1976 Equal Treatment Directive

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hopkins: Does the hon. Lady accept that the major problem faced by manufacturers is the valuation of our currency relative to other currencies and that a substantial over-valuation is more significant than ensuring that women are treated well at work?

Mrs. Spelman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention but, to avoid being ruled out of order, Mr. O'Hara, we must speak to the directive. However, I would contest whether currency is the only factor involved. The climate change levy has been the last straw for some manufacturing companies and has contributed to some going out of business. I beg to

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differ with the hon. Gentleman on there being one factor, which explains why business is so sensitive to the cost of regulation.

The Chairman: Order. That reference slipped past.

Mrs. Spelman: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara.

I emphasise that the directive will come into force in the context of other regulations on businesses. Last night, the House discussed the Employment Bill on Report and the regulatory implications for business were quantified as a one-off cost of £11 million and a recurring cost of £100 million per year. Business will not consider the implications of this directive in isolation. It cannot afford to. It must comply with regulations that are imposed upon it and it is relevant to place on the record the regulatory climate into which this directive will fall. I ask the Government to note that while such legislation often contains desirable goals, they all cost money.

5.47 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Briefly, Mr. O'Hara, the hon. Member for Meriden suggested that legislation on equal opportunities in relation to political parties might be affected by the directive.

Mrs. Spelman: To emphasise women's listening skills, I heard the Minister say at the beginning of our proceedings that that is not so.

Dr. Palmer: It will take a second for me to explain. The proposal is that member states may maintain or adopt measures with a view to ensuring full equality between men and women and that such measures are explicitly permitted.

I support the Government's general position on the measure. We have tried to strike a reasonable balance, although we recognise that every regulation imposes a burden on business. I worked in business for 18 years before coming to the House and the overwhelming desire of most businesses is for a reasonably stable, broad environment. Most businesses are happy to comply with reasonable regulations throughout the European Union, but they face problems when politicians in general chop and change and constantly revise regulations. There has been extensive consultation on the directive and we should give it a fair wind.

5.49 pm

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. This has been a useful discussion with many good contributions. The debate has been about not just our aspirations to deal with discrimination, but having the practical mechanisms to end it. It is essential that we have workable and proportionate mechanisms that deliver redress effectively. In negotiating the proposal, we are working towards a clear, workable text for those whom it will affect. An equality regime that is not clear about what people must do to comply with it is likely

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to be counter-productive. Through the directive, we want to move the equality agenda forwards, not backwards.

I understand the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). I say to him strongly that we seek to update the directive so that it embodies the position in case law, which has grown over many years. Some case law has been created by the United Kingdom; we take such measures seriously, and have a record in this area that goes back to 1975.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North mentioned amendment 14, which was proposed by the European Parliament. I do not believe that that moves in the right direction. It talks about not just statistics, but about a whole body of reporting; it is unclear. A much better way to proceed is that taken by the Equality Opportunities Commission. It will shortly launch a rights and responsibilities campaign to inform employers and employees about discrimination, sexual harassment and, in particular, the position following the directive. The Department of Trade and Industry will also be running a major campaign about new rights under employment legislation. That work is extremely important. We have a good track record in this country of progressing in the direction of the proposals, and want to give support to that work.

I understand what the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) said about the regulatory burden. I would hate to make a party-political point, but I remember sitting on the Opposition Front Bench as spokesperson for trade and industry. I would hate to quote what the Institute of Directors, and others, then said about excessive regulation under the Conservative years, because I would not want to embarrass her. The common position that the Council has adopted is close to UK legislation, so any increased cost to business should be minimal. However, as soon as we can report information, we will. I absolutely agree with a tremendously telling point that the hon. Lady made about women's listening skills. That remark should have a wider audience in the Chamber of the House of Commons, as well as in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) referred to the legislation on representation passing through Parliament. In our opinion, that is not subject to the directive. I say to the Committee, and particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North, that our position on updating legislation using the equal treatment directive will be of tremendous use to women, not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe. The text includes: definitions of direct and indirect discrimination, and of third party instructions to discriminate; the right to return to work after maternity leave; a definition of sexual harassment; notice that the principle of equal treatment is to be extended to trade unions, employers' organisations and professional bodies; and notice of protection from discrimination by a former employer, and from

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victimisation. Those points usefully update our legislation.

One of our most important tasks is to unlock the talent and potential of all our citizens. Every man and woman in this country has a valuable contribution to make throughout their lives. Equality is a basic component of that. So far as the Government are concerned, fairness at work and productivity go hand in hand. The best employers, as the hon. Member for Meriden said, already appreciate the business benefits of using the experience and skills of all their work force, part-time or full-time, male or female. We all want to see a change of culture so that the best practice in the best companies goes down through the supply chain into small and medium-sized enterprises. However, it is fair to say, as I know from my experience with small businesses, that many smaller enterprises often have good and deep-rooted equality policies.

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We believe strongly that the common position at which we have arrived is correct. We shall seek to negotiate and conciliate along those lines. Where there are sensible proposals and amendments we shall take them on board, but we strive to have a proper and appropriate balance in this important area.

Question put and agreed to,

Resolved,

    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.

        Committee rose at three minutes to Six o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Hara, Mr. Edward (Chairman)
Barrett, John
Cairns, David
Hopkins, Mr.

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Lepper, Mr.
Palmer, Dr.
Picking, Anne
Walter, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)
Levitt, Mr. Tom (High Peak)
Roche, Mrs. Barbara (Minister of State, Cabinet Office)
Spelman, Mrs. Caroline (Meriden)
Viggers, Mr. Peter (Gosport)

 
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