HC Deb 07 November 2001 vol 374 cc339-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McNulty.]

10.1 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh)

The Equal Pay Act 1970 is a landmark piece of legislation and one of the most progressive measures passed in the House in the last century. It enshrines in law a simple moral principle: that all human beings should be treated the same on the basis of their merits and rewarded on the quality of their work alone. I am proud of the fact that it was the Labour party in government that passed that principle into law and of how it has helped to build a fairer and more equal society in Britain.

Today the principle is taken for granted, but it was not always thus. A measure of how times have moved on and of the success of the Act in changing attitudes and practices is that any young person entering the labour market today would find it almost unthinkable that there was a time when that principle was not the norm. People have come to understand both the social and the business case in respect of women's incomes over their lifetimes. If employers do not pay women fairly, it is more difficult for them to retain and motivate their staff. If women receive unequal pay, they are less able to make provision for their old age through pensions and savings and therefore more likely to be dependent on the state.

In 1970, however, the practices in setting pay belonged to a different era. That was perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the coal mining industry. One of the biggest claims brought under the Equal Pay Act 1970—if not the biggest—was initiated by the National Union of Mineworkers on behalf of women canteen workers and cleaning staff at collieries across the country Soon after the Act was introduced in 1973, two canteen workers brought a successful equal pay claim against the National Coal Board. On the back of that, many canteen workers were encouraged to submit similar claims

It was not until 1983 that the possibility of securing redress for women working throughout the mining industry really opened up, with a ruling from the European Court of Justice that had to be incorporated in British law. It extended the scope of the Act to cover equal pay for work of equal value. Between December 1985 and April 1988, nearly 1,300 canteen workers and cleaning staff from 47 different establishments across the country submitted equal value claims, comparing their work to that of 150 male colleagues who were employed either as clerical workers or surface mine workers, including bath attendants, laundry workers and maintenance staff.

Many of the claimants worked at pits in my constituency, including Parsonage and Woodend in Leigh, Bickershaw and Golborne, and also at Anderton House in Lowton, the north-west regional headquarters of the National Coal Board. Others worked at nearby Parkside colliery in Newton-le-Willows, Astley Green, Chanters, Mossley Common and Maines.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

In addition to the cases cited by my hon. Friend, I gathered information about 124 others last week as a result of meetings that I held in my constituency. I note that no Conservative Member is present for the debate. Will my hon. Friend join me in asking my hon. Friend the Minister to consider all those cases, so that the problems inherited by the coal industry can be sorted out once and for all? In that way, we can look forward to the future use of coal and the development of our areas, rather than having our surgeries full of cases from the past that have not been remedied yet.

Andy Burnham

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I look forward to meeting the coach-load of people from Bassetlaw who will come down to the House to join us in raising this matter.

It was not until May 1996 that the breakthrough came, when the House of Lords ruled in favour of the claimants and the NUM. The Lords rejected British Coal's argument that the male comparators were not valid because of the lack of standard terms and conditions across the industry.

Because the Equal Pay Act 1970 requires that claims be pursued by individuals, however, it was expected that each case would have to be referred back to an industrial tribunal. That process would have been extremely time consuming and bureaucratic, and an agreement was reached between the union and the Labour Government on a compensation package.

According to the terms of that package, women who had lodged valid claims would receive £1,000 for each year of full-time work, and part-time workers would receive a pro rata payment. As a result, more than 1,000 women have received substantial payments, many of them in the region of £10,000.

It took 16 years from start to finish to resolve the matter, but a combination of the efforts of the individual claimants, the NUM and Labour in government succeeded in using the 1970 Act to bring redress to almost 1,300 underpaid women. That is worth celebrating, but my purpose in this debate is to raise the issue of the estimated 2,600 women—almost twice the number who have so far received redress—who, although they worked in the same places, did the same jobs and were paid the same money, did not receive anything.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that people from Stoke-on-Trent and the north Staffordshire coalfield, and from mining areas all over the country, also fall into the category of those who have received no redress in this matter?

Andy Burnham

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. I am not talking only about people working in the Lancashire coalfield. Many hon. Members present tonight represent constituencies in the east midlands and the coalfield areas of Yorkshire.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

And Scotland.

Andy Burnham

Yes. In recent weeks I have been contacted by about 30 people who fall into the category of those who have received nothing. The reasons for that are many and various. Some registered claims that were rejected at industrial tribunal, often because of the time limit set down by the 1970 Act. Some claimants registered for equal pay claims in the 1970s, and had assumed that their names would carry over automatically to any later claims. Some people—especially the more elderly—only found out last year that they were eligible to make a claim at all.

To show how the circumstances of each individual vary, and to explain why I do not think that many people can be blamed for failing to lodge a claim, I shall spend some time recording the working experiences of three constituents who have contacted me. It is important that the House should have a clear idea of the difficult nature of the work that they undertook, and of the pay that they received.

My constituent Brenda Worsfold worked at Parsonage colliery between 1978 and 1981, at Bickershaw colliery between 1981 and 1985. and at both pits between 1990 and 1992. In her final job, she would rise at a quarter to five, travel to work on her own, open up the kitchen and begin to provide breakfast, and then lunch, for 30 to 40 surface workers. Mrs. Worsfold was paid £66.21 for 20 hours' work a week. She remembers signing a form to allow her name to go forward, but no record of that could be found.

Mrs. Margaret Hughes of Lowton worked as a cleaner at Anderton house, Lowton, for 22 years between 1966 and 1988. When she was made redundant, she was receiving about £38 a week for 15 hours' work a week. Because of the number of hours that she and other colleagues worked, they received redundancy packages far inferior to those given to the men employed at Anderton House when it was closed. A case was brought to an industrial tribunal, but it fell because of the delay in registering the claim.

Mrs. Alice Kelly of Golborne worked in the canteen at Parkside and Golborne collieries from 1973 to 1983. She worked 40 hours a week, often starting at 5.30am passing her husband in the hallway as he came in from the night shift. She was never paid more than £100 a week. She left work to look after her husband full-time because, like so many other miners, he had succumbed to ill health, so she was no longer at work when people were being encouraged to submit equal value claims. It was not until last year that Mrs. Kelly heard about the possibility of making such a claim.

Although 1,300 people have made claims—make no mistake, that is very welcome—2,600 women have not. For every three people working alongside each other in a colliery canteen, one has received up to £10,000 while two others have received nothing. It is a cruel irony that legislation intended to secure fair and equal treatment for all people has led to such unfairness and unequal treatment.

In many cases, it was the older people who had been working the longest and had just retired, like my constituent Mrs. Kelly, who received nothing. Nearly all the people who have contacted me have been at pains to stress that those were difficult times, and the backdrop to the claims being pursued was one of great upheaval in the British mining industry—and, by extension, in communities such as ours which were dependent on that industry. For that reason, nobody can be surprised that many valid claims could not be lodged within the time limits laid down in the Act.

In considering how to move things forward, it is important to keep those exceptional circumstances in mind. In my constituency at least, the mining industry was coming to an end. The establishments and the jobs in question no longer exist. That brings me to my central point. The rights and wrongs of the issue will continue to be raked over, but it all boils down to the inadequacy of the Equal Pay Act as a mechanism for providing redress to a whole group of people throughout an entire industry who were underpaid for work of the same value as that of their male colleagues.

There are two particular problems. The first is the six-month time limit after termination of employment for lodging claims. The second is the requirement that every case be pursued by an individual. That, by definition, means that the Act is poorly equipped to address systematic underpayment across a whole industry. To achieve the objectives of the Act and fulfil its principles, it would have made much more sense for a class action to be brought.

I know that the Government have been keeping equal pay, and the working of the Equal Pay Act, under close scrutiny. I understand that on 5 December there will be an equal pay summit, where further consideration will be given to how the pay gap can be eradicated for good. I ask the Minister to ensure that the experiences and issues that I have touched on tonight are raised at that summit, and that some consideration is given to the problems in this case and to preventing them from happening again in the future. That would at least give some comfort to the people affected, and some recognition of what they have been through.

I hope that we can still go further and explore whether there is a way of making a gesture to the people concerned, in recognition of the moral principle so clearly at stake in this case. Nobody doubts that thousands of women were underpaid for work that they undertook in the 1970s and 1980s. Some recompense in recognition of that would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Equal Pay Act, and would be justified, given the exceptional circumstances of the time.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to raise this important issue tonight, and place on the record the experiences of my constituents. It may seem obscure to some, but I assure the House that it matters a great deal to the people who have lived through every stage of it.

As a new Member of Parliament I have come to the issue late, but I know that it has involved Members from coalfield communities throughout Britain. I am pleased to see in the House tonight so many Members who represent those communities.

My hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), for Selby (Mr. Grogan), for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett), for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) have pursued this issue assiduously for many years, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones) since they were elected. Their efforts, I know, have been much appreciated by the people involved. I hope that the Minister will ask the Minister for Industry and Energy whether he will meet us all soon to discuss further some of the issues I have raised tonight.

The Government have already done a great deal to help mining communities. Progress is being made with the miners' compensation scheme. We welcome the work done by my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy and the positive developments that he announced last week.

Earlier today, the Prime Minister referred to the £1.5 billion being invested in helping mining communities towards a better future. My hon. Friends and I are extremely grateful for that continued help and commitment, and will keep on working with the Government for the betterment of the people and the communities we represent.

10.16 pm
The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) on securing this debate, on bringing the issue before the House and on the eloquent way in which he set out the case. This is an important issue, which deserves attention, and I am not surprised that more than 20 Labour Members are here at this late hour.

I fully understand the strength of feeling in coalfield communities around the United Kingdom. The issue has a long history; it is surrounded by a great deal of confusion in some areas. My hon. Friend set out the case very clearly, but if he will allow me I will go over some of the points from the Government's perspective, to ensure that we have clearly placed on record what has happened.

The issue arose in the early 1980s. Originally, certain British Coal women workers, mainly cleaning and canteen staff, lodged claims under the Equal Pay Act 1970 which required like pay for like work. Those claims proved unsuccessful and, in the event, British Coal won the litigation. The 1970 Act was amended so that claims could be made on an equal value basis. Subsequently, the majority of those women who had lodged the earlier claims went on to lodge equal value claims.

In all, about 1,300 women lodged claims at the employment tribunal between 1986 and 1992. The Act, as amended, enabled the women to seek compensation if they could show that they were being paid less than men in comparable jobs. British Coal initially resisted this on the ground that the legislation did not apply to its situation. The arguments about the legal technicalities went on for many years, culminating in hearings in the Court of Appeal and the other place.

The eventual ruling on the issues of legal interpretation went against the British Coal arguments, clearing the way for a consideration of the merits of the individual claims of comparability. Recognising the complexities that that involved, the courts encouraged the parties to settle the matter without recourse to further proceedings, and on a broad-brush basis. The members of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers settled at an early stage, and a number of members of the National Union of Mineworkers subsequently settled as well. However, the NUM urged the majority of its members not to settle.

A deal to settle the claims was finally brokered in April this year by the then Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Peter Hain). Under that agreement, all the women with valid claims stood to receive settlements based on length of service. The average settlement, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh said, was about £10,000. It was also agreed that those who had accepted British Coal's earlier offer would receive top-up payments ensuring that all those eligible would receive settlements on the same basis.

The issue raised by my hon. Friend relates to the position of women whose claims were not registered in accordance with the legislation. The legal position is clear: the terms of the Equal Pay Act impose a time limit on bringing a claim before an employment tribunal of six months from the termination of employment. There is no discretion to extend that limit.

My hon. Friend suggested that that element of the Act should be reviewed in future. I am thinking on my feet, but in some respects such a review might be sensible; in future we should perhaps reconsider that provision. However, the law as it stands allows no discretion: anyone who fails to register a claim in the employment tribunal system within six months of termination of employment does not have a legally valid claim to equal-value pay under the terms of the Act, and is not eligible for a payment.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

There are 84 women canteen workers in my constituency who fall into that invalid claim category and I have been in constant correspondence with them. I have received pro formas from 68 of those former canteen workers, 53 of whom tell me that they never realised that they could make a claim. Surely, if people never knew or realised that they could make a claim, it is natural justice that they should be considered for compensation under the Equal Pay Act.

Alan Johnson

I appreciate that point, and shall talk about some of the individual cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Leigh. However, both the UDM and the NUM would have been well aware of the equal value rules and of the procedures to be followed under the Act. As in all such matters, it was their responsibility to keep their members informed, although obviously that is no comfort to the individuals involved.

Jeff Ennis

But of 68 claimants, 20 were not members of a trade union, 34 were in the NUM and 11 were in other trade unions. It is not merely a question of trade union membership: we should treat all the former canteen workers equitably whether they are trade union members or not.

Alan Johnson

I take my hon. Friend's point, but he will appreciate that we have all heard of many cases of claims that were submitted after the six months—there is no discretion to extend the current terms of the Equal Pay Act.

I can understand the consternation of women who find themselves in that position. There may be a variety of reasons why they did not register a claim: my hon. Friend has just mentioned one. Some of them may not have been informed that it was possible to make a claim; others may have been let down by people acting on their behalf. I do not want to comment on the avenues that might be available to pursue claims against such advisers or agents. However, the point at which fateful actions were taken—or, more likely, not taken—will usually have been many years ago.

The case that has been put to the Government by several of my hon. Friends recognises those facts. The suggestion has been made that the Government, standing behind the British Coal Corporation, should make some form of ex gratia payment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I point out that the corporation itself, although still in existence, has neither the resources nor the statutory powers to make such payments.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy has given those requests considerable thought. Having done so, however, he has concluded that it is not possible to pay money on such a large number of claims that have turned up more than a decade late. To make an exception of that group and to pay out on what are now invalid claims would be grossly unfair to all the other people who have had similar claims disqualified under the tribunal system on the grounds of time barring.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) made one simple request of the Minister: that he would meet us as a group to discuss the problem and consider a way forward. Will my hon. Friend accede to that request?

Alan Johnson

I shall return to that point in a moment, before we run out of time.

I stress that if the unregistered claims had been lodged in a timely manner, the problem would not have arisen and much anxiety would have been avoided. Nevertheless, we are in the situation that we are in, and I hope that I have made it clear that the position that we have adopted is not one that we have taken lightly. It is not the case that my Department is unwilling to meet its responsibilities. The fact that we will be paying out on settlements worth around £14 million is ample evidence of that. What was promised is being delivered to all the women with valid claims, and to the NUM. Moreover, we continue to make every effort to locate those women with valid claims who have either not come forward or up to now are not traceable, in order that they can get what they are entitled to. I am pleased to report that, at the end of October, more than 90 per cent. of the registered cases had been settled.

None of this is any comfort, of course, to those women who do not have valid registered claims.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

We have arrived at this situation after many years. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to take legal advice on whether the lack of discretion in the six-month time limit puts us outwith European legislation, in particular article 118, and if so whether any moves will be made to amend domestic legislation with regard to equal treatment.

Alan Johnson

I am not in a position to answer that question, but my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy will be at the meeting that I shall refer to in a second.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister saying that special cases of any kind have never been made in employment law? I would just remind him about GCHQ. If it is a question of money—I do not think it is—just remember that the Government are taking half of the additional pensions that accrued over many years, and we are talking there about loads of money. I hope that the Minister will look at the ex gratia solution.

Alan Johnson

There have been ex gratia payments. As far as I am aware, we have never dealt with claims registered outside the six-month limit at employment tribunals in any different way, because to do so would affect all those people whose claims were debarred in the past.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

A number of women in my constituency did not have their claim registered because they were not represented properly by their trade union. I understand that the NUM was given a sum of money to cover its costs, and asked for that not to be disclosed. Is it not about time that we knew what money it received? If it was at fault, it should pay the women itself.

Alan Johnson

My hon. Friend raises a point that I am not equipped to answer, but there is a question mark about how the claims were dealt with, not just by the NUM but by the UDM.

We have an obligation to secure fairness of treatment between different groups of possible applicants under the legislation working for different employers in different industries who do not have valid claims. Applying that test of fairness, there is no basis on which we could justify special treatment for this group of ex-British Coal employees. I know that that is difficult for those involved and difficult for my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh to accept. He has been a skilled and vociferous advocate for them, as have other colleagues, but it would be cruel to hold out false promises when the issue has been examined in great detail. Nevertheless, I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy has already agreed to a meeting next week. That will be a better forum than here, where we are time-limited and there is not the same opportunity to exchange the detailed points that the issue requires.

So I can confirm on behalf of my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy that he will meet interested Members of Parliament next week. We can then go through the issue in more detail. I hope that on that basis my hon. Friends and the House will recognise that this is an important issue. We have looked at it carefully. We do not take these decisions lightly, but we do not currently believe that there is any basis for offering false hope to the women whose plight has been described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.