HC Deb 01 May 1973 vol 855 cc1004-7

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 9 of the Equal Pay Act 1970. The amendment which I propose is short, simple, severely limited in its scope, and narrow in its purpose, but its effect would be in accord with the aims of the TUC, a host of women's organisations and millions of the working women whom they represent.

Section 9 of the Equal Pay Act gives the Secretary of State for Employment the power to introduce an order requiring partial implementation of the Act by the end of this year. Although hard pressed to do so—certainly from this side of the House often and by organisations outside Parliament—the Secretary of State so far has stubbornly and persistently refused to exercise that power. I believe that discretion in this matter should now be taken away from the Secretary of State and that he should be required to lay the order so that Parliament, not the Government, should exercise judgment about the need and wisdom of such a course.

That is the simple purpose of the Bill that I ask the House to consider.

The reasons why I think this should be done are twofold. First, the House will be well aware that the Equal Pay Act is intended to abolish discrimination between men and women, as regards terms and conditions of employment, not later than the end of 1975. It was not the intention of Parliament, and certainly not the intention of those who brought that measure before the House, that action to achieve that objective should be deferred until that date. The five-year period of implementation was carefully and deliberately chosen to allow employers progressively to adjust to the extra cost burden. Section 9 was, therefore, put into the Act so that the Secretary of State could ensure that the principle was put into practice.

The Secretary of State may, in accordance with the provisions of Section 9, introduce an interim order requiring the objectives of the Act to be at least 90 per cent. fulfilled by the end of this year if he is not satisfied that orderly progress is being achieved. I emphasise those words because they are the only criterion laid down in the Act. The Government say that orderly progress is being made— the Under-Secretary nods in agreement— and to support that contention they rely on the report published last year by the Office of Manpower Economics. But that report revealed that women's average hourly earnings, excluding overtime pay, were less than 64 per cent. of those of men.

For women manual workers it was just over 61 per cent.—again, hourly earnings exclusive of overtime pay. For non-manual workers the comparison is even worse, with women averaging as low as 53 per cent, of men's earnings. There was a differential of more than 20 per cent. between the minimum rates for male and female manual workers in nearly a quarter of the companies covered by the report. Of course, these figures relate to the latter part of 1971, but they are, presumably, the latest available comparisons. I have no evidence of any subsequent significant improvement.

I believe that about two weeks ago there was sent to every Member a memorandum from the National Joint Committee of Working Women's Organisations, a serious and highly respected body. It said that after almost three years since the Equal Pay Act was put on the Statute Book the majority of women are still neither receiving equal pay, nor is there orderly progress towards equal pay for them. The most optimistic forecasts suggest that, on performance to date, even if the equal pay concessions in the Government's pay code are exploited to the full, women's average hourly earnings by the end of this year are unlikely to reach 75 per cent. of those of men—a long way short of the target of the Equal Pay Act.

There is one other equally serious aspect of the equal pay issue that needs to be tackled, and would be dealt with by this Bill. There are widespread and growing allegations—well founded I believe—that some employers are deliberately rigging their pay structures to frustrate the aims of the Act. There is abundant evidence that this evasion is being actively encouraged by employers' associations. The GME Report—on which rests the Government's case for inaction— observed that Employers' associations exert a crucial influence on the pace at which equal pay is introduced. That is remarkably restrained language in view of some of the guidance that has been issued. The Engineering Employer's Federation, for example, advises its members that Where job evaluation is used it may be possible to minimise the effect of equal pay by changing the work content of jobs so that re-evaluation is justified. Alternatively the withdrawal of men or women from certain jobs may limit the scope for parity claims. A further gem of guidance from the same source is that member firms must keep the domestic male unskilled rate as low as possible to avoid unnecessarily increasing the costs of equal pay. In other words, one cheats the low-paid women by cheating the low-paid men.

I know of one case where a group of severely handicapped men—who are consequently in an extremely weak bargaining position—are being deliberately pushed into a lower position in their factory pay structure because they are being used as the basis of comparison for equal pay. This is fiddling of a particularly despicable kind. We should condemn it—not least should the Government, who have insisted so firmly of late that Parliament's laws must be observed.

The Act, however, can provide' a remedy. Once it becomes operative, not only will aggrieved persons have a right to submit their cases to the industrial tribunals, but there will be a right to have discriminatory pay structures and collective agreements examined and adjudicated upon by the Industrial Arbitration Board.

As things stand at present, these remedies cannot be obtained until 1975, but the consequential effect of the Bill which I am submitting to the House would redress that situation. The order that the Government would be required to put before Parliament would, automatically, through its activitation of Section 9, give access to the board and the tribunals. Unless and until that is done the abuses and the fiddling will continue, and the will of Parliament will be contemptuously ignored by too many employers for another two years.

If, in conclusion, I refer yet again to the OME Report it is only because the Government have chosen to rest their case upon it. The report says that ignorance of the Act is widespread; in many cases managements are either unaware of its existence or know nothing of its contents. It says that the Act is not being effectively implemented, and concludes by saying the later it is left to plan the introduction of equal pay the more intractable the problems are likely to be". The Bill which I seek to put before the House is the only effective response to the spirit of those words; it will provide a speedy means of cracking down on employers intent on cheating women of the gains which Parliament offered them; and it will offer millions of working women a measure of justice which has for too long been deferred.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harold Walker, Mrs. Doris Fisher, Mr. Denis Howell, Dr. Shirley Summerskill, Dame Joan Vickers, Mrs. Renée Short, Mr. Kenneth Lomas, Mrs. Joyce Butler, Mrs. Shirley Williams, Miss Joan Lestor, Mr. Reg Prentice and Mrs. Barbara Castle.


Bill to amend Section 9 of the Equal Pay Act 1970; presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon 20th July and to be printed. [Bill 122.]