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Equal Pay

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 9 March 1954

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish the principle of equal pay.
This seems to be the natural sequence to the proceedings in the House earlier this afternoon and is, in fact, exactly what the Petition presented by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Miss Ward) asked to be done. The House will expect me briefly to explain what the Bill proposes to do, how it proposes to do it, and when. The principle of equal pay has been accepted as a principle by all parties in this House and by the House itself, but the principle has so far not been generally established— accepted, yes, but not established—not even in the public services where the writ of this House runs today. Yet it is 34 years since this House went on record as saying:
"That it is expedient that women should have equal opportunity of employment with men in all branches of the Civil Service within the United Kingdom and under all local authorities and should also receive equal pay."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th May, 1920; Vol. 129, c. 1539.]
We have already heard this afternoon from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) how, in 1944, the principle of equal pay for women teachers came near to being established by law at the time of consideration of the Education Bill. Then it was a question of "so near and yet so far" because the Prime Minister—the same Prime Minister as we have today—prevailed upon the House to take it out of the Bill. Two years ago, the House will remember, we reaffirmed acceptance of the principle of equal pay in a Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West and asked for early action to be taken to implement the principle in a wide range of public services.

On the Order Paper today there are nearly 200 signatures of hon. Members on both sides of the House in support of Motions asking for action to be taken without further delay. Some hon. Members have preferred one Motion and some another. I notice that the Liberal Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), has signed both, thereby combining his further support of equal pay with some form of political neutrality. Huge petitions have been presented to the House this afternoon from hundreds of thousands of men and women in all walks of life, inside and outside the public services, humbly praying—ever praying—the House to take steps without fail this year to turn an accepted principle into an established fact.

The Bill which I ask leave to introduce does what I feel sure the House will wish to see done. It will end the uncertainty and even doubt lasting so many years about the sincerity of the House on this important matter. How will the Bill propose to do it? Quite simply, by making any contract of service void as regards the rate of pay if it contains any differentiation between the pay of a woman and a man based solely upon sex. In other words, it seeks to give statutory support to the principle so clearly defined in a booklet bearing the somewhat misleading title, "The Right Road for Britain," in which it was said:
"We consider that there should be one rate for the job, provided that the services rendered and the results achieved by men and women are the same."
I propose, in this Bill, to cover the public services as well as employment outside. I think this Bill is a natural though belated postscript to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, 1919. Bui no sanctions were written into that Act, and I do not propose penalties in this Bill; but I think it would be reasonable to provide for the right of recovery in a civil court of any underpayment made in contravention of the established principle of equal pay for men and women for services of equal value. That is what the Bill which I ask leave to introduce proposes to do, and how it proposes to do it.

But when? Will it name equal pay date? Yes. Here surely is a case for retrospective legislation if ever there was one. Women workers have been underpaid by millions of pounds during the last 34 years owing to the delay in establishing the principle of equal pay, and some restitution would surely be justified. This, however, is not an occasion for vindictive legislation. Women will forgive the past, they usually do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I therefore rule out any retroactive Clause from the Bill.

I do not even put in a current day. This may disappoint my hon. Friends. I propose a forward date—the day following the dissolution of the present Parliament—as the appointed day. That may not be unduly delayed. We read that small bets are already being made on an autumn Election. My intention is to give the party opposite the utmost latitude in fulfilling the hopes expressed in their Election Manifesto published under the flamboyant title, "Britain Strong and Free" in October, 1951, when they said:
"We hope that during the life of the next Parliament the country's financial position will improve sufficiently to enable us to proceed at an early date with the application in the Government service of the principle of equal pay for men and women for services of equal value."
The House may insist on a more positive date, an earlier date, and, if so, I shall be glad to fall in with the wishes of the House. It may, however, be prudent to underwrite the risk of neglect or default on the part of Her Majesty's Government.

The time for Motions of reaffirmation of the principle of equal pay is past. The House will now, I feel sure, resolve to embody its will in an Act of Parliament. This Bill will do that without recriminations or reproach to this Government or to the last. It is a Bill to set women free. [Interruption.] I repeat, it is a Bill to set women free, and if Her Majesty's Government do not like it they have until they leave office this year, next year or the year after, to come forward with a better one. Even by all the tokens of indifference and failure by Governments in the past, that should be long enough.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Houghton, Miss Bacon, Mr. Wedgwood Benn, Miss Burton, Mrs. Castle, Mr. Morley and Mr. Pannell.

Equal Pay Bill

"to establish the principle of equal pay," presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon Friday, 9th April. [Bill 77.]