The Prime Minister was warned yesterday by the Government-backed Equal Opportunities Commission that his plans for the "privatisation'' of public services could widen the pay gap between men and women.
In a controversial intervention in the dispute over public services, the chairwoman of the commission said women could be forced to work longer for lower pay in the private sector. Julie Mellor's assertions to union leaders at the TUC conference, hours before Tony Blair was due to speak, will anger ministers who have been trying to reassure union leaders about the increased use of private companies to manage public services.
Ms Mellor said many of the services that could be switched to private businesses were overwhelmingly provided by women. And research showed that some wages were forced down when private companies took over, she said.
In contrast, a study by the Commission on compulsory competitive tendering in local government showed that in services largely provided by men, such as refuse collection, pay levels increased. Wages in catering and cleaning, where women were in the majority, failed to increase and in some cases declined. Total female employment fell by 22 per cent as part of the process, whereas jobs occupied by men were cut by 12 per cent. Most authorities reported an increase in the use of temporary workers, most of whom were female and had fewer employment rights.
Ms Mellor said: "If the Government presses ahead with its plans on privatisation, it is essential that measures are put in place to safeguard pay and conditions of all workers.''
She acknowledged that the Government has set up a review of women's pay and employment under Denise Kingsmill, the deputy head of the Competition Commission.
"But, unless the debate on the privatisation of public services covers the impact on women's pay and conditions, much of this work could be undermined," she said.