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Sex Equality Legislation

Volume 978: debated on Monday 11 February 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

12.6 am

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the folly of basing policies on a false and irrelevant notion of equality of the sexes. I hold what I regard as the sensible view about this. Institutionalised prejudice which owes its origin to nothing more than differences of sex is wrong, unjust, causes unhappiness and prevents a section of our population from achieving its full potential.

So, I have no patience with the Jockey Club, the Stock Exchange Lloyd's, City aldermen or any other body which operates a "men only" rule in circumstances where the sex of a candidate should be completely irrelevant. But beyond that I will not go.

The manifest physical differences between the sexes, leading to differences in function, interest and outlook result in different levels of achievement in fields of endeavour. It is impossible for these levels ever to be the same.It is foolish to compel human beings to act so as to achieve this impossible objective, and attempts to do so by legislation merely make the law ridiculous—

Indeed, a fool, as my hon. Friend says.

A recent example of this was an attempt by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is almost wholly led and staffed by female busybodies, to discipline a character in a children's comic for saying that girls are for looking after boys.

The commission costs £2 million a year and employs 170 people. It is, of course, one of the laughing stocks of British national life. My hon. Friends may agree that it provides light relief, however, in times of need. Its guidelines to publishers contain gems of bizarre humour. Grownup women must not be referred to as girls. The word "housewife" must not be used. It should tell that to the Passport Office, where a member of the staff changed my wife's application for a passport on which she gave her occupation as "homemaker". The word "housewife" was inserted instead with the explanation that it was impossible to describe her as a homemaker. The Equal Opportunities Commission could not do more for the anti-women's rights cause if it was specifically created for the purpose.

A lot could be done to remove institutionalised prejudice between men and women. There is the question for example, of the pensionable age, which is 60 for women and 65 for men. There is no justification for that difference. It should be organised according to actuarial considerations on the basis of the pro rata level of pension justified at the time of retirement which ought not to be fixed at any particular age.

It is present, too, in our tax arrangements which are crying out for reform. Spinsters and women who stay at home to look after their families, are unjustly treated. Our tax system gives an allowance to wives who go out to work. That is an indefensible discrimination. Enhancement of family life is and should be higher in the order of priorities—higher, that is, than any notice of theoretical equality. We should help mothers of young children to look after them at home. Instead, under our tax system, they suffer compared to mothers who go out to work. The EOC has an obsession about women in employment.

Recently, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) asked for more support to enable women to go out to work. The Minister who replied treated the question seriously. He should have told her that the country needs an order of priority and that it is more necessary in these days of high unemployment for breadwinners to be assisted, whatever their sex. Homes and families should come first. The notion of sex equality is far less important in a time of mass unemployment.

This foolish notion applies equally to pay. The equal pay legislation has been the cause of much unemployment. Equal pay for equal work is a gigantic fraud. Pay can be quantified, but not the value of work. One cannot equate the value of a woman teacher, for example, of a class of boys with that of a male colleague. Boys should be trained by men. One cannot equate the value of a woman police officer with that of her male colleague. The idea of a woman coping with violence is ridiculous and offensive. Her colleagues and senior officers are bound to be concerned about her safety, to the detriment of their own efficiency.

Chief constables claim credit for higher recruiting figures, but the recruits are mostly women and they are mostly employed at the blunt end of the police effort. Mr. Anderton, the chief constable of Manchester, admitted as much recently. In fact, the police are an example of discrimination against men on the ground of sex. No man can be recruited whose height is less than 5ft. 8in., yet women may be recruited so long as they are over 5ft. 4in. How can such discrimination be defended?

To his credit, the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) recently pointed out this anomaly and the Minister of State, Home Office, did not defend it. He contented himself with saying that overall police recruitment figures were rising. Of course they are—by the recruitment of women, whose value as police officers is worth less than that of men over the whole range of police duties.

The Labour Government of 1974 succumbed to the demands of the women's rights lobby when they allowed women to bring in foreign husbands as of right. The plea of the equality of the sexes was made—yet in immigration and nationality matters there is and can be no equality. A child may derive his nationality from one parent. Few countries provide that both parents can determine it, because to do so is to create dual citizenship with many consequent problems.

Almost every country determines nationality by the place of birth, or by the place of birth of the father. It could be that of the mother—it does not matter which—but it is usually that of the father because the father's home and place of employment usually determine the home of the family. No man should owe allegiance to two sovereigns, as no man can serve two masters.

The same applies to immigration into this country for settlement. The Government are criticised for their immigration rule that there should be no absolute right of entry for settlement for foreign husbands. A husband in this country is expected by law to provide the home in a way backed up by legal duties. That is the rule in almost every other country as well.

The surprising thing in Britain is that no one—not in the equal rights lobby anyway—suggests that this rule of law should be changed and that women should have a duty to maintain their husbands as husbands have a legal duty to maintain their wives. If a wife is deserted and her husband fails to provide herwith a home she can go to the magistrates and sue him for wilful neglect to maintain. The deserted husband cannot sue his wife. She has no legal duty to provide him with a home which is enforceable at law. I think that that is right. The husband should provide the home. But wives should not expect to exempt their foreign husbands from our immigration laws so long as our law is so one-sided.

To be fair to the Government, they inherited most of this nonsense. When we were in opposition we did not enthusiastically support equality legislation. The dottier parts of the sex discrimination legislation were opposed by the Conservative Party. The Act should be repealed and the ridiculous Equal Opportunities Commission should be abolished. That would save another £2 million a year of taxpayers' money.

I know that the legislative congestion of the parliamentary timetable may not allow this to be done at once, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not give the impression that he has any faith in the future of this legislation.

The nub of my argument is that there are more important things in politics than the achievement of some theoretical equality of human rights between men and women. The pursuit of that theoretical equality deflects us in our efforts to solve our greater economic and social problems. It is counter-productive, and stimulates resistance even in areas where change is desirable. By confusing consequences that arise from natural differences between men and women with genuineequality, we are comparing the incomparable. By trying to enforce in practical terms what is impossible we are all made to look foolish.

12.16 am

I am happy to support my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on the absurd subject of sex equality by legislation. I declare an interest in that for the past 20 years I have been director of a staff employment agency. Not once during the period has any lady applicant complained of having been discriminated against by myself or any of my colleagues.

Sensible, confident and competent women—such as my wife and two daughters, all of whom are graduates and are cleverer than I—have never depended on legal sanctions to make their way in the world. They have sensibly relied on their own characters and abilities.

I am all in favour of women. Women should compete for all jobs, including top jobs, provided that they do not have young children. Women have a great deal to offer in all walks of lifeas well as in the home. I am amazed that our splendid new Tory Government—whom we were so pleased to see gain office, who are doing so much good and will do much more good in future—have not yet had the sense and the courage to abolish the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Discrimination is a part of life. We discriminate with our friends, with our jobs and in choosing a partner for life. These are personal matters which would be better left to the kindness and tolerance of individuals, especially in this old nation of England, rather than be regulated by Government diktat.

12.19 am

I rise briefly to endorse fully the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes). A great deal of sense has been spoken in the Chamber at this late hour.

I remind the Minister that this Government came to power with the objective of removing nonsense from the statute book and establishing sanity in this country. One of the nonsenses on the statute book is the Equal Opportunities Commission.

I do not want to hear what I read on the tape today in answer to a question I tabled concerning the abolition of the Equal Opportunities Commission. I should like my hon. Friend to tell us that he intends at an early date to bring forward legislation to abolish the Equal Opportunities Commission, which has created far more problems for women than any solutions that it may have provided.

In conclusion, I refer briefly to the absolute nonsense of the Equal Opportunities Commission wasting public money inquiring into the alleged sexism of Harold Hare in the children's comic "Jack and Jill". The British people must think that this Parliament is nonsense if it gives power to a public body to inquire into the comics that are read by children. This is a comic which has brought great pleasure to many youngsters over many years.

I urge my hon. Friend to give some formal commitment tonight that this ridiculous body, staffed by do-good busybodies, will be removed from the face of this land at a very early date.

12.21 am

This debate has had a certain value as well as a certain amount of spirit to it. We have not had many opportunities, if any, to debate this subject in the life of the present Parliament, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on bringing it forward. As I say, it has been a spirited debate. My hon. Friend gave it a very spirited beginning. I think that it would be fair to say that when he now goes home, he will be fully justified in quoting the now rather well known words of Harold Hare "You can bring my slippers and a hot drink now". I think that he will have deserved them.

What we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—and I think that he was speaking in very much the same sense as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington—was a firm demand for the repeal of the Sex Discrimination Act, which came into operation in December 1975. I am afraid that here I shall be disappointing my hon. Friends. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] As the House knows, the Act makes discrimination on grounds of sex unlawful in many circumstances, notably in employment, in education and in supplying goods and services. It set up machinery for enforc- ing those provisions. It set up the Equal Opportunities Commission, to which reference has been made, to work towards the elimination of discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity between men and women generally.

I must say that, in spite of the mood of the House this evening, I believe that this legislation was widely seen as an important step forward in achieving equal opportunities. I am sure that I can at least remind the House of the support that it received during its passage both here and in another place. I know that a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington, by no means supported the passage of that piece of legislation, but I must say that it was supported by the generality of the Conservative side of the House.

Those who supported the measure realise that legislation by itself cannot achieve the objective of equal opportunity. It cannot by itself createnew attitudes or a new atmosphere which will enable men and women to be treated equally. But it was, I think, a declaration by Parliament of public policy that people should not be denied opportunities or be treated differently solely on the ground of their sex. It provided redress for individual victims of discrimination and machinery for securing changes in practices which resulted in discrimination.

Discrimination leads to injustice to individuals. It can, for example—and I think that this is the nub of the matter—prevent both men and women from doing work which best suits their abilities. I believe that as a country we cannot afford to waste talent in this way. Therefore, the Government remain committed to the advancement of equal opportunities.

There are, of course, those who believe very firmly that a woman's place is in the home. We have heard echoes of that sentiment this evening. For many women that is their choice for at least a part of their lives. Others, whether from personal preference or from need, wish to work. I do not think that this choice should be denied or that women should be restricted to a limited range of work, either because wider avenues are closed to them or because their education has not given them a reasonable chance to acquire the necessary qualifications.

Greater equality of opportunity in effect means greater freedom of chice.

She did it on her own merit. It had nothing to do with that ridiculous legislation.

I accept that the Prime Minister has achieved her position without the aid of legislation. However, that does not mean that the legislation has nothing to offer other women.

I realise that some of my hon. Friends regard the Equal Opportunities Commission with something less than total enthusiasm. However, as a Government we believe that it has a useful part to play in the advancement of equal opportunities. We are all aware that some of the commission's activities in recent years have been the subject of jocular press comment. Frankly, it sometimes asks for it. It is inevitable that a few of the cases brought before the courts have attracted disproportionate attention. However, other cases have received less widespread publicity and have led to useful progress being made towards achieving equal opportunities for women. The EOC does a good deal of its work quietly, and without ostentation. It achieves practical results without the need to bring cases to industrial tribunals or to the county court.

I recently visited the headquarters of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Manchester. I was rather impressed by the good work that it is doing, for example, in response to complaintsor queries that it receives from individuals concerning employment inequalities, as regards tackling legal questions in education, and in other ways. Criticisms of the EOC can be heard. I know that there are those who consider that the commission has not made the best of choices in its selection of priorities, and that it seems to spend a disproportionate amount of energy on relatively minor issues. Of course, the commission is independent as regards the day-to-day conduct of its business. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not wish to intervene. I have no doubt, however, that the hard-working chairman of the commission and her colleagues will consider carefully the comments made by my hon. Friends on its work.

My right hon. Friend is responsible for the level of the commission's expenditure, but it is for the commission to decide the detailed allocation of its budget. This year, the commission has been asked to make savings on staff and other costs. Its expenditure is likely to be some £2¼million. The budget for next year has not yet been determined.

The provision of greater equality of opportunity is not just a matter for the EOC, or indeed for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Other Government Departments have major responsibilities. I am thinking in particular of the Department of Employment, with its responsibility for the Equal Pay Act and for better employment opportunities. I am thinking also of the Department of Education and Science. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is involved in the important area of taxation, to which my hon. Friend has referred. In addition, the Secretary of State for Social Services is responsible, of course, for our pension system.

I shall devote a few minutes to one particular aspect that has been raised, namely, that of the police. The Government's position is clear. The Sex Discrimination Act applies to the police service, subject to certain specified exemptions relating to height limits, uniforms and other special matters. The Act also provides certain general exemptions, including provisions relating to decency that apply to such matters as the searching of women and the provision of training accommodation.

Subject to those exceptions, there should be no discrimination on the ground of sex. The opportunities for joining the police service are the same for men and women. Women police officers receive the same pay and allowances. They have the same opportunities for promotion, and are subject to the same code of discipline. They are alsoliable to undertake the whole range of duties. These should be allocated according to ability, without regard to sex. In cases where physical strength is needed—for example, in public order situations—senior officers should take account of that requirement when deploying officers. In general, women police officers undertake the full range of police duties, including those that involve physical risks.

It has to be acknowledged that all the police representative bodies were opposed to the decision to make the police service subject to the Act. That had nothing to do with male chauvinism. There were no objections to women police officers receiving equal pay and allowances, having the same promotion opportunities and being subject, in general, to the same conditions of service. There was simply a very genuine belief that women were not physically equipped to deal with situations in which there was a demand for sheer strength. That belief cannot be lightly dismissed. We understand the reluctance of supervising officers to detail women police officers to patrol alone at night or to send them to duties in which they are likely to become involved in violent confrontation. Nevertheless, senior officers fully recognise that the Act applies to the police service.

The present proportion of women in the police service is 8 per cent. in England and Wales. That proportion does not, of itself, give rise to any great concern. The overall figure does, however, mask certain problems. First, the proportion varies from one force to another, and forces where the figure is significantly higher may have problems of deployment.

Secondly, the increased intake of women officers coupled with the decline in the rate of recruitment of men during the two years preceding the police pay award in September 1978, led to an imbalance in the proportion of women to men among constables with fewer than three years' service. Since officers in their early years of service lack the experience for specialist duties, such as CID or traffic, the proportion of women officers on uniformed beat patrol duties was often much higher than that indicated by the overall strength. For example, in one force in which the overall strength of women police officers was 7 per cent., the proportion of women on beat patrol duties was sometimes as high as 25 per cent. In such circumstances the chief officer clearly has serious difficulties in deploy- ment. The significant improvement in recruiting since the implementation of the Edmund-Davies pay award is serving to correct that imbalance, but, because the rate of wastage among women police officers is high, a high proportion will inevitably continue to be employed on beat patrol duties.

I accept that the application of the Act to the police service does pose certain problems. The Edmund-Davies committee considered these, but concluded that it was too earlyto make any reliable assessment of the effect of the Act on the police service, and recommended that the position should be kept under review. We think that that is right. The increased rates of pay have not affected the number of women comingin to the police service—just over 2,000 in each year since 1976. What has happened is that the proportion of men coming in has increased. That should, in time, ensure that the proportion of uniformed police officers with the strength required to deal with violent incidents will increase, while enabling the police service to use to full advantage the abilities of the high quality women police officers who have joined in recent years.

May I now conclude. In my view, the movement towards providing greater equality of opportunity does not mean forcing men and women into adopting life styles that they do not want to pursue, or pretending that many women may not prefer to devote themselves to looking after their families, at least for some years. I believe that each family must work out for itself how it wants to distribute its labour and employ its abilities. Sometimes traditional roles may be reversed. Overall, I do not believe that the traditions and images of the masculine and the feminine, which are so deeply ingrained in our civilisation and in human psychology, should or could be lightly swept away. What matters is that scope for opportunity, talent and self-expression should be available to each sex. That is something which, in my view, public policy can help to bring about.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to One o'clock