HL Deb 23 March 1998 vol 587 cc957-60

2.55 p.m.

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to expedite progress towards equal pay.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, the Government's New Earnings Survey for April 1997 shows women's average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, were 80.2 per cent. of that of men. Government policies will enable more women to train for and enter higher status jobs and will encourage employers to pay full and fair rates. The introduction of a national minimum wage will also help to reduce the gap between men's and women's pay, since women form a large proportion of those workers who will benefit from this measure. The Equal Opportunities Commission is currently undertaking a review of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Government will consider the review when it is formally presented later this year.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating, with a change I believe of only six words, a Written Answer to me of 16th February. I am sure that she is familiar with the draft consultation paper issued by the Equal Opportunities Commission entitled Equality in the 21st Century. Will she pay particular attention to four proposals in that document: the proposal to change the negative ban on discrimination into a positive right to equal treatment; the proposal to incorporate the law on sexual harassment within the right to equal treatment; the proposal to consolidate the law on pregnancy and maternity leave; and the proposal to incorporate, where possible, the provisions of European Community law in British law? In that context, will the Minister agree that Europe is a girl's best friend?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I am delighted that on this occasion at least the Government are found to be consistent and that the Answer I have given today is the same as the Written Answer which I gave to the noble Earl on 16th February.

It is obviously too early to comment on the Equal Opportunities Commission review, and we shall wish to do that when it has been completed. However, I believe that all the issues which the noble Earl has raised will be addressed by the commission, and the Government would certainly wish to see progress made in all those areas to ensure that we have equal rights at work and move slowly towards achieving genuine equal pay. Although there have been improvements, we are still not there.

Finally, as regards the European Union, that is an area in which the Commission and the Community have in some respects been ahead of the UK and we can benefit from the work that they have done.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, can the Minister tell me which government departments are currently undertaking a pay audit in keeping with the code of practice on equal pay issued by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1997?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, all government departments have to evaluate their pay systems as a condition of delegated pay. As part of that evaluation process, they are expected to review their systems for any sex bias and provide details of how any discrimination issues have been handled. The Cabinet Office monitors the results closely. However, I believe that the record of government departments in that respect is very good.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the most important ways to encourage progress in equal pay, especially for technologically qualified women but also for many other women, is to persuade employers to provide flexible working arrangements so that these women do not lose touch with their expertise in the subjects concerned and can pursue their careers, possibly on a part-time basis?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords; family friendly working arrangements, as I believe they are now called, are something that the Government very much want to encourage in a variety of ways, both, as the noble Baroness said, through making it easier for women with small children to work part-time if they wish to do so and through providing reasonable opportunities for women—and, indeed, men—who have small children to take time off if their children are ill and for employers to be understanding in that respect. Moreover, we are keen for these women to be given adequate leave after either having a baby or adopting a child.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the major practical problem in enforcing equal pay is the time involved in getting settlements out of industrial tribunals and the RUT? The important aspect is that we should have a way of taking collective cases to industrial tribunals and taking class actions to deal with disputes. That has long been a part of the policy of the present party in office. When will the Government do something about that?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend that long delays in industrial tribunal cases can be a serious disincentive to women who may have been discriminated against in pursuing their cases by that route. However, the Government wish to consider the outcome of the Lord Chancellor's working group on representative actions before making a decision on the matter. Such changes would allow a single body to bring an action on behalf of a whole class of people and would require individuals to give up their right to have their cases heard individually. However, the implications of such a fundamental change in policy need to be thoroughly considered.

I should stress that the Government welcome the review of the Equal Opportunities Commission on equality legislation, which recommends that the courts should provide for representative actions and collective remedies. As I have already said, we shall give full and careful consideration to all the recommendations of the EOC for changes to the law.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many Permanent Secretaries are women and what proportion of the total that represents? Further, is she satisfied that the promotion opportunities for women within the Civil Service are being looked at as part of the Government's reforms?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, this is something which is under active consideration in my department. I believe that Ministers in the new Government have been encouraging all departments to look at promotion opportunities for women in the Civil Service. We know that there is now a much higher proportion of women entering the Civil Service at all levels. However, what we have not yet seen is enough of them coming through to positions right at the top. The Government very much hope that that will happen.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that some of the worst examples of unequal pay occur at the very bottom end of the scale, where hundreds of thousands of women enjoy even less in wages than men who earn poverty wages? Does she also agree that one way to strike a blow for equal pay and against poverty pay would be to give the National Minimum Wage Bill an uninterrupted and speedy passage through this House?

Baroness Blackstone

Yes, my Lords; I very much hope that that will happen. The introduction of the national minimum wage will help to end the worst cases of exploitation of vulnerable, low-paid workers, whether working full-time, part-time, on a temporary or casual basis, or even at home. Indeed, some of the worst paid women workers are actually home workers. In doing so, the national minimum wage will contribute towards easing the pay inequalities which, unfortunately, still exist between men and women.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, in the consideration of equal pay, has the Minister given any thought to those mothers who choose to stay at home to care for their children in the belief that this is a full-time and worthwhile job? Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, those mothers who wish to stay at home looking after their young children should be able to do so. It is vital that the Government ensure that they communicate that fact and that they do not in any way imply that it is not a worthwhile thing to do.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for some helpful answers. However, does she realise that there is also a steadily growing impatience to speed up progress on the subject? In that context, can the noble Baroness tell the House when the Government intend to take measures to implement the European Union working hours directive and the parental leave directive?

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, I recognise that many women—and, I hope, many men—want to see the discrepancy in the pay of men and women completely removed. Unfortunately, I cannot give the noble Earl a precise date in answer to his question. But if I am able to obtain one I shall write to him with that information.

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