Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:49 pm on 12th November 1990.

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Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston 6:49 pm, 12th November 1990

Two years ago, my speech in this debate took the form of an alternative Queen's Speech for women. I want to consider what has happened since then, after two more years of this Government who are so neglectful of women's interests.

The biggest thing that has happened is the poll tax, the most amazing feature of which is that it is levied on millions of women who have no income. Only this Government could think of such a breathtaking idea. The Government have been boasting about independent taxation, but they have tied women who have no income completely to their husbands, causing them to be treated like appendages and burdens. The Government have penalised one-income families, most of whom have young children.

They have refused even to give women access to rebates in their own right, and they have forced an unprecedented number of people into debt and into the courts.

While all that has been happening, the Government have kept their eyes firmly closed to the misery that they have created. There is no mention in the Queen's Speech of that problem, and the Government have no intention of doing anything to relieve it.

In order to disguise their lack of commitment to women's issues, there has been some fanfare abut the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold), who is trumpeted as the Minister for women. Her actual responsibilities include animal welfare, Sunday trading, British summer time, inner cities and women's issues. The latter takes the form of chairing a ministerial group which has existed for some time, which was previously chaired by a man and which meets three or four times a year. That just about describes the sense of urgency that the Government feel about the issue. In contrast, the Labour party is committed to a proper and powerful Ministry for Women, headed by a Cabinet Minister. As well as introducing legislation, it will examine all Government policies and actions for their impact on women, and ensure alteration when necessary.

Another press fanfare greeted the Government's latest new earnings survey. We were told that women were closing the gap between their wages and men's. Closer examination reveals no cause for headlines. It is true that women's earnings grew very slightly more than men's between April 1988 and April 1990. However, average male earnings are £94·01 more than average female earnings. Women's earnings remain very much lower even when reckoned on an hourly basis, thus disregarding longer hours and overtime premiums. My calculations show that, on the most optimistic way of looking at the figures, the gap would not be closed for full-time workers for at least 22 years. I just hope that women will not be so patient.

My calculations take account only of full-timers, disregarding the basic flaw in the statistics which exclude many part-time employees precisely because they are low-paid. The lowest paid are simply not counted by the Government in the new earnings survey.

In case anyone thinks that large numbers of women work part-time because they do not need the money, I can state that it is precisely because women have responsibilities for children and other dependants that they seek part-time work. That same factor means that they need their wages—and better wages—very much indeed.

Part-time workers, temporary workers and home workers are being subjected to ever-worsening conditions as well as to low pay. The EC wants to improve the position of women workers, but this Government have set their face against all the EC initiatives. In particular, they opposed a draft directive on part-time work.

My union, USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—organises many part-timers. We have a slogan: Full-time rights for part-time workers. We know a lot about it and we are furious that the Government should have stated in evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee: While there are clearly advantages which some part-time workers suffer in relation to full-timers, it is possible to see this as a price which part-timers, in particular women, are prepared to pay for the opportunity to fit work into other commitments. Women do not voluntarily decide that they are willing to pay the price of poverty pay and insecurity. They do it because they have no alternative. Employers know that, and they take advantage of it.

The Government have also said that they prefer to leave such matters for voluntary agreement between employer and employee, either individually or through collective bargaining. Collective bargaining needs trade unions strong enough to face employers on equal terms. This Government have place every possible difficulty in the path of the unions, and they then have the nerve to call them in aid when opposing measures such as the EC draft directive.

The Government demand that employees show a reasonable level of commitment to an employer before acquiring rights against that employer. Those working eight hours but less than 16 hours a week must work continuously for the same employer for at least five years to qualify even for basic employment rights. The Government call for commitment by workers to employers. We ask: where is the commitment by employers to their workers?

Exactly the same story can be told about the draft directive on temporary workers. The Government have stated: Temporary workers do not necessary want the same conditions as permanent workers. They may prefer other advantages to those of security, such as flexibility to work when and how they wish. Temporary work with no contract is on the increase, and the main characteristic of the new temporary work is not flexibility, but simply the likelihood of being pushed around and then pushed out when that suits the employer.

In the past two years, no progress has been made on rights for part-timers, temporary workers and home workers. Over the past decade, their position has become worse, especially for those who have not yet joined a trade union.

Only this Government in the EC oppose a draft directive giving rights to parental leave. In March this year, on behalf of the House, I went to an EC women's conference in Brussels. The women from the other 11 member states felt tremendous anger against the British Government for depriving them of that improvement. That has done the reputation of this country no good at all in the eyes of the women of Europe.

The Tories parade themselves as the party of the family. However, when people throughout Europe, including Britain, were asked to choose the priorities for family policy, housing was top of the list. This Government preside over ever-increasing homelessness. When I spoke in the debate on the Loyal Address two years ago, homelessness was overwhelmingly a London problem. It is now nationwide. We have a housing crisis in Preston as a result of homelessness and Government attacks on council housing. Women are suffering agonies because they have no home for their children. Anyone really concerned about families would ensure that they had decent homes.

The availability of child care was second in the list of people's priorities for family policy. Again, Britain's record under this Tory Government is deplorable in that regard. There has been one small improvement, with the abolition of the tax on workplace nurseries. That was important more for its principle and potential than for any mass effect, because very few workplace nurseries exist.

The Opposition welcome any good quality nursery provision. However, most of us would prefer to see local council provision so that changing a job does not mean having to change a child's nursery. What is happening now? The Prime Minister's favourite council, Wandsworth, is planning to close all its day nurseries. A mother might have to pay as much as £100 a week for a private nursery in Wandsworth. Even in Preston, the going rate is around £50 a week.

Training is another imperative if women are to have real equal opportunities. There is no national strategy for training of women. Indeed, the newest training scheme caused the chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission to express great concern at the discriminatory effects of the new arrangements.

Women going out to work can mean women improving their standard of living, getting job satisfaction and laying the groundwork for satisfactory long-term employment. However, too often it does not mean that. Too often, women are driven out to work by mortgages, rents and poll tax. They are struggling to maintain—not improve—their standard of living, often doing jobs that are damaging to health, working when they are over-stressed and worried about their children.

Health and safety at work is still too much seen in terms of accidents and not enough in terms of functional health. However, jobs such as supermarket checkout operator involve twisting, lifting one-handedly and repetitive movements which cause great strain to the back, arms and neck. But what can the Health and Safety Executive do with a total budget of £120 million and an inspectorate of 200 fewer than it had when the Government came to office?

A Government who were really concerned about women would make sure that there was good child care, good training, healthier work conditions and better pay for women. They would help unions instead of hindering them.