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Shephard faces criticism over women's rights

THE EQUAL Opportunities Commission yesterday called into question the commitment to women's rights of the Government and in particular of Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Employment.

On the eve of the Committee Stage of the Employment Bill sponsored by Mrs Shephard, Joanna Foster, chair of the commission, demanded that critical elements of the proposed legislation should be changed. Ms Foster said the Government's proposals would mean a widening of the pay gap between men and women, and claimed clauses on maternity pay could be in breach of EC law.

The Bill was potentially the most important piece of legislation on equal opportunites for a decade, but the provisions on maternity pay should be altered and the plan to abolish wages councils should be dropped, she said.

If the Government wanted to prove it was seriously committed to equality at work, 'crucial flaws' in the Bill needed to be remedied, the commission said. In its formal response, it argued that it was now time to get the framework for equal opportunites right, to give both sexes equal rights at work.

Ms Foster said the Bill had 'enormous implications' for women at work and registered her disappointment that the commission had not been consulted earlier. The lack of public consultation on the planned statute was also attacked. She said that wages councils dictated minimum rates of pay for 2.7 million workers, 2 million of whom were women.

Equal-pay legislation was of limited value for such women because 'occupational segregation' meant it was difficult to compare their wages with comparable jobs dominated by men.

On maternity rights, she said the Bill would increase the complexity of an already complicated scheme. The 14-week minimum leave period was too short and the timing of the leave could reduce existing rights and so could be in breach of the EC Pregnancy Directive.

Because the Bill states that maternity leave cannot start earlier than the 11th week before expected confinement, some women could be forced through pregnancy-related ill-health to use up most of their leave before the birth. There was also no provision for 'parental leave', so the father's role was ignored; there was insufficient protection against pregnancy dismissal and there was an 'inadequate' definition of work which was unsuitable during pregnancy, it said.

The Bill contained no guarantee that there would be a continuation of contractual rights, such as pension entitlements, during maternity leave, which falied to comply with EC provisions.

Clause 26 of the proposed law on 'transfer of undertakings' did not give sufficient protection to women affected by contracting out of public services and compulsory competitive tendering.

'If this clause is not amended, the likely effect is an even wider gap between men and women,' Ms Foster said.

The broadside delivered by the commission against the Bill is a further indication of its disappointment with Mrs Shephard, who, it had hoped, would be more sympathetic to equal-rights issues than her predecessor, Michael Howard.