§ Mr. Jenkin
To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will make a statement about the Government's policy on the employment rights of part-time workers and indicate his response to the House of Lords judgment in the judicial review case Rv. Secretary of State for Employment ex parte Equal Opportunities Commission and another.
§ Mr. Portillo
The Government welcome the growth of part-time work, which is one of the range of flexible working practices which can be of benefit both to employers and to employees in reconciling work and other commitments.
A comprehensive framework of employment protection rights exists to safeguard employees against unreasonable treatment by their employers, and many of those rights—including those relating to sex and race discrimination, to unlawful deductions from wages and to time off for antenatal care—have long applied to part-timers on exactly the same basis as full-timers. The statutory entitlement of part-timer and full-timers alike were further extended and enhanced by the Government in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Acts 1993.
The Government are, however, committed to the principle that the legislation should strike an appropriate balance between the rights of employees and the burdens on business. They have sought to achieve that through the deregulation of the labour market, where appropriate, and believe that this has helped to stimulate the growth for new job opportunities. They therefore oppose the imposition of new restrictions which would inhibit employers and employees from exercising the freedom to reach agreements on the basis of their own priorities, needs and circumstances. The Government rejected on 6 December 1994 the draft EC directive on part-time work as this would have imposed unacceptable constraints on Government action to promote part-time work, and would in any case have extended EC regulation into an area in which the principle of subsidiarity should apply. Such matters are best determined by individual member states, according to their own law and practice.
In the judicial review case R v. Secretary of State for Employment ex parte Equal Opportunities Commission and another, the Equal Opportunities Commission alleged that the application of different qualifying conditions for part-timers compared with full-timers in the unfair dismissal and redundancy payments legislation 1101W discriminated against women contrary to European equal pay and equal treatment law. The Government conceded that, because there are more women than men working part time, the hours threshold had a disproportionate adverse impact on women, but argued that the thresholds were justified on objective grounds, to reduce burdens on business and promote part-time work opportunities. The High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected the EOC's case, but the House of Lords found in its favour.
The Government have studied the House of Lord's judgment and given very careful consideration to all the legal implications and policy options arising from it. It clearly gives the relevant European legislation a much wider interpretation than was envisaged when it was originally adopted, and reinforces the Government's view that the priority for Europe should not be tackling unemployment rather than adopting further costly social legislation which increases burdens on business and destroy jobs.
The Government always honour their legal obligations, however, and accept that the judgment must be acted upon. The House of Lords is the supreme court of the United Kingdom and there is no possibility of further appeal or of reopening the case. Only the courts themselves can refer questions to be determined by the European Court of Justice, and the House of Lords considered it unnecessary to do so in this case.
Having taken very careful account of the policy options and their legal implications, the Government have been advised that the judgment requires the removal from employment protection legislation of all existing distinctions based on the number of hours worked per week. We will shortly be laying before the House appropriate regulations under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.
Although the Government were unable to satisfy the House of Lords that the hours thresholds were objectively justified, they continue to believe that their removal will make employers more reluctant to create new part-time jobs, and may indeed threaten some existing jobs. The effects of the change will therefore be carefully monitored, to assess their impact on business and on employment opportunities. The Government will reconsider the position in due course if objective evidence of adverse effects emerges.