HC Deb 22 May 1986 vol 98 cc569-626

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the Paymaster General, I should announce to the House that I have selected the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

5.48 pm
The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill has two major purposes. First, it makes a number of amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to bring it into line with European Community directives on equal treatment. Secondly, it removes sex discrimination in hours of work laid down in statutes which have for many years outlived their original purpose.

The common thread in the various provisions is the Government's genuine commitment to promote equal opportunities in employment between men and women and, in particular, to eliminate all unreasonable discrimination on the grounds of sex. This commitment is consistent with our general aim of improving the flexibility of the labour market. The removal of barriers which hinder either men or women from making their full contribution to the economy will mark a significant step towards the achievement of greater efficiency, competitiveness and prosperity.

The first two clauses stem from a judgment of the European Court of Justice which ruled that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 did not fully comply with the European Community equal treatment directive. The judgment found the 1975 Act deficient on three counts, covering its exemption of private households and of small firms. Its application to collective agreements and the rules of undertakings and of independent occupations.

Recognising that the judgment placed on us an obligation to amend the Act, we carried out an extensive consultative exercise last autumn to establish how this could be done in a manner best fitted to our national circumstances and practice. The Bill reflects the outcome of these consultations, in which we were especially grateful to the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress for their comments and the way in which they presented them, even if it was not possible to reach general agreement on all of the issues.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way so early in his speech.

Bearing in mind what he said about there being an EEC obligation to introduce this legislation, and in view of the process of consultation that has been undertaken, will my right hon. and learned Friend say how far he is convinced that there is a legitimate role for the law in this area and what evidence he feels that there is of the success of previous efforts at law-making in trying to do away with different types of discrimination? How satisfied are he and the Government in this regard, or is this merely a matter of complying with a European Court ruling?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend raises wide issues and asks my opinion about how far the law is relevant to the subject of equal opportunities. The House accepted the principle that there was a role for the law in race relations and sex discrimination many years ago. We have the 1975 Act, and successive Governments have believed that they have complied with the equal treatment directive, which they have followed. The Bill would merely amend the law to comply with the judgment and ensure that we match its requirements more directly.

I see that my hon. Friend is sceptical about the legal approach. I go along with him to the extent that the law cannot completely remove prejudice and unfairness in personal relations between people in any society, least of all in a free society such as ours, but I believe that the law has a useful role to play.

When people can demonstrate that they are the victims of unfair discrimination which the bulk of society would say was unfair, it is right that there should be some form of legal machinery that gives them a remedy. We cannot change human nature, but the law has some role to play in protecting individuals in their workplace from the consequences of the worst aspects of human nature. That is what we are trying to do.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. It is not sexual prejudice or otherwise.

Was the list of consultations that he gave complete or did he speak to the Institute of Personnel Management, chambers of commerce an others at the sharp end of the operation?

Mr. Clarke

I named three of the larger and better known institutions. The Equal Opportunities Commission had to be consulted, and the CBI and the TUC are concerned with hours of work and the like. We consulted the Institute of Personnel Management and a wide range of other bodies. The ramifications of legislation such as this are such that I am sure that it will transpire that we have missed out some relevant body which we ought to have consulted. Whenever possible, however, we have consulted all those that are likely to be affected.

I shall give the House a quick guide to the clauses. Clause 1 repeals section 6(3) of the 1975 Act, which exempts private households and businesss with five or fewer employees from the requirement not to discriminate in employment. The clause makes a new, more limited, exception for private households. This will protect an employer's freedom to choose a man or woman for a job which involves living or working in a private home where there could be quite reasonable objection to someone of the other sex having such physical or social contact with a person living in the home, or the knowledge of intimate details of such a person's life, which the job is likely to entail.

This part of the Bill seeks to strike a balance between contrasting considerations which were clearly present in the judgment. The court concluded that the present general exemption for employment in private households was too wide, but acknowledged that the principle of respect for private life was fundamental and could be decisive for the treatment of certain kinds of private household employment. We have no wish to bring the law governing public employment relationships into people's private living arrangements. I am sure that the overwhelming majority of public opinion and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) would agree that people should be free to choose the sex of employees who will be closely involved in their home life. I hope that the wording of the clause, which has been improved in another place, safeguards that principle.

Clause 1 also removes the exemption for firms with five or fewer employees. This is necessary to comply with the equal treatment directive. We agree, of course, that it is not in any way reasonable for such firms to practise sex discrimination. Discrimination is unfair and inefficient in a business of any size. We still question whether it is really appropriate to seek the objective of equal treatment by applying to all small firms a law designed to meet the circumstances of larger employers. The Labour party presumably recognised that when it included this exemption in the 1975 Act. Small firms play a vital part in the creation of wealth and new employment, and we want them to be able to concentrate on making their businesses grow with the minimum of rules and regulations. For that reason, we have proposed in the European Community that member states should have the power to exempt very small enterprises from national provisions implementing the equal treatment directive.

We are anxious to give as much help as we can to small firms which will have to comply with the minutia of sex discrimination law for the first time, although I hope that they already comply with the spirit of it. Our Department will therefore give priority to issuing simplified explanatory guidance following the passage of the Bill, and we shall ensure that our small firms service can give informed advice.

Before I leave clause 1, I should say that it has been improved in another place by the addition of a provision concerning partnerships. At present, it is unlawful for firms consisting of six or more partners to discriminate in the selection or treatment of partners. In future, the Sex Discrimination Act will apply to partnerships of all sizes. This is a logical extension of the clause which reflects women's marked entry into self-employment in the past few years. Between 1983 and 1985, the number of self-employed women in the United Kingdom rose by some 25 per cent.

Clause 2 is also designed to bring our equality laws into line with European Community directives. It is concerned with contractual matters, and the House will have an opportunity to discuss its technicalities in Committee. The European Court judgment requires us to make void discriminatory provisions in collective agreements, internal rules of undertakings and rules governing the independent occupations and professions. The court accepted that our law partly implemented this aspect of the equal treatment directive through section 77 of the present Sex Discrimination Act. That section makes void discriminatory terms in contracts—which would include a legally binding collective agreement—but we need to make corresponding provision for agreements and rules which are not legally enforceable.

Although the judgment concerned only the EC equal treatment directive, there is a parallel requirement in the equal pay directive. Clause 2 therefore amends section 77 of the Sex Discrimination Act to make void any term of a collective agreement, whether or not legally enforceable, and any rule made by an employer for his or her employees or prospective employees in so far as it would result in a breach of either the Sex Discrimination Act or the Equal Pay Act 1970. The same applies to any rule made by an organisation of employers or workers, a professional or trade association or a body which confers qualifications. The voiding of discriminatory terms and rules will not impair employees' rights under their contracts of employment, which are specifically protected by the clause.

As for the remaining clauses, perhaps I might quote the Bill's long title. It would provide for the removal of certain restrictions applying to the working hours and other working conditions of women; and … repeal the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954". Their origins, too, can be traced back to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. In establishing the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Act included among its functions a duty to keep under review, in consultation with the Health and Safety Commission, provisions of health and safety at work legislation which require men and women to be treated differently. A prominent part of such legislation is that concerning hours of work.

Following a review of the legislation, the EOC issued in 1979 its report entitled "Health and Safety Legislation: Should We Distinguish Between Men and Women?" As for hours of work legislation, its answer to the question that it had itself posed was a resounding no.

The EOC's report went rather wider than hours of work legislation. It dealt, for example, with safeguards against exposure to lead and to radiation in the workplace where a woman's reproductive capacity or the safety of her unborn child might be put at risk. None of these areas is in any way touched upon by the Bill.

I return to the issue of hours of work. Current legislation distinguishes between men and women in ways on which I shall elaborate shortly; how can this discrimination be removed? In the broadest possible terms, we face a choice. We can remove restriction altogether by repeal or we can extend the present legislation so that the restrictions continue to apply but to men and women alike.

There have been six long years of consultations with interested parties following the EOC's report and so far no consensus on the best way forward can be reached, and there is little practical likelihood that it will. In particular, the views of employer and trade union representatives on the Health and Safety Commission could not be fully reconciled. No one has ever suggested in all the discussions that women, for some reason, are more susceptible than men to any adverse effects which might stem from night work or working long hours. Equally, no one suggests nowadays that women are in greater need of protection. The origin of the requirements that relate to the working hours of women must go back to a time when society widely believed that the weaker sex required greater protection. As I have said, that is no longer anyone's opinion, as far as we can judge from the consultations.

There is no evidence that the existing restrictions are making any effective contribution to the health and safety of women working in factories or of men in baking. The restrictions did, however, clearly represent obstacles to women wishing to broaden their experience in pursuit of career opportunities, and just as clearly were an unnecessary complication for employers wishing to organise the hours of their work force to optimum effect.

The Government have decided that there must be a resolution of these issues. We cannot have discriminatory legislation on hours of work remaining on the statute book. The Government concluded last year that further consideration of the EOC's 1979 recommendations by the parties most affected would be unlikely to achieve consensus against the background of six years' continuing disagreement. The Government therefore decided upon repeal of the existing hours of work legislation.

The Bill has reached this House from another place with this intention broadly intact, although it now contains further provisions, whose introduction was opposed by the Government in the other place and to which I shall return in a moment. It was also argued in another place that rather than repeal the existing legislation, we should give more sympathetic consideration to its extension to men. I should like to examine this contention now in a little more detail.

The argument runs that long hours and, in particular, night working, can have a deleterious effect on workers' health, welfare and social well-being. It is therefore argued that it is the role of the legislator to protect the worker from his employer, and presumably often from himself, as it is not unusual for the worker to seek night work or overtime as a boost to earnings.

Nobody — certainly not this Government — would dispute that excessively long hours of onerous night working might bring adverse effects. We do not believe, however, that the agreements entered into voluntarily between employers and their work forces on hours of work have this as their end result in the circumstances of today. We certainly see no point in extending to men the rigid restrictions which currently apply to women.

The existing restrictions for women reflect the circumstances of the time of the legislation's introduction, when five 12-hour day or night shifts, or sometimes these hours spread over six-day working, were the norm, with significant overtime working in addition. This legislation dates from the mid-19th century, and as late as 1900 hours worked averaged almost 54 each week. But the overall average in 1985 was just over 40. In the present age of new technology, computer-controlled equipment tends to work longer each day, while those who tend it work shorter average hours, but need at the same time to operate more flexible working patterns. We are accordingly seeing the introduction into manufacturing industry of flexitime arrangements along the lines which have become familiar in white-collar employment.

Information technology is changing the nature of work in the factory to something more closely akin to office work than the traditional production line grind. The flexible working arrangements necessary to encourage these developments, especially when based on a flexible working year, but even when based on a monthly or weekly cycle, would clearly be impeded by the existing rigid restrictions applying to women.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that employees in the baking industry work longer hours than any other group of workers in our society apart from merchant navy seamen? The average working week in the baking industry is in excess of 60 hours. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman expect repeal to increase or reduce those hours? Would it not have been better to allow the legislation to remain on the statute book, bearing in mind that there is no demand for its repeal from major employers or the trade unions, and to extend the protection that it affords to women?

Mr. Clarke

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have first-hand experience of night working in the baking industry. Baking has always been a fairly nocturnal activity as people buy in the morning fresh bread that has been cooked for them the night before. As I understand it, however, modern technology and newer types of bread are rather reducing that practice. I do not claim typical experience, but between leaving school and going to university I worked for a couple of months as a night worker in a bakery. I did all sorts of unpleasant jobs, such as greasing tins in the middle of the night. My experience was as a worker in the industry. I opted deliberately for permanent night work and sought the maximum amount of overtime, and I think that many workers still do that

Collective agreements already override the legislation in a large part of the baking industry, and I do not believe that we are still in a position in which it is necessary to protect bakery workers from exploitation, which was intended to be suppressed when the legislation was put on to the statute book. In practice and reality, the legislation is rather liked by trade unions in the industry. It tends to ensure that the industry remains unionised because there can be exemptions only as a result of collective agreements. It improves the bargaining position of the unions vis-à-vis the employers as they negotiate exemptions from the Act. I do not believe that we are protecting downtrodden workers in the baking industry, even though I do not base my argument on a 20-year-old recollection of those I worked alongside during the night and on overtime, when there was legislation to protect us.

There is a gap between the legislation on women's working hours and some of the defences of it and what actually exists as a result of modern social conditions. I shall spell out the complexities of the restrictions on women's hours which are imposed by just one piece of legislation, the Factories Act 1961. Clause 4 provides for the repeal of the provisions, along with similar provisions in the Hours of Employment (Convention) Act 1936 and in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. These restrictions currently cover only 1.5 million women, working mainly in manufacturing industry, out of a total of 9 million who are employed within the labour force. It seems that no one has thought it necessary to protect the remaining 7.5 million women by means of the present curious requirements.

The 1.5 million women who are covered by the collection of legislation to which I have referred cannot work more than nine hours a day within an 11 -hour period of employment, subject to a maximum of 48 hours a week. They cannot start before 7 am or finish later than 8 pm, or 1 pm on Saturdays. Sunday working is prohibited. The maximum continuous spell of work is limited to four and a half hours, or five hours if a 10-minute break is allowed. Any employer with women and young people on his books must post a notice setting out the full schedule of their starting times, finishing times and intervals, which the legislation stipulates should apply to all alike.

This is not the whole story. The legislation provides for some exceptions and variations. I have so far explained the detailed instructions applying to factories working a six-day week, but the permitted daily hours are somewhat extended for factories normally working a five-day week. The legislation also allows for each factory the working of "overtime" — which is different from that normally regarded as overtime for payment purposes—during six hours in any week, not exceeding 100 hours during the calendar year and confined to 25 weeks during the year, as long as for each employee the total daily working hours do not exceed 10, and provided that the maximum period of employment does not exceed 12 hours in a day. Finishing times for overtime can be no later than 9 pm, but still 1 pm on Saturdays.

There is provision for yet further extensions to the hours that may be worked by the making of regulations, providing that the Secretary of State is satisfied that work in any class of factory is subject to seasonal or other special pressure". For instance, regulations permit the employment of women from 6 am if they work in a laundry, a milk or cheese factory, or are employed in bread, flour, confectionery or sausage manufacture.

I have inflicted on the House this tedious recital of the legislation on the statute book because it clarifies the choice between whether we should repeal all of it if it applies to only 1.5 million out of 9 million working women, or whether we should apply it all to men involved in similar activities. I believe that repeal is obviously the answer.

There is also provision enabling the Health and Safety Executive to permit an employer to run his factory on a shift basis. That is all prescribed in the legislation in a detailed way which obviously inhibits the flexibility of employers engaged in particular manufacturing processes. In this day and age it is quite absurd for the law to meddle in such a detailed and prescriptive manner in the arrangements which employers and employees need to agree for the running of any enterprise. We live in a world in which flexibility is increasingly at a premium. Indeed, the legislation avoids ultimate absurdity by making provisions under which the Health and Safety Executive can give special exemption orders from those detailed restrictions, renewable on an annual basis, to employers who argue increased efficiency in justification. The Health and Safety Executive has not in recent years refused such a request. In 1984–85, more than 4,000 special exemption orders were granted, covering more than 200,000 of the 1.5 million women in manufacturing. Almost half those exemption orders allowed some night working by women.

Far from being an argument for retaining or extending the existing legislation, the "flexibility" provided by this exemption procedure if anything strengthens the case for repeal. Had there been anything to be gained by these restrictions, ready exemptions by the granting of such orders largely neutralised any effect the legislation might otherwise have had. We are left with a near-meaningless rigmarole of complex restrictions which may be lifted by invoking a bureaucratic procedure at the cost of the employer's, and incidentally the Health and Safety Executive's, time and energy, with no obvious benefit to anybody.

Opposition Members will no doubt argue that, in spite of the dearth of prosecutions or other enforcement action, it is only the existence of the legislation which deters the rogue employer from transgressing or, where he applies for a special exemption order, which persuades him to be reasonable in his requests. I quite frankly find that incredible.

Mr. Evans

The Minister should wait until we have made our arguments before he starts replying to them.

Mr. Clarke

I look forward to hearing those arguments, but the complexities I have described are impossible to defend. I am no longer even able to think of arguments that could be raised in defence of the present legislation.

Clause 5 repeals the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954.

Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

In Committee, do the Government intend to remove clause 3?

Mr. Clarke

Yes. If I remember correctly, that clause was inserted into the Bill in the other place. It seeks to postpone the implementation of part of the legislation in the hope that a consensus might still emerge from the discussions. We will listen to any arguments put forward both on Second Reading and in Committee, but at present I believe that the clause represents the triumph of hope over experience, and will merely delay a desirable reform.

But the House is impatiently waiting for me to return to the subject of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954. That Act, which regulates the hours which men may work within the baking industry and specifically excludes women from its provisions, would, with the repeal of the restrictions on women's hours of work envisaged by the Bill, regulate the work of men in bakeries while women's hours were totally unregulated. I hope that all hon. Members agree that that would clearly be ridiculous.

Currently, exemptions may be given under the baking Act by the Secretary of State, which suspend the statutory restrictions on hours of work. These exemption orders in effect substitute regimes of hours of work forming parts of different collective agreements covering different employers and unions within the industry. The six collective agreements on the strength of which past Secretaries of State have granted exemptions over the years now set the hours of work of over two thirds of the industry.

The Act was introduced initially not out of concern for the effects of shift patterns in the industry on the operatives' health or safety, but because of the long history of weaknesses in the industry's machinery for collective bargaining. It is the Government's view that this weakness is no longer apparent and that there is no longer any justification for trying to alter this industry's collective bargaining by statute, when in no other similar industry is this done. This Act was ripe for repeal, and the other repeals envisaged by the Bill make this the suitable and necessary occasion.

The unions in the industry and the Equal Opportunities Commission, both in the 1979 report and during the recent consultations on the Bill's proposals, have argued for the Act's extension to women instead of its repeal. The Federation of Plant Bakers strongly favoured repeal while other employees' federations were generally supportive of this view. The Government have decided, for reasons that I have explained, in favour of repeal. Moreover, the extension to women of this outmoded legislation would be totally inconsistent with the need to avoid unnecessary and burdensome restrictions on enterprise—a subject that we have already touched on today.

I turn to those clauses that were introduced into the Bill in the other place after the Government had argued against them. I have already dealt with clause 3. As I said to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch), it is far from clear to the Government that anything would be gained by yet further rounds of consultations on this issue when six years of that have resulted only in stalemate.

Clause 7, on what is described as the "protection of existing conditions", incorporates the statutory restrictions that are to be repealed into the existing employee's contract of employment and ensures that dismissal for refusing to accept new hours of work would be treated by an industrial tribunal as automatically unfair. We understand why there may be concern for the transitional effects on employees for whom statutory restrictions would no longer apply. But we are not convinced that a complicated and far-reaching provision, that in some ways duplicates and in others expands upon other legislative protections, is necessary, or indeed justified, in these circumstances.

There will be cases where the employee can rely on the implied term in the contract, which is already there, governing hours of work. Obviously employers and employees will need to discuss any suggestions about changes in the hours of work. But clause 7 would reduce the flexibility available to industry under the existing law. At this stage that seems to be quite unnecessary.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

It is of considerable concern that an amendment may be moved later that would make employment in women's colleges and schools contrary to the legislation, following a ruling of the European Court. That would mean discrimination against women in their employment. Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is genuine concern about that? Can he give me—as I am sure that he will—a complete assurance that such fears are groundless?

Mr. Clarke

With my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, I am pursuing the implications of proposals that might be made for certain women's colleges and universities whose statutes presently prohibit them from advertising for men for academic posts. We shall have to consider that.

I understand that there is alarm in some of the women's colleges that such a change would have an adverse effect on the character of the academic institutions. I shall continue to consider that point.

At the moment, the Bill does not affect women's colleges. It is my desire that we pass this legislation in a way that actually improves and strengthens our law and protects us against unfair discrimination. It is also my desire that we should not be led into absurdity in so doing. I shall consider with sympathy the points made by both my hon. Friends and consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science who is interested in this matter. Indeed, it might well be part of his responsibility.

Mr. Steve Norris (Oxford, East)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend note that interest in this matter is not confined to the younger universities but exists in older institutions than that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James)? This afternoon the principal of St. Hilda's college, Oxford, contacted me specifically to express her concern at the prospect of any such change. I am grateful for the assurances that my right hon. and learned Friend has given. Will he ensure that any steps to alter the present position and take away the exemption provided by section 51 of the 1975 Act are taken only after the fullest consideration?

Mr. Clarke

I appreciate that my hon. Friend, who represents an Oxford constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) have a close interest in this matter. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) was lobbying me in the House last night. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office has raised this matter with me, as has my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, my wife was educated at Newnham college, Cambridge. It is obvious that there is considerable, widespread and influential concern about this matter. Obviously we must consider it seriously. I assure my hon. Friends that we are consulting the principals of the colleges most concerned and will take no steps until that consultation is complete.

Mr. Forth

I speak on behalf of liberated women who are not incarcerated in all-women colleges. My right hon. and learned Friend will be undermining the serious principles of equality of opportunity for liberated and confident women who can make their own way in the world if he allows the perpetuation of an anomaly which, if it were done by men, would be castigated and criticised by everybody. Will he give me an assurance that in considering representations from his friends and his right hon. and hon. Friends he will pay equal attention to the considerations of fairness and genuine equality and not allow this anomaly to be perpetuated?

Mr. Clarke

I assure my hon. Friend that we will consult on the widest possible basis and listen to all views. I am absolutely certain that the merits of single-sex education versus co-education are outside my immediate sphere of responsibility, and I shall most emphatic ally put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science all the points that have been made.

Mr. Evans

It is always nice to hear concern for women who apparently have such influential and high-powered friends. No doubt their case will be well heard. May I bring the House back to the position of women at a much lesser level? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that his announcement that the Government intend to remove clauses 3 and 7 is absolutely outrageous? Why is it that when the Government were trying to bribe their Back Benchers to get the Shops Bill through the House they promised that they would enshrine the rights of shopworkers in the legislation, while in this Bill they are apparently happy to remove the rights of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers? Why does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that clause 7 is a valuable protection for millions of workers?

Mr. Clarke

I repeat that we will listen to the arguments. I do not think that we can establish a general principle that every time this House considers modest amendments to employment legislation it is necessary to enshrine in statutory form a rigid protection of the existing position for all existing employees. Indeed, it is not only protection for employees — clause 7 proposes a rigid statutory straitjacket, tighter than that which currently exists, on working conditions in industries.

Those clauses will have to be seriously considered in Committee. Obviously, we have been considering them since they were first introduced in another place. To be fair, I am telling the House today that our reaction to clauses 3 and 7 is unfavourable. To complete the hon. Gentleman's distress, I can tell him that our attitude is much the same to clause 8 on changing hours of work. That clause imposes on all employers proposing significant changes in hours a new statutory duty for the health, safety, welfare and interests of employees, especially those with domestic and family responsibilities. It also allows the Health and Safety Commission to issue a code of practice containing practical guidance on the entirety of that duty.

As I said a few moments ago, the pattern of work that is emerging in today's more modern economy calls for ever-increasing flexibility in working arrangements. This country must not stick to a rigid nine-to-five, five-day week pattern of working in manufacturing or service industries. It is in the interests of both employers and employees to move to more flexible arrangements. There is tremendous growth in the amount of self-employment, part-time employment, short-term working, flexi-hours, varied shift systems and so on.

When we consider in Committee the arguments about clause 8 we will have to address ourselves to the problem that, on the face of it, it appears to impose on any employer wanting to make a change in the hours of work a detailed statutory duty to inquire into the personal interests and circumstances of each and every employee before making those changes. I understand the motives that lay behind clause 8, but I am not satisfied that it is in the interests of women, men or British industry to introduce such a clause.

Mr. Holt

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the implementation date of the Act will be as set out in the Bill? Notwithstanding the consultations between the Health and Safety Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that if they cannot get together and reach a conclusion as they have done with the Bill over a six-year period, any employer who makes substantial changes in the meantime will not be taken to an industrial tribunal and found automatically guilty simply because those two learned bodies have not reached a conclusion?

Mr. Clarke

The lack of agreement is principally between the employers' representatives and the trade union representatives within the Health and Safety Commission. It is our intention to proceed as stated in the Bill. I realise that my hon. Friend believes that it is time to reach a decision on these matters, which continuing consultation is not likely to resolve. It is contrary to the spirit of all legislation to introduce new statutory procedures that employers must follow before they can make any substantial changes in hours of work. We will listen carefully to what is said in a debate on these three new clauses, and obviously these matters will be dealt with in Committee.

To sum up on the repeals, the present legislation is discriminatory and sets obstacles in the way of womens' opportunities in manufacturing industry. For those women it can limit their access to shifts paying premium rates and, moreover, hamper them in gaining necessary experience on the way up the promotion ladder. If it offers them any real protection at all, which I doubt, it is against ills that are singularly vaguely defined, and it does so with very inconclusive results. It imposes burdens on the employer which, in the circumstances, are unnecessary and unjustifiable and which hence should be lifted at the earliest sensible opportunity. It is our intention to do so.

I wish to outline the major addition that the Government intend to make to the Bill in Committee. The House will know that the Government plan to take the opportunity presented by the Bill to give effect in our legislation to the judgment of the European Court of Justice issued on 26 February in the case of Marshall versus South-West Hampshire area health authority.

The judgment stated that it was contrary to article 5(1) of the equal treatment directive for an employer to dismiss a woman solely because she had reached state pensionable age where that age was different for women and men. The court also ruled that the article could be relied upon as against a state authority acting in its capacity as an employer, and to that extent the judgment took effect immediately. The new clause that we shall table will mean that employers must change policies that currently oblige women to retire at an earlier age than men in similar circumstances.

The Government have been concerned to take action as soon as possible following the judgment, to avoid the unsettling effects of uncertainty both for employers and employees. We accordingly carried out a rapid consultation exercise during April, receiving comments from some 90 interested organisations. I am glad to say that there was virtually unanimous support for our view that the judgment should be implemented in the Bill.

It is clearly difficult, if not impossible, to contest the general principle that women should be entitled to work for as long as their male colleagues. I should like to pay a personal tribute to Miss Marshall for her determination in fighting her case and winning a place in the long history of the movement to establish equal rights for women. It is both fair and economically desirable that women who wish to go on exercising their skills and contributing to the economy should be able to do so to the same age as men.

The change marks an important step forward. I urge employers to begin thinking now about any consequential changes they will need to make in their policies. At the same time, I must emphasise the limits of the amendment, in that it will not affect either occupational or state pensions—a question which was not affected by the Marshall judgment, as I explained in the House.

The Government raised the possibility —I imagine hon. Members will refer to it in the debate—in their Green Paper on the reform of social security, issued in June 1985, of moving towards what we described as a decade of retirement in which both men and women could choose to retire between 60 and 70 with a higher or lower pension, depending on whether they retired earlier or later.

There is a strong case for making this a longer term aim, as an effective means of establishing equal treatment between the sexes as well as for other reasons; but the cost implications could, of course, be very substantial as they would for any equalisation of state pension ages below the age of 64. We would certainly not wish to hold up action on the European Court's judgment — even if we were able to do so — until the major questions of future pensions provision were resolved.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that that means that women who retire at 65 will receive a higher pension than men who retire at the same age?

Mr. Clarke

That is the case, and it has always been the case. Anyone who defers his state retirement in this country gets an increment for each year by which he defers it. So long as we have different ages for state retirement, if both men and women remain working until they are 65 the woman will receive a higher pension. On an actuarial basis, she is likely to receive it for longer than her male colleague. In many people's opinion, the state pension system is discriminatory in favour of women. They tend to contribute less and receive their pensions for longer. They can receive a higher pension if they defer retirement. That is a long-standing policy, not touched on by the Bill. I am describing a way forward which would remove any discriminatory effects, and which was canvassed in the Green Paper. We cannot wait for that longer-term aim to be implemented before we act on the Marshall judgment.

We shall also be tabling an amendment to section 47 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, which deals with the provision of single sex training. Under that section, training bodies may offer vocational courses or other encouragement to women only—or to men only—with a view to their entering work in which they are seriously under-represented, or to help them return to the labour market after a spell of domestic or family responsibilities.

The main object of the Act is, of course, to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sex and to promote equal opportunities between men and women. Discrimination in favour of one or the other is allowed only in exceptional circumstances. That is presumably why only the Manpower Services Commission, industrial training boards and training bodies designated for this purpose by the Secretary of State were empowered to run single-sex courses under section 47. I am sure that those who drew up the present Act were right to provide the filter of designation, ensuring that the section would not be abused to undermine the principle of equality then being introduced into law.

However, the situation has changed markedly over the 10 years since the Act came into operation. In particular, much more attention is being given to training women for occupations associated with engineering and new technology, where extra talent is needed to alleviate skill shortages, together with a general public acceptance that such training is justified. This has led to a welcome increase over the past two years in the number of training bodies seeking designation, and there are now some 150 designated bodies compared with 46 at the end of 1983.

We have looked at the situation carefully and concluded that there are no great advantages in retaining designation, and obvious benefits to training bodies in dispensing with the paper work involved in the designation process. Therefore, we intend to remove the need for persons to be designated to run these training courses, although the training would still have to conform to the strict requirements of section 47 in other respects. I must also emphasise that discrimination, including so-called positive discrimination, in recruitment of employees will remain unlawful.

I have described one or two quite important matters which we shall be adding to the Bill in Committee and which I believe will have widespread support in the House. I commend the Bill to the House as one which admirably combines two very desirable objectives—the furthering of equal opportunities and the removal of needless bureaucracy. The Bill will eliminate a number of legal loopholes in our sex discrimination law and bring us more closely into line with Community law. It should also make a modest contribution to labour market flexibility and the ability of business to respond to changed economic and social conditions.

I ask the I louse to give the Bill a Second Reading.

6.35 pm
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the Government's acceptance of the European Community ruling that the Sex Discrimination Act should be strengthened to apply to small firms, private households, partnerships and collective agreements; but declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which fails to apply the Act to collective agreements and which seeks to repeal the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 rather than extending protective legislation to women as well as men. The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment made a most interesting speech. As the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. John Evans) and I followed it, we saw that it was an exact repetition, word for word, of what Lord Young said in the House of Lords. Every now and again the right hon. and learned Gentleman diverted and threw in a bombshell, such as that he would remove—it is a disgraceful move—clauses 3, 7 and 8 from the Bill. Some good debates took place in the House of Lords on those clauses.

The Bill, as the Paymaster General said at the beginning of his speech, needs to be considered and adjudged as two quite separate and, in a way, unrelated pieces of legislation. Clauses 1 and 2 have been forced on the Government by the European Court and the EEC equal treatment directive, when the Court found the United Kingdom's legislation on sex discrimination deficient in three areas— private households, small businesses and collective agreements. The EEC has urged the Government to act on those areas since 1983, when the Court made the ruling. It has taken three years for the Government to do something.

The Government, with their consistent record of obstructing every practical and progressive measure towards promoting real and meaningful equality of opportunity for women, have been delaying ever since, until they found a way to use it as a camouflage for one of their top priority ideological commitments — to dismantle, bit by bit, all employment protection legislation and health and safety regulations, and to further weaken the rights of all workers against exploitation in a so-called free market economy.

Clauses 4 and 5 of the Bill are a direct consequence of the Government's determination to turn back the clock to pre-Victorian conditions of employment for men and women. We must remember that the Government announced their intention to amend and repeal legislation governing women's hours and times of work in what I call the infamous "Lifting the Burden" White Paper — the same paper which lists, among its achievements, extending the qualifying period for unfair dismissal, exempting young people, reducing the scope of regulation of the wages councils and revoking over 300 individual health and safety regulations since 1980. Only this afternoon we have seen the introduction of a further White Paper under the title of "Building Businesses — Not Barriers" which, broadly speaking, has the same theme.

No court ruling on equal opportunities was needed to prod reluctant Tory Ministers into producing those so-called anti-discrimination measures. Clauses 4 and 5 are all their own work. It is true that they have tried to hide their true intentions behind the Equal Opportunities Commission report, published seven years ago, to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, on the question of health and safety legislation which distinguishes between men and women. The commissioners were not in unanimous agreement on the report, and the Health and Safety Executive could not agree on implementation.

However, even this flimsy cover has been blown by, among others, the chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission. She was appointed by the Government and sits on the Government side in the other place. She was forced into moving amendments and dividing the other place against the Government in an attempt to improve a seriously deficient Bill.

I take this opportunity to congratulate those of their Lordships who took a serious interest in the Bill, not only on the changes that they have succeeded in making to it, albeit to be wrecked shortly, but on their thoughtful and sensitive approach to a complex and controversial issue. In distinct contrast to Conservative peers, they demonstrated a genuine commitment to the principle of repealing discriminatory legislation, and an understanding of, and support for, the need for legislation to protect the health, safety and welfare of all workers.

Moreover, they showed an equal commitment to and understanding of the particular consideration that must be given to women in a society such as ours, that still fails to provide the economic and social environment that is a prerequisite of real equality for women. Important amendments were won in the other place, but are now to be lost — not without a fight, I warn the Paymaster General. Amendments affecting partnerships and applications for employment within the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act were accepted by the Government but others, such as protection against unfair dismissal provision for equal protection orders and a code of practice for employers, in clauses 3, 7 and 8, which were forced on the Government, are to be taken out. Even if those clauses were kept in the Bill, it would still have major deficiencies.

We generally welcome clause 1, which brings private households, small businesses and partnerships within the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act. However, we have serious reservations about clause 1 (2)(ba)(ii). We support the provision in subsection (2)(ba)(i) for the freedom of women and men to choose a woman or a man for a job where the employee will be living in a private home, and where there is a real objection to someone of the opposite sex having: the degree of physical or social contact with a person living in the home". However, we cannot and will not accept that the knowledge of intimate details of such a person's life should be allowed to determine the sex of the prospective employee.

The Government have given no clear explanation of the meaning of the words "intimate details" and no coherent reason for including this exemption. The EOC has already given warning that this lack of clarity could give rise to legal conflict, and has asked for subsection (2)(ba)(ii) to be deleted. We shall be tabling an amendment along those lines. I hope that between now and the beginning of the Committee, the Minister will look again at the debate in the other place carefully to see whether that should be done.

We accept that trust and confidence are of vital importance when an employee can obtain information in the course of his or her work in the employer's house, but we do not accept that the sex of the employee is relevant in securing that trust and confidence.

Clause 2 is similarly welcome in principle. It deals with discriminatory terms in collective agreements and any rule made by an employer or an organisation that discriminates against, or treats more favourably, any person employed by, or applying to join, the company. However, because the Government have again chosen to take minimal action —they have opted for voiding such terms and rules—we have serious reservations about the effectiveness of clause 2 as it stands.

We should like an assurance from the Government that the section dealing with the rules of organisations will permit offices and posts to be held exclusively by women as part of an anti-discrimination or positive action policy. This is an extremely important measure that will help to give women some status and help them into better jobs.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Do I understand that the hon. Lady is suggesting positive discrimination — in other words, discrimination against men?

Ms. Richardson

I am suggesting an anti-discrimination, or a positive action policy, which it is important to have. The hon. Member is obviously shocked, but that does not surprise me. It is a shock when somebody challenges the power of men, who have positive discrimination the whole time. We are saying that women should have a bit of positive discrimination and action, and that is the line we intend to pursue in Committee.

Mr. Forth

Not a chance.

Ms. Richardson

Not with you lot over there.

Secondly, we can see no justification for the abolition, through clause 6, of the Central Arbitration Committee's jurisdiction in respect of section 3 of the Equal Pay Act. We consider that this opportunity should have been used to review and strengthen the functions of the CAC, to involve it in the provisions of clause 2, especially with regard to the recently debated EEC 1986–90 programme of action for equal opportunity. Some Conservative Members may have participated in the rather disgraceful exhibition on the Conservative Benches last week. The programme of action announced the Commission's intentions to investigate the feasibility of drafting a directive that would provide for class action in equal pay for work of equal value rulings.

Furthermore, clause 2 fails to provide for the removal of discriminatory items in collective agreements and rules, which means that they will remain unless or until they are removed by renegotiation or as a result of individual complaints and a successful decision in a court or tribunal. Such a piecemeal approach will lead to inconsistencies and confusion for everybody concerned—the individuals, the employees, the employers and the trade unions. It will encourage an increase of unnecessary legislation and conflict, with at best patchy and at worse contradictory agreements and rules. The failure to provide a centrally recognised mechanism for arbitration and enforcement will be particularly problematic in indirect discrimination cases, which have always proved to be the most difficult disputes.

Again I express my horror — that is not too exaggerated a word — over the announcement that the Government intend to delete clause 3. I had intended to say how much I welcomed the clause that was introduced in the other place by Lord Wedderburn of Charlton. My intention was to ask the Government what status is attached to the clause, but thanks to the timely intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch), who quickly managed to nail down the Paymaster General, we now know that it is to be deleted. That is outrageous, as is the removal of clauses 7 and 8.

As the Government intend to repeal protective legislation, clauses 7 and 8 were designed to provide a different kind of protection by the laying down of standards and guidelines. I hope that the Paymaster General intends to listen in Committee to the arguments for the retention of the three clauses. They are extremely important. Without them, the Bill will be horrendous for many women.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Of course we shall listen to the arguments. However, I ask the hon. Lady, who has expressed horror about the possible removal of clause 3, to reflect on the fact that all that has been achieved by clause 3 as it stands is that nothing can be done for at least a year and that another report should be published after further consultation with employers, trade unions and others. I am all in favour of consultation, but does the hon. Lady not accept that there have been six years of discussion and that a complete stalemate has obviously been reached? The only purpose, therefore, of clause 3 is to create futher delay, which I do not believe can be of enormous importance.

Ms. Richardson

There has been a substantial reaction to the Bill from the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Trades Union Congress, the National Council for Civil Liberties and other organisations. Those who followed its passage through the other place warmly welcomed the inclusion of clause 3. We believe that the delay for which it provides will ensure that employers have guidelines to follow. Perhaps "horror" was too exaggerated a word, but it leapt to my lips because I was stunned by the announcement. Nevertheless, I am dismayed that the clause is to be deleted and that the curbing mechanism that is provided for in clause 3 will not be there to provide help for women in many organisations.

Clause 4 repeals important terms and conditions that provide protection for women workers. That is the key to the Government's true purpose in introducing the Bill. The existing legislation guarantees meals and rest breaks, annual holidays and Sundays off. It prevents unreasonable periods of continuous employment and overtime and places healthy restrictions on the hours that are worked by women and on the amount of night work that they may do. I underline the word "healthy".

Mr. Forth

Is the hon. Lady able to tell the House whether the Opposition have any real interest in equality, or whether they have any other idea in mind as to the treatment of men and women? It seems to me that the hon. Lady is much more interested in replacing one kind of discrimination with another instead of wanting true equality, to which I and, and I am sure, my right hon. and hon. Friends, are genuinely committed.

Ms. Richardson

I have yet to see any semblance of commitment by Conservative Members to the principle of equality. I refer to those Conservative Members who sit mainly below the Gangway. In the face of pressure, the Government are not introducing genuine equality——

Mr. Weetch

They are levelling down.

Ms. Richardson

My hon. Friend is right. They are levelling down all the way.

The existing legislation guarantees some semblance of decency that ought to be extended to men. Instead of levelling everybody down arid saying that their conditions of work should be rotten, the decent conditions that have been brought about by these restrictions should be extended to men. I would not oppose taking a rational look at the protective legislation. Valuable protection is provided against exploitation by unscrupulous employers, but it is dismissed by the Government and certain Conservative Members as outmoded and discriminatory.

The Opposition ask for whom these regulations have become outmoded. Why should workers no longer have the right, by law, to refuse to be pressurised into doing double-day shifts and night work? They will have no right to refuse starting times before 7 o'clock in the morning or finishing times later than 9 o'clock at night, or to refuse spells of work lasting more than 4½ hours without a break, or overtime in excess of 54 hours a week.

The Paymaster General referred to some of the points that I have just made, but he did so in what I thought was a slightly caustic and derisive manner, as though we should not really have to bother about them. Obviously he does not want there to be protection of this kind. However, any Government should try to build upon the experience of the working of this legislation and try to improve it so that it covers everybody.

Clause 4 will affect all the firms that were covered by the previous legislation. They include organisations that do not provide the facilities that hon. Members expect to be provided for them when they are working unsocial hours. At certain times of the year we work very unsocial hours and we grumble about them. Although we may think that they are inadequate, some facilities are provided for us. I have been told that there are 30 catering points in this building. They are designed to serve the needs not only of Members of Parliament but of the staff who have to service Members of Parliament. We grumble and think that our conditions should be improved, yet we are denying even that right to women outside Parliament.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

While she is discussing conditions in the House of Commons, will the hon. Lady say whether she is in favour of positive discrimination and of eliminating those rooms that are for ladies only? I should not wish that to happen.

Ms. Richardson

When I first became a Member of Parliament in 1974 I walked down the corridors and came across door after door that was marked "Members Only". I thought to myself, "Ah, I am a Member," walked in and found that it was a gentleman's lavatory. If there are three doors that are marked "Ladies Only", why not? I wish that there were better facilities for female staff. Most of them have to walk a very long way indeed to find a toilet. Hon. Members are protected to a certain extent, but if this clause is passed there will be no protection for those outside Parliament. We must also ask ourselves, discriminatory against whom? The answer must be obvious to everyone.

The Government have turned their back on the logical course for a Government who genuinely wish to overcome the apparent inequality because a responsible, caring Government would have sought to draw up legislation that equally and fairly protects the health, safety and welfare of women and men at work.

Existing statutory minima provide an essential safety net for workers in non-unionised workplaces, the very area where women tend to predominate in the work force. The existing requirement on employers to apply to the inspectorate for annual exemption has provided an important negotiating platform to obtain compensatory environmental and financial improvements for all the workers affected.

Perhaps this provides an example of what the Government mean when they talk about lifting unnecessary burdens or lowering the barriers from employers. We believe that the abolition of such protection without statutory provision for a transitional period, which would have been provided in clause 3, and without statutory provision for equal protection for women and men, is a serious regressive step, especially in the current economic climate of mass unemployment and increasing poverty coupled with the general attacks upon employment and trade union rights that the Government have actively promoted.

The Bill furthers a course that has as a priority objective the creation of an unprotected, unorganised, insecure work force that is open to equal exploitation in the sweatshops and the so-called entrepreneurial businesses that this Government promote in the hope that they will fill the vacuum that they have created in destroying our manufacturing industry by pursuing laissez-faire dogma. Clause 5 provides the last plank in the Government's equal exploitation platform.

The Paymaster General gave a witty reminiscence of his time in the baking industry between student days and work. That was a very long time ago, and he was in a rather different situation in that he did not expect to work in that industry for the whole of his life.

Mr. Evans

He was there only two months.

Ms. Richardson

The bakers themselves do not want these restrictions to be removed. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North well knows, bakers already work the longest hours of any group in the industrial sector.

The Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 was implemented after decades of conflict and dispute in the baking industry. The Equal Opportunities Commission and the bakers' union have both opposed the repeal and have called for the Act to be extended to women. We do no more at this stage than call upon the Government to follow their advice.

Before concluding, I wish to refer in passing to two or three points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned as additions that he will introduce to the Bill. I cannot think why they were not included when the Bill was printed for the House of Lords. It would have been interesting to have the benefit of their debates upon these quite difficult points that the Government will bring forward.

First, we support the idea of equal treatment in retirement, which has great benefits for women who want to go on working and with respect to equalisation for men. I believe that both that and the decade for retirement has to be seen in the context of a consideration of the whole question of pensions. I know that some hon. Members say that retirement has nothing to do with pensions, but that is how people outside see it. They want to know that the pension for women at 60 is preserved. Men have been agitating for a long time—I know that it is costly—for their pension age to be brought down to 60. I understand that this is not something one can do in a flash.

In order to deal rationally with the question of retirement the Government must consult—indeed, they probably have already done so or will do so — the Department of Health and Social Security about pensions provision and ensure that as a result of the differences there are no discrepancies and dilemmas.

I am opposed to the removal of single-sex training courses. I did not even guess that the Paymaster General might be going to do that—or did I get this wrong?

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

We are all in favour of single-sex training courses that comply with the terms of the Act providing training, usually exclusively, for women in occupations where there is a need to increase the supply. The only proposal that we make here is to remove the requirement for each one to be designated by the Secretary of State for Employment. It was intended as a protection against abuse, but it is now quite unnecessary paperwork. The legislation will make it easier to have courses designated as single-sex courses in suitable places. They will still have to comply with the legislation.

Ms. Richardson

I am grateful and relieved that that is so. We shall, of course, consider this when the right hon. and learned Gentleman brings forward the legislation.

May I remind the House that when the Sex Discrimination Bill was introduced in another place Lord Young described the existing legislation as restricting working women's employment opportunities. It is our view that the Bill will not improve women's employment opportunities at all and that it was never intended so to do. Indeed, it is our view that the end result of clauses 4 and 5—particularly without the protection of clause 3—and of clauses 7 and 8 will be to force many women out of the workplace while many who remain will increasingly face serious domestic difficulties.

In the recent debate on the Shops Bill, Opposition Members and some Conservative Members showed that they understood the special significance of that legislation for women. I think that the effect on women was a powerful factor in the decision to throw out the Shops Bill. If the Government truly intended to provide for any improvement in women's access to employment, they would be laying a statutory duty upon local authorities to provide child care facilities, as the next Labour Government will do; and real community care for disabled or elderly dependants, as the next Labour Government will do; and provide the resources for local authorities to meet those statutory requirements. They would be encouraging affordable improved public transport with higher staffing levels to ensure safe, secure travel, especially at night, instead of hiving off bus routes and starving the public sector of funds.

If the Government had a real commitment to equality, they would be tackling all these things to make it easier to go out to work and in some senses to look to the removal of the protective legislation. Instead, against the background of mass unemployment, increased poverty and a decaying infrastructure that this Government have created, their proposals will lead to further inequality and less freedom of choice for women. They will increase the already too prevalent attitude and reality that women alone should carry the burdens of unpaid domestic work, caring and rearing and paid employment while the state and employers withdraw from any responsibility to provide the support services that are required.

For many, the lack of protection and the burden created by the lack of support services will in the long run prove unbearable. I call on my right hon. and hon. Friends and on any other Members of the House who feel able to do so to support the Opposition amendment.

7.9 pm

Mrs. Elizabeth Shields (Ryedale)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech.

I should like first to pay tribute to the former hon. Member for Ryedale, the late Mr. John Spence. He was a modest, conscientious and well-known constituency Member. His sudden death came as a great shock to us all. I met him on several civic occasions, when he was unfailingly pleasant and courteous. He will be greatly missed in the constituency and I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in extending deepest sympathy to his wife and family. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

A fortnight ago the electorate of Ryedale bestowed on me the great honour of representing them here. For my part I have promised to do my utmost for all my constituents and to ensure that their major problems, which derive directly or indirectly from Government policies, are raised in Parliament.

This Mother of Parliaments has seen many fine sons of all shades of political opinion grace this hallowed Chamber, not least, of course, those who have sat on the Liberal Benches. But the number of her daughters is far too few for the continuing health of the nation. A balance between the sexes is both desirable and necessary. I trust that in the not-too-distant future there will be a greater representation on all Benches of the House of the nationwide majority. I take special pride in being the first Liberal lady Member elected since 1951 and only the fifth in the history of my party, the last being the daughter of David Lloyd George. I believe that some of the values and sensitivity that women can bring to public life are unfortunately absent from politics today.

By tradition new Members may say something about their own constituencies. Ryedale, stretching 60 miles from the market town of Easingwold in the west to Filey on the coast in the east, and 50 miles from the northern suburbs of York to the breathtaking beauty of our Yorkshire moors and dales, is one of the largest constituencies in England. However, many people, including members of the press, have found Ryedale something of an enigma because there is no specific town or village of that name, although we have a river Rye. Ryedale's exact geographical location has therefore caused not a little puzzlement to the many interested parties who, for one reason or another, found it compelling to visit us in recent weeks. I should like to clear up one misconception: Ryedale, like Wensleydale, is a very attractive tourist area of north Yorkshire, but unlike Wensleydale, Ryedale is not a variety of cheese.

Ryedale's greatest asset is its people who, with their genuine, innate warmth and friendliness, combined with the straightforward, outspoken way of calling a spade a spade, make this part of north Yorkshire the best place in which to live or take a holiday. Beautiful it certainly is, but many people of all ages throughout Ryedale have a housing problem. The Government's right-to-buy legislation has enabled council tenants in all three districts within the constituency to purchase their property, a measure with which I agree.

However, Ryedale district council has a statutory responsibility to provide rented accommodation for specific groups of people. More than 2,000 are at present on the waiting list, of whom some 900 are in real need. Therefore, when housing stock is being sold off there is a need for new build to cope with the demand. The embargo on the spending of the district's own capital receipts—except for one fifth—hits unnecessarily hard at a council one of whose priorities is to provide decent, adequate housing for the elderly and indigent.

Our rural communities will also suffer from the results of the Transport Act 1985 on bus services, in that village routes through Sheriff Hutton and Foston, Coxwold, Wass, Byland, Duggleby and the Barughs have not been tendered for. These sound rather quaint but the quaintness of the names belies the fact that real people live there. Even the main service from York through Malton to the coast will be severely curtailed in the evenings and on Sundays. I hope that before October, when the Act comes into force, more routes will be registered and the anticipated competition for less popular areas will materialise, but even the subsidies to be provided by the North Yorkshire county council will have disappeared by 1990. Many villages could then be totally cut off.

I should like to draw attention to the fact that great concern is being expressed by residents at Filey, where the threatened removal of the local coastguard next year is causing considerable alarm. The population of Filey and its hinterland is increased many times to about 100,000 during the summer months as tourists flock into this popular resort. The great bay of Filey, eight miles round, is watched over by a special lookout at the coastguard station. As soon as any swimmer, or a boat or any of its occupants is in difficulty, takes very little time to go to the rescue.

But if, as has been suggested, Filey's deceptively beautiful bay is deprived of its watchman, and the responsibility for the safety of the many children and adults who use it is delegated to Scarborough and Bridlington, each with its own stretch of coastline, I shall share with the people of Filey the fear of many tragic consequences. I feel sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House, especially those whose constituencies include part of our coastline or its innumerable islands situated offshore, will sympathise in this matter, which is not political, but a question of human safety, and one in which monetary considerations must not be the overriding factor.

But many people in my constituency are really worried —not so much for themselves and the present as for their children and their future. Ryedale has extensive rural areas with some 200 village communities, many of which support a local school. Sadly, several of these first-class village schools, such as Ganton, Reighton with Speeton and Flaxton, are under threat of closure. This is due to cuts in staff by 0.4 or 0.6 of a teacher, which effectively leaves the head teacher as the only responsible adult on the premises for two or even three days a week. Apart from the obvious safety risks, dedicated, well-qualified and trained primary teachers are thus being deprived of employment. This is a waste of a human resource—the most important resource that any country can have.

As an educationist, I obviously have a special interest in all aspects of the system. The confusion over the introduction of the GCSE examination, the enforced early retirement of university teachers, the reduction by 20 per cent. in the real value of student grants since 1979 and the generally low ebb at which morale in the teaching profession is standing, show that a major reassessment of education policies is urgently required. Although a new Minister has now been appointed—I wish him well and hope that one of his priorities will be the GCSE—I remind hon. Members that it was a Liberal Government who introduced free education in 1870. It may take another Liberal Government to restore morale in the primary and secondary sectors and maintain standards in further and higher education.

The Sex Discrimination Bill which is the subject of today's debate aims to amend the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 so that it comes into line with the European Community directives on the equal treatment of men and women. I hope that equality of opportunity will, as a result of the Bill, enable more women in the teaching profession to reach positions of seniority as deputies or heads of school. Too often, their inability to gain success in that way is not due to lack of qualifications, training, or experience, but simply to the fact of their sex.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has argued that conditions of work should be good for men and women. The protection that has been afforded to men in the baking industry through the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 should now be afforded to women. Good conditions for all should be the objective. The Labour party amendment is addressed to that point, but my hon. Friends and I believe that it does not go far enough. In spite of the Bill's inadequacies in that respect, we believe that it is a useful measure. We intend to vote for it tonight and I hope to have the chance to amend the Bill in Committee.

On 8 May, the people of Ryedale gave me the opportunity to become their voice in Parliament. Today, I have had the opportunity to make my first contribution. I thank the House for its attention and look forward to playing an active part in the debates that lie before us.

7.21 pm
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

We have just heard an excellent maiden speech,. I think that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) began her speech well by paying tribute to our late colleague. We all knew Mr. John Spence and liked him very much, and I think that his place in this House is now temporarily adorned by the hon. Lady.

In a sense, I am also making a maiden speech. I am following a maiden speech and I have not done that before. I am also speaking in a debate on sex discrimination and I have definitely not done that before. Yesterday, I desperately wanted to speak in the debate on shipbuilding and was allocated four minutes in which to speak. Today, when I did not want to speak on sex discrimination, I have been allocated the rest of the evening. There must be a reason for that.

Mr. Evans

Does that not speak volumes for the Tory party?

Mr. Holt

The hon. Gentleman's intervention shows one of the fundamental differences between Conservative Members and Labour Members. Labour Members have no sense of humour and no sense of occasion. On an issue such as this, the hon. Gentleman is trying to bring in some petty party point.

There is a more serious reason why I am speaking in this debate. For many years I have worked in personnel in factories. More specifically, in connection with clause 5, I am married to the baker's daughter. In that context, I have a little more experience than my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General, who introduced the Bill.

The underlying principle of the Bill is the Government's philosophy that we must seek equality. I found it destroying to listen to the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) speaking from the Opposition Front Bench—not for equality but for discrimination in favour of ladies. That is the absolute negation of what the European Community has wanted, what the hon. Member for Ryedale said, and what the Government have set out to achieve.

In all my years in personnel, I have found it strange when writing contracts of employment, when engaging people and dealing with such matters in factories where people did identical jobs—usually the ladies were better than the men—that we had to have legislation enshrined in the contracts in such a way as to destroy job opportunities and not to create them. Today we must all try, whatever our political stance, to improve job prospects and opportunities for those who are unfortunately unemployed.

It is never easy for the Opposition to look across at the Government Benches and point a finger at the Tory party when it comes to sex discrimination. We have a lady Prime Minister.

Mr. Evans

That is the problem.

Mr. Holt

If the hon. Gentleman wants to make an intelligent contribution to the debate, I will happily give way to him. However, if he wants to continue shouting from a sedentary position, I would prevail upon you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to tell him to shut up.

Certain clauses in the Bill will be debated in Committee. I am happy to say that I will not be on the Committee because I have done my porridge for this year, last year, and the year before. However, I would like to consider the part that relates to the protection that is supposed to be enshrined in current legislation. All that protection is discriminatory. It is a change to refer to the hon. Member for Barking as "the hon. Lady opposite speaking for the Labour party" as distinct from "the hon. Lady opposite" which would automatically have meant that she was speaking for the Labour party. We must now make the distinction, albeit for a short period, and we will enjoy making that distinction——

Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)

I fancy my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale's chances better than the hon. Gentleman's. She is 5:4 on.

Mr. Holt

The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me.

Restrictions on hours and starting and finishing times do not apply to 7.5 million working women in this country. Those women can drive buses, serve all night on their own and lonely in a hospital ward or they can spend all night entertaining people in strip shows. However, they cannot work on a Saturday or a Sunday in a factory legitimately producing manufactured goods so that we can sell those goods and improve job prospects. It is time that that arcane law was thrown out; the reform is long overdue. It is strange that the Labour party should want to oppose that. I was pleased to hear that the Liberal party will support the Bill in the Lobby this evening. That shows that the Labour party is out of touch with the realities of the workplace and the work force when it comes to creating job opportunities and removing this kind of petty restriction which has existed for far too long.

To revert to my personal experiences in the baking trade, I first met my wife shortly after her father had died leaving the family business to his widow. She was quite able to go into the bakery at all hours of the day and night as the proprietor, unprotected by unnecessary legislation, to work and make bread, to knead the dough. But she could not have employed another lady to share her labours instead of other men, because she would have been restricted by unnecessary and outmoded legislation. We should remember that it is not rare for a lady suddenly to find herself at the head of a business on the death of her husband.

However. the Labour party wants to perpetuate that legislation. Indeed, it wants to extend it so that the baking hours even now worked by men would be curtailed so that we would not have that lovely home-made fresh bread that comes only from the small baker, not the large multiples. If we stick with the family baker, we shall have our fresh bread, but we should help by voting for the Bill this evening. This is the sort of positive discrimination that we want — positive decisions to remove ridiculous old-fashioned out-dated legislation.

I shall not speak all night, despite the encouragement from the Government Front Bench and colleagues elsewhere. Like the hon. Member for Ryedale, I too represent a constituency in that part of the world. My constituency is 20 miles north of Ryedale in the north Yorkshire moors, and it is a beautiful part of the country. I look forward to seeing the hon. Member for Ryedale, here during the period that she graces us. That time will, I am sure, be like the life of a butterfly —short and beautiful.

However, one of the things that I can guarantee is that the hon. Lady will be in a different position from many of us. Whereas we shall labour for hours and hope to be called, she will shortly be a Front Bench spokesman for something because that is the way the portfolios go round in the Liberal party. If she is a Front Bench spokesman for the ladies, I hope that she will continue to support the Government in this type of legislation, making the ladies' lot in the world better.

7.31 pm
Mr. Ken Weetch (Ipswich)

I cannot emulate the entertainment value of the speech by the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt), which I followed carefully.

The Bill is a mess. Three of its clauses are at variance with the rest. There are conflicts of principle. A few minutes ago the Paymaster General announced that the Bill will undergo major surgery in Committee. It will undergo more than major surgery, because three of the clauses will disappear. That will be a massacre. Therefore, the Bill is completely unsatisfactory in its conception.

The Bill has its roots in the fact that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 falls short of meeting European obligations in a number of respects. That is particularly so with regard to access to employment, vocational training, promotion and working conditions.

The House should welcome parts of the Bill 'while expressing some sharp reservations about the consequences of some parts for women workers. Even without the three clauses that the Government intend to remove, we still have two Bills because there are two distinct principles. One is to conform with the European directive which was based on a court case brought by the Commission, and the second is to embrace regulation more intensively in some areas of industrial working conditions.

We are debating whether we can agree in principle with the basic objects of the legislation as put by the Government. I agree with some of the Government's basic aims, but they will not be achieved by the Bill.

I welcome the Government's acceptance of the EC ruling that the Sex Discrimination Act should he strengthened so that equal opportunities are promoted between men and women. Labour Members would certainly support that. Secondly, I can sympathise with any move to remove outdated legislative burdens which decrease efficiency and competitiveness. Those are two sound objectives.

However, I regret that the Government accepted the EEC ruling with bad grace. If one reads carefully the proceedings of the debate in the other place on the Bill, one sees that the Government embraced the EEC ruling with some reluctance. In fact, Lord Young, in arguing his case in the other place, said categorically that he was accepting it because he had to, not because he had any great agreement with the principle.

It is disappointing to learn that the Government are only accepting the EEC ruling in extending the 1975 Act to small firms, private households, partnerships and collective agreements. We are disappointed that the Government are doing that with some reluctance. One can sum up the Government's position in a sentence. They are grasping the legal obligation to the EEC and its framework, but they are in no way embracing the spirit in which the reform has been proposed.

I listened carefully to the Paymaster General. He said, first, that there is some confused thinking among Opposition Members. I would say to him that there is a lot of confused thinking behind the Bill.

It is possible to take three approaches. It is possible to scrap all regulations so that everybody is made equal in that nobody is protected. The second approach, the one traditionally made by the Factory Acts in Britain, is to consider certain special categories of people such as women and children, make regulations to protect them, and then level up the regulations so that they protect men as well. The third approach, which is broadly the one that I would favour, is to say that there are special areas of employment in Britain where women need protection. I have no hesitation in saying that.

Therefore, I disagree to some extent with the Equal Opportunities Commission's argument that deregulation would be a good way to make everybody equal. The Equal Opportunities Commission's report of 1979 argued that there should be deregulation but that there should be a code of practice as a safety net so that when the Bill became law its disadvantages would be limited.

The Bill is unsatisfactory. It involves some complex thinking. Industrial and factory legislation and conditions of work have always been a complex legislative area. I have substantial reservations about the Bill and those reservations are shared by the TUC and by unions such as the Confederation of Health Service Employees. Some 80 per cent. of the members of that union are female and view the Bill with critical interest. My reservations are about clauses 4, 5 and 6 because they deal specifically with removing restrictions on the number of hours that women can work in certain industries, especially the baking industry. Clause 4 would allow women in factories to be freely employed at night, on Sundays, on shift work, and between overtime starting and finishing times. The clause would also remove restrictions on the hours, including hours at night, during which women may work in mines and quarries.

Let us come to the brass tacks of the argument. One either believes that there should be protection for women in certain industries such as mines or quarries and in industries where conditions are difficult and pay is low, or one does not. I commend the Government for their honesty. They say there should not be protection and that is because they are proposing to deregulate and saying that that is the path to equality. There is a substantial disadvantage in that approach. I take the traditional view of factory legislation. Certain categories of people should be protected by legislation and when one sets up a demolition exercise to sweep a lot of it away, one will have attendant disadvantages.

Mr. Holt

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us how many members of COHSE work in factories that are covered by current legislation?

Mr. Weetch

The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) must take a narrow view of people's interests. There is no reason why people in one occupation cannot have sympathy for people in another. That is a sympathetic view of life, but obviously the hon. Gentleman does not hold such a view. It is commendable that people who work in the public sector have some thought for people who work in more difficult industries in which people have to labour for long hours and low pay. There ought to be more sympathetic consideration between occupational groups.

We must be careful before we play fast and loose with the legislative protection that women have at work. Factory legislation has taken a long time to accumulate and immense efforts by all sorts of social groups and the trade union movement have gone into it. I am doubtful about the basic proposition advanced by the Government. I note the argument used by Lord Young in the other place and it brings me to my second point. I shall paraphrase what the noble Lord said: This Bill will mean that women will have access to often higher paid nightwork, shift jobs and better promotion prospects. All these things may widen women's job marketability, and make them available for a wider range of work. I will believe that when I see it.

Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

A number of women in my constituency have written to me requesting precisely this change. They object to the present restraints and want to see the change in this Bill enacted.

Mr. Weetch

One has to set one person's experience against the experience of another. I have had letters expressing the opposite view. I ask the hon. Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood): has there been any systematic study in Britain to show that if this legislation is passed women could expect to have a significantly better deal because of wider market opportunities? The argument underlying the Bill says that there are lots of opportunities for women and that women are waiting in the wings and will better themselves as a result of this legislation. That argument has not been subjected to systematic study. I certainly know of no research body that has reached that conclusion. It may well be that things will alter at the margin here and there, but in the wider sense the Bill is not a significant step.

How convincing is this talk of wider scope which will occur in practice and give women more opportunities for jobs, higher wages and better conditions? I am advised by people who have a lot of experience in industries which I shall presently name and which would be altered in a substantial way by this legislation, that the case is not proven. There are few good jobs restricted to men for which women are likely to be substituted if this legislation goes through and if protective legislation is abandoned. That is because the industries to which much of the discussion has been directed are in textiles and baking and in other industries where wages are low and where the protection given to women is likely to be put into total jeopardy because of deregulation.

Clauses 4. 5 and 6 are not necessarily in the Bill to make it comply with European directives. That is quite a separate principle. We are talking about the principle of deregulation as opposed to the principle that arises from compliance with the European Court case and the directive. They are totally separate things and need to be separately argued. The Government are set on a course of quite widespread and wholesale deregulation, even though there is no practical value in that. They are motivated purely by ideological considerations and about arguing for its own sake. That is not an allegation: it is a substantive fact.

If we are not careful, the legislation that protects certain vulnerable groups will go the same way as wages councils and other instruments of welfare. This notion of the Government stems from unregulated free enterprise rather than from any notion of social advance. That is why there is a substantial set of arguments against this legislation. An unjustified parallel has been drawn between night work in public services and night work in factories. In the public services, nights are already worked by women, but to transfer that principle and say that it applies to factories and mines and quarries as well, does not stand up in a practical sense. Factory legislation and the whole notion of industrial welfare has been built up case by case. That is why I firmly believe that clause 3 should remain.

It is all very well for the Paymaster General to stand at the Dispatch Box and read out some of the complications of the legislation. Welfare legislation across the board is complicated because it has grown up organically to meet special considerations. There is no escaping that. To sweep it all away and say that it is simpler to do that, and therefore much better, is an argument which will not stand up.

Factory work is different. It is often associated with working on machinery and being constantly vigilant to avoid industrial injury. There is a great danger that women will be open to risks arising from a combination of a lack of regulation of the hours at the place of work, particularly at night.

I do not shrink from saying that I take the traditional view of factory and industrial legislation. It has been built up over a long period, has been hammered out by collective bargaining, and put into legislation because people have considered that to be the constructive, detailed way forward. We should think long and hard before we put that legislation under the hammer in the cause of deregulation.

I do not wish to say much more because there is a danger of straying into Committee-type material. The principle of large parts of the Bill is that in order to give women greater opportunities and to put them on all fours with men, it is necessary to make inroads into industrial welfare legislation. The two things do not go together. It is a logical fallacy. One can have one without the other. For that reason the legislation is misconceived in principle. It is misleading because no more jobs will be available in areas where women traditionally have not been able to compete, and conditions for women at work will worsen in terms of health and safety.

If I am selected to serve on the Committee I shall resist strongly the removal of clause 3, which is the traditional approach to factory welfare legislation, which we should retain. The matter was debated at great length in the other place. It was an interesting debate and some perceptive points were made. The clause was won on a hard-fought amendment, and we shall see a great deal of hard debate in Committee. I hope that the Government's attempts will be resisted, and that they fail. I shall certainly be part of the opposition.

The Opposition's amendment provides the correct approach. We welcome certain aspects of the Bill, and reject others because we believe that they are wrong in principle. But that must be argued in Committee. At this stage the argument is essentially between substantial deregulation and saving what beneficial general factory legislation we can. The Opposition are right. The Government are seeking the lowest common denominator, whereas the Opposition are seeking the highest common factor in industrial welfare. I believe that we shall have much support in the country.

7.54 pm
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) on an excellent maiden speech. It is strange that during this debate she should remind us that she is the first lady hon. Member on the Liberal Benches since 1951, and only the fifth or sixth in the history of the Liberal party. I feel sure that she will persuade her party that there should be a little less discrimination and a few more candidates of her sex. That is an act of positive discrimination that one expects from time to time in politics.

The hon. Lady has said that she comes from a beautiful area, which I know, and that it has a coastline. As I represent an area which includes Ashby-de-la-Zouch, which is the furthest point from the sea in whichever direction one goes, I envy her. I certainly enjoy the coast, and especially boating. She mentioned lifeboats and having once been rescued by a lifeboat I know how valuable and important that service is. She said that the Liberal party hoped to restore teachers' morale. but as someone who is in education, I can assure her that Conservative Members do not intend to wait to the year 2086 for that. We look for a restoration of teachers' morale in the near future.

As is so often the case, I follow the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch). When I refer to him as an hon. Gentleman it has great meaning because he is in every way a gentleman. He does not deny that his approach to the Bill is the old-fashioned approach of a gentleman towards a lady. He feels that women need the protection of legislation, and speaks of protection for women. But I often wonder whether he is talking of protection from women. He rather reminds me of the story, which we all know, of the boy scout and the blind lady. The boy scout insists on leading her across a road, despite her wish not to cross the road but to continue on her way. I often wonder whether that is not the case with the protectionists' approach to legislation, and whether in this day and age women want that protection.

The Conservative party and I believe that women feel that they do not require the protection that was there formerly. Heaven forbid that we shall see women down the mines and in the quarries. I know that in my constituency, which includes many mines, the local National Union of Mineworkers and possibly the Union of Democratic Mineworkers would throw up their hands in horror at a woman at the pit face. I know that last century they used to work there and that many of us would dislike it, but at the end of the day that would be the choice.

Some women enjoy the sort of work that was formerly very much the province of men—for example, repairing cars. The numbers of girls who are taking courses in engineering and car repairs is amazing. One sees them covered in grease as only young men would have been previously. One sees that they enjoy every minute of it and have a thorough knowledge of the engines.

It is a changing world, and one to which we must accommodate ourselves. I am anxious to get used to the changing world. I have a 17-year-old daughter. She, like many other young women, wants to get somewhere in life and achieve something. They do not want only to be wives. I used the wrong phrase; to be a wife is honourable, decent and nice. I am not saying that to be a wife and mother is in any way a lesser job. It is as major a job as any other, but many women do not wish to go down only that path. That is their choice. Educational opportunities are open to them now that were not available previously, and they wish to take full advantage of them.

I do not know whether I welcome the legislation, because I am never happy with legislation that forces people to change their views and attitudes—we have had a series of such Bills over the years and it is a great pity that they have been necessary. I recognise that such Bills resulted in changes being made, but I wonder whether they created change or followed change. Many of the changes occurred before the legislation. I imagine that a great many women work the sort of hours that the Bill is proposing, but no complaint has been made. They are ahead of the legislation.

As a free trader, I believe in a meritocracy. It is never right or proper to discriminate on any ground whether it be race, sex or colour. Those barriers have been broken down and will continue to be broken down because of the great social changes that have taken place in Britain, especially since the war. It is now accepted that a woman has a right to work equal to her husband's.

Much home life is shared jointly between husbands and wives. I shall not name the hon. Members who have working wives. I telephone them and ask them what they are doing and they say, "I am looking after the baby. This is my bisque night, my night off. My wife is doing something else." The changes have already taken place. To some extent some legislation shuts the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The problem with discrimination is that it is difficult to prove. It is often subtle and, in evidential terms, negligible. One cannot put one's finger on it or demonstrate it. It is not written down in black and white. It is subtle and difficult to deal with. I am always worried about passing legislation that is unenforceable. I welcome the legislation because the freeing of the restrictions would free much of what is unenforceable.

Ms. Richardson

The hon. Gentleman said that some of the discrimination was so subtle that he could not put his finger on it, but some of it is very unsubtle, such as the fact that three quarters of women work for just over two thirds of man's pay. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is an unsubtle way of confirming women in their dependent position?

Mr. Ashby

I repeat that I believe in a meritocracy. That answers the question of the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson), because it shows that I agree with her. I believe in equal work for equal pay. I am by profession a lawyer. There are many women members of the Bar, and there has been no discrimination since women came to the Bar, although obviously it existed previously in terms of equal pay for equal value and equal work. The fee for defending someone is set; whether one is a man or a woman, one gets that fee. I have worked for a considerable time in a profession that is completely undiscriminatory in that sense. It has been like that since I had the honour to be called to the Bar about 23 years ago.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Loughborough)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the fact that the pay for male and female barristers is in balance owes nothing at all to any statutory obligation on the part of clients to pay the same to a male as to a female, but owes everything to the excellence of the people concerned? It is not an obligation imposed by law, but something that emerges by concensus.

Mr. Ashby

It goes further than that. It owes itself to the excellence of the clerk who negotiates the best fee for his barrister, whether a man or a woman. I agree that we have never required legislation to have equality at the Bar, and it is much better that it should be so. The changes that are taking place, the social and economic shifts and the other ordinary things that have happened have had a greater effect and will ultimately provide greater and total equality between the sexes at the workplace.

In other professions, too, no legislation has been required to give complete equality. In most Government Departments, there has been no real need for specific legislation to provide equality. There is equality in the medical profession, and no legislation was needed to provide it.

The area in which most discrimination arises is the most difficult for which to legislate. That worries me because it is totally wrong; indeed, it is monstrous. That discrimination occurs in small and medium-sized businesses. Often, larger businesses are ready and willing to take on women. In smaller and medium-sized businesses, one seldom finds female production managers, sales managers, sales directors or production directors. In such businesses, women are relegated to the job of secretary, or to the boring, repetitious jobs at the machine end, doing one process after another at a machine. I do not suggest that such jobs are not necessary and vital. Indeed, some women work in areas where decisions are made, and can show their full value.

I accept that women are different. Thank goodness that I can discriminate between men and women. Women have a special place. There are some things that women do much better than men. People say that women are often more perceptive than men. Women, in a subtle way, can often tell better than men whether someone is telling the truth. In business, there are areas where women are sometimes better than men.

Women have something valuable to give to medium and smaller-size businesses. Some women have a great deal of business acumen and they have succeeded at business management schools and universities. When they reach the next stage, getting a job, they often turn to large businesses. I would like to see far more women in small businesses? It is an area where they could give much. An increased number of women university graduates in business studies would lead to a better quality of managerial staff. Much of the country's wealth can be made in small businesses and they would profit from the better managerial quality that women offer.

Mr. Dorrell

Does my hon. Friend also agree that one of the interesting phenomena of the last few years is that there has not only been a big expansion in the small business sector but a willingness on the part of women to set up their own small businesses? Women's participation in the small business sector is one of the interesting new social phenomena of the past few years.

Mr. Ashby

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He is absolutely right. The problem is that, so often, women feel that they have to set up their own businesses to give full expression to their abilities. That is sad because there is a great place for women in small businesses. I do not mean the smallest of businesses but those which employ between 200 or 400 employees. Often, it is only the large businesses which have the courage and perspicacity to employ women of calibre and ability in managerial positions.

When we consider schools we appreciate the problems and subtle discriminations that occur. We have often said that the quality of school leavers, especially males, is bad, but what is happening in our schools is not understood. A few years ago the male school leaver, who did not have great managerial ability and who did not aspire to a managerial position, would leave and take a job in a factory or another labouring job. Now, the male school leaver aspires towards managerial jobs even though he may not have the ability for such a job. The boys stay on longer and look for a better job. I do not blame them for doing so but they often look for a job which is beyond their ability.

Girls tend to leave school at a younger age than boys and take the jobs that the young men would have taken some years ago. That is subtle discrimination. Employers may say that they get young men of 19 coming from school, who cannot read or write properly. The girls come to the employers at the age of 16 or 17 and they can read and write and are very bright indeed. The girls are leaving school earlier than boys yet they may have a good deal of ability and could stay on for higher education and achieve more.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that people leave school unable to read or write has nothing to do with sex discrimination? It depends on the money which is put into their educational facilities. If the money is not put in, the pupils do not get the right educational opportunities.

Mr. Ashby

No, I do not agree. Thank goodness, we are all individuals and everyone is different. One could pour millions of pounds into the education of some individuals but they would never read or write properly because they do not want to. Such people do not aspire to managerial work but they are given hopes beyond their abilities and expectations. That is not a fair reflection on the teachers. Many teachers spend a great deal of time trying to get people to read and write but at the end of the day they have no success.

A careers master told me that one out of every 10 young school leavers cannot be placed in a job. He said that one could pick that person out at the age of 12 or 13. Such children are given a great deal of care. At the end of the day, they do not wish to stay at school, they are not interested in work and they leave unable to read or write, despite the efforts of teachers. Employers are not terribly happy to have such people and they would positively discriminate in favour of the better educated person.

It would be an unfair reflection on the excellent school in my constituency to suggest that the staff were bad teachers to allow that one person to go through school and to leave without being able to read or write adequately. The teachers have tried all they can but they have not been successful.

Mrs. Shields

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I have come recently from the teaching profession and I know that practically no child leaves the school in which I was teaching without being able to read or write, and that applies to boys as well as girls.

We need teachers to cope with those who are slower learners. We need to have special remedial departments. In recent years, with falling rolls, the school numbers have been cut but, instead of giving the schools the opportunity to have smaller classes and to give more attention to the individual child, they have been faced with staff cuts. Over the past three years at my school, five members of staff have had to go. If those staff had been retained those who are slower learners would have had more attention and would have been properly looked after. It is a great shame that, 20 years ago, the Conservatives were encouraging married women to take a two-year course to go into teaching so that there could be smaller classes but now that we have smaller classes they say we must get rid of the teachers.

Mr. Ashby

I do not know what the special situation is with regard to the hon. Lady's education authority—[HON. MEMBERS]:"It applies to all". Since the Conservatives came to power in 1979 the average numbers in schools have consistently dropped. That suggests that the pupil-teacher ratio has dropped and that suggests that more teachers are available than before. That is a statistical fact although I accept that, as with all statistics, there are some areas to which it does not apply.

The hon. Lady said that practically no children left her school unable to read or write adequately. I noted that she said "practically", as that is my experience of the school about which I was talking.

Mrs. Shields

I am talking about one in 10 years.

Mr. Ashby

I am afraid that I come across far greater numbers than that in London, not in my constituency. We know about the special problems in the Inner London education authority and its failures. I have seen inspectors' reports which speak of its failures. That shows how badly a Labour-controlled authority can run education. I lay the blame entirely at the door of the Labour party. It has been party political and it is unable to run London's schooling properly.

I have mentioned women's hours of work and the need to free them to enable them to work the hours that they want. Many factories work flexi-hours in my constituency and others work split shifts. The latter have been of great benefit and work extremely well. The factories work day and night. The women are grateful and I have found nothing but happiness at how they are working. I recommend that system.

My right hon. and learned Friend spoke of retirement pensions and what will happen in view of the recent decision of the European Court of Justice. It is monstrously unfair that women should not be entitled to choose their retirement date in parity with men. That is a long-overdue development. I would welcome greater flexibility and parity. I am aware that that would be extremely expensive, but I hope that we shall work towards it. It will take time, but it is a goal worth aiming for.

Mr. Dorrell

I entirely agree that the signs that changes in retirement law may be written into the Bill in Committee brings into the debate something of enormous importance to all of our constituents. Would my hon. Friend like to give his views about a compulsory retirement age? The Bill is concerned with giving women greater access to work. It seems to me the principle of a compulsory retirement age, whether 60 or 65, is something that the House may wish to consider in much greater detail than it has so far.

Mr. Ashby

I agree with my hon. Friend. The principle of a compulsory retirement age is difficult. Thank goodness we did not have a compulsory retirement age in 1940. Judges now have to retire at 72, but those who started service before the compulsory retirement age was introduced were able to go on. Lord Denning retired only recently, aged 80. He was an exceptional judge and highly regarded by all. Nobody would have wanted to suggest —even if they had dared to—that he should have retired at 75. At that age, he was still going strong. His judgments were exceptionally lucid, good and highly regarded by the profession. He is an example of why a compulsory retirement age may be bad. On the other hand, he may be exceptional.

There is a time, however, when we all have to pack up and give way to a younger man. My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) said that he spoke for only four minutes yesterday on the shipbuilding industry and had not expected to speak again today. I rather wish that I had spoken on the shipbuilding industry. Nevertheless, I am speaking here today. I feel that I have reached my compulsory retirement time and I must thank the House for listening to me with such attention.

8.26 pm
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) on her maiden speech. I am sure that it was a portent of things to come. She could not have made it on a more appropriate subject than the Sex Discrimination Bill, if this Bill has anything to do with sex discrimination.

The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) is also to be congratulated on filling so many words with so few ideas. I was intrigued by the notion that the legal profession. of all professions, is free from discrimination. I wait with interest to see hordes of female High Court judges.

Discrimination against women in employment is not best looked for among the relatively privileged. The hon. Gentleman must accept that there is privilege in the legal profession. Women are represented significantly at the lower end of the market. They tend to do the low-paid jobs which are now difficult to find or have simply disappeared. In Greater Manchester, a significant proportion of women in work receive low pay. The House should address the problem of sex discrimination at the place of work and in other parts of society but it has failed to do so with this tawdry Bill.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the boy scout and the blind old lady. If the old lady is the Prime Minister and the boy scout is the Paymaster General, who has a reputation for liberalism, it is obvious that the boy scout has been unable to have any impact on the old lady in the context of the Bill. That which is good in the Bill has been forced on the Government. The Government have been goaded unwillingly into introducing changes by the powers of external courts.

Clauses 1 and 2, which have been given a cautious welcome by my right hon. and hon. Friends, are the direct result of the European courts and their clear disapproval of existing United Kingdom legislation. We have been slow in amending our law since the decisions of the courts but at least we are now putting our domestic legislation into some sort of order. A recent decision in the case of Miss Marshall gave her the right to remain at work. The decision was greeted with great pleasure by many health workers in my constituency, but it took a court decision on that issue to force the Government to change the law.

The only other good parts of the Bill are those that the Paymaster General has told us he intends to remove from it. These are the provisions that offer some protection for those who will suffer the most direct impact. The measures that the Government propose to take are those that will at best do little to remove discrimination. At worst, they will do active harm to individuals at their place of work in various industries.

There is great fear about the effect of clause 5 when the Bill is enacted. It threatens the repeal of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act, 1954. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union is greatly concerned about the results of the clause when it becomes a section. It took that union about 110 years to get an Act on the statute book to protect its members and others, and in relative terms it has enjoyed the protection of an effective piece of legislation for a short time—about 30 years.

The Government pray in aid the views of two employers federations, which say that legislation is not needed and has no impact. If that is so, why remove it from the statute book? Employers have said that they do not think that there will be any major changes, so why are we getting rid of current legislation? Is it part of a legislative tidying-up process? If it is, it is hardly worth wasting the time of the House on the exercise.

Others are far more fearful of the consequences of that which the Government propose, including the bakers union. Some on the employers' side have estimated that about 2,000 jobs may be lost in baking as a result of the repeal. That is a considerable number of jobs, especially as the losses will occur in part in communities which are often hard pressed because of the loss of jobs in other industries. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) looks quizzical. If he does not accept my arguments, I shall be glad to send him some of the documentation which is in my possession. There is great fear about the loss of employment opportunities.

I am sure that the Paymaster General recognises that there are voices of experience in the baking industry. I concede that the two months which the right hon. and learned Gentleman spent in the industry is longer than the experience which I can claim, but perhaps he will be modest enough to concede that changes have taken place and that the industry may be somewhat different now from what it was when he was working within it. Some have been locked into it for 40 years whereas the right hon. and learned Gentleman experienced it for but two months before moving off to new and certainly more rewarding pastures.

The baking industry ranks third in the table of industries with long working hours. The hours of those employed within it are exceeded only by merchant seamen and those engaged in the road transport industry. The bakers union can quote working weeks that sometimes exceed 60 hours. We know that there are agreements which take parts of the industry from the control of the current legislation, and it is feared that the unsocial hours and conditions that existed in the industry prior to the introduction of the present legislation will return once the Bill is enacted. That fear is only right and proper. It is a valid fear that individuals and groups of employees in the baking industry will suffer harshly once the Bill is enacted.

We know that shift workers are compensated by shift premiums, which make up in part for having to work shifts as opposed to regular days. Shift working is generally an extemely unsocial activity. It disrupts lifestyles and causes unique strains, especially to an individual's social life. There are direct effects on those who work shifts, especially when they grow older. The argument that current legislation offers real protection should not be dismissed or pooh-poohed. The Government's case has not been proven. It is said that the lifting of the so-called burden will not do any damage, but that is not an adequate reason by any stretch of the imagination for repealing legislation which is genuinely popular among those in the baking industry.

It is felt by bakers and by some employers that the 1954 Act raises the average standard and protects better employers from unfair competition from the worst. It is important in any industry to prevent the worst employers driving down the standards of the average and the good, and we have not had an adequate response from the Government to that argument.

The same arguments apply to the impact of clause 4. There is not much to recommend that which is set out within it. The great principle of the avoidance of sex discrimination has allowed the Government to slip in provisions which will have a direct impact upon young workers, and I think that even Conservative Members will accept that the young have suffered severely as a result of the Government's recent legislative changes. In various ways they have seen their working rights eroded, and there is to be a further erosion of their rights in the interests, so we are told, of the avoidance of sex discrimination.

The Equal Opportunities Commission, which was prayed in aid in another place, was constructive in its approach to the problem when it recommended an equalisation of legislative controls. It did not urge that controls should be scrapped. It would have been possible for us to consider that in another light. It is sad that the removal of sex discrimination should be used as a guise for crude attacks and an attempt to manipulate the minimal protections that apply in the baking industry and some other industries where, because of relatively weak trade unions or the absence of unions, individual employees have little protection against unscrupulous employers.

The Paymaster General told us of the Government's intention to remove clause 3. It is remarkable that a clause that was inserted in another place with the intention of strengthening the Bill — in reality, it could do little damage to it — is to be deleted, especially if the Government are sincere in their view of what the Bill will do. However, the clause is to be removed because it offends the ideological drive of the Government in their attack upon employees in their places of work. They are not prepared to give the minimal amount of time that clause 3 would provide to allow for adequate and meaningful consultations to take place.

The Minister says that he thinks that it is merely a matter of further delay. Yet the Government delayed for six years before implementing the recommendations of the EOC. They sat on the recommendations and kicked them around for six years, hoping that they would quietly go away. They were suddenly forced into action by the need to introduce legislation following some reverses in the European Court. At best, it is therefore specious for them to say that a delay of a few more months would massively damage the legislation.

I turn to single-sex training. We wait to see the wording of the regulations, but the Minister said that a marginal change was being made, which made no real impact. I am no exponent of the European Community, but the Government refused money from the EC's social fund for single-sex training on the ground that it was discriminatory. Moreover, that happened in the not-too-distant past. We must be suspicious of any attempt to weaken the controls, and that is why I shall watch carefully to see whether the legislation gives protection that guarantees that single-sex training can be used only to enhance the rights of those who have been traditionally discriminated against on the ground of sex in certain areas of employment and training.

It is important to recognise the concept of positive discrimination. Positive discrimination should apply not only to the failure to allow for equality between the sexes but to racial discrimination and so on. Positive discrimination has a role to play in all those areas. Arty erosion of that principle through allowing single sex training to be diluted and used wrongly should be deplored.

There is nothing really to commend the Bill to us. It is of rather dubious parentage. Many of its better features will no doubt be pruned back to ensure that any beneficial aspects left in the Bill as a result of consideration in the other place are not allowed to frustrate the Government's intentions. For that reason, I shall certainly join my right hon. and hon. Friends in voting against the Bill.

8.42 pm
Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

I join with others in congratulating the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) on her most excellent maiden speech. I was largely brought up in Nidderdale, so I, too, know the beauties of the north Yorkshire countryside. Having lived for the past 20 years in the south of England, I very much miss the grandeur of the north Yorkshire moors and the beauties of the seascape near Filey. It is a most attractive part of the world, and I envy her representing such a beautiful area.

One can sympathise with many of the principles underlying the desire for equal opportunities, but I sometimes wonder whether our legislation achieves what we have in mind. Curiously enough, I remember twice being aware of obvious sex discrimination and both times it was in favour of women. On the first occasion, I was a school governor. Although by law there should be no discrimination, by the time that I was involved in the selection process for a deputy head teacher, the only remaining application forms came from women. It was rightly thought that as there were two male deputy heads, it was appropriate that the next, at least, should be female. It was not made too public, but that discrimination occurred.

On the second occasion, I was involved in a voluntary group where the tendency was for many more males to take an interest in joining. There can be no doubt that discrimination in favour of women took place in the vetting of applications to join that group. Thus, it is sometimes advantageous to women to discriminate.

Unless we are careful, the way in which we deal with equal opportunities and sex discrimination may lead us into rather bizarre situations. I must confess that I have considerable reservations about the provisions in the Bill relating to employment in private homes. The limitations on choice for employment in private homes are far too strict. The examples given in speeches in the other place reveal the incredible difficulties that could arise. It is quite unreasonable to limit choice in that way when it conies to employing one or two people in a private home. When the Bill is considered in detail, I hope that more thought will be given to the precise wording.

There is a case for changing the position affecting small firms, but I wonder whether the new provisions will markedly benefit women. In a small firm of two or three people, a prejudiced employer who has to employ a man or woman whom he does not wish to employ may make his life miserable until he chooses to leave. It may not be possible to afford any legislative protection against that. I am well aware that some small firms prefer to employ women. I know of some small firms doing minor electronic work that rightly or wrongly believe—far be it for me to judge—that women do the repetitive work involved more satisfactorily than their male counterparts. They may be right. I wonder whether it is sensible to impose constraints on such small firms that will be difficult to enforce in reality.

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) on hours of work. However, I have received a petition from many women working for a large organisation in my constituency who want the restraints on hours of working to be removed because they are prejudicial to their interests and they want more freedom. I accept that that implies the possible freedom to exploit. but perhaps such exploitation is mutual. Therefore, while I have some reservations about the advantages of change, I accept the general proposition for it.

My right hon. and learned Friend said that legislation would be introduced in Committee to deal with compulsory retirement ages. That is highly desirable and I believe that it will be the most important item in the Bill. One paradox in our distinction in ages of retirement is that they were originally introduced about 40 years ago to provide protection for women. Today, women—quite reasonably in some instances — feel that it is not a protection but an inhibition of their rights and freedoms. I hope that there will be equality of treatment in both retirement ages and pensions so that men and women can retire at the appropirate age for them.

The Bill has a considerable amount to offer, and when it is amended in Committee it will have even more to offer.

8.52 pm
Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

The Government have once again been forced to legislate because they have lost in the European Court. It is a habit of British Governments to lose in the European Court, and having done so they run screaming to the House, protesting all the way, to legislate to rectify all their unfair actions. They have lost over mental health, over housing and now over sex discrimination. No doubt in the not too distant future they will lose again and again.

There is one thing wrong with British legislation—it forgets that human beings are people. It does not matter whether they are black, white, Catholic, Protestant, male or female—they are all equal. We seem to forget that, so once again we have lost.

Although the Bill contains some good bits, it also contains some awful bits. The Government do not realise that when bathing a new baby, when they want to throw away the water they may throw the baby out with it. In this case, the baby is the baking industry, and I shall discuss that in more detail later.

I am a lawyer, and during the past 20 years an increasing number of women have entered the profession. That is especially true of the Law Society, which is rather more advanced in its attitudes than the Bar, and I have experience of both. Those women have brought to the profession an excellence that is second to none. Law Society examination figures show that at least 50 per cent. of new entrants passing exams are women. Anyone in legal practice knows the way in which women have developed techniques that are of great assistance to the public. Therefore, I am pleased that one good part of the Bill is the removal of restrictions on small businesses and partnerships. — My experience is that the careers of women have been blocked, especially in professional practices, by the failure of older male partners to take them into partnership, which should be the logical development of their careers. The removal of restrictions can only be to the betterment of the profession and, ultimately, will enhance the quality of service to the public. After all, the profession exists to serve the public. I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members would agree that the quality of the profession has been enhanced during the past few years by the increasing number of women and the quality of service that they provide.

The most appalling part of the Bill relates to the baking industry. It is almost discriminatory against men because it takes away a protection for male employees. I know that some large companies would welcome the removal of restrictions so that their factories can churn through the night, the dough can flow and the bread can roll out of the ovens. It does not really matter how long people work through the night. In a civilised society, do we want to condemn people to work all night?

Mr. Gerald Malone (Aberdeen, South)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Gentleman obviously agrees with me. Sometimes when I think about this House I wonder why we are condemned to work all night and why a little civilistation does not creep in occasionally. Perhaps when we have legislated for other sectors we will legislate to amend our working practices to have reasonable hours of work.

In 1954 an enlightened piece of legislation was introduced that placed a number of restrictions on the baking industry. For example, it provided that at night bakeries no one should work between 6 pm and 6 am for more than 26 weeks in a year, or for more than four consecutive weeks during those 26 weeks. The result was that families were not destroyed because the husband had to work all night. There must be a time for families to be together. That was a very sensible piece of legislation, which perhaps did not go far enough.

The matter was considered as recently as 1976, when a report of the Equal Opportunities Commission on health and safety legislation considered whether we should distinguish between men and women.

When night work and the number of hours which one can work in an industry are restricted, the people, male or female, who work in the industry are protected. Clause 5 takes away that sensible social protection. Why should we take it away? Those who work in the industry, and who will have to work much longer hours, do not want the clause. Why should we add it to a Bill which, on the face of it, is quite sensible?

The Bill provides a sense of equality regarding retirement. I am sure that all hon. Members have had correspondence from female constituents — I have received correspondence from those who work in the gas industry, and others—saying that they do not want to retire at 60. Some women who are fit and healthy want to work longer, and they want freedom of choice. I agree with the hon. Member for Stevenage (Mr. Wood) that the Bill is enhanced by that provision.

Why should we add clause 5 to the Bill? Clause 5 devalues the Bill, because it takes away the protection that has existed in the baking industry for 32 years. The Government have decided to take away a measure which protects the employees of that industry. The Government have been forced into this legislation. Instead of introducing something worthwhile, they have added a stupid clause. Perhaps they will see sense.

9 pm

Mr. John Evans (St Helen's, North)

I join other hon. Members who have paid tribute to the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields). I compliment her on the remarks she made. It was entirely appropriate that she should make her maiden speech on the Sex Discrimination Bill. I endorse her comment that the House has had many noble sons of this land but not enough daughters. The truth is that the House has hardly any daughters of this land. I hope that, as the years roll by, that will be put right as more women take their place in the House.

The hon. Lady said that she was the first Liberal women Member of Parliament since 1951. I gently remind her that the hon. Lady who was a Liberal Member in 1951, Lady Megan Lloyd George, subsequently joined the Labour party and sat for many years in the House as a distinguished Labour Member. The hon. Lady said that she has an enormous knowledge of her constituency. I am sure that that will stand her in good stead in future in the comments and speeches she will make in the House about her constituency and constituents.

I was a little puzzled at the lion. Lady's remarks at the end of her speech, although I do not blame her for that. She was only carrying out the usual muddled instructions of the leadership of her party. Apparently, the Liberal party has decided that Labour's reasoned amendment does not go far enough. Therefore, it intends to vote against it. I find that rather odd. I should have thought that if the Liberal party thought the amendment did not go far enough, it would have supported it and sought, in Committee, to amend it and stiffen our opposition to the Bill. If the Liberals follow their usual track record, we shall see very little of them when we are in Committee.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)


Mr. John Evans

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, I shall give way to him.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was a landmark in the political and industrial life of our society. It sought to eradicate generations, even centuries, of discrimination and unequal status suffered by women. That unequal status touched almost every aspect of our society and was probably at its heaviest and worst in employment and economic activity. No one can deny that far too many women were relegated to the unskilled and most menial work and, for their pains, received less remuneration than unskilled men doing similar work. Very few women were promoted to positions of authority over men, or even to equality with them. Far too few young girls were offered apprenticeships in many of the craft industries. The position has changed somewhat over the past few years. As a sponsored member of the AUEW, I am proud of the fact that a number of young women have served apprenticeships and are craftsmen in our union. They enjoy all the facilities of our great union.

The 1975 Act is not perfect. No one ever claimed that it was, but it was a massive step forward in changing attitudes, especially among men, and it laid down an excellent framework which I expected that successive governments would improve and build on as the years went by and attitudes improved, especially among employers and men.

I certainly expected that, following the election of Britain's first woman Prime Minister in 1979, the cause of women's rights would receive a massive boost. However, as we have all learnt — and as women in particular have learned to their bitter cost—not only is this Prime Minister not remotely interested in promoting women's rights, but she has also presided over a Government who have constantly reduced and undermined the very modest gains that women have made since the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act.

In that context, it is interesting to note the White Paper that the Paymaster General introduced today; I draw particular attention to paragraph 7.6 which relates to employment law. Here again we see that the Government are intent on further diminishing the rights of women who have given birth to a child and could return to a job within 29 weeks, except if the firm that she worked for had fewer than five employees. The Government now intend to change this limit to fewer than 10. That is another example of how this Government are constantly seeking to reduce the limited rights that women have obtained—and this on the selfsame day as the Second Reading of the Sex Discrimination Bill.

However, when the Government announced their intention to introduce a new Sex Discrimination Bill to fulfil their obligations under the EEC equal treatment directive, all our hopes were renewed that this woman-led Government would at last do something positive to improve the quality of life for working women. We should have known better. As soon as the original Bill was presented in the other place. we saw with dismay that the Government were seizing the opportunity to introduce a deregulation measure to level standards and protection downwards rather than grasping the opportunity to level standards upwards.

In fact, this Bill has the potential to allow even more exploitation than it seeks to remove, while masquerading as a reform of benefit to men and women. In its original form, it was selective and niggardly in its concessions to the Government's obligations to the EEC equal treatment directive and the need to improve the Sex Discrimination Act after 11 years of operation.

Apart from the amendments made to the Sex Discrimination Act in line with the EEC recommendations, the Bill's idea of equality is to bring everyone down to the same level. It seeks to find the lowest common denominator instead of the highest common multiple. It is not rash to say that the Government sought to use the original Act to further their free market philosophy in terms of working practices and conditions. Indeed, when the Bill was first presented in the other place. it made the Government appear naive—that is a charitable view—foolish, indifferent or cruelly calculating, depending on one's political perspective, when one considers how much it would have left employers and employees to do to resolve differences over hours, conditions and work practices after the Bill had removed previous safeguards.

These points are worth making because the Bill as printed, although by no means perfect, was much improved, thanks to the success of several Lords amendments. I intend to make several points about each clause and to ask several questions to clarify the Government's intentions in relation to the Lords amendments.

Clauses 1 and 2 deal specifically with the objections found in the EEC equal treatment directive. We welcome that. The first is the way in which the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 exempted small firms of five or fewer employees from its provisions as well as employment in households. The clauses do so by removing the exemption for small firms and private households from section 6(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act and by extending section 7(2) to say exactly in what circumstances a man or woman can be considered for employment in a private household. There are few objections to this, although the other place had to force the Government to bring in an amendment to extend the removal of the exemption from small firms to firms with partners as well. Even here, the Secretary of State objected that small firms already had enough on their plates, as he put it, without having to consider legislation to cover discrimination.

Secondly, clause 2 amends section 77 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Section 77 made a contract or part of it void if it contravened the terms of the Act— that is, if it were discriminatory. Clause 2 extends this provision to cover the terms of collective agreements, those with trade unions for example, rules made by employers, other than employment contracts or agreements for entering or dealing with a professional or trade association or authority that confers qualifications.

The clause also amends section 77 to make such agreements or rules void where the effective contract of employment is set out in such a way as to contravene the Equal Pay Act 1970. In effect, this repeals section 3, which had provided for such eventualities to be resolved by reference to the Secretary of State or a Government body. Clause 6 actually repeals it.

There is also a provision to ensure that employers do not get round this simply by removing all rights for men and women — for instance, instead of providing equal holiday pay, the company could take away everybody's holiday pay. That would be a rough form of equal treatment. This clause was further strengthened by a Government amendment, following Opposition objections, to extend it to applicants as well as existing employees, as provided for in the Sex Discrimination Act.

On the surface, this all seemed quite good and reasonable, but a major bone of contention arose from the repeal of section 3 of the Equal Pay Act, which could mean that there would be no machinery for enforcement. The Government argued that, whereas previously disagreements arising from contracts, rules or agreements hingeing on the Equal Pay Act could be referred to the Secretary of State or the Central Arbitration Committee, and individual agreements drawn up accordingly, now such dealings will simply be void where they infringe the terms of the Equal Pay Act.

Presumably, the Government, somewhat naively—to put it at its kindest — assumed that employers and employees would come to some agreement simply because the force of the law is supposed to be behind the latter. Unfortunately, all the evidence, particularly in relation to wages council awards, blows something of a hole in that theory. Unless the employees are reasonably organised in trade unions, the evidence is that they will lose.

Why will the Government not introduce machinery to make the provisions of clause 2 enforceable? We shall be pressing the Government on that point in Committee, but I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with it tonight. The Government also point out that the reference to industrial tribunals will still be available, but tribunals were not set up for such a purpose — the Central Arbritration Committee was. Many employees find it difficult, time-consuming, expensive and often detrimental to their job prospects if they appeal to a job tribunal as well.

Additionally, we have the new proposition, in today's White Paper, that the employees have to find £25 if they wish to appear before a tribunal. However, if the Government think that the tribunals are a likely and suitable option, they must be assuming that such disagreements will arise. In the circumstances, why not retain the option of arbitration by the CAC?

In its response to the Bill, the Equal Opportunities Commission, in its briefing document of May 1986, said that the Government's approach relies on a combination of collective bargaining and individual litigation. This will be uncertain and random. The discriminatory provision will not be removed and there is no power to enforce renegotiation of the agreement. The Opposition agree with that. In 1980, the Equal Opportunities Commission recommended that the Equal Pay Act should be amended to enable any discriminatory provision, whether direct or indirect, in a collective agreement, pay structure or wages regulation order to be referred to the CAC which should have the power to amend all discriminatory provisions therein. The Government have not taken the opportunity to incorporate anything of that nature in the Bill.

Clause 3 was inserted in the Bill by the Opposition in the other place. It was designed to stifle, or at least to delay, the implementation of clauses 4 and 5 which seek to remove all restrictions on the employment of women in industry by amending or repealing the Hours of Employment (Conventions) Act 1936, the Mines and Quarries Act 1954, the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1984 and the Factories Act 1961.

As for the Mines and Quarries Act, on Sunday I visited the marvellous exhibition at Wigan pier, "The Way we were in 1900". Many of those who saw photographs and descriptions in that exhibition of working conditions for women in industry, particularly in the mining industry, were shocked at the revelations. I am not suggesting for a moment that those conditions will ever return, but I remind the House, in particular the Government, that the battle to remove such onerous conditions on women was fought manfully for many years not only by women but by men, particularly in the trade union movement.

I agree with the powerful speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) who said that women have the right to be protected in certain industrial conditions. I speak from knowledge of industries such as shipbuilding. ship repairing and steel. Many jobs in those industries can be done by women, but I do not intend to be patronising when I say that I should not like my wife, mother or daughter to have to do certain jobs in those industries. It is essential to retain protection for women in certain areas of industry.

Clause 3 would have retained protection for women until the Government had carried out consultations on the feasibility and desirability of their intentions. They would have been unable to produce a draft report for at least six months and a final report for at least 12 months from the date of Royal Assent. After consultations, the Secretary of State could have made, by statutory instrument, an equal protection order to amend various Acts in order to guarantee equal conditions for men and women at a more considered level than that which would be achieved simply by repealing those Acts, or part of them.

After the consultation procedure and producing a report the Secretary of State could have repealed the provisions of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954, or the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission or the Health and Safety Commission and made an equal protection order to cover the provisions that had been repealed. The intention of clause 3 was not just to cause delay. It was a positive and beneficial clause. Any intelligent Secretary of State would have welcomed its provisions.

Clause 4 provides for the repeal of certain provisions in the Hours of Employment (Conventions) Act 1936, the Mines and Quarries Act 1954 and the Factories Act 1961 as they relate to restrictions upon women's hours of work. They are all subject to clause 7. Clause 4 will make it possible for women to be employed at all hours of the day and night, all week and in shifts starting and finishing at any time.

If I may put in a personal point here, in the light of the bus deregulation that is about to affect society, women who will not voluntarily move to the new hours but may often find that they are forced into working them will suddenly find that there is no public transport to take them to their homes. The Paymaster General may smile, but he knows as well as I do that that is a prospect facing many areas, particularly the more rural areas of the country.

The Opposition see the Bill as, at the very best, a wasted opportunity to balance the requirements of industry with women's needs and family commitments and to level up conditions of work with those of men instead of simply tearing down existing restrictions on women's working practices. At worst, it is an attempt to remove the protection that many women enjoy in their working conditions and leave the field open for exploitation by certain employers.

The Government apparently argue that so many exemptions have already been made to these provisions that they might as well be repealed. However, the exemptions are not the majority. It should not have been beyond the Government's capabilities to study which industries had made these applications, what their requirements were regarding women's working conditions and how women employees had fared in achieving levelling up.

The Government have argued that the gap in strict definitions of women's working hours and conditions will best be filled by negotiations between employees' trade unions and employers. Unfortunately—I hope that the truth comes home to them—women have a relatively poor record regarding trade union organisation. Clause 3 would have given the Health and Safety Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission an effective voice in the operation of clauses 4 and 5, particularly in relation to the protection of women workers.

Clause 5 repeals the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954, so removing the restrictions on the hours of work of men in the industry. An anomaly had grown up, in that, while male operatives were still prevented from working certain hours of the night—for their protection, according to the principles of the 1954 Act—exempcions to the Factories Act 1961 had breached those regulations for women. In theory, women can work longer hours in this industry than men. The same argument applies here, however. No strong body of opinion suggests that the 1954 Act is no longer necessary. The opportunity should have been taken to extend to women the protection currently afforded to men in the industry or some combination thereof, perhaps following consultation as under clause 3. This was the argument of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

As the result of the Government's unwillingness to countenance anything but wholesale repeal of existing protection for workers, the Opposition in the other place carried an amendment to protect existing rights of employees—clause 7. This of course is another clause that is to be removed in Committee by the Government.

As I have argued, while removal of existing restrictions on women's freedom to work certain hours removes an element of discrimination. it also removes certain protections previously employed. This applies especially to men in bakeries if the 1954 Act is repealed. In addition, simple repeal would fail to ensure that women continue to have control of the hours that they work to fulfil their domestic commitments. Clause 7, if it were retained, would ensure that employees continued to benefit from existing legislation, despite clauses 4 and 5, unless they agree otherwise in writing. They would also be protected from dismissal for refusing to work hours not countenanced before the Bill was drafted. In an earlier intervention, I pointed out that even under the Shops Bill the Government were willing to accept a clause protecting the rights of shop workers to refuse to work on Sundays without being sacked as a consequence.

The Government also argue that the removal of restrictions under clauses 4 and 5 will not lead to any wholesale changes in working hours and conditions. If that is the case, why bother to repeal the provision? Why not simply continue to allow exemptions where they are deemed necessary for the sake of the industry concerned, so long as workers' rights are protected?

Clause 8, another clause for the chop, arose from an Opposition amendment for the same motives. Assuming that clauses 4 and 5 are passed and carried into effect, clause 8 would have put on an employer the onus to consider the health, safety, welfare and interests of those employees (particularly employees with domestic and family responsibilities) and to make appropriate provision for their health, safety and welfare having regard to the nature and size of his business. The clause would have empowered the HSC to draft a code of practice to enable it to fulfil its duties more efficiently.

The adherence of employers to such a code could have been taken into consideration if and when he or she was taken to an industrial tribunal by employees. Under the code, the employer's duties would have been separate and additional to his or her duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The code would have fulfilled a long-standing demand of the Equal Opportunities Commission for a safeguard to be attached to the removal of restrictions on hours of work provisions of the legislation which they saw as being out-dated.

Once again, the Government opposed the amendment, although the code might at least have resolved problems and disagreements resulting from deregulation. The Government also complained that the HSC had no experience of accommodating the domestic arrangements of workers. The Secretary of State argued that it was not the responsibility of the employer to accommodate the workers in that way. Those arguments, especially the latter, can be taken with a pinch of salt, given the economic climate. Many people are willing to take any job, often in desperation. The measures outlined were designed to prevent precisely such exploitation after deregulation.

Although we welcome the Secretary of State's announcement about the pension rights of women, following the judgment in the European Court of Justice, we do not think that it goes far enough. The view of the Equal Opportunities Commission is correct. Although it welcomed the Government's proposal to give women the right to retire at the same age as men, the EOC warned that the Government's failure to tackle the wider problems caused by unequal state pension ages would only add to the confusion and the frustration faced by men and women over retirement.

The significant words of the EOC are: the Commission believes that a similar amendment will be needed to the Equal Pay Act to keep it in line with the amended SDA. The EOC also welcomes the proposal to give both sexes the right to claim unfair dismissal up to the age of 65, when no normal retirement age is in operation. … However, the Marshall ruling highlights once more the need to equalise the State pension age for men and women. Many men now stop work before 65 and find discrimination and hardship in not being able to claim State pension until they reach 65. The new proposals are likely to make the position worse. For example, a woman between the age of 60 and 64 will not have to pay national insurance contributions and her eventual State pension will be increased for each year that she works over the age of 60. A man will not have this option. One would have thought that the Government would have taken the opportunity of a Sex Discrimination Bill to put that anomaly right.

The proposal to amend section 47 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, is also mentioned in paragraph 7.7 of the new White Paper "Building Businesses—Not Barriers". Given the nature of everything else in the White Paper, we will consider carefully whatever amendment the Government table in Committee to see precisely what they are driving at.

The Bill as drafted was originally a bad Bill because of its likely effects for the work force. Those effects would have been mitigated as it was amended. However the Government, by announcing that they will remove clauses 3, 7 and 8—proposals which the Opposition will fight in Committee—have made this Bill as bad as it was when first printed.

We believe that the Government should scrap these plans for deregulation and proceed along the lines of consultation and worker protection embodied in the Lords amendments and the EEC directive. That is why we have tabled our reasoned amendment, which declines to give this inadequate and unsatisfactory Bill a Second Reading. I urge the House to vote for our amendment tonight.

9.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Ian Lang)

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General and Minister for Employment opened the debate he said that the Sex Discrimination Bill was a further step towards equality of opportunity for men and women. During our wide-ranging debate today it has become clear that there are differences of opinion about some of the detailed provisions of the Bill. I look forward to interesting discussions on these when we consider certain parts of the Bill in Committee.

It is my pleasant duty to welcome the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields). She succeeds the late and sadly missed Mr. John Spence who served, as the hon. Lady said, with distinction in this House. From 1970 he represented the constituents of Sheffield, Heeley, then of Thirsk and Malton and latterly of Ryedale. For 13 years he was a member of the Chairmen's Panel and he was a member and latterly a Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture. If the hon. Lady matches her predecessor's dedication to the interests of her constituents, she will do well. She has already demonstrated a knowledge of her constituency and its problems. Her fluency in presenting that case does her credit. The House will look forward to hearing from her again.

I must begin by taking exception to the Opposition amendment. The amendment tries to hinder the Government from fulfilling our country's international obligations and especially our duty under the treaty to implement EC directives. The first two clauses remedy loopholes which the European Court of Justice found in the Labour Government's Sex Discrimination Act 1975. The Opposition introduced that Act and it has proved itself perishable in the extreme.

Since the Bill was published, the European Court has issued another ruling. This refers to retirement and it requires another amendment to the legislation. The Government have acted with great speed to implement the latest judgment. We issued a consultative document within five weeks of the court's ruling and we expect to have tabled a new clause to the Bill within four months of the ruling. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) must realise that it is not this Government's record at the European Court that is bad. Rather it is the durability and adequacy of the previous Labour Government's legislation that is bad.

The Opposition's motion is not accurate.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister not agree that our track record before the European Court of Justice is appalling? It does not matter which Government introduced which piece of legislation. Some of the pre-1964 legislation has been successfully challenged; some of the 1970–74 legislation has been challenged and there are several cases pending against post-1979 legislation. That is all Tory Government legislation. Does he not agree that when we lose we ought to lose a little more gracefully than we have in the past, especially during the past four years?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman should recognise the speed with which we have reacted to the European Court's ruling. That was a ruling on the inadequacy of legislation passed by the Labour Government.

The Opposition motion is not accurate. It states that we have failed to apply the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to collective agreements. That is not so. A copy of the Bill was sent to the European Commission when it was published so that they could see how we were planning to implement the judgment. We have not been asked to make any changes.

The Government accepted a number of proposals put forward for improving the Bill from another place. For example, there is the improvement which provides for provision in partnerships put forward by the chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Weetch) accused the Government of yielding to European judgments with bad grace. However, that is evidence of the Government's flexibility in that matter. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, the court ruling did not cover partnerships. That was an improvement to the Bill which my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Employment accepted in another place when it was put forward by Lady Platt. My hon. and noble Friend also made it clear that he opposed discrimination in any size of firm but recognised that small firms do not always have the administrative resources to deal with complex legislation.

The scope of the private homes provision, to which the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) referred, has been clarified following expressions of concern that the original wording was imprecise and could lead to unnecessary litigation. I know that some hon. Members are deeply concerned over what they see as an intrusion by the Bill into private life, but I can assure the House that the Government, and indeed the EC, consider that the principle of respect for private life is fundamental. It will still be possible to choose an employee of a particular sex in circumstances where the job holder would be involved in the household's private life; for example, where the job is to give nursing care or companionship to a member of the family.

Clause 2 has also been improved in another place to provide that discriminatory rules by an employer in respect of applicants for jobs will be void.

There was another interesting debate on equal opportunities in the House last Wednesday. The Government asked the House to take note of three EC proposals on equal opportunities which we regard favourably and to endorse the Government's commitment to the principal of equal treatment. Again, the Opposition put down a quite inaccurate amendment referring to lack of commitment to the principle of equal treatment on the part of the Government, and in particular our so-called obstruction of equal pay for work of equal value. The Government were able to describe the array of provision we have made in all aspects of equal opportunities, in particular our record on getting women into jobs and on improving vocational training opportunities. We also pointed out that we had implemented the European Court ruling on equal pay for work of equal value, which resulted from a gap in the original Labour Government's Equal Pay Act 1970. The Opposition also attempted to criticise the Government for their failure to extend invalid care allowance to married women, which again was discrimination introduced by the previous Labour Administration.

The Opposition's amendment says that the Bill fails to act on collective agreements. The equal treatment directive requires that any provisions contrary to the principle of equal treatment which are included in collective agreements, individual contracts of employment, internal rules of undertakings or in rules governing the independent occupations and professions, shall be or may be declared null and void or may be amended.

The Government argued before the court that that requirement is already met in relation to collective agreements under United Kingdom law and they argued that on two main grounds. First, "void" must. in the Government's view, mean of no legal effect. Where a collective agreement is not legally binding, as is the case with the vast majority of collective agreements in the United Kingdom, none of its provisions, whether discriminatory or not, is of legal effect. Where exceptionally a collective agreement is made legally binding, section 77 of the Sex' Discrimination Act makes void any term in it which will involve those carrying it out in an act of unlawful sex discrimination.

The court was satisfied that section 77 of the Sex Discrimination Act dealt adequately with legally binding collective agreements but ruled that the directive covers all collective agreements and that there should be corresponding provision for non-binding agreements. Discrimination arises when collective agreements includes single sex terms such as separate provisions for men and women or provisions applicable to one sex only. That is why the Government are proposing in the Bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act so as to formally void discriminatory terms in present and future collective agreements, whether the terms occur in the same agreements or different agreements between the same parties. It is not thought that there are many such terms in existence today or that they are likely to be negotiated in future.

Therefore, I cannot agree that the clause on collective agreements will not work satisfactorily. Of course we hope that very few discriminatory collective agreements have been entered into. But in so far as they have, the offending terms will be void, and it is in the interests of the parties to negotiate a new non-discrimatory term to fill the void. Until they do, every employee who suffers discrimination as a result of the original term will be able to complain to an industrial tribunal under existing provisions and possibly be awarded compensation or back pay. No sensible negotiators will want to live in such an uncertain situation. But the Bill ensures that the delay in renegotiation will have no adverse effect on the employment contract of an individual employee.

I imagine that there may be interesting discussions in Committee about the need for the Central Arbitration Committee to be involved in enforcement of the provisions of clause 2. I do not want to anticipate those, but must say that having listened carefully to the points put forward by some hon. Members today I am not convinced that such an enforcement mechanism is necessary. We are convinced that we have implemented the European Court judgment and equally convinced that victims of sex discrimination have effective redress through our industrial tribunal system.

We do not need a new system of enforcement for sex discrimination cases, and the European court ruling did not suggest this. Its judgment was essentially a technical one and we are implementing it with this Bill. The court accepted that section 77 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 implemented the directive in relation to legally binding collective agreements, but held that the lack of corresponding provision for non-binding agreements meant that the directive was not fully implemented. In our view, the court saw a formal voiding provision as an important presentational measure which would set the tone for collective agreements and filter through to practical results on the ground. This change implements the court's judgment, and the Government do not see the need to establish a special enforcement procedure beyond what is required of us.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General said at the start of the debate that we wanted to hear the views of the House on the three substantial additions made to this Bill in another place. We have listened to the arguments put forward, but we are still not convinced that the additional clauses are necessary.

The hon. Member for Ipswich spoke about clause 3 which was introduced by an amendment tabled by Lord Wedderburn in the other place. In practice, it will impose further delays before the existing discriminatory restrictions on hours of work can be removed. If the Health and Safety Commission or the Equal Opportunites Commission were so minded, it could prevent the Secretary of State simply repealing legislation under clause 9(3) and force him to follow the procedure set out in the new clause.

This procedure involves a time lapse of at least a year during which a lot must happen. The Secretary of State must conduct extensive consultations with employers and trade unions and he must seek the views of the Health and Safety Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. He must also publish a draft report of interim proposals, and nothing can happen until a final report is published setting out the proposals for amendments. After all this, the Secretary of State may finally make an equal protection order amending any of the relevant enactments or may carry forward the necessary repeals. It is not clear to us what purpose this further delay would serve. The issue has been discussed for six years, ever since the Equal Opportunities Commission recommended the repeal of the restrictions affecting women in 1979.

Before 1979, the Equal Opportunities Commission had consulted widely and given the whole matter careful consideration. In 1979 the Health and Safety Commission was asked to consider the EOCs proposals on women's hours but has been unable to reach a consensus on how this discriminatory legislation can be reformed. That is why the Government have decided to act now. Further consultation is unlikely to achieve any greater degree of consensus than now exists. Indeed, it is more likely that at the end of the further consultation period that this new procedure would require, the Secretary of State would be no further on than he is now. He would still have to take decisions weighing in the balance the same arguments that the Government have taken into account.

We are not convinced of the case for keeping clause 7, introduced in another place by an amendment tabled by the noble Lord McCarthy. The clause aims to limit the discretion of industrial tribunals by giving new absolute rights to employees who, at the date of the commencement of the Bill, are subject to the restrictions on working hours and other working conditions which are removed by the Bill. The so-called protection provided by this new clause is to a great extent implicit in existing employment protection legislation, and we wonder whether Opposition fears are not out of all proportion to the size of the problem that this clause is meant to remedy.

The repeal of these hours of work restrictions will not lead to the wholesale imposition of dramatic changes in working hours. A manufacturer will only alter hours if he has the orders to justify it or if circumstances demand it. He is not likely to incur the additional costs that longer or unsocial hours usually involve without good reason, and is certainly unlikely to do so without fully consulting his work force.

Another difficulty stems from the uncertainties of the employer confronted by the new clause. What exactly does it require of him? If he lets things ride, then presumably his employees will continue to have their conditions dictated by the restrictions, and he must continue to shoulder the bureaucratic burden of record keeping, posting notices and so on. If he attempts to rid himself of this burden, he must secure the agreement of each of his workers, but they are unlikely to give this until they know precisely what they are letting themselves in for. Either way, the employer is stuck with the burden. As his work force turns over, new employees will be taken on and will accept employment on the terms that he offers.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister not agree that in a society which has between 4 million and 5 million people looking for work, often the employers are in a better bargaining position to enforce changes of hours? Therefore, the employee will be in a worse position, because he will know that 10 or 15 people want his job and that one of them will get it if he seeks to stand up for his existing rights.

Mr. Lang

That is certainly not how we see the picture, nor does the evidence bear out the hon. Gentleman's case.

The employer ends up with a two-tier work force, some restricted, others not. That will create major administrative costs and will lead to greater inflexibility with all the negative effects that that may have on job creation. Nor is it clear how the rights given by the new clause would sit with the current systems of exemptions that employers have. Employees who are now working at times which would be prohibited, were it not for the special exemption order, will no doubt have those very restrictions incorporated into their contract of employment. The new clause thereafter allows more of the flexibility which the present far from perfect system offers.

In some ways the most worrying of the three new clauses is clause 8, introduced by Lady Platt's amendment in another place. The all-encompassing nature of the new clause on all employers, not just those who are at present subject to the hours of work legislation—which is the subject of the Bill—makes its implications all the more profound. My Department has always encouraged employers to consider the welfare and interests of their employees in the furtherance of good industrial relations.

We go much further than encouragement when considering people's health and safety. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 puts all employers under a general duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. But this amendment goes beyond that. It imposes as a new statutory requirement on an employer the duty to consider the interests of employees and, in particular, the interests of his employees with domestic and family responsibilities where changes in working hours are contemplated. It would be his duty to consider the health, safety and welfare of his employees, not only at work, but elsewhere.

There is no evidence to suggest that there is any need to place an inflexible statutory obligation on employers, requiring an approach which, to all intents and purposes, most adopt already. To do so would impose a burden on employers which, even if the duty were clear cut, would put further strain on the willingness of enterprise to expand and create jobs. That point has been impressed on us by several different employers federations since the clause was introduced in another place. For all those reasons, we remain unconvinced that the three clauses are necessary, but we shall give further thought to what has been said today before Committee stage, and we look forward to contributions from hon. Members in Committee.

Today we published a White Paper on deregulation. As it makes clear, the rights of people in employment must be balanced against the needs of those who are unemployed. I say that particularly to the hon. Members for Barking and for St. Helens, South, who referred to this publication. We believe that too-strict regulation of part-time work and return to work after giving birth works to the detriment of unemployed women, especially the one third of unemployed women who are seeking part-time jobs. In any event, only one twelfth of women exercise their right to return to work after maternity leave. Some small firms will continue to be able to accommodate that in future, but keeping a job open can be highly disruptive and expensive for a small firm. We do not want to discourage them from creating jobs or from offering jobs to women.

When the Bill is passed there will be no qualifying period in terms of size, hours or years for complaints under the Equal Pay Act 1970 or the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 by women who have won cases under the Sex Discrimination Act where they were dismissed for reasons associated with pregnancy when a man in ill health would not have been dismissed. The White Paper will contribute to a balance between job protection and job creation.

During the debate some hon. Members have argued that of all the restrictions on women's hours, one in particular continues to be needed, and that is the restriction on women's night work. They have been at pains to stress that, although night work may be necessary in certain limited circumstances, it is nevertheless bad for all employees, women and men alike. For that reason, they would have us believe that, far from removing restrictions on women's hours, we should extend legislative controls to men.

Yet an objective assessment of the available evidence does not justify the dogmatic statement that all night work is harmful. In reality, the evidence on the effects of night work and long hours is inconclusive. In 1978, Dr. J. Harrington conducted a critical review of the major references, including the work reported on by the ILO report, "Night Work", relating to shift work and health for the Employment Medical Advisory Service of the Health and Safety Executive. He concluded that the evidence of any major effect on health was slim. Since the publication of this report there has been no new evidence to change its conclusions. Certainly there is no evidence to suggest that the effects on health are different for women than for men.

We must not lose sight of the vital role played by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. This comprehensive Act which outlines the new approach for regulating health, safety and welfare in the work place, recommended by the Robens committee, has now taken centre stage, leaving the older legislation such as the Factories Act 1961 and the Mine and Quarries Act 1954 to play subsidiary roles. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act imposes on employers a general duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all employees at work.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the repeals which we envisaged would not have discharged employers from their responsibilities to consider the effects on employees of hours of work, including any changes even had the Bill emerged unchanged from another place.

Some claim that the repeals in clauses 4 and 5 of the Bill originate exclusively from our wish to remove the burden on business. They claim that, in our eyes, the removal of discrimination is very much by the way. That view misrepresents our position. We are committed to removing discrimination so that women enjoy the same opportunities as men. We are committed to erasing the out-of-date view of women enshrined in this legislation —the paternalistic view that women are not capable of deciding for themselves the hours they are prepared to work. We believe it is high time that women shed. this somewhat second-class status. Women in factories deserve and want the same freedom of choice on hours as the men whom they work alongside. Surely there is no justification nowadays for different treatment regarding the hours that men and women work.

As well as distinguishing between men and women, the restrictions also mean that women are treated differently according to where they work. Today there are more than 9 million working women. Of those, some 7.5 million work where there are no legislative restrictions on the hours worked. This includes jobs in hospitals, in the police, hotels, catering and in the entertainment industry. With such work there are, inevitably, unsocial hours.

Mr. Evans

Low-paid jobs.

Mr. Lang

The other 1.5 million women work in manufacturing where there are statutory controls on the hours worked. The hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) mutters, from a sedentary position, about low pay. He ought to be aware—I have told him on several occasions from the Dispatch Box—that the average pay for men has risen substantially above the rate of Inflation in the past seven years but the average pay of women has risen by substantially more. The gap is closing considerably.

Mr. Evans

Will the Minister concede that, notwithstanding that what he says may be true, the average wage of women, particularly in the industries that he has mentioned is still substantially below men and that such jobs are officially classified as low-paid jobs?

Mr. Lang

The average wages for women are indeed lower than the average wages for men, but that is because they tend to do different jobs which are in themselves inherently lower paid than those for men.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, yet again, that as we have escaped the controls of the Labour Government's wage control policy and the distortions that that created, the wages of women have substantially advanced and the divergence between the advance of women's wages and men's wages has been very much to the credit of the Government.

We have also been accused of over-emphasising the need for deregulation. It is claimed that we are obsessed with that principle, even at the expense of removing protection from what some see as vulnerable sectors of the work force. The restrictions on women's working hours do encumber those employers who have to run their businesses under such controls. The system of enforcement is bureaucratic in the extreme. It requires employers to keep numerous records, post forms and notices which need continuous updating to show any minor changes.

The system of exemption imposes another burden. Some 200,000 women work at times which would be prohibitive but for the existence of special exemption orders. Of that figure, some 80,000 are working at some time during the night. The restrictions have little practical effect and the paper chase involved in obtaining an exemption is just the sort of red tape which should be cut away. It achieves nothing positive and only hampers the employer and costs the taxpayer money to administer.

Much of today's debate has hinged on the baking industry. I was interested to learn of the talents not only of my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General but also my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) who demonstrated considerable skills and knowledge of the industry.

We have heard arguments pressing us to extend the coverage of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 to include women instead of repealing it. We believe, however, that extension would be nonsense. It has been argued that repeal will remove a valuable protection for health and safety of the industry but the Act originated not so much on grounds of health and safety as to resolve longstanding problems that the industry had experienced in reaching sensible and workable agreements on hours of work. There is no observable evidence that the Act's provisions have in any way improved the health and safety of bakery workers; nor is there any evidence that its repeal will have a detrimental effect. More than two thirds of the industry's work force is now covered by the terms of collective agreements which bring exemption from the provisions of the Act.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, North spoke of workers in the baking industry working for 60 hours a week. That figure is simply not accurate. We have received representations from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union saying that the average working week in the bread, flour and confectionery sector is 49.9 hours. Even if the hon. Gentleman's figure were correct, it would tend to prove that the 1954 Act has served not to protect the interests of bakery workers. There are at least four other sectors of manual wages for which the average weekly working hours, including overtime, are higher than those in the bread and confectionery industry.

There is no reason to believe that, without the underpinning given to the collective agreements by the Act, employers will seek to impose substantially different hours of work. In our consultations with employers, the Federation of Bakers assured us that there was no prospect of the sort of job losses that the bakers' union fears. There is simply not the level of overmanning in the industry which such numbers would imply. It seems to us pointless to extend the Act to cover women. On the contrary, we believe that the Act is largely redundant and ripe for repeal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) welcomed what the Government have done—and the fact that they have done it quickly—as a result of the Helen Marshall case concerning state and occupational pensions. I appreciate that the House is eager for progress towards equality in state and occupational retirement pensions. The European Court of Justice ruling in the Marshall case did not affect either. Even if it had, no Government could have produced a workable legislative solution on so complex a subject in the space of a few weeks, as we have done with the immediate issues raised in that case.

Hon. Members who were in the House last Wednesday evening will know that a draft EC directive on equal treatment in occupational social security schemes is under discussion in Europe and likely to be adopted soon if certain amendments favoured by the United Kingdom and other member states are made.

As for our proposal to abolish the requirement for training bodies to obtain designation under section 47 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, some anxiety has been expressed that this will open the floodgates to training for women only and therefore deny men opportunities to train for the work of their choice. Section 47 also allows the provision of training for men only in work in which they are under-represented. It is true that all the bodies designated so far have applied to us with women's training in mind. That is no doubt because traditionally male jobs are often more skilled and higher paid, and women are more likely to aspire to them than men are to, say, typing.

Some people feel that this past discrimination should be overcome by insisting that a quota of jobs should be reserved for women. We do not accept that. Jobs should be filled only on grounds of merit, not of sex. Nevertheless, if women are to have the opportunity to compete for jobs and contribute to the economy on equal terms, they may need special training.

The Government want there to be an economy in which firms, large and small, can expand and thereby win extra business and create new jobs. To this end, we are already winning the battle against inflation. If we are to exploit our successes, we must free enterprise. Unnecessary restrictions and regulations are a positive hindrance to a firm's ability to make the most of its opportunities and therefore create jobs. We must ensure that we create the right environment in which enterprise can thrive and prosper. I believe that the Government's record on freeing past discrimination about women's right to work has been creditable and to our advantage.

It is just over 10 years since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts came into force. We do not claim that this second Sex Discrimination Bill will be as far-reaching as the first, but it is another step forward on the road to genuine equality of opportunity between the sexes and I believe that we should all welcome its introduction to the House. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the Opposition amendment and to support the Bill's Second Reading.

Question put, That the amendment be made: —

The House divided: Ayes 68, Noes 155.

Division No. 194] [10 pm
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Litherland, Robert
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) McKelvey, William
Bermingham, Gerald McNamara, Kevin
Boothroyd, Miss Betty McTaggart, Robert
Boyes, Roland McWilliam, John
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Maynard, Miss Joan
Buchan, Norman Mikardo, Ian
Campbell-Savours, Dale Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Clarke, Thomas Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Clay, Robert Nellist, David
Clelland, David Gordon O'Neill, Martin
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Patchett, Terry
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S) Pike, Peter
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Prescott, John
Corbett, Robin Raynsford, Nick
Corbyn, Jeremy Richardson, Ms Jo
Cunningham, Dr John Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Deakins, Eric Rooker, J. W.
Dewar, Donald Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)
Dormand, Jack Sedgemore, Brian
Dubs, Alfred Skinner, Dennis
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Snape, Peter
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Soley, Clive
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Spearing, Nigel
Foster, Derek Straw, Jack
Heffer, Eric S. Tinn, James
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth) Wareing, Robert
Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall) Weetch, Ken
Hoyle, Douglas Young, David (Bolton SE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Janner, Hon Greville Tellers for the Ayes:
Lamond, James Mr. Allen McKay and Mr. Mark Fisher.
Leighton, Ronald
Aitken, Jonathan Galley, Roy
Alton, David Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Arnold, Tom Garel-Jones, Tristan
Ashby, David Glyn, Dr Alan
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Beith, A. J. Ground, Patrick
Bellingham, Henry Gummer, Rt Hon John S
Best, Keith Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Bevan, David Gilroy Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Hampson, Dr Keith
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hancock, Michael
Bottomley, Peter Hanley, Jeremy
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Hargreaves, Kenneth
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Harris, David
Bruinvels, Peter Harvey, Robert
Buck, Sir Antony Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Butterfill, John Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hawksley, Warren
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Hayes, J.
Carttiss, Michael Heathcoat-Amory, David
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hind, Kenneth
Clegg, Sir Walter Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Coombs, Simon Holt, Richard
Cormack, Patrick Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)
Crouch, David Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Dorrell, Stephen Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)
Durant, Tony Jessel, Toby
Eyre, Sir Reginald Johnston, Sir Russell
Favell, Anthony Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Fookes, Miss Janet Jones, Robert (Herts W)
Forth, Eric Kennedy, Charles
Franks, Cecil Key, Robert
Freeman, Roger King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Freud, Clement King, Rt Hon Tom
Gale, Roger Kirkwood, Archy
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Silvester, Fred
Knowles, Michael Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Lang, Ian Speed, Keith
Latham, Michael Speller, Tony
Lawrence, Ivan Spencer, Derek
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Lord, Michael Stanbrook, Ivor
Luce, Rt Hon Richard Stanley, Rt Hon John
Lyell, Nicholas Steel, Rt Hon David
Mac Kay, Andrew (Berkshire) Steen, Anthony
Major, John Stern, Michael
Malins, Humfrey Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Malone, Gerald Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Marlow, Antony Sumberg, David
Mather, Carol Taylor, John (Solihull)
Maude, Hon Francis Temple-Morris, Peter
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Terlezki, Stefan
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Meadowcroft, Michael Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Mills, lain (Meriden) Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Moate, Roger Townend, John (Bridlington)
Moynihan, Hon C. Tracey, Richard
Murphy, Christopher Twinn, Dr Ian
Nelson, Anthony van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Newton, Tony Waddington, David
Normanton, Tom Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Ottaway, Richard Waldegrave, Hon William
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David Walden, George
Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn) Wallace, James
Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian Waller, Gary
Portillo, Michael Ward, John
Powell, William (Corby) Watts, John
Powley, John Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Price, Sir David Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Raffan, Keith Wheeler, John
Rhodes James, Robert Wolfson, Mark
Rowe, Andrew Wood, Timothy
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Yeo, Tim
Sayeed, Jonathan
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Tellers for the Noes:
Shelton, William (Streatham) Mr. Michael Neubert and Mr. Peter Lloyd.
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Shields, Mrs Elizabeth

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 41 (Amendment on Second or Third Reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).