House of Commons
Wednesday 17 October 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Police and Crime Commissioners
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of Dyfed-Powys police and all the other agencies involved in the search for April Jones, who went missing on 1 October. I am sure that the whole House will join me in praising them for their continued work to find April and in praising the support shown by so many of the people of Machynlleth for her family.
The Wales Office and the Home Office have been working closely with the Welsh Government and partners to make the police and crime commissioner reforms a success in Wales. Considerable progress has been achieved through the Wales Transition Board.
A serious potential problem has been averted over the preparation of voting papers in the Welsh language. Will the Secretary of State engage with the Welsh Language Commissioner to ensure that the commitment to bilingualism in Wales is fully respected in all non-devolved areas, where the problem arose?
Yes, the Wales Office is committed fully to the Welsh language and its support, not only in the devolved areas but in the un-devolved ones. I am pleased to report that my office is working closely with the Welsh Language Commissioner, and indeed it is proposed that an official of the commissioner will be embedded in the Wales Office.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a great proponent of the Welsh language, but I urge him to ensure that in all aspects and in all avenues of work within the Palace of Westminster the Welsh language is given the respect it so rightly deserves. I hope that this type of thing is not going to happen again.
The hon. Lady has identified a problem that needs to be resolved, in that the Welsh Language Commissioner is, of course, a position that was created by the Welsh Assembly. It is important that in the non-devolved areas sufficient support should be given to the Welsh language, and I am pleased to report that my office is prepared and anxious to undertake that duty.
I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on issues that affect Wales, including the future of the steel industry.
I thank the Minister for his reply. May I warmly congratulate him and his colleague on their new positions, which I believe were as a consequence of their apprenticeships on the Welsh Affairs Committee?
Tata Steel is a major investor and employer in my constituency. Nearly £250 million has been invested recently in the steel plant at Port Talbot, which is strongly supported by the Welsh Government, the local council, the local trade unions and the local management. This is a strong regional partnership, so what will the Wales Office do to assist the steel industry in these challenging times? Will the Secretary of State speak to the Business Secretary, his Cabinet colleague, to address the issue of a level playing field in energy costs? Will he visit the steelworks in my constituency at the earliest opportunity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind remarks. One of the most enjoyable parts of my first term in Parliament was serving under his chairmanship on the Welsh Affairs Committee.
The Government absolutely recognise the strategic importance of Tata Steel as an inward investor into Wales, and the Wales Office has close links with the company. I will certainly speak to the Business Secretary about what more we can do to support Tata’s inward investment. We do recognise that particular issue associated with energy costs. That is why we have made £250 million available for intensive energy users, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and industries in Wales will be making representations about how they can benefit from that money.
As my mother comes from Aberavon, I understand only too well the importance of the steel industry and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) on asking his question. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree, however, that the great news we have received today that employment in Wales is up by 40,000 and unemployment down by 7,000 is a good start?
I congratulate the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Minister—llongyfarchiadau, as we say in Wales. When the Prime Minister promised a respect agenda, did he mean trying to block Welsh Assembly legislation, unilaterally abolishing wage protection for agricultural workers in Wales and tearing up a cross-border GCSE exam system without consultation? If that is the case, can he even spell the word respect? It is R. E. S. P. E. C. T., by the way.
As we say in Wales, diolch am y llongyfarchiadau. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this Government are fully committed to the respect agenda. We are working closely with the Welsh Government and I am very pleased with the relationship I am cultivating with Carwyn Jones, the First Minister.
Would both Ministers, whom I warmly congratulate, agree with me that parch, as we say in Monmouthshire, is something that works in both directions, and that the refusal of Welsh Assembly Ministers to appear before Select Committees shows a disgraceful lack of respect not only to this House but to those of us who were put in it by the people of Wales?
I welcome the Secretary of State to the job and although I wish his predecessor all the best, may I say how good it is to have a Welsh MP as Secretary of State for Wales again, but why on earth is he referring the first two laws passed by the Welsh Assembly under the Government of Wales Act 2006 to the Attorney-General? The provision I included in that Act was not to allow the Secretary of State to block Welsh legislation but primarily to deal with any cross-border issues, which I cannot see apply in these cases. Why is he interfering in this anti-devolution manner?
I echo the tribute the right hon. Gentleman pays to my predecessor, who was an excellent Secretary of State. As for the references to the Supreme Court, as he knows these matters are set out in the Government of Wales Act, for which he was responsible. The reference of the first Welsh Bill—that is, the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill—to the Supreme Court should not be regarded as disrespectful or hostile in any sense. It is simply an administrative procedure to clear up the issue of competence and that is it.
I add my words of support to those of the Secretary of State for Dyfed-Powys police and the community of Machynlleth as they live through the awful events of recent weeks. I also warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and his deputy and welcome them to their new role. The Opposition are thrilled that the Prime Minister finally found a Welsh MP to take on the post.
In fairness, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, with whom I did not always agree, has found a new spirit of candour in recent weeks since she left the job and has admitted, for example, that his Government have lost all reputation for competence. On this question of respect, will he continue in this spirit of openness and clear up the question of his attitude to devolution? Will he tell us straightforwardly—does he think that devolution has been good for Wales?
I do not think I can carry on accepting all these welcomes; it is far too much for me—[Interruption.] I am sure they will soon come to an end. I feel strongly that devolution is developing, and that as the Assembly and the Assembly Government mature as institutions they could be very good for Wales indeed. That is why I and my office are determined to work closely with them to assist in doing our best for Wales with them.
Mr Speaker, you will forgive me if I think that the Secretary of State’s view that the Assembly “could” be good for Wales is hardly a ringing endorsement of the devolution settlement that was so decisively supported by the Welsh people. Are not his view that the devolution settlement has “damaged our constitution” and his deputy’s view that it is “constitutional vandalism” what they really think and where they really have disrespect for devolution? Is not the truth that the right hon. Gentleman cannot speak for modern Wales—devolved Wales—but we on this side of the House can and will?
When I used the word “could”, my intention was to point out that under the Labour Assembly Government, coupled with 10 years-plus of Labour Government here in London, Wales has been the poorest part of the United Kingdom. I believe that a lot more could be done to make Wales a happier place to live, and for that purpose it is necessary for us in the Wales Office to work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government. I am willing to do that; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me.
I am strongly committed to working with the Welsh Government to encourage private sector investment and growth in Wales, including promoting enterprise zones in Wales.
My hon. Friend is exactly right: it is vital that the two Governments—the UK Government and the Welsh Government in Cardiff—work together on a range of issues, not least the success of enterprise zones. I am committed to doing that, and I look forward very much to my first meeting with the Welsh business Minister, Edwina Hart, which is to take place shortly.
The Minister will be aware that having the Bristol enterprise zone alongside the tolls on the gateway to the south Wales economy is a major impediment to inward investment and growth. Will he therefore ask Treasury colleagues to commission a study to see whether a reduction in the tolls would be more than compensated for by an increase in income tax resulting from new jobs created by inward investment?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to discuss tolls on the Severn bridge with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport this afternoon. No decisions have been made beyond 2018, when the current concession ends. Clearly there is a lot to discuss in relation to how we maximise the benefits of inward investment in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the objectives of the Cardiff Central enterprise zone are much more likely to be realised now that the coalition Government have granted £11 million to the city of Cardiff to make it one of the most digitally connected cities in the world?
My hon. Friend is exactly right: the £11.7 million that we have made available to Cardiff to support its development as a superconnected city will make it one of the most digitally advanced cities in the United Kingdom, and we look forward to that helping to leverage new business investment into the city.
I very much welcome the Minister’s positive words about the Welsh Assembly Government’s work with enterprise zones and, indeed, full co-operation on measures to help the economy, but will he join me in congratulating Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on creating 1,700 youth jobs in the past six months, in an effort to tackle the scourge of underlying youth unemployment in Wales? Will he tell his Cabinet and Front-Bench colleagues how Wales is leading the way in this and that they should never have got rid of the future jobs fund?
I thank the shadow Minister for that question. I welcome any new jobs being created that will tackle long-term youth unemployment in Wales. I am just disappointed that she has not welcomed today’s news that unemployment has fallen in Wales, employment is up and worklessness is down.
12. Enterprise zones are a fantastic success in England, but their success in Wales has been somewhat limited. Enhanced capital allowances can play a significant part in attracting inward investment to enterprise zones, so is my hon. Friend somewhat disappointed and dismayed that the Welsh Government have not sought to communicate with the Treasury about where they would like to bring this tax advantage in Wales? (122197)
The discussions about the use of enhanced capital allowances in conjunction with other forms of regional aid are continuing with colleagues in the Treasury, but we look forward very much to seeing specific proposals from Welsh Ministers on how they envisage enterprise zones developing in Wales.
The most enterprising company in my constituency, Biotec Services International, is being prevented from developing because it cannot get export licences for growth hormones from the Home Office. I have written to the Home Office. Will the Minister take an interest in this matter so that this unique Welsh company does not lose its opportunity to grow and develop for Wales?
I warmly associate myself and my colleagues with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks regarding Dyfed-Powys police and all the emergency services which are looking for little April Jones. I also congratulate the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary on their appointments.
What assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the loss to Wales of inward investment since the disappearance of the Welsh Development Agency brand? Who has the last word on inward investment—this Government or the Government in Wales?
It is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that Wales needs a strong brand in order to promote itself around the world. It is clear also that although economic development is devolved to the Assembly Government, it needs to have the leverage that it will get from UKTI. That is why I am encouraging the Welsh Government to work closely with UKTI.
What discussions have the UK Government had with the Welsh Government about the establishment of a dedicated trade promotion agency, either sitting within the Welsh Government or as a private sector vehicle, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Committee back in February?
Academic research and development and its commercialisation are key ingredients in inward investment. I am heartened that the Secretary of State is meeting UKTI later today. Will he impress on it at that meeting the excellent work that is being undertaken in Bangor, Glyndwr university, Aberystwyth and Swansea? We have a good message to sell and we need UKTI to help us to sell it.
Disability Employment Ltd of Stoke wants to inwardly invest in Wrexham to put disabled workers sacked by this Government back to work. Will the Secretary of State come to Wrexham a week on Friday to meet disabled workers from Remploy to explain to them why the Government will not support that company?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government’s policy on Remploy is to provide supported jobs in mainstream employment. I have had discussions with him previously about the issue. I am entirely happy to have further discussions with him if he requires. As to Friday, I cannot make any commitments as I do not have my diary. [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Education. For clarity, Ofqual is the independent regulator of qualifications in England. It is the Welsh Government who regulate qualifications in Wales.
My hon. Friend makes his point. Much has been said about that and I do not want to add to it today, other than to say that it was unfortunate that the Welsh Government acted unilaterally on the matter. The key point is the ongoing review of qualifications in Wales and the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for new qualifications at 16 in England. It is important that parents and pupils in Wales have confidence that their qualifications will be respected and robust, and that they will be able to take them to institutions and employers in England, where they will be respected.
7. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and others about foreign direct investment in Wales. (122191)
9. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and others about foreign direct investment in Wales. (122193)
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about attracting foreign direct investment to Wales. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, during his visit to Turkey earlier this month, announced that a Turkish steel company is to open a new factory in Cardiff.
I am sure that my hon. Friend was pleased to hear that the Welsh Government have designated an enterprise zone in Milford Haven. Planning is indeed extremely important for the development of enterprise zones. It is being streamlined in England and I very much hope that the Welsh Government will follow suit.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post—perhaps he is overwhelmed by the welcome he has had thus far. Will he encourage Ministers to look at improving infrastructure in Wales, particularly port infrastructure, on which enterprise zones such as the one in Anglesey rely? He has passed the buck to the Welsh Assembly in the past. Will he now fight within Government so that we have a level playing field with English ports?
The proposed motor sport investment in Ebbw Vale could be an employment game-changer for Blaenau Gwent. Variable investment allowances are being sought by the international development. I urge the Secretary of State to get the Treasury on board now for a fair tax treatment to help deliver the project.
Enhanced capital allowances are an extremely important element of enterprise zones. They have already been granted in the case of the Deeside enterprise zone and we are urging the Welsh Government to make appropriate representations to HM Treasury so that they can be extended to other enterprise zones, such as the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Information on the expected impact in Wales and across Great Britain of our housing benefit reforms is set out in the impact assessments. We are taking urgent steps to manage housing benefit expenditure, providing a fairer and more sustainable scheme by ensuring people who receive it have to make the same choices about housing as people who do not.
Some £21 billion is currently spent on housing benefit, and the figure will go up without the reforms we are putting in place. I ask the hon. Gentleman this: what is fair about 100,000 people in Wales languishing on waiting lists, often in cramped accommodation, while others live in houses with empty rooms that are larger than they need?
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and warmly congratulate him on his new position. I also congratulate him and his predecessor on the electrification of the south Wales railway network, which the Labour party failed to achieve in 13 years. Will he join me in calling on the Department for Transport to look at the possibilities for new signalling on the north Wales main line?
I met representatives of Network Rail earlier this month to discuss their plans for the rail network in Wales, including the re-signalling programme. The north Wales main line is due to be re-signalled commencing in 2015 as part of the Wales route modernisation programme.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I am already holding discussions with the Welsh Government and local authorities in north Wales with a view to exploring the possibility of electrifying the north Wales railway line—105 miles, and an enormous economic benefit for north Wales.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the servicemen who have tragically fallen since we last met for Prime Minister’s questions: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Captain James Townley of the Royal Engineers; and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines. Once again we are reminded of the immense danger our armed forces operate in to uphold our safety and our security. Their families and the whole country should rightly be proud of their heroic service, and we will always remember them.
I am sure that the House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to PC Fiona Bone and PC Nicola Hughes, who were killed—brutally murdered—in the line of duty on 18 September. The whole country has been deeply shocked and saddened by the loss of these two young, dedicated, exceptional officers. Our thoughts are with their families and with their colleagues at what must be a very, very difficult time.
I also know that the House would wish to join me in sending our heartfelt condolences to the family of Malcolm Wicks, who sadly passed away on 29 September. Those in all parts of this House will remember Malcolm as a real gentleman—a man of great integrity and compassion who put his constituents first, who worked across party lines, and who was a thoroughly decent man. He served the House with great distinction for 20 years, and I know he will be missed by all who knew him.
We must also pay tribute to another of Parliament’s great characters—it is hard to believe that he is not sitting right there in front of me—Sir Stuart Bell. Sir Stuart was hugely popular across the House and was honoured for his services to Parliament. We will always remember him as a passionate, dedicated Member of the House whose kindness, again, transcended the political divide. We send our sincere sympathies to his wife and family at this difficult time.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I associate all right hon. and hon. Members with the Prime Minister’s tribute to the members of the armed forces and the police who died in the service of our country, and to their families; and also say how much we in this House, and the people of Middlesbrough and Croydon North, will miss Sir Stuart Bell and Malcolm Wicks?
Last week the Prime Minister promised that work would always pay, but this morning Baroness Grey-Thompson and the Children’s Society have revealed that his current plans for universal credit next year will mean that up to 116,000 disabled people in work could lose as much as £40 a week. Does not that say everything about how this divisive Prime Minister always stands up for the wrong people? At the same time as handing huge tax cuts to 8,000 people earning over £1 million a year he is going to penalise some of the bravest strivers in our country.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely serious issue; let me try to deal with it as fully as I can. The money that is going into disability benefit will not go down under universal credit; it will go up. The overall amount of money will go from £1.35 billion last year to £1.45 billion in 2015. Under the plans, no recipients will lose out, unless their circumstances change. All current recipients are fully cash-protected by a transitional scheme. On future recipients, we have made an important decision and choice to increase the amount that we give to the most severely disabled children, and there will be a new lower amount for less disabled people. That is a choice that we are making. As I have said, we are increasing the overall amount of money and focusing on the most disabled. That shows the right values and the right approach.
Q2. I congratulate the Government on the early introduction of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill. Farmers and third-world, developing-country producers desperately need protection from what the Competition Commission has described as the “bully-boy tactics” of some of the supermarket buyers. The Bill is welcome, but how quickly will the Government introduce this vital measure? (122161)
We are making progress with introducing the measure, which, as my hon. Friend says, is important. It is very important that we stand up for farmers and that they get a fair deal from supermarkets. On occasion, there have been unfair practices, such as the in-year retrospective discounts that have sometimes been proposed. I think that the Bill will be a major step forward.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the six servicemen who have died since the House last met: Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards; Sergeant Gareth Thursby and Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment; Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers; Captain James Tanley of the Corps of Royal Engineers; and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines. They all died heroically serving our country and showed the upmost bravery and sacrifice, and our condolences go to their families and friends.
I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes. They remind us of the dangerous work that our police officers do day in, day out in the line of duty. Their death is a great loss to the Greater Manchester police, the communities they served and, most of all, of course, their families.
I also thank the Prime Minister for his very generous comments about the two Labour colleagues whom we have lost since we last met. Stuart Bell was the son of a miner and a long-standing Member of this House. He was passionate about European issues and served with distinction as a Church Commissioner. His death was incredibly sudden: his illness was diagnosed just a matter of days before he died. The condolences of Labour Members and, I know, the whole House go to his family.
Malcolm Wicks was one of the deepest thinkers in this House. He was a brilliant Minister. I know from my time as the Energy Secretary what a brilliant Energy Minister he was. He faced his illness with the utmost bravery. He knew what was going to happen to him, but he carried on writing, thinking, talking and, indeed, engaging with the work of this House. My last conversation with him was just before our party conference and he talked passionately about politics, as he always did. Our condolences go to his whole family.
Today’s unemployment figures are welcome, particularly the fall in youth unemployment. I am sure that we will all agree that too many people are still looking for work. The number of people out of work for a long period—over a year—remains stubbornly high. Will the Prime Minister tell us why he believes that the fall this quarter in unemployment is not yet being matched by the figures for long-term unemployment?
First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about those who have fallen, the brave police officers and the colleagues that we in the House have lost.
The unemployment figures are a good piece of news that should be properly welcomed and looked at, because a number of different things are happening: employment is up by 212,000 this quarter; unemployment is down by 50,000 this quarter; the claimant count has actually fallen by 4,000; and what that means is that since the election some 170,000 fewer people are on out-of-work benefits. What is remarkable about the figures is that they show that there are more women in work than at any time in our history and that the overall level of employment is now above where it was before the crash in 2008. We still have huge economic challenges to meet, we are in a global race, and we need to make a whole set of reforms in our country to education and welfare and to help grow the private sector, but this is positive news today.
Long-term unemployment is still too high. That is partly because of the big increase in unemployment at the time of the crash. We need to do more to deal with long-term unemployment. That is why the Work programme has helped 693,000 people already. We are prepared to spend up to £14,000 on an individual long-term unemployed person to get them back into work. We do have the measures in place to tackle this scourge.
Notwithstanding that, unemployment, youth unemployment, long-term unemployment and long-term youth unemployment are all higher than when the Prime Minister came to office. I do not think that he can attribute the issue with long-term youth unemployment to the crash that happened four years ago, because it has been rising steadily over the past year or 18 months, and it remains a big concern. The number of people out of work for more than a year is continuing to rise. Does he agree that the longer young people remain out of work, the greater the damage not just now, but to their long-term prospects and to our economy?
Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right. The longer that people are out of work, the worse it is for them and for our economy. That is why we have the youth contract and the Work programme, which is the biggest back-to-work programme since the war. He mentions the problem of long-term unemployment. I just remind him that in the last two years of the Labour Government, long-term unemployment almost doubled. We should hear about that before we get a lecture. On helping young people, it is noticeable that under this Government, 900,000 people have started apprenticeships. We are backing apprenticeship schemes and reforming our schools and welfare system, so that it pays for people to get jobs.
We face enormous economic challenges in this country. Nobody doubts that. We have to rebalance our economy because the state sector was too big and the private sector was too small. Since the election, there have been 1 million new private sector jobs, which more than make up for the inevitable loss of jobs in the state sector. We have a huge amount more to do, but reform welfare, reform our schools, boost our private sector, and Britain can be a winner in the global race.
On long-term unemployment, I just say to the Prime Minister that there are more people out of work for longer than at any time for two decades. That is happening on his watch.
I want to turn to one group in particular who are losing their jobs directly as a result of the Government’s policy. A year ago, the Prime Minister told me at the Dispatch Box:
“There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line officers.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 335.]
Will he tell the House how many front-line police officers have lost their jobs since the election?
The percentage of police officers on front-line duties has gone up. That is the key. Frankly, whoever won the last election would have had to reduce police budgets. Labour was committed to reducing police budgets and we had to reduce police budgets. We have been able to increase the percentage because we have cut the paperwork and taken difficult decisions about pay and allowances. What is remarkable is that while the percentage of officers on the front line is up, crime is down.
I had really hoped that, just for once, we would get a straight answer to a straight question. All the Prime Minister needs to do—Government Members will like this—is to take a leaf out of the police Minister’s book, because on Monday he told the House the truth. He said that there are 6,778 fewer front-line police officers than when they came to power. Why not just admit—[Interruption.] I do not think that the part-time Chancellor is going to help, but perhaps he is taking over the Home Office. This is another promise broken.
The Government are not just breaking their promises; it is their conduct as well. This is what the Mayor of London said—[Interruption.]
Order. It will just take longer to get in the Back Benchers who wish to participate, as opposed to shouting and screaming in a juvenile fashion, because I will have to extend the session. The Leader of the Opposition will be heard and the Prime Minister will be heard. That is the end of it.
This is what the Mayor of London, the Prime Minister’s new best mate, said last year at the Conservative party conference:
“I reckon we need to…make it clear that if people swear at the police then they must expect to be arrested.”—[Interruption.]
The Chief Whip from a sedentary position says that he did not. Maybe he will tell us what he actually did say, which he has failed to do.
Yet according to the official police report,
“a man claiming to be the Chief Whip”
called the police “plebs”, told them they should know their place and used other abusive language. Can the Prime Minister now tell us: did the Chief Whip use those words?
What the Chief Whip did and what the Chief Whip said were wrong. I am absolutely clear about that, and I have been clear throughout. That is why it is important that the Chief Whip apologised. That apology has been accepted by the officer—[Interruption.]
What the Chief Whip did and said was wrong, and that is why it is important that he apologised, and apologised properly. That apology has been accepted by the officer concerned, and it has been accepted by the head of the Metropolitan police. That is why this Government will get on with the big issues of helping Britain compete and succeed in the world.
No straight answers on police numbers, and no straight answers on the Chief Whip. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Wales says that we need real issues, but I think abusing police officers is a real issue. Just because a police officer has better manners than the Chief Whip, it does not mean that the Chief Whip should keep his job.
If a yob in a city centre on a Saturday night abused a police officer, ranting and raving, the chances are that they would be arrested and placed in the back of a police van, and rightly so. The Prime Minister would be the first in the queue to say that it was right. But while it is a night in the cell for the yobs, it is a night at the Carlton club for the Chief Whip. Is that not the clearest case there could be of total double standards?
This apology has been accepted by the police officer, and it has been accepted by the head of the Metropolitan police. It is clearly not going to be accepted by the Leader of the Opposition, who does not want to talk about what we need to do in this country to get our deficit down because he has got no plans. He does not want to talk about how we build on our record in employment, because he has got no plans. He does not want to talk about how we reform welfare, because he is opposed to welfare caps. That is the truth—he wants to discuss these issues because he has nothing serious to say about the country.
Here is the most extraordinary thing: the Government say that I practise class war, and they go around calling people plebs. Can you believe it? I have to say, it is good to see the Cabinet in their place supporting the Chief Whip in public, but from the newspapers, what are they saying in private? That he is “completely undermined” and that his position is untenable. In other words, he’s toast. That is the reality. Here is the truth about this Government: while everybody else loses their jobs, the Chief Whip keeps his. If you are a millionaire you get a tax cut, if you are everybody else you get a tax rise. [Interruption.]
Now we know that the right hon. Gentleman wrote those questions yesterday, before unemployment fell. Because he obviously was not listening earlier, let me remind him that employment is up by 212,000—that is a success. Unemployment is down 50,000 this quarter—that is a success. The claimant count is down 4,000—that is a success. Typical! He comes to this House and he has written out his clever political questions, but he does not care what is really happening in our economy.
Over two weeks ago, April Jones, a five-year-old little girl, was abducted when playing with her friends in Machynlleth in my constituency, a very quiet, always well-behaved town. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the truly amazing way in which the people of Machynlleth, the Dyfed-Powys police and the mountain rescue teams have come together and committed to the ongoing search for April?
I will certainly join my hon. Friend in doing that. I think the whole country has not only been shocked by these appalling events, but that frankly it has been lifted and incredibly impressed by the response of the community in Machynlleth, and everything that everybody has done to help the police and the emergency services. We have seen a whole community come together, not just in grief but in action to help this family, and it is a huge credit to everyone involved.
We have encouraged people to switch, which is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. I can announce, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome, that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers—something that Labour did not do in 13 years, even though the Leader of the Labour party could have done it because he had the job.
My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that the answer is yes, we are committed to retaining an independent nuclear deterrent based on the Trident missile system. That is why we have continued with the programme to replace the Vanguard class submarines, including placing initial design contracts with BAE Systems.
That is indeed an excellent answer. Given that a part-time nuclear deterrent would be dangerously destabilising, will the Prime Minister confirm that the British Trident successor submarines must and will operate on the basis of continuous at-sea deterrence?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. One of the key elements of the credibility of our deterrent has been that it is continuously at sea, and the Royal Navy takes immense pride in having been able to deliver that without a break over so many years. I have met some of the crews and visited some of the submarines. What they do is incredibly impressive and I pay tribute to them for the service that they provide. Yes, being continuously at sea is a key part of our deterrent.
Q5. In a parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) yesterday, the Government said: “we remain very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels”—[Official Report, 15 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 74W.]who are killing, maiming and raping in eastern Congo. Why then did the Government Chief Whip authorise the payment of £16 million of British taxpayers’ money to Rwanda, as his parting shot on his last day as International Development Secretary? (122164)
First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman happy birthday for yesterday? He was seen celebrating it, and I would like to join in that— [Interruption.] I am sorry I was not invited.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I am clear: Rwanda has been, and continues to be, a success story of a country that has gone from genocide and disaster to being a role model for development and lifting people out of poverty in Africa. I am proud of the fact that the last Government, and this Government, have continued to invest in that success. But I am equally clear that we should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.
Q6. Today, unemployment figures show a reduction of 62,000 in the number of 16 to 24-year-olds who were out of work in the three months to August, and that employment is now at its highest level since records began in 1971. I am sure the Prime Minister will want to commend this Government’s economic policies to the whole House, rather than having more borrowing and spending from the Opposition. (122165)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. What we need is a rebalancing of the economy. We need growth in our private sector, and it is notable that we have a million new private sector jobs since the last election. That has more than made up for the job losses in the public sector. There is more we need to do to tackle youth and long-term unemployment, but today’s figures should be welcomed.
Q8. The House agrees that negative campaigning deliberately designed to scare vulnerable people demeans politics. A campaign to “Save Our Hospital” when the hospital is not closing is possibly the worst example that I have ever seen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Labour’s campaign in Corby and east Northamptonshire is an absolute disgrace? (122167)
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Labour MP after Labour MP is trooping up to Corby and claiming that the hospital is not safe when they know that that it is simply not true. The local newspaper is now backing up the fact that the hospital is being invested in by this Government, because unlike the party opposite—[Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) is over there on the Opposition Benches. You know what? He is going to stay there for a very, very long time. The reason he will stay there is the reason why this country is in a mess—it is because of the borrowing, the spending and the debt that he delivered. His answer is more borrowing, more spending and more debt, so he should get himself comfortable.
Q9. Why will the Prime Minister not—[Interruption.] I am over here. Why will the Prime Minister not publish all the texts, e-mails and other forms of correspondence between himself and his office and Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and News International, so that we can judge whether they are relevant? Is it because they are too salacious and embarrassing for the Prime Minister? [Interruption.] I would not smile if I was him; when the truth comes out, he will not be smiling. Or will he not publish the correspondence because there is one rule for him and another for the rest of us? (122168)
Mr Speaker, before answering this question, I would like hon. Members to recall that the hon. Gentleman stood up in the House and read out a whole lot of Leveson information that was under embargo and that he was not meant to read out, much of which about me turned out to be untrue, and he has never apologised. Do you know what? Until he apologises, I am not going to answer his questions—[Interruption.]
Q10. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Employment levels in Wales have increased by 40,000 in the last quarter, not least because of the contribution of self-employment. Will the Prime Minister therefore join me in welcoming the extension of the new enterprise allowance, which has already resulted in the creation of more than 8,000 new businesses? (122169)
I will certainly join my hon. Friend in that. This is an important announcement, because the new enterprise allowance gives people who become unemployed the chance to set up their own business and enterprise. Under the current rules, people must wait three months before being able to access that programme, but under our plans, they will be able to access it from day one of becoming unemployed. I want to see many more new businesses started up in our country to build on the record of last year, when more businesses were established in Britain than in any year in our recent history.
Q11. When in opposition, the Prime Minister said:“all too often, when you put the questions to the Minister, the answer is pretty much a ‘not me guv’ shrug of the shoulders…There is a serious accountability problem with our political system.”Which of his Cabinet Ministers will take responsibility for the fiasco of the west coast main line? (122170)
Returning to the Trident issue, has the Prime Minister looked at the severe cost pressures facing defence at the very moment the Trident replacement has to be paid for? Joint strike fighter airplanes, Type 26 frigates, unmanned aircraft and Army vehicles all need paying for at much the same time. This has to come out of the defence budget, and austerity will be with us for some time yet, so will he keep an open mind about how exactly to replace our nuclear deterrent?
All the things that my hon. Friend lists are programmes that are fully funded and will be properly invested in, because, as he well knows—because he played a major role in it—the Government have sorted out the defence budget. Having carefully considered the issue of the nuclear deterrent, I do not believe that we would save money by adopting an alternative nuclear deterrent posture. Also, if we are to have a nuclear deterrent, it makes sense to ensure we have something that is credible and believable; otherwise there is no point in having one at all.
Q12. There are record levels of support for the British Union. The Prime Minister will know that according to a recent poll only 7% of the populace of Northern Ireland want a united Ireland, and that only rises to 32% in 20 years, if the question is asked then. Does he agree that, following the agreement he signed up to this week to ensure that a single, decisive question is asked on the Scottish and British Union, it is now up to him and the House to unite in a campaign to maintain, sustain and support the Union, and keep MacNeil and Wishart with us forever? (122171)
I am delighted to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question in the most positive way I can. I am pleased that we have reached an agreement with the Scottish Government to have a single, simple question in a referendum that must be held before the end of 2014, so that we can put beyond doubt the future of the United Kingdom. I hope that everyone will vote to keep the UK together. I know that it will have cross-party support, and I hope that politicians of all parties will agree to share platforms. I have always wanted to share a platform with Ian Paisley. Maybe I will get my chance.
Recently, a lap-dancing club in Ampthill, a rural market town in my constituency, has been granted a licence. The one thing that residents of Mid Bedfordshire have learned is that it does not matter whether it is a Wembley-sized incinerator or a lap-dancing club in a beautiful market town, the wishes of local people have absolutely no weight in planning law. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time we amended planning law, so that, when catastrophic applications come forward that blight the environment people live in and which greatly distress them, their views and voice are heard?
My hon. Friend speaks for many people about the frustration that the planning system can sometimes deliver. I would make two points about where we are making progress. First, we have changed the licensing laws to give the planners greater power to alter licences, and I believe that that can apply to the sorts of premises to which she refers. Secondly, of course, under our plans, people can write neighbourhood plans, which give far greater control to residents over the shape of their future community. I encourage her, however, to take up the specific issue with the Department for Communities and Local Government, to see whether there is more that we can do.
Q13. I thank both Front Benches for their tributes to Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, who were murdered in Greater Manchester recently. On the theme of policing, as the House has heard, the Home Office admits that nearly 7,000 front-line police personnel have now disappeared from our system. The Prime Minister promised that that would not be the case, and the public do not want it, so will he give a straightforward answer to what I think will be my last question to him in the House and give a commitment that there will be no more cuts to policing in England and Wales, whatever happens in the budgetary process? (122172)
Of course, no one wants to prejudge the wisdom of the Greater Manchester electorate, but I wish the hon. Gentleman well, if he is successful. I make to him the point that I hope the chief constable of his own force will make to him. It was made very effectively when Chief Constable Fahy of Greater Manchester police said that
“the effectiveness of policing cannot be measured by the number of officers…but by reductions in crime”.
Crime in Greater Manchester is down 12%. We need to recognise that there are difficult decisions. Frankly, the Labour party was committed to even greater cuts in police budgets than we have delivered. The key is this: can we crack down on paperwork, can we help get the police out on the beat, can we help them do the job they do and can we cut crime? The answer, in this case, is, “Yes, we can.”
Q14. May I join the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to Malcolm Wicks, whose memorial service is at Croydon minster this Friday? He was an outstanding local MP, a thoughtful, decent man and a good friend. Is not one way in which we can honour his memory to continue to improve our national health service, so that more and more people beat cancer and do not have their lives so tragically cut short? (122173)
My hon. Friend speaks for the whole House in what he says about Malcolm Wicks. I understand that he often used to drive Malcolm home to Croydon after the vote—I think Malcolm referred to his car as “the cab”. The fare apparently was a bottle of wine at Christmas time—we will make sure the Inland Revenue lays off that, but it was a very good arrangement between Members.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: one of the greatest things we can do to remember Malcolm is to ensure the continued success of the cancer drugs fund, which has helped over 20,000 people, and make sure that people can get urgent treatments, as well as urgent drugs.
The Secretary of State for Education said this weekend that if there were a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU, he would vote to leave. A third of the Cabinet agree with him. How would the Prime Minister vote?
As I said, I do not want an in/out referendum, because I am not happy with our leaving the European Union, but I am not happy with the status quo either. I think what the vast majority of this country wants is a new settlement with Europe and then that settlement being put to fresh consent. That is what will be going in our manifesto, and I think it will get a ringing endorsement from the British people.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is this. The IMF report out this week shows that the structural deficit in 2007, at the height of the boom, was 5% of our GDP, or £73 billion. The shadow Chancellor said there was no structural deficit. I think this really demonstrates just how little Labour has learnt. We have talked about our plans for the British economy—how we are going to help it compete and succeed. We know Labour’s plans for this weekend: to go on a giant march with its trade union paymasters. That is how the Leader of the Opposition is going to be spending his weekend—on the most lucrative sponsored walk in history.
Points of Order
Order. I am sorry, but before the hon. Gentleman proceeds with his point of order, may I ask Members who are—perhaps unaccountably—leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, affording the same courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that they would wish to be extended to them under comparable circumstances?
Thank you, as always, Mr Speaker. You will remember the long campaign, successfully waged three years ago, to change the law so that the home addresses of Members of Parliament would never be disclosed as a result of freedom of information requests. A number of colleagues from both sides of the House have approached me about a freedom of information request that those colleagues who, unlike me, rent their homes should have their landlords’ names disclosed. There is concern that this could breach the security of MPs’ home addresses. Can you tell us what action you propose to take in this matter?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I well remember the events of three years ago and more, in which he was closely involved. I note the point of order that he has raised. He will be aware that we do not discuss security matters on the Floor of the House. That said, I am very conscious of this current issue, to which he has drawn attention. It might be helpful to him and the House to know that I share some of the very real concerns that have been expressed across the House by Members, and I wrote—in, I hope, courteous but explicit terms—on this matter yesterday to the chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If Members wish to see my letter, they are most welcome to do so; a copy might usefully be placed in the Library of the House. I will keep my eye on the situation on behalf of Members.
It is entirely up to Ministers how they respond to the questions posed. I understand the concern and frustration that underlies the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, but the responsibilities and powers of the Chair are not engaged in the matter. The House can make its own assessment, and everyone else can do so as well.
Relationship, Drug and Alcohol Education (Curriculum)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision to include relationship, drug and alcohol education in the national curriculum; and for connected purposes.
Growing up today is full of wonderful opportunities and freedoms for our young people, but it is also probably the most challenging time ever to be a young person faced with questions such as, “My mates are drinking; should I drink and, if so, how much?”, “What are legal highs, and are they safe just because they are legal?” and “What does a healthy relationship look like?”
Like many hon. Members, I believe that the role of education involves much more than simply teaching a limited range of academic subjects. It has a powerful role in preparing and equipping young people for life by giving them the knowledge and skills to deal with the complexities of living in a modern, fast-changing world. We need to recognise that, along with support from parents and families, schools have a vital part to play in producing confident, well-informed young people.
I am pleased to bring forward this Bill, with its focus on relationship, drug and alcohol education, as I believe that these are key areas for all our young people growing up. We can show that well-planned, coherent and effective education programmes on drugs, alcohol and relationships can work. There is evidence that specific programmes can have a measurable impact on young people’s behaviour, in regard to the use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. Programmes such as “Relationships without fear”—a school-based intervention programme on developing healthy relationships and challenging domestic violence—can be shown to prevent domestic abuse by giving young people the knowledge, skills and advice to enable them to deal with abusive relationships.
We also know, however, that fear-based approaches that just give information without addressing the social context of drugs, for example, are not effective. Young people need the opportunity to consider, reflect on, evaluate, discuss and reach conclusions about drugs, alcohol and relationships in a safe, educational environment. We came close to making those subjects compulsory in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 under the previous Labour Government, but the Conservatives blocked the introduction of those provisions in the wash-up before the 2010 general election. When the coalition came into government, it instigated a review of personal, social and health education, but the review concluded nearly a year ago and the Government have still produced no proposals. Indeed, in the Government’s recent guidance on drugs and alcohol, they have specifically removed advice to schools about drug and alcohol education.
Why do I want to make these subjects compulsory? The main reason is to ensure that training will be made available for teachers and that resources will be allocated. For too long, many PSHE teachers have been talked into teaching this subject as an add-on to their main subject area, without having any specialist training or knowledge. We know that there is a mixed picture across the country, with some good practice and some that is not so good, but all our pupils deserve access to good quality PSHE.
The Bill would ensure that all children had access to good quality, age-appropriate education in relationships, drugs and alcohol throughout their education. Such topics would no longer be treated as trivial or as an add-on. Experts say that good quality education in this area can be achieved by one hour a week of the curriculum being devoted to the subject, and I believe that it could be incorporated in the curriculum fairly easily.
Turning to the specific issue of drugs and alcohol, we know that 60% of drugs education involves less than one hour per pupil a year. It is often of poor quality, incomplete or, at worst, totally irrelevant. The charity Mentor has reported that some 16-year-olds are getting the same lessons as 11-year-olds. In the week that the UK Drug Policy Commission published its report after six years of research, one of the key recommendations made was the need for prevention work through good drugs education in schools, best delivered through evidence-based life skills programmes.
I want to mention particularly the need for education about new drugs—often known as legal highs or club drugs. Twenty-eight new legal highs were identified in the first five months of 2012. How many hon. Members would know what to say if they were asked about “meow meow” and how it affects people? Most people do not know about club drugs and their effects, or, more importantly, their effects if taken with alcohol.
Yesterday morning, I attended the launch of the Angelus Foundation’s “Find out” campaign. The Angelus Foundation was set up after the death of Hester Stewart, who took a legal high, GBL. The foundation’s aim is to raise awareness of the risks of using legal highs and club drugs, working alongside the Amy Winehouse Foundation. In a poll conducted by the Angelus Foundation, it was found that 45% of 16 to 24-year-olds admitted to having been offered legal highs and 67% did not feel well informed about the risks, while 86% of parents lacked the knowledge to warn their children about legal highs.
At yesterday’s launch, Maryon Stewart, the founder of the Angelus Foundation, and Mitch Winehouse both spoke passionately of the need for our schools to educate our young people about drugs and legal highs, and particularly about the new drugs and the club drugs. Families and parents do not have the information to give to young people, while young people themselves are desperate to know more. A year 8 pupil, when asked what he would like to be taught about drugs, told Mentor, “Everything,” as “barely anything is taught.”
As for alcohol, an Ofsted report of 2010 said that students’ knowledge about its social and physical effects was rudimentary in about half of the secondary schools Ofsted had visited, yet the Government’s own alcohol strategy refers to the importance of teaching PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education—to help them in their aim to reduce alcohol consumption amongst young people. It is worrying to note that in the new, revised science national curriculum, all reference to alcohol, drugs and tobacco has been removed.
Finally, on relationship education, the only compulsory education our young people receive in terms of sex and relationships is currently within the science curriculum, and it relates to reproduction, anatomy and the spread of infections. For many years, parents have asked for relationship education to be included alongside the science. A recent mumsnet poll showed that 90% of respondents want relationships and sex education made compulsory in secondary schools. Some schools have provided very good relationships education, working together with parents. The best example I have seen was in a Roman Catholic primary school in inner London, teaching children about healthy relationships, building up children’s confidence and self-esteem in an age-appropriate way.
Just to challenge the myths, let me say that we know high-quality sex and relationships education does not encourage young people to become sexually active. We know through international research that good relationships education will delay the age at which a young person starts a sexual relationship. Particularly importantly, in the light of the horrific stories we have heard in recent weeks of children being abused in the Jimmy Savile scandal, we know that SRE can equip children and young people with the language and skills to understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and relationships, to be able to resist pressure and to know who to talk to and how to access help and support when they need it.
I also want to refer to the shocking statistic from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that one in three young women in a relationship have suffered abuse. We need to instil confidence in our young people, and especially young women, about what a healthy relationship looks like. The End Violence Against Women Coalition has launched the excellent campaign “schoolsafe4girls”. It recognises that harassment and abuse of women and girls is widespread and that schools have a unique and critical role to play in addressing harmful attitudes and abusive behaviour. The coalition is calling for schools, parents, students and the Government to work together to ensure that all girls are safe.
This Bill has cross-party support and support from many leading charities and organisations, including Brook, the Family Planning Association, Adfam, the Angelus Foundation, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Mentor, Alchol Concern, Turning Point and many others. Those organisations recognise the importance to society of educating our young people, which can have a huge impact in preventing social problems from developing.
I am pleased to see that the new Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is present. I am sure that she will take particular account of the fact that although we cannot protect young people from every danger, we can equip them better at school and tilt the odds in their favour.
This is a sensible Bill. It is evidence-based, and I believe that it will have a real, positive effect on young people’s lives and on society in general.
Question put and agreed to.
That Diana Johnson, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Chris Bryant, Barbara Keeley, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Kate Green, Andrew Percy, Annette Brooke, Lyn Brown and Nic Dakin present the Bill.
Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November and to be printed (Bill 73).
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.
New Clause 8
Tribunal procedure: miscellaneous
‘(1) The Employment Tribunals Act 1996 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 9 (pre-hearing reviews and preliminary matters), in subsection (2) (deposit orders), in paragraph (a)—
(a) omit “, if he wishes to continue to participate in those proceedings,”;
(b) after “an amount not exceeding £1,000” insert “as a condition of—
(i) continuing to participate in those proceedings, or
(ii) pursuing any specified allegations or arguments”.
(3) In section 13A (payments in respect of preparation time)—
(a) in subsection (3), after “shall also” insert “, subject to subsection (4),”;
(b) after subsection (3) insert—
“(4) Subsection (3) does not require the regulations to include provision to prevent an employment tribunal from making—
(a) an order of the kind mentioned in subsection (1), and
(b) an award of the kind mentioned in section 13(1)(a) that is limited to witnesses’ expenses.”
(4) In section 42 (interpretation), in subsection (1), after the definition of “employment tribunal procedure regulations” insert—
““representative” shall be construed in accordance with section 6(1) (in Part 1) or section 29(1) (in Part 2),”.’.—(Jo Swinson.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 1—Removal of requirement for protected disclosures to be made in good faith—
‘The Employment Rights Act 1996 is amended as follows:
‘(1) Omit “in good faith”—
(a) in section 43C (Disclosures qualifying for protection), in subsection (1),
(b) in section 43E (Disclosure to Minister of the Crown), in paragraph (b), and
(c) in section 43F (Disclosure to prescribed person), in subsection (1)(a).
(2) Omit “makes the disclosure in good faith,
(a) in section 43G (Disclosure in other cases), in subsection (1), and
(b) in section 43H (Disclosure of exceptionally serious failure), in subsection (1).’.
New clause 2—Duty on employers to prevent detriment caused by others to workers who have made protected disclosures—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall make regulations requiring an employer, where a worker has made a protected disclosure under section 43A of the Employment Rights Act 1996, to take reasonable steps to ensure that the worker is not subjected to any detriment by any act, or any deliberate failure to act, by a person other than his employer done on the ground that worker has made the disclosure.
(2) Regulations under this section—
(a) are to be made by statutory instrument, and
(b) are not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’.
Amendment 80, in clause 7, page 4, line 13, at end insert—
‘(1) Prior to the commencement of this section, the Secretary of State shall carry out an impact assessment into the effect of the introduction of proposed fees for the employment tribunal system and the impact this will have on the effectiveness of ACAS conciliation proceedings.’.
Government amendments 6 and 7.
Amendment 51, page 5, line 43, at end insert—
‘(e) preventing an employer or ex-employer of a prospective Claimant from applying for costs against the prospective Claimant under the Employment Tribunal Rules or other measures to provide an incentive to employers or ex-employers to take part in the conciliation process.’.
Amendment 52, in clause 11, page 7, line 27, after (2) insert
‘With the consent of the parties but not otherwise.’.
Amendment 53, page 7, leave out lines 29 to 38.
Amendment 54, page 8, leave out lines 1 to 10.
Amendment 81, leave out clause 12.
Government amendments 8 to 10.
Amendment 82, leave out clause 13.
Government amendments 11 to 13.
Amendment 70, in clause 13, page 9, leave out line 15.
Government amendment 14.
Amendment 71, page 9, line 32, leave out
‘in whatever way the Secretary of State thinks fit’
‘by the Secretary of State following consultation with the TUC and CBI’.
Government amendment 15.
Amendment 58, leave out clause 14.
Amendment 59, in clause 14, page 10, line 11, at end insert—
‘(c) and where the employer employs in excess of 10 employees at the time of the claim first being submitted to ACAS as per section 18A of this Act,’.
Amendment 92, page 10, line 14, at end insert—
‘(1A) The Secretary of State shall by regulations provide for an employer to pay a penalty to the Secretary of State for each period of time (as specified in those regulations) that passes during which an award of compensation under Part X of the Employment Rights Act 1996 has not yet been paid by the employer.’.
Amendment 72, page 10, line 17, leave out from ‘£5,000’ until end of line 4 on page 11.
Amendment 83, page 10, leave out lines 20 to 25.
Amendment 73, page 11, line 47, after ‘Fund’, insert
‘to be spent with the objective of promoting awareness of employment rights and promoting training for employment.’.
Amendment 94, in clause 15, page 12, line 4, leave out from ‘(protection),’ to end of line 5, and insert ‘after subsection (2), insert—
‘(2A) The disclosure of information relating to a private contractual matter to which the person making the disclosure is party is not a qualifying disclosure unless the worker making the disclosure reasonably believes it to be made in the public interest.”.’.
Government amendments 16, 17 and 31.
Amendment 57, in schedule 2, page 65, line 22, leave out ‘one month’ and insert ‘six months’.
New clause 8 will introduce sensible changes to the employment tribunal rules of procedure recommended by Mr Justice Underhill. I shall say more about the effect of those changes shortly. A number of other new clauses and amendments have been tabled both by the Government and by other Members, and I shall attempt to address them—as well as new clause 8—as comprehensively but as succinctly as possible. As Members will know, part 2 was subjected to thorough scrutiny by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and his Committee colleagues, and all the clauses were accepted unamended.
Contrary to some of the views expressed in Committee, these measures do nothing to affect an individual’s employment rights. Instead, they deliver on the Government’s commitment to giving businesses more confidence to take on new staff and grow. We know that employment tribunals are a continuing cause of concern for businesses and, indeed, employees, and I should be surprised if Opposition Front-Benchers tried to argue that all is working swimmingly at present. The measures in part 2 are designed to alleviate the fears and problems by encouraging the earliest possible resolution of disputes, facilitating settlement agreements to help businesses to manage their staff more effectively, and ensuring that the tribunal system itself operates efficiently for all users.
Will the Minister give way?
I will in due course, but I want to make a bit of progress first.
I welcome this opportunity to set out the changes that we have proposed and respond to those made by others, continuing the work of my predecessor to bring reform to the employment tribunal system. Let me begin by explaining the amendments that we are making through new clause 8, which will amend existing provisions in the Employment Tribunals Act 1996.
Following his fundamental review of the rules of procedure for employment tribunals, Mr Justice Underhill made a number of recommendations about how the rules might be improved. In some instances, he felt that the primary legislation would need to be amended before desirable changes in the procedural rules could be made. These changes will help to achieve more effective and targeted case management which will benefit all tribunal users.
The first change involves deposit orders. Tribunals can currently require a party to pay a deposit of up to £1,000 as a condition of continuing to proceed with a weak claim. However, a judge cannot currently use a deposit order to weed out the weak elements of a particular claim, and must instead attach a deposit order to the entire claim as a condition of proceeding. That lack of flexibility does not aid effective case management. Enabling judges to make better-targeted deposit orders will give both parties a clear sense of where they should focus their efforts, encouraging a more realistic approach to settlement, and I believe that it will also lead to greater use of such orders.
The second change relates to the recoverability of witness expenses for people who choose to represent themselves at tribunals and seek a preparation time order in respect of their work on the case. An oddity in the current costs regime places people who represent themselves at tribunals at a disadvantage, as a tribunal cannot make a costs order for witness expenses and a preparation time order in respect of the same party. We are amending the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 to remove that unnecessary restriction.
The final change deals with the recoverability of lay representatives’ costs. Mr Justice Underhill considered that those who chose to be represented by a non-lawyer, and who had paid for that service and advice, should not be put at a disadvantage when a tribunal concluded that the other party’s conduct meant that a costs order was warranted. I agree that those who choose to engage lay representatives rather than lawyers should not be disadvantaged when it comes to the award of costs, and I intend to use the existing powers in section 13 of the Employment Tribunals Act to change the rules of procedure in order to allow for such costs orders. The new clause helps to clarify the scope of section 13 by introducing a definition of the word “representative”.
Let me now deal with new clauses 1 and 2, tabled by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), which amend clause 15. Along with the organisation Public Concern at Work, she has been a powerful advocate on this subject, and we discussed it recently during a Westminster Hall debate that she had initiated.
I think we can all agree that, in an ideal world, legislation for whistleblowing would not be needed at all. In such a world, all employers would be open and receptive when an issue was raised, and would not seek to silence or drive out a person who brought important matters to their attention. However, as we know, such enlightened approaches to whistleblowing are not universal, so legal protection is required. We are equally keen to ensure that the protection offered by the public interest disclosure legislation is not abused by those who seek to rely on it for purely self-interested reasons. Clause 15, which has already been debated in Committee, will ensure that the whistleblowing provisions cannot be used to advance purely personal interests.
New clause 1 addresses a different aspect of the public interest disclosure legislation. It proposes the removal of the good faith test, which has been in place since the legislation was introduced. That would mean that individual whistleblowers would retain the benefit of employment protection even if their reasons for blowing the whistle were malicious, if they deliberately set out to cause commercial damage, or if they acted out of a desire for personal revenge.
There is clearly a balance to be struck. We are conscious of the recommendations of Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into the tragic circumstances of the Shipman case. She suggested that the good faith test be removed to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward. We also recognise that the motivations of whistleblowers are not always clear-cut. Personal feelings, particularly when a relationship has broken down, sometimes make it difficult to understand the intentions of the person who is making a disclosure. Having said that, I should add that, as we have already made clear, we believe that the legislation is working well overall, and that the good faith test serves an important purpose.
We are also keen to avoid making a change that could allow individuals access to an uncapped award when their motives for blowing the whistle were malicious, and I therefore do not believe that there is a clear-cut case for removing the good faith test. However, I recognise that the hon. Lady has raised an important issue relating to this specific element of the public interest disclosure regime, and we will continue to look closely at the policy aims of the test to ensure that they are still being achieved.
Does the Minister agree that there is much more scope for whistleblowing in this country, given the number of whistleblowers in America and the incentives that they are given to come forward? Does she agree that there may be more work for the Government to do in future months?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is a positive thing that we have an environment where people, rightly, feel able to come forward and blow the whistle. The legislation that was enacted was important and is generally working well. We are proposing small changes to it in this Bill, but it is absolutely important. For the reasons that I outlined, that legal protection is necessary and we should be proud of the fact that we have such legislation.
The second proposal by the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran, new clause 2, seeks to put in place a remedy for a whistleblower who has suffered some sort of detriment, even where that has not been directly caused by the employer. As it stands, the wording of the new clause suggests that an employer could be responsible for the actions of any person who has caused detriment to a whistleblower, including people who have no connection to the employer. Yesterday, we discussed the vicarious liability provisions in the Equality Act 2010 that are being repealed through this Bill, and the reasoning that causes us to consider those unnecessary applies to this provision, too. It would therefore be inconsistent to make these changes to the public interest disclosure regime. As the hon. Lady knows, we had a good discussion on this matter in the Westminster Hall debate.
It is important to note that a whistleblower does have protection and remedy in those circumstances. First, where the employer incites or encourages co-workers to engage in harassment it is likely that they will be liable, even if they do not carry out that activity themselves. Secondly, employers have a duty of care to their workers to provide a workplace that is one of trust and confidence, and that is safe. Thirdly, where the abuse is particularly grave or oppressive the employer can be found to be vicariously liable under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
Finally, the law already provides a level of protection for those who argue that their employer has acted to destroy the relationship of mutual trust and confidence. In such cases, an employee could bring a claim for constructive dismissal. Taken as a whole, the Government believe that those protections strike the right balance in protecting whistleblowers without imposing unreasonable and unworkable demands on employers.
Let me now deal with the amendments to clause 7. The early conciliation regime that we are introducing will require prospective claimants to transmit details of their claim to ACAS in the prescribed manner. Where information is missing from an early conciliation form submitted by a prospective claimant, we think that there may be merit in allowing ACAS to obtain the relevant details via the telephone. Our amendments 6 and 7 therefore propose the replacement of the words “send” and “sending” with “provide” and “providing” to give the flexibility needed to implement the best process for all parties. They are minor amendments and have no other effect on the early conciliation process debated in Committee, of which Opposition Members were supportive.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He rightly says that we want that process to be a success, and enabling the technology of the telephone to be used in it is a helpful, albeit minor, amendment.
Opposition Members have tabled a number of amendments on the early conciliation process. Amendment 80 seeks to require the Secretary of State to consult on, and undertake an assessment of, the impact of the introduction of fee charging in employment tribunals on the effectiveness of early conciliation before commencing these provisions. Hon. Members will know that the power to charge fees in tribunals is one that already existed; we announced our intention to introduce fees in employment tribunals in January 2011, and subsequently consulted on the appropriate charging points and fee levels in December 2011.
We recognise that the introduction of fees to bring an employment tribunal claim may affect the behaviours of both claimants and respondents, and that there may therefore be an impact on how parties elect to engage with early conciliation. We considered the possible impact as part of the assessment that accompanied the announcement in November 2011 of our intention to introduce early conciliation—copies are in the Library of the House. As part of the implementation planning, we will publish further impact assessments. The proposed amendment would simply require us to replicate work that we have already done and will continue to do, so I am unable to support it. The amendment is unnecessary, but I can give the assurance that we are, of course, continuing to take into account the impact that our approach will have.
As the hon. Gentleman will find if he checks Hansard, I have just said that we recognise that our approach could have an impact; it may affect the behaviours of both claimants and respondents. We have already published an impact assessment, but we will keep this matter under review. Of course, if at a future point a further change is necessary as a result, we will come back with it. The Bill does not need to provide for that consultation process, given that it is already ongoing.
We also need to address the question of ACAS’s capacity to deal with the extra cases—no matter how the process is run, their number will increase. Is there not an implication in terms of extra resources, for ACAS to deal with what could be an extra 100,000 cases a year?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which highlights the crucial role of ACAS in this area. My predecessor gave reassurances in Committee, but I say again that ACAS will be adequately resourced. It is absolutely essential that that is the case in order to deliver early conciliation. Indeed, I remind hon. Members that in his evidence to the Committee, the chair of ACAS, Ed Sweeney, said that he was confident that the Government would make sure that ACAS will be adequately resourced. I am glad to be able to give that reassurance to the House.
Amendment 51 would add a power to make regulations which would prevent an employer from seeking costs against an employee at tribunal, or to take any other measures that would incentivise employers to take part in the conciliation process. Amendment 57 would have the effect of providing those individuals bringing claims under a particular Act, whose limitation period would otherwise expire during the period of early conciliation or within one month of the conciliation process ending, with an additional six months in which to lodge their claim with the tribunal.
I recognise the intent behind the amendments tabled by Opposition Members; they clearly share our belief that resolving disputes is best done between the parties, rather than at an employment tribunal—as, I believe, do those involved in the process. There has been broad support for the introduction of early conciliation, both in the House and from employers and employees, who recognise the benefits that it offers. It is the benefits—savings in time and cost, and in the considerable stress of the tribunal process—that will encourage parties to engage in conciliation, rather than a change in the rules to prevent respondents from seeking a costs order.
The rules on costs orders are clear: costs may be ordered by a tribunal where a party has acted vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably in bringing or conducting proceedings. However, it is rare that parties act in such a manner; the vast majority of cases are where there is a genuine disagreement between the parties, which is why only 1,311 of these awards were made in 2011-12.
Do the Government recognise that the reason behind the amendments is the concern that many hon. Members have that the Government’s plans will reduce access to justice?
I do recognise that there is genuine concern, particularly in respect of the new fee regime. It is important that a remission regime is in place as well; it is important to point that out. However, the amendments would provide protection for people who are behaving in a vexatious and abusive manner. No matter which side of the dispute that occurs on, we should not be encouraging it. Where a claimant is behaving unreasonably—this is at the discretion of the tribunal—it would be inappropriate for employers to be prevented from seeking a costs order if the tribunal considers that the claimant’s behaviour justifies such an order.
If the Minister accepts that there are serious concerns about the introduction of fees and its impact on access to justice, why does she not look at the case management powers in the interlocutory stage of case proceedings and perhaps expand deposit powers to act as a disincentive for vexatious claimants? That would not have an impact on access to justice as her Government’s proposals are having.
A range of measures in the Bill will help to improve access to justice. Of course, the most important thing is to make sure that fewer people end up going to employment tribunals in the first place. [Interruption.] I have just discussed the measures on early conciliation, which is a much better way of resolving disputes. We also have measures on rapid resolution, which I will come on to deal with and which have been discussed in Committee. Those are the ways of ensuring that people are able to get the best resolution to their disputes. Obviously there will still be a role for employment tribunals and there will be cases that, for whatever reason, cannot be managed through those other, better options for resolving them. In imposing a fee, there will still be access to justice through the remission regime for those who are otherwise unable to afford it.
My amendment 51 seeks to prevent employers from applying for costs and using the provisions as an incentive to take part in conciliation. Is the Minister saying that such a power already exists in law and that she does not feel it should be codified? Or is she simply opposed to codifying it?
As far as I am aware—I am sure that inspiration will reach me if this is not the case—tribunals already have the power to impose costs, but the amendment would seek to limit the circumstances. Where proceedings have been brought or conducted in a vexatious, abusive, disruptive or otherwise unreasonable manner, it is important that the tribunal route retains the discretion to award costs. That happens in a tiny number of cases, because even when a case reaches tribunal most people engage with it in a spirit of genuine concern and with a genuine problem, but there will be some cases in which a relationship is vexatious or in which someone seeks to settle scores. If that is the case, it is appropriate for costs to be ordered in such a way.
Let me turn now to amendment 57, the proposal to amend the period for lodging a claim from one to six months for those whose limitation period would otherwise expire during the early conciliation period or within one month of the early conciliation process ending. The amendment would affect only a small number of individuals: those whose claim was brought under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and who had sent their claim to ACAS towards the very end of the limitation period.
We want all claimants to have the confidence to engage meaningfully in early conciliation without the fear of running out of time to bring a claim. That is why we have provided for all claimants to have a minimum of a month following the end of the early conciliation period in which to lodge a claim, regardless of its nature. It is difficult to see why individuals should require longer than a month to prepare and submit the necessary form to the tribunal, bearing in mind that they will already have gone through the early conciliation process and have been considering the matter for some time, and it is even more difficult to see why such a lengthy extension should apply to such a narrow range of claims. We want all people to be able to engage in early conciliation and to have the confidence to do so and, if it does not work, to pursue other options. I am therefore unable to support amendments 80, 51 and 57.
Opposition Members have proposed three amendments to clause 11, amendments 52, 53 and 54, which relate to the composition of the Employment Appeal Tribunal. As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), explained in Committee when a similar amendment was voted down, we believe it is right that when the issue under consideration is related solely to a point of law the matter should ordinarily be heard by a judge sitting alone. That is always the case in the EAT, of course. However, when the judge considers that there is merit in sitting with a panel, they will be able to do that, and the Lord Chancellor can also order it for specific proceedings. I am therefore unable to support the proposed amendments.
Government amendments 8, 9 and 10, to clause 12, provide for confidentiality of negotiations before the termination of employment. Since the introduction of the clause in Committee, my Department has sought and received feedback from a number of key stakeholders. Some, including the Employment Lawyers Association and some business representative groups, told us that the original wording of subsection (1), which stated that employment tribunals should not take account of offers of settlement in their deliberations, could be open to misconception and misunderstanding. Although the Government believe that the original drafting of the clause would have the desired effect—namely putting an offer of settlement outside the deliberations of the employment tribunal in unfair dismissal cases—we wish to allay those fears and are amending the drafting of subsection (1) for the purposes of clarity and the avoidance of doubt. Subsection (5) is rendered unnecessary by that redrafting, so amendment 10 is a consequential amendment to remove it. In the proposed amended clause, just as in the original, employment tribunals will remain able to consider an offer of settlement in claims being brought on other grounds.
Amendment 9 does nothing more than reflect the difference in terminology between tribunals in Scotland, where the term “expenses” is used in employment tribunal proceedings, and those in England and Wales, where the term “costs” is used. Clause 12 was debated at some length in Committee—I have no doubt that Opposition Members have fond memories of that—and none of the amendments changes the purpose or effect of the clause, which were accepted then.
Opposition amendment 81 would remove clause 12 in its entirety. It is worth going back to consider the original aim of the clause. It is aimed at helping employers and employees come to a consensual end to employment relationships that are just not working out by facilitating the use of settlement agreements. A settlement agreement offers potential benefits to employers and employees, including a much quicker resolution than that offered by the tribunal, where the average time taken to resolve a claim is 24 weeks. Employers have the security that they will not face a tribunal case that would distract them and other workers from their business activities, and employees end up with the certainty of a cash payment, avoid the time and stress of tribunal, and leave with their head held high and possibly a reference. We want to encourage more businesses and individuals to consider the use of settlement agreements as a viable and potentially preferable means of parting ways than an emotionally draining performance management or misconduct route or a costly and stressful employment tribunal.
The removal of clause 12 would maintain the current legislative regime. Some might say that is no problem, as settlement agreements will continue to be used by some businesses, but it would demonstrate that we are not listening to what businesses say about what they want and need to increase their confidence to take on new staff. We have heard many times through formal and informal consultation that finding ways to make it easier to end employment relationships that are not working out would remove the fear factor of hiring. The removal of clause 12 would mean that, although we have been given a practical example of a measure that would support business and support growth, we have chosen not to take it. As a Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it is my role to support growth, not hinder it.
It is intriguing, given the experience of Opposition Front Benchers as employment lawyers. It is worth bearing in mind that compromise agreements already exist and existed for 13 years under the previous Government. They have a lot of merit, but tend to be used by large firms in particular—large firms, which can afford to employ expensive employment lawyers. Small and medium-sized companies often feel very afraid of taking on such conversations and that is what we are seeking to address.
I recognise that there are concerns about how the clause might work in practice and what safeguards there may be for individuals, many of which my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, addressed in some detail in Committee. I strongly believe that in clause 12 we have found the right balance between protecting individuals and giving employers the flexibility and confidence they need to manage their businesses effectively. It is about balance. The settlement agreements measure provides a mutually beneficial solution for employers and employees as regards ending the employment relationship. Let us be clear that this is not, as some have suggested—and as Opposition Members have been suggesting from a sedentary position—the first step to no-fault dismissal or Beecroft-lite. We have made it abundantly clear that we will not go down that path.
I will give way shortly.
We believe our approach to settlement agreements is a more effective way of dealing with workplace problems, as it offers a positive outcome for all parties. Settlement agreements are by definition voluntary and consensual. Individuals will still need to get independent legal advice before signing an agreement and can decline it if they want to do so. That approach has the benefit that an agreed settlement gives an employer surety that they will not face a tribunal case on any grounds covered by the settlement agreement, which a no-fault dismissal regime would not provide. Employees are at liberty to reject an offer when it is not right for them and our approach does not remove an employer’s obligations not to discriminate or prevent an individual from bringing other evidence to support a case of unfair dismissal.
Earlier, the Minister mentioned the possibility of no-fault dismissal. That is exactly what the Opposition are suggesting. It will be illegal to quote protected conversations later, so no-fault dismissal by the back door will be introduced. What mechanism will she use to monitor the workings of this clause so that that does not happen?
I cannot make it clear enough that this is not no-fault dismissal. The proposals in the Beecroft report would have removed at a stroke the employment rights of 30 million individuals, whereas what we propose is a voluntary and mutually beneficial process that will end the employment relationship only if the employee agrees to it. That is entirely different. The suggestions that are being made are not founded in fact. The hon. Gentleman says that we should consider how things proceed, and compromise agreements have been on the statute book for some time.
I will finish answering this intervention and take the intervention from the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, and then I will be happy to take an intervention from the hon. Lady.
Over the past year—at least over several months—the Government have considered how the process could be improved and have come forward with our proposals. The consultation on exactly how the agreements should take place is running and is open until 23 November. The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead is free to input his views and I encourage him to do so. Just as we have considered the current scheme, I am sure that if the scheme is found not to work in future years, any Government would be happy to reconsider it.
I do not think so. Clearly it is important that the conversation is conducted in a mature and respectful way, and the guidance, on which we are consulting and which will include things such as guideline letters and templates, is expressly designed to make that easier for employers. The problem the hon. Gentleman raises is precisely the opposite of what the proposals will address, because now, where protected conversations can happen if there is a dispute, that creates a perverse incentive to employers to try to manufacture a dispute. Hopefully, the proposed measures will make it much easier for people to have that conversation without having to pretend that there is a dispute where none exists.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—eventually. I fear that this is another example of poor legislation from this Government. As I understand it, the provisions regarding protected conversations will not apply in certain conditions, including where an employer is deemed to have behaved in an improper way, yet there is no definition of “improper” in legislation. Will the hon. Lady comment on that?
While I have the chance, I will make the intervention I wanted to make earlier. We know from the OECD that the UK is one of the most lightly regulated countries in the world, next to the United States and Canada. Exactly what evidence does the Minister have to draw on that the measures will improve growth?
The hon. Lady is being slightly uncharitable in saying that I gave way “eventually”. I took her intervention immediately on finishing my response to her hon. Friends. My approach is to take interventions because the function of Report stage is to ensure that amendments receive proper scrutiny, and I am determined to make sure that hon. Members can have those discussions and receive reassurances where there are concerns.
On the question about settlement agreements and the protections that remain, obviously the agreements should not be used in a way that results in an employee feeling under pressure or that they have to take the agreement. If there is any bullying behaviour or suggestion of discrimination, of course there would be no protection for that conversation. The hon. Lady asks about the definition of “improper”. The consultation on that is under way, and I encourage her to make her views known to it. In general terms, our aim is to reflect, without prejudice, unambiguous impropriety, which would include cases of discrimination and bullying, where there would be no protection for the employer.
The Minister is being very generous. Does she accept that, under the proposed arrangement, the conversation could come out of the blue for employees, with no warning that their performance may not be up to the standard or that they may not be performing in the manner that the employer requires; and that that will itself generate massive insecurity among the UK work force, which will serve to undermine growth, not aid it? No one will feel confident in buying a car or even a fridge if they think that the next day, out of the blue, they might have a conversation about their performance and be offered a settlement agreement which they feel they have no choice but to accept.
I recognise that the hon. Lady is genuine in raising her concern, but I think it is misplaced. Employees will not be forced to accept a settlement agreement; it is purely voluntary. She says the conversation will come out of the blue, but clearly we want employers to behave responsibly, with good employment relations and good human resource management. As I mentioned, we are taking steps to produce guidance to make it easier for employers to act in a proper way. The risk that an employee will go into work and their manager will say that they have issues with some aspect of the employee’s performance exists now. Employers and employees having confidence that they can have these conversations at an early point is better than their fearing the conversations, which allows problems to fester and grow.
The Minister talks about encouraging good and positive behaviour, but I am concerned that the measure encourages precisely the opposite sort of behaviour—that it will encourage an employer to approach an employee for the very first time about their performance with an offer to terminate their employment, rather than help them to improve it. There can be no doubt that there is inequality of arms in that conversation for a vulnerable individual who may be facing unemployment. Has the Minister properly considered that?
It has properly been considered. It is important to repeat that the protection is for conversations relating to a settlement agreement. A settlement agreement, by definition, is a negotiation, so it is unlikely to be a case of take it or leave it. The measure is about starting that conversation and enabling people to say, “We think this is an issue. Is this working out?” I think that enabling employers and employees to have those conversations without the fear described by many within the business community will improve management and not lead to the consequences the hon. Lady fears.
I understand what the Minister is saying but I think a little honesty here would be helpful. If an employee behaves badly, they can be sacked. If a business is in trouble, an employee can be made redundant. It is no-fault dismissal by the back door when the conversation and what she describes as a negotiation, with such an imbalance of arms, means that contractual terms of redundancy can be diminished by an offered settlement to go with no fault. That is what this is really about.
I do not appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s implication. The provision is about making sure that those conversations can take place. Legal advice will have to be sought and given to the employee at that point, before any agreement is reached. Guidance will be given—as I said, we are consulting on that. We are building on and improving the existing procedure for compromise agreements, which have worked well in many cases. We are taking a provision that has been in employment law for many years and improving it.
We are hearing a load of bluster and rubbish from Opposition Members. This is a balanced measure that puts a bit more power in the hands of those who will create new jobs in this country. The shadow Minister was an employment lawyer; every member of the Opposition Front-Bench team was a business owner. They are being hypocrites about the clause.
The Minister has indeed been incredibly generous about giving way. For the record, Mr Speaker, I think it is of assistance to have a range of experience in this House. We have lawyers and many business owners in the shadow BIS team and we speak with the benefit of professional experience.
Does the Minister not acknowledge that employers can have these conversations with employees, as long as they follow fair procedures? That is all we are asking for.
The procedures are far more likely to be used by large companies, and many business people, particularly those in small and medium-sized enterprises, fear to take them up. That was borne out by much of our consultation, both formal and informal. I do not know whether Opposition Members genuinely believe that there is no concern among business about tribunals and employment law—
The Minister knows full well that, for example, we welcomed the setting up of the Underhill review, because we acknowledge that there are issues, but it is really a question of degree. Of course we have to take into account the concerns of business, but our job as politicians is to take into account the concerns of society as a whole and to balance the different interests, and that is what she has got wrong.
I agree that the job of politicians is to balance those interests, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not have the right balance. As hon. Members have pointed out, very different proposals emerged from some quarters, but the Government have said firmly that we will not go ahead with the no-fault dismissal plans that were put forward. That shows that we are taking a balanced approach.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. She has talked a lot about fear. It may well be the case that some businesses fear an employment tribunal, but what about evidence? My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) asked where the evidence was for the view that the measure would aid economic growth and the creation of jobs. I, for one, have yet to see any evidence. I hear only rhetorical references to fear.
I encourage the hon. Lady to speak to employers in her constituency about the issue, which is raised frequently. As to evidence of employers’ fears of employment tribunals, let us look at the previous Government’s record in office. The fear of employment tribunals can put people off employing staff. If people are more likely to employ staff, they are more likely to grow their businesses and create wealth for this country. But let us look at the record of the Opposition. In 1998 there were 90,000 claims going to employment tribunals. By 2010, despite the measures that the Labour Government apparently took to try to improve that situation, the figure was 236,000—a huge jump in the number of tribunals, which of course has created a concern for businesses.
I would be interested to hear the Minister’s analysis of how many of those employment tribunal cases were equal pay claims that were rightly going through the tribunal system. On the evidence, or the apparent lack of evidence, about the genuine fear of employment tribunals, I wonder whether the hon. Lady is in fact making a case for better business support, rather than legislating to make it easier to sack people, which seems a little counter-productive to growth.
May I offer my hon. Friend some reassurance that she is charting a middle course? She has heard the concerns of the lawyers on the Opposition Benches who, instead of recognising that our business leaders are going out every day to do the best they can for their employees, assume that they need to be corralled and controlled. There are Members of the House who would like to see the Minister go further in her measures in the Bill to make it easier for business leaders to hire more people so that the current recession becomes a job-filled rather than a jobless recession.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. Let us nail once and for all the myth about employment tribunal claims. The Government used this as the supposed evidence for changing a range of workers’ rights. The massive increase in employment tribunal claims arises from multiple claims, which have risen substantially, but the individual number of multiple claims has stayed exactly the same for the past three or four years. Indeed, employment tribunal claims are dropping.
The fact remains that there is a massive backlog of employment tribunal claims, there are massive problems with the way the system is working, and there is significant concern in the business community, which has been expressed in the House and in Committee. I shall move on to the other amendments before allowing other Members to have their say.
Government amendments 11 to 15 to clause 13 will ensure that the power in the Bill to amend the unfair dismissal cap cannot be used to introduce a cap based on an individual’s pay without there also being a specified upper limit. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) raised a concern in Committee that, as it stands, the power in clause 13 could be used to introduce a pay-based cap with no upper limit. Clearly, such a step would increase potential compensation for the very highly paid and could thereby increase risks and uncertainty for employers. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk who is now the Minister of State, Department of Health, made clear at the time, this is not the Government’s intention. On the contrary, we are seeking to give employers greater confidence in dealing with disputes and to ensure greater realism about the level of awards in order to encourage settlement.
We launched a consultation on proposals to change the cap on compensation for unfair dismissal on 14 September, alongside our consultation on settlement agreements. The consultation includes looking at the overall level of the cap and also the option of introducing a pay-based cap alongside a specified upper limit. We therefore seek to make these amendments to ensure that the power in clause 13 reflects the Government’s policy intentions.
Opposition Members have proposed three amendments to this clause, the first of which, amendment 82, would delete the clause in its entirety. It has been a matter of common agreement for many years that the compensatory award should be subject to an upper limit. What that limit should be is the issue in question. This clause recognises the agreement that exists about the need for an upper limit, but provides a power for the Secretary of State to vary that limit subject to specific considerations. As I have said, we are consulting on what the appropriate limit should be. I am therefore unable to accept the amendment.
Amendment 70, tabled by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), seeks to remove the upper limit of three times median salary. The effect of this would be to allow the cap to be set at any amount. This would clearly run counter to the objectives that I set out a moment ago of greater confidence for business and greater realism for claimants. The hon. Gentleman tabled a further amendment to the clause, amendment 71, which would require the Secretary of State to consult the TUC and the CBI before deciding on a figure for median annual earnings where the figure published by the Statistics Board is more than two years old. I cannot envisage a situation in which such information would not be produced by the ONS in any two-year period but, should such an eventuality ever arise, the Secretary of State will be under a duty to act reasonably and rely upon relevant information. The Secretary of State and other Ministers meet the TUC and CBI regularly to discuss a range of matters, so there is little to be gained from placing a requirement to consult the TUC and the CBI on the face of the Bill. I am therefore unable to support either of the hon. Gentleman’s amendments.
I turn now to the amendments to clause 14 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). Amendment 58 would delete clause 14 in its entirety. Amendment 59 seeks to restrict the imposition of a financial penalty to those businesses employing more than 10 people—that is, to exempt micro-businesses. I want to make it clear, as did my predecessor in Committee, that the introduction of this discretionary power for tribunals is not intended to penalise employers indiscriminately. It will be used only when an employer has breached an individual’s employment rights, and when that breach has been accompanied by aggravating features—for example, where there has been a deliberate decision to act in a way that breaches the employee’s rights, or where the same employer repeatedly acts in an unlawful manner.
When we first proposed the introduction of financial penalties, we had thought to make the imposition of the penalty automatic when there was a finding in favour of the claimant, but we listened to the concerns expressed by business during the resolving workplace disputes consultation last year and revised our proposals to give the tribunal discretion to decide when a penalty was appropriate. Good employers—those who try to do right by their employees—have nothing to fear, regardless of their size. A genuine mistake will not be grounds for the imposition of a penalty. However, those businesses which the tribunal considers have acted deliberately or maliciously will rightly, I believe, face the prospect of a financial penalty. They will no longer be able to gain a competitive advantage over businesses that abide by their obligations.
I cannot stand here and defend bad employers. I recognise the good work that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford has done to support the interests of small businesses, and I am sure he does not want to defend bad employers either. I hope he will not press his amendments, as the Government are unable to support them.
Of course I do not wish to defend bad employers but as the Minister knows, almost all employers are good employers who do the right thing. Will she address the general principle, which is not so much about the points that she mentioned? Why are the Government trying to get in on the financial action? This is about money that will go to the Government. It is nothing to do with the relationship between the employer and the employee. The money will not go to the employee. Why is it so important that the Government get their take?