HL Deb 08 May 1987 vol 487 cc393-7

2 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 5th May be approved. [19th Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that these draft orders be approved. First, however, I regret to have to draw your Lordships' attention to a technical error in the printed copies of the schedules to both orders. The schedules define, by means of coordinates, the Norwegian part of the Frigg natural gas field and paragraphs 1(b) of both schedules refer to the parallel of latitude 50°50'00"N. The correct parallel of latitude is 59°50'00"N. I am given to understand that the earlier version embraces most of the South-East of England. The revised versions of both orders, containing a manuscript amendment, were laid before your Lordships' House on Tuesday 5th May, and I hope your Lordships will accept my apologies for this error.

The orders have a simple but important purpose and one which I am sure all Members of your Lordships' House will appreciate and welcome. The orders will extend the coverage of the equality laws—the Sex Discrimination, Equal Pay and Race Relations Acts—to offshore employment on the United Kingdom continental shelf, except for those areas where the law of Northern Ireland applies. By offshore employment I mean, to quote the wording of the orders: Employment concerned with the exploration of the seabed or subsoil or the exploitation of their natural resources".

The orders will therefore extend the legislation I have mentioned to employment connected with the oil and gas industries' offshore activities in the North Sea and elsewhere around the coast of Great Britain.

The orders will also extend coverage of the three Acts to employees of British and British-based companies anywhere in the Frigg natural gas field. This field straddles the geographical boundary line between the United Kingdom and the Norwegian areas of the continental shelf—one rig is, I understand, actually part in the UK and part in Norway. It was of course necessary to obtain the Norwegian Government's agreement for extension to the Frigg field, and this we have done.

The powers for extending the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act to offshore employment in the specified activities are to be found in those Acts in Sections 10(5) and 8(5) respectively. Section 10(5) of the Sex Discrimination Act also provides similarly for the extension of the Equal Pay Act. Given the progress towards equality which has been made since these Acts were passed in the 1970s, the Government believe it is time to bring these powers into use.

To take sex discrimination first, it is now generally accepted that women should have the right to the same employment opportunities as men. At the same time, traditional attitudes still persist in some areas and indeed are held by women as well as men. A 1984 study prepared for the Equal Opportunities Commission showed that women were only 0.1 per cent. of a normal shift in the offshore industry. It would be surprising if the exclusion from the legislation has not had something to do with this. My noble friend Lady Platt and the Equal Opportunities Commission, who have done so much to advance the cause of equality, are, I know, very concerned that the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Pay Act should be extended to cover offshore employment.

I am encouraged by the responses to the consultation the Government have undertaken in connection with these changes, which have confirmed our belief that employers in the offshore industry, like employers generally, are opposed to discrimination. Even so, I am sure that women's talents are still not being used to the full. This legislative protection will not only ensure that employers will have to change unjustifiable discriminatory practices, where these continue to exist, but will also give women greater encouragement and confidence to put themselves forward where job opportunities occur.

As regards racial discrimination, there is already a very considerable mix of nationalities and racial groups among persons employed offshore. I cannot say because of this that discrimination never occurs. Where it does, the race relations order before us today will give individuals a right of redress. I know that this will be welcomed by the Commission for Racial Equality.

I mentioned consultations. The Government have of course taken the views of both sides of industry—the CBI, the TUC and the Scottish TUC—before proposing these changes and I am delighted to report that all supported them in principle. The CBI was, however, concerned that there should be an adequate lead-in period for employers, and the TUC and the STUC were concerned that problems over provision of separate sleeping accommodation and other necessary facilities for women should not become an easy avenue of escape from the legislation.

Perhaps I may say a brief word about both these points, which were the only substantive ones arising from the consultation. Taking due account of the CBI's concern, the draft orders have a commencement date of 1st November 1987. This will give employers just under six months, including the all-important summer months, in which to make any structural alterations which may be necessary for their compliance with the Sex Discrimination Act. As your Lordships will appreciate, most structural work offshore is possible only in the summer months.

The same commencement date is proposed for both orders in order to avoid confusion, although the considerations that I have just outlined are relevant only to extension of the sex discrimination legislation. The Government hope that employers will take full advantage of the lead-in period where alterations to accommodate women are necessary and practicable. However, Section 7(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act covers circumstances in which it would not be reasonable to require the provisions of separate sleeping accommodation and sanitary facilities so that both men and women can be employed. I appreciate that that lies at the heart of the concern that has been expressed by the TUC and the Scottish TUC. I have no doubt that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, who is sitting opposite will express those views.

Perhaps I should say against that background that when the legislation is extended to offshore employment, Section 7(2), as it does at present for onshore employment, will provide a defence for an employer who employs one sex only in circumstances in which it would be unreasonable to expect him or her to provide accommodation and facilities for both sexes. The point about Section 7(2) that I wish to emphasise this afternoon is that it does not provide employers with a blanket defence. If an employer's decision not to provide for both sexes were challenged, the facts of the matter would have to be considered by an industrial tribunal and it would be for the tribunal to decide whether in all the particular circumstances the employer's decision was reasonable. I should stress that I am confident that tribunals will ensure that the protection of employers in Section 7(2) is not abused. I understand that in the limited number of cases where tribunals have had to consider this matter they have always held it reasonable that employers should provide separate facilities. Because of this, the Equal Opportunities Commission commented in their document Legislating For Change? that they considered no amendment to Section 7(2) of that Act was necessary.

Of course, I shall be happy to respond to any questions that may arise from my opening remarks. I commend both draft orders to your Lordships. I believe that they represent a small but nevertheless significant further step towards equality, and that they will point up in a very particular way the importance and good business sense of choosing the best person for any job, regardless of sex or race. I beg to move.

Moved, that the draft order laid before the House on 5th May be approved [19th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

2.10 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I am sure that nobody in your Lordships' House can possibly wish to object to any move to enlarge the scope of the race relations and sex discrimination Acts, and on that basis we welcome these orders. Indeed, many people have said that this step should have been taken before now.

As the Minister has said, the EOC has always pressed for sex discrimination legislation to be extended to offshore employment. However, I believe that there is a problem. There is no doubt at all that the offshore oil industry is a male dominated industry. The Minister himself has referred to the excellent survey, Women in the North Sea Oil Industry, that was produced some time ago by the Equal Opportunities Commission. That survey underlined, as he has said, the fact that there were hardly any women working in this industry. However, there are now increasing numbers of women, particularly those qualifying as geologists, who see the offshore oil industry as a career opportunity. There is no doubt also that they are not getting these opportunities, and I wonder whether the order is sufficient to enable them to do so even now.

The report of the Equal Opportunities Commission ends with the two conclusions that: there are well educated and highly motivated women wishing to work offshore who are denied the opportunity to do so simply because they are women—and for no other reason"; and At a lower point in the occupation scale women are denied access to relatively well-paid work in offshore catering and from the opportunity to experience the work environment of the North Sea. They are denied this opportunity because they are women—andfor no other reason. However, the reason that is often advanced by employers for not employing women is that there are no proper facilities for them—those are the points put forward by both the Scottish TUC and the TUC. They say that there are no toilet and washing facilities and so on, and that therefore the environment is not suitable for women. As the Minister has indicated, they are able to do so because of the existence of Section 7(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act.

I believe that as the order now stands it will still permit the use of this defence by employers. For that reason I believe that the order does not go far enough since it will not in practice result in equal opportunities being extended to women and the provisions of the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts will not apply when it comes to it.

I suggest that the Minister takes serious account of what has been said. I do not wish to oppose the order because, as I have already said, I should not wish to give the impression that we are in any way opposed to the extension of the cover of the Acts to offshore employment. Quite the reverse is true. We are concerned to ensure that the extension really is an extension and that the rights that seem to be available in the order really will apply when it comes to the practical application.

I understand that the Norwegian industry, which has a relatively low female workforce—about 12 to 13 per cent.—provides appropriate facilities for both sexes as a matter of course. I do not see why our industry should not do so and why failure to do so should be used by employers under Section 7(2) of the Sex Discrimination Act as a reason for frustrating the intentions of the order. I very much fear that, unless some steps are taken to ensure it does not happen, that may well be the case. However, I do not wish, as I said earlier, to oppose either order.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for her acceptance of the order before us this afternoon. I shall just underline what I attempted to say in my opening remarks. In touching on the question of the number of women working in the British sector of the North Sea, I regret it is a fact that there are no comprehensive statistics for the number of women employed offshore on the UK continental shelf on relevant activities. The only information that we have is that contained in the research prepared for the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1984. That research provided a best estimate that only about 0.1 per cent. of the workforce, or some 22,000 all told, were women. Therefore only about 25 were working offshore on a normal shift basis.

I am aware that in the past women have perhaps been discouraged from applying for those jobs but I believe that the order will remove some of the obstacles. I am equally aware of the concern that the Trades Union Congress and indeed the ASTMS, of which the noble Baroness is the general secretary, expressed that employers might evade the new legislation and might see the suggestion that Section 7 should not apply to offshore employees.

However, I must say that Section 7(2) defence will certainly not permit an employer to disregard the requirements of the Sex Discrimination Act. All it does is to enable an employer to argue before an industrial tribune that the particular circumstances of the workplace and the employer's circumstances, including of course financial resource, are such that it would be unreasonable to require the provision of sleeping accommodation and sanitary facilities for both sexes.

The employer who deliberately seeks to use that section to evade the legislation will run a grave risk of a decision against him, which could involve him in paying not only compensation but also costs.

It would be an unwelcome, but perhaps more than that, an unnecessary departure to single out a particular industry for exclusion from the section. The noble Baroness referred to the Norwegian law and practice, but the Norwegian law does not contain a provision such as that in Section 7(2)(c). Again, I refer to the report prepared in 1984 for the Equal Opportunities Commission. The report pointed out that in Norway there are not quite the same—how can I put it?—cultural restraints on shared accommodation as there are in the United Kingdom. Despite that legislation in Norway. it is interesting to note that women working offshore remain concentrated in what some might have described as women's traditional occupations. Therefore I do not believe that even with that legislation or the absence of it in the United Kingdom, women have been denied opportunities nor will they be denied opportunities in the higher echelons.

In conclusion, perhaps I may simply reiterate that while the numbers of employees affected may not be very great the orders represent a quite significant milestone in the progress towards full equality which I am quite sure your Lordships will accept.

On Question, Motion agreed to.