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Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 22nd May 1986.

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Photo of Mr Ian Lang Mr Ian Lang , Galloway and Upper Nithsdale 9:30 pm, 22nd May 1986

The average wages for women are indeed lower than the average wages for men, but that is because they tend to do different jobs which are in themselves inherently lower paid than those for men.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, yet again, that as we have escaped the controls of the Labour Government's wage control policy and the distortions that that created, the wages of women have substantially advanced and the divergence between the advance of women's wages and men's wages has been very much to the credit of the Government.

We have also been accused of over-emphasising the need for deregulation. It is claimed that we are obsessed with that principle, even at the expense of removing protection from what some see as vulnerable sectors of the work force. The restrictions on women's working hours do encumber those employers who have to run their businesses under such controls. The system of enforcement is bureaucratic in the extreme. It requires employers to keep numerous records, post forms and notices which need continuous updating to show any minor changes.

The system of exemption imposes another burden. Some 200,000 women work at times which would be prohibitive but for the existence of special exemption orders. Of that figure, some 80,000 are working at some time during the night. The restrictions have little practical effect and the paper chase involved in obtaining an exemption is just the sort of red tape which should be cut away. It achieves nothing positive and only hampers the employer and costs the taxpayer money to administer.

Much of today's debate has hinged on the baking industry. I was interested to learn of the talents not only of my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General but also my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) who demonstrated considerable skills and knowledge of the industry.

We have heard arguments pressing us to extend the coverage of the Baking Industry (Hours of Work) Act 1954 to include women instead of repealing it. We believe, however, that extension would be nonsense. It has been argued that repeal will remove a valuable protection for health and safety of the industry but the Act originated not so much on grounds of health and safety as to resolve longstanding problems that the industry had experienced in reaching sensible and workable agreements on hours of work. There is no observable evidence that the Act's provisions have in any way improved the health and safety of bakery workers; nor is there any evidence that its repeal will have a detrimental effect. More than two thirds of the industry's work force is now covered by the terms of collective agreements which bring exemption from the provisions of the Act.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, North spoke of workers in the baking industry working for 60 hours a week. That figure is simply not accurate. We have received representations from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union saying that the average working week in the bread, flour and confectionery sector is 49·9 hours. Even if the hon. Gentleman's figure were correct, it would tend to prove that the 1954 Act has served not to protect the interests of bakery workers. There are at least four other sectors of manual wages for which the average weekly working hours, including overtime, are higher than those in the bread and confectionery industry.

There is no reason to believe that, without the underpinning given to the collective agreements by the Act, employers will seek to impose substantially different hours of work. In our consultations with employers, the Federation of Bakers assured us that there was no prospect of the sort of job losses that the bakers' union fears. There is simply not the level of overmanning in the industry which such numbers would imply. It seems to us pointless to extend the Act to cover women. On the contrary, we believe that the Act is largely redundant and ripe for repeal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) welcomed what the Government have done—and the fact that they have done it quickly—as a result of the Helen Marshall case concerning state and occupational pensions. I appreciate that the House is eager for progress towards equality in state and occupational retirement pensions. The European Court of Justice ruling in the Marshall case did not affect either. Even if it had, no Government could have produced a workable legislative solution on so complex a subject in the space of a few weeks, as we have done with the immediate issues raised in that case.

Hon. Members who were in the House last Wednesday evening will know that a draft EC directive on equal treatment in occupational social security schemes is under discussion in Europe and likely to be adopted soon if certain amendments favoured by the United Kingdom and other member states are made.

As for our proposal to abolish the requirement for training bodies to obtain designation under section 47 of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, some anxiety has been expressed that this will open the floodgates to training for women only and therefore deny men opportunities to train for the work of their choice. Section 47 also allows the provision of training for men only in work in which they are under-represented. It is true that all the bodies designated so far have applied to us with women's training in mind. That is no doubt because traditionally male jobs are often more skilled and higher paid, and women are more likely to aspire to them than men are to, say, typing.

Some people feel that this past discrimination should be overcome by insisting that a quota of jobs should be reserved for women. We do not accept that. Jobs should be filled only on grounds of merit, not of sex. Nevertheless, if women are to have the opportunity to compete for jobs and contribute to the economy on equal terms, they may need special training.

The Government want there to be an economy in which firms, large and small, can expand and thereby win extra business and create new jobs. To this end, we are already winning the battle against inflation. If we are to exploit our successes, we must free enterprise. Unnecessary restrictions and regulations are a positive hindrance to a firm's ability to make the most of its opportunities and therefore create jobs. We must ensure that we create the right environment in which enterprise can thrive and prosper. I believe that the Government's record on freeing past discrimination about women's right to work has been creditable and to our advantage.

It is just over 10 years since the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts came into force. We do not claim that this second Sex Discrimination Bill will be as far-reaching as the first, but it is another step forward on the road to genuine equality of opportunity between the sexes and I believe that we should all welcome its introduction to the House. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the Opposition amendment and to support the Bill's Second Reading.