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Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:26 pm on 22nd May 1986.

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Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd , Stretford 8:26 pm, 22nd May 1986

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mrs. Shields) on her maiden speech. I am sure that it was a portent of things to come. She could not have made it on a more appropriate subject than the Sex Discrimination Bill, if this Bill has anything to do with sex discrimination.

The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) is also to be congratulated on filling so many words with so few ideas. I was intrigued by the notion that the legal profession. of all professions, is free from discrimination. I wait with interest to see hordes of female High Court judges.

Discrimination against women in employment is not best looked for among the relatively privileged. The hon. Gentleman must accept that there is privilege in the legal profession. Women are represented significantly at the lower end of the market. They tend to do the low-paid jobs which are now difficult to find or have simply disappeared. In Greater Manchester, a significant proportion of women in work receive low pay. The House should address the problem of sex discrimination at the place of work and in other parts of society but it has failed to do so with this tawdry Bill.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the boy scout and the blind old lady. If the old lady is the Prime Minister and the boy scout is the Paymaster General, who has a reputation for liberalism, it is obvious that the boy scout has been unable to have any impact on the old lady in the context of the Bill. That which is good in the Bill has been forced on the Government. The Government have been goaded unwillingly into introducing changes by the powers of external courts.

Clauses 1 and 2, which have been given a cautious welcome by my right hon. and hon. Friends, are the direct result of the European courts and their clear disapproval of existing United Kingdom legislation. We have been slow in amending our law since the decisions of the courts but at least we are now putting our domestic legislation into some sort of order. A recent decision in the case of Miss Marshall gave her the right to remain at work. The decision was greeted with great pleasure by many health workers in my constituency, but it took a court decision on that issue to force the Government to change the law.

The only other good parts of the Bill are those that the Paymaster General has told us he intends to remove from it. These are the provisions that offer some protection for those who will suffer the most direct impact. The measures that the Government propose to take are those that will at best do little to remove discrimination. At worst, they will do active harm to individuals at their place of work in various industries.

There is great fear about the effect of clause 5 when the Bill is enacted. It threatens the repeal of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act, 1954. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union is greatly concerned about the results of the clause when it becomes a section. It took that union about 110 years to get an Act on the statute book to protect its members and others, and in relative terms it has enjoyed the protection of an effective piece of legislation for a short time—about 30 years.

The Government pray in aid the views of two employers federations, which say that legislation is not needed and has no impact. If that is so, why remove it from the statute book? Employers have said that they do not think that there will be any major changes, so why are we getting rid of current legislation? Is it part of a legislative tidying-up process? If it is, it is hardly worth wasting the time of the House on the exercise.

Others are far more fearful of the consequences of that which the Government propose, including the bakers union. Some on the employers' side have estimated that about 2,000 jobs may be lost in baking as a result of the repeal. That is a considerable number of jobs, especially as the losses will occur in part in communities which are often hard pressed because of the loss of jobs in other industries. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan) looks quizzical. If he does not accept my arguments, I shall be glad to send him some of the documentation which is in my possession. There is great fear about the loss of employment opportunities.

I am sure that the Paymaster General recognises that there are voices of experience in the baking industry. I concede that the two months which the right hon. and learned Gentleman spent in the industry is longer than the experience which I can claim, but perhaps he will be modest enough to concede that changes have taken place and that the industry may be somewhat different now from what it was when he was working within it. Some have been locked into it for 40 years whereas the right hon. and learned Gentleman experienced it for but two months before moving off to new and certainly more rewarding pastures.

The baking industry ranks third in the table of industries with long working hours. The hours of those employed within it are exceeded only by merchant seamen and those engaged in the road transport industry. The bakers union can quote working weeks that sometimes exceed 60 hours. We know that there are agreements which take parts of the industry from the control of the current legislation, and it is feared that the unsocial hours and conditions that existed in the industry prior to the introduction of the present legislation will return once the Bill is enacted. That fear is only right and proper. It is a valid fear that individuals and groups of employees in the baking industry will suffer harshly once the Bill is enacted.

We know that shift workers are compensated by shift premiums, which make up in part for having to work shifts as opposed to regular days. Shift working is generally an extemely unsocial activity. It disrupts lifestyles and causes unique strains, especially to an individual's social life. There are direct effects on those who work shifts, especially when they grow older. The argument that current legislation offers real protection should not be dismissed or pooh-poohed. The Government's case has not been proven. It is said that the lifting of the so-called burden will not do any damage, but that is not an adequate reason by any stretch of the imagination for repealing legislation which is genuinely popular among those in the baking industry.

It is felt by bakers and by some employers that the 1954 Act raises the average standard and protects better employers from unfair competition from the worst. It is important in any industry to prevent the worst employers driving down the standards of the average and the good, and we have not had an adequate response from the Government to that argument.

The same arguments apply to the impact of clause 4. There is not much to recommend that which is set out within it. The great principle of the avoidance of sex discrimination has allowed the Government to slip in provisions which will have a direct impact upon young workers, and I think that even Conservative Members will accept that the young have suffered severely as a result of the Government's recent legislative changes. In various ways they have seen their working rights eroded, and there is to be a further erosion of their rights in the interests, so we are told, of the avoidance of sex discrimination.

The Equal Opportunities Commission, which was prayed in aid in another place, was constructive in its approach to the problem when it recommended an equalisation of legislative controls. It did not urge that controls should be scrapped. It would have been possible for us to consider that in another light. It is sad that the removal of sex discrimination should be used as a guise for crude attacks and an attempt to manipulate the minimal protections that apply in the baking industry and some other industries where, because of relatively weak trade unions or the absence of unions, individual employees have little protection against unscrupulous employers.

The Paymaster General told us of the Government's intention to remove clause 3. It is remarkable that a clause that was inserted in another place with the intention of strengthening the Bill — in reality, it could do little damage to it — is to be deleted, especially if the Government are sincere in their view of what the Bill will do. However, the clause is to be removed because it offends the ideological drive of the Government in their attack upon employees in their places of work. They are not prepared to give the minimal amount of time that clause 3 would provide to allow for adequate and meaningful consultations to take place.

The Minister says that he thinks that it is merely a matter of further delay. Yet the Government delayed for six years before implementing the recommendations of the EOC. They sat on the recommendations and kicked them around for six years, hoping that they would quietly go away. They were suddenly forced into action by the need to introduce legislation following some reverses in the European Court. At best, it is therefore specious for them to say that a delay of a few more months would massively damage the legislation.

I turn to single-sex training. We wait to see the wording of the regulations, but the Minister said that a marginal change was being made, which made no real impact. I am no exponent of the European Community, but the Government refused money from the EC's social fund for single-sex training on the ground that it was discriminatory. Moreover, that happened in the not-too-distant past. We must be suspicious of any attempt to weaken the controls, and that is why I shall watch carefully to see whether the legislation gives protection that guarantees that single-sex training can be used only to enhance the rights of those who have been traditionally discriminated against on the ground of sex in certain areas of employment and training.

It is important to recognise the concept of positive discrimination. Positive discrimination should apply not only to the failure to allow for equality between the sexes but to racial discrimination and so on. Positive discrimination has a role to play in all those areas. Arty erosion of that principle through allowing single sex training to be diluted and used wrongly should be deplored.

There is nothing really to commend the Bill to us. It is of rather dubious parentage. Many of its better features will no doubt be pruned back to ensure that any beneficial aspects left in the Bill as a result of consideration in the other place are not allowed to frustrate the Government's intentions. For that reason, I shall certainly join my right hon. and hon. Friends in voting against the Bill.