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Job Insecurity

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2014

I beg to move,

That this House believes that insecurity at work has increased under this Government, compounding the cost of living crisis facing families; further believes that the Government’s policies have made life less secure for people at work by watering down their rights, including protections against unfair dismissal and by abandoning an evidence-based approach to health and safety; notes that the number of employees working part-time who want to work full-time has grown by over 350,000 since the Government took office to over 1.4 million, alongside a marked rise in zero-hours contracts; recognises that insecure jobs add to pressure on the social security budget by making it harder for people to buy a home or save for their own pension; calls on the Government to reverse the trend of rising insecurity at work by reforming zero-hours contracts so they are not exploitative, addressing false self-employment by closing loopholes which allow it to take place, scrapping the failed ‘shares for rights’ scheme, strengthening and properly enforcing the National Minimum Wage, including by increasing fines to £50,000 and giving local authorities enforcement powers, and incentivising employers to pay a Living Wage through ‘make work pay’ contracts; and further calls on the Government to adopt a proper industrial strategy to help create more high-skilled, better paid jobs so the UK can earn its way out of the cost of living crisis with stronger and better-balanced growth.

It is a pleasure, Madam Deputy Speaker, to serve for the first time under your chairship. I move the motion at a time when our country’s economy has thankfully returned to some growth after three years—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Government Members will not be “Hear, hear-ing” later on, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are not out of the woods yet. In my constituency, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance has fallen over the past 12 months and I welcome that, but the number of young people claiming JSA for more than 12 months in Streatham has increased by 75% and the number of adults claiming JSA for more than two years is five times what it was in May 2010. That is a tragedy for them and their families; they are not patting the Chancellor on the back.

We are all too aware that the fall in the headline rate of unemployment in some areas, such as mine, is not matched across the country. In the north-east and the south-west, for example, unemployment is up compared with this time last year. It might surprise people to learn that in London our unemployment rate is 8.1% compared with a national average of 7.1%. For those of our constituents who are in work, living standards have never before been under so much strain. A living standards crisis has impacted on households all over the country, which is why the shape and nature of growth matter. Will the rewards from growth deliver better living standards and security for the people we represent?

The hon. Gentleman is incredibly generous to give way and I thought I might make an intervention to try to cheer him up a little. Center Parcs is bringing 1,700 jobs to my constituency in a project that has been on the table for long time—since I first became an MP nine years ago. It is happening now because Center Parcs has faith and confidence in the economy that means that it can go ahead with the project and create the jobs. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that many employers will follow suit and the picture will be much brighter.

I shall come on to the point about the nature of the work and the jobs created. Of course it is a good thing for the hon. Lady’s constituents that there are more opportunities, but I shall return to that point.

Although we always welcome any improvement in employment, the fact remains that the purchasing power of people out of work has dropped about 5%, and that mostly hits women.

My hon. Friend is right. It is worth recalling that when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition first talked about the cost of living crisis and the squeezed middle, Members on the Government Benches and their supporters ridiculed the very notion, but the existence of that living standards crisis is now undeniable. Indeed, since my right hon. Friend first talked about the squeezed middle, in 2011, I think, the people who compile the Oxford English Dictionary named it their word of the year, despite the fact that it is two words.

Words are one thing, but they are backed up by the reality of what we see in our communities. Ministers can do whatever jiggery-pokery they want with the figures, as the Chancellor did the other day when he claimed that the top decile of earners was the only decile that had lost out from his measures. In so doing, he miraculously forgot to take into account the huge tax cut he had given the top 1% at the same time as heaping a VAT rise on working families and taking away support from them.

The average employee is earning substantially less than when this Government came to office—over £1,600 less a year. It is important to remember that on Wednesday 13 February last year—almost a year ago—the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions in this House pledged that people would be better off in 2015 than in 2010, and we will hold him to that. The head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who is often cited in all parts of the House, thinks differently. He said last month:

“We will be able to say definitively—I’m pretty sure—that, come 2015, average household incomes will be lower than they were pre-recession and lower than they were in 2010.”

Can the hon. Gentleman assure the House that no one working for a trade union or a Labour council is on a zero-hours contract or is a part-timer who wants a full-time job?

I will come on to zero-hours contracts shortly, if there is some patience on the Government Benches.

This living standards crisis is not just one of rising costs and falling wages. It is one, too, of increasing insecurity at work. People in work today feel less secure and more pressurised at work than at any time in the past 20 years, according to the most recent UK skills and employment survey. Members on the Government Benches shake their heads. It was the Government’s own UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which co-funded that survey, that described what we now have as a “climate of fear”. More recent research carried out towards the end of last year found that the number of people feeling insecure at work had almost doubled since this Government came to office, with half the working population believing that the economic policies of this Government have made them less secure.

There is a constant worry about whether people will be able to hold on to their jobs. There is a constant worry about whether they will be able to provide for themselves and their families—a continuing squeeze, yes, and an increasing amount of insecurity. That is the reality of life in this country in 2014.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this insecurity particularly affects young people? Nearly a million of them—940,000—remain unemployed, and this Government have failed to get them into work and to deal with the insecurity and sense of frustration they feel about not being able to make a contribution to the economy.

My hon. Friend is right. Almost 1 million young people are still out of work and that is why we have said that we will introduce a compulsory job guarantee to ensure that young people who have been out of work for more than a year have a job.

I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that in the past quarter manufacturing grew by 0.9% and in my constituency that translates into meaningful jobs. I took the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to Stroud last week to underline the value of apprenticeships at Delphi and so forth. Across my constituency overall employment in manufacturing has continued to rise and overall unemployment has continued to fall. Does the shadow Secretary of State recognise that that is a powerful statement of good government translating into economic success?

I think that I have had this discussion with the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) elsewhere. Some will say, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, in the context of falling unemployment, that the main thing is that people should have a job and that, unemployment having risen for much of this Parliament, they should be grateful to have a job at all. Of course we would all prefer to see our constituents in work rather than out of it, but we have to be more ambitious for the people we represent. We want them to achieve their dreams and aspirations. We want them not only to have a job, but to have decent work that pays a wage they can live on and offers a decent level of security. For the Opposition, any old job will not do, because we believe that we must do better for the people we represent, and for the people we hope to represent after the next general election—those in the constituencies of current Government Members.

On the question of whether any old job will do, my hon. Friend might be aware that 10 years ago today 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives in Morecambe bay under the instruction of illegal gangmasters. There is clear evidence that the gangmasters have now moved into other sectors, such as construction and care. Is it not time we registered illegal gangmasters so that they cannot exploit employees and damage our indigenous work force?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. We all remember those who lost their lives a decade ago, and our thoughts are with their families. Of course, that was why we set up the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and we believe that we should consider expanding its remit to include other sectors, construction being the obvious one.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members will not be celebrating the proliferation of zero-hours contracts, which allow our young people, in particular, to be exploited by employers who want them to be at the other end of the telephone waiting to be told when to come to work but do not guarantee them any weekly hours?

Is it not also the case that people on the minimum wage who are contracted for perhaps 16 or 20 hours a week are having to work more than that, with employers exploiting them in that way? That is a major problem, and their employment is very insecure.

That is right. Zero-hours contracts are perhaps most symptomatic of the increasing insecurity we are seeing in today’s workplace.

Other Members have mentioned the need for proper, decent employment rights in the workplace. Does my hon. Friend regret the fact that this Government seem to see protections in the workplace as burdensome regulation?

My hon. Friend is totally correct to raise that issue. Not only is it an issue of justice in the workplace, but it is also—[Interruption.] I have completely forgotten the point I was going to make—one of those moments. Ah, the thought has returned to me: it is also bad for the economy. If people are frightened out of their wits about whether they will retain their jobs, they will hardly go and spend money in our economy.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to another historical parallel that goes beyond the Morecambe bay tragedy? A few years ago we marked the centenary of the Tonypandy riots—Members might or might not be aware of them—which took place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The significance of those riots, and the parallel with today’s situation, is that mine owners and the representatives on the Government Benches argued tooth and nail that they could not afford to pay a fair wage to miners working in the most difficult seams in the south Wales valleys. Those miners were living in poverty. I suggest that the parallel is that we should all be working together, with businesses and others, to ensure that people are paid a proper wage.

That is absolutely right. I will explain how we are seeking to promote that through the payment of the living wage.

I am going to make a little more progress and will perhaps give way a bit later.

I was about to go into the shape and the nature of the employment that we see. There are those who are in work but cannot get the additional hours that they want. Over 1.4 million people are working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job; that figure is up by more than a third compared with when this Government came into office. Over 3 million workers—more than 10% of the work force—are underemployed. These are people who are employed but wish to work more hours in their current role or are looking for an additional job or a replacement job that offers more hours. We want to change this.

Above all, as many of my hon. Friends have said, there are those who do not have any security at work but want it so that they can plan and provide stability for their families. Over half a million employees in temporary positions lack any job security because they cannot find permanent roles. Last year, we learned the true extent of the abuse of zero-hours contracts, which my hon. Friends just mentioned, when the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development published its data suggesting that as many as 1 million people are employed on zero-hours contracts. To recap, we are talking about contracts under which the employee is not guaranteed work and is paid only for the work that he or she carries out. In practice, this means that people do not know where the next pay cheque is coming from, are unable to plan ahead, and, in many cases, are constantly living hand to mouth. Of course, insecurity at work increases pressure on the social security budget because it makes it harder for people to borrow to buy a home or to save for their pension. Again, we are determined to change this. We cannot go on like this.

It is important to say—it would be remiss of me not to admit it—that I do not pretend that all this pressure on household incomes and insecurity began under this Government. We do not deny that serious structural issues have grown up over the past three decades under Governments of all different colours, but the question is this: what are this Government doing about it? We are now in the fourth year of this Government: have they made things better or worse?

The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech. I liked the bit where he said that not just any old job will do. Will that be his advice to young people who go to a jobcentre? Will he say, “Don’t get any job—a job where you might learn some skills, find the confidence to get up in the morning, or get a work ethic—but wait for the job of your dreams”? Surely it is better to get people back into work, with the dignity it gives, than just to say, “Wait for that dream job under Labour.”

The hon. Lady has completely misinterpreted what I said. I was very clear that we want to see more people in work. However, there is nothing wrong with being ambitious and aspirational for the people we represent. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to have more secure work and wanting to ensure that they actually earn a wage they can live off. I make no apologies for that whatsoever.

Could the hon. Gentleman confirm to the House whether the gardener and the cleaner at his villa in Ibiza are full-time or part-time employed, and what is their hourly rate of pay?

I have said this before and I will say it again: I think we should keep our families out of this place. The hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on that. If he wants to make another contribution that is perhaps a bit more intelligent and adds something to the debate, I am happy to give way, but clearly he has nothing to add.

The Government have failed to tackle the cost of living crisis. Family energy bills have been allowed to rise by £300 since the general election. As I said, they have given a huge tax cut to people earning millions of pounds a year while increasing VAT and cutting support for working families. They have failed to act on transport prices. What is certainly clear is that this Government have heaped further insecurity on people at work with their attacks on their fundamental rights and protections. The other week, the Business Secretary said in his speech to the Royal Economic Society—I thought it was a good speech—that he has “resisted moves” in the direction of attacking people’s rights at work. That simply does not reflect the reality.

When people have been treated unjustly or discriminated against and wish to seek redress, he and his ministerial colleagues have put up a barrier in the form of tribunal fees of up to £1,200, which the Minister for Skills and Enterprise referred to as “moderate” despite the fact that £1,200 is about two weeks’ average earnings. I do not think that is moderate: it is a barrier against access to justice.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about being ambitious and asks whether things have got better. In my constituency, unemployment has fallen by 20% and youth unemployment by 45%, and the number of new apprentices starting every year is more than double what it was in 2009. Does he agree that that is significant evidence that things are better?

Of course it is good that more people are in work in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but what is the nature of that work? Is it temporary or permanent, and what wages are people earning? That is the question I have posed.

I seem to remember the Chancellor announcing, about 12 months ago, a bonus if people gave up their employment rights. I wonder what happened to that. It demonstrates that what this is really all about is the corrosion of people’s employment rights in this country and making life worse for them.

I will come on to that, but before that I will go through some of the things the Government have done to people’s rights in the workplace. They have increased the service requirement for claiming unfair dismissal from one to two years, depriving people of the right to seek justice when they have been wronged in the workplace. They have reduced compensatory rewards for unfair dismissal, which, as I have said in this House before, will impact in particular on those in middle-income occupations—the squeezed middle. They have also reduced the consultation period for collective redundancy and have sought to water down TUPE protections for people. I could go on.

We know that much of that was inspired by the 2011 report by the Conservative party donor and employment law adviser to the Prime Minister, Adrian Beecroft. By his own admission, in public evidence sessions in this House, Mr Beecroft said that his findings were based on conversations and not on a statistically valid sample of people—classic “off the back of a packet” stuff.

Never mind Beecroft, the best example of the Secretary of State failing to resist measures that increase insecurity in the workplace—my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) has just referred to this—is the shares for rights scheme announced by the Chancellor at the Conservative party conference in 2012. The scheme provides for new employer shareholder status, whereby in return for between £2,000 and £50,000-worth of shares in their employer, the employee gives up fundamental rights at work: the right not to be unfairly dismissed, rights to statutory redundancy pay, rights to request flexible working and so on.

For all sorts of reasons, this is a bad idea, so much so that there was cross-party opposition to it, with the former Conservative employment Minister, Lord Forsyth, describing it as having

“all the trappings of something that was thought up by someone in the bath”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2013; Vol. 744, c. 614.]

What did the Business Secretary do about it? He not only waved through the scheme; he sponsored its passage through the House. Since then, take-up seems to be low —about 19 inquiries have been made to the Department—but what happened next? Up popped the Deputy Prime Minister at the beginning of the year—let us remember that the Business Secretary waved through the scheme and took it through Parliament—calling for the scheme’s abolition.

Let me get this right: the Deputy Prime Minister’s two Liberal Democrat colleagues—the Business Secretary and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—guided the policy through the House just 10 months ago; the Deputy Prime Minister marched his Members through the Division Lobby, along with Conservative Members, to introduce it; and now the Deputy Prime Minister wants to take credit for saying he wants to scrap this disastrous scheme, which he set up in the first place.

I know the Liberal Democrats have a reputation for this sort of thing, but even by their standards this really does take trying to have your cake and eat it to a whole new level.

I am not giving way to that gentleman.

What would we do? To relieve the squeeze on incomes, we would take action to make work pay by expanding free child care for working parents. We would freeze gas and electricity bills while we make long-term changes to the energy market. We would introduce a 10p starting rate of tax, funded by a mansion tax. The Secretary of State was in favour of that once, but seems to have taken to voting against it, as well as against our motions about it in this House. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will correct the record.

Let us not forget that my party stood up to the nay-sayers and introduced the national minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage has fallen by 5% under this Government, so we have asked Alan Buckle, the former deputy chairman at KPMG, to investigate how we can make sure that the role and powers of the Low Pay Commission are extended in order to restore that value.

I am sure that it was not his intention, but the hon. Gentleman has given the impression that all the new jobs are either on zero-hours contracts or provide extremely low incomes. Does he take encouragement from what has happened in my constituency, where unemployment had stuck at 3.5% for 13 years, but has now dropped to 3%, meaning that those people now have security, jobs and independence?

I am happy to clarify that I was not saying that all the jobs created are as the hon. Lady has suggested.

We want to ensure that the national minimum wage is properly enforced. That is why we want fines of up to £50,000, and we would give local authorities a role in enforcement. To go back to what I said earlier, ultimately, we want more people to be in receipt of a wage on which they can live.

Is my hon. Friend aware that people who get jobs on the minimum wage through employment agencies routinely have their wages docked to cover the administration of their pay? Very low-paid workers are therefore receiving far less—up to £16 or £20 a week less—than the minimum wage.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand that the Secretary of State is investigating that outrageous practice at the moment, and we await the findings of his Department’s investigation.

We have already made it clear that we disagree with heaping job insecurity on people in work, which is why we have opposed and voted against all the measures that this Government have introduced to water down people’s rights at work.

I am not giving away.

For that reason, we would abolish the ridiculous shares for rights scheme. Zero-hours contracts have been mentioned, and we would ban their exploitative use.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hate to raise a point of order, but I think that the shadow Minister may be misleading the House inadvertently. He is talking about job security, but the latest ACAS figures—

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. He knows that that is not a point of order, but a point of debate. We are in the middle of the debate. If the shadow Minister wishes to take an intervention, he can do so. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to attempt to make a speech later, he can do so, but that is not a point of order.

I am not sure that the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) is having a very good day.

Several hon. Members have already raised the issue of zero-hours contracts, and let me explain how we would stop their exploitative use. We would prevent employers from insisting that people on zero-hours contracts are available to work even when there is no guarantee that they will be given any work. We would prohibit zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one employer. We would prevent the misuse of zero-hours contracts. When, in practice, employees regularly work a certain number of hours a week, they are entitled to a contract that reflects the reality of their regular hours.

Will my hon. Friend speculate on why for some reason my M4 travel-to-work area, where there is some good and encouraging news on jobs, has the highest level of food bank usage in the whole of Wales and has seen a tenfold increase in payday loans, including to people in work, during the past year?

We know that there has been stagnation in wages. My hon. Friend has given the clearest evidence of the impact of that in his constituency. That relates to the points that I have made to Government Members. Of course it is a good thing that people who have not been in work are getting work. The key thing is that it must be decent work that prevents people from having to go to food banks because they are not earning enough.

My hon. Friend is being most gracious in taking so many interventions. One group of people who have been almost forgotten are small shopkeepers, who are suffering immensely as a consequence of the state of this nation. They have not been mentioned, but they have very insecure futures. Surely we should address that, as well as the other matters that we are addressing this afternoon.

My hon. Friend is right. We are a nation of shopkeepers. That is why we want to cut business rates in 2015 and freeze them thereafter. We also want to provide more support for local communities and high streets. I am proud to have the longest continuous stretch of high street in the country in my constituency.

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and there have been good parts of it. He has spoken about voting records. Can he assist the House by giving any example of when the Labour party has voted in favour of or supported the Government’s position on employment, business or welfare reform over the past four years?

In relation to business reform, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the comments that we made during the passage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has asked me a question, so he should let me finish the answer. There are elements of the 2013 Act that we thought were commendable, such as instituting the Competition and Markets Authority and setting up the green investment bank, which we started to do in government. However, we did not entertain the proposals to water down people’s rights at work so that they would be scared out of their wits, because that would have an adverse impact not only on them and their families, but on the economy.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about social security. There are two ways in which we can reduce the social security bill. First, we can ensure that more people get back into work. I very much welcome all the examples that have been given of that. Secondly, we can ensure that people earn a wage that they can live off. They will then pay more in national insurance and we will pay out less in tax credits, which is good for the Exchequer.

The shadow Secretary of State is making a thoughtful speech. Many Members on this side of the House would like to see him as shadow Chancellor. Unfortunately, it seems that we will have to wait until after the next election to see that.

The motion refers to increasing wages and to the living wage. However, there is a tapering effect that means that if somebody on the minimum wage has a pay increase of 23%—the difference between the minimum wage and the living wage for people living outside London—the increase in the money in their pocket turns out to be only 1% or 2% because of the changes in benefits. If the shadow Secretary of State were in charge, how would the Government address that?

It is the aim of all Labour Members not to be in the shadows at all. We are happy to give the shadow positions to Government Members.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about wages, it is important that we incentivise employers to pay a living wage. Imposing a living wage on employers would have an adverse impact. We intend to introduce Make Work Pay contracts, through which we will give employers a tax incentive to pay the living wage. The Exchequer will easily get back the cost of that through national insurance.

I will try to make progress, because I am conscious that I have been going on for some time.

We would clamp down on false self-employment. That is the practice by which employers classify their workers as self-employed in order to pay lower levels of national insurance. Of course, that leaves workers without the protections that are enjoyed by employees, even though most people would regard their relationship as one of employment. That is a particular issue in construction. The last Labour Government proposed that workers should automatically be deemed as employed for tax purposes if they met the criteria that most people would regard as obvious signs of being employees rather than self-employed contractors. That will be the starting point for the next Labour Government.

To conclude, we have a bigger goal. Our ambition must be to transform our labour market from one that has too high a percentage of low-wage and low-skill jobs into a high-wage, high-value and high-skill labour market. Of the 25 economies in the OECD, we rank fifth in the percentage of our labour market that is low-waged and low-skilled, and we must tackle that.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there has been a 24% reduction in people claiming benefits in my constituency, which is not a million miles from his constituency? Most of those jobs are full-time, permanent positions, and many are for 18 to 24-year-olds. That happened only because we did not take the advice that the Labour party gave us over the past three to four years, and we stuck with our plans. Why should we start taking the hon. Gentleman’s advice now?

I think the clue is in the question. The hon. Gentleman said three to four years, but he did not mention that we had a flatlining economy during that period, or all the stress and worry that people have been subject to in the meantime. That is why we disagreed with his Government’s economic strategy.

Returning to the composition of our Labour market, as economists grapple with the ongoing productivity puzzle, a growing body of thought suggests that it is explained by the compositional change in the work force that I mentioned, and the change towards having more low-paid, low-productivity sectors than before. We must address that and do so fast.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent argument. In 2011, employers spent £1,680 per employee on skills and training, but that has fallen to £1,590 this year. Does my hon. Friend think that has anything to do with the £54 billion fall in investment in SMEs since 2011?

I agree with all of that, and it has definitely had an impact. Ultimately, to tackle these problems we need a proper comprehensive industrial strategy that is implemented across all Departments. Some people say, “Well, the Government have an industrial strategy”, but there is no point having an industrial strategy that only the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills buys into, or in using such a strategy to support our defence sector if at the beginning of the Parliament the Ministry of Defence decides to buy product off the shelf from other countries. We must rebalance the economy in the long term, and that is still some way off. In his speech the other week, the Secretary of State acknowledged that, but we still do not export enough, and we still have geographical imbalances and relatively low levels of business investment. We will earn and grow our way out of this cost of living crisis and create more security by better balancing our economy with a proper industrial strategy. I commend the motion to the House.

I am delighted to respond to the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and I appreciate that, as he acknowledged at the beginning of his remarks, he has a problem because trying to manufacture an Opposition day debate on the economy is difficult when it is now growing rapidly.

Give me some time and I will happily take interventions. I am always generous with interventions and I will wait until a suitable point and give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The danger the hon. Member for Streatham faces is that of creating a cliché such as “triple-dip recession” or “no more boom and bust” that then proves to be positively cringeworthy when the situation changes. Labour’s slogan is now the “cost of living crisis”, and at first sight that is a plausible line of attack because, as I have always acknowledged, real wages fell in the wake of the financial crisis, the country is poorer and the consequences have been painful. The hon. Gentleman buttressed his argument by quoting from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that this painful process is likely to go on until the end of next year. That was what it said until quite recently, but I do not know whether he has seen its report today, which states that the cost of living crisis is to turn around this year. Inflation is now falling so rapidly and the economy recovering so quickly that it expects that turnaround to happen by the middle of the year. I fear that the “cost of living crisis” may be another to go in to the museum of clichés.

Has the Secretary of State done an analysis of when the cost of living crisis might turn around in different regions of the UK, such as south Wales? What is his best guess on that?

I will get on to regional variation. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of Wales, because I was studying the regional employment changes and Wales has done relatively well against almost every other region of the UK. Despite the terrible history of unemployment in Wales, its unemployment level is now at the UK average. Its increase in employment levels is greater than in any other part of the UK, including London and the south-east. There is a good story in Wales as well as many very deep problems, which I of course acknowledge.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government do not create jobs? Many of the new jobs that have been created have come from the SMEs. The cost of living crisis will turn around quickly, and would do so even more quickly if the banks allowed funding to get to SMEs a little more quickly so that they can grow as they want to with the funding that they need.

The hon. Lady is right, and it is one of the major casualties of the banking crisis that SME lending dried up. We are taking action on that through the business bank and in other ways. Restoring credit to the SMEs through the banking sector is a critical objective and it is a constraint on growth.

The shadow Minister’s conclusion was a good issue to embark on, and I just wish that he had spent more than two minutes and the last line of the motion on it. There is a real issue about how the recovery will be sustained. There are deep problems, including the lack of trained people and the rebuilding of supply chains. I would love to have a long debate with him about the industrial strategy, how we extend it, and what a Labour Government would do to reinforce it. I do not know whether the shadow Chancellor will come up with some more money, but I would be delighted to hear that it would have that kind of support. But the shadow Minister dismissed it as an afterthought in the last two minutes of a half hour speech, and I was, frankly, rather disappointed by that.

The shadow Minister chose to focus on jobs, and they are of course central. I want to address the issues of employment and employment conditions—

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way before he moves on to the next section of his speech, because I would like him to correct the possible misinterpretation of the IFS report that he has given. While matters might be beginning to turn round sooner than it thought last year, its general conclusion was that

“there is little reason to expect a strong recovery in living standards over the next few years…real earnings are not expected to return to their 2009-10 levels until 2018-19.”

That is correct. I was merely referring to the point at which things start to turn around and improve. The IFS, like everyone else, underestimated the strength and speed of the recovery. Of course, its forecasts, like everyone else’s, may have to be revised upwards.

I have been responding to debates from my current position for the best part of four years, and I have seen the Opposition’s jobs argument go through four or five iterations. When we first started, the argument from the Opposition was that the attempt to deal with the fiscal crisis would result in mass unemployment. That now looks positively silly today, but if they go back to their speeches in 2010, that was their prediction. We now have the highest level of employment ever—30 million. We have 1.3 million more people in employment than in 2010. The jobless—unemployed—total has fallen not just in relative terms, but in absolute terms by 650,000 to 7.1 %. Of course, there are regional variations. I accept that there are particularly serious problems in the north-east, which is the only part of the UK that has double-digit unemployment.

It is worth contrasting the overall picture with some other countries that had a far less serious experience of the financial crisis than we did. Sweden has 8% unemployment. The unemployment rate in Canada, which everybody thinks is a wonderful economy—we recruited our central banker from there—is higher than in the UK. In the eurozone, even including Germany and Austria, it is 12%. Our unemployment position is significantly better than that of most other western countries.

Will the Secretary of State at least acknowledge that the degree of underemployment is masking the real problem in the economy? If those people were put in full-time equivalent posts, the number of unemployed people would be a much bigger picture, would it not?

I am going to come on to underemployment and part-time employment shortly, because it is a legitimate concern. Obviously, there are people who took part-time jobs in the depth of the recession who now want full-time work—of course that is true. What the hon. Gentleman might not be aware of is that in the past year the number of people in part-time employment has actually fallen in absolute terms by 7,000, and that the number of people in full-time employment has risen by 475,000. There was an issue relating to part-time jobs in the depth of the recession. It was understandable that people took part-time jobs in a very difficult situation, but over the last year the position has changed dramatically. Building an argument around part-time employment is now of historic interest, not contemporary interest.

It is not an historic concern. The number of people who are working part time because they cannot find full-time work is still more than 1.4 million. It has never been that high before. It is a current problem, which the Secretary of State should be concerned about.

It is a current problem, but it is a declining problem. The trend over the past year is striking: the new jobs being created are full-time jobs and part-time employment is declining. Of course, there are a lot of people who took part-time employment under very difficult conditions who now want full-time work. If the recovery is sustained, as it must be, then this problem will resolve itself, but I accept that there are a lot of people in unsatisfactory employment situations.

We have now had nearly four years of talking about the numbers of people who are unemployed and the number who are employed. Does the Secretary of State have the figures for the number of hours worked on a weekly basis? Is he able to track that over the past three or four years?

I do not have those figures, but I am sure we could get them. I am sure my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will dig them out for him. I am sure that they reflect the pattern I describe that, certainly over the last year, full-time employment is rising relative to part-time employment.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had official figures from the Office for National Statistics and there has been a very wide range of surveys. The reason I have embarked on a formal consultation, which will be concluded at the end of March and will lead to policy action on the issues to which the shadow spokesman referred, is that we need to have a proper understanding of the scale before legislation is initiated. The simple answer is that nobody knows how many people are on zero-hours contracts—indeed, nobody can precisely define what they are.

I think I would rather press on. I will take other interventions later.

The next twist in the argument on employment moved gradually away from the prediction of mass unemployment. The argument became that because public sector employment was declining, the growth in private sector employment would never catch up. What has actually happened is a very clear trend. In the period since we came into office, 1.1 million private sector jobs have been created. There have been losses in public sector employment of 440,000 jobs, but the ratio is about three to one. If we go back to the first quarter of last year, before the recovery had become properly embedded, the figures show that in every single region of the country, including in the north-east of England, private sector growth exceeded the decline in public sector employment, and that that trend has been sustained.

We have been talking about the rise in the number of people on zero-hours contracts. Is the Secretary of State aware of a report by ACAS saying that between 2003-04 and 2010-11—under Labour—the number of people on zero-hours contracts actually doubled?

Indeed, and to be fair to the shadow Secretary of State, he did acknowledge that job insecurity—particularly zero-hours contracts—was not particular to our period in office but was a long-term trend.

The Secretary of State makes an important point about the focus being on private sector, not public sector jobs, which is an important development, especially for the north-west, where my constituency is situated. Under the previous Government, far too many jobs—tens of thousands—were created in the public sector, which crowded out jobs and had a detrimental impact on the private sector. Will he confirm that this Government are putting the focus on private sector job creation, encouraging people to become first-time entrepreneurs and, through things such as the employment allowance, enabling them to become first-time employers as well?

The so-called crowding-out problem might well be an issue, if we run into problems of labour shortage, and indeed we are running into serious vacancies in some parts of the economy, so that might be a highly relevant consideration.

The rapid results service behind me has produced an answer on the number of hours worked. Apparently, in the last quarter, 969 million hours were worked, which was a 2.5% increase on the year.

The Office for National Statistics estimated that 0.57% of the working population were on zero-hours contracts in 2010 and that by 2012 that had leapt to 0.84%, so it almost doubled in that two-year period under this Government.

It is pleasing that the Secretary of State has referred to the north-east and acknowledged that we have a particular problem. He said that he would introduce policy once he knew the scale of the issues, but regardless of that, will he commit to doing something about employment agencies’ practice of skimming off tens of pounds from the weekly pay of minimum wage earners?

I am not quite sure what the hon. Lady is referring to. Is she referring to something illegal that needs to be investigated? I think the shadow Secretary of State raised the issue of abuses by employment agencies at the last BIS questions. We had been tipped off about that, and we are investigating where there is illegality.

I am happy to explain. A constituent of mine contacted me after taking a job through an employment agency on the minimum wage. He was required to sign away £16 of his earnings per week to pay the agency to process his pay—that is what he was told—so he is now taking home much less than the minimum wage. I can assure the Secretary of State that such practices are widespread. Will he commit to cracking down on this, regardless of the scale?

Of course, if there is illegal abuse of the minimum wage, it needs to be investigated and prosecuted, and we will do that. If the hon. Lady gives me the facts I will ensure that the matter is followed up.

I want to round up on the broad issue of the level of employment. The trend is clear: employment is growing rapidly, unemployment is falling and all parts of the UK are now benefiting. Even among particular groups of the population with past experiences of unemployment —for example, lone parents, disabled people and over-65s—employment is now at pre-recession levels. The overall story in the labour market is a positive one, but there are still large pockets of serious structural unemployment and people who want full-time employment —we acknowledge that—and that is why the recovery still has to be made sustainable.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) raises a very important point. We might be talking about a circumvention of the law or a loophole. Will the Secretary of State ensure that people on the minimum wage are not being scammed or skimmed by agencies and losing part of their vital weekly wage because of some of these schemes? It would be obscene if that was happening.

It is not clear to me from the intervention whether we are talking about avoidance or evasion. I need to be clear before we take action, so if either the hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), or both, give me the details, I will deal with the issue.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being generous with his time. Is he aware that the health effects of insecure employment are exactly the same as those for people who are unemployed? He will be aware that mental health problems, as well as physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, are associated with unemployment, but there is clear evidence that insecure work also has these detrimental effects. Has his Department made any assessment of the effects not just on individuals—which can obviously be traumatic if they have a myocardial infarction, for example—but on the health service?

Yes, we are well aware that insecurity in general has negative health effects. It is important, therefore, that we restore security.

It is worth quoting a study that was carried out a year or so ago, which contrasted people’s attitude towards their work now with their attitude roughly a decade ago, in 2003-04. The workplace employment relations study said that despite recession, the level of work satisfaction is higher than it was before. Of course, these are qualitative judgments and we cannot quantify these things, but I accept the basic point—we need job security and confidence—so let me take the various policy issues raised in the motion, and that the Opposition spokesman raised.

We are already dealing with some of the issues the hon. Gentleman raised, as he well knows. The consultation on zero-hours contracts will finish on 13 March. We have made it clear that we would like to take action on exclusivity. We are discussing the practicalities of that and I will return to the House to report on it. He refers in the motion to penalties for minimum wage abuse. He may recall that I explained to the House just over a week ago—I think I was facing the shadow Chief Secretary —that the penalties are being quadrupled. We are bringing forward primary legislation that will extend the penalty system per worker, rather than per company, which will potentially be much more prohibitive.

Contrary to what it says in the motion, we are looking at local enforcement. Joint actions between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and local councils are already taking place. Again, we have acknowledged that there are issues with false self-employment. The Treasury has admitted that this is a potential area of abuse. It has investigated it and a consultation is going out on how we can deal with the problem. Therefore, a lot of the issues raised in the motion are already being dealt with, as I think the shadow spokesman is well aware.

However, I want to deal with the areas where the hon. Gentleman reheats some of the criticisms of actions we took in the past. On the broad issue of employment rights, I have always made it clear that the hire and fire culture is not something I or we want to see. The people who argued that introducing a hire and fire culture into business was the only way to create employment have been proved as comprehensively wrong as the people who talked about a triple-dip recession, which is why we have not followed their advice.

It would also have been gracious to acknowledge that in some respects employment rights have been massively enhanced, and in two respects in particular: shared parental leave and paternity leave, and extending the right to flexible working. This affects hundreds of thousands of workers and potentially millions, whose rights at work have as a consequence been entrenched.

Talking about hire and fire cultures, does the Secretary of State recall saying that there should be no discrimination or victimisation of trade unionists following the dispute at Ineos in my constituency? Is he therefore as shocked as I am to hear that the convenor of shop stewards has today been summarily dismissed by the company on trumped-up charges?

I am surprised at that. I am not an expert on employment law, but I thought that protection from dismissal for trade union activities was a fully protected employment right. If the story is as has just been described, I would have thought the person concerned would have a good case to support his job.

Let me deal with the areas where the Opposition spokesperson was critical. He referred to the fact that we have quite deliberately tried to reduce the scope of employment tribunals, both by extending the qualifying period from one to two years and through the fee system, albeit with remission in respect of people on low incomes, as I think he would acknowledge. That was done for a specific reason. We are trying to ensure that difficult cases are moved from a legal, court framework to a framework of conciliation through ACAS. Lest anyone imagine that ACAS is some right-wing, business-friendly organisation that is against employees, let me point out—I do not know whether this has been picked up by the Opposition—that I recently appointed Brendan Barber as its head, so those whose employment disputes are referred to it can be pretty confident that they will be dealt with properly. It is surely right and sensible for small and medium-sized companies in particular not to tie up a lot of time and money in litigious processes when their disputes can be dealt with much better through conciliation.

The motion also refers to the dilution, as it has been described, of health and safety standards, although the hon. Member for Streatham did not refer to that in his speech. I do not know whether he has read the Löfstedt report, but it makes the position very clear. Essentially, what we have suggested is that where there is high-risk employment—and there is a great deal of it in agriculture, construction and manufacturing—the inspection regime should remain intact, but where there is found to be a low risk and that finding is evidence-based, the level of inspections should be reduced. No attempt is being made to undermine the safety regime applying to dangerous occupations.

It is worth bearing it in mind that, under the present Government, as under the last, British safety records are exemplary. According to our most recent survey, there were 148 fatalities last year. That is 148 too many, but the figure is comparable to the figure for the best previous year, 2009-2010, and significantly better than the figures in any other previous years. It means that we have a better health and safety record than almost any other country, including Germany, and that we are three times safer than France. Members should try to remember that important context before making throwaway references to diluting health and safety.

This is not a throwaway reference. I wonder whether the Secretary of State has seen the interview with Professor Löfstedt, whom he mentioned earlier. In that interview, which was published last month, the professor mentioned some of the steps the Government have taken on, for example, civil liability. He said:

“It’s very unfortunate; it’s more or less ideology. I have been trying to promote evidence based policy making and this does not help”.

That is what Professor Löfstedt is now saying about what the Government are doing.

My impression is that the policy we have been pursuing is very much evidence-based, and the examples I have given on inspections are in precisely that category. However, my colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions know much more about this aspect of the subject than I do, and no doubt they will respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s point.

Finally, let me deal with the one issue on which the hon. Member for Streatham spent quite a lot of time and with which he had a certain amount of fun. I refer to the “shares for rights” scheme. Of course, it is possible to develop a critique of that scheme, but what I find amusing is that at least three totally separate and conflicting arguments have been advanced against it. The first is that downtrodden workers will be stripped of their employment rights. When the scheme was being dealt with in Parliament, we tried to ensure that it would be entirely voluntary, and indeed we responded to proposals from the Opposition in order to entrench that.

Another line of criticism has nothing to do with downtrodden workers, but is all about highly paid executives carrying out a tax scam. That may be true. However, a third criticism—which we heard from Back Benchers and which is, at least currently, supported by the facts—was that neither of those things are happening, because not many people are taking up the scheme. If the Opposition are going to launch a full-frontal attack on the proposals, they should work out which of those three arguments they believe in.

The Secretary of State has argued that he has resisted some of the nastier aspects of his coalition partners’ moves to water down people’s rights at work, but we need only read the reports of what was said on both sides of the House of Lords to see what impact the “shares for rights” scheme was expected to have. That is the point I was making.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it parliamentary language to describe our coalition partners as “nasty”? There has been no proof of that during the debate.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s point of order. Of course it is always wise for Members to moderate their language. I make no ruling on whether the word “nasty” is appropriate, but it is certainly not a bad enough word for me to insist on its withdrawal.

The scheme cannot have the damaging effects that have been described if companies do not take it up. We will wait and see how many of this modest number of inquiries actually lead to schemes being established. If there are large numbers and they do have the damaging effects suggested, I will retract some of the comments I have been making, but I think the problem is likely to be that, far from damaging workers and far from leading to large-scale tax avoidance, it remains a niche scheme chosen by a handful of companies as an experiment, and as such it can do no harm.

Let me conclude by dealing with what I think should have been the meat of the debate: industrial strategy. It is important that we discuss that. It is very important that the shape and sustainability of the recovery be maintained. I would argue that what we have done is something that has not been done for decades. We are trying to get industry around the table, talking to each other, thinking about partnership, thinking about long-term policy. That has not happened for a very long time. Business is very enthusiastic about it. Trade unions are very enthusiastic about it, too. They want to join our various sector groups.

When we do get round to debating this subject properly, I will be interested in hearing how the Opposition want to develop it. Let us take one or two examples. Although we are pressed for cash, we have put £1 billion into the aerospace industry, co-financing the private sector, and we have put £500 million into the car industry. We are doing similar things for agribusiness and other sectors. Is the shadow Secretary of State proposing to enhance that, or change or develop it in any way? We would all be interested to know.

We have rolled out a system of catapults which are attracting a great deal of positive attention from both the research community and business. We have nine of them, and we would obviously like to take this further. If we had the endorsement and support of the Opposition, that would be a great help. I would be interested to know where they want to go with it.

We have introduced radical reforms of training and apprenticeships, as a result of which we are now getting big improvements in quantity and quality. Again, I have never heard any feedback from the Opposition on where they want to go with vocational training.

These are the issues we need to be talking about. This is how we are going properly to sustain the genuine and real recovery we have at the moment. I look forward to having those debates in future, but for tonight I recommend that my colleagues vote against this motion.

Order. In light of the extent of the interest in this debate, I have to impose with immediate effect a seven-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

I want to begin by reminding colleagues of exactly where we have come from over the last couple of decades. When I entered the House in 1997, in my communities there were many households where families were working flat-out. Many women in particular were holding down two, and sometimes three, jobs in order to make ends meet. Frankly, for many families there was little or no quality family time as parents operated like ships that passed in the night; as one parent came in the door from work, the other was quite often leaving, or at least soon thereafter, to go out and do their job. Work-life balance was not even a thought for many households.

The then Labour Opposition gave a commitment to introduce a national minimum wage, which the then Conservative Government laughed at saying it would lead to the loss of about 1 million jobs. The evidence showed that if we took £1 million and gave it to the poorest-paid workers, it had the potential to create between 35 and 40 jobs. I served on the national minimum wage Committee stage, as did you, Mr Speaker. I distinctly remember two or three long nights when we sat through the night to get that legislation passed.

What effect did that national minimum wage have? In my area we depend very much on small and medium-sized businesses, but there was a recognition that by paying the poorest people additional income, that money “washed around” in the local economy, giving local businesses the confidence perhaps to take on another member of staff as prospects looked brighter. If every small business had taken on one new member of staff at that time, there would have been no unemployment, and that is still the position today. If every small and medium-sized enterprise took on one additional member of staff, we would have no unemployment. The big issue, however, is whether businesses feel confident enough to do that. They are looking for a degree of certainty, and a glimmer of hope that there will be a brighter future.

I put it to the Secretary of State that there might well be a recovery going on out there, but it is pretty patchy across the various parts of the United Kingdom. Any economic recovery that has taken place under this Government has involved a race to the bottom for those who earn the lowest wages and have the fewest rights at work. People at work are being hit by rising insecurity, as Ministers have made it easier for employers to fire rather than easier to hire, watered down people’s rights at work and compounded the cost of living crisis for many families. The Opposition have made it clear that we plan to ban zero-hours contracts when they exploit people, to end the scandal of false self-employment, to strengthen the national minimum wage and its enforcement and to incentivise employers to pay a living wage through “make work pay” contracts.

I want to finish by mentioning a couple of issues that have arisen in my own area. As I have said on many occasions, it is an area with a low-wage economy. I am not, however, one of those individuals who is constantly moaning, and we are now, thankfully, seeing a slight increase in the average wage in rural south-west Scotland. It has moved from being around 24% below the UK national average to being between 18% and 19% below it. One of the big crises in our area is youth unemployment, which remains stubbornly high at 6.1%, compared with the UK average of 4.9%. It has remained at that high level for many years. It is all very well for us in this House to talk about young people being our future; those young people are there today. They are the future, but that is what is happening today.

A major ferry company operating in my area is now considering exploiting a loophole that would enable it to get rid of its UK crews and bring in crews from non-European economic area countries. That could involve seafarers who, in some parts of the world, are being paid as little as £2.41 an hour. I put it to the Secretary of State that that is a disgrace. It represents the sheer, naked exploitation of a loophole that exists in this country, and I would have expected much more of the company involved. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will look seriously at what can be done to close that loophole.

The other issue came to light in my office towards the end of last week. I have a young constituent who is a single parent. She has been on a zero-hours contract for some time. She wants to establish a business, but her contract states that if she leaves her employment, she cannot go on to do similar work elsewhere within three months. She wants to develop her own business, but she is being told not only that she cannot take on similar work or run a business within three months of leaving that company, but that she cannot work within a 10-mile radius of where she is currently working. Her employers have pulled her in and told her that they are prepared to sack her and take her to court. The terms of that contract are unbelievable, and I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State will look at some of the contracts that people such as my constituent are having to tolerate in 2014. Finally, I thank him for the figures that he has given the House to illustrate the number of hours being worked per month, but I would like to see the figures for the past four years, if possible.

I am grateful to be called in this interesting debate, Mr Speaker. When I saw the title of the motion, I was pleased that the Opposition were tackling a substantive issue that I know is close to the hearts of many Members, on both sides of the House. As we have heard from Labour Members, this subject is the reason why many of them went into politics: they wanted to fight on behalf of their constituents who are most vulnerable at times like these, including to rapacious and exploitative employers.

I was therefore disappointed to read the content of the motion. I very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that it could have talked about serious issues of job insecurity, especially the problems we face, which are existential challenges as this economy expands and grows once again: how we compete in an increasingly ferocious competitive environment. However, the motion contains a shopping list of failed Labour claims, most of which have been forgotten. Labour Members seem to have gone through so many accusations that they are now retreading them and putting them back in their motions.

Let me go through the motion line by line. It states:

“That this House believes that insecurity at work has increased under this Government, compounding the cost of living crisis facing families”.

There is no recognition, even at the beginning, of the triumph of coming out of the great recession, with 1.3 million more jobs. The greatest insecurity any family can have is not having a job, yet we have more people in jobs, and most of those people, although not all, are pleased with their jobs. They are pleased that they have a job that is secure—not everyone does, but most do.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency may well be very different from mine. Job insecurity is high in my area, and the cost of living increase has also been large. The StepChange Debt Charity recently published a report showing the average income of its clients in Bridgend in 2010 was £1,189, yet by 2014 that figure had risen by only £5. By contrast, arrears in gas and electricity bills, and mortgage arrears, are increasing. We are living in very different environments, with different work experiences, which is why Opposition Members are concerned about job insecurity.

I am well acquainted with the hon. Lady’s constituency, as it is where my family is originally from. There are certainly differences between her constituency and mine, but Ipswich has significant areas of deprivation and its long-term unemployment is above the national average. These are precisely the issues that I am concerned about, just as she is. I recognise the point she is making, but to claim—this is where the shadow Secretary of State really lets himself down—that this is something new immediately debases the debate.

When we look at the movement of wages over the past 10 to 15 years, we see that a far more subtle change has been going on, which we need to address. Middle-income earners have seen their wages, in real-terms, first plateau and then decrease slightly from 2003-04, even up until the point of the crisis, as a result of increased tax and increased costs of living. That might indicate that we need to have a rather fuller debate about why that is happening in our country—and was even before we hit the extraordinary circumstances of the great recession. Some claim that this has been on the Opposition’s lips for a long time, but I find that problematic, because I was speaking about the cost of living before my election in 2010 and in the days afterwards. It was immediately of concern to everyone, on almost every income, in my constituency.

I am talking about not just those who are most hard pressed, but those people, often on middle incomes, who have not much wiggle room because they have a mortgage. They are at the most expensive stage in their life. They are bringing up children and saving for a pension. The things that make life bearable for them—sometimes they are in jobs that they do not particularly enjoy—are the holiday and the curry every fortnight. Those things have now gone by the wayside, but that happened not in 2013 but in 2007-08. People’s lifestyles have changed over that period, and we need to address that in the long term. To claim that that change is a result of specific Government policies is profoundly misleading. We are addressing the problems identified on every line of the motion, up to the last one, as the Secretary of State made quite clear,

The motion mentions the changes to employment regulations. In 2011, an owner of a major cleaning company in my constituency came to see me, saying that she wanted to hire more people on permanent contracts. Admittedly she was offering just above the minimum wage—I am afraid that is what most cleaners in this country are paid—but they were jobs none the less. She said that she was prevented from taking on those people because of the labour regulations. As a result of the changes we made in 2011-12, she has hired dozens more people who otherwise would have been without a job. I want to see those people on a living wage. I also want to see them keeping more of their money, which is partly why I am so proud of what we did with income tax relief for the lowest paid and why, through changes to national insurance, we are making it even easier for companies to hire. It is a good thing to see people employed who otherwise would not have been employed. Those changes have meant that unemployment has come down in my constituency.

Let me now take the example of zero-hours contracts. In a Public Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made an important point about why for her, at a time in her life when she had just had children, zero-hours contracts were useful. There are many people on zero-hours contracts who would prefer to be on a permanent contract. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggests that it is only a minority of people who are on zero-hours contracts. Like the hon. Lady, there might be many people who value them at a particular moment.

Just this weekend, I met a constituent who made an interesting point. Before the great recession, he was employed as a construction worker. He was laid off in 2009-10. Recently, he has been getting a lot more agency work, much of which is zero hours, but he is earning considerably more than he did when he was in full-time employment. I asked him whether he preferred the security or the money. He said that, obviously, he would like both, but given a choice at this moment, he preferred the money. He said, “I know that as the economy begins to improve and construction gets a proper foothold, I will have the security, too.” These are difficult choices. I wish that, rather than making a litany of complaints, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) had concentrated on the meat of the discussion, which he outlines in the last sentence of the motion. We need to talk about skills and education levels, all of which were left in a terrible state by the previous Government and which we are having to unpick and undo. I am afraid that that in itself will take several generations to take effect.

We are talking about the result of decades’ worth of negligence by Governments of both colours. Let us have a proper discussion about that. I hope the Labour party will show itself to be worthy of being not just the Opposition but the potential Government.

My hon. Friend quite rightly highlights the last sentence of the motion, which calls on the Government

“to adopt a proper industrial strategy to help create more high-skilled, better paid jobs.”

Does he agree that Government policy on apprenticeships is absolutely key, and that there are two small areas in which they could do even more to highlight the opportunities for young people: funding apprenticeships for the over-25s, and funding employers directly rather than through the training intermediaries?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the news on apprenticeships is very good. Between 2010 and 2013, 370,000 additional apprenticeships were created, bringing the number up to nearly 1 million, which is an extraordinary achievement by this Government. We are again showing ourselves to be the true party of labour. I am proud of that and of what we have achieved, but let us think about the long term and the reforms to education and skills that we need to achieve to compete with those very ambitious and aspirational young men and women coming out of schools and colleges in Mumbai and Shanghai. At that point, we will have a proper debate about job insecurity and the future of this nation.

Order. I am afraid that in light of the number of people who want to speak the limit will be cut to five minutes with immediate effect.

We are paying the penalty for all the interventions from people who did not put their names down to speak, Mr Speaker.

I want to focus on one part of the motion—the part that states that the Government’s watering down of rights, including protections against unfair dismissal, might be affecting the job security of people in this country. My main concern is to illustrate that describing the rights of workers as a burden on business sends a signal that has led to some businesses moving backwards in time and thinking that they can ill treat their work force with impunity.

The House will recall the threat to the INEOS petrochemical and refinery site at Grangemouth in my constituency at the end of 2013. At the time of the agreement that saved the plant, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said that there should be no victimisation of trade unionists by the company. At the time, I asserted that the company had already victimised the joint convener, Stephen Deans, who was forced to resign, but I accept that the Secretary of States probably meant to call for that non-victimisation from the end of the dispute.

I was pleased when the Secretary of State seemed to say that he was as shocked as I was, and as the INEOS work force, my local community and elected representatives from all parties were, when we heard that the remaining convener had been summarily dismissed today. I investigated in order to find out the purpose of the dismissal and the charges against that trade union convener, who happens to be the vice-chair of Unite in the UK. One charge was that an article in the Daily Record had been commented on by the Scottish secretary of Unite, who has nothing to do with the plant, and that the convener had not done enough to influence that person not to write in that paper criticising the company. I criticised the company on the facts: there will be substantial job losses when it shuts the naphtha plant, the butadiene plant and the benzene plant. That was what was said in the article.

The second charge referred to:

“Comments attributed to you during a meeting held with the refinery management team on 12th December 2013 as detailed in the notes presented to you with the disciplinary invitation letter.”

That meeting was when the convener pointed out to the company that the shift schedule it had put together for the maintenance shutdown of the refinery would not work. The odd thing is that the company has now adopted his suggested schedule for work during the shutdown while sacking him for suggesting it in the first place. That is a trumped-up charge to get rid of the convener because, in this day and age, the company wants to get rid of the trade union.

After further investigation, I discovered that the company has been going around telling the elected shop stewards that they are not suitable people, that their credentials will be removed and that management will decide who will be the conveners and the representatives. Last night, I sought out the International Labour Organisation conventions on the matter. They are convention 87, on freedom of association and the protection of the right to organise, and convention 98, on the right to organise and collective bargaining, and they have both been breached by the company. I thought that perhaps something had happened under the UK Government to weaken those conventions, so I looked up the rights of trade unionists in the UK on the website. The section headed “Trade union membership: your employment rights” states that people have the right to be a trade unionist and to be an activist with a trade union, and that they will be represented by their elected convener or shop steward. I went to the next section, entitled “Role of your trade union rep”, and that role is to represent members’ views to management and take part in discussions with management.

Every source is saying that a company does not have the right to sack a convener for telling the management that the work force have a different view. A company has no right to sack a convener because it does not like the fact that his union wrote something about it in a newspaper. The Secretary of State has underwritten £150 million in loan guarantees for the company to fund its expansion into using ethane from America and it has received £9 million from the Scottish Government in regional selective assistance, so I call on the Secretary of State to make these people come to the table and realise that they cannot breach ILO conventions or the laws of this land by sacking people summarily. I demand that they reinstate the convener forthwith and do what we all said. There should be no recriminations and no victimisation; let us negotiate the way forward. This is an important issue for my constituents and the economy of both Scotland and this country and we cannot have bully boys. I name Declan Sealy as the person who is behind all this in the company.

I know from personal and family experience that job insecurity, unemployment and long-term unemployment in particular are very damaging to individuals and communities. Unemployment can affect mental and physical health and hold back economic growth. I know what it is like for a family’s breadwinner to be made redundant. I know what it is like to start with nothing, but I also know what it is like to create a business, create jobs and create wealth and opportunities. It is right to help people into work and make sure that work pays. In return, people on out-of-work benefits, for example, should be encouraged to take the opportunities available to help them move off benefits and into work.

I am encouraged that the number of people on jobseeker’s allowance in my constituency has fallen by over a third since the last election. With an out-of-work rate of 2.2%, the situation is a lot rosier than it was in the depths of the financial crisis. Long-term unemployment and youth unemployment are also down by a quarter. However, I will highlight one area in my constituency where job insecurity is real. I make no apology for using most of my speech to talk about this issue.

I am proud to represent a constituency whose two power stations at Drax and Eggborough are responsible for about 12% of the UK’s electricity generation. I was delighted that, before Christmas, Drax was awarded an investment contract to convert one of its units to renewable biomass. This is great news for local jobs. Sadly, Eggborough power station, which recently celebrated 1 million running hours since its opening in 1967, was not so lucky.

Eggborough is a cornerstone of industry for the region, for both the 800 employees on site and the thousands of engineering, construction and procurement workers across the region whose jobs depend on Eggborough’s continuing survival. The station plans to convert from coal to biomass in a project worth £750 million for our region. A number of local MPs and I are deeply concerned that its future could now be at risk, and with that comes increased job insecurity.

This is a big issue in my constituency as well. My hon. Friend is fighting tirelessly for Eggborough. Is not the risk that if these jobs go, they will be replaced by energy generation that is largely constructed overseas? It will probably be offshore wind and most of those units will come from overseas.

My hon. Friend is right. He has been a great help in the campaign to ensure that Eggborough stays open. There is no sense in creating jobs overseas for technologies that do not produce electricity, when we have right on our doorstop technology that can work with our existing coal plant conversions.

Converting the station to biomass means 800 new on-site jobs and delivers growth right across the region. The majority of the work force, however, will be local to Selby. Of course, it is not just about new jobs for a new generation of workers; it is about preserving existing jobs on and off site. Many workers on site have given most of their professional lives to Eggborough and it is unthinkable that Eggborough should be forced out of business just as they are nearing retirement. I, the management of Eggborough and my colleagues will continue fighting for this project, because it is the right thing to do, not just for our energy security, but because of the hundreds of workers who are dependent on it for their livelihoods. Over the years the Selby area has lost its shipbuilding industry, and in 2004 the large Selby coalfield closed down, but thankfully we are seeing business confidence return and with that come jobs and opportunities.

The problem I have with the Opposition motion today is that it appears to have been drafted by someone who clearly has never been an employer. There seems to be a strategy to try to talk down the British economy at every opportunity for political advantage. Like several of my colleagues on the Government Benches, rather than talking a good game, I took the decision to try to take action in my constituency and organised jobs fairs, matching employers and jobseekers. I have also been into the jobcentre to help with mentoring and interview skills. The jobs fairs have been extremely successful in getting people back into work. We have now had three jobs fairs in the district and will shortly be organising the next one.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Jobcentre Plus for all its efforts in working with me and my team. I also thank Selby college and all the companies and organisations that brought their vacancies to the jobs fairs. I urge Opposition Members please to engage with the private sector in their constituencies and to do something positive, such as organising jobs fairs, because they really work. I regularly visit companies in my patch, and the news is extremely encouraging.

Jobs in this country are up. More than 30 million people are now working, which means more than 30 million individuals taking a pay packet home to their families. Vacancies are also up, which is extremely encouraging. They are now at their highest level for five years. A recent snapshot showed 569,000 unfilled job vacancies across the country. In addition, it is British people who are being hired, as in the past year 90% of new jobs went to UK nationals. The new jobs being created are overwhelmingly full-time, permanent jobs in the private sector.

We are by no means out of the woods, but the Government are delivering a sustainable recovery and making difficult long-term decisions to secure a better future for everyone. Lord help us if the anti-business, anti-aspiration party on the Opposition Benches is ever returned to government.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and to tell him that we do have jobs fairs. In fact, we have had them for years in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) and in my coterminous constituency, run highly successfully by the Labour-controlled Bridgend county borough council, working with the local chamber of commerce and local businesses. We are not an anti-entrepreneur party—quite the opposite.

Something very odd is going on in south Wales, as I suggested earlier. Long-term youth unemployment is still remarkably high—intransigently so—and the overall level of employment is not good, but there are some encouraging signs. At the same time, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend will know, our county borough area has recently been identified as the area with the highest level of food bank use in the whole of Wales. Every single village in my constituency now has a food bank. It is a tremendous tribute to the work of the volunteers, the Trussell Trust, local churches and so on, but why are so many people who are in work having to go to food banks?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend referred to a recent report by StepChange, the UK’s largest independent debt advice charity, entitled “Wales in the red”, which highlights what is going on in Wales. I want to mention some of its findings. Between 2010 and 2013, the demand for debt advice in Blaenau Gwent increased by 60%. In the Bridgend county borough area it increased by 63%. The same pattern was true in completely different, remote and rural areas such as Denbighshire and Gwynedd. In the Vale of Glamorgan the increase was nearly 60%. The same pattern can be seen right across Wales, but it is significantly bad in the south Wales valleys.

The report analysed the proportion of the charity’s clients struggling with rent arrears in each of Wales’s 22 unitary authorities. Blaenau Gwent and Ceredigion, which are completely contrasting constituencies, given Blaenau Gwent’s post-industrial structure and Ceredigion’s rurality, have both seen an increase in the proportion of clients struggling with rent arrears—35% in Blaenau Gwent and nearly 40% in Ceredigion. The same can be said of Flintshire, Neath, Port Talbot, Powys, the Vale of Glamorgan and other areas. The employment figures might offer a crude indication of some recovery, but underneath those figures something odd is going on, because many of the people clamouring for debt advice—StepChange makes this point—are actually in work.

Let me mention a couple of other indicators. In Conwy, the proportion of home-owning clients struggling with mortgage arrears is up to 50%. In Gwynedd, that figure is over 50%. In Pembrokeshire—these are completely contrasting constituencies—it is just shy of 50%. In Powys it is just shy of 50%. Something really odd is going on.

If we look at the proportion of customers with arrears on gas bills—I will skip over electricity bills, but it is a similar story—we see that nearly 16% of people in Neath Port Talbot and in Torfaen are struggling with that situation. Right across the whole of Wales, bills have increased over the past three years. Something odd is going on.

My final point is the most significant of all. In every one of the 22 unitary authorities in Wales, many people in work are seeking debt advice. The Bridgend unitary authority area is on the M4 corridor, still has one of the biggest manufacturing belts in the whole of the United Kingdom, and has a travel-to-work area that includes Cardiff, where jobs should be available. Yet people in that area, including those in work, are struggling with payday loans and debt advice, and there has been a near-enough tenfold increase in the number of those seeking payday loans. It is the same in Flintshire, Newport, and so on. Something odd is going on.

It is great to welcome the crude analysis of people falling off claimant counts, but if they are then falling into debt because they are not being paid enough and are having to rely on loans and getting into debt, that is not good enough. Surely, as a House, we want to do better for our constituents than that.

It is an honour to participate in this debate, because we have some really good news in St Albans. I can tell Labour Members that people there appreciate an improving economy under the measures taken by this Government.

Many of my constituents who commute into London because they are part of the knowledge-based economy will have taken a very dim view of taking hours to get to work this morning. It is amazing that Labour Members have not touched on the fact that an estimated £200 million was lost to the economy by the strikes that were called for today and that 3 million hard-working people will have been forced to traipse miles to work or not have been able to get to work. That is thanks to today’s strike, of which Labour Members have refused to take any cognisance.

We are very lucky in St Albans to have an unemployment rate of only 1.6%. Even with that low rate, there have been significant improvements. Youth unemployment stands at 2.6%, which is half the UK average, but apprenticeships have doubled in the past three years. Under the Labour Government in 2007-10, St Albans had only 630 apprenticeships; now, in 2010-13, it has 1,410 apprenticeships.

If the public have been watching this debate, they will have heard a new slogan from Labour Members—“Don’t just take any old job.” I look forward to some analysis of which jobs they think are valuable and which they think are any old jobs. I have in my constituency young people getting into jobs who feel the benefit of the experience that being in the workplace brings.

We have heard nothing from Labour Members today about the fact that if we had obeyed their rules on fuel duty, many of the small businesses that are thriving in St Albans would have found themselves paying 13p a litre more. The hard-pressed families to whom many Labour Members refer are spending £7 a week less under the Conservatives than they would have done if Labour were in power. There has been a great deal of assistance for people who run those small businesses. I notice that Labour Members do not wish to intervene on me when I say that this would have been the state of the economy under Labour.

We do not say that there are no problems. However, there should at least be some acknowledgement by Labour Members of an economy that was so broken by them, that they did so little to fix, and in which they did not even think about fuel prices for small businesses, deliverymen, and all the people in our economy who get themselves to work. They will not condemn the strikes that prevented many people from getting to work, but they are lambasting us for not doing more to get people proper jobs. This is very surprising from a party that said that it wished to see some form of job creation and that the unemployment rate would rise. That has patently proved to be untrue.

What is more, we help the parents who are lucky enough to get into jobs by making their child care more affordable, and, if they go to work in their car, they will find that their fuel duty is lower. We have also increased the amount of child-care time to which they are entitled.

The motion does not reflect the true state of the economy. Nobody is saying that there is nothing more to do—of course there is. When people trudge into work yet again tomorrow, and when so many of us and our constituents trudge home tonight—many people commute into London from St Albans—perhaps the Labour party will reflect on the amount of money that could have been in the economy and the amount of people who could have got to work today. They were prevented from doing so by a union leader who lives in social housing because he feels it is his due, rather than because he needs it, and who has not apologised for the disruption he is causing to the economy that the Government are choosing to improve.

I would welcome a visit from any Labour Member to St Albans, where they will see that there is optimism even in affluent areas such as mine and that people who had found it hard to get jobs are now, through mature and youth apprenticeships, getting jobs and work experience. I defy Labour Members to tell any of them that those are not proper jobs.

This is a timely Opposition motion. The most startling statistic we have heard this afternoon is that, regardless of what we say about jobs, everyone in this country is, on average, £1,600 worse off than they were in 2010. It does not matter what we say: that is the figure.

I want to focus on the lives of real people in communities across the political divide and throughout the length and breadth of this country. It is a shame that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has left his seat, because he explained from the Dispatch Box on two or three occasions that he understood that the north-east is suffering really badly compared with some other parts of the country. If that is the case, why did the Government decide to appoint a Minister for Portsmouth to sort out its problems, but refuse the request to appoint a Minister to sort out the problems in the north-east?

I fear for young people in the north-east, because 23% of 18 to 24-year-olds are unemployed. They do not have anything to do. I am concerned because they feel ignored, isolated and worthless. They have no self-esteem. They lack hope, ambition and aspiration. There is a poignant joke about a young woman working in Poundstretcher, where everything is worth a pound—apart from her. It is hurtful in many ways, but I think it accentuates the real problem in today’s society.

The north-east has the highest level of young unemployed people in the country: 20,315 people aged between 18 and 24 are out of work, which is double the figure in the south-east and double that in the south-west.

I have a real problem with the mental health of a lot of these young people. This is an extremely important issue and it has not really been touched on. A survey by the Prince’s Trust only last year found that 40% of jobless young people suffer from some form of mental illness. They suffer from suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks. As I have said, some regions are faring better than others and I have great concerns about the north-east.

The north-east has some brilliant, innovative businesses. We have Nissan, which everyone agrees is a fantastic company providing lots of jobs, and AkzoNobel. We also have an excellent small factory called Ashington Embroidery Services, which I visited the other day. The people there previously worked at Remploy and they have made a real job of things. All credit to them—I am not criticising these good companies—but they cannot employ everyone.

Had I had the time, I would have focused on three issues: zero-hours contracts, the national minimum wage and job insecurity. Obviously, I will not have much time to deal with any of them at great length.

I was interested to speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) today about zero-hours contracts. He explained that his granddaughter was on one of these fantastic zero-hours contracts with McDonald’s. She, like a pool of others, had to sit and wait with their telephones for a text giving the option: “There’s two hours if you need it”. That went to 20, 30, 40 or 50 people, and the first one in got the work. It is absolutely outrageous that we live in such a society. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, zero-hours contracts are absolutely outdated. I do not want them to be just amended and changed, but abolished, because they are not fit for purpose.

We really need to recognise that life is difficult for many people in many ways. Telling people that they are better off is cruel, unfair and unjust. I fully support the Labour motion.

It is a real pleasure to participate in this debate, which is covering some important areas. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), I think that there are all too many missed opportunities in the Opposition motion on this important subject.

The reality is that we are 1.6 million private sector jobs up since the general election. Let us contrast that with the scandalous situation in which the number of workless households more than trebled under the previous Government. It became the norm for future generations just to accept that they would never have the opportunity to work. I have talked in previous debates about how the fact that the school I went to was at the bottom of the league tables and that I had seen generations of people robbed of an opportunity is what got me involved in politics and in supporting the Conservative party.

In my constituency, unemployment has fallen by 34% and youth unemployment by 30%. Let us remember that no Labour Government have ever left office with lower unemployment, which is their real legacy.

I will not, because time is limited and other speakers would have their time cut.

The number of apprentices has now doubled to 1.5 million, which is really worth while. Partly driving that improvement has been our support for businesses through new employee incentives, such as the extension of business rate relief, the cut in corporation tax, start-up business loans and the enterprise allowance—all measures that I have supported and that the Opposition have voted against.

The national minimum wage is incredibly important. I spoke about it in the Opposition day debate a few weeks ago. I am a big supporter of the national minimum wage. I support the fact that fines will be increased and that they will quite rightly be targeted on a per worker basis. I want more to be done and for us to be proactive in focusing not just on businesses, but actual decision makers within them, because members of staff are being exploited. In some cases, it is borderline slavery. That is rife in many parts of our economy—the restaurant trade, the night-time economy—and much more could be done. The figures show that people have got away with it all too often, not only recently but in the long term.

I know that the shadow Secretary of State did not want to discuss his personal situation, but when I ran a business, employed people and got them to contribute positively to society, I always made sure that I paid a fair wage. I incentivised my staff and they shared in the business as it did well, because they were more productive—a win-win situation.

The Government have done much to help keep money in the pockets of hard-working people. The income tax threshold has been raised, and 2.4 million of the lowest earners now pay no income tax at all, while 25 million people have had a tax cut. I have gently encouraged the Chancellor of the Exchequer to state any changes, positive or negative, on payslips so that people realise when and why they get more or less money. That would help to create further security.

The Government have reversed Labour’s trend of continuing to put up fuel duty. There were 12 disgraceful rises in just 13 years, but we cancelled the next six proposed increases. We even cut fuel duty, and since then we have continued to freeze it. That is important because fuel is the single most important tangible cost—the one thing which the public can say exactly how much it costs—so keeping its cost down will help to improve confidence. We have also cut the beer duty, which has been much welcomed, and the triple lock for pensions has meant the biggest ever cash rise for pensioners on fixed incomes.

Council tax has now been frozen in most councils, predominantly Conservative ones, for four years in a row. I pay tribute to my local authority, which in the next couple of weeks will set its fourth council tax freeze, in stark contrast to when Labour ran the council and put it up by a disgraceful 42% in just three years. Fear not: they were booted out of office on the back of that. It is right that the Government have encouraged and incentivised councils to freeze council tax.

Finally, in respect of youth unemployment, we need to encourage young people to consider becoming young entrepreneurs. I welcome the fact that 400,000 new businesses have been created since the general election. However, more young people need to understand that they do not just have to go to university or do an apprenticeship, because they might have the ability to set up their own business. Young people have the enthusiasm, energy and risk-taking ability to do so. I did a business degree at university. Of the 350 students on the course, I was the only one who went on to run my own business because entrepreneurial flair and risk-taking were taught out of us. Obviously, I was not paying enough attention. I therefore welcome organisations, such as Outset in Swindon, that provide mentoring for young people so that they can use their enthusiasm, having been inspired by TV programmes such as “Dragons’ Den” and “The Apprentice”, to become the next generation of wealth creators and provide further employment opportunities.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), because I want to counter some of the myths that have been perpetuated. It is constantly stated that Labour Governments always leave office with unemployment higher than when they came to office. That is not true. Between 1945 and 1951, unemployment fell under a Labour Government. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, the position was very stable. Let us contrast that with the 18 years of Conservative Government between 1979 and—[Interruption.] Government Members can brush it aside if they wish, but for 13 of those 18 years, unemployment was higher than 10%. When the Conservative Government left office in 1997, unemployment was brought down by the Labour Government and it fell in every year until the financial crash.

It would be very strange to place the blame for a world financial crash on the Government of one country.

The other myth that has been perpetuated is that pensioners have this Government to thank for the largest cash rise in pensions ever because they introduced the triple lock. It did not happen because of the triple lock; it happened because inflation was so high in that year, which was largely due to the increase in VAT. If Members care to remember, it was said that that was never going to happen. The rate of inflation is the reason why the cash rise in pensions had to be so high. For pensioners, it was merely an inflationary cash rise. It had nothing whatever to do with the triple lock. If nothing had changed in the policy, the rise would have been exactly the same.

I want to touch on what all this means for a lot of people. We hear a lot about all the private sector jobs that have been created. However, nearly 500,000 of those private sector jobs are in the health and social care field, and most of those are funded by the public sector. They are private sector jobs only because they have been outsourced. For far too many of those employees, the working conditions have worsened. Earlier, a Government Member sought to intervene to say that Labour councils have outsourced contracts. I know of Labour councils that have outsourced contracts. My council has such contracts because it inherited them from the previous Liberal Democrat council.

Private firms are operating social care services on the basis of zero-hours contracts. People who work in the social care sector, much like the McDonald’s workers who have been discussed, wait at home to see how many hours they will get each week. Not only is that bad for the employee who never knows how much she will earn from one week to the next, but it is absolutely atrocious for the person for whom the care is being provided. It is no wonder that people do not know who their carer will be on any given day when the work is organised in that fashion.

The Government cannot escape responsibility for that situation. Why are councils finding themselves in that position? In Scotland it is largely because we have now had the council tax freeze, which has been mentioned, for six or seven years. It is not properly funded; local councils are strapped for cash, and as a result they are looking for experience in how to provide services. If a care service is outsourced, for example, it provides very poor employment circumstances for people.

Another problem that people encounter when on such contracts is how they organise child care. How can they do that if they never know when they will be able to work? One couple I spoke to at the weekend told me that they had to give up the possibility of both working, because they could not organise child care around their work contracts. That has knock-on consequences not just on their working conditions, but also on other aspects of their working life. These real issues are happening in all our constituencies, and we need to change that.

This Opposition day debate is no more than a fig leaf covering the fact that the Labour party has absolutely no policies to offer. It is still a blank piece of paper when it comes to policies. I find it amazing that every time we hear from Labour Members, they always give the impression that they have some sort of monopoly on compassion. Is that the same compassion that meant that unemployment and youth unemployment were higher in 2010 than in 1997? Is it the same compassion that meant that Labour missed all its child poverty targets, that the gap between rich and poor grew wider, and that left us with a record budget deficit for which we have still had no apology whatsoever?

The way to improve job security and tackle the cost of living is to grow the economy and get business confidence going, which leads to more jobs and rising prosperity. That is exactly what the Government are doing by cutting taxes, getting rid of unnecessary red tape, investing in our young people and infrastructure, and welcoming foreign inward investment.

Let me say a little about Reading, the town that I represent and where I grew up, because I am incredibly proud that it is an economic powerhouse not just in the Thames valley but in the country as a whole. What have the Government been doing for young people in Reading? They have been investing some £4 million in the last year in the pupil premium, providing 3,000 new apprenticeships, investing millions more in new school places, and bringing youth unemployment down to 225 in December 2013, compared with 635 when we came into government. The key is getting students ready for the workplace and, like many of my colleagues, I have run careers fares. At the last one, 1,200 students came along to talk to 60 companies. I run employability workshops with local employers, which are the sort of thing we ought to be doing to ensure that our young people feel there is a way forward.

Let me read a few comments that I received from people who attended that employability workshop. Navjit Gill said:

“The interview and networking skills session was really useful. I learned a lot about what to do in interviews.”

Elijah Seville-Williams said:

“The workshop taught me about interview techniques which will prepare me for getting a job later.”

That is what we should be doing, as Members of Parliament.

Many employers in my constituency are creating many jobs—small companies as well as larger ones. Tesco has just set up a new distribution centre and I was pleased to be part of supporting that. There are almost 1,200 new jobs, but also 85 jobs for the long-term unemployed. I went to a graduation ceremony last year for people who had not had a job for a long time but had finally found employment through that scheme. It was an incredibly emotional graduation. People were there, with their grandchildren and parents, from across the social spectrum—real people whose lives were being turned around. The reason why companies such as Tesco are confident about creating those jobs is that they have been given that confidence as a result of this Government’s policies.

Business confidence is up in the Thames valley. The Thames Valley Business Barometer published a few weeks ago showed that eight out of 10 businesses are more confident in the economy, 50% reported an increase in the number of employees, while about two thirds forecast a rise in profitability in 2014 that will mean they can employ more people.

Finally, one thing the Leader of the Opposition has managed to do brilliantly, even though he is not running the country, is destroy value in the private sector. Look at what he said about splitting up banks. As soon as he made that statement, £1 billion was wiped off the share price of RBS and Lloyds. That affects not City fat cats or bankers—or whoever the Opposition are currently bashing—but the pension money that is invested on behalf of my hard-working constituents who pay their taxes and invest in their pensions, only to find that the Leader of the Opposition destroys the value of that pension. That is not good enough.

If the Opposition want to know what happens if taxes are increased and entrepreneurs are hit, they should look at what is happening in socialist France, where growth is projected to be a third of what it will be in the UK in 2014. If the Opposition understood anything about jobs, the economy and what is necessary to create security and prosperity, they would vote against their own motion this evening. I urge everyone to reject the motion.

As I said earlier, it is 10 years since 23 Chinese cockle pickers lost their lives on the shores of Morecambe bay, working under the instructions of an illegal gangmaster. There is now clear evidence that these illegal gangmasters have moved into other sectors, such as construction, care and leisure. They are also causing significant problems in other areas. I am delighted that my party will commit in its manifesto to extending the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 to those sectors, but I wish the coalition Government would do likewise. I shall not hold my breath.

There is a myth going around that people want to work zero-hours contracts. Let us walk in the shoes of a young constituent of mine to see how zero-hours contracts work. The name of the company he works for is SGL, also known as SecuriGroup, and the majority of its work is for the UK Government. The company is not operating to the working time directive. My constituent says, “For example, over the Christmas and New Year period, I worked from Monday to Thursday, 8 am to 8 pm with no breaks. Then on Friday and Saturday nights I worked from 8 pm to 12 am the next day in Glasgow night clubs. During the New Year week I was asked to go straight from working at a school building site to work at a Glasgow night club. If I refuse, I don’t get any work over the following weeks.”

On pay, my constituent says, “I was also told I would only receive the minimum wage of £6.31 per hour over the two-week festive period, and I won’t get a Christmas payslip until next week or a New Year payslip until the following week. I was paid weekly and charged £13 from my salary for my jacket and tie. I was also charged another £3 for my hat. I have not received any uniform shirts, trousers or shoes, which I have to provide myself. For the first few months I was working at a school building site in Glasgow, where I worked two 16-hour shifts, 4 pm to 8 am, one 12-hour shift, 8 am to 8 pm, and two four-hour shifts, 8 pm to 12 am or 9 pm to 1 am. No breaks were given during the 16-hour shifts.”

That is what happens under zero-hours contracts, and that is probably not the worst example. After receiving the letter from my young constituent, I wrote to the company concerned, SecuriGroup, and the managing director, a Mr Russell Kerr, replied, rather aggressively. He ends his letter by saying:

“Any legislation that improves the terms and conditions for our people would be welcomed by SecuriGroup.”

That knocks on the head the idea that employers will be upset if we bring in legislation to stop zero-hours contracts. Mr Kerr suggests that it would be no problem.

The Government could do a lot to end zero-hours contracts. Action is needed on the Government’s contracting culture. As the main contractor in the nation, we cannot wash our hands of employment practices further down the supply chain. We must award contracts only to those employers who police their entire supply chain and eliminate insecure employment. There must also be systems of liability to make the ultimate contractor responsible for employment practices across their supply chains.

There is a serious problem out there: illegal gangmasters are exploiting people and undermining the terms and conditions of indigenous workers. We know that is happening and we should take action to ensure that it does not. There are other connotations, too. It causes problems in our community when people are perceived, wrongly, to be coming in and doing jobs that indigenous workers should be doing. We need to deal with that. The biggest myth of all is that people want to work zero-hours contracts. I have yet to meet anyone who has said to me, “Mr Sheridan, I would like to work a zero-hours contract.” I do not think I will in my lifetime.

I would like to begin my contribution by paying tribute to businesses up and down the country, particularly in Essex and in my constituency, for the jobs they have created. Under this Government, unemployment in my constituency has fallen by almost 80% since it peaked in 2009 under Labour. In the last year alone, unemployment has fallen by 28% in Witham, resulting in almost 400 more people in work and off benefits. That should be welcomed and I would like to think everybody in the House does welcome it.

In October, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions came to Witham, and when he visited a jobs and apprenticeship fair that I hosted, he saw the confidence and the large number of local businesses looking to recruit and take on new staff. I thank everybody who was involved in the jobs fair. As I have said repeatedly in this House, Essex is the county of entrepreneurs. With the right Government policies in place, we will continue to create jobs, wealth and prosperity.

The one thing that would do the most damage to job creation and employment prospects in my constituency would be for the Government to follow the appalling policies and gimmicks supported by the Labour party. In the previous general election, Labour planned to increase the small profits rate and corporation tax on business. It plotted to increase the burden on employers through national insurance contributions, and planned to increase fuel duty. It left office with a regulatory and compliance regime in place that cost small and medium-sized enterprises in the region of £17 billion. Those measures would cost jobs, take money out of the economy and harm economic growth.

The Labour party has no answer to the economic challenges facing this country, and it has zero credibility when it comes to the debate on jobs. I have listened to the contributions from the Opposition this afternoon. What we have learned—not just this afternoon but in the past four years—is that the Labour party has no faith in the entrepreneurial spirit of British business, which has created 1.6 million private sector jobs since the general election. Labour would tax and borrow more, expand the public sector and take Britain back to the dinosaur days of the failed socialist policies of the past; notwithstanding the fact, of course, that the Labour leader supports exactly what President Hollande is doing in France.

My constituents and businesses in Witham want, and have, a Government who get behind them and are committed to supporting job creation. When we think of the £17 billion regulatory burden left by the Labour Government—the equivalent of 11 times the amount of money this Government are currently investing in funding apprenticeships—even the modest savings on red tape that this Government are making can make a real difference in freeing up funds for businesses to invest in jobs and economic growth.

Naturally, we have to reject the Opposition motion on that basis alone. It is completely unviable and demonstrates once again the economic illiteracy of the Labour party. Creating jobs and getting more people into employment are central to this Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger and more competitive economy, in sharp contrast to the Labour party and the motion it has tabled. That is why we will reject the motion.

We have had an excellent debate. When the current Government were elected, we were promised that new policies would lead to

“steady growth and falling unemployment”.

Unfortunately, however, they did not. For three years, there was hardly any growth and unemployment stayed high. Despite all the benefit cuts, over this Parliament the Government will spend £15 billion more on social security and tax credits than they said they would just after the election. As a result, more young people have been out of work for over a year than at any time for 20 years. We urgently need to bring those young people, at the start of what should be their working lives, back into the labour market. In addition, more over-25s have been out of work for over two years than at any time since 1997.

After a long delay, jobs are finally being created, but the priority now is to bring back into the labour market those who have been locked out of it for much too long. That is the damaging legacy of three years without growth, and it needs tackling urgently, otherwise we will face a whole generation of lost economic potential.

On the subject of legacy and long-term youth unemployment, does the right hon. Gentleman regret the previous Government’s legacy? Under them, the gap between the best-performing and worst-performing schools widened, so we now have a group of young people relatively far less well educated than many of their peers.

What I am worried about is the apparent collapse of careers advice in schools, with more and more employers saying to us that young people are not getting the advice they need to plan for future employment. I am extremely worried about that.

Despite this legacy, our proposed job guarantee will deliver, unlike the Work programme, which was rightly described by the Chancellor in last summer’s spending review statement as “underperforming”, and the Youth Contract, whose wage incentives have proved a hopeless damp squib. The Secretary of State was right at the outset of the debate to commend the record on employment support in Wales, where the Jobs Growth Wales programme, reflecting our job guarantee, has done a great deal better.

This debate has focused on those in work. For the first time, the majority of people living in poverty are in households where somebody is in work, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). A staggering number of people in work are resorting to food banks, in Wales and elsewhere, so I welcome the Prime Minister’s agreement to meet representatives from the Trussell Trust, which co-ordinates food banks, next week, overruling the childish refusal to do so by DWP Ministers over the last several months.

Month after month, it is the same. Last month, inflation was more than 2% and pay rises were below 1%. That is what people are experiencing. For the first time—we had an exchange about this earlier—over 1.4 million people are working part-time because they cannot find a full-time job. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) reminded us that the House of Commons Library calculated that the average household was more than £1,600 worse off than at the time of the last election.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), whom I am glad is back in the Chamber, made a thoughtful speech essentially arguing that there was nothing new about these problems. He should look at the quarterly Asda “Mumdex” briefing, which I think has been sent to all of us:

“Last year, we saw Mums cutting back on luxuries like holidays, gadgets and meals out. Now families are struggling to afford basics like heating and petrol.”

The intensity of the problem is new. YouGov found last year that the number of people feeling insecure at work had almost doubled since the election—6.5 million then, 12 million now—and the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) was right to highlight the case of job insecurity at a power plant in his constituency. That kind of problem is widespread.

Our motion refers to health and safety changes. I had an exchange with the Secretary of State about this earlier, but I want to make a bit more of the point. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Labour’s Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. The disability benefits Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), rightly told me in a written answer last month:

“Workplace health and safety has made an important contribution to vastly reducing the numbers of people killed, injured or made unwell by their work in the last 40 years.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 669W.]

That is as a consequence of our legislation.

The Secretary of State reminded us that Ministers commissioned Professor Ragnar Löfstedt of King’s College London to review health and safety legislation. Some people think it should be dramatically cut back, but not the Secretary of State, and not Professor Löfstedt either. He wrote:

“I have concluded that, in general, there is no case for radically altering current health and safety legislation…There is a view across the board that the existing regulatory requirements are broadly right”.

Ministers said in response that they supported the recommendations of the review, but what they are doing is different. They are trying to shift the balance, even though they have been unable to find evidence to support them. I take the Secretary of State’s point—he is not responsible for this—but in an interview last month Professor Löfstedt described what is happening as ideology in place of evidence-based policy, and safety at work is at risk as a result. I want to highlight in particular the Government’s removal of civil liability for employers breaching health and safety law in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, which Professor Löfstedt picked out in his report one year afterwards. Given all this, there is now growing concern that health and safety is being put at risk.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) highlighted employment rights and the case of INEOS in his constituency. The qualification period for protection against unfair dismissal has been doubled, from one year to two, and fees introduced for employment tribunals. The Government went so far as to consult on the proposal for no-fault dismissal made by Mr Adrian Beecroft in his infamous report. If that had been implemented, it would have allowed employers to fire people at will.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) pointed out at the start of the debate, the minimum wage has fallen by 5% in real terms since the election. The Chancellor has hinted that he plans to do something about that for next year—better late than never; let us hope he delivers—but he should look at enforcement as well. An estimated 300,000 people are paid less than the minimum wage, but there have been just two prosecutions in four years. The Secretary of State said that enforcement had been sorted out, but where is the evidence? Since 2010, Ministers have announced three times that they will name and shame firms that flout the national minimum wage, but so far nobody has been named or shamed. We need much more effective enforcement, including by giving powers to local authorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) highlighted the explosion in zero-hours contracts. The Resolution Foundation has found that average pay on them is 40% less than on regular contracts. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) gave us a graphic example from his constituency of the reality of being on such a contract. We need a serious effort from Government to promote the living wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) argued for “make work pay” contracts, whereby firms signing up to the living wage under our proposal in the first year of the next Parliament would get a tax rebate in that year of up to £1,000 for every low-paid worker who gets a pay rise, the Exchequer cost being entirely covered by increased tax and national insurance revenue.

Step by step, we are setting out how we will deal with the problems this Government’s policies will leave behind— growing insecurity and a big squeeze on family incomes in the middle and elsewhere. What we are proposing is practical, effective action to tackle job insecurity, make workplaces safer, improve pay, particularly for the low paid, and make the cost of living more manageable. We want to build a one nation economy, and the sooner the better.

Only this Labour party could call a debate on job insecurity a week after it was announced that a record number of people have got a job. Such impeccable timing makes me think that the motion must have been written by the shadow Chancellor, for it reminds me of the time he predicted that unemployment would soar by 1 million just before it fell by 1 million to a record low or the time he called a triple-dip recession just before official figures showed we had not even had a double-dip recession. In fact, the only recession that took place was when the Labour Government were in power.

And here we have a motion on job insecurity just after we have had the biggest rise in jobs in 40 years—more than 30 million employed—while unemployment has fallen in every part of the country. It is clear that even Labour Members were disappointed by the motion and had no faith in it, because the Opposition Benches were empty throughout the afternoon. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) has not returned to the Chamber, although it was he who moved the motion, but I can tell the House that in his constituency the claimant count is down by 20% and the youth claimant count is down by 36%. No wonder he is not present to hear those facts. As for the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the claimant count in his constituency is down by 27% and the youth claimant count is down by 30%.

Labour Members may talk about job insecurity, but the biggest guarantee of job insecurity is a Labour Government. If Members want the facts, I can tell them that unemployment rose by nearly half a million under Labour, female unemployment rose by 24%, youth unemployment rose by 45%, and long-term unemployment almost doubled between 2008 and 2010.

The truth is that Britain is poorer because of the recession over which the Labour Government presided. As Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies put it,

“That household incomes are lower than before the recession and are lower than they were in 2010 is hardly surprising. We have just lived through the deepest recession in generations”.

We are living beyond our means, but given that they were borrowing £160 billion every year, what do the Opposition expect? What we needed to do—and what we have done, in remarkably good time—was turn the economy around in three years. We did what we said we would do: we stabilised the economy, rebalanced the economy, and grew the economy. Even the International Monetary Fund has said that it is now the fastest-growing economy in the western world, and Mark Carney has said:

“The economy is growing at its fastest pace in 6 years… The recovery has finally taken hold.”

That has happened under this coalition Government.

The Minister is giving a glowing report of the coalition Government’s success, but will she tell us whether she has had sight of what now seems to be the suppressed report on food aid that landed on Ministers’ desks a year ago and has not surfaced? Will she give an undertaking to produce that report, which deals with the causes of poverty among working people?

I have not had sight of the report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because I am a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, but once it has been authorised and released, the hon. Gentleman can read it.

Let us return to today’s debate. We heard a great deal of what I would describe as misinformation about the number of people in part-time work. Since the election, the number of people in full-time work has risen by 1 million; three out of four people are in full-time work, and we have stabilised the position. In the last quarter, the number of people wanting to move from part-time to full-time work fell for the first time ever, and—Opposition Members may be startled to hear this—between 2005 and 2010, the number doubled. That is the truth of Labour’s legacy.

Opposition Members talk of zero-hours contracts, but the number of zero-hours contracts is the same as it was in 2000. The 75% increase happened between 2004 and 2009. Moreover, if we want to think about getting our houses in order, we should note that the council with the worst record for zero-hours contracts is Labour-run Doncaster council, which is in the constituency of the Leader of the Opposition and also in the constituency of one of the ladies on the Opposition Front Bench.

Turning to the contributions of those on the Government Benches, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) talked some good common sense about people getting their foot on the ladder, job progression, the fact that the number of apprenticeships has doubled in her constituency, and how this Government are helping families and young people into work. She also questioned what the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) meant when he said, “Don’t take any old job; some jobs are different from other jobs.” There was some real job snobbery from the Opposition Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) talked about youth unemployment being down by 25% in his constituency, and how he does not talk down the economy, but instead talks it up because that is positive and it helps people into work.

I ask the Minister to withdraw the comments she has just made. I was quite clear that of course we welcome people getting back into work. My point was—and I am sure she will agree with me—that we aspire for more than that for the people we represent. We do not just want them to get a job; we want them to get good-quality jobs which are secure and well paid. That is the point I was making. She was here. Perhaps she will clarify her comments.

Well, I am glad the hon. Gentleman has decided to return to the Chamber. I explained earlier how unemployment has significantly fallen in his constituency, but he was not here to hear that. His words are on the record, and we all heard them. Should he wish to read them back tomorrow, he can do so in Hansard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) talked with great clarity about the great recession that we were left with, how we have sorted it out and taken significant strides in building up the economy, and what we have done in terms of exports and developing manufacturing, so that now for the first time since the ’70s we export more cars than we import, and we are now exporting more outside Europe than inside Europe. All these things have happened under our stewardship.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) talked about how people can set up their own business, and how that is a real engine for social mobility, and how this Government are helping people through the new enterprise allowance. Under us, businesses are setting up at the rate of 2,000 a month. That is what we want—young people setting up in business, older people and women setting up in business. Those are the sorts of policies we are coming forward with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) rightly said that this motion is vague, confused, and just lacking really, rather like Labour’s policies in this entire area. He also said business confidence is up, and not just in his area but right across the country. There are reports that say so: the CBI and PricewaterhouseCoopers have said optimism is up. Do people want to take on people? Yes they do. Do people want to give people jobs? Yes they do. They feel that for the first time.

The whole motion did not really make much sense. It never really looked at what had happened under Labour’s stewardship. It never really looked at how when we talk about the tax credits bill and the benefits bill, we say it might have gone up a little bit; it will have gone up by 5% in five years, yet under Labour it had gone up by 20%. What we are doing is rebalancing the economy, bringing the spend down, and living within our means.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about unemployment in her constituency. I am pleased to be able to tell her that unemployment is down 26% on this year and 23% on—

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question put accordingly.