HC Deb 18 June 1975 vol 893 cc1579-87
Mr. John Fraser

I beg to move Amendment No. 58, in page 29, line 12, after 'subsection', insert '(a)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

I understand that it would be for the convenience of the House to consider also Amendments Nos. 59, 89, 90 and 91.

Mr. Fraser

The first two amendments are to Clause 49, and the balance are to Schedule 6. It might be helpful if I first said a few words about the amendments to Schedule 6.

Schedule 6 lists the provisions of existing enactments which are to be repealed. When the Bill was being considered in Standing Committee an amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mr. Gilmour) which added to Schedule 6 amendments to sections of the Factories Act 1961, the Hours of Employment (Conventions) Act 1936, and the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, all with the intention of repealing the provisions which regulate the hours and days of employment of women and their employment on the maintenance and cleaning of moving machinery.

The Government amendments to Schedule 6 seek to remove the provisions which were added in Standing Committee, but I want to make it quite clear that the reason for doing so is not just to reverse a Government defeat in Committee. In view of the known strength of opinion both for and against the removal of these restrictions, the Government feel it necessary to take into consideration the views of the whole House. That is why these further amendments have been put down. There is as well the problem which I pointed out in Committee that the Opposition amendments had some technical defects.

Clause 49 relates to the duty placed on the Equal Opportunities Commission to keep under review, in consultation with the Health and Safety Commission, the relevant statutory provisions which require men and women to be treated differently. In Committee the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) felt that there was a danger that the provisions could be rendered ineffective unless the Equal Opportunities Commission was required to make proposals within a reasonable period of time. Although it is to be hoped that such a situation would not arise, the Government now accept that there is a case for taking steps to ensure that the intention of these provisions is realised. That is why we have tabled these amendments to Clause 49.

The amendments to Clause 49 seek to give the Secretary of State authority to require the EOC to make reports within a specified time on matters concerning the discriminatory relevant statutory provisions. The Government are determined to see that at least a first review of all the provisions involved will he completed by the end of 1978. I hope that the House will realise that this is a fairly important statement of intention about the review of the protective legislation. It involves an assurance of an intention to have the first review completed within about three years, and it involves a power by the Government to require the review to be made by the commission.

The Health and Safety Commission, which Clause 49 requires the EOC to consult, is subject already to the directions of the Secretary of State for Employment by virtue of the provisions of Section 12 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974, and one of these amendments puts the EOC in the same situation in respect of the protective legislation.

I turn now to the provisions which are the subject of the amendments to Schedule 6, the bulk of which are to be found in the Factories Act 1961. I deal first with the provisions which prohibit or restrict the employment of women on certain jobs when machinery is in motion.

Broadly speaking, Section 15 of the Factories Act provides that only males aged 18 and over are allowed to lubricate or adjust machinery where it is necessary to carry out these operations whilst the machinery is in motion. Section 20 prohibits women and young persons of either sex from cleaning prime movers or transmission machinery in motion and restricts their cleaning any part of a machine where there is a risk of injury from moving parts of machinery. The effect of the amendment carried in Committee is to remove the prohibitions and restrictions as they relate to women aged 18 and over.

I said in Committee that I thought that, as the question of working with moving machinery involved safety matters, it would be best left for the EOC's review, which would be in consultation with the Health and Safety Commission. However, I had some sympathy with the point made at the time by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham that it could not now be seriously argued that if women were capable of working with a machine they were not capable of cleaning or adjusting it.

I can now tell the House that the Government are considering the possibility of moving amendments very shortly in another place which will have the effect of enabling adult men and women to be treated equally with regard to jobs that can be done safely on moving machinery and, in addition, will apply equally to adult men and women any restrictions imposed because of risk of injury. This will involve some upgrading of the protection at present afforded to men. It is not intended to alter any existing prohibition or restriction on the employment of young persons on moving machinery.

However, we may be advised that it is not technically possible to accomplish all this under the Bill because of the involvement of health and safety legislation. Should that be the case, I undertake to request the Health and Safety Commission to arrange for an early review of the provisions in question.

I turn now to the restrictions on the hours of employment of women and young persons which are contained in Part VI of the Factories Act 1961. The amendment carried in Committee had the intention of retaining the restrictions on young persons, and on this point there is no argument. The legislation is complex, but, very generally, the effect of the provisions is that women cannot be employed in factories before 7 a.m. or after 8 p.m. or 1 p.m. on Saturday; the total hours worked must not exceed nine in any day or 48 in any week; overtime is limited; employment on Sunday is prohibited; and there are provisions about rest intervals.

12.30 a.m.

I am fully aware that there are strongly held views both for and against the removal of the restrictions on hours.

There are some who contend that the restrictions are out of date and deny to women the opportunities, for example of shift work or night work, which are open to men. Others maintain that the retention of some if not all of the restrictions is necessary for the protection of women in the light of their responsibilities to their families and in view of their relative lack of trade union organisation.

The Government came to the conclusion that, while there may be some restrictions which have outlived their original purpose, there must be a further full and independent study of each of the restrictive provisions. That is why we have placed a duty on the Equal Opportunities Commission, in consultation with the Health and Safety Commission, to review relevant statutory provisions—not only in the Factories Act—which require men and women to be treated differently.

I can bring the House up to date with the statistics about those covered by exemptions. Over the past tour years the number of people covered by special exemptions has increased from 170,000 to 209,000 and the number of women allowed to work at night has risen from 20,000 to 49,000.

I should like to refer briefly to the sections of the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 which are involved in the amendment. They restrict the hours of employment of women and young persons employed above ground at a mine or employed at a quarry. The provisions are similar to those of sections of the Factories Act. The amendment carried in Committee is defective in that it also removes the restrictions on young persons, which I am sure was not intended.

I hope that I have been able to demonstrate to the House that the Government are actively concerned with the restrictions on the employment of women. Indeed, in our consideration of the provisions relating to moving machinery and in our proposals to ensure an early review of the relevant statutory provisions by the EOC we have gone a long way to meet points made in Committee by hon. Members. I ask the House not to be too hasty and to think carefully before sweeping away all these provisions without any thought. I commend to the House that part of the editorial in The Guardian yesterday about this protective legislation in which it says of these women: They are the poorest, worst organised and most vulnerable people in the work force. Their factory work is only one of two jobs. Nearly all are also trying to bring up families, run homes and look after their husband's needs". I do not think we ought at a stroke to sweep away the protection given to them and based on the experience of many years. I ask the House to accept what I have said about the fact that we shall have the power to instruct the EOC to bring forward a review, that we contemplate a review period to the end of 1978 and that we shall try to amend immediately in another place the provisions of Sections 15 and 20 of the Factories Act. I hope that that goes a long way to meet what the Committee asked for and that both sides of the House can now reach accord on this and proceed on the basis of the Government amendments.

Mr. Alison

The proposals in these amendments are good in part. We cer- tainly welcome the undertakings given by the Minister about the cleaning, maintenance, adjustment of moving machinery and so on. Since women are already allowed to work such machines it would be ludicrous not to change the regulations. I am delighted that the Minister has arranged for the Government to move amendments to this effect in another place.

I must remind the House and the Minister of what the Governments White Paper said. It commented: Most women do low-grade jobs in a narrow range of industries and services for much lower rates of pay than unskilled men. Most of them are segregated into 'women's work'. Women do not have the same chances as men of training for skilled work or promotion. Proportionately five times as many boys as girls take up apprenticeships, and most of the girls are apprentices in hairdressing and manicure. It was precisely because of this sort of defect in opportunities for women in industry as much as in other sectors that the Bill with its many and varied clauses was brought forward.

The Bill was designed to grapple with this imbalance of opportunity and reward for women. Now the Government have effectively come along with an amendment which proposes—the barriers having been swept away by a majority of the Committee after serious consideration of the issues—to throttle the flow of women into those areas of opportunity for work from which they are currently excluded and where the rewards are much greater than in those sectors into which they are now segregated.

It is not into the ranks of lower-grade white-collar workers that women need a new opportunity to gain entry, because they already represent a majority of such workers. It is not into the ranks of clerks that women need an opportunity to gain entry. They already provide the majority of clerks as defined in the various employment categories. It is not into the ranks of salesmen, shop assistants, hairdressers or nurses that women need a fresh opportunity of entry. They already represent a majority in all of those employments.

It is into the ranks of skilled manual workers that women need opportunity of entry. Only 15 per cent of such employees are women. It is into the ranks of electrical or electronic workers, where there are high rewards and where dextrous manual skills are required, that women need the opportunity to gain entry. There are seven times as many men as women in electrical and electronics work. It is into the engineering and allied trades, with high rewards, and requiring the skills appropriate to many of the inherent capacities of women, that women should be encouraged to enter. There are 10 times as many men as women in the engineering and allied trades, and four times as many in the skilled metal trades.

It is entry into these sectors that the Government, with their amendment, have decided to postpone. Having introduced a reforming Bill, they have decided to postpone until the vague, uncertain activities of the Equal Opportunities Commission three years hence, in 1978, further chances for women to enter this promised land of skilled, highly rewarded work in factories.

Some people may feel that women need to be protected in respect of both hours and factory work in particular. But that feeling is not sustainable, with women accustomed to working all hours as nurses, and in view of their work in some factory conditions, doing exactly the same kind of shift system or late night hours. It is not sustainable to say that they should not work in factories anyway, because there are many exemptions in the Factories Acts which already enable them to work in laundries, food manufacturing premises of various sorts, and the textile industry.

The Government are now postponing for another three years entry into the plum jobs in the industrial sector, to which women are already admitted by exemptions and exceptions, and where they inherently possess many of the skills which men use, particularly for operations requiring dextrous manual skill. Why postpone it for another three years?

There is no risk to women here. They are used to working late hours as nurses, and to working as textile workers in factories. Having introduced a Bill designed to give women equal opportunities, the Government are now deliberately amending it to postpone this opportunity for women. It is a retrogressive step. The Committee was right to abolish these limitations by a majority of Members of all parties serving on it.

It is a great pity that the Government will not go as far in this respect as they have happily agreed to go in respect of work with moving machinery. I hope that they will reconsider the matter, and perhaps even make amendments in another place, as they are prepared to do in the matter of moving machinery.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I enter the debate briefly at this late hour to comment on the part of Schedule 6 referring to the hours of work for women in factories. The matter is not as straightforward as both Front Benches would have us believe. In my experience of the many engineering factories in which I worked, there is widespread abuse of the limitation of hours. When there have been rushes of production I have known women to be brought in on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. The windows are covered with curtains while the production lines run. I have known this to occur in factories in which I have worked and heard about it occurring at other factories.

Not all women who work in factories have families. Many are self-supporting and therefore the restrictions seem totally unfair. However, there is widespread abuse of them.

What will influence me to support my hon. Friend the Minister if there is to be a Division on the amendment are the motives behind wanting the facility for women to be able to work longer hours. Women are a source of cheap labour on the mass production assembly lines. The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) mentioned the number of women who work in the electronics industry. They are the only source of labour available to run the lines in that industry. Therefore, there is immense pressure for them to work all the hours God provides and to sweep away the limitations.

If it were left to some factory managements—of which I have been a part in some respects—they would not bother with the evening or twilight shift of women coming in to work from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. They would be only too happy to provide hours from 8 a.m., with all the overtime that was wanted, because there is an abundant source of labour that is fairly cheap. Many women are forced by circumstances to want to grap the extra time and the extra money it brings in.

We should not now sweep away the restrictions and give women a so-called "opportunity". Who will be getting the opportunity? It is a little more one-sided than the hon. Member for Barkston Ash would admit. I believe that in his heart he knows the motives behind this. I admit that there is widespread abuse. But there is no doubt that we need a period of time to sort out this matter, and three years is the minimum in which to do that.

Miss Richardson

I would hardly have agreed with the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) that it was entering a promised land to have the opportunity to work on an assembly line in the electronics industry. To me it certainly would not be that, but if some people want to do it they should be allowed to do it.

In Committee I voted with the Opposition to repeal the protective legislation. I now propose to support the Government. If the Government had then said what my hon. Friend the Minister has now said, I would have supported him at that time, because I feel that some of the protective legislation is out-dated. It needs to be examined. The Minister has now suggested that the whole range of the legislation will be looked at closely. That is perfectly satisfactory from my point of view. I go along happily with the fact that it will take three years to do that. With my hand on my heart, I shall now support what the Government are doing.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 59, in page 29, line 14, at end insert— `and (b) if so required by the Secretary of State, make to him a report on any matter specified by him which is connected with those duties and concerns the relevant statutory provisions. Any such report shall be made within the time specified by the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State shall cause the report to be published.'.—[Mr. John Fraser.]

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