HC Deb 15 March 1974 vol 870 cc630-8

4.0 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising a question already mentioned in the Gracious Speech—the desirability of establishing equality of status for women in our society. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) on her appointment as Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and I hope that she will give an early indication that the order in which the items appear in the Gracious Speech is in no sense the order in which they will be dealt with in the course of this Session. There is no excuse whatever for further delay and procrastination in this matter.

The words used in the Gracious Speech can mean anything or nothing, as much or as little as one cares to make of them. They refer to proposals for securing equal status for women. My hon. Friend knows that the spadework on this question has already been done. The evidence of discrimination against women has been produced ad nauseam by Select Committee, by the presentation of Bills in Parliament and by debates. Successive Governments have, however, refused to act, and the present Government may not last their five-year term, so in that sense time may not be on our side.

For these reasons the Government must act quickly in this matter, to which I and many other people throughout the country attach a great deal of importance. The Government will be under ceaseless pressure from me and from others unless they inject a certain urgency into the matter.

The last Government's record was dismal, dishonest and procrastinating. Their consultative document, "Equal Opportunities for Men and Women" was a wishy-washy affair, severely criticised by all sections of the community on an all-party basis for its limited objectives, its many unfounded assumptions, its lack of adequate enforcement procedure and its list of exceptions and loopholes.

I am aware that in an Adjournment debate it is not in order to anticipate or suggest legislation, and to that extent I am restricted somewhat in what I can say, but a few facts which are on the record will be enough to drive the message home to the Government. I know that my hon. Friend is not at the Department which deals with some of the problems, but no doubt she will convey my views to the appropriate Minister.

First, the Equal Pay Act must be virtually fully effective by the end of 1975, but despite the last Government's assurances many women suspect that progress is still far too slow. Figures which have been quoted, taken from the Department of Employment's new earnings survey in April 1973, showed that the average gross weekly earnings of women, excluding overtime and full-time manual workers, were £19 compared with £31.9 for men. For full-time non-manual workers, the figures were £24.4 for women and £46.7 for men. Female manual workers earned on average 49p an hour compared with '79p an hour for male manual workers. Female manual workers were earning 66p an hour against £1.22 for men. More than 2 million women in full-time employment earned less than £20 a week, including overtime.

When one remembers that there are more than 8½ million women workers—about two-fifths of the total working force—one realises how grossly exploited are these women. Unfortunately, only about 2½ million women are in trade unions affiliated to the TUC. Although women represent one-quarter of the total TUC membership and 17 trade unions have more women members than men, the officials are not in the same proportion. There are few women officials in trade unions in proportion to the number of workers involved.

The complete programme outlined in the Gracious Speech can be implemented only if there is a vast increase in the availability and the wise and efficient use of our human and natural resources. I was glad to hear the Minister refer in the previous debate to investment in education. Investment in human beings is probably more important than investment in machinery and plant, and women—especially married woman—will become an increasingly important part of our work force. All the projections indicate that. Women are not prepared to be, and must not be treated any longer as, second-class citizens. I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services when she said this morning that women would be treated equally for pensions purposes. That is just as important as equality in pay and educational opportunities.

I want an assurance from the Minister that—despite the wording in the Queen's speech—the recommendations in the Labour Party's comprehensive Green Paper will be fully implemented, partly within the framework of the Budget that will be produced in a week or two's time, partly within the Department of Health and Social Security, the Education Department and the Home Office and, above all, within an Act—which women of all political persuasions are demanding—which will include machinery of enforcement available to them as women.

In view of the events of the last two or three days, I take this opportunity to correct the gross distortions which have appeared in the Press of what I said about nurses in a casual conversation a day or two ago with a Lobby correspondent. I apportion no blame to the correspondent for what was subsequently published in the Press. Its treatment of my remarks was outrageously unfair, and as dishonest as were many of the headlines and forecasts in the recent election campaign. We have got used to that kind of distortion. I am not responsible for newspaper reports, still less am I responsible for the headlines which were used and which bore no resemblance to what I said.

As I have said before, I do not believe all the romantic nonsense that is put forward about nurses being angels or modern Florence Nightingales. Neither do I believe all the rest of the sentimental gush that we all tend to use as an alternative to paying living wages to men and women in the nursing profession—men and women with the weaknesses and the strengths that we all have.

For more than 30 years I have had the greatest regard for the nursing profession. Ever since I first came to this House 24 years ago I have campaigned actively on behalf of its members and I shall continue to do so, as I shall for all the other ancillary staff in the National Health Service.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) refer in his maiden speech to the grossly underpaid ancillary staff in the health service, especially women. In the course of the election campaign the miners were regarded as a special case, as they were. But so, too, are nurses. If we had a referendum on the basis that nurses' pay should be doubled, there is no doubt what the result would be. There would be 100 per cent. in favour of doubling or even trebling the pay of our nurses.

Last Wednesday there was an advertisement in a daily newspaper requiring staff nurses in Chicago, Illinois. The advertisement spoke of a starting salary of £275 per month, with luxurious accommodation available at exceedingly low cost and with many other benefits provided, including assisted passage if required. In this country a staff nurse gets about £26 a week, or £100 a month. That is roughly £1,200 a year, and that has to be compared with a starting salary in the States of £275 a month.

The Minister knows that on 1st April hospital canteen prices are to go up by 50 per cent. as compared with a year ago. When the Department was pressed on this matter, its spokesman was reported as saying that a nurse eating only basic food would have to pay about £4 a week after 1st April. He went on to claim that at the same time the salary for the lower grade nurse would go up by £117 a year. But, even with that increase, it means that a young girl possibly away from home for the first time in her life will be earning £16 a week out of which she will have to pay £4 for her food alone in the hospital.

The present Government have stated specifically that they intend to redistribute the wealth of the nation, to set up permanent machinery to deal with relativities—that is to say the relative importance of one job to another—and to introduce selective food subsidies. These are a few of the basic principles upon which we fought the election.

I suggest that the Minister should convey to the appropriate Departments the need to redistribute the wealth of the nation in the direction of our women workers and that we should be tackling such matters as progress towards equal pay and equal opportunities for women in education, in employment, in credit facilities, in mortgages and the rest, as well as those matters contained in the previous Government's consultative document.

I have tabled a Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment suggesting that he refers nurses' pay to the Relativities Board in the same way as the miners' pay was a week or two ago. Last night, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection referred to selective food subsidies. I suggest that she starts with hospital canteens. I have a Question down to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services asking that an immediate directive should go to our hospitals that these price increases shall not be imposed in hospital canteens on 1st April.

Meanwhile, I ask all nurses to treat with contempt the headline screeching of the Press in recent days which has sought to distract attention from the real campaign in which I and others intend to indulge whatever Government may be in power.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some assurances in these directions. Fears have been expressed by various women's organisations to me and no doubt to others that the Government may be engaged in an exercise of procrastination. Time is not on our side. It is important that legislation should be produced. All the evidence is in the hands of Government Departments. Presumably, all the consultations have been engaged in and all the comments of outside bodies have been received. Legislation should be ready. I hope that we shall soon have it put before the House.

4.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on the speed and ingenuity with which he has managed to raise the subject of equal status for women so early in the life of this Parliament.

My hon. Friend knows that I am by no means unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to the matters that he has raised, and they form an appropriate subject for my first appearance at the Dispatch Box on this side of the House.

I was one of the sponsors of my hon. Friend's Anti-Discrimination Bill. For two years I had the honour to be the United Kingdom delegate to the United Nations Status of Women Commission. I was also a member of the Labour Party's study group, which examined the whole question of discrimination against women and published far-reaching proposals in a Green Paper in November 1972.

It should be recalled that a Labour Government introduced the Equal Pay Act and that this Government are now committed, in the words of the Gracious Speech, to proposals for securing equal status for women. Naturally, I am delighted to have been given the special responsibility, working under my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, for action to achieve equal status for women. It is clear that the political and social climates are now ripe for progress in this sphere.

My hon. Friend has played an important part in creating the climate of opinion that now exists. His persistent and ingenious Parliamentary Questions and his own Bill have made him a formidable champion of women's rights, which is a rare thing among men. Millions of women have cause to be grateful to him.

I should specifically mention and give credit to three other parliamentary champions: my hon. Friends the Members for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) and Newark (Mr. Bishop) and Lady Seear in another place.

This afternoon my hon. Friend has raised many and varied issues. I assure him that I have noted the specific points raised which fall directly within the responsibility of many other Ministers and I will ensure that these points are brought to their attention. I am in close consultation and touch with the Departments concerned on all subjects relating to women's status and opportunity which jointly concern us.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for co-ordinating progress in removing the legal disabilities of women and for initiating measures concerned with equal status.

In this connection, I have pleasure in informing my hon. Friend and the House that our firm aim is to introduce our own proposals before the end of the year, and high priority is being attached to this intention.

I should like to indicate our approach to this whole issue. We recognise that for far too long there has been one group in Britain—not a minority group, but a small majority of the population—which has been subject to unequal and unfair treatment both by law and by custom. This cannot and should not be allowed to persist. The Government are, therefore, pledged to enhance the dignity and independence of women by establishing a more genuine freedom of choice for education, in training, at work, in private or public life. We recognise that this will also require fundamental changes in attitudes. It will require changes of attitude on the part of those who have authority in various walks of life—employers, trade unionists, educationalists, and the Government themselves. It will also require changes of attitude on the part of women themselves who must be positively encouraged to take up newly available opportunities.

The Government cannot entirely abolish prejudice and discrimination, but they can create a climate of opinion in which these things find it harder to flourish and survive. The Government's protection of human rights will contribute not only to women's progress, but also to total human progress. This is our broad approach but, as is inevitable when the aim is to bring about far-reaching changes both in attitudes and in conduct, many of the issues for decision are complex.

Even in employment, education and training, which are perhaps the most documented areas of all, there are still conflicting views among those who agree with the ends about the means. There is the report of our own study group, the report of the Select Committees of each House in the last Parliament on the private Members' Anti-Discrimination Bills, and there are the previous Government's proposals in their consultative document "Equal Opportunities for Men and Women". We received comments from 1,000 individuals and 300 organisations on these, and the comments were by no means unanimous. They came from women's organisations, industry, educational bodies, professional bodies and political parties. One important fact which emerged was that in the overwhelming majority of comments there was support for the introduction of sex-discrimination legislation, and we are giving careful consideration to the manner in which this is to be carried out.

In the vitally important field of education, there is the study being undertaken by Her Majesty's inspectors into the extent to which curricular difficulties and customs contribute to unequal opportunities for boys and girls in education. The first results of that study have been received and are being analysed, and I am aware of the extreme importance of the educational aspect in this matter of equal status for women.

In higher education, discussions have taken place with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, and the University Grants Committee has obtained evidence on university admission practices. A memorandum has recently been submitted by the Vice-Chancellor's Committee. I assure my hon. Friend that all this material is being studied urgently and that it is receiving high priority.

I assure my hon. Friend and the House of the Government's earnest intentions and sincerity in this matter. I can do no better than quote a recent public speech by my right hon. Friend before he became Home Secretary when he said: Women are subject to treatment, by law and custom, which is not equal, which cannot and should not be allowed to persist, and the elimination of which will be one of the most important issues of the politics of the next decade. My right hon. Friend's phrase ended there, but in my personal capacity I assure my hon. Friend that the elimination of this unequal treatment will be one of the most—if not the most—important issues which I shall be tackling until proposals can be brought before the House by the end of the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Four o'clock