1976 Equal Treatment Directive

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Spelman: When I asked the Minister to clarify what the directive meant, she said en passant that she was not sure what ''sanctions'' meant either. I should like to pursue that point, however, because it is important to our understanding of the directive's likely impact. We should have at least some idea of what article 8d means. It states:

    ''Member States shall lay down the rules on sanctions applicable to infringements''.

I am concerned as to what sanctions the Government propose to introduce.

Mrs. Roche: We are not making such a proposal. People at the European Parliament are talking about sanctions, which is a matter for them. We believe that the common position would reflect our compensation regime, which is the one that we would want to uphold.

Mrs. Spelman: I must have misunderstood. This bundle of documents is not the easiest to read. I could not find an amendment that proposed sanctions, but I read that as part of the article that I thought we were likely to have to accept. I will have to go back to the drawing board on that point.

I also looked for an assessment of the likely financial implications of this document. For a European Standing Committee, there is often an assessment of likely financial implications as part of the explanatory memorandum. That is an important aspect of our discussion, because as the Minister has said, we can all see the potential for a considerable increase in costs on business. The explanatory memorandum that I found said that no assessment of the financial implications

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could be made until the final text was known, but the Government must have an approximate idea of the cost to business. Has the Minister estimated the cost?

Mrs. Roche: I understand the questions that the hon. Lady is asking. It may help if I say that the point about sanctions could be interpreted to mean some sort of punitive regime. We would not want to see that. She is right that a regulatory impact assessment was prepared for the first proposal. The difficulty relates to the final definitions and coverage of harassment. Our concern is to ensure that the final form of the directive reflects as closely as possible the UK position, which has grown up over time and is well understood by employers and employees, and our case law.

Mrs. Spelman: I have a more general question about the process, partly because I am unfamiliar with the way in which it works. At the outset, the Minister talked about the stage that had been reached in the consultative process and the joint decision-making power between the European Parliament and the Council. I want to ascertain for the Opposition the likelihood of these amendments standing or falling. It would help me to know the political complexion of the European parliamentarians who tabled the amendments. Were any Labour Members party to the amendments?

The Chairman: Order. That question is out of order. The subject of the debate is strictly the amendments. The hon. Lady's question takes the Committee beyond that.

Mrs. Spelman: That is a shame. I may not have phrased my question correctly, and perhaps I should find another way of putting it. I am interested to know the likelihood of the common position being sustained. Does the Minister know how many member states support the common position? She is nodding. It is important to know whose view will hold sway, as this is a joint decision-making process. I presume that it must go back to the European Parliament.

Mrs. Roche: A conciliation process will start now, and the Spanish Minister will lead the Council, as Spain holds the presidency. The Council agreed on the common position. The European Parliament and the Commission will be represented. They will have several weeks to arrive at a decision. The Parliament's view comes from its Committees.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 14492/01, the Opinion of the European Commission on the European Parliament's amendments to the Council's common position regarding the draft Directive amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions; and supports the Government's aim of maintaining the Council's common position which updates the Equal Treatment Directive in line with case law and developments in European law.—[Mrs. Roche.]

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5.22 pm

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I reserved my comments for a speech, rather than questions, as I wish to make several points. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them in good part. I want to ensure that we are doing our best to protect the interests of women workers in particular. I appreciate that I am a man who is speaking about the interests of women employees, but I hope that my background in feminist environments for the past 30 years gives me some qualification to speak on issues that affect women.

There are important issues at stake. The EU and the capitalist market face a conflict between those who want to maintain some of the rights and support that employees have developed over centuries of struggle and through the election of progressive Governments, and those who want to return—or to advance, as some might see it—to a more rigorously flexible market where employees are weaker and more fragmented compared with employers.

The EU is riven with that big issue. The TUC still sees the EU as dirigistes who are advancing employee rights. Some, including our Government, are pushing for more flexibility in employment to assist the market to work more effectively. I am unhappy about that divide in the EU. Some countries, such as France and Germany, are still regarded as much more rigid in their protection of employees. Other countries, such as ours, have less worker protection. We are trying to argue that other countries should be more like us, rather than the other way round.

I speak as a trade unionist as well as a Back-Bench Labour Member of Parliament. Historically, we, as a party, have looked after and advanced the interests of employees. Given that the majority of people are employees, or depend on employees, that is a primary concern.

The conflict is worrying. The European Parliament seems to have adopted a strong protectionist position for employees. The Commission has modified that to get member states on board. In the Council, member states have watered down what the Commission has said, and we are trying to do that as a member state. I hope that my hon. Friend, as Minister for Women, rather than as a Minister for industry, will continue to advance the interests of women as employees. The Government must have a coherent position that is publicly defensible, but I hope that the Minister will press the case of women employees and not give in to pressure from those advancing the interests of business.

Many see flexible labour markets as the way forward. Germany currently has an economic crisis and has come into conflict with the European Commission. I am pleased to say that the Chancellor has persuaded the Commission not to criticise—at least not in public—the German Government for managing their economy. It will certainly not impose sanctions at this stage. The Chancellor has stood up for the Government's decision to spend more on the health service; that is absolutely right. It is argued that

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Germany's problem is its inflexible labour markets and it should reduce costs by making markets more flexible.

Flexible labour markets can mean one of two things, depending on whether one is an employee or an employer. For an employee, a flexible labour market may mean the right to take maternity leave when one chooses, or the right to work part-time. It may mean all sorts of factors that improve life and give the employee flexibility in the organisation of working life. However, for most people, flexible markets mean a situation in which employers have the right to operate their work force more flexibly, and decide how the work force is organised. In that case, flexibility gives more power to employers. Employees' flexibility could mean additional costs for employers; employers' flexibility would be aimed at reducing costs.

I would like our Government and the EU to ensure that we defend all those advances on behalf of employees that have been made by our party and our Government, and by other Governments and parties similar to ours in the EU over many decades, particularly since the second world war. Those advances were hard-won and transformed people's lives. I want to see them maintained.

We had a different approach to employee relations in Britain for many years. We thought that the way forward was a strong trade union movement and collective bargaining. Trade unions had strong bargaining power and they did not need the intervention of law in the workplace. Provided that they had certain protection in taking industrial action and so on, they could protect and advance the interests of the majority of working people. The continent of Europe had its trade union movements broken and destroyed during the second world war, when countries were occupied and conquered. After the war, they developed trade unions that were different from ours, and they built into their constitutions protections in law for their workers, which we did not think we needed in Britain.

During the past 20 or 30 years, trade union strength has greatly weakened. I know that because I have worked in the trade union movement for a long time. We have accepted the need to introduce law to protect workers' rights, including the right of women workers to equal treatment at work. That is why the amendments are so important. We have moved on from a world in which strong trade unionism alone ensures that workers are protected. We need the protection of law.

Speaking generally, and in an expression of support for my hon. Friend the Minister, I hope that she carries forward those concerns in her continuing consideration of the matter, especially because she is a woman herself. The spokesperson for the Opposition on the issue is, rightly, a woman. We should ensure that the outcome of the negotiation appropriately balances employers and employees, particularly women employees. Time and again, we hear references to burdens on business. All employee payments—even allowing employees time off at weekends and for holidays—are burdens on business. It would be better

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to refer to an unacceptable or unreasonable cost to employers rather than simply to say that we cannot do something because it is a ''burden on business''. I am reluctant to use that phrase, and do not usually do so.

 
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