Leading Article: Low marks for Mrs Shephard

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THERE is one way in which women will never be equal to men, or vice versa, depending on your perspective: it will always, barring some unforeseen scientific breakthrough, be women who do the child-bearing. That single, inescapable fact is often used by employers to justify their reluctance to promote women into senior jobs. What would happen, they ask themselves, if she went off to have a baby or two - or, worse still, found motherhood so addictive she decided to stay away for a year or two.

Presumably, it was partly to combat such attitudes that the Prime Minister lent his support to Opportunity 2000, an initiative to promote women to more senior jobs in the private sector and Civil Service, and promoted Gillian Shephard to be Employment Secretary. One aim of her appointment was to encourage the feeling among female voters that the Government has their interests at heart. What better opportunity to demonstrate this commitment than the important new Employment Bill sponsored by Mrs Shephard, of which the relevant part is now entering its committee stage in the Commons?

Yet the Bill now stands accused by the Equal Opportunities Commission: first, and dubiously, of potentially widening the pay gap between men and women by abolishing the wages councils that set minimum wage rates in most low-pay sectors; second, of making inadequate provision for maternity leave. Under existing legislation, women who have been employed continuously full-time for two years or part-time for five years are entitled to up to 11 weeks off before giving birth and 29 weeks thereafter. Under the new Bill, non-qualifying employees will also be entitled to time off, but only 14 weeks.

The EOC considers that period too short, criticises the lack of provision for paternity leave and considers the protection against being dismissed on grounds of pregnancy inadequate. All in all, low marks. The Government's broad defence is that if employers are burdened with excessive obligations, they will employ fewer women: an argument that few women will find convincing, especially those in predominantly female, low-paid sectors. Their rights deserve more protection than Mrs Shephard seems prepared to give them.