HC Deb 09 May 1995 vol 259 cc547-9
3. Mr. Austin-Walker

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make it his policy to promote equal pay for women part-time workers. [21618]

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

The Equal Pay Act 1970 already provides for equal pay for equal work, irrespective of the number of hours worked.

Mr. Austin-Walker

Is not the reality that Government policy has undermined fair pay for part-time workers, more than 80 per cent. of whom are women? Does the Minister not recognise that the abolition of the wages councils, without creating a single extra job, has increased the pay difference between low-paid men and low-paid women? Would she now agree with the Equal Opportunities Commission that the introduction of a national minimum wage would increase and promote fair and equal pay and go a great way towards improving the financial position of women in employment?

Miss Widdecombe

Such topsy-turvy reasoning can have come about only because the hon. Gentleman is dizzy from watching the policy somersaults of his leader. The abolition of the wages councils has increased pay in sectors formerly covered by councils. A minimum wage would cause unemployment, which would almost certainly be disproportionate among women.

The fact that it would cause unemployment has been acknowledged by the Leader and deputy Leader of the Opposition and forms part of an OECD report, yet Opposition Members do nothing except hang on to what amounts to a deceit perpetrated on the electorate. They promise jam tomorrow but will not say at what level the wage will be set, how many jobs will be lost, and in what sectors they will be lost. That is why I talk about topsy-turvy reasoning. I suggest that Opposition Members do some serious thinking about the damage that their policies will do to women.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my hon. Friend agree that women's part-time wages have increased more than men's in the past three years? Does she also agree that women welcome the opportunity to work part time, because it fits in more easily with their family lives?

Miss Widdecombe

My hon. Friend is right. It is worth studying what is happening to women's pay as a proportion of men's since 1970.

Mr. Ashton

Why 1970?

Miss Widdecombe

I shall explain why 1970—and 1975 and 1979. In 1970–74, during which period, Opposition Members may just recall if they have done their studies, we had a Conservative Government, women's pay as compared to men's rose by 9 percentage points. We then had a Labour Government and it rose by a measly 1 percentage point. Since then, we have had a Conservative Government and it has risen by a further 6 per centage points, and is now at its highest level ever. Opposition Members should apologise to women for their shameful record and applaud ours.

Ms Short

May I explain to Ministers why the Government are so deeply unpopular and despised by the British people? Are they aware that most of the jobs created in the British economy in the past 10 years have been low-paid, service sector jobs because of the Government's strategy of encouraging low-paid employment? The effect is that most of the jobs have been taken up by women, and women's work has been undervalued and underpaid with no access to promotions or pensions. Increasingly, men are being squeezed out of employment or forced to take temporary part-time work. Does the Minister not understand that it is in the interests of the British economy that we change that, introduce a national minimum wage—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] The Government should listen to the people, and they will then know why they are so unpopular. A national minimum wage would improve the status of women in work, stop men being squeezed out of employment and encourage employers to invest instead of compete by wage cutting. People would then feel more confident and the Government would be a little less unpopular.

Miss Widdecombe

It ill behoves a party that has not won an election for 21 years to preach about popularity. I am amazed that Labour Members have not learnt the lesson of the past, which is that brief and temporary popularity does not lead to success at general elections. After the next general election, they will all be back in their places, still trying to perpetrate deceits on an electorate whom they will not have deceived.

Since 1979, women's pay, hourly and weekly, full time and part time, has increased faster than that of men. There are 1.5 million more women in work than there were 10 years ago. The greatest increase has been among women with young children, which is a tribute to our child care policies. There has been a huge rise in the number of self-employed women and a trebling of the number of women in law and accountancy. May I suggest to the hon. Lady that she does her homework properly?

Ms Short

Too long.

Miss Widdecombe

If my answer was long, it was because the hon. Lady's question was not only long but packed full of inaccuracies from start to finish.