HC Deb 14 May 1986 vol 97 cc801-10
Mr. Speaker

I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

10.1 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Waddington)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 6871/83, draft proposals for a Directive on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment of men and women in occupational social security schemes, 5825/1/84, draft Directive on the application of the principle of equal treatment for men and women in self employed occupations including agriculture and on protection during pregnancy and maternity, and 4118/86, communication from the Commission to the Council concerning a medium term Community programme (1986/90) on equal opportunities for women; and endorses the Government's commitment to the principle of equal treatment while seeking to ensure that unnecessary burdens are not imposed on business in the United Kingdom. I welcome this opportunity to debate these European Community documents. The draft directive on equal treatment in self-employment was originally proposed by the European Commission in 1984. We share its underlying objectives but along with several other member states doubt the wisdom of some of the proposals.

Its objectives are the elimination of any direct or indirect discrimination on the ground of sex which has the effect of preventing a person from obtaining a loan or other facilities to set up or run a business; the removal of legal and financial barriers to business partnerships between husband and wife, or the employment of one by the other; the recognition of a spouse's right to build up separate entitlement to maternity, invalidity, social security and retirement benefits; and the creation for such spouses of a legal right to receive consideration for the work they contribute, whether in cash or in some other form.

Of course, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 already deals with some of these matters. In particular, it makes it unlawful to discriminate in the provision of facilities such as loans on grounds of sex. The other point to stress is that there is now no obstacle in United Kingdom law to prevent spouses establishing a formal business relationship if they wish to do so. So article 5 worries us not at all. The difficulty with the directive lies, I think, in article 7, the detailed requirements of which seem likely to create as many problems as they attempt to solve. It is not in our view sensible to provide the spouse of a self-employed person with a legal right to receive consideration in cash or in kind for the work he or she performs. It is a principle of our legislation that it should not seek to regulate private relationships where there is no intention to create a legal business relationship. I am sure that no hon. Member wants to see husbands and wives taking their housekeeping disputes to the courts, but that could easily be the result of this sort of provision.

No one in the Government under-estimates the importance of self-employment and I am told that the number of self-employed women increased by some 25 per cent. between 1983 and 1985. It is Government policy to create a climate where their enterprise can prosper and to ensure that there are no unreasonable obstacles in their path. As I have said, our law already provides that there should be no discrimination in the provision of services that are essential to the formation of new businesses. In principle, therefore, I think that we would welcome a European measure which made that guarantee of equal treatment in self-employment part of Community law. But I do not think that we could accept a measure which placed an increased and unnecessary burden on small firms and provided for the interference of the law in personal relationships.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My hon. and learned Friend mentioned Community law. As most of us understand it, the European Community was established to enable free trade between the countries within Europe, which is a fairly sensible thing to do. Does it necessarily follow that we have to have the same legislation as other European countries with regard to men and women and equal opportunities? Are we not grown-up and mature enough to make our own decisions on the matter?

Mr. Waddington

The Community brings forward draft directives, and the member Governments have to make up their mind as to whether the draft directives are justified in view of the terms of the treaty. After that, the member states have to come to a decision whether the proposals put forward by the Commission are reasonable. I have to tell my hon. Friend that this draft directive is currently under discussion by member states at official level. It is likely that it will be amended, possibly quite substantially, before it is submitted to the Council of Ministers for discussion.

Mr. Marlow

I think that my hon. and learned Friend will feel like me, although I am not sure whether he would be prepared to say so. Were he to go round the pubs and working men's clubs and knock on doors in his constituency, and ask people whether this was an appropriate area for the Europeans to bring forward legislation, or whether it would be a more appropriate area for us to consider our own legislation, I think that the latter is the conclusion that he would get.

Mr. Waddington

My hon. Friend has brought forth an important point. Perhaps he will speak on the matter later. I had better stick to the terms of the debate and put to the House the apparent purpose of the draft directives, and then the House can come to its own judgment on them. I think that I have stated the legal position correctly. We are talking only about draft directives. They are now under discussion by officials and eventually the Council of Ministers will have to come to a conclusion on whether to accept them.

I had better move on to the draft directive on equal treatment in occupational social security schemes. The draft directive was issued by the European Commission as part of a continuing programme aimed at the elimination of the unequal treatment of men and women in the Community, and it is designed to bring clarity and, if possible, legal certainty to an area in which the application of equal treatment is often a matter of doubt for both workers and employers. It relates to occupational schemes providing benefits of a social security nature, for example, occupational sick pay schemes. But its main target, and the area where it would seem to have most application, is occupational pensions. Here it requires equality of treatment in access to scheme membership, in the conditions for reimbursement of contributions and the rights to deferred pensions, in the conditions for the grant of benefits and in the setting of levels of benefits and contributions. The directive would also require equality of pension ages and benefits for surviving spouses, but permits the deferment of those provisions until equality in those respects is present in state social security schemes.

Within the United Kingdom there is already legislation that gives a measure of equality to men and women in occupational pensions schemes. The Social Security Pensions Act 1975 provides for equal access to membership, and lays down conditions for the preservation of benefits which apply equally to men and women. But there remain significant differences in the treatment of men and women in relation to pension ages, and survivors' benefits, and actuarial factors are used that reflect differences in the morbidity, mortality or life expectancy of men and women. It is there that the provisions of the draft directive could be of major importance.

In 1976 the Occupational Pensions Board produced its report on equal status for men and women in occupational pensions schemes. After detailed study, the board recommended that, because there is an obvious link between occupational and state schemes, when one comes to the fundamental issues of unequal pension ages and survivors' benefits, equality should not be enforced except in partnership with the state scheme.

This view is also enshrined in the draft directive which permits deferment of the introduction of equal treatment in relation to pension age, and in relation to the provision of benefits for surviving spouses for so long as such differences exist in the state scheme. A provision allowing deferment is welcomed by the Government, provided that it covers all survivors benefits, and also other benefits and provisions which are linked directly to pension ages.

As to actuarial data on the different life expectancy of men and women, the European Commission regards the use of such data as contrary to the principle of equal treatment if used to set different levels of benefit or contributions, but this approach has drawn almost total opposition from pensions practitioners and actuaries, not only within the United Kingdom but in other member states. It is argued, with some force, that actuaries take into account different factors in regard to ill-health, mortality or life expectancy, not simply by convention or through unjustifiable prejudice, but in order to establish the truth. The truth is that women generally live longer than men. Thus, even leaving aside any question of earlier retirement ages for women, their pensions are in payment for longer and, for a given level of benefit, are more expensive to provide. Unless these actuarial differences between men and women are disregarded, equal contributions for men and women provide lower benefits for women. Conversely, for women to receive equal benefits there have to be higher contributions.

This is a very large and complex area and the Government are now in discussion with the Association of British Insurers and others, about the possibility of using unisex actuarial tables in some areas of pensions provision. No conclusions have yet been reached but in the context of the draft directive, it is not essential that they should have been. What is important is whether the directive as drafted is viable in relation to United Kingdom occupational schemes, and in the best interests of men and women in this country; and it seems to us that some changes are needed. First, the directive should not have the effect of prohibiting the proper use of statistical data. Secondly, the directive should apply compulsorily only to periods of membership falling after the operative date of implementation, and those operating schemes should have a reasonable time in which to make the necessary changes to their rules.

The cost involved in the changes will vary from scheme to scheme, depending on their present benefit structure, on the balance of men and women and the measures necessary to implement equal treatment. Since we already have equal access to pension schemes and most benefit-defined schemes provide the same scale of personal benefits to men and women, and since the directive would not require immediate equalisation of provisions for survivors or pension age, the likely costs of a directive modified as outlined in the explanatory memorandum would not be likely to be very great overall.

In considering its response to the draft directive, the Government have consulted widely among those with a direct interest in the subject—those representing practitioners and scheme members. Many of the same bodies submitted evidence to the Select Committee on European Legislation. Inevitably there are differences of opinion, but the approach outlined by the Government in their explanatory memorandum commands considerable support.

Since the issue of the memorandum in August 1983, discussions have been taking place in Brussels. It is apparent that a similar view of the deficiencies of the original draft directive is held by a majority of other member states, and that the approach adopted by the United Kingdom Government offers the best hope of securing agreement.

Mr. Marlow

This is a complex issue and perhaps my hon. and learned Friend will be able to clarify it. Will he confirm that the draft directive applies not just to the provisions that Government will make but to provisions that the private sector pension schemes will make? If that is the case, will he also confirm that if at the moment men and women pay a certain amount for a pension, the whole lot will be thrown into the pot again and either men will have to pay relatively more or they will receive relatively less? Against the actuarial tables that he has been talking about, is not that profoundly unfair?

Mr. Waddington

With respect, we are not dealing with Government pension schemes. The draft directive is on equal treatment in occupational social security schemes. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to develop his argument on that in due course, but I must make that plain.

Lastly, let me deal with the second Community action programme on equal opportunities for women for the period 1986–1990, accompanying which was a draft Council resolution which, with some slight modifications, is likely to come before the Council shortly. It is a resolution which the Government would be very pleased to adopt.

We are fully committed to equal opportunities in the labour market and support the general theme of the new action programme. We particularly welcome the attention to education and training policies which expand women's occupational choice and we have already taken many positive steps in the seven areas where the programme recommends action by member states.

Under the first of these seven headings, "Improved Application of Existing Provisions", we can point to the Equal Opportunities Commission's excellent code of practice on employment which came into force last year. Under the second heading, "Education and Training", we can, I believe, claim significant achievements.

On education, Government policy is to continue to work for equal opportunities across all aspects of schools provision and to encourage girls towards higher achievements in those areas of the curriculum where they tend not to participate to their full advantage.

One of the most exciting advances in education in recent years has been the development of school-industry links. One initiative being sponsored by the Government this year is the executive shadows scheme, which the Department of Trade and Industry is running with the Institute of Directors. That will involve a significant number of top business executives—about 750 have joined the scheme so far and we are hoping for many more—being "shadowed" for a week by sixth form students, both girls and boys. In that way they can learn a lot about the opportunities for women in business today.

For older women, the Manpower Services Commission's full range of adult training programmes is open equally to men and women, and women are encouraged to consider non-traditional skills. In addition, the Commission has a small but valuable programme of special training for women. For example, there are some 2,000 places per year on the wider opportunities for women courses.

The third heading of the action programme is "Employment". Here a variety of measures are suggested for member states, including a review of discriminatory legislation, the original purpose of which was protective. We have, in fact, already carried out such a review, as a result of which we have brought forward proposals in the Sex Discrimination Bill to repeal the unnecessary and outdated restrictions on women's hours of work which prevent women being employed in jobs based on shift work or night work.

The programme also outlines the European Commission's continuing commitment to removing discrimination against women from member countries' tax systems. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has recently published a Green Paper on the reform of personal taxation which examines this and other issues. It looks closely at a system of independent taxation with transferable allowances which, in the words of the Green Paper, would give married women the same opportunity for privacy and independence in tax matters as their husbands". The next matter referred to in the programme is headed "New Technologies" and the Government agree about the importance of increasing women's representation in occupations involving the new technologies. One of the MSC's priorities in the area of women's training is helping women to train for jobs in which there are actual or forecast skill shortages, and which are of key economic importance. That frequently means jobs involving new technology. The MSC also funds an Open University course for women returning to technological work after a spell away.

The fifth action area in the programme concerns social protection and social security". The Government support the principle of equal treatment for men and women in matters of social security as set out in the 1979 social security directive and have reported to the European Commission on action taken to implement the directive.

The sixth heading is Sharing of Family and Occupational Responsibilities". We support some of the measures proposed under this heading, for example the encouragement of more flexible working hours and of part-time opportunities for either sex. Where we differ from the European Commission is in regard to the draft directive on parental leave and leave for family reasons. The Government cannot accept that an instrument so burdensome on employers and detrimental to job prospects would enhance equal opportunities.

We recognise that many women—and many men—will want to combine family responsibilities with a career, but we believe employers and employees should be left free to agree between them the most suitable working arrangements for their own particular enterprise. Companies are already recognising the need to modify their traditional career patterns to recoup their investment in women. I commend the Engineering Council's report last year on career breaks. That demonstrated the importance of personnel policies that will attract the ablest young women into engineering and showed that many employers would be sympathetic to requests for longer than minimum maternity leave, reinstatement or nonstandard working arrangements.

The communication refers to Increasing Awareness and Changing Attitudes and rightly stresses the importance of breaking down stereotyped images of men's work and women's work and their respective roles in society. There is much that I could say on that score, but I think that the House will agree that I have spoken long enough.

As must be obvious from all the action already taken in this area and from the list that I gave of measures that are being taken, we do not accept the strictures of the Opposition, as expressed in their amendment. The amendment looks pretty silly when set against the number of Opposition Members who are present to support it. It is a silly and inaccurate amendment, because it refers to obstruction of equal pay for work of equal value". This Government, unlike the previous Labour Government, have provided for equal pay for work of equal value. I do not know why those who drafted the amendment were silly enough to insert that phrase.

10.23 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof: 'approves the European Community Documents Nos. 6871/83, draft proposals for a Directive on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment of women and men in occupational social security schemes 5825/1/84, draft Directive on the application of the principle of equal treatment for women and men in self-employ occupations including agriculture and on protection during pregnancy and maternity, and 4118/86, communication from the Commission to the Council concerning a medium-term Community programme (1986/90) on equal opportunities for women; and deplores the Government's lack of commitment to the principle of equal treatment for women and men and equal opportunities for women, as demonstrated by its refusal to implement the directive on parental leave, its obstruction of equal pay for work of equal value, and its failure to extend invalid care allowance to married women.'. Listening to the Minister one would think that we lived in a perfect world where men and women were equal in all respects and there were no problems apart from the occasional document from the EEC. The fact is that there is considerable inequality in this country between men and women in all aspects of life. The Minister knows that discrimination against women is widespread, and no amount of glossing over the truth will hide that fact.

Mr. Waddington

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to make that remark, but I do not know what bearing it has on my speech. I was not discussing whether there is discrimination; of course there is some discrimination, but I was merely outlining the purpose of the Community documents.

Mr. Dubs

The purpose of the documents is to tackle discrimination in many areas of life in this country. The Minister said that the Government agreed with occasional items in the documents, but were not happy with the general thrust of the documents. The Minister of State made that clear and the Government motion makes it clear, too. The Government ask the House to take note of these documents. They do not say that they approve of them. There is a world of difference between the two.

It is not easy to tackle discrimination. There is no way in which one piece of legislation. no matter how large and wide-ranging, can deal with it. It takes years of effort and pressure slowly, item by item, to reduce discrimination, whether it is discrimination against women or discrimination against black people. The Government's record is not good. On one occasion after another, the Government have resisted the voice of common sense. They have not listened to those who have told them how to prevent discrimination.

There has been a European Court ruling on the Government's attitude towards different retirement ages for men and women. The Government did the absolute minimum to comply with that ruling. The Government have also consistently refused to give the same invalid care allowance rights to women as to men.

When I first looked at the EEC documents I thought that they represented real progress. Then I noted the wording of the Government's motion. They are reluctant even to approve these documents. That is the basis of this debate. If the Government had said that they welcomed these documents and that they would do their best to implement them—

Mr. Marlow

The Government said that.

Mr. Dubs

No, the Government did not say so. The Government have carped and found reasons for rejecting the bulk of the EEC documents. That is why the Opposition have tabled the amendment. The Minister knows that Britain has the worst record of any European country over complying with these types of directives.

I regret that these are EEC initiatives. I should have preferred them to be British initiatives. I am not a particular fan of the Common Market and its many institutions, but when sensible initiatives are put forward I believe that it is better for this country to agree that they are sensible and to adopt them. That is better than carping, because of the source from which they come. That is the basis of some of our disagreements with Conservative Members who sit below the Gangway. If the Government were to produce their own initiatives, we should not have to pay regard to the EEC directives. However, there are no Government initiatives. Therefore, we have to examine the EEC directives.

I shall comment briefly on the three documents. First, I shall deal with the medium term programme. It is a wide and all-embracing programme that is designed to tackle discrimination under many headings during the next few years. Therefore the Minister should have been less lukewarm when he referred to it. Some of the recommendations are sensible and good and they are worth adopting.

The Minister said that there is good integration between formal education and vocational guidance, and that there are good links between the workplace and school. I am not convinced by his argument. There are many areas where improvement is possible. We welcome the code of practice to which the Minister referred. However, it is the only new feature in this area that commends itself to the Opposition. It will make a major difference.

The document also refers to the importance of having women in teaching posts at all levels. The Minister did not refer to this point. The document refers to the need to provide opportunities for women to take training courses and to the need to make such opportunities easier by additional provision for child minding. The document also refers to the need for improved information and to the need for public sector employers to set an example. That is very important, as public sector employers are directly under the Government's control.

Some local authorities have shown useful initiatives on contract compliance. That is a means of bringing pressure to bear upon suppliers to the public sector. Contract compliance is a useful and important innovation, and I regret that the Government have not sought to adopt it. The Minister expressed support for it, but he was then told that this was not the direction in which the Government were going.

The document also refers to improving the opportunities for women in decision nuking. I think that that is well worth while, although it also refers to the opening up of political parties", and I wonder whether that is as much in the Government's power as the directive suggests.

The document contains a useful suggestion about providing help for the disadvantaged, single parents and migrants—we would refer to members of the disadvantaged black community. It also refers to home workers. It contains a welcome suggestion about giving women greater opportunities in the new technologies.

Some of us were on the bus in the Members' Car Park last Monday inspecting an exhibition sponsored jointly by the Equal Opportunities Commission and British Gas introducing a scheme—"Women into Science and Engineering." I found it interesting that schoolgirls were so enthusiastic about computers and other aspects of science. That is a welcome development. I do not see why science, technology and computer studies should he the prerogative of boys. Some of the girls on the bus carne from Wandsworth. They were full of enthusiasm and were determined not to allow boys to steal a march on them. That is an isolated initiative. I regret that there are not more.

The document refers to sharing family and occupational responsibilities, to parental leave and to schemes to improve leave for family reasons. I regret that the Government consistently say that they will not adopt such sensible proposals. The Minister talked in generalities. He said that the schemes were good but that the Government were against specific suggestions such as those on parental leave.

I welcome the document on equal treatment for people in self-employed schemes. I understand what the Minister said about the problem of legal arrangements between spouses, but the document contains many other useful proposals. The EEC says that the Government would have full discretion to implement the proposals in the best way appropriate to national circumstances. The document breaks new ground and makes useful proposals which would improve women's lot.

The occupational schemes initiative is worth while in terms of equal treatment for men and women when hit by sickness, invalidity, old age, accident. occupational disease and unemployment. A number of clear suggestions are made about action which should not be acceptable if equal treatment is to be the norm.

I regret the Government's attitude. I regret that the Government pay lip service to equal treatment for men and women. The Government say, "Yes. If it is easy we shall do it", but if there is any difficulty they capitulate and say no.

The Minister made a sorry speech. The women of our country will be angry and will regret that the Government have turned their back on a number of useful initiatives. The women of our country will not accept that and it is time that the Government realised it.