Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1969 Oct 10 Fr
Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Conservative Party Conference

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Brighton
Source: Conservative Party Conference Report 1969 (pp117-19)
Editorial comments: Afternoon.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 2497
Themes: Conservative Party (organization), Pay, Taxation, Family, Law & order, Social security & welfare, Women

This debate has been unexpected in some ways. Some of the men have been provocative and have, perhaps, raised points which will enable me to reply. I think the best claim for greater and better treatment for women came from Mrs. Sell, who proposed the Motion. She was competent, relevant, direct and to the point. She was followed by an equally competent speech by Miss Beryl Cooper. Then some of the men came in and later on one of the women said that not all women need or deserve complete equality with men. May I reply that not all men need or deserve complete equality with women. I think it was Socrates who said long, long ago that when woman is made equal to man she becomes his superior, and I would not dissent from anyone as wise as Socrates.

I am still mystified about one of Councillor Tuckman 's observations. He said that women get married and have children, but men do not. This must upset the statisticians somewhere.

I should also like to make one preliminary observation on the speech of the solicitor, Mr. McBryde, who said that he did not think a guilty wife would in any circumstances be ordered to maintain her husband. I would not dream of replying only on my own authority, but I can call in aid the authority of the Law Commission who, on page 25, said this,

“The present law can be briefly summarised as follows: Ordering a Settlement. On the grant of a divorce of judicial separation to the husband on the ground of the wife's adultery, cruelty or desertion, the court can order her to settle any of her property for the benefit of the husband and children or either of them” . Then it goes on to say,

“There is no power in any circumstances to order the husband to settle his property for the benefit of his wife and children” .

There is one case in which the wife can be ordered to make provision for the husband and children under circumstances when the husband cannot do the reverse.

I welcome this Motion and I hope the Conference will accept it. I think that our thanks are due to those whose work resulted in this document, whatever its name. All right, it might have been better to have called it ‘Fair Deal for Women’, but it is not what it is called that matters, it is the contents which matter. It is a very valuable study, as you have heard from Mrs. Sell, who gave an excellent report of some of its contents. I should also like to thank the people who produced a similar document which followed called, Opportunity for Women, which is an excellent discussion of the problem of equal pay, to which I shall refer in a moment or two.

May I come to some of the proposals in Fair Shares for the Fair Sex. The purpose of this document was two-fold: first, to urge changes in the law where the law is unfair to women and, secondly, where the rights are adequate the purpose of the document was to consider better methods of enforcement. We all know that there are many cases when people have a right at law, but having a right at law is quite different often from being able to enforce that right. This is particularly so with regard to matrimonial rights.

A number of speakers have referred to some of the provisions with regard to family law. It is quite true what one of our men speakers said, that the right to maintenance derives from the married woman's right to support for herself and her children. This, of course, has been a principle which has extended a long time back [end p1] and it has always been a principle which is necessary to face the realities of the situation, that the wife frequently works entirely in the home, has children and has to have a long spell off from work in order to carry out her duties in the home. This is the reality and this is why the wife has always been entitled to the right of support. Of course, the whole fallacy of Mr. McBryde 's argument about the wife being self-employed and, therefore, being paid to meet her responsibilities is quite simply this: that husbands do not pay their wives. Of course, if they did, the wives would line up and say, ‘I want pay as a cook. I want pay as a cleaner. I want pay as a laundress. I want pay as a baby-sitter’, and so on. The husband would very soon be bankrupt. It was a very interesting and provocative speech, but I think that is about all. I am concerned and we are all concerned with the reality of the situation, which is that the wife frequently is not able to do any work or does not wish to do any work or does not wish to do any work outside the home, but is very hard-working in the home itself. This document does nothing to disturb the wife's right to support, and I am very glad that it does not.

I sometimes fear that talk about equality goes so far that it might one day upset this right, and I am certain that if it did it would be very much to the disadvantage of all those wives who carry out such a marvellous job creating the homes of our nation.

A number of speakers have referred to certain problems with collecting maintenance. I heartily endorse what they said. It is quite absurd that a woman who wants maintenance or who has an order for maintenance should have to wait in a long queue at the magistrates' court. I also endorse the other methods for improving the collection of maintenance. You will notice that we have concentrated in this Report on trying to make people meet their obligations. There would be an argument for saying that the support of deserted wives should pass to the State. If that were to be done, it would encourage more and more people to “rat” on their responsibilities and pass them on to others. Our task is to try to persuade people to meet their obligations and responsibilities, and we are therefore more concerned to make arrangements to this end than to pass on those responsibilities to the State. In fact, already social security payments to deserted and divorced wives and children are running at the rate of £50 million a year. Those are commitments which are not being met by the people who created them, and the suggestion that the attachment of earnings order should be recorded on the tax PAYE form should help to secure more payments from the people who created those obligations.

While I am on the attachment of earnings point, may I pay great tribute to Dame Joan Vickers, who did such hard work in trying to secure this right in the first place. Eventually, our own Government took over her Bill, but now we have certain problems with enforcing the collection of payments under the orders.

I should like to say a few words about tax changes with regard to maintenance payments. The document also proposes some changes here. When a wife is deserted she often has to go out to work to keep the children. The tax law at the moment assumes that she will get the amount of maintenance on her order and takes it into account in her coding for PAYE purposes. Therefore, she is often in the difficult position that she is paying tax on money which she has not received. This is very wrong and it falls on that section of the community which can least bear it and must be changed.

There are certain other suggestions in the Report about which I would like to comment. One is the concept of family property and non-family property. The Report suggests that there should be further debate on this issue before we accept its recommendations, and the Law Commission Report which has also recently come out says that it would not like to come to a conclusion without very much further consideration. But we are all agreed on one principle: that the work which the wife does in the home which cannot be assessed financially should always be fully taken into account on the break-up of marriage and the disposition of the matrimonial home, and that her right to stay in the matrimonial home should be as strong as possible.

I have not, in dealing with some of these points, concentrated on equality. When one is dealing with this sphere of law, equity is a very much better principle than equality and one which, in fact, treats women very much more generously and takes into account all the varying circumstances which the principle of equality would have to ignore. One of our own Members pointed out in the debate in the House of Commons on this subject that at present all the assets of a man that can be traced are available for making provision for his wife and all the separate assets of the wife are her own. That is not quite right, even though he was a lawyer. There are certain circumstances when the wife can be called upon to support the man, but, on the whole, the law has attempted to take into account the position of the married woman but there has been a gap between her rights and enforcing those rights.

There is a long section in the document about tax and one or two small comments about estate duty. The chapter on tax is one of the most valuable I have ever come across and I urge every one of you to read it. It gathers together in one small chapter all the disabilities and some of the anomalies which should never exist, and I hope that a large number of them will be remedied. Mr. Iain Macleod, two years ago, gave a pledge about taxation on married women who go out to work, and that pledge will, of course, be honoured.

But there is one point on which I do not think the document goes far enough, although it was raised yesterday morning in debate. It is about estate duty. In my view, the present structure of estate duty is such that it is really a tax on widows. Although capital gains tax makes special provision for transfers of property between spouses, estate duty makes no such provision. I think that the widow should have prior rights to the Exchequer and there should be special provision made for her. I think we should make our views on that very clear. After all, ladies, this is a problem which the men will never have to face.

There were other suggestions about extending [end p2] small income relief and age exemption allowances. May I mention the marvellous work which is always being done by Dame Irene Ward in this connection? When we think of all the work which she has done, we are always reminded of the song “There is nothing like a dame” .

Equal pay has been mentioned, and I would like to make reference to it because it is bound to come up in Parliament when we return. Equal pay does not necessarily give rise to increased opportunity. May I first go back quickly over the history of equal pay? The point first came up in 1944, and Sir Winston Churchill then appointed a Royal Commission on the problems of equal pay. It reported in 1946, while we were in Opposition. It found that in the non-industrial Civil Service and local government service and teaching the work performed by men and women was more or less identical. The then Chancellor did not feel that economic circumstances permitted the introduction of equal pay—that was Hugh Dalton in 1946. Then came the 1950 election, and our manifesto said this:

“Conservatives have examined carefully the claim of women for equal pay with men. We consider that there should be one rate for the job, provided that the services rendered and the results achieved by men and women are the same. With this in mind, the next Government will proceed with the application of the principle as it affects the Government service” .

That was our pledge in 1950. We were not the Government in 1950, but when we were returned to power that pledge was implemented by Rab Butler in 1955. He made an announcement in January of that year that the Government had decided that the time had come to apply its principles on the rate for the job in the Government service. Equal pay was introduced over a series of years in the non-industrial side of the Civil Service, and its implementation was supported in the teaching profession and local government services.

One of our young lady speakers said that she thought a woman should not have the same pay as a man who has children to support. I think that this is a fallacious argument. On that basis, a man who has ten children should have more pay than a bachelor. But you cannot deal with pay in industry or in public service or pay for a job in that way.

I could see no justification for advertising, say, for a town clerk or for a solicitor and saying, “If it is a man who gets the job he will get £X thousands and if it is a woman who gets the job she will get £X thousands minus several hundred pounds.” That is why we not only supported, but implemented the pledge of the rate for the job in Government service. That was done. Until that time women had been earning up to 20 per cent less than men in the same grade. We did not touch the private sector, because we believed that that should be left to the machinery of collective bargaining.

I should like to point out one thing. In those spheres where equal pay has been implemented, it does not mean that there have been equal opportunities to get those jobs. This is not an argument against equal pay; it is an argument for enlarging opportunities for women, including, of course, more women Members of Parliament.

The next stage in the equal pay saga came in the Prices and Incomes legislation in 1968. On the report stage of the Bill we moved an amendment to exempt from the standstill powers of the Bill any awards or settlements designed to implement equal pay. This amendment was rejected by the Government. From the limited information that we have been able to glean since the announcement at the Labour Party Conference last week, neither the new proposals nor its full implications have yet been worked out. When the results of the surveys and negotiations have been completed and the precise proposals are before us, we shall be in a better position to consider our approach. In the meantime, the view that we take has been quite clear from our past actions. We enunciated the principle, we then got the economy expanding, we then assessed the effects, and we then applied the principle and kept our promise. Our record on this is an extremely good one. I think that it was because of this that this Government is anxious to catch up with our own record.

There have been a number of valuable suggestions in the report on Fair Share for the Fair Sex. I think there are two factors which we must keep in mind. Many women will still make their main job in life the creation of a home. Others at some time in their life will go out to work and possibly seek a part-time job suitable to their special circumstances. Yet others—some married women and some single women—will carry out the same jobs with equal competence and under the same conditions as men. We must make provision for all of these circumstances, but let us recognise that perhaps the most important job of all is the creation of family and family life. Home is where the individual matters, and, as we move into an economy where size seems to dwarf the individual, the home and the atmosphere there becomes more and more important, not less.

Although more married women are going out to work, no one is pushing them outside the home. We wish to recognise the very valuable contribution which they already make. I believe that both of these reports make a very good contribution to enhancing the status and dignity of women. If you accept this Motion, then we shall have to see that each and every one of those points is considered. I hope very much that you will accept the Motion and pass it with acclamation.