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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.

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Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle 6:30 pm, 22nd October 1986

I should like notice of that question. I should not like to answer it at the Dispatch Box at present.

The current legislation permits exceptions and relaxations in certain circumstances, but it would not be possible for an employer to get an exemption from these new rights. So in future he would find himself less able to cope with changes than he was before this Bill's introduction. The restrictions would have become well-nigh immutable. Surely this cannot be the direction we want to take when it is vital that the prevailing climate should he as favourable towards enterprise as we can make it?

After Royal Assent, but before implementation of the repeals, employers would have the worst of both worlds, since this clause would come into effect immediately. As we do not intend to repeal the provisions affecting women's nightworking before early 1988, this would significantly compound the difficulties of this clause for employers.

What is more, the provisions of this clause are likely to be counter-productive for those supposedly benefiting. The transferability of the rights from employer to employer may make the employment of those wishing to exercise the right much less attractive than the recruitment of entirely new blood or those willing to accept changes. Protected employees may find that the so-called protection is in fact more a liability. We have not exaggerated the problems of the two-tier work force as the Opposition have argued during the course of this and earlier debates.

The Opposition believe that employees will face difficulties once the restrictions on hours are lifted. But there are already safeguards to the existing employee whose employer capriciously changes working hours. In these circumstances, a woman working in a factory required for the first time to work new hours which are at present prohibited could under present employment protection legislation make a complaint of unfair dismissal to an industrial tribunal if dismissed for refusal to work these hours providing she had the necessary qualifying period. Similarly, she would be able to make a claim of constructive unfair dismissal if she felt forced to terminate her employment because the employer sought to change her terms and conditions of employment by making her work hours which proved difficult or impossible for her. It would of course be for the industrial tribunal to judge the arguments in the case.

We cannot accept that it would be practicable or sensible to give the further and special protection provided by this clause to the 1·5 million or so currently restricted by the legislation that we are repealing. The repeals will simply put them on a par with the remaining 20 million or so employees in the work force.

To sum up, we see no need or justification for the amendments. The burdens that they would undoubtedly impose would run entirely counter to our aim of encouraging business to thrive and prosper and would ultimately undermine the interests of those whom, according to its advocates, this clause is aimed particularly to protect. Despite the fears expressed by the proponents of these amendments, there is no evidence of exploitation of the 7·5 million women working in other sectors where there are no restrictions on hours. Women, whatever their occupation, should have the same right to work hours that best suit them and their employers. There is no justification for treating one sector differently from another.

For all these reasons, I strongly press the House to reject the new clause.