HC Deb 16 October 1975 vol 897 cc1634-46

Lords amendment: No. 32, in page 34, line 20, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert— (2) The Commission shall prepare a report of their findings in any formal investigation conducted by them. (3) If the formal investigation is one required by the Secretary of State—

  1. (a) the Commission shall deliver the report to the Secretary of State, and
  2. (b) the Secretary of State shall cause the report to be published,
and unless required by the Secretary of State the Commission shall not publish the report. (4) If the formal investigation is not one required by the Secretary of State, the Com mission shall cither publish the report, or make it available for inspection in accordance with subsection (5). (5) Where under subsection (4) a report is to be made available for inspection, any person shall be entitled, on payment of such fee (if any) as may be determined by the Commission—
  1. (a) to inspect the report during ordinary office hours and take copies of all or any part of the report, or
  2. (b) to obtain from the Commission a copy, certified by the Commission to be correct, of the report.
(6) The Commission may if they think fit determine that the right conferred by subsection (5)(a) shall be exercisable in relation to a copy of the report instead of, or in addition to, the original. (7) The Commission shall give general notice of the place or places where, and the times when, reports may be inspected under subsection (5)."—[Mr. John Fraser.]

Read a Second time.

Mrs. Colquhoun

I beg to move, as an amendment to the Lords amendment, after subsection (2), insert— '(2A) Without prejudice to other matters that may be included in any reports of the findings in any formal investigation, the Commission shall include in each report a statement of their findings regarding the relevance of the matters so investigated to the operation of the Equal Pay Act 1970'. I hope that this amendment to Lords Amendment No. 32 will be acceptable to the Government. However, I do not expect it to be because I believe that they will follow the pattern that they established during the Committee stage of the Bill, when nearly every amendment to improve the Bill and to make it a Bill that had real meaning to women, was opposed by them and supported by Opposition Members. Where are those hon. Members today? Is it not about time that we televised the proceedings of the House so that the empty benches in the House of Commons would be revealed to the British nation? It can be truthfully said that the Government obtained consent for this basically bad Bill in a coalition between Labour and Conservative Members. It is interesting that the only real opposition to the Bill was that of the four Labour women Members of the Committee. I hope that this message will go out from the House to women who genuinely care about feminism.

On that basis alone this cannot be a good Bill. It is no good the Government constantly patting themselves on the back about it. There are vast areas of sexually discriminatory legislation—for example, pensions, taxation, and social security—which remain on the statute book.

It should be made clear that not all women have been deceived by the grandiose descriptions given to the Bill by some politicians. In particular, the Women's Liberation Movement does not share this House's general satisfaction with the Bill. Until the question of equality of treatment is dealt with, to talk of equal opportunities and about the ending of sex discrimination in society is both hypocritical and illusory.

Why do I and my hon. Friends believe that this amendment is important and significant? It is important because even at this late stage the amendment can go some way towards making the Equal Pay Act effective. Both measures are due to be implemented in 1975. The Equal Pay Act is to be fully implemented. Who better to monitor the workings of that Act than the Equal Opportunities Commission? It is an integral part of its job because there is no doubt that employers have found and are constantly finding ways and means of avoiding equal pay, for example by job evaluation schemes which place more importance on physical strength than on manual dexterity. However, many women's jobs have completely disappeared. One of the things that worries me about combating blatant discrimination under both these measures is that they combat only the blatant discrimination which results from and does not cause women's inequality. Legislation such as this will have only a limited effect on the rôles that women play in the economy.

5.15 p.m.

In the present serious economic situation, sexual rôles will, as in the past, be enforced even more strongly. There is no doubt that a clear sexual division of labour saves money for employers and the State, while fierce competition between men and women for a decreasing number of jobs weakens trade unions. There is no doubt also that sexual division of labour is at the root of women's inequality. Social conditioning maintains that division. Women today have two rôles to play in our economy. The first is that of housewife—unpaid labour. The second is that of cheap labour. In the words of the 1974 Government handbook, Women form the only substantial reserve which can be employed or dismissed with relative ease according to economic fluctuations More than half the women over 15 years of age go out to work and they receive approximately half the pay of men. The increase in the labour force over the past 15 years is accounted for by married women in unskilled and semiskilled jobs. If, for example, they received unemployment benefit in their own right or earned the same as men, a massive redistribution of income would be needed. I suspect that that massive redistribution will not happen unless we monitor the effects of the Equal Pay Act.

Far from working for pin money, in 19 per cent. of the households women are the main breadwinners and it is essential that the Equal Opportunities Commission should monitor what will happen to women when the Equal Pay Act becomes fully operative. It would be unthinkable that that Commission should not do so. I cannot understand why it should be necessary at this late stage to table an amendment such as this, and why those who drafted the Bill did not think about this aspect in the first place and table a similar amendment.

The Equal Opportunities Commission must have some such rôle to begin the important work that this House hopes will end discrimination. The Commission will be able to examine the trade unions and what they are doing about fighting for equal pay for their women members. It can look further into the blatant male chauvinist prejudice on the part of employers and even on the part of some members of trade unions. It will be able to issue reports and will have the people and machinery to do the job. Today, Parliament can give that Commission this job by law.

For far too long women in our society have been big business to employers. It will be a new departure to monitor closely and carefully an Act of Parliament, for more often than not Acts of Parliament are legislated for and then forgotten. It would be tragic if that happened over the Equal Pay Act because 44 per cent. of all women who work are single, separated or widowed.

I commend this amendment to the House and to the Government. I hope that the Government will not say that it is implicit that the Equal Opportunities Commission has the power to do this job. For once, let us write the powers in so that that Commission knows what its job is. At the end of the day let there be a reconciliation between the Government and the women members of the Standing Committee. I hope that during the last stages of the Bill the Government will have the dignity, the civility and the good common sense to accept what is, after all, a logical amendment.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I wish to give my warm support to the amendment to the Lords amendment, because it has merit. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) that the Bill is totally bad. I have in the course of a number of speeches said many nasty things about the Bill, but I believe that it is a good Bill at the end of the day, the best that we could have secured in the circumstances.

I should have been much happier if the Government had accepted all our amendments. However, they have gone some way towards meeting us by noting some suggestions which we made in the form of an amendment on Report in another place. I am very grateful for that.

I am pleased—I think that I speak for my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) in this respect—that the Bill has reached this stage and is about to go on to the statute book because, limited though it is, it will do much to improve the general status of women.

I welcome the extended provisions of Clause 47 which I believe arise directly from an amendment which we tabled on Report in this House. I am grateful to the Government for having taken up that amendment.

The amendment to the Lords amendment has merit because, although the Equal Opportunities Commission is making formal investigations and although the Government may say that what we seek to achieve is implicit, anyway it would be sensible to make it explicit that the Commission will have the job also of monitoring the Equal Pay Act.

We all know that the provisions of the Equal Pay Act by itself, without the sex discrimination legislation, and laudable though the intentions are of the Equal Pay Act are being evaded and have been evaded since 1970. Employers have been getting round the Act. They have been regrading staff. They have been creating new unisex grades into which to push women who were previously in a different grade so as to pay them less than men who do similar work.

Conditions of employment have been deliberately, almost insidiously, changed over the past few years, often in a way which the women themselves do not appreciate, so that the provisions of the Equal Pay Act shall be evaded. Jobs have been reclassified. I know of many cases where male members of staff have been promoted, perhaps unnecessarily and not on merit, simply because of the firm's desire to avoid complying with the provisions of the Act.

With the Equal Pay Act coming into full operation at the end of 1975, what better opportunity is there to see how the Act is working and whether some of the bigger private enterprise firms are operating it as it should be operated? As the opportunity will be afforded to the EOC to look into the matter when it is making a formal investigation, we should wherever appropriate lay upon the Commission the duty of carrying out this monitoring. I hope that the Government will consider the amendment in the spirit in which it is intended. Our only intention is to make the Act as workable and as strong as possible.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As a male chauvinist beast I should like to add at least one fairly deep voice to the outcry which has emerged from our benches. I am desperately in favour of equal pay and against sex discrimination. Equally, I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) that this is a Bill cooked up by those who wish to see women sent back to the kitchens for ever.

The Bill is a perfectly sensible start and, if it works properly, it can do much good. My worry is whether it will work as the promoters of the Bill hope that it will. I support the amendment to the Lords amendment because I think we are all entitled to see as often and as clearly as possible how the legislation is working in practice.

I have two major worries. The first is that the effect of the Bill in the main will depend upon a complaints procedure that will be operated through industrial tribunals. It is right that these informal tribunals should deal with this territory along with unfair dismissals, employment protection, maternity pay, redundancy pay, and so on.

It is wrong that those who wish to obtain rights under these various enactments should not have the benefit of legal aid. Unless a woman who seeks to enforce her rights and fights her employer has a pretty tough union behind her she is very greatly disadvantaged, because her employers will have legal aid to fight the case and she will not.

In an ordinary case before one of these tribunals it does not matter much. Indeed, in some cases there is much to be said for there not being legal representation in what are essentially informal procedures, but when it comes to arguing a difficult point of law or considering whether a new Act of Parliament is being properly applied, it is grossly unfair that the claimant should not have the benefit of legal representation, although in practice the employer will always have that benefit.

No doubt the chairmen will continue to do their valiant best to ensure that justice is done, but it is not possible for a woman applicant in a case such as this to present her case with sufficient accuracy; to quote the authorities; to compete with a man who is, after all, a trained, qualified, skilled advocate—or, indeed, a woman who is a trained, qualified, skilled advocate, that woman acting on behalf of the employers.

The employee must too often appear on her own. The employer seldom does so. The Bill cannot change the legal aid rules, although I understand that the Lord Chancellor can do so without even coming to the House with new legislation. Meanwhile, for this, the first of my reasons, let us have the legislation and its effects monitored as carefully as possible.

The second point is more subtle but, I believe, far more dangerous to women's rights. It is the fear that many of us have that the total effect of the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act maternity benefit provisions as they will be, will be to encourage employers to evade the new law en masse, on the same basis and with the same sorts of impropriety as employers in totally different circumstances evaded the anti-closed shop provisions of the Industrial Relations Act.

In other words, when given the choice between a man and a woman to employ for a managerial or executive post, employers will tend to choose the man and to put against the name of the woman who is not employed the one word "unsuitable". Monitoring should take place.

As the provisions of the Bill come into effect I fear that vast harm may be caused. The reason for that is simple. Women, at last, will get equal pay, but there will be difficulties. There will be those employers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) correctly pointed out, who will attempt to evade their responsibilities by regrading. However, I believe that in the main most employers will seek to comply with the Act in due course. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Barking shakes her lovely head, but I believe that that will happen. I believe that in 10 years' time people will look back on the days when there was not equal pay as an age of barbarism. I believe that they will be unable to understand how such a distinction was made. Further, I believe that maternity pay for six weeks will be accepted in due course.

Mrs. Colquhoun

It is not long enough.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Janner

I know that my hon. Friend feels that that period is not long enough. I voted with my hon. Friend against the Government because I believed that that provision should have come in at an earlier date and that it should not be necessary to wait two years.

The combination of equal pay, combined with its being more expensive to employ a woman of childbearing age and with the duty of an employer to take a woman back into the job that she left at any time within 21 weeks, and if necessary to dismiss the replacement—that being unfair dismissal if the replacement has been employed for six months or more unless he or she has been told that it would be necessary to go when mother returns—with the additional risks of trouble before industrial tribunals will induce employers to seek to evade these combined new statutes.

Let me make my position perfectly plain. I support these combined new statutes. However, as my hon. Friends well know. I am concerned that the combination of these measures will destroy the very equality which they are designed to create. I am afraid that they must recognise that risk. If they do not recognise it they are closing their eyes to reality. Proper monitoring must take place so that we know what is happening. It is no good making laws and asking people to comply with them, giving people rights before tribunals which are not as real as they would appear to be because people cannot enforce them through lack of legal representation, and then not watching with the greatest possible care to ensure that such rights are implemented in a fair and proper manner.

These are new laws. They are part of a vast assembly of much-needed employee protection. These are protections in addition to those given to men in industry. It is right that women should now be given this protection, but it is wrong that those who have campaigned for it so valiantly and for so long should fail to recognise the difficulties which will undoubtedly be created in implementation.

The amendment seeks to set up a form of monitoring in connection with the investigations and inquiries which will be set up in any event. It would seem that the Government could accept the amendment as it would help in the monitoring of important rules. It would help in the initial stages at least to ensure that these real attempts to overcome the difficulties that have existed in the past will not die as a result of deliberate frustration by employers. That applies to both male and female employers. Indeed, some of the people most prejudiced against women are themselves women. We must ensure that the accusation cannot be made that women do not have the representation that they should have from the law. We must ensure that these measures are not misused by industry by any of the methods, however subtle, outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking.

Mr. John Fraser

Perhaps you will permit me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to begin by saying something totally irrelevant. I was reminded of this matter by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). On the last occasion when I replied to my hon. and learned Friend in the House I may inadvertently have suggested that the Wig and Pen Club was a discriminatory institution. I wish to correct that suggestion. In fact, it is not a discriminatory institution. I make that correction especially in view of the number of letters I have had from women on the subject.

I turn to the points that have been raised in the debate. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will not denigrate or devalue the effectiveness of the tribunals. During the time in which they have operated, notwithstanding the absence of lawyers, they have had a remarkable record of success, not least perhaps because they have the assistance of conciliation officers in the early stages of proceedings.

Mr. Greville Janner

I did not say that there was an absence of lawyers. I said that there was an absence of lawyers on the side of employees when lawyers are present on the side of employers. With respect, I do not denigrate the work of the tribunals, in spite of that unfairness.

Mr. Fraser

I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend says that. We must make it clear to those who intend to present their cases before the tribunals that their chances, on past performance, are fairly high. I do not dissent from the proposition that there may well be circumstances in which the assistance of a lawyer on behalf of the complainant is necessary. Of course, the Lord Chancellor's committee is considering legal aid before tribunals. I am not suggesting that there may not be some difficulties, but on the whole the tribunal system, even without legal aid, has been extraordinarily successful. I do not think that anything we say in the House should deter people from making use of the system when they present cases under the unfair dismissal provisions, under the Equal Pay Act, or under this measure.

I hope I do not misunderstand my hon. and learned Friend's emphasis, but I think he was suggesting in one part of his speech that the Equal Pay Act, the operation of the Employment Protection Bill and the operation of this measure may reduce the chances of employment and promotion for women. It was implicit in what he said that employers might find it less attractive or too expensive to take them into their workforce. During the run-up to the Equal Pay Act there has been no evidence that that is the case. The country as a whole, and employers and unions in particular, have accepted the spirit of that legislation. I rebut any suggestion that this kind of legislation will reduce opportunities for women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mrs. Colquhoun) said that this is a limited Bill. Indeed, it is a limited Bill. It does not deal, for example, with social security or taxation although it deals with pensions. However, the fact that it is a limited Bill does not mean that it limits the opportunities of women. The Bill deals with employment and the supply of goods, services and facilities, and to that extent it is a radical measure. It is a widespread measure, a measure equalled in only very few countries. My hon. Friend is right in saying that it does not extend to social security or taxation, but I do not believe that those are areas which limit the opportunities of women, although they are areas that must be considered. I hope that the Equal Opportunities Commission will consider them, but I must assert that the Bill is a radical measure which will do a great deal to improve the opportunities of women.

I now turn to the matters raised in the amendment and the arguments behind them. The amendment seeks to provide that progress towards equal pay and the operation of the Equal Pay Act should be monitored by the Commission. We were well aware that there was a necessity for the Commission to interest itself in the operation of the Equal Pay Act. For that reason, in Clause 50(1)(c), there is placed upon the Commission the duty not the power, to keep under review the working of…the Equal Pay Act 1970. That is a duty which is imposed upon it. It is not an option for a discretion but something that the Commission is obliged to undertake. We have imposed that duty upon the Commission. In Clause 64(1)(d) we give the Commission a power to serve a non-discrimination notice in respect of any act which is a breach of an equality clause. That is the phraseology which is taken from the amended Equal Pay Act. We are giving the Commission not only the duty to keep under review the working of the Act but the power to serve a non-discrimination notice in respect of non-observance of the Act.

Finally, we recognise that there may be some women who are unable themselves to present their cases to the industrial tribunals. In Clause 72 we give the Commission the power to represent women before tribunals. It is a power that will be enjoyed in addition to a similar power to be exercised by the Department of Employment. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friends will study carefully those provisions in the Bill.

I turn to the technical effect of the amendment. There are circumstances in which the Commission might undertake an investigation into, say, the conduct of single-sex schools. It would be inappropriate for that body to add provisions relating to the Equal Pay Act 1970 since it would be entirely irrelevant to that type of investigation. The same argument would apply if the Commission were to conduct an investigation into the provision of banking and credit facilities.

I ask my hon. Friends to consider another proposition. I hope that some investigations will be undertaken by the Commission into the working of the 1970 Act. If we were to be entirely logical and symmetrical in our thinking, we would need to give an obligation to the Commission to state its findings on the sex discrimination legislation. That would underestimate the sense and fail to recognise the duties of the Equal Opportunities Commission. In cases where equal pay was being investigated, it would be of the essence that any report should deal with those matters. If such a body were to investigate matters concerning equal pay and equal opportunity, it would address itself to matters relevant to the Equal Pay Act 1970. But the obligations and powers already exist and to include such a provision would add nothing to the situation. Indeed, it would be an unwieldy addition.

I accept that the question of equal pay needs to be monitored. I have greatly concerned myself in monitoring the progress of equal pay, and indeed I have done so even before the legislation comes into operation. Where I have disc over discriminatory collective agreements, I have not hesitated to refer them to the Industrial Arbitration Board. There have been regular checks by my Department, including visits to individual firms, to check the progress towards equal pay. Indeed evidence has been published in the Department of Employment Gazette about progress in that regard. We have undertaken a widespread publicity campaign to ensure that people understand their rights under the Act.

The Department of Employment is very much better equipped to get at the details of the operation of the Act than is the Equal Opportunities Commission because of the information flowing into the Department dealing with wage rates and collective agreements. I give an assurance that my Department will continue that monitoring process, although I am not saying that I regard the Equal Opportunities Commission as having no part to play. Indeed it is given powers in the Bill to enable it to play an important part.

I hope that my hon. Friends will not press the matter to a Division. I hope that I have given them some reassurance about the contents of the Bill and the responsibilities which I regard my Department as undertaking. I promise to bear these matters in mind as the legislation becomes a reality.

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

Will the Minister confirm that up to the present time not one employer or employers' organisation has yet informed the Department that it will be unable to operate the requirements of the Equal Pay Act?

Mr. Fraser

Nobody to my knowledge has informed me that he will be unable to operate the requirements of the Equal Pay Act. Some concerns—although not very many—when we were considering the limitation of wage increases in the current year thought that they would get away with it then. That was the reason for our making equal pay the only significant exception to the £6 a week maximum.

Question put and negatived.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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