HL Deb 06 March 1995 vol 562 cc1-4

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why, 25 years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act 1970, the average earnings of women remain below male average earnings, and what steps they propose to take to ensure that the provisions of the Act are effective.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, women's average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, are now 79.5 per cent. of men's—the highest that they have ever been. The main cause of the remaining pay differential is job segregation which falls outside the reach of the Equal Pay Act 1970. The Government have taken, and will continue to take, a range of measures which should help women's pay and employment prospects.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Whatever statistics one uses, it is pretty clear that there is a large gap between men and women's pay. Indeed Britain has one of the largest such gaps in Europe. Does the Minister agree that, if one accepts the figures of the 1994 new earnings survey, it will take 30 years or more before the pay of women in Britain is equal to that of men? Will the Minister indicate whether the Government are to implement any of the 27 amendments which have been suggested to the equal value law by the Equal Opportunities Commission?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is important that we are clear exactly what the Equal Pay Act does. The important and valuable principle that the Equal Pay Act enshrines in legislation is that there should be equal pay for equal work. Of course that does not mean that one will find immediately that average women's earnings will be the same as average men's earnings because the determinant of what someone earns depends on the type of job he or she does. We are working towards a society where opportunities are equal and where opportunities will have been taken up equally by men and women. When that occurs we shall see average earnings more or less equalised between the sexes. The current problem is job segregation. It will inevitably take time to break glass ceilings so that we reach the state of affairs that I have already described.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I thank the Minister for recognising that the problem is one of opportunity. However, the Sex Discrimination Act requiring equal opportunity has been on the statute book for 20 years. Surely by this time we would expect women to be penetrating the jobs which carry higher pay. I am sure the Minister would agree that it is their failure to penetrate those jobs which primarily accounts for the unequal pay. Further, as regards establishing equal pay for work of equal value, under the amendments which were made to the Equal Pay Act—they were made in 1984, I believe—does the Minister agree that these are difficult to operate? Will the Government look at ways in which that procedure could be simplified and speeded up?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the Government are always in favour of fair ways of speeding up dispute procedures. As regards the first part of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, we are seeing women increasingly moving into the higher paid and professional sectors of society. For example, in 1984 there were 8,000 women lawyers but in 1993 there were 28,000, which represents 32 per cent. of the whole. In 1984 18,000 accountants were women and in 1993 there were 45,000, which represents 24 per cent. of the whole. Progress is being made in that direction.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, what proportion of women are moving into the useful professions, such as science and engineering, as opposed to the law and chartered accountancy?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as a lawyer I dissent from the proposition that we lawyers are not useful members of society. As regards the number of women working in scientific areas, I am afraid I do not have the figures to hand but I shall write to the noble Lord and advise him to the extent I can.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was a great initiative—women into science and engineering—which produced certain results? Will he confirm that in all the professions pay is equal for men and women? Are more women entering all the professions?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my noble friend puts us right about the steps that have been taken—they are useful and successful steps, too—to get more women into science and technology. I can confirm that in the professions the principles of the Equal Pay Act apply. Therefore where men and women are doing the same work they should be receiving the same pay. That will help to improve the average earnings of women.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, can the noble Lord give the House an assurance that there is equal pay at all levels of the Civil Service?

Lord Inglewood

Yes, my Lords.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, does the Minister also agree that there is equal pay for work of equal value? Further, does he agree that it is very difficult to determine what constitutes equal value? He referred twice to the same work, but the provision has been extended to work of equal value. Is the Minister aware that in 1993, when the Government responded to the Equal Opportunities Commission's recommendations for amending the Equal Pay Act, they said that they had to balance improvements in the law with placing undue burdens on employers? Is it still the Government's view that to provide equal pay is an undue burden on employers?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. When I referred to the same work I meant the form of words which she more accurately quoted from the statute. The requirement to give equal pay for work of equal value is a statutory obligation. It therefore takes precedence over any discretionary approach.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Government's policy, involving as it does the abolition of wages councils and the encouragement to employers to be more flexible, has worsened the position of many women? For example, the Low Pay Unit has instances of shop workers now being offered £1.66 an hour and hairdressers £1.43 an hour. Does the Minister not realise that the policies of his own Government have contributed massively to the continuing disparity between male and female earnings? Lord Inglewood: My Lords, the evidence that we have shows that workers who were formerly covered by wages councils have average hourly earnings significantly above the minimum rates last set by the wages councils. The growth in earnings for such workers has generally been greater than for workers as a whole. I should like to reiterate the point that I made earlier: in this Question we are talking about the relationship between equivalent work of men and women. The pay they receive must be the same.

Earl Russell

My Lords, will the Minister consider the fiscal benefits which might follow from achieving equal pay? Can he give us an estimate of the benefits that might follow in terms of increased revenue in national insurance and income tax and in diminished spending on benefits? Will he extend his reply, unlike his first Answer, to include part-time work as well as full-time work?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the question posed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is extremely wide and I shall have to reply to him in writing.

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