1976 Equal Treatment Directive

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Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's comments, does he agree that the Government have introduced legislation that extends the rights of employees in the workplace to be represented by trade unions?

Mr. Hopkins: Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have supported that legislation very strongly. There has been strong negotiation between the Government—and our party when in opposition—and the trade union movement; an example of successful negotiation between Parliament and the interested parties outside it. That has led to some welcome progressive legislation. However, we must accept that there has been tension, with disappointments on some sides and some reluctance from the Government to be pushed too far on worker protection.

There will always be tensions there, and I want to ensure that we as a party, and as a Government, do not go too far in the direction of liberalising markets by undermining or weakening workers' rights with the objective of making business more competitive.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Opposition Members have mentioned small businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger in having different rules for small and for large businesses? Obviously, we see the problem for a firm with only two employees, one of whom is on maternity leave or off work for another reason. However, if we make distinctions, we get a problem analogous to the poverty trap, where people could not afford to be paid more because they would actually be worse off. We do not want a situation in which small businesses cannot afford to grow in case they lose extra protections.

Mr. Hopkins: My hon. Friend is right. In the legislation that has been introduced, there are provisions for company size. We all appreciate the need for that. Although it is the Government's duty to ensure that employees have reasonable protection even in small companies, it is clearly unreasonable for a small company to disappear because it has three women employees, all of whom become pregnant and have maternity leave at the same time. It is necessary to take account of company size, but we also need careful legislation to give reasonable protection to employees in all companies. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is not suggesting that we should let off small companies and say that nothing shall apply to them. Small companies still employ people, and there should be reasonable protection for them, even if it is not as rigorous and burdensome as it would be for a large company that can more easily afford it.

Mrs. Roche: It may help the Committee if I mention that there is not a small firm exemption under present legislation and has not been since 1983.

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The Chairman: Order. I have been listening extremely carefully to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). I remind him that the subject of debate is the amendments. His comments have ranged widely. He quoted from the amendments, which brought him into order on occasion, and I would like him to do that a bit more.

Mr. Hopkins: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I was just about to come to amendment No. 14, article 1.7, as an example of my point. It proposes that

    ''Member States shall take all necessary measures to ensure that employers promote equal treatment for men and women in the workplace,''

and goes on to discuss the provision of statistics about the treatment of men and women in the workplace. The Commission suggests measures ''to encourage'' rather than ''to ensure.'' Our amendment resists the idea more or less in its entirety, and that is slightly uncomfortable. Collecting statistics and information about employees in the workplace is not too burdensome, provided that they are not collected on a daily basis. An annual report on provision for men and women in a particular company would not be more burdensome than filling in a tax return, for example, and I believe that it is the way forward.

Some years ago, there was great resistance among local authorities and companies to ethnic monitoring. However, some of us pushed very hard for it, and it is now accepted that there must be monitoring to ensure that people are fairly treated and that there is a balance between ethnic minority and majority employees. To ensure that women are protected in the workplace, some sort of monitoring, or statistics, surely will be in order. That is just one example; perhaps there are others. Without knowing the law in detail, the issue is rather impenetrable, but that example came to mind.

I hope and trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that we do not weaken too much proposals that will give better protection to women in the work force, and that she will take full account of any proposals and recommendations made to her and to the Government by the Equal Opportunities Commission and by the TUC, if and when they decide to make them. I am speaking up for employee interests. I do not think that there is anything wrong with that, because the talk these days tends to focus constantly on burdens on business and flexible labour markets. I wish to ensure that we retain the advances that have been made by employees in the past several decades.

5.38 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): Thank you, Mr. O'Hara, for calling me in this section of the debate. I shall make a short speech and try to stick to the amendments or their context, although I understand that our comments can be more general in this part of the proceedings.

The Chairman: Order. That is as long as the generalities are related to the amendments.

Mrs. Spelman: Yes, Mr. O'Hara, I assure you that they will be.

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We believe that legislation can be used to encourage equal treatment of the sexes, but that true equality only comes about organically as attitudes change in society. The stimulus for changing attitudes needs to be credible. We welcome the Commission's rejection of a number of proposed amendments to the European directive that would, in our opinion, prove inoperable or undermine the credibility of some good aspects of the legislation. The Government have come to a balanced view in that respect. We cannot estimate the benefits of the European directive in isolation from the regulatory climate in which we have to operate. It seems to us that business is already groaning under the weight of regulation.

Although the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) has just spoken on behalf of the employee, for the balance to be right in both the debate and the Standing Committee, it is right to place on the record a few objective assessments of the regulatory climate in which the European directive, with or without those amendments, is going to fall.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's report on the United Kingdom economy highlighted the

    ''considerable volume of new regulations''.

The Engineering Employers Federation said:

    ''The growing burden of regulation remains a serious concern for business . . . increasing costs, reducing flexibility and diverting management time from efforts to increase productivity.''

Of course, that has to be weighed up alongside any benefits that the directive would bring. The Institute of Directors said that

    ''there is little doubt that the cumulative increase in the regulatory burden on business over the last four years has been considerable and is beginning to damage business flexibility and competitiveness''.

The IOD made that statement on 27 November, the day of the pre-Budget report.

Conservatives realise that ending discrimination against women involves more than stricter legislation against employers. We need to look at why women are discriminated against and how that affects their professional success. We have shown practical awareness of that issue by giving our support to the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, to which we have referred. It enables political parties to take positive action of the kind referred to in the directive. As part of choosing what type of positive action we will use, we must consider the factors in our selection process that limit the capacity of female candidates to achieve their full potential. The prescriptive nature of some aspects of the directive and of the amendments, had they been accepted, may not get to the bottom of the full range of factors that cause discrimination in the workplace.

By comparison, some aspects of the equal treatment directive and the proposed amendments seem to us to be unnecessarily burdensome. The unwieldy definitions of the type to which I referred in the question section and the lack of balance between the rights of employers and employees can cause those who are going to have to work with them a sense of despair. If we have difficulty comprehending what the

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legislation means, what hope is there for busy people who do not have the time to crawl through lengthy explanatory notes to new rules and regulations?

When the final text is agreed after a lengthy process of conciliation among the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament, I urge the Government to get somebody to put it in plain English to allow those who will have to work with it to understand it. Unworkable definitions will undermine the confidence of those who have to use them. There will be a temptation to avoid the risks altogether by simply not employing women who might, in time, create a headache for the employer, who must try to absorb the cost of new entitlements. Unless the text is clear, simple and doable, employers may try to avoid the issue.

Many enlightened employers are responding beyond the prescription of the equal treatment directive. Given the increasing feminisation of the workplace—especially in the growth sector of the service industry, in which greater emphasis is placed on good listening and communication skills—women are increasingly seen as assets. Good employers recognise that only women can have babies, and they will bend over backwards to encourage a woman's return to work on her preferred terms after she has had a baby. The increasing recognition of the benefits of retaining valuable female employees has had a knock-on effect on male employees with family responsibilities who are now seizing the new opportunities to ask for what they need to support their family life. The underlying question is whether to use a carrot or a stick to disseminate best practice in the treatment of different genders in the workplace; I know which my party would prefer.

The bundle of documents that I collected from the Vote Office concerning the Standing Committee contains an explanatory memorandum. Under the section on financial implications, it states that the cost will depend on the final text. I urge the Government to make the financial implication assessment available as soon as possible because there is considerable sensitivity in the business community about additional costs and regulations. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member— particularly, in my case, with the proximity of manufacturing in the west midlands—to have business men visiting my surgery to complain bitterly about the regulatory burden that they face.

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