance of some employers to employ women. We all know that that is so and it is no good trying to dodge it. There are also the limits which women themselves set on their objectives, and the general social attitude——

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.