Northern Ireland (Sex Discrimination)

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 11:57 pm on 5th July 1988.

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Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport 11:57 pm, 5th July 1988

I beg to move, That the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 17th May, be approved. The order has several key objectives. The first and most important is to further promote equal opportunities in employment between men and women. The second is to achieve that aim in a manner that reduces unnecessary bureaucracy. The third is to put Northern Ireland on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom in this part of the law.

The order contains provisions analogous to those enacted in Great Britain by the Sex Discrimination Act 1986. Together with articles 7 to 10, which replicate changes introduced in Great Britain in 1976 subsequent to the enactment of the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order of that year, the provisions will bring Northern Ireland law into line with that of Great Britain. The order is a positive measure, and reflects the Government's policy of ensuring parity of provision throughout the United Kingdom in the promotion of equality of opportunity between the sexes.

Northern Ireland has its own separate legislation and administrative framework for the promotion of equality of opportunity between the sexes and the control of unlawful sex discrimination. In reality, however, the law in Northern Ireland has tended to mirror that in Great Britain. That is hardly surprising, as much of the provision is rooted in our obligations as a member of the European Community, which bite as much in Northern Ireland as elsewhere in the kingdom. Similarly, the issues addressed in the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976, and in subsequent measures in this sector, are common to Great Britain and to Northern Ireland. It is clearly sensible, therefore, for there to be parity of provision between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and this is what this order is designed to achieve.

A number of the changes in the order, in particular articles 3 and 11 and articles 4 and 5, have been the subject of separate consultations, which paralleled similar consultations in Great Britain. The totality of the order has also been the subject of consultation as part of the normal legislative arrangements for Northern Ireland legislation of this type. I am grateful to all of those who have offered comments, even if it was not possible to accept all the points that were made.

Before dealing with the substance of each article, I remind the House that articles 3 and 11 and articles 4 and 5 stem from separate judgments of the European Court of Justice and are designed to meet the court's ruling that, on the issues concerned, the United Kingdom sex discrimination legislation—that is, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and, by extension, the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1976—did not fully meet the requirements of the European Community equal treatment directive.

Articles 3 and 11 are a direct response to the court's concern that the 1976 order was deficient on three counts covering, first, exemption of private households, secondly, of small firms with five or fewer employees, and, thirdly, its application to collective agreements and the rules of undertakings and of independent professions and occupations. Articles 4 and 5, on the other hand, reflect the court's ruling in the case of Marshall ν South West Hampshire area health authority in February 1986 that the dismissal of a woman solely because she had reached state pensionable age where that was different for women and men was contrary to article 5(1) of the equal treatment directive.

I shall now deal with the substance of the various articles. Articles 1 and 2 are self-explanatory and deal with the title, commencement and interpretation of terms used in the order. Article 3 repeals article 8(3) of the 1976 order, which exempts private households and businesses with five or fewer employees from the requirement not to discriminate in employment and replaces it with a more limited exception for private households.

Article 3 makes the further change of removing the exemption for small firms—that is, firms with five or fewer employees. I would add that, following the suggestion in another place during the passage of the 1986 Act, partnerships consisting of five or fewer persons were brought within the scope of the sex discrimination legislation. This was a logical extension which reflected the increase in the number of women entering business on their own account and the Government's commitment to self-employment. This provision has been replicated in full in the draft order.

Articles 4 and 5 provide for equal treatment in retirement age and are a consequence of the European Court judgment in the Marshall case, to which I have already referred. Again, the articles mirror provisions which were introduced into the 1986 Act in Committee. Employers will have up to six months to rearrange their procedures and adjust their personnel planning to comply with the new provisions, but I would hope that employers in Northern Ireland will implement these changes as quickly as possible.

Article 6 removes the administrative hurdle of designation by the Department of Economic Development which previously faced organisations wishing to provide training for people of one sex in occupations where they are seriously under-represented or to help them return to the labour market after a period of domestic or family responsibilities.

The aim of any codes issued by the Northern Ireland commission, referred to in articles 7 to 10, as with its Great Britain counterpart, will be to give practical guidance aimed at eliminating discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity: The Equal Opportunities Commission (Northern Ireland) already publishes a range of booklets of high quality. I understand that its booklet on sexual harassment is a model and has been used in Great Britain. The codes that it will now be able to bring forward will be admissible as evidence before an industrial tribunal and can be taken into account by a tribunal in deciding whether an act of unlawful discrimination has taken place. They will, therefore, be an important reference point for employers, trade unionists and individuals in understanding their rights and responsibilities under sex discrimination legislation.

Article 8 specifies a new requirement which the Equal Opportunities Commission must fulfil before it can embark on a formal investigation and will bring Northern Ireland law into line with that in Great Britain. The article requires the commission, when it proposes to inquire into whether a named individual has committed an unlawful act, to inform that individual of the commission's intention to investigate and to offer the individual concerned the right to make oral or written representations and to be legally represented. We believe that it is right that the powers of the investigating body, and the rights of individuals who might be the subject of such investigation, should be the same throughout the United Kingdom.

Article 9 clarifies the maximum amount an industrial tribunal may award in respect of complaints presented to it by individuals under the Sex Discrimination Order. This limit has been set at £8,500 since 1 April 1987.

While article 10 is a minor amendment, I am sure that it is a welcome one to the Equal Opportunities Commission as it extends its discretion to assist individuals in the preparation, and the presentation, of a complaint to an industrial tribunal where there is some special reason for affording such assistance.

By contrast, article 11 of the draft order is again designed to bring our equality laws into line with the European Community equal treatment directive. The European Court judgment that gave rise to the changes in article 3 also required us to make void discriminatory provisions in collective agreements, internal rules of undertakings and rules governing the independent occupations and professions.

Another key objective of the draft order is the repeal of restrictions on hours of work. Article 12 removes from the Factories Act (Northern Ireland) 1965 outmoded and discriminatory restrictions on hours of work for women in such undertakings. It also removes the power to impose such restrictions under the Mines Act (Northern Ireland) 1969 and the Quarries (Northern Ireland) Order 1983. The repeals will put women in the manfacturing sector in Northern Ireland not only on a par with men in the same occupations, but with other women in jobs where there are no legislative restrictions on hours of work.

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill

Will the hon. Gentleman say how that will affect people who might be involved when working in the nuclear industry, especially those who may be affected by radiation-related diseases? Will he comment on the possible detrimental effects to a woman's health, especially when she is pregnant?

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is unreasonably believed by some that women are less capable of taking on manual and other work than men. Informed opinion now recognises that that is not the case. However, for gynaecological or other reasons, women could, obviously, be unsuited for work. I will investigate the specific point made by the hon. Gentleman and, with the leave of the House, I will refer to it in my reply.

Finally, article 13 of the draft order closes a small loophole in the sex discrimination laws by preventing district councils from using public entertainment licensing powers in a sex discriminatory way. I know of no district council that discriminates in this way, but as the European Commission considers the United Kingdom legislation to be deficient in this respect we have taken the necessary steps to rectify it.

The reforms introduced by this draft order are a further step in what I would hope is a common goal of promoting equal opportunities and flexibility in employment. The order also removes some unnecessary restrictions. I believe it is a major step towards true equality between the sexes and commend it to the House.

I have sought to deal briefly with the specific points raised in the order, but I will be happy—with the leave of the House—to deal with points raised during the debate.

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar 12:08 am, 5th July 1988

I thank the Minister for the detailed explanation of the articles in the draft order. I am sure that some of them will be warmly welcomed by people in Northern Ireland, but, clearly, some of them will not.

The Minister gave two explanations for the order being introduced. First, he said that it was to bring Northern Ireland legislation into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. He referred especially to articles 7, 8, 9 and 10. His second justification was that the order brings Northern Ireland legislation in line with European Community law. In particular, he mentioned the judgments of the European Court of Justice at Luxembourg, and he referred especially to articles 3 and 12.

It has to be said that the Minister was a little liberal with his definition of causality. Many people in Northern Ireland would argue that the British Government introduced parts of this legislation not because of an unswerving desire for greater equality for women but because the changes were forced on them by the European Court of Justice, which found that the British Government had failed to comply with the equal treatment directive in employment, vocational training, and working conditions. The Minister is aware that that directive was binding on the Government.

We welcome some of the proposals in the order which bring about positive changes for women. We welcome those which end the exclusion of sex discrimination legislation in undertakings of fewer than six people. We also welcome employers and partners having to provide equality in retirement age and equalisation of the age of unfair dismissal. We have many criticisms of the order, but in view of the late hour I shall concentrate on just four.

First, why has it taken so long for this legislation to be introduced in Northern Ireland? Article 3 bans discrimination against people employed in undertakings of six or fewer people. We welcome that article because if someone is discriminated against in a shop where there are, say, five employees, it ought to be dealt with. We cannot understand why it has taken so long for that legislation to be introduced in Northern Ireland. The European Court of Justice, in the case of the European Commission v. United Kingdom, said in 1983 that that exemption was unlawful.

The exemption was deleted for Britain in February 1987. As the Department of Economic Development has said, it is estimated that the change will affect more than 3,600 employees who work in small firms in Northern Ireland. It will not be sufficient for the Minister to say, as Lord Lyell said for the Government in the other place yesterday, that this is the first opportunity that the Government have had. To many people in Northern Ireland, that response suggests a lack of desire to implement the European Court's ruling.

Secondly, why are the Government complying with some obligations under European law but not others? The Government seem to be selective about which bits of European law they will implement. Articles 4 and 5 illustrate the anomalous position in which the Government have put themselves.

We welcome the Government's compliance with the provision that employers and partners have to provide equality in retirement age, particularly as women, on average, live seven and a half years longer than men. But how can the Government then ignore parts of the European directive which would stop the blatant discrimination that continues against women in relation to redundancy payments and pension entitlement? It will not be satisfactory for the Minister to argue that those items fall outside the scope of the equal treatment directive and that therefore he does not need to consider them. In the case of Cato v. Queen Charlotte's special health authority, it was found that to specify different age limits for redundancy was in contravention of European law.

Thirdly, the Government are threatening women's rights rather than helping them, as the draft order equalises downwards. Article 12 is an example of that. It removes protective legislation from women. Under the guise of equality, the Government are saying that women will be treated in the same way as their male counterparts. The Minister mentioned the Mines Act (Northern Ireland) 1969, the Quarries (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 and the Factories Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. We are talking here about important rights such as those that affect working hours, Sunday labour, rights to annual holidays and many health and safety protections.

We recognise that women in other areas of employment do not receive such protection, but instead of removing protective legislation the Government should review the situation to ensure that all workers are guaranteed minimum standards on working hours. We do not consider it unreasonable to expect that workers in this country should have rights to adequate breaks, adequate relief for shift work and adequate child care provision. We have only to look at countries such as Norway and Sweden to see that they have improved safety standards for workers. We are asking why we do not have the same here.

We are therefore arguing for equalisation up rather than down, as the Government propose. It is no good the Minister arguing, as he began to suggest, that that would in some way increase freedom of choice because the submission to which he referred—made after consultations with both the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Equal Opportunities Commission in Northern Ireland—argues that there is no evidence to suggest that it would increase freedom of choice for women. We rehearsed the arguments in the House when we debated Sunday trading and the reasons why those proposed changes would make the situation worse.

The fourth criticism that we should like the Minister to address is that, on balance, the order limits the powers of the EOC in Northern Ireland, while at the same time increasing its workload. We willingly accept that the EOC has been given the right to introduce a code of practice into specific firms. We accept that that is a useful tool and we welcome it, but it is a right which, as I am sure the Minister is aware, the EOC has had since the 1970s. At the same time, the order will limit the EOC's ability to be effective. It will limit how the EOC can introduce that code of practice. It will force the EOC to give notice to a named individual that it is to carry out an investigation where unlawful discrimination is thought to be taking place.

In addition, the EOC must substantiate the belief that unlawful discrimination is taking place. As I am sure that the Minister and hon. Members are aware, discrimination is sometimes difficult to see. It is often hidden and indirect. It takes many forms and, therefore, to ask the EOC to substantiate a belief is very problematic. Perhaps, when the Minister answers our questions, he will define for us what belief means in the context of the order.

It would be useful if the Minister could clarify what the explanatory note means when it states that no significant effect on public expenditure will result from the order. The order increases the remit of the EOC in Northern Ireland and, therefore, one would assume that there would be a subsequent increase in the EOC's budget to handle that increased remit. When that question was put to Lord Lyell in the other place yesterday, the answer was unclear and we would appreciate it if the Minister would clarify that point.

I am sure that the Minister would like to join me in welcoming the good work done by the EOC and Mary Clark-Glass in the past year, particularly the recent success in giving girls aged 11 the right of transferability without having a percentage barrier to their chances to go on to specific schools. I am sure that the Minister will welcome the progress that the commission ensured in that legislation.

The order proposes only piecemeal amendments to the current legislation. It does not in any way fulfil the Government's obligations, under the equal treatment directive. We argue, therefore, that it will lead to further litigation in the European Court of Justice. A particularly worrying, underlying dimension that runs through the order is that the Government's proposals are primarily motivated by a desire to deregulate, rather than by a real commitment to remove sex discrimination. It is clear that the Government's response to their European obligations has yet again been to propose changes that would repeal sexually discriminatory legislation at the cost of the removal of essential protection in health and safety at work for women.

The order is too little and too late for women in Northern Ireland. There are many obstacles that will present serious problems to the creation of true equality between the sexes. The Minister claimed that it represents a major step forward, but we consider it to be a small step forward and two steps backwards. It avoids dealing with the main issues of discrimination. We shall continue to challenge the Government on the widespread discrimination which still exists and press them for a much more detailed examination of current sex discrimination legislation.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady , South Down 12:30 am, 5th July 1988

I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Last Friday, the House discussed the White Paper on fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland and it is appropriate that we are now discussing disadvantage due to sex discrimination. It is significant that last week in the High Court at Belfast, Judge Hutton ruled that two education and library boards and the Department of Education were guilty of indirect discrimination in respect of 11-plus examinations. That illustrates the attitudes that lie within the ethos of sex discrimination. There are probably many laws and regulations that contain discrimination, both direct and indirect, that have yet to be tested in the courts. The order seems to be a piecemeal response to a problem that is endemic. It reflects a lack of initiative to deal with the problem in its totality.

My party, along with many other organisations, including the Equal Opportunities Commission, made detailed submissions to the Department of Economic Development of Northern Ireland. My party's submission was at one with that of the EOC and those of many other bodies. It sought equality of status for all women on the work floor, in the office and in the professions. My party expressed its misgivings and made proposals for alterations. After the period for consultation came to an end the order was published, and it appeared that not one material change had been made to it. It seems that no cognisance was taken of the many submissions which were made during the consultative period. It would seem that it is a waste of time being involved in that process if it ends with no changes being made to the original proposals.

There have been changes in employment, one of which is the greater participation of women in work. The statistics showed that last March, in Northern Ireland, almost 250,000 women were in employment. It is significant that over 7,000 women are self-employed. In addition, there has been an influx of women into the professions and the higher echelons of the Civil Service, but those are the exceptions. Many women in employment are concentrated in the part-time arena in low-status occupations. Many are concentrated also in the easily exploited service sectors such as hairdressing, contract cleaning and catering. It is important that employers understand the vital role that they have to play in the promotion of equal opportunity for women. Legislation such as that which is before us should address itself to the totality of the problem. As the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) said, the order represents a piecemeal approach.

There is no denying that the order contains advances, which we welcome, especially in relation to private households, small undertakings and partnerships, retirement ages, collective agreements and rules of undertakings. These have been dealt with in some detail by the hon. Member for Redcar and it will not be necessary, therefore, for me to do so.

Having welcomed those particular aspects of the order, I may add that it has a number of serious shortfalls, which must be addressed. The draft order proposes repealing certain protective legislation. I agree with the hon. Member for Redcar that that would be a retrograde step. The order would appear to discard certain rights that women need and that ought to remain on the statute book.

The Equal Opportunities Commission would be empowered to issue new codes of practice containing practical guidance on eliminating discrimination in employment and on promoting equal opportunities as between men and women. We hope that such codes would be persuasive in respect of industrial tribunals. However, the draft order embodies proposals that would narrow the terms of reference applying to formal investigations by the EOC. Such restrictions have already been identified by the English and Welsh commissions as being limiting, and we now appear to be repeating that error in the draft order that is before the House tonight.

The investigations upon which the EOC could embark will be restricted to individuals only, and only where there is a preconceived idea that discrimination has occurred. The order would also allow for something that is a matter of concern to many having experience of this subject. I refer to protracted, pre-investigation representations, which could bog down the whole investigative process, introduce unnecessary delay and cost, and draw further on the commission's resources.

The Government have failed to introduce promised amendments relating to equal redundancy benefit entitlements for women working in the private sector in Northern Ireland, who will not enjoy the same benefits as women employed in the statutory sector. That is obviously unfair, and does not make for equal opportunity.

Under an EEC directive that will become operative next year, there must be equal retirement and pension plan ages for men and women in respect of occupational pension schemes. It would appear that the Government have failed to legislate for that equality in social security reforms affecting retirement ages, which is an aspect that the order should have addressed.

The Government have demonstrated a lack of commitment and willingness to provide equal opportunities by, for example, imposing restrictions on the EOC. The order will place a greater burden on the commission to exercise the responsibilities with which it is charged. It is a great pity that the opportunity has not been seized to deal with the problem in its totality. I am certain that further directives and legislation affecting both Northern Ireland and the EC will be tested in the courts, and that it will be only a short time before we find ourselves debating another amended order on sex discrimination. It is regrettable that the opportunity has not been taken to deal in this order with the totality of the problem as we know it to be, and to deal with the differences that exist today.

The hon. Member for Redcar spoke of the Government taking one step forward and two steps back. I may add that the representations that were sought and made were, by and large, ignored in the final draft order. That was a retrogade step, and regrettable.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire 12:29 am, 5th July 1988

This is one of those profoundly depressing occasions when one finds one's own Government submitting, it would seem, to the combined forces of the Europeans on the one hand and that dreadful equal opportunities industry on the other. I am reassured only by the fact that some Opposition Members are dissatisfied with what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has brought before us tonight. That gives me some slight cause for hope.

My hon. Friend has not explained why the existing body of so-called equal opportunity law and that great bureaucracy of the equal opportunities industry that exists here on the mainland—our friends in Northern Ireland have up to now been spared the worst excesses—should be applied to Northern Ireland rather than that the mainland should be brought into line with Northern Ireland.

All of us know perfectly well that the fair sex need no body of legislation or interference, even by my hon. Friend, to give them equality. They are already superior in almost every respect to the male. What the males among us have to ensure is that we try to retain some sort of equality for as long as possible before ladies take over in almost every respect.

It always surprises me that even such an eminent political figure as the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) should expect legislation to protect her sex against the depradations of mine. It seems perfectly obvious that, with a lady as Head of State and a lady who is Head of Government, women are increasingly running everything in sight. The mere suggestion that we need legislation, created mainly by men, to protect them is patently ludicrous. For my hon. Friend to suggest that that absurdity should be extended to the good people of Northern Ireland is, to say the least, regrettable.

But what my hon. Friend has not explained to any of us is something that he said in his opening comments when I was encouraged momentarily. However, the moment passed. He said that his measures would reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. My heart soared when he said that. I thought that here was one small chink of light in this depressing and black moment in politics because, among this great morass of nonsense before us this evening, which I guess the House will approve, much to my regret, my hon. Friend offered us the hope that there might be a reduction in bureaucracy.

Regrettably, my hon. Friend left that point and moved on to wade through the great jungle of provisions that will weigh upon business and the community in Northern Ireland, liberating positively no one. Just to reassure me and bring me into the Lobby with him tonight—I am sure that we shall divide on such an important matter as this—will my hon. Friend tell me in what respect bureaucracy is reduced?

My hon. Friend said almost in the same breath that we were to extend the provisions to small undertakings of fewer than six employees. My simple mind, even at this late hour, can just about grasp the idea that if my hon. Friend is to extend this nonsense to small undertakings and impose these burdens on smaller businesses, bureaucracy will almost certainly have to be greater. I can envisage even more interfering busybodies going around muttering the shibboleths that are the basis of all this legislation——

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie , Kirkcaldy

One does not mutter shibboleths.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman does with shibboleths, but I should have thought that most hon. Members would mutter shibboleths. They could articulate them, they could even chant them, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman, who is usually a sensible man, would probably mutter shibboleths, as he was doing earlier on the subject of the National Health Service. But let me not be distracted because I sense that my hon. Friends are becoming slightly impatient.

I simply want to press my hon. Friend on a relatively important point. Can he reassure me that the bureaucracy of the equal opportunities industry in Northern Ireland will not be increased by the measures that he is putting before the House tonight? If he tells me that yet more civil servants will not be going around interfering in yet more ways in people trying to go about their ordinary business to earn an honest penny, I would be reassured. If he cannot tell me that, I shall, as I already suspect, be confirmed in my suspicion that yet another burden is to be placed on law-abiding, ordinary people. I am very disturbed that my hon. Friend, by talking about sex equality, will add to the burdens of industry and business, prejudice the possibilities of employment and increase the possibilities of interference by commissions, courts and other unnecessary bodies.

I hope that, even at this late stage, my hon. Friend will think again and suggest to his ministerial colleagues in other Departments that they should seek to reduce the role of the equal opportunities industry on the mainland and bring it into line with what I gather is the eminently sensible basis of the equal opportunities so-called industry in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill 12:35 am, 5th July 1988

The speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) has made me more enthusiastic about the order than I thought I might be. Unexpectedly, I share one or two of his reservations. I agree with him when he said that simply multiplying bureaucracy and orders clearly is not the answer to ensuring fair employment, equal opportunities, or increased employment. That is the overriding need in Northern Ireland where just under 18 per cent. of people are out of work and some 31,000 women and 86,000 men are currently on the dole.

In the context of our debate last Friday, when we considered the creation of new rules and regulations to stop discrimination in employment on grounds of religion, there is a danger that by multiplying commissions. orders and regulations we shall prevent people being able to employ anybody. The orders could become so much in conflict with one another that it will he impossible for anyone to employ anyone without fear of prosecution, so we have to be cautious in the way in which we approach the legislation.

To be debating at this time, in a maximum period of 90 minutes, should we wish to use it, an order that becomes the law of the land in Northern Ireland is an inappropriate way of dealing with legislation. We regularly use this beat-the-clock method of legislating on unamendable orders and, although there is some worth in the measure before the House tonight, hon. Members will simply have to vote for or against it. These orders do not allow for any nuances in politics and that is one of the worst things about dealing with Northern Ireland issues. It has attracted so much attention among hon. Members representing Northern Ireland that the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) is the only hon. Member from Northern Ireland in the House this evening. That shows the nonsense of the way in which we deal with such matters.

Instead of the "ad hoc-ery" and instead of bringing forward unamendable orders, how much better it would be if we could consider the issues on a wider basis for the United Kingdom and in the European context. Changing patterns of work will require us to think long and hard about the way in which we provide employment opportunities in future. Rather than more and more legislation, provisions for sharing work will be more important in future. We must give each person the chance to a job, the chance to make a contribution to the community, and we must insist that they receive proper remuneration for that work The order clearly does not allow for any of that.

My chief concern is that one standard will exist for dealing effectively with religious discrimination, which we debated last Friday, but other forms of discrimination will be dealt with in altogether different ways. For instance, we are told absolutely nothing about discrimination on the grounds of disability. It is absurd to introduce an order into Northern Ireland on the pretext of harmonising United Kingdom legislation, when the sole justification for the White Paper was that special Northern Ireland circumstances required special measures. It is ludicrous to introduce laws based on principles which are out of step with our commitment to European harmonisation.

I wonder increasingly about the merit of such orders. It is absurd to expect a company such as Harland and Wolff or a major construction company to employ vast numbers of women. But in the expanding service sector, where there are increasing opportunities for women to be appointed, there needs to be some mechanism to ensure that that happens.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe , Glasgow Maryhill

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that during and after the last war hundreds of women worked in the shipyards in jobs that previously had been thought to be unsuitable for women?

Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Mossley Hill

We know that happened. Indeed, as a result of jobs that women performed during the first world war, the suffragette movement, which had been unsuccessful prior to that war, achieved success in 1919. In the absence of men at the front line women did their jobs. That resulted in the demand for women to gain the suffrage becoming irresistible. But I do not agree with the hon. Lady's suggestion that we should be demanding that women should be encouraged to do certain jobs. I am simply asking that in those areas where we should expect to see women being appointed and promoted—for instance, in the massively expanding service sector, in local government and in public services—such developments should be occurring.

Under article 8(3A) of the order, the commission's powers to deal with promotion of job opportunities for women is being limited because it is being given a reactive rather than a proactive role. The commission will not be allowed to initiate an inquiry where it is clear that a major employer is not showing any regard to equal opportunities. It is the blatant and deliberate abuse that concerns me.

I subscribe, as I suspect most hon. Members do, to the merit principle, but I can see the dilemma for an employer faced with several applicants for a job. All may be of comparable merit. The employer should not be pilloried for hiring the man with a dependent wife and family at home rather than another applicant. My concern is for the industry or public service where discrimination is institutionalised and unchallenged. In this order the Government had the opportunity to give power to do something about that.

I am concerned in that trade unions can be part of this institutionalised discrimination. Often it is built into collective agreements. By removing the power of industrial courts to deal with collective agreements, as the order does, it will make it easier for trade unions to negotiate for their members regardless of wider considerations. The duties of trade unions and the Government are clearly different, and the order should have reflected that.

My last concern is the one I raised during the Minister's opening remarks. It is that on the pretext of equalisation some valuable protection is likely to be removed, and that will leave some female employees open to exploitation.

The order is not welcomed by the Equal Opportunities Commission and others working in the field. It does not take into account changing attitudes about work. It should be part of a wider reassessment of how we structure our society and cater for each person's aspirations, including those women and men who prefer to spend more of their time bringing up their children and coping with their families. It also illustrates yet again how inappropriate is this 90 minute, beat-the-clock, unamendable procedure. For those reasons I shall advise my hon. Friends to oppose the order if there is a vote tonight.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport 12:43 am, 5th July 1988

I suggest to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) that this debate has shown the value of the 90-minute procedure. Nobody is suggesting that it is a perfect situation in which we find ourselves. All hon. Members must feel that the procedure by which Northern Ireland instruments come before the House late at night and have 90 minutes for debate is far from satisfactory.

In so far as it is, I urge hon. Members, especially those with constituency responsibilities in Northern Ireland, to co-operate in discussions as actively as possible so as to produce a better system. But if we must have 90-minute debates on orders, I should have thought that this one would be a model because some extremely effective and important points have been made, and I shall deal with them.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill, in an intervention in my earlier remarks, spoke of women working in the nuclear industry. Broadly, they are unaffected by the proposed draft order.

There is, of course, already a general duty imposed on employers by the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees, and if an individual woman worker is pregnant no doubt that should be taken into account. I have no detailed brief on that and if the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the point I shall be happy to respond to any representations that he makes.

Turning to the points made by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms. Mowlam) in her speech from the Opposition Front Bench, her first substantial point was that the Government have been slow in bringing forward the draft order. I have to repeat the point made by my noble Friend Lord Lyell in the other place, because in the absence of a legislative vehicle, such as the Race Relations Act 1976, which applies in Great Britain, there has been no opportunity in Northern Ireland legislation to incorporate the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and it was not thought by the Government to be possible to bring before the House a draft order that dealt only with these individual points. So in the absence of any legislative vehicle— a hook, as it were, on which to hang the legislation—there has not been a convenient opportunity.

Secondly, the hon. Lady made the point that the proposals do not fulfil the Government's obligations under the equal treatment directive. During the passage of the Sex Discrimination Bill the European Commission was provided with copies of all published prints of the Bill and of the final Act of 1986 and at no stage did it suggest that our proposals did not meet Community law or the European Court judgments, which gave rise to some provisions. As the draft Northern Ireland order under consideration replicates the provisions of the 1986 Act, we are confident that it meets Northern Ireland's obligations under the equal treatment directive.

The hon. Lady asked about redundancy payments. I confirmed to the House on 8 December 1987 that changes in the age limits for statutory redundancy payments proposed for Great Britain will also apply to Northern Ireland. This will be done as legislative time permits.

The hon. Lady also asked about state pension age and suggested that this also should be balanced. This is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, but I can say that work on reappraising the cost and economic implications of equalising pension ages has been under way since 1980, along with full consideration of a number of options. We hope to reach a conclusion on the matter during this year.

The hon. Lady also referred to article 8 of the draft order and criticised the fact that in future it will be necessary for the EOC to justify its investigations. This is a parity measure. It is right that employers in Northern Ireland should enjoy the same rights in respect of formal investigations as their counterparts in Great Britain. The commission has undertaken only two investigations under its existing powers in the last 12 years and I cannot imagine that the change made by article 8 will be a major disadvantage, as has been claimed.

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

The Minister is absolutely correct to say that there have been only two cases in the past 12 years, but that may relate more to the fact that there is only one member of staff dealing with the problem than to the nature of the demand.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers , Gosport

That allows me to lead in beautifully to a point on resources, which the hon. Lady also made. It is a recurring theme in the happy dialogue between the EOC in Northern Ireland and the Department of Economic Development, for which I am responsible, that further funding would be welcomed. But the amount of funding of the EOC in Northern Ireland is 321 per cent. higher than the per capita amount of EOC funding in Great Britain. If one says that it is always necessary to have a larger amount of funding because a smaller organisation necessarily has more overhead costs, I must say that the Northern Ireland block generally works on a population basis, so such an argument could be applied to every organisation in Northern Ireland. I maintain that a funding of 321 per cent. higher than the funding in Great Britain must be regarded as reasonably satisfactory. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) regards it as fully satisfactory.

The hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) asked about the current judicial review sought by the Equal Opportunities Commission against the Department of Education. This case has been adjourned in the High Court until tomorrow for the completion of the judgment.

The hon. Gentleman and the House will appreciate that: it would not be prudent for me to comment further until the final outcome is known.

The hon. Gentleman also made the point that the Government ignored—to use his word—representations made on this draft order. The Government distributed a copy of the draft order and invited representations from 85 organisations, of whom 29 responded. Nearly all responded by a simple acknowledgment, but nine made representations. These were considered carefully. It is true that the Government continued with their proposal to introduce the order as originally drafted. However, representations are not ignored; they are carefully considered. They were carefully considered and taken fully into account—and changes were made—in the White Paper that we debated last Friday. There are a number of respects in which the arrangements for Northern Ireland differ from those for Great Britain. To take an example from my Department, the provisions for both adult and youth training are quite different in Northern Ireland and take account of special local factors and the representations that have been made to us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire lambasted me about the provisons. I respond to him. in the context of the forthcoming Kensington by-election, by describing myself as drier than Dudley Fishburn. I can assure him that the repeals in the proposed measure will lift a bureaucratic millstone from employers in the manufacturing sector. The current restrictions are complex and entail a mass of paperwork, detailing the period of employment, hours, overtime and meal breaks of women employees. The order will also allow employers and their work forces additional flexibility, with the prospect of organising working hours to optimum effect. There are also some simplifying measures in the draft order.

I reiterate that the changes introduced by the order will extend to women in employment in Northern Ireland the benefits that are already enjoyed by women in the rest of the United Kingdom. While the European Community has been a catalyst in this process of development, the changes reflect the Government's ongoing commitment to the removal of unfair sex discrimination and the promotion of equal opportunities between men and women.

I commend the order to the House.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 82, Noes 31.

Division No. 398][12.52 pm
AYES
Amess, DavidCarlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Amos, AlanCarrington, Matthew
Arbuthnot, JamesCarttiss, Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Cash, William
Ashby, DavidChope, Christopher
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Conway, Derek
Baldry, TonyCoombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Batiste, SpencerCouchman, James
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Cran, James
Bevan, David GilroyDavies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Bonsor, Sir NicholasDavis, David (Boothferry)
Boscawen, Hon RobertDay, Stephen
Bowis, JohnDunn, Bob
Brandon-Bravo, MartinDurant, Tony
Brazier, JulianDykes, Hugh
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterEmery, Sir Peter
Burns, SimonFallon, Michael
Burt, AlistairForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Butcher, JohnFrench, Douglas
Garel-Jones, TristanPawsey, James
Gill, ChristopherPorter, David (Waveney)
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Raffan, Keith
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Ryder, Richard
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Shaw, David (Dover)
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Harris, DavidSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Hawkins, ChristopherStern, Michael
Hayward, RobertStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Hind, KennethStradling Thomas, Sir John
Holt, RichardTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Hunt, David (Wirral W)Twinn, Dr Ian
Hunter, AndrewViggers, Peter
Irvine, MichaelWaddington, Rt Hon David
Jack, MichaelWaller, Gary
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Watts, John
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkWiddecombe, Ann
Lightbown, DavidWinterton, Nicholas
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Wood, Timothy
Maude, Hon Francis
Neubert, MichaelTellers for the Ayes:
Nicholls, PatrickMr. Stephen Dorrell and
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Mr. David Maclean.
NOES
Alton, DavidHughes, John (Coventry NE)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Ingram, Adam
Battle, JohnLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Beckett, MargaretMcAvoy, Thomas
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Cohen, HarryMeale, Alan
Cryer, BobMichael, Alun
Dewar, DonaldMorley, Elliott
Dixon, DonMowlam, Marjorie
Dunnachie, JimmyNellist, Dave
Flannery, MartinShort, Clare
Foster, DerekSkinner, Dennis
Fyfe, Maria
Galbraith, SamTellers for the Noes:
George, BruceMr. Frank Haynes and
Gordon, MildredMr. Ray Powell.
Graham, Thomas

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,That the draft Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, which was laid before this House on 17th May,be approved

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South 1:02 am, 5th July 1988

On a point of order,Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will have learnt with some concern of the result of that vote, for which the Government have not been able to keep their numbers. The Government have a duty to see that their legislation is put through the House, and they require 100 Members for a closure vote. Has the Prime Minister notified you that she will come to the House and make a statement about the inadequacy of the organisation? I wonder whether she can carry on the Government in the face of this lamentable organisation by the Tory Whips.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

I realise that the hon. Gentleman has been having his little bit of fun. It was, however, hypothetical, because the closure was not moved, and the Division was perfectly in order.