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Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill [Money]

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2008

Queen’s recommendation having been signified—

I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred under or by virtue of the Act by a Minister of the Crown or government department; and

(2) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment.

This money resolution is required in respect of clause 4 of the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, which is sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). The Bill received its Second Reading on 22 February and goes into Committee tomorrow, 7 May.

If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself for a moment, I shall set out our position.

On Second Reading of the Bill on 22 February, I set out the Government’s position that while we do not support the Bill, we share many of its underlying objectives in providing appropriate protections for agency workers. I will say more about the Government’s position in Committee, including the current position on the European Union agency workers directive, which forms the backdrop to the Bill, and our proposals for an agency workers commission as a way forward. The tabling of the resolution does not indicate any change in the Government’s position on the Bill, and there are precedents for money resolutions for Bills without Government support. In accordance with convention and as part of the parliamentary process, the Government are tabling a money resolution for a new Bill that, if passed, would require the expenditure of public money.

The Bill provides for the protection of temporary and agency workers by establishing a principle of equality of treatment for such workers with permanent workers, and it makes provision for the enforcement of those rights. In that respect, clause 4 of the Bill allows for the appointment of a regulatory authority with suitable duties and powers and the appointment of statutory officers with suitable duties and powers for the purpose of enforcing the rights afforded to agency workers.

The new regulatory authority would have powers in relation to clause 1(1), which covers equal treatment for agency workers, clause 3(1), which deals with information about availability of direct employment and clause 3(4), which tackles an agency worker’s right not to be subject to any detriment. Setting up such a regulatory authority as that for which the Bill calls would incur public expenditure and it is therefore necessary to move a money resolution. Of course, we can explore further the issues of substance that the Bill raises in its Committee stage, which begins tomorrow.

The cost burden of any Bill is of utmost importance to the taxpayer. While I make it clear that the official Opposition oppose the Bill outright, and will take that position in Committee tomorrow, we thought it especially important to highlight the measure’s huge cost implications, which, to date, have been overlooked by its promoters and the Government.

Although the Minister tackled various aspects of the Bill, he did not mention its cost implications, which the money resolution is supposed to tackle. I would therefore like to deal with several important points about expenditure.

First, the Bill is being introduced at the same time as an EU agency workers directive is considered in Brussels. Like us, the Government have opposed the EU directive. However, the Bill overlaps heavily with it, promoting the same message that temporary workers should have the same rights as permanent employees.

The cost implications of two possible legislative measures, covering much of the same territory and proceeding concurrently, could be huge. Apart from the damage that the Bill inflicts on our case in Brussels, it is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money to allow it to proceed at the same time as a directive that deals with similar issues, which all parties have staunchly opposed.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that our friends in the European Union will misinterpret our position if the Government are seen to oppose the Bill but support the money resolution? Is there not an inconsistency?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Labour Back Benchers’ case is effectively blowing the Government’s case out of the water in Brussels, gravely disadvantaging business in this country and our reputation in Brussels. The Government know that, but they are being forced into that position. That is not the subject of the resolution that we are considering, but the matter will be tackled in Committee.

If all that were not bad enough, the Government have kept digging. In a weak attempt to stall the unions and their own Back-Bench rebels, they have attempted to broker a deal on the Bill and the EU directive by proposing a UK commission made up of business and union nominees, although neither business nor the unions seems enthusiastic about the proposal. Having suggested the commission, why do the Government not want to wait to hear its proposals before allowing the Bill to proceed any further? Do not the cost implications alone merit more co-ordination than they have yet been able to muster? Who is leading the process—the Minister or those sitting behind him? Is it not yet another example of a dithering and indecisive Administration?

The hon. Gentleman gives us an excellent illustration of what a Tory Government would be like. If there are any illusions about that among Labour Members—that is unlikely—the hon. Gentleman’s comments explain to us in simple terms what a Tory Government would do against the working people of our country.

Perhaps some people have closed their ears in recent months, but my understanding was that the Government oppose the Bill and the European directive. Does the hon. Gentleman now claim that the Government give the measure their full support? If that is the case, it would have been nice of the Minister to give some indication in his earlier remarks.

Will the Minister please justify allowing the Bill to proceed any further, while the Government oppose a directive that legislates on the same issues, and before his proposed UK commission has had the chance to negotiate solutions to the problems of temporary and agency workers? Could it be because the Government are running scared of the unions, who ordered more than 140 Labour MPs to turn up and ram the Bill through on Second Reading, at the expense, it seems, of the British taxpayer? Does the Minister not realise the damage that the Bill could inflict on British business?

I have a number of concerns about the Bill regarding expenditure. The provision in the Bill that attempts to allow for different treatment of direct workers and agency workers lacks a lot of clarity. There is a no definition of “objective grounds”, for instance. It is also unclear when an employer can lawfully pay an agency worker less than a comparable direct worker. I cannot see how, for instance, the agency and the employer are supposed to know without a tribunal ruling when it would be justified on objective grounds to pay an agency worker less than a permanent employee. That provision is being cited by many experts as meaning more time entangled in legal disputes and more money spent on unnecessary legal fees. Importantly for the purposes of the resolution, however, the tens of thousands of projected claims will clog up our tribunals and courts. Will the Minister please give an assessment of the cost to the taxpayer of that?

The Bill aims to give a definition of the comparable direct worker. Again, the provisions are vague and confusing. Will the Minister give some idea of both the cost implications for the state and the further pressures on our already overburdened employment tribunal system? I shall return to those issues in further depth tomorrow. However, I should point out now that clause 4 provides for the creation of a new regulatory regime for enforcing the Bill’s equal treatment provisions. Again, that would be extremely costly, given the huge increases in the number of tribunals that would result if this vague and unclear Bill were to be enacted.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will be pleased to know that we would very much have preferred to vote against the resolution for its content and implications. I agree with him that it is somewhat bizarre that a Government who are supposed to be opposing the Bill are supporting the resolution this evening. However, we also respect the convention that the Government should allow a money resolution to accompany the Second Reading success of a private Member’s Bill, notwithstanding the fact that—or perhaps, should I say, not least because—the Bill was forced through by a Back-Bench Labour rebellion.

Far be it from me to challenge established conventions, but the resolution refers to expediency. How can it be expedient to risk a lot of taxpayers’ money on something that both the Government and the official Opposition oppose?

My hon. Friend makes another excellent point and I fully agree with him. Frankly, we are all whistling in the dark. No one in the Chamber has any idea what the Bill’s cost implications are, yet the Minister has come here to debate them. He shows up the fallacy of the Government’s argument very well.

Although the debate on the merits of the Bill will wait until the Committee stage, which starts tomorrow, I see no reason why the Minister should thereby be let off having to set out now the reasons for the authorisation of Government expenditure on such a scale. The Minister has failed to set them out properly this evening; I invite him to do so now.

I want to make a couple of brief points. I have been accused of being a rebel. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) ought to look at my voting record. I am a serial loyalist by nature and will remain so.

I also recommend that the hon. Gentleman do his homework. He has done half his homework—he has read some of the briefings from the CBI and various other employers’ organisations—but he did not read a word into the record about the views expressed to him by trade unions and others representing people who are being exploited as a result of weaknesses in current law.

My substantive point is simply this. The hon. Gentleman’s speech illustrated some clear water between the two main parties on opposite sides of the Chamber. He is opposed to the Bill and to the European directive. My hon. Friend the Minister and I have minor differences about how we solve the problem, but we are both committed to solving the problem, because we recognise that there exists a group of vulnerable workers who are being exploited. Their problem needs resolving and it needs resolving now.

I had rather hoped not to be standing here this evening speaking to this money resolution, if only because of the lateness of the hour. Following what the Minister said on Second Reading on 22 February, I had hoped that organisations such as the TUC and the CBI would have sat down with the Government and worked something out by now. The Bill contains some sensible aspects that I am sure everyone wants to see enacted. No one in the Chamber wants to see vulnerable workers being exploited, but there is confusion in the Bill between agency workers and vulnerable workers; those two terms are not synonymous—[Interruption.]

Order. The matter before the House relates specifically to the financial implications of the Bill. This is not an opportunity to debate the Bill itself.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for your guidance. That being the case, I shall merely express the hope that the Government, the CBI and the TUC will be able to get together and to achieve an agreement on the issue of permatemps.

Will the hon. Lady clarify whether she believes that it is expedient for a great deal of taxpayers’ money to be thrown at the Bill?

It is important that this issue, which has clearly aroused sufficient strength of feeling to bring it before the House today, should be able to be discussed in Committee. However, I take note of the remarks of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) about the timing of the Bill. It seems unfortunate that we should be here today discussing the financial implications of these measures, which one would have hoped could have been resolved by the Government, the CBI and the TUC.

I just wanted to make a couple of brief points. I was asked why we should facilitate a private Member’s Bill through the tabling of a money resolution. Many experienced right hon. and hon. Members will know that this is certainly not the first time that this has happened. There have been many precedents, in which private Members’ Bills have had money resolutions tabled, even though the Government did not necessarily support the Bill. An example is the Rights of Savers Bill, which came before the House a couple of years ago. That Bill had a money resolution, but the Government did not necessarily support it, although they may have supported some of its aims. Other private Members’ Bills have been treated in the same way.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) seemed to be somewhat internally conflicted on this matter. He was critical of the decision to table the money resolution, yet in the end he acknowledged that it was a convention of the House to do so.

The Minister missed my point. I wanted him to explain the financial implications of the Bill, but that did not conflict at all with the fact that we oppose the Bill.

The conflict lay in the hon. Gentleman’s criticising the Government for facilitating a money resolution while also accepting that it was a convention of the House to do so.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the assessment of costs. This relates particularly to clause 4 of the Bill, which provides for the establishment of a new body in the regulatory field. We can look at the examples of other bodies in this field, such as the agency standards inspectorate, which is part of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and has annual costs of about £1.3 million; and the Low Pay Commission, which makes recommendations on the minimum wage and has annual costs of about £900,000. Any costs relating to a new body must, of course, be an estimate at the moment, but we would expect them to be in the same region, or perhaps a little higher in the early years of its work, were such a body to be established in the same region as those other bodies operating in this field.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) asked me—

On the question of this relatively small amount of money, will the Minister confirm that it is a lot less than the Tory party’s share of the Short money?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct about that.

The hon. Member for Solihull asked me about talks with the TUC, the CBI and so on, but I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would correct me if I went too far into those matters at this stage. Suffice it to say to the hon. Lady that the talks are ongoing and I shall have more to say about them in Committee tomorrow.

As I was saying—it is an important point—the tabling of the money resolution does not constitute a change in the Government’s position on the Bill, which remains as set out on Second Reading.

We understand the Government’s line on the Bill and we also understand that we all want to protect good agency employers, but is it not a good use of public money to help further debate and dialogue about stopping instances of bad agency employers, like those in the city of Salford, who lay off workers at 5 o’clock in the morning, give them £20 and send them home—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is cleverly trying to bring other issues into the debate, but I think that he has made his main point.

My hon. Friend raises the sort of issue that was raised on Second Reading, so you would be right to ask me not to get drawn further into those matters at this stage, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Everyone wants to see proper protection of people at work. As to the examples raised, I ask hon. Members to beware of those that are already breaches of current law, which should be dealt with by current law. That is something that we will have to remember in Committee.

As I was explaining, the tabling of the money resolution does not constitute a change to the Government’s position, which remains as set out on Second Reading. We tabled this resolution in accordance with precedent and convention.

Question put:—


Division deferred till Wednesday 7 May, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Political Parties

That the draft Electoral Administration Act 2006 (Regulation of Loans etc: Northern Ireland) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Question agreed to.