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

Protection of Existing Conditions

Part of Orders of the Day — Sex Discrimination Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 22nd October 1986.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:30 pm, 22nd October 1986

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) rightly drew attention to the inconsistencies of the Government's approach in this area. They tell us that the existing legislation is a major burden on industry and yet its removal will have no effect on those at the place of work. Gerry Dowds of the Forum of Private Business commented on the Government's proposals. He is a representative of the small business sector, the sector which the Government claim is most affected by the present legislation. He said: I've not met one small business man who has had one good thing to say about dismantling the employment protection. We do not want second-class employees and second-class customers". That is the voice of the small business sector. It does not want to see the present legislative protection swept away and it does not want to face competition from the cowboy employers who will drive down conditions in the industry. That is why, even if we cannot maintain present employment protection, which is what some of my hon. Friends would want, we at least want to offer that protection to those who have already started their career and who follow their working lives on the basis of those protections.

7.15 pm

I recently visited a factory in my constituency. It was a print works which had just switched to two-shift working. Most of the women in the work force who had traditionally worked days are happy with their conditions. They said that they were concerned when the management first asked them to consider a change but, having done it, they were happy. Nobody on the Labour Benches would want to deny them their right to work for a higher income. All of that is allowable under the present employment legislation. However, there were one or two women—this was acknowledged by the women in the factory—who had had great difficulties and who had had to make extraordinary arrangements for their families. They had eventually fallen into line for the good of everybody else. Clearly there are circumstances in which individuals would be penalised by a change in employment conditions.

It is often the woman who bears the biggest burden in rearing children. Certainly, among my friends and acquaintances it is often the woman who is responsible for collecting children from school. That may be something that should change. However, that is the position today. Therefore, working conditions for many women in the area in which I live have to relate to the family practices and activities that they are used to. It is no good saying that in the best of worlds things would be different. Of course they would. However, we do not live in a world in which we can guarantee employment for all those who want it. In the Greater Manchester area, many women are the sole breadwinner and are forced into low-paid work and into conditions where working practices make life difficult for them. If we take away the present protections that legislation provides, we enforce potentially worse working conditions for those whose lifestyle cannot easily be changed. However, they will have to accommodate those conditions at the cost of the children and their family life. That is what the Opposition are trying to prevent.

My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) made it clear that the new schedule and clause draw heavily from what the Government proposed in order to buy off their own Back Benchers in terms of the Sunday trading legislation. The Government have already sanctioned certain things as being acceptable and workable employment proposals even though they would create a differential between existing employees and future employees. As every hon. Member knows, almost every employer up and down the country already operates a two-tier working system. Very few manufacturing industries operate the same working conditions for clerical grades as they do for shop floor grades. That is a matter for industrial history. There is no great difficulty in operating the two-tier system that we have heard is such a great disadvantage.

We were told in Committee that the differences between Sunday trading and the proposals in this Bill were fundamental because Sunday work was massively different. However, the thrust of the Government's proposals on Sunday trading was that work on a Sunday was to be treated as the norm. There are Opposition Members who think differently from that and who feel that we should build in protections. Nevertheless, we also recognise that there should be protection for those people who historically have not had to operate by working shifts and working under difficult terms of employment.

This is not a major dismantling of what the Government propose. My hon. Friends and I view it as a second-best to kicking out most of the contentious sections of the Bill. It is a modest reform which will limit the damage caused by the Bill because it does not offer even the minimum protection for people in work.

The £25 proposal will hit in particular areas such as that which I represent where the employed are paid low wages. The proposal will restrict access to industrial tribunals and create a two-tier society which we want to avoid. People who are rich can afford to use the law but others cannot. The poor are already denied access to the courts unless they can obtain legal aid. If we impose an extra burden, poor people will be denied access to industrial tribunals, which should be open to those who need them, not just to those who can afford them.