HL Deb 14 July 1997 vol 581 cc815-8
Baroness Turner of Camden

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is the case that women are on average paid 20 per cent. less than men, whether as board directors or as sales assistants, and what action they are taking to rectify the situation.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)

My Lords, the Government's new earnings survey for April 1996 shows women's average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, were 79.9 per cent. of men's. It also shows that the gap between women's and men's average earnings is narrower in some occupations and wider in others. Though the survey provides a useful comparison between men's and women's earnings, it does not prove there are unequal pay rates for comparable jobs. However, the Government are still concerned about the difference in average hourly pay between men and women. Our policies will enable more women to train for and enter higher status jobs and will encourage employers to pay full and fair rates.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I am sure she is aware that my Question is based on statements contained in the excellent annual report of the Equal Opportunities Commission. It acknowledges that much progress has been made, but there are still problems. The EOC urges improved access to justice for those claiming equal pay for work of equal value. That the procedures are often complicated and very long is exemplified by the well-known case of speech therapists, which began as long ago as 1985 and has still not yet reached a conclusion. Could there not be a review of these procedures, in consultation with the EOC, with a view to improving them? That might help the situation as far as concerns the gender gap.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I should like to congratulate the Equal Opportunities Commission on its new code of practice on equal pay. It is the first of its kind to be developed by a member state in Europe. A good deal of consultation and care went into the drawing up of the code. If employers take note of it they can certainly improve their pay systems and practices for all their staff. On the more specific question about the 11-year long speech therapists' case, sometimes known as the Enderby case, for understandable reasons, I cannot comment on cases which are still going through the legal process. These cases are particularly complex ones. In this case it is the responsibility of the Department of Health. However, I very much take on board the more general issue my noble friend raises about trying to improve the procedures in such cases. I shall certainly look into them.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there has been very little improvement since 1976 when the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, was in charge of employment policy? I believe that the move has been within 5 per cent. since that time. Can she tell us whether the Government's training policy will focus on the occupational concentration of women in certain low paid areas as compared with men?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The Equal Pay Act was introduced by my noble friend Lady Castle back in 1970. There was then a rapid improvement in narrowing the gap between men and women as far as concerns average earnings. However, since 1979 there has been a substantial slowing down in narrowing that gap. One way of doing it is by improving training opportunities for those in jobs with low pay and limited levels of qualification. The Government are engaging in a variety of different policies: both through modern apprenticeships, where we are trying to increase the proportion of women, particularly the proportion of women in those areas where there have not traditionally been many women; and through the programme of training provided by the TECs.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that women can bring their own cases if they feel they are being unfairly discriminated against? I speak as someone who has sat on industrial tribunals since 1974. If the case is simple a woman can bring it under the Equal Pay Act and the industrial tribunal has power to deal with it. Long cases are the exception. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, is an expert in these matters. The Question refers to "board directors". Is there any suggestion that the boards of public companies are paying women less to be non-executive members? I have never encountered that.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am not aware of the board of a public company paying one of its non-executive directors less if she is a woman. On the noble Baroness's more general question, I am aware of the opportunity women have to take to industrial tribunals employers who they believe are discriminating against them. There are many such cases. I am glad to say that quite often any discrimination is subsequently rectified as a result of taking such a case to a tribunal.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the issue of equal pay bites harder and more viciously on those at the bottom of the social scale? Such people not only suffer a disadvantage in terms of wages but in working conditions in general with regard to sick pay, maternity benefit and holiday pay.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am aware that discrimination of that sort is most common in jobs which are badly paid. One of the problems is that job segregation exists in this country leading to more women being concentrated in jobs that are probably undervalued in some ways in terms of the pay that is offered. That is something which we and all employers need to address.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Enderby case, to which she has referred, sends just the wrong sort of signals to one of the professions to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred—in other words, a hardworking profession whose personnel is almost entirely women?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I do. It is most unsatisfactory that a case of this kind has dragged on for nearly 11 years. As I said earlier, that is something that we shall look into.

Earl Russell

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us how much more revenue the Chancellor of the Exchequer would enjoy were that 20 per cent. gap to be closed? If, as is possible, she is not provided with the answer to that question, can she please write to me and place a copy of the answer in the Library?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I cannot say exactly how much additional revenue would be available to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer if that were to happen. I am a little sceptical as to whether an army of civil servants will be able to provide the noble Earl with that figure, but I shall certainly take his question back and ask whether the figure can be produced.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, do the Government envisage that the introduction of the minimum wage will change the present situation?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, of course it will change the present situation because there are many women who are paid scandalously low hourly rates. A minimum wage will ensure that that position is changed.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, as the noble Baroness is aware, Opportunity 2000 was formed in 1991 by the business community, and its purpose was to raise the profile of employment for women. Are the Government going to continue to encourage such schemes, and what plans do they have to develop that type of work further?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government will certainly encourage such schemes.

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