Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:48 pm on 22nd May 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Paymaster General (HM Treasury), Secretary of State for Employment 5:48 pm, 22nd May 1986

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have first-hand experience of night working in the baking industry. Baking has always been a fairly nocturnal activity as people buy in the morning fresh bread that has been cooked for them the night before. As I understand it, however, modern technology and newer types of bread are rather reducing that practice. I do not claim typical experience, but between leaving school and going to university I worked for a couple of months as a night worker in a bakery. I did all sorts of unpleasant jobs, such as greasing tins in the middle of the night. My experience was as a worker in the industry. I opted deliberately for permanent night work and sought the maximum amount of overtime, and I think that many workers still do that

Collective agreements already override the legislation in a large part of the baking industry, and I do not believe that we are still in a position in which it is necessary to protect bakery workers from exploitation, which was intended to be suppressed when the legislation was put on to the statute book. In practice and reality, the legislation is rather liked by trade unions in the industry. It tends to ensure that the industry remains unionised because there can be exemptions only as a result of collective agreements. It improves the bargaining position of the unions vis-à-vis the employers as they negotiate exemptions from the Act. I do not believe that we are protecting downtrodden workers in the baking industry, even though I do not base my argument on a 20-year-old recollection of those I worked alongside during the night and on overtime, when there was legislation to protect us.

There is a gap between the legislation on women's working hours and some of the defences of it and what actually exists as a result of modern social conditions. I shall spell out the complexities of the restrictions on women's hours which are imposed by just one piece of legislation, the Factories Act 1961. Clause 4 provides for the repeal of the provisions, along with similar provisions in the Hours of Employment (Convention) Act 1936 and in the Mines and Quarries Act 1954. These restrictions currently cover only 1·5 million women, working mainly in manufacturing industry, out of a total of 9 million who are employed within the labour force. It seems that no one has thought it necessary to protect the remaining 7·5 million women by means of the present curious requirements.

The 1·5 million women who are covered by the collection of legislation to which I have referred cannot work more than nine hours a day within an 11 -hour period of employment, subject to a maximum of 48 hours a week. They cannot start before 7 am or finish later than 8 pm, or 1 pm on Saturdays. Sunday working is prohibited. The maximum continuous spell of work is limited to four and a half hours, or five hours if a 10-minute break is allowed. Any employer with women and young people on his books must post a notice setting out the full schedule of their starting times, finishing times and intervals, which the legislation stipulates should apply to all alike.

This is not the whole story. The legislation provides for some exceptions and variations. I have so far explained the detailed instructions applying to factories working a six-day week, but the permitted daily hours are somewhat extended for factories normally working a five-day week. The legislation also allows for each factory the working of "overtime" — which is different from that normally regarded as overtime for payment purposes—during six hours in any week, not exceeding 100 hours during the calendar year and confined to 25 weeks during the year, as long as for each employee the total daily working hours do not exceed 10, and provided that the maximum period of employment does not exceed 12 hours in a day. Finishing times for overtime can be no later than 9 pm, but still 1 pm on Saturdays.

There is provision for yet further extensions to the hours that may be worked by the making of regulations, providing that the Secretary of State is satisfied that work in any class of factory is subject to seasonal or other special pressure". For instance, regulations permit the employment of women from 6 am if they work in a laundry, a milk or cheese factory, or are employed in bread, flour, confectionery or sausage manufacture.

I have inflicted on the House this tedious recital of the legislation on the statute book because it clarifies the choice between whether we should repeal all of it if it applies to only 1·5 million out of 9 million working women, or whether we should apply it all to men involved in similar activities. I believe that repeal is obviously the answer.

There is also provision enabling the Health and Safety Executive to permit an employer to run his factory on a shift basis. That is all prescribed in the legislation in a detailed way which obviously inhibits the flexibility of employers engaged in particular manufacturing processes. In this day and age it is quite absurd for the law to meddle in such a detailed and prescriptive manner in the arrangements which employers and employees need to agree for the running of any enterprise. We live in a world in which flexibility is increasingly at a premium. Indeed, the legislation avoids ultimate absurdity by making provisions under which the Health and Safety Executive can give special exemption orders from those detailed restrictions, renewable on an annual basis, to employers who argue increased efficiency in justification. The Health and Safety Executive has not in recent years refused such a request. In 1984–85, more than 4,000 special exemption orders were granted, covering more than 200,000 of the 1·5 million women in manufacturing. Almost half those exemption orders allowed some night working by women.

Far from being an argument for retaining or extending the existing legislation, the "flexibility" provided by this exemption procedure if anything strengthens the case for repeal. Had there been anything to be gained by these restrictions, ready exemptions by the granting of such orders largely neutralised any effect the legislation might otherwise have had. We are left with a near-meaningless rigmarole of complex restrictions which may be lifted by invoking a bureaucratic procedure at the cost of the employer's, and incidentally the Health and Safety Executive's, time and energy, with no obvious benefit to anybody.

Opposition Members will no doubt argue that, in spite of the dearth of prosecutions or other enforcement action, it is only the existence of the legislation which deters the rogue employer from transgressing or, where he applies for a special exemption order, which persuades him to be reasonable in his requests. I quite frankly find that incredible.