HL Deb 25 May 1976 vol 371 cc219-26

7.42 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, DEPARTMENT of EDUCATION and SCIENCE (Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge) rose to move, That the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 11 th May, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the order be approved. The purpose of the order is to apply to persons in Northern Ireland provisions similar to those applying to persons in other parts of the United Kingdom under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

Before embarking on the preparation of this legislation, the responsible Department prepared a consultative paper which was distributed widely in Northern Ireland. The paper outlined the provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act, which was at that time before Parliament, and invited comment. The consensus of opinion was that legislation similar to that for Great Britain should be introduced for Northern Ireland. The same arguments as were adduced in Great Britain in favour of positive action to prohibit discrimination against women in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services, apply with even more force in Northern Ireland, where very few women occupy senior positions in industry, business or indeed in the Civil Service or local government. A contributory factor to this situation has undoubtedly been the tradition in Northern Ireland that most married women—at least until comparatively recently— did not continue to work after marriage. But economic pressures, together with better education, have meant that increasing numbers of married women are either continuing in employment after marriage, or are seeking to return to employment after bringing up their families, and are therefore competing with men for employment and promotion. It has been said with some truth that Northern Ireland is still largely a male dominated society, but there are signs that women there are becoming less prepared to accept a subordinate position, and the proposals of this order are designed to accord them an equal opportunity with men of making their way by their industry and ability.

I now turn to the provisions of the order. In general, it prohibits discrimination in employment against persons of either sex on grounds of sex or marriage; it prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex in the provision of goods, facilities and services and the disposal and management of premises. Indirect discrimination, instructions, or pressure to discriminate, and discriminatory advertising are also prohibited. The employment provisions apply equally to employment for the purposes of a Minister of the Crown or for a Government Department, and appointments to public bodies by Ministers or Departments are required to be made without discrimination. Certain exceptions are, however, made to the provisions of the order. The main ones relate to those cases where sex can be regarded as a genuine occupational qualification. These are set out in some detail in Article 10 of the order. They cover such matters as considerations of decency and privacy, jobs in single-sex establishments such as prisons, single-sex hospitals, or parts of hospitals, special care establishments and establishments where the character of the job requires that it be held by a man or a woman. In addition, bodies not carried on for profit—for example private clubs—are also excepted.

Apart from the exceptions of genuine occupational qualifications, other exceptions include employment in a private household, or in a firm employing not more than five persons, certain requirements of the police and prison services, employment for purposes of an organised religion, employment and training of midwives, single-sex establishments of education, education courses in physical training, charities, certain forms of insurance, and communal accommodation. The order enables positive discrimination in training to be provided to enable persons of either sex to fit themselves for certain types of work—for example, work which in the past has been the preserve of the opposite sex—or for entry, or re-entry, to the labour market, for example, after a period of domesticity. An exception is also made in the case of elected bodies, such as committees of trade unions, which may reserve a number of places for persons of one sex so as to maintain a reasonable balance between the sexes.

An important exception is that relating to acts of a discriminatory nature empowered by an enactment enacted before the making of the order, or by any subordinate legislation made under such n enactment. There is also an exception or discriminatory acts done for the purpose of safeguarding national or public security. Transitional provisions are included in the order to enable organisations and professional bodies to comply with the requirements of the order within a given period of time. Victimisation of a person who has taken action, whether as a principal, or in giving evidence, or has acted in any manner whatsoever under the order or the Equal Pay Act (Northern Ireland) 1970, is prohibited, provided that the person has acted in good faith.

The order establishes an Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland, consisting of 12 members including a chairman and deputy chairman. The Commission's duties may be summarised as working towards the elimination of discrimination; the promotion of equality of opportunity between men and women generally; and the review of the working of the order and of the Equal Pay Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. If necessary, the Commission is empowered to propose Amendments to those enactments. The Commission may also, in specified circumstances, initiate legal proceedings in industrial tribunals and county courts. Legal action under the order lies, in employment cases, to industrial tribunals, and in other cases to county courts. Damages of up to £5,200 may be awarded against a respondent found guilty of discriminatory practices. Provision is made for appeals.

The order empowers the Equal Opportunities Commission to assist a person in the preparation and presentation of a case to an industrial tribunal or to a county court, where that case concerns a matter of principle, or is so complex that it would be unreasonable to expect the complainant to present it unaided. The Commission is also empowered to carry out formal investigations and to make recommendations to obviate discrimination. It is required to report its findings in any formal investigation and to make the report available to the public. Further to preventing discrimination, the Commission may issue a nondiscrimination order requiring a person or persons to desist from discriminatory practices and to furnish evidence to the Commission that he, or they, have done so.

In employment cases a duty is laid on the Department of Manpower Services to attempt to promote a settlement through its conciliation service. The order amends the Equal Pay (Northern Ireland) Act 1970 to make it clear that it applies only to contractual terms of employment and to bring its provisions into line with those of the order. The order will come into operation on such day or days as the Secretary of State may by order appoint. My Lords, I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, laid before the House on 11th May, be approved. —(Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge.)

7.50 p.m.


My Lords, this is the second substantial Northern Ireland order to be presented to your Lordships' House this week, and, as was the case with yesterday's order, which was on industrial relations, this order, which is the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order, is in essence repeating legislation which is already applying to Great Britain. I think it would he undesirable to have a very long discussion on it. However, as statistics have shown that the opportunities for women to obtain employment in Northern Ireland have been less favourable there than they are in Great Britain. so this order could he of quite considerable practical effect in the Province, and I was relieved to hear the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, say in his explanation that widespread consultations had been undertaken in Northern Ireland before the order was laid before Parliament.

I think it is just worth recognising that, in the matter of equal opportunities, the Government of the Republic decided that they would not proceed with very similar legislation because of the level of unemployment there, and they were indeed criticised by their own EEC Commissioner for doing this. So there will be two different systems for offering jobs on the two sides of the Border, and as there is, of course, as the noble Lord very well knows, quite a lot of cross-Border traffic in a variety of ways, I wonder whether he would like to comment on the Government's view as to whether there will be any practical problems ensuing from this. But in the context of this order I have just one substantive question. Could the noble Lord give the latest unemployment figures for Northern Ireland, and, if possible, the trend in unemployment over, say, the last year? The principle which lies behind this order has already received the approval of Parliament, but the practical effect of it may be more marked in Northern Ireland than it will be in Great Britain. With that one substantive question and those few comments, I shall certainly give my support to the passage of this order.

Baroness SEEAR

My Lords, although I have not put my name down to speak, I should very much like, if I may, to welcome this order. When the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was going through both Houses of Parliament a number of us were much concerned that a similar order should be prepared for the benefit of Northern Ireland. I should like to take up very briefly the point that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has raised. It seems to me unfortunate to give the impression that to provide greater opportunities to women is an undesirable thing to do when there is unemployment. The idea that the women would in this way be taking jobs away from men is, if I may say so with all respect to the noble Lord, far too simple an interpretation of the economic situation and the employment situation in any country, including, I would suggest, Northern Ireland.

There is one question I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, and one point I should like to raise. I have looked at this order only briefly, but it seems to me that there is a slight difference between this order and the 1975 Act in that the prohibition on male midwives is total here, whereas in the 1975 Act some slight modification was made with regard to the opportunities for men to train for midwifery and to practise midwifery in certain restricted areas. Whether it is a deliberate decision to have this difference in the Northern Ireland situation, and, if so, why, would be very interesting to know, but perhaps I am mistaken in my quick reading of this order.

I should also like to ask a rather more general question. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, made the point that, in the past, women in Northern Ireland, particularly married women, have not taken a very active part in the labour market. If women are to do this—this is well understood in this country; and, from a reference which the noble Lord made, I gather that the Equal Opportunity Commission in Northern Ireland will also be concerned with this—there must be the provision of facilities to make a reality of married women's opportunities to work. I would have thought that in Northern Ireland it was particularly important that better child-care facilities should be provided than exist at the present time. In this country, where the problems of married women leaving their homes are not as acute as the problems would be in the situation that obtains in Northern Ireland, women find very great difficulty with child-care provision, and T would have thought that in Northern Ireland there was a double purpose to be served. If this is to be a reality, resources must be made available for proper child-care; and, also, in the situation which obtains in Northern Ireland, an extension of childcare services would serve other very important purposes as well.

7.56 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness who have responded to my statement of this case. May 1 reply first to the point which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, made about the Dublin Government's approach to this? There is a slight misunderstanding here. No proposal has yet been put forward there for legislation on the lines of the present draft order, but the Republic has deferred the introduction of its equal pay legislation because of financial constraints. The noble Lord will know that the Equal Pay (Northern Ireland) Act 1970 became operative in Northern Ireland on 29th December of last year, the same day upon which the Equal Pay Act became operative in Great Britain. The activities of the Government of the Republic of Ireland do not. of course, influence legislative progress in Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The Government believe that the likely cost of the Equal Opportunity Commission, about £88,000 per annum, will be well spent in providing the means whereby equality of opportunity between the sexes can be promoted.

The noble Lord asked about the unemployment figures, and he asked the trend, too. I can give the latest figures. In 1965 there were 586,000 working population, of which 194,000 were women. There were 30,000 unemployed, of which 8,300 were women. Five years later the global figure was 580,000, the unemployed figure was 35,700 and the number of women was 8,100. The number of unemployed men was up by 6,000, and the number of unemployed women was down by 200. In 1974-5 there were 582,000 employed, and the unemployed were 44,100, of which the women unemployed were 13,300—a very large increase. Those are the actual figures. I think it might be worth mentioning that the proportions of women at work were: in 1960, 36.3 per cent.: 1965, 36.7 per cent.. in 1970, 38.4 per cent.; and in 1975, 40.8 per cent—a very considerable increase in the proportion of women working.

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness has produced something out of the draft order which is not there. I am advised that there is no real difference in the rules about male midwives. As to child-care facilities, I think the answer is that of course both Northern Ireland and Great Britain are less than perfect in child-care facilities. From my experience in Northern Ireland—I was never concerned with this particular thing—speaking off the cuff I think that our facilities are no worse there than they are here. But clearly if a woman is going to work then the need for child care facilities grows; and I accept that. We have monetary problems the same as anybody else in Northern Ireland. Whether anything can be done I do not know, but we accept the point that to allow women to go to work involves the provision of beau- child care facilities. I am grateful for the discussion. I think I have nothing further to add.

On Question, Motion agreed to.