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Employment Rights

Volume 567: debated on Thursday 12 September 2013

I beg to move,

That this House has considered employment rights.

Hitherto, discussion of the impact of austerity has focused largely on public services being cut, benefits being slashed, jobs being lost, insecurity becoming rampant, and wages falling—they are now, in real terms, 9% below the 2007 level. However, another process has been going on during this time which is equally relentless and callous but which has not been accorded the attention it deserves. Remedying that is part of the purpose of today’s debate. I refer, of course, to the continuing vicious attack on employment rights.

No, I do not have time because of the two ministerial statements and the overrunning of the previous debate. A lot of other people wish to speak, and I want to be fair to them.

Because this attack has been pursued piecemeal and gradually across a wide spectrum of employment law, its cumulative impact has been concealed, but collectively it amounts to something very substantial. Workers with less than two years’ service in their current job have already lost the right to go to a tribunal over unfair dismissal. Very recently, fees of up to £1,200 have been introduced for anyone who wants to make an application to an employment tribunal. Then there are the heartless cuts—drastic cuts of £1,500 to £2,000—in compensation for the innocent victims of crime in occupations that deal directly with the public.

Now the Government have plans for a further range of attacks on employment rights. Proposals for reducing consultation rights over redundancies are well advanced. The Government want to introduce so-called settlement agreements to make it easier for employers to pressure or bully workers they want to get rid of into resigning. Compensation for unfair dismissal is to be limited. Even though there has been widespread opposition, and only lukewarm support even from business, the Government have still pushed ahead with introducing a new employment status of employee shareholder so that employers can buy out the rights to unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy pay, time to train, and the right to request to work flexibly. The Government want to reduce the protection that TUPE offers to workers who have their job transferred to another business. In addition, leading Tories, including the Mayor of London, are making noises about attacking trade union facility time, increasing thresholds for strike ballots—to levels, I might say, that no politician would dream of allowing with regard to their own election—and making statutory trade union recognition even more difficult.

This sledgehammer—I do not think that is an exaggerated word, because cumulatively it amounts to that—attack delivered piece by piece to weaken the whole range of employment rights is clearly designed to overturn the social settlement after 1945 and return Britain to workplace conditions similar to those operating in the 1920s and ’30s when employers flaunted overwhelming market power. The attack on the Agricultural Wages Board has already removed the last vestige of the wages safety net, which was originally erected by Winston Churchill, and the removal of strict liability from health and safety law means that in future injury victims will have to prove negligence even when their employers have brazenly broken the law.

The one area of employment law that the Tories have not been able to touch has been those rights provided for by the European Union: paid holidays, health and safety, equal treatment for part-time workers and women, protection when a business is sold off and a voice at work. They are all valuable rights. By repatriating those rights—I think this is a big part of the motive of current Tory Euroscepticism—the Government will make it easier for bad employers to undercut good ones, which was, of course, the reason why Winston Churchill favoured wages boards in the first place; to drive down wages; and to make people who already work some of the longest hours in Europe work even longer hours.

I am extremely reluctant to give way. I will give way to the hon. Lady, because I respect her, but I will not give way again so as to be fair to everyone who wants to speak.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I just want to make the point that repatriating powers from Brussels is not a back-route attempt to do down the rights of workers; it merely reflects the fact that this Chamber is more than capable of deciding the right rights for workers, and they may be more, not less generous than those determined in Brussels.

I think the hon. Lady is being a little disingenuous. The truth is that Conservative Governments in the past have continually whittled away at employment rights. I am not very proud of some of the record of previous Labour Governments, either, but the one body that has ensured that the rights that are so important to so many people are put in place is the much abused EU.

The policies I have mentioned are unjust and harsh, but the point is that if we want to bring about a dynamic and successful economy—as I think everyone does—this is the last way to do it. A low-wage, low-skill, low-morale, low-productivity economy is not the right way to proceed.

This litany of measures—I will not call them reforms, because they are anti-reforms—have several other dimensions. One of the most glaring is the class basis of all this: grinding down the pay and terms and conditions of the most vulnerable and poorest people at the bottom, while at the same time endlessly amplifying the excessive remuneration and bonuses at the top—greed at the pinnacle, repression at the base.

Bankers who wrecked the economy are seeing their bonuses increase this year to, I think, more than £6 billion, while ordinary workers are experiencing the longest fall in real wages in this country since the 1870s, with four out of every five new jobs created since 2008 being low paid and often insecure and short term. Such is the state of inequality today that the directors of the biggest companies are now paid—or, rather, pay themselves—more than £60,000 a week, while the national minimum wage is just £200 a week. The Resolution Foundation estimates that 4.8 million workers—one in six of the total work force—are not even paid that: they are paid, illicitly, below the national minimum wage.

On top of that, we now have a blizzard of zero-hours contracts. A very large number of people—at least 1 million, although I do not know what the truth is and I do not think that anyone else does, either; some put the figure as high as 5 million—have no fixed income or fixed hours by which to plan their lives. The epidemic of agency work, which was used to increase the casualisation of labour and to undermine security, may have largely been quelled as the result of a lot of pressure, particularly from the unions, but we now have a situation in which rogue employers—there are many good employers—have alighted on bogus self-employment and the mandatory Work programme, alongside increasing the normalisation of zero-hours contracts, as the latest artifice to pay workers less and to weaken their terms and conditions.

Let me describe the situation for Members, because we in this House do not experience it. The abuse of zero hours and agency work is devastating. It means that people run out of money during the month and that borrowing from payday lenders is routine. It means that people have to look for additional employment, if that is allowed by their first employer. It means high levels of anxiety. People have no savings or contingency money and no access to credit. There are penalties for workers who try to rent accommodation, sanctions if a worker tries to speak out and contracts that imprison workers on zero hours with the same employer, often for more than three years.

Zero-hours contracts are not a small matter; they have spread right across the economy into police services, social care, manufacturing, hospitality, the charitable sector and elsewhere. When profits have never been so high and when the ultra-rich and corporate elite in this country have never had it so good, this is a despicable demeaning of the working conditions of a large section of the work force, which some people—I am not saying that I would use this phrase—understandably describe as a modern form of wage slavery.

Another alarming and dangerous aspect of weakened employment conditions that is becoming more widespread is the impact on health and safety. In the building industry, false self-employment through the device of payroll companies not only costs taxpayers £1.9 billion a year in lost revenue, of which £1.2 billion comes from employers avoiding national insurance contributions, but has serious implications for site safety. Sites that use false self-employment often have a higher accident rate because they usually do not have independent safety representatives. They also have a higher turnover of staff, meaning that safety measures are often lost, are not heard or are fragmented. The fact that falsely self-employed workers can be fired without warning means that they are far less likely to raise safety concerns. That explains why, over the past eight years, more than 55 construction workers a year on average have been killed just doing their ordinary work.

Similar conditions apply on the railways. Network Rail uses more than 500 contractors and labour-only suppliers. Less than 10% of its workers are engaged on permanent contracts. The Office of Rail Regulation has stated, rather delicately, that it is

“mindful of the considerable risks that can arise from safety critical staff working for more than one employer”.

That is a hopeless understatement. The practice is clearly dangerous. We should not tolerate such fragmentation of employment being used to cut corners when it puts human lives at risk.

In conclusion, Britain will not be a civilised place to work until all workers are paid at least the living wage; free access to justice for aggrieved workers is fully restored; bogus self-employment is ended; health and safety regulations are independently enforced in all dangerous occupations; zero-hours contracts and agency work are strictly regulated, if not eliminated, to ensure that important and necessary working rights are not sacrificed; all workers who have been blacklisted—a practice which recently came to light—are fully compensated and a public inquiry held to ensure that it never happens again; wages councils are reintroduced because, as Winston Churchill understood, they are the only effective way to protect the very poorest; and, finally—because I do not just want to eliminate the negatives—a positive platform is established for employment rights through a partnership between management and the unions in the running of companies. That concept, which this House should encourage, has long been the mark of some of the most successful companies abroad, including in Germany. This Government, like other Governments of the past, have an appalling record on employment rights. Until that is fully reversed, we will not earn our right to be called a civilised nation.

Order. There is a seven-minute time limit on Back Bench contributions. It may be necessary to revise that time limit down, depending on how we proceed.

When the occupant of the Chair stands, Members are supposed to sit. Now that I have finished speaking I will sit down, the hon. Gentleman can stand up and I will call him.

I must apologise for my lack of co-ordination in sitting down and standing up, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will endeavour to correct that in future.

I listened carefully to the speech by the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and wondered if he was living in the Britain of Benjamin Disraeli’s book “Sybil”, or the United States of “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. It is not the Britain I recognise today. Historically, I agree and accept that in the industrial revolution and beyond—I include his point about the 1920s—there was large-scale exploitation of workers by organised capital and its management. I know that that sounds a bit Marxist for Conservative Member, but I accept that that happened. Today, however, thanks very much to trade unions and, I might say, the endeavours of the Labour party in the past, there is now a situation where the rights of organised labour, and labour that is not organised, have reached an equilibrium with the rights of capital and management. I accept that right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will disagree with that.

I am very pleased to say that the days of images of employers sitting in their brown leather chairs in gentlemen’s clubs in Pall Mall sacking workers at will, and the images of people driving up and hiring those who are desperate for employment for a day or two days, have long gone. Workers have won their rights the hard way and I would oppose any attempt to take them away. However, it is my contention that while low pay is a significant problem and I would never make light of it, and while poverty is a significant problem and I would never make light of it, the balance today is very different.

The argument that private sector employment spends its time trying to get around the labour laws by coming up with devices, such as zero-hours contracts and casual labour, is not only misleading but insulting to the many businesses, small and large, in my constituency that are expanding. They are taking on labour and apprentices—whoever they can—because they have confidence in the economy and in their employees. Employees are a very expensive commodity for employers, because of training and the time it takes for recruitment, and employing people is not done lightly. It is not something that employers do just because they think, “Well, I’ll try it for a few weeks and then if it doesn’t work I’ll fire them and make them get on with something else.” Life today is not like that. I can say that, having been an employer most of my life. In our current position we are all employers, albeit on a small scale.

In one business, I started with two employees, of which I was one. When I left, the business was responsible for 2,000 employees in seven countries, but I cannot claim full credit for that since the purchase of the company, when there were 600 employees. I therefore have some experience of being an employer, and of seeing different regimes in different countries. I am absolutely appalled by the exploitation of labour, in whatever country it may be, by those who employ people on wages that are not living wages. Whatever the law is, I believe that a morality applies: employers should not employ the labour if they cannot afford it.

In the limited time available, I would like to say a few words about zero-hours contracts. It is very easy to criticise them, without really understanding what they are. The general public might think, from reading newspapers, that these contracts are like the casual labour of old. Actually, they are not. This may sound like a GCSE question, but are they about modern employment flexibility or old-fashioned exploitation? It is clear from his speech that the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton feels that these contracts are very much like industrial revolution-type exploitation of labour.

It is certainly true that there are some abuses of these zero-hours contracts, and that should not be tolerated. I am delighted that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—I am pleased to see in her place the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—is conducting a full inquiry into zero-hours contracts, and we all very much look forward to hearing its findings.

My proposal is that many companies in all types of industry use zero-hours contracts responsibly. They provide work, for example, to parents who have different needs for child care and to students, and they provide opportunities for people to join the work force in a flexible manner, perhaps while they study or carry out other commitments. Companies that use these contracts responsibly offer full training, paid holiday and all the other things that people in normal employment receive—and so they should, both legally and morally. They do not ask people simply to be on call at all times or prevent them from knowing how much they are going to earn.

Let me cite McDonald’s as an example. Here I must disclose an interest in that my younger son has been working for the company over the summer. Interestingly, McDonald’s employs 92,000 people in 1,200 restaurants. Many Opposition Members sneer at this kind of work; they call it “McD work” and there are many other clichés that go with it. McDonald’s, however, takes a pride in the employment it offers and in the training it gives people. During the application procedure, it asks how many hours people want to work, and it organises its shift systems accordingly. I ask all hon. Members not to view zero-hours contracts in completely black-and-white terms; I think there is a place for them.

To finish, let me explain that during my employment career, I did a lot of business in Spain and a lot in the UK. I regret to have to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that in Spain, where youth unemployment stands at more than 53%, much of the problem stems from the fear of employers knowing that if they recruit people but things do not work out, they will be left with a terrible liability. They are not employing people and not giving people a chance because of the type of laws that certain Opposition Members would have us embrace in this country.

The latest unemployment statistics in Beverley and Holderness are 3.3%—considerably down from the general election—and we have one of the highest apprenticeship rates in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only way we will be able to get the living wage and above as the norm for everyone is by improving our skills? Is that not what the Government are trying to do by strengthening the quality of apprenticeships, some of which lasted for just six weeks when the Labour party was in power?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a very good point.

To conclude, the future for labour and recruitment will, in my opinion, come about by making labour as flexible as possible. Employers do not want to hire and fire people; they want to invest in people and train them. I commend the Government for putting in resources to help them do that. This old idea of a perpetual battle between labour and capital, and between management and working people, makes me wonder which century some people are living in. It is not like that in the real world. The last thing that the 1,400 businesses that employ between two and nine people in my Watford constituency are thinking about is how to recruit people as cheaply as possible in order to exploit them. Taking people on is a huge thing; businesses want to give them good and well-paid jobs. They do not want to take away any moral rights, let alone legal rights, that they have.

It is time for us politicians to give credit to those who employ people. They are not the enemy. Being able to employ people is a great privilege in life, while waking up in the morning and thinking how responsible we are for so many people’s livings is a big responsibility and burden. It is even more of a burden than the one that we politicians bear. I do not think that the situation is black and white. I do not take these matters lightly, but the fact is that, in the modern age, there must be a balance that enables workers to choose where to be employed and enables employers to plan their businesses with good, well-qualified labour. Employees should not have to pretend that they are stuck there for life, or that their employers are stuck with them for life if things do not work out.

I do not disagree with the views of the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) about the need for an element of balance in relationships at work, and the need to secure long-term employment. I think that those are our overall objectives: we want to create a productive industrial relations climate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) was right to end his speech by referring to the need to engage with workers and involve them in their firms’ plans.

Let me give four brief examples of abuses in parts of industry that we need to address in the House. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union is currently involved in a dispute at the Hovis company in Wigan. Hovis has been taken over by Premier Foods, and there have been a great many layoffs. The union has negotiated as best it can in order to secure the long-term future of the company, as well as what is best for its members who are being laid off, but there have been abuses, one of which seems to be occurring in other parts of industry as well.

Hovis in Wigan started to take on workers who were paid less and had less favourable conditions than the existing workers, and also to use zero-hours contracts. That led to a strike. A negotiation took place and the union thought that the dispute had been resolved, but the company then started to employ agency workers. It used what is referred to as the “Swedish derogation”, which means that an agency can employ staff directly, and those staff can then work alongside others while being paid less and experiencing less favourable conditions. Members may recall that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) raised the issue in the House only a month ago, in connection with Tesco. Such practices cannot be acceptable according to anyone’s standards of decency or justice, and we need to look into the Swedish derogation and how it is being abused by some employers.

The Hovis dispute is still going on, and is becoming bitter as a result of the Government’s intransigence and its use of various different devices. The union has taken every possible opportunity to try to secure a negotiated settlement.

Let me give another example. For a number of years, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents the majority of seafarers in this country, has lobbied Government—the last one and this one—in an attempt to ensure that the national minimum wage applies to all seafarers working on ships operating out of UK ports. What has been happening is that the minimum wage has not been applied to those who are not European economic area nationals. On some ships, people working alongside British seafarers and doing the same job as them are being paid £2.25 or £2.35 an hour, which is not acceptable.

The last Government introduced some legislation and undertook a consultation, and a working party was set up. The current Government have retained that working party and have made recommendations, but companies are still paying ridiculously, appallingly low wages. We have just discovered that Condor Ferries, which sends ferries to the Channel Islands, is paying people £2.35 an hour, completely ignoring the national minimum wage legislation. No one finds that acceptable.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned railway track workers. Network Rail is now using hundreds of sub-contractors. Members may recall that track maintenance was brought in-house because of health and safety problems that resulted in some tragic accidents, including two near my constituency, one at Paddington and one at Southall. I attended the funeral of a driver who died in one of those accidents. We discovered that track workers were being employed by contractors and sub-contractors, and there was no supervision of safety whatsoever. That is the case again now, because, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, fewer than 10% of track workers are now employed directly by Network Rail.

We are finding that a new device is being used, as has been mentioned. Track workers are urged—almost browbeaten—to sign on to payroll companies, which the sub-contractors then use. Workers have to pay the payroll companies just to be paid themselves, but it is a device used by those companies to avoid tax. We need to examine the practice, both as a tax avoidance issue, which is a scandal, and because some track workers are contracted at the same time by up to 20 different contractors. They are given bits of work by each of those employers, and they are sometimes pressurised into zero-hours contracts as well. I believe that Network Rail’s overall supervision from the contractor to the sub-contractor to the worker is breaking down, posing a real risk to health and safety.

We discussed blacklisting at length during the debate on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, and also a few months ago. The blacklisting of workers continues. We have just had an example of Crossrail blacklisting a worker. There was a campaign which resulted in mass demonstrations, with hundreds of workers turning up on the site and blocking the roads around it. There was a great deal of coverage in the press, which Members may have seen. Crossrail has now settled and that worker has gone back to work.

The case demonstrates that that still happens and that blacklisted workers still find it difficult to secure compensation. Legal cases are taking place. We need to come back to the proposal of having a compensation scheme. We know from the Consulting Association, which was mentioned the other day, which companies were participants. They should be brought together to set up a voluntary compensation scheme. If they do not, we should introduce a statutory compensation scheme.

Finally, exploitation takes place nearer home as well. The Members Tea Room staff are having their contracts torn up. Some of them have been on those contracts for 20 years or so. They are told that the new contract is a re-interpretation of existing contracts. It means that their terms and conditions are being cut. We need to ensure that we protect our colleagues who work alongside us in this building, as well as others for whom we want to secure employment rights.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing the debate.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I know that employment rights are an issue for which he has fought for a long time and I appreciate some of the information that he discussed, especially in relation to Network Rail and the maritime industry. I want to explore those topics further because I support his comments.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). It is not the first time I have tended to agree with him when he has spoken in the House. Although employment rights are very important—crucial in many ways—and I will discuss them as my speech progresses, to me the most important thing that the coalition Government have achieved in the past three years is a remarkable success on the jobs front. I have only to look across the sea to see what has been happening in Europe, where France, Spain and Italy have been devastated by the numbers of people who have become unemployed, and compare that with what we have achieved in the UK through considerable effort by employers in the private sector, by Government in the public sector and by our fellow citizens.

We have employed almost 1.5 million people in the toughest recession I have ever been through. I am 56 years old. I was in business for many years before I went into politics. This is my fourth downturn and it is far and away the toughest one that the country has been through in my experience. Despite that, by working together to give so many people jobs in comparison with the rest of Europe is testimony to the enormous effort and work that so many people have done in this country. It is brilliant.

In Eastbourne, following close working between the chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the council and the training colleges, the latest figures for August show that unemployment is down to 3.9%, the lowest rate since 2009. We have seen more than 2,500 apprenticeships since I launched the 100 apprentices in 100 days campaign two and a half years ago.

My point is that this has been an appalling recession. I know so many business owners and staff who have worked so hard over the past few years to keep jobs and get through the recession. I know employers who have said to their staff that no one would get a pay rise for the next 12 months, or 24 months, including directors, so that they can get through. Other employers have said that they will take a 20% pay cut to get through. I have never known anything like it.

I compare that with previous recessions, when unemployment shot up and there was tremendous animosity between employers and employees. This time, despite what some Opposition Members say, that has not been the case. There has been an understanding, particularly in the private sector, that, “My God, if we are going to get through this we have to roll up our sleeves.” It has really worked, because we have 1.4 million new employees after such a shocking recession, and we are not out of the woods yet. I think that should be lauded to the skies. It is absolutely magnificent. I think that it has worked only because both parties have worked together.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the 1.4 million new private sector jobs. The credit for that should go to the people who displayed solidarity, because they put their immediate, personal interests behind the group interest. That is one of the reasons that so many people have stayed out of the dole queues, contrary to what all the experts and economists predicted. It is a success, and it is enormously to the credit of those people. What we need to do now is improve our skills and earn more money so that everybody can have a decent wage.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is precisely my point. It has been an exceptional example of community work between employees and employers. I should also explain that unfortunately I have hearing only in my right ear, which is why I was not sure where the intervention was coming from.

From the Liberal Democrat perspective in the coalition, the issue of employment rights is important issue because it is about fairness. Although it is incredibly important to me, as a Lib Dem, that employees have as many sensible rights as possible, I want flexibility. I recognise that the vast majority of employers are good employers, and that the vast majority of employees are hard working and dedicated. The challenge with regulation is how to make it flexible while at the same time preventing grotesque employers.

I have a good example that I have addressed to the Minister. As she knows, one of the campaigns I have been working hard on, both personally and as chair of the all-party group on Citizens Advice, relates to something I discovered in my constituency and later discovered was true nationally. Many employees, some of them very vulnerable people, go to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal or non-payment of wages. The employer might lose, but the vulnerable employee never gets any money because the employer either does not pay or deliberately forces themselves into bankruptcy so that they can start again under a different guise. I know that the Minister is looking into that, and I would be keen to have an update today on how we can strengthen the law so that the small proportion of disreputable employers are not allowed just to ignore civil cases.

Zero-hours contracts are an important issue that I have been studying. I regret to say this in a Back-Bench business debate, but I sometimes get frustrated by the element of humbug from the Labour party. The Labour Government had 13 years to address zero-hours contracts but did nothing, so I find it tiresome when vitriol is poured on us and the coalition is accused of ignoring the issue, as if the previous Government had a good record. They did not. Furthermore, more than 20,000 members of staff working for Labour councils are on zero-hours contracts. This is a challenge for both sides. My personal view is that we need much more robust research to identify the scale of the problem. I can see how unscrupulous employers are abusing zero-hours contracts, but I know from my own experience of talking to people who work in the university sector and the NHS that some of them like those contracts.

I have had meetings with the Secretary of State about this, and my personal request to the Minister is that we conduct some really robust research involving consultation with all sides, including the trade unions and employers, so that we can make an informed decision. A much more robust code of practice would certainly be helpful. However, the most important thing is that this is about jobs, and on that the coalition is delivering.

Order. I am going to reduce the time limit for Back-Bench contributions again, to six minutes. We are not making quite enough progress, and the debate will lapse at 5 o’clock.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this long overdue debate. Parliamentary protocol is such that I could not participate in the debate over the past three days, but I have observed the unedifying spectacle of the coalition Government acting out of sheer arrogance in forcing through legislation that will impinge on millions of workers. That was somewhat disappointing. It was equally unedifying to observe the pigeon carriers for the coalition Government forcing through the legislation, and refusing to answer questions about its impact on workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) asked perfectly honest questions of the pigeon carriers of the coalition Government, but it was extremely difficult to get any answers. I do not think that I have much influence with the Labour leadership, but in the unlikely event of Labour not gaining an overall majority at the next election, I sincerely hope that we can resist any temptation to go into a coalition with the Liberals, having seen what they have done this week.

Earlier this year, several colleagues and I visited Azerbaijan to talk to trade unionists there. Azerbaijan is not exactly the most democratic place in the world, but to our horror we discovered that the trade unions there enjoyed better relationships and more employment rights than we do here in the UK. Azerbaijan is a young democracy and we are the oldest, yet we are still fighting for employment rights. That, too, was somewhat disappointing.

No, I am sorry, there is not enough time.

I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on occupational safety and health, and I see the legislation that is being proposed as somewhat disappointing. Every week at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition quite rightly give recognition to our armed forces personnel, but let us put this in perspective. Last year, there were 44 tragic fatalities among our armed forces personnel in Afghanistan, but there were 49 fatalities in the UK construction industry. We rightly place an emphasis on our armed forces, but we do not pay enough attention to those people who lose their lives in the construction industry, because their deaths do not create sexy headlines.

Fatalities are not the only issue in the construction industry that we should be concerned about. There are 5,000 cases of occupational cancer every year. Mesothelioma is still a terrible issue. Asbestos is still a danger in our schools, with more than 140 teachers dying from mesothelioma in the past 10 years—not to mention the number of janitors, administrative staff and cleaners. Despite this, employment rights are still being trampled on by this coalition Government.

Much has been said about zero-hours contracts and about blacklisting—the arguments have all been rehearsed—but I want to take colleagues back to the tragic Piper Alpha incident, which happened because of the lack of safety on the oil rigs. The major oil companies had made it clear that they were not going to invite trade unions on to the oil rigs, and it was not until after Piper Alpha that the trade unions won the recognition on the oil rigs that they had fought for. It is no coincidence, notwithstanding the tragic Puma accident a couple of weeks ago, that safety standards went up when the unions got recognition on the oil rigs.

I am a great believer in manufacturing, which we need, as we cannot survive by cutting each other’s hair. This country’s manufacturing base—I am talking about this Government and the previous Government—is in such a state because manufacturing companies could decide on a whim to close a factory, or whatever it may be, and there was nothing the workers could do.

For me, there is nothing more frustrating than people coming to my surgery and saying, “I worked for a company for 25 years and I’ve just been told I’m being sacked. They are transferring my job to the Czech Republic to exploit cheap labour.” My hon. Friends and I get frustrated and angry about not being able to do anything to help those workers. The free marketeers, as they call themselves, believe that the market will deliver the jobs. It is delivering the jobs—jobs with zero-hours contracts, part-time jobs and jobs for the self-employed. It is important that we try to get a grip of the issue.

In my early days—before I came into this place and when I worked for a living—I was with Thales, a well-respected company. Last week, I was at its 125th anniversary and the Thales management went out of their way to tell people of the positive role that trade unions have played in that company, which has survived for 125 years. I suggest to those who try to paint the trade unions as demons to listen to the Thaleses of this world, because trade unions are a positive force for good.

I pay tribute to Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who highlighted examples of employer malpractice. They raise powerful issues that we need to address.

The points that I shall make will not belittle those issues, nor shall I suggest that we should not take better enforcement action on such malpractice, but I want to make the case for the Government, who for the whole of this Parliament are reviewing employment law. They are considering that framework for two big reasons, the first of which is jobs. The Government have been proven right that consideration of employment law, and they are considering other parts of the legal system as well, can lead to the creation of jobs—1.4 million, as we heard earlier. The second reason is that when we poll employers in Britain or talk to them about what is causing them issues in their business, they say that it is employment law.

Generally, employers do not want to take away workers’ rights, and often problems arise because of bureaucracy, perhaps when they want to make people redundant when the work relationship has broken down. The Government have rightly decided to consider employment law from the perspective of employers in much more detail.

Some initiatives have been referred to, such as that to make things easier if the relationship between employee and employer breaks down. It is a modest proposal on settlement agreements, which are a simplified form of compromise agreements, which developed under Labour. Employers will have two years to make a decision on a worker, which will give them the confidence to take somebody on and allow them to end a relationship if it is not working out. As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) said, an employer would not bring a relationship to an end unless there was a real problem. Employers want good workers and will look after them.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one challenge in countries such as Italy, or even France, is the fact that it is so expensive to hire new people that the economy is locked down and sclerotic? That means that it is almost impossible for young people to get a job.

My hon. Friend is right: we are the envy of most countries in terms of our employment law. The shareholder initiative has received a lot of criticism but it is just another attempt to make it easier for new, smaller, principally technical companies to take people on, give them a shareholding, maintain their fundamental rights but provide a bit of flexibility. It is not just about making things easier for employers, however, as the Government have a good track record on employees. We have introduced the commitment to flexible working and are bringing forward shared maternity and paternity leave. Labour Members talk about a high level of pay, but the Government have introduced shareholder votes for executive pay, and we are pushing forward with numbers of women on boards. We are reviewing zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage has risen under this Government. I think we can be proud.

May I take issue with my hon. Friend because he missed out the fact that we have also raised the threshold at which someone pays tax? By rising to £10,000, that threshold will make a huge difference to people on low earnings, creating an incentive to work.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a long list, and I think we can be proud. These are modest changes but they are intended to help both employer and employee.

I do not agree that unions cannot be helpful in relationships between employers and employees, and I think they play an important role, particularly in bigger companies. I believe, however, that the current tactic of the unions on the relationship between employee and employer is barking mad, and I will give two examples of that. First, a gentleman in a village in my constituency runs a big company. He outsourced some of his work, and that outsource company laid off some staff. That gentleman and his family have been harassed by a particular union for months, with people coming on coaches to invade the village and demonstrate against a decision for which he was not responsible, using a tactic that the union has imported from America.

The second example is a piece of information sent to, I think, Unite members over the past few weeks, suggesting that they see the employer as an opponent and someone with whom they should be deliberately having a fight. That is what upsets me most about the way that the unions are looking at the issue. I have attended most debates on employment law since becoming a Member of Parliament, and the fact that so many Labour Members take the view of the unions, as in the examples I have given, means that they are not taking an objective view of the importance of employment law. The shadow Minister has employed people and knows full well that these reforms are the right way forward, but for whatever reason, he is blinkered by other constraints.

In conclusion, the employment law world is changing, and changing fast. This debate on zero-hours contracts will be writ large in years to come, and there will be more part-time working, more multiple employment and working from home, and probably much more self-employment and entrepreneurship. It will be a wholly different way, and if Labour Members do not look at that trend and look five or 10 years ahead, they will fail to represent workers and those people they have often represented so well through the unions, as in the cases we heard earlier. I urge them to consider the Government’s reforms, support them and see them in the light of incremental change, rather than as a radical return to a past that possibly never existed.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling time for this important debate. It is a particular pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher), who set out many important issues, as well as other colleagues who highlighted some of the issues that I want to speak about.

The living standards crisis that people are facing is not only an issue of pay and the rising cost of goods, but of security. People now feel less secure and more pressured at work than at any time in the past 20 years, according to the latest UK skills and employment survey. Our country already has the third most liberal labour market in the OECD, but since taking office the coalition has shown real determination to undermine people’s protections at work, making it easier to fire people but not easier to hire people. In effect, they have heaped further insecurity on working people. I shall speak today about two aspects of that insecure working that I have campaigned on before and since my election to the House—the rise in the use of zero-hours contracts and the use of employment agencies.

Zero-hours employment is now widespread in many sectors of the economy, and it is especially prevalent in areas of higher unemployment, where the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers in Britain exist without knowing when the next payday might come. That is certainly the case in my constituency. People on zero-hours contracts tell me about waiting for a call or turning up to the workplace day after day, only to find there is no work, but their contracts make it difficult to find alternative employment or to claim jobseeker’s allowance. I have heard examples of people making child care arrangements or paying for transport to work and then waiting for hours before being told that they are not needed. Other people have told me that because of zero-hours contracts they are unable to get a bank overdraft, a mortgage or car finance. For those people who are getting regular work on a zero-hours contract, they know that it could end at a moment’s notice and they could be left without sick or holiday pay.

In an exchange with me over the summer, the Office for National Statistics has confirmed that later this year it will start asking about zero-hours employment in its regular surveys. Everyone recognises that its estimate of 250,000 people on such contracts is well wide of the mark. We know that people working in McDonald’s, Burger King, JD Wetherspoon, Sports Direct, Cineworld and Boots are on such contracts, as well as 307,000 workers in the care system, according to the Government’s own figures. We know that the NHS has almost 100,000 workers on zero-hours contracts, which the BMA has described as a real risk to patient safety.

I fully accept that for some people casual contracts can work, such as the students who work as lifeguards at my local swimming pool, or the retained firefighter who also works occasionally for the Co-operative Funeral Service. If casual contracts are fair, reciprocal and appropriate, they can have a place in the labour market. But there is a clear distinction between such employment and the way in which millions are now being exploited on zero-hours contracts. It is important that we draw the distinction, and there are three main practices that must stop.

The first is requiring an employee to be available for work when no work is guaranteed. The second is requiring an employee to sign an exclusive contract when no work is guaranteed, so they cannot take work elsewhere, and the third is when employees are working regular hours over a sustained period but their contract does not reflect that. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill to address the issues with zero-hours contracts, and I will set out how I hope we can give effect to changes that would protect people in such circumstances.

Given the hon. Gentleman’s views on zero-hours contracts, will he condemn the Labour councils mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who have so many employees on zero-hours contracts?

Corby borough council employs some people as lifeguards in the local swimming pool on casual contracts that are not exclusive and do not require people to attend for work or else breach the contract. Those are clearly casual employment. Any council, of whatever stripe, that uses such contracts must do so in a way that is fair and reciprocal. I urge Labour councils to give a lead in that, and they are doing so. They are looking at the care sector, for example, where insecure employment has a real impact on the quality of care, as well as on the employees, to address the issue. I applaud them for that and think that the Conservatives’ attempts to use it as a smokescreen is unhelpful in such an important debate.

I urge companies not to wait for 2015, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has promised to take clear action on this. That is why I met McDonald’s and talked about employment in its business. This week I also met the managing director of Starbucks, and I have talked to employers across my constituency and to councils about care workers. I want them to take action now, because that would be good for their reputation and for retaining a motivated, loyal and trained work force. I am pleased that companies such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons—whose human resources director will lead a review of this issue for the Opposition—are already showing that such contracts are not necessary for a successful business.

The issue of temporary workers working through employment agencies is a particular concern in Corby and east Northamptonshire. For historic reasons, we have a large proportion of jobs through employment agencies, with a disproportionately large number of agencies operating in the town. Rogue agencies that do not adhere to the basic framework of legislation to protect workers are a particular problem.

With great regret, I read recently that the Government intend to abolish the employment agency standards inspectorate, which plays an incredibly important role. I was pleased that the Minister agreed that it could undertake inspections in my constituency. It found more than 70 separate breaches of the law, and also found, working with HMRC, £100,000 owing to local workers because of minimum wage issues. My constituent, Irene Hamilton, said:

“I am so glad I never have to go to work for an agency now that I am retired…I felt that I was invisible…Don’t be sick, don’t go on holiday, no family or funeral problems are expected of agency workers. It was soul destroying.”

Her example is typical of so many people in my constituency.

There are a wide range of issues. The use of the Swedish derogation, a giant loophole that must be addressed, has been mentioned. I am working locally to implement a code of practice. We must get much better at enforcement. I have also introduced a private Member’s Bill to extend the powers of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to all sectors of the economy—not to license, necessarily, in all sectors of the economy, but to be able to enforce the law in all sectors of the economy. The abuses are widespread, and I hope to have more time on another occasion to speak about some of the issues.

Order. The last two speakers will have a time limit of five minutes each in order that we can hear the wind-ups.

I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing the debate. I want to concentrate on two examples of employment contracts that challenge employment rights. Many people who are desperate for work sign such contracts, only to find later that they have signed a document that allows the employer to opt out of the natural progression to equal employment conditions. I have been told of employment agencies using and developing ways to absorb into their contracts the list of “reset to zero” the qualifying period for equal pay and conditions. I speak, of course, of zero-hours and pay between assignments contracts.

Austerity has been the spur that some unscrupulous employers have used to introduce erosion of employment rights, as evidenced by the increasing frequency of zero-hours contracts. The zero-hours contract offers no guaranteed work. As part of the general erosion of terms and conditions of employees, employers have increasingly been turning to the likes of zero-hours contracts. Under such contracts, an individual typically undertakes to be available for work, but the employer does not undertake to provide any work, and only pays for the hours worked. The zero-hours contract is now widely used, and a survey by the industrial relations service indicates that 23% of employers now include zero-hours contracts as one of their employment options. The Office for National Statistics also found a major surge in zero-hours contracts during 2012.

Zero-hours contracts quite simply undermine employment rights. The variability of earnings throws into doubt an individual’s eligibility to claim various forms of benefit. The employment rights of those employed on zero-hours contracts pivot on whether the contract imposes “mutuality of obligation” between employer and employee. To gain such rights, it is crucial for employees to prove that the contract constitutes an employment relationship—not as easy as it sounds, but it has been successful, and it is why we see a move to find an even more flexible contract option, which offers a loophole even to avoid the commitments of zero-hours contracts. That is why we witness the growth in pay between assignments.

As we have heard, the pay between assignments contract is sometimes referred to as the Swedish derogation. Someone with experience of the Swedish derogation recently commented in HR Magazine that he was advised that

“if they ask me to go to an assignment 5 hours away from my home for minimum wage with no expenses and I refuse”,

his contract would expire and he would have to start again with no direct employment in this country. He said that indicates how bad employment rights have got in this country.

The TUC has lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission against the UK Government for failing to implement the temporary agency workers directive properly, which has led to tens of thousands of agency workers being paid less—up to £135 a week less—than permanent staff for doing the same job, despite EU rules saying that they are entitled to equal pay. The Government are yet again failing to protect British workers from exploitation.

Pay between assignments contracts can often be even worse than the much-criticised zero-hours contracts. The whole point of the 2011 agency regulations was to bring the principle of equal treatment, including equal pay for agency employees, into UK law. However, the introduction of these contracts means that many agency workers are signing away their rights to equal pay, which for most people is the most important element of the regulations. The madness here is that, compared with those on pay between assignments contracts, those on zero-hours contracts are actually better off, because they qualify for equal pay after 12 weeks—although that does not always necessarily follow.

I am proud that Labour introduced the minimum wage, one of our greatest achievements in government. In its last budget, my Inverclyde Labour council introduced the living wage. We spent most of the 19th and 20th centuries trying to build up employment rights; let us not spend the 21st century dismantling them.

I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this debate. I am a proud trade unionist—in fact, I am a member of two trade unions—so I am pleased to speak in the debate. I get angry about the myths that Government Members often cite. Listening to today’s debate, and particularly to the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), people would think that everything in the garden is absolutely rosy and what the Government are doing for employees is brilliant. That is not the world I and my constituents live in.

The economy has not experienced a double-dip recession and sluggish growth, and only just avoided a triple-dip recession, because of the UK’s employment rights, but because the Government cut spending too far and too fast, hitting business confidence and choking off growth. They do not seem to understand that removing the rights of workers only increases job insecurity, harms work force morale and productivity and lowers consumer confidence, making things worse, not better. Only 6% of small and medium-sized enterprises think that excess regulation—all regulation, not just that on employment rights—is a barrier to growth and harms their business, but there is consensus that the real problems are a depressed economy and difficulty with bank lending.

The Government are keen on international comparisons and, according to the OECD, out of the 36 richest countries, the UK has one of the lowest levels of worker protection, beaten only by America and Canada. That is not a record to be proud of. The Prime Minister has said that his proposals will make it easier to hire people, but we are not that stupid; we all know that this Government’s proposals actually make it easier to fire people. He seems to believe that, with 2.7 million unemployed, including 1 million young people, making it easier to sack people will increase growth. With reasoning like that, it is no wonder that we have never met any of the Chancellor’s growth figures.

Government Members seem to hold the view that it is difficult to sack people, but as a former trade union official who frequently had to tell members that they had no case—using the mantra, “The law is as it is, not as we’d like it to be”—I can tell them that it is already shamefully easy to dismiss workers. The Government’s change to the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims means that almost 60% of all employees under the age of 24, 1.4 million part-time workers, and 32% of all black and minority ethnic employees are not protected.

Having attempted to protect the jobs of such employees, I can attest to how easy it is for them to be sacked. Like colleagues in the House, I can tell some real horror stories, such as the senior railway manager who was accused of gross misconduct. We managed to prove that he was not guilty of any of the charges, but a month later he was given “the envelope”—the pay-off, which he had no alternative but to accept. Workers in a company in my constituency are about to be left in limbo: none of the companies involved in a TUPE transfer was prepared to take responsibility for them, leaving them with no wages, no redundancy payment and unable to claim benefit. I could go on. There is a theme: power remains firmly in the hands of the employer. Our employment protection is already weak and is being weakened further.

Government Members have made various other suggestions to weaken employment protection, including removing small firms from legislation. As about 44% of private sector employment is in SMEs, that would create a second-class citizen at work and make it harder for small firms to recruit good staff.

There have been rumblings about equality legislation, but as the Fawcett Society stated:

“Cutting red tape can all too easily mean scaling back on equality. Many of the regulations being revised—such as protections from unfair dismissal—have been vital in shoring up women's security in the workplace.”

Good employers are not frightened by trade unions and employment rights. The best employers welcome trade unions as partners and have higher than minimum standards of employment rights, but on a zero-hours contract people cannot get a mortgage, buy a car, buy a new fridge or even feed their children. Good employment practice is good for the economy. It promotes confidence and growth. The Government should be promoting good practice, not smashing basic rights.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his speech, which was compelling. He made a wonderful contribution. He was right to talk about the Government taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights and to raise the issue of the low-wage, low-skill and low-productivity economy that the Government seem to want to create.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Government’s approach to employment rights. However, it is not the first time we have done so in the House and it will not be the last. Month after month, I and my colleagues have stood in this Chamber and in Committee rooms in the House to oppose policy after policy from this Government, who are seeking to remove the rights of people at work. The list is extensive. I will give just a few examples to highlight where we are: the Government’s Beecroft by the back door “compensated no-fault dismissal” proposals; what has been described as the Chancellor’s bonkers “shares for rights” policy; the increase in the qualification period for unfair dismissal; the introduction of employment tribunal fees; the disgraceful abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board without any debate in the House; changes to the employment tribunal compensatory awards; the removal of civil liability in health and safety; and the cutting in half of the collective redundancy consultation period. Just yesterday, we debated at great length part 3 of the gagging Bill, which would take trade union membership to a different level. All that is creating insecurity in the workplace.

At every opportunity since 2010, Ministers have attacked the rights of people at work. As many Members have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), the Government have made it easier to fire workers, rather than hire them. It is notable that it has been Lib Dem Minister after Lib Dem Minister who has been doing the dirty work for the Government in this area. That is having a significant effect on opinion across the country. A recent poll showed that 72% of British workers feel that employers have more power than employees. As YouGov reported yesterday, the number of people feeling insecure at work has almost doubled in the past three years from 6.5 million to 12 million—all on this Government’s watch.

The Government’s attitude to the workplace is that employers need more power relative to workers, that the rights of people at work are a barrier to growth and jobs, and that protection in the workplace holds back the economy—and all in the name of economic growth. Taking employee rights and health and safety back to Victorian times will not create economic growth. This insecurity causes great instability for workers. They are already earning £1,500 less a year on average than they were in 2010. The former employment relations Minister, now Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), had it exactly right when he said that there was an inextricable link between job security and consumer confidence and that policies that would damage job security would be “crazy”. He was absolutely correct. Unfortunately, he made those comments before he got the employment brief and systematically set about making some people less secure at work.

The Government’s approach runs contrary to all the evidence, much of which we have heard in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby and others mentioned the OECD. We must remember that before any of these changes were made, Britain’s employment law regime was the third most liberal in the world, just behind only the USA and Canada.

I would like to pick up something that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said. He painted a picture of a utopian economy and said that the biggest issue for employers is employment law. Actually, the statistics and analysis do not reflect that. It is worth noting that a survey of SMEs carried out by the Government’s very own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills earlier this year showed that, while 7% of businesses thought that regulation was a barrier to business success, 32% cited the economic downturn as the main issue.

Let us consider that in a day-to-day business. I have run my own businesses. Government Members continually bob up and use the term “unions” in this place as though it was like saying “Macbeth” in the theatre. Those having experience of running their own business know that happy, healthy employees who arrive at work every day being made to feel as if they have a real stake in the business, rather than being treated like cogs in a wheel, make far more productive employees. That has been highlighted by evidence recently produced by the CBI and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

The north-east as a region is more productive than other regions, and it is no coincidence that it has the highest trade union membership in England and Wales.

My hon. Friend is a committed trade unionist and is committed to the north-east. He highlights an important point. Where there is a partnership between trade unions and employers, it is possible to have a really productive work force, which benefits everyone. Every successful industry in the country has had that powerful and strong relationship between trade unions and employers.

We have talked a lot this afternoon about zero-hours contracts. The CIPD released figures just last month showing that up to 1 million people were on such contracts. I understand the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) wanting to highlight the fact that zero-hours contracts have been around for a long time. Indeed they have, but the issue is the explosion in the number of such contracts in the past few years and their exploitation. They work for some people, and that is something that we have tried to deal with by looking at the ways to resolve some of the issues. But Ministers have not done enough in this area. They have instigated a half-hearted investigation while continuing a laser-like focus on removing people’s rights at work—an approach now synonymous with the report produced by Adrian Beecroft. This timid response is emphasised by the fact that not one Conservative Member of Parliament attended the recent Westminster Hall debate on zero-hours contracts.

We recognise the flexibility of zero-hours contracts, but we have to deal with exploitation on a cross-party basis because everyone in the House realises that it is a problem. We welcome the steps set out by the Leader of the Opposition just last week.

I was struck by some of the issues raised by hon. Members in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) always speaks so wonderfully on these issues. He highlighted problems in some of the industries around the country in terms of workers’ rights. It is about dealing with the abuses. This is not about setting one group of people off against another, setting employers off against employees or setting trade unions off against anyone else. It is the responsibility of the Government, politicians and constituency Members of Parliament to deal with those abuses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) mentioned the Lib Dems’ refusing to stand up to the abuse of zero-hours contracts and said that we did not spend enough time dealing with cases of people who are killed at work.

I am struggling for time I am afraid.

It surely cannot be right that people go to work to earn a living for their families and do not return home. We do not concentrate enough on such issues.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned zero-hours contracts. He was right to do so, and I hope that he will join us in trying to deal with the issue. He cares passionately about it, and I hope that we are able to do something on a cross-party basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) always speaks well in employment law debates. I think it struck the whole House when he said at the end of his speech that we had spent the 19th and 20th centuries building up rights and we should not spend the 21st demolishing them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) is passionate when she speaks about her involvement with trade unions, and she is right that the contribution that they make to our communities makes the economy stronger. We should welcome that rather than attacking it.

The signs of the cost of living crisis that faces millions across the UK are there for all to see. The weekly shop is more expensive. Energy bills seem to be rising day to day. Living expenditure such as travel is becoming more and more unaffordable. On top of all this there is a hidden contributor to the cost of living crisis—job insecurity compounded time and again by the Government’s ideological attack on rights at work. The Government fail to recognise that growing insecurity in a Tory-Lib Dem Britain further squeezes people’s living standards and hampers economic recovery.

It has been a good debate this afternoon and I hope that Lib Dem Members in particular take heed of some of the issues raised and change their tack on employment rights.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this debate. It has been wide ranging, with contributions of great interest from Members on both sides of the House.

The Government’s vision for the UK’s labour market is for it to be flexible, effective and fair. We want people to be able to access the type of work that they want and employers to be able to create jobs and manage their work forces effectively. We can help to do this by minimising the burden of regulation so that employers are free to create jobs and hire new staff. At the heart of our approach is a belief that employers and individuals are in the best position to decide what works for them. The role of Government is to provide the right framework to facilitate that, not to dictate outcomes through heavy regulatory approaches. Crucially, we need to ensure that people are treated fairly at work and that employers can compete on a level playing field without being undercut by unscrupulous employers who break the law and exploit their staff. We therefore launched a comprehensive, Parliament-long employment law review to tackle the perceptions and the reality of employment law burdens and to implement our strategy in practice.

The Government have introduced a range of different measures that have been mentioned by hon. Members. I want to talk about two that have not had a huge amount of focus in this debate but are radical and important. My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) mentioned the proposals on shared parental leave. That is a radical reform to employment law allowing mums and dads to choose how they share the time off after their baby is born. That is good for children, particularly because the involvement of dads early on in the process can help child development. It is good for parents, making it easier for them to balance their responsibilities with their work. It is also good for employers, who can benefit from a more motivated, productive work force, with a more flexible system that enables working mums who want to return to work to do so earlier.

We are also extending the right to request flexible working that will come in from next April. It has already been available to parents, having been introduced by the previous Government, and it has been a great success, with four in five of the requests made being granted. There are all sorts of reasons why people might want to work flexibly, not just because they are parents. Perhaps they have other caring responsibilities. Perhaps they volunteer in their community. Perhaps they are older workers nearing the end of their working life who, rather than working full time one day and not at all the next, would like to taper their working as they ease into retirement. We need to move towards this situation being much more the norm than an anomaly. We have no need to keep our workplaces stuck in the 1950s with a culture of presenteeism. Modern technology has revolutionised the way that we can work, making people much more productive at different times. Indeed, employers can see the benefits of flexible working too.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with some Labour Members’ characterisation of what the Government have been doing. Certainly, the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton used some analogies that I would not agree with, but I do agree with many of the things he said. He rightly highlighted the fact that many of the employment rights enshrined in EU legislation can be very important. He talked about the problems of directors’ pay differentials. There is great agreement in all parts of the House that that situation has become unacceptable, particularly where there has been payment for failure. Where there has been great success with a company growing, employing more people and bringing more wealth to the country, I do not think people mind payment being made accordingly, but where there has not been that success, there should not be unearned large packages. That is why the Government’s proposals to empower shareholders so that there is much more accountability on directors’ pay are important.

The right hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the normalisation of zero-hours contracts, which many others also talked about. As the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) said, these contracts are not inherently bad. They can be applied in a fair and appropriate way, and people generally have no problem when there is flexibility on both sides and no imbalance of power in the relationship. Equally, many employers recognise that it would be counterproductive for them, as a matter of course, to put all their employers on to zero-hours contracts, because where the employee is, in effect, taking the place of a permanent full-time worker, or even a permanent part-time worker working 20 or so hours a week, that does not necessarily create the most positive and productive relationship between the employer and the employee. Of course, that is why many employers do not routinely have employees on zero-hours contracts. The point about normalisation is interesting and the Government have been doing significant work on zero-hours contracts. The hon. Gentleman raised some sensible points.

I will address some of the hon. Gentleman’s points before taking his intervention.

The hon. Gentleman discussed exclusivity, which is one of the issues highlighted in the Government’s work to date. If somebody is not getting guaranteed work on a contract, there is an inherent sense of injustice in the suggestion that they cannot seek work elsewhere. On the balance-of-power relationship, can a worker actually refuse work, or is it thought that if they do so they will not be asked to do shifts in future? Does the contract reflect the employment situation and is the proper information available? When they apply for a job, does the employee know that it is a zero-hours contract that is being offered, or do they think they are applying for a permanent job? We have been investigating genuine issues over the summer and we will look at how we can address any abuses.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will be a little more patient. As I have said, we undertook a review over the summer and are looking at the information. I hope he will not have to wait too long before we announce the next steps.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) made an interesting contribution, particularly with regard to his comments about morality, which is not always a word associated with debates about capitalism and employment, but I think it is important. There is a legal framework for minimum rights, but it is fair to point out that we all have additional responsibilities to one another as human beings and individuals.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) said, most employers are good employers. I do not think that anyone in the House would wish to suggest that that is not the case. We are, therefore, dealing with a minority of rogue employers who can be unscrupulous. Most employers take their responsibilities seriously and want to make sure that they are treating their workers well, not only because they realise the business benefits of doing so, but because it is the right thing to do. It is important to remember that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who is no longer in his place, intervened a couple of times to point out the great success in the apprenticeship sector. I agree with him about that and how important it is that we have made things easier for low-paid workers by cutting their income tax bills, a policy that went straight from the front page of the Lib Dem manifesto to the pockets of hard-working people. I am delighted that my hon. Friend and other colleagues are now so supportive of that particular policy.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised a range of specific concerns about employment issues. We discussed blacklisting yesterday and in previous debates, and the Government will continue to keep a very close eye on that. I urge Members and others to be aware that free and confidential advice is available if people are worried about their employment rights. They should get in touch with the pay and work rights helpline, which is available online or on 0800 917 2368. Anybody can access it, and if they have concerns about national minimum wage payments, such cases can be passed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for enforcement action. Indeed, national minimum wage problems are prioritised on that helpline.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has achieved great success in his own work in improving the number of apprenticeships. He also raised the important issue of employers who do not pay out the award after losing an employment tribunal. He knows that we have been working on that and we will hold further discussions, particularly with the Ministry of Justice, on what action to take.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) mentioned the positive role that trade unions play and how they have driven up safety standards on oil rigs. He was right to highlight that and the role they can play in improving workplaces. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) talked about zero-hours contracts and the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) echoed many of the points made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.

Unemployment is now falling. There are 1 million more apprenticeships and 1.3 million more jobs in the private sector. That is a good record, but despite this we must avoid complacency and make further improvements to create more jobs, so that people can get the work they want and employers can take on the skilled workers they need in order to grow.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered employment rights.