Women's Rights

– in the House of Commons at 9:39 pm on 27th June 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Shadow Minister (Social Security) 10:02 pm, 27th June 1991

I am delighted to use this rare and valuable chance for Members of Parliament to raise a topic of their choice to talk about the need to develop women's rights, as a central part of the next Labour Government's agenda for democratic reform.

Equal opportunities for all people, regardless of sex or social class, lie at the heart of the democratic socialist mission. It is a good time to refocus on that task away from the hurly-burly of the political excitement surrounding the collapse in support for the Conservative Government, their splits over Britain's future in the European Community, their poll tax debacle, their economic incompetence and their undermining of our health service.

As time dribbles away, we need to reconsider an issue whose time is about to come. Britain is a backward democracy and nowhere is that underdevelopment so marked, so hurtful and so wasteful as in the failure to allow more than half the population to make their full contribution. Discrimination against women exists almost everywhere in the world, but our social conservatism gives it an added twist, often unknown in north America and Europe.

One of the clear differences between the Conservative and Labour parties is that Labour recognises that failure and we will tackle it. Previous Labour Governments passed into law the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970—firm foundations which have not been built upon in the past 12 years. I shall shortly outline some of our concise sets of proposals which we shall bring forward as soon as the Conservative Prime Minister finds the decisiveness to call an election.

A legislative war of attrition against discrimination, while essential, is only part of what is required. Every individual—woman and man—must know his or her rights if they are to exercise them. If we have rights at all, let us write them down for all to see, from their schooldays onwards. A Bill of Rights within a written constitution is the indispensable backcloth against which individuals will come to understand their rights, argue for them, and consolidate hard-won progress beyond legislative whim.

Such a democratic backcloth would also open up the democratic process beyond the narrow confines of executive action, and allow a multitude of individuals and organisations to play a part in developing rights rather than wait for laws to be handed down. In fighting sex discrimination, many channels must be used, and our Labour Government must not restrict themselves to a one-club policy—a gentlemen's club policy at that.

The traditionally minded will say that that would give power to the judges, as if they do not have power already. Ask those women who have been involved in equal value for equal work cases about judicial interpretation. And as if a Labour Government, serious about democratic reform, would not put a class-based, unrepresentative, and misogynistic judiciary first on their list. The law that has so failed to protect women over the past decade, and which has underwritten the Government's values, demands attention—Bill of Rights or no Bill of Rights.

A radically updated judiciary and a Bill of Rights would merely facilitate and serve as the stage for those battles. They would not in themselves guarantee outcomes that supporters of a woman's right to choose know only too well must be fought and won over and over again, without end.

The second institutional strand that is vital if we are to build on progress in women's rights is a Ministry for women, under its future Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson). Before Conservative Members grow too frightened, I may point out that such a Ministry is common in many European countries and elsewhere.

The seriousness with which that Ministry is staffed, funded and given access to programmes, Departments and Cabinet committees will be the litmus test of Labour's practical commitment to women's rights. It will not be speeches that deliver fair job opportunities, adequate child care, and decent quotas, but mundane chasing through, quality of service reports, implementation targeting and swift administrative sanctions against obstructions and obstructors.

For women to have improved status and power in our society, the attitudes of many men and women must change. Such a change can only benefit from the knowledge and assertion of the rights of an individual—and, just as important, from the knowledge and assertion of the individual rights of others. Even with a Bill of Rights, such a mutual education process between men and women would take a generation. When it is commonplace at meetings for British men to allow women to finish their points without interrupting, that will truly be a landmark.

Meanwhile, much work remains to be done—particularly in the sphere of economic rights. That task will be set about with relish by all the Departments of a Labour Government, with the Ministry for women in the lead. Despite existing equal pay and anti-sex discrimination legislation, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and European Community rulings, women at work are still not treated equally when they apply for a job, seek promotion or look for fair pay. Each equal value case, for example, must be fought from scratch—rather than serve as a precedent for behaviour and fairness that should be applicable to all employers. Such cases can take up to four years to complete. That is totally unacceptable, and it will be tackled as part of a sex equality Bill.

There are many other examples of unfairness that are visited upon the powerless at work, often women, by the powerful, usually men. I noted today's announcement by the Leader of the House in respect of the hours that the House sits. That can only be good for those parties and individuals trying to get more women into positions of power. I am grateful to see that the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold) is nodding, however slightly. I hope that she also welcomes today's announcement.

It is just as important that we make efforts to ensure that public figures are given assistance, and certainly women should be helped in every possible respect in politics, not least in the timing of meetings and the provision of child care so that they can make their contribution to local councils and elsewhere. The same argument applies in public service. It is shameful that only 3 per cent. of senior civil servants are women, when many of the industrial grades comprise 40, 50 and sometimes 60 per cent. women.

The job segregation that begins at school with the choice of subject often ends with too many girls in low-tech, low-paid jobs and women being over-concentrated in poorly paid sectors. That is why low pay will demand the immediate attention of a Labour Government. It is about time that the case for a national minimum wage was given as much media time as the propaganda against it. I am sure that the packed Press Gallery will take that issue in hand and rectify the balance immediately.

Millions of men will benefit from a national minimum wage, but 78 per cent. of those who will gain from it will be women—nearly half of all gainers will be part-time women workers. The scare stories that were used about the Equal Pay Act 1970 are now being recycled against the minimum wage. It must be understood that low pay is always accompanied by poor or no training, a high labour turnover and low investment. We are all taxed to subsidise bad employers through family credit payments to their low-paid employees. Our European competitors would not dream of being without basic pay standards. A Conservative Government who would condone pay of less than £3·40 an hour deserve the condemnation of all women and men at work. Once again, the early implementation of a national minimum wage will be a credibility test for a Labour Government.

A Labour Government prepared to tackle low pay would equally swiftly improve child care, the provision of workplace creches, community care, training and education, ensure equal pay, and provide bridges between benefits and work, to free women to take up job opportunities. Maternity rights in the United Kingdom lag shamefully behind those of our European neighbours. We are like some third-rate banana republic, and it is only in Britain that women have to work two years for the same employer to be allowed maternity rights. Our paid maternity leave arrangements are the worst in Europe. Only half working pregnant mothers have the right to have their jobs back. It is a national humiliation that we have to be dragged up to European standards by European Community directives that, in turn, the Conservative Government are now blocking.

Time does not permit me to give at length the European comparisons on parental leave, part-time workers, maternity rights and other spheres in which the British working mother is always the poor relation. However, the evidence is there and it is strong enough to convert the most ardent member of the Bruges group into a federalist, because our conditions are so appalling and our position in the league table is so consistently near the bottom.

It will fall to a Labour Government to ensure that, once in work, the same rights and pay apply to full timers, part timers, temporary subcontractors or home workers. Paid maternity leave and the right to return to a job must sit alongside truly independent taxation for women and the prospect of a flexible decade of retirement for those who want it. The Labour party has the comprehensive package of measures necessary to promote and support the fundamental change in social and interpersonal attitudes that will ensure that the very idea of women's rights being distinct from human rights will grow ever more irrelevant.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden 10:14 pm, 27th June 1991

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate on women's rights. It takes place on the day when the first part of the Conservative party's women's conference is being held. The streets of London are thronged with Conservative women from all over the country and they are gathering at one of our national conference centres to hear about Conservative policies. No doubt they will also hear about my response to the hon. Gentleman's proposals for a Bill of Rights for women.

The aspirations of the Labour and Conservative parties about putting right inequalities and lack of opportunities for women are not far apart. The Conservative party attaches great importance to the role and status of women in our society. We are committed to the principle of equal opportunities and to removing barriers that prevent women from playing their full role in public and private life, in employment and in the role that many women choose to play, at least for part of their lives—that of bringing up the next generation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not imply that members of his party do not attach enormous importance to that role. I should be surprised if he did.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Shadow Minister (Social Security)

We attach so much importance to the role of bringing up children that we think that the father should share the duties.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

I share that belief, and many young men share with their wives the joys and tribulations of bringing up children.

When speaking about women's rights we would not use the same strident terms as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, but we certainly encourage flexibility and choice and we seek to set an example through practice. We establish standards through legislation and we promote good ideas and co-operation between Government, local authorities, employers, voluntary organisations and others.

The hon. Gentleman said that a Labour Government would establish a Ministry for women. The Government have already established a ministerial group to look at women's issues. I have the honour to chair that group and I was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We undertake to ensure that throughout Ministeries the issues that are most important to women are dealt with fairly and looked at objectively and we try to ensure an input before policies are set in legislation.

I am on record, and I shall be on record again tomorrow when I make a speech elsewhere, as saying that I am deeply concerned about the notion of a separate Ministry for women. Such a Ministry would be an organ within Whitehall and would have to discharge its responsibilities though other Ministries. Experience in Whitehall has taught me that each empire likes to draw tight boundaries. The idea of a Ministry for women that would be able to encroach on Whitehall bureaucracy without fear or favour is not feasible.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Shadow Minister (Social Security)

I am tempted to ask the Minister to give some examples of the difficulties that she has encountered in penetrating other Ministries in her capacity as chair of the ministerial group. I shall leave that as it might be unfair to do so. Does she believe that it would be useful to have the teeth of a separate Ministry in pursuing even the aims of the Conservative party on women's rights?

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

The ministerial group has sufficient teeth and has shown what achievements can be made. I have no doubt that we shall achieve more under a Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman spoke briefly about equal opportunities. The Government have consistently supported the Equal Opportunities Commission and have demonstrated our commitment to its work. The extent of the commission's work is impressive. It publicises the good things that happen to women and highlights some of the difficulties that they encounter, such as securing equal employment opportunities. The commission is working exceedingly well in discharging its responsibility to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. As an independent body, it should be able to scrutinise the actions of Government, and sometimes it has had no hesitation in rightfully criticising our actions. It has a fine record, and I doubt whether any subsequent Government will better its achievements.

The hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned the education opportunities and aspirations that he would like to see for women. I share those education aspirations. The Government introduced the national curriculum and set in train equality of opportunity to enable girls to grow up through the education system and to study the same subjects as boys. Tomorrow's women will have had the opportunity to learn technology, science and mathematics, which formerly were not regarded as girls' subjects but are now part of the education system.

This year's results have demonstrated the success of those policies in the past 10 years. For the first time, more girls are applying for university places than boys. We can be justly proud of that tremendous record.

The hon. Gentleman claimed that the introduction of the minimum wage will liberate women. I ask him to think about what is happening in the labour force, because 91 per cent of part-time workers are women. They choose to work part time because it better enables them to combine that work with the work that they readily wish to undertake in the home looking after their young and growing children. If a minimum wage were introduced, employers may not be able to employ as many people as they do now.

Britain has many women in its work force—many more than in the European countries that the hon. Gentleman cited with such glee as in a better position than us. Forty-four per cent. of the United Kingdom's labour force are women, and they have never been in a more powerful position to ensure that their needs and wishes are taken into account. That is an exceedingly good record and is better than that of any comparable European nations. The notion that we would introduce a minimum wage and undermine that position would frighten not only me but armies of women who would think, "Just a minute. That means that, with a Labour Government, our jobs will go at a stroke". The hon. Gentleman should think about that.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Shadow Minister (Social Security)

The right hon. Lady should not believe too much of the propaganda from the Secretary of State for Employment. Those fears were shown to be totally unfounded in north America and most European countries. I ask the right hon. Lady to consider not merely the fears that have been wrongly raised in the propaganda battle over a national minimum wage but the opportunities that a minimum wage may provide, particularly for women on benefits, who feel that it is hardly worth their while leaving home for a job that they would like. So often, the wage paid for such a job is appallingly low. With a national minimum wage, we might encourage more people to go into work and end the stories that are occasionally told about a fictitious number of available jobs.

Photo of Mrs Angela Rumbold Mrs Angela Rumbold , Mitcham and Morden

A substantial proportion of our work force are women. There would not necessarily be many employers who could sustain their business—which is to achieve profits—and continue to employ women in the way that they are now employed without being concerned about the number of jobs that they could offer women.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the differentials for women who wish to go to work rather than remain on benefit. A number of women make the courageous and proper decision. They wish to show their children that they can work and maintain them, rather than live on the state. I would work to achieve that objective. It is important that the next generation can see that a member of the family supports the family through her own efforts rather than by living off the state.

I wish to comment on the importance of involving women in key aspects of public life. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not consider that matter in depth. Recently, my party carried out an interesting exercise into the changes in the achievements of women over the past 12 years. There have been dramatic increases in the number of women succeeding all the way through the professions. There have been dramatic improvements in the number of women in financial services—work in which they were not involved in the past—and in the number of women in higher education who are successfully pursuing different careers and qualifications. Those improvements will continue. There have also been increasing numbers of women in top public appointments and in the major professions.

Slowly but surely, we are winning the battle, without the underpinning of a Bill of Rights and a bureaucratic structure. Such a structure would not be particularly welcomed by women. Under a Labour Government and the structures and bureaucracy envisaged by the hon. Gentleman, women may feel that they are constrained to put themselves into the straitjacket of having to work rather than make clear choices themselves and take the opportunity to bring up their children and to compete at their own pace and level. The Conservative party and the Conservative Government have never pushed people around. The success of women in public life and throughout society during the past 13 years has been dramatic.

The United Kingdom has a very good record on maternity rights. It allows one of the longest periods of maternity absence—40 weeks—in the European Community and one of the longest periods—18 weeks—of paid absence. We already allow women not to be unreasonably refused time off for ante-natal care. We have thus ensured that women can pursue a career and raise a family while not worrying unduly about their jobs when they may feel especially vulnerable.

I refute the hon. Gentleman's claim that a Bill of Rights is the way forward for women. The women of this country are doing very well indeed without a Bill of Rights.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.