Thursday 19 November 2020
[Christina Rees in the Chair]
Fuel Poverty and Energy Price Caps
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call list system and ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members should sanitise their microphones with the cleaning materials provided before they use them and then dispose of the materials as they leave the room. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. They should speak only from the horseshoe and can speak only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are undersubscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fuel poverty and energy price caps.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Rees. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting my application, for two reasons. First, the issues to be discussed are important ones that affect millions of households across the United Kingdom. Secondly, despite the statutory requirement to debate fuel poverty annually, it was not met last year. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) for agreeing to co-sponsor today’s debate so that it could go ahead if I had not been able to attend in person. I certainly echo the Minister’s closing remarks in the previous debate in December 2018 in so far as I also hope that a cross-party consensus can be reached to eradicate fuel poverty, which, unfortunately, continues to be a scourge across the whole of the UK.
Fuel poverty and energy efficiency are of course devolved matters, yet it is recognised that fuel poverty is impacted not only by a home’s energy efficiency, but by household income and the cost of energy. That therefore leaves the devolved nations exposed to Westminster policies when trying to tackle fuel poverty. We are fighting it with one hand tied behind our backs. As a devolved policy area, fuel poverty is defined and measured differently in different parts of the UK. For that reason, it cannot be directly compared because of the differences in methodology.
In Scotland last year, with unanimous cross-party support, the Scottish Parliament passed the Fuel Poverty (Targets, Definition and Strategy) (Scotland) Act 2019, which sets statutory targets for reducing fuel poverty, introduces a new definition that aligns fuel poverty more closely with relative income poverty, and requires Scottish Ministers to produce a comprehensive strategy to show how they intend to meet the targets. The final fuel poverty strategy was due to be published in September, but, like many other important issues, the covid-19 outbreak has delayed it and it is now expected next year.
The targets set for the 2019 Act are that by 2040 no more than 5% of households should be in fuel poverty, no more than 1% of households should be in extreme fuel poverty, and the median fuel poverty gap of households in fuel poverty is to be no more than £250 in 2015 prices before adding inflation. Each of those 2040 targets must be achieved not only in Scotland as a whole, but within each of the 32 local authority areas to ensure that no part of the country is left behind in tackling the root causes of fuel poverty. In my opinion, and I am sure others here will agree, not even one home ought to be caught in the misery of fuel poverty. One home is one too many, but if we can achieve those targets it will at least be a step in the right direction.
The 2019 Act also established a new two-part definition whereby it is determined that a household is fuel poor if, after housing costs have been deducted, more than 10% of net income is required to pay for reasonable fuel needs, and, after further adjustments are made to deduct childcare costs and any benefits received for disability or care need, the remaining income is insufficient to maintain an acceptable standard of living, defined as 90% of the UK minimum income standard, which is the minimum amount required to meet material needs and participate in society. A household is considered to be in extreme fuel poverty if, after housing costs have been deducted, more than 20% of net income is required to pay for reasonable fuel needs.
No doubt there are nuances in how other devolved nations refine their own definitions, but we all use the 10% criteria. A household in Wales is described as fuel poor if it needs to spend more than 10% of its net income on energy costs while in Northern Ireland a household is considered fuel poor if it needs to spend in excess of 10% of its household income on all fuel use. The UK Government, however, moved away from using the 10% benchmark in 2013 when they adopted the low-income, high-cost approach. This categorises a household as fuel poor if the cost of keeping the home at a reasonable temperature is above the national median level and if it were to spend that amount, its residual income would be below the official poverty line.
On the other devolved issue of energy efficiency, it is worth mentioning that energy efficiency does not only go a long way to keeping household bills down; it also helps devolved nations play their part in tackling the global climate crisis, but that is a debate for another day. Indeed, the Scottish Government have classified energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority and they have been praised by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for doing so. In its report “Energy efficiency: building towards net zero” it recognised:
“Scotland has made much faster progress in improving the energy efficiency of its fuel poor homes than England”.
The same report also recommended that the UK Government
“follows the example of the devolved nations by supplementing ECO with central Government funding for fuel poverty.”
For the sake of clarity, I should make it clear that ECO is the energy company obligation.
I expected Members from the other devolved nations to share their experiences, but given covid-19 lockdowns and other business in the House, Members from other parts of the UK are not present. Therefore, I will highlight some of the achievements of the Scottish Government in this regard. They have spent four times as much as the UK Government on household energy efficiency—the highest average annual per capita investment in the UK. In the periods from 2013-14 up to 2018-19, their total investment in domestic energy efficiency was £636 million. The schemes helped more than 150,000 households throughout Scotland to benefit from energy efficiency measures and, by the end of 2021, they will have allocated more than £1 billion since 2009 through energy efficiency programmes to make homes warmer and cheaper to heat. Over the lifetime of the measures installed, Scottish households will cumulatively have saved more than £854 million on fuel bills.
Furthermore, for the next Parliament, the Scottish Government will invest nearly £1.6 billion in transforming our buildings to ensure that emissions from heating are eliminated by 2040 and to remove poor energy efficiency as a driver of fuel poverty. This uplifts heat and energy efficiency spend from £112 million in 2019-20 to £398 million per annum in 2025-26 and will include an additional £55 million to support the scale-up of energy efficiency programmes.
Our progress in this area is encouraging. However, continuing to improve the energy efficiency of Scotland’s buildings—both domestic and non-domestic—and over time decarbonising the heat supply to those buildings, providing warmer homes and better outcomes for our consumers, remains a major challenge. It is a challenge that we are determined to meet. That is why on 16 December, despite the challenges posed by covid-19, the Scottish Government provided a further £16 million investment to improve energy efficiency in fuel-poor households. The money will be used to improve insulation and install energy-efficient heating systems, including those using renewable technology, thereby contributing to Scotland’s net zero targets and helping to meet a key programme for Government commitment. This new investment will help to improve the lives of fuel-poor people in Scotland by enabling them to live in warm, comfortable homes and pay less on their fuel bills by living in a greener and more sustainable way. Importantly, in the current, climate, it is expected to help to secure up to 200 jobs.
Yet we have not lost sight of the fact that energy remains unaffordable for far too many in Scotland, creating hardship for individuals and families. Energy prices and market failures play an obvious part in that, but the building stock in parts of Scotland is old and, all too often, profoundly wasteful in energy. However, as I have said, fuel poverty is driven by more than energy efficiency and, collectively, we need to do more, because thousands of people die from it every year. As winter approaches, we have a responsibility to be mindful that temperature-related excess winter mortality remains strongly evident. We must also take heed of the growing body of evidence that shows links between indoor temperatures and excess winter mortality.
The reason that I applied for a debate on energy price caps is because it is a UK Government fuel poverty policy that relates to energy costs—one of the reserved key drivers of fuel poverty that the devolved nations have no control over. Moreover, like the energy company obligation, this UK Government policy is not the panacea for fuel poverty that was anticipated. Indeed, even Citizens Advice, an organisation that welcomed it as some semblance of protection for households on default tariffs, simultaneously warned that customers could still get a better deal by switching supplier or investing in energy efficiency.
It was evident—in fact, it was pointed out in the last fuel poverty debate, which took place nearly two years ago, before the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018 came into force on 1 January 2019—that the energy price caps would be set at a sustainably higher level than the cheapest available tariffs. Therefore, the intention behind the price caps—to protect consumers in England, Wales and Scotland who were on default tariffs—was questionable from the get-go. Additionally, research carried out in 2018 by the consumer group Which? found that the energy price cap would not help customers who were on some of the priciest deals on the market. For example, 30% of customers who were on fixed tariffs, rather than default tariffs, were not able to benefit.
There is also the issue of some energy customers having access only to certain tariffs due to having a prepayment meter. The Competition and Markets Authority’s report recommended the first price cap for customers on prepayment meters because they had fewer options, which resulted in less competition and a higher likelihood of being overcharged. Ofgem introduced that recommendation as a temporary cap in April 2017.
Furthermore, there are customers across the country who are subjected to unaffordable tie-in tariffs because of the type of heating system and meter that are installed in their home. Indeed, I presented a public petition earlier this year on behalf of Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages, a group made up of some of my constituents, whose experience of the THERMAflow wet electric heating system and its related ScottishPower’s Economy 2000 tie-in tariff is not only fuel poverty, but food poverty and physical and mental health issues.
I pay tribute to the work done by the Falkirk’s Forgotten Villages group, and I recognise the significant investment that Falkirk Council has made in agreeing to install a new mains gas system in 86% of the affected properties. That is a great example of partnership working, and it shows what can be achieved. I am looking forward to seeing continued progress with the project and to learning what renewable technologies will be engaged for properties where gas installation is not available. Falkirk Councillor Laura Murtagh, who has also been working on the replacement of wet electric heating systems in her area, says:
“These residents are particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty due to the double whammy of high heating tariffs and inefficient systems, which cause eye-wateringly high bills for residents, who are often in a position to least afford this.”
Councillor Murtagh has been assisting residents in her ward with energy-efficiency measures for some time. However, the rise in the tariff, which was introduced last year by ScottishPower, highlighted the breadth and depth of the issue and galvanised council officials to work at pace over the past year to find solutions for the affected areas. Hopefully, I will hear about progress being made in these areas over the coming months.
Having no access to mains gas affects another group of households, who I understand are generally unable to benefit from the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018, as they have little choice in their heating source, pay more for their fuel and are thereby more at risk of fuel poverty. We must not underestimate the economic and social implications of living in a fuel-poor household, and we must do everything in our power to end the dilemma of whether people heat their home or feed their family, because being in that situation causes distress and ill health, both physical and mental.
Earlier this year, the SNP called for a package of measures to help households get through the crisis, and I urge the UK Government to heed the calls and to look urgently at introducing an emergency coronavirus energy grant to support households struggling to pay their energy bills, and to prevent them from accruing unmanageable debts. For example, I saw evidence from one of my constituents, who lives in accommodation within the boundaries of Falkirk’s forgotten villages and uses the THERMAflow heating system, that they pay an average of £170 per month for their home energy. Members will not be surprised to hear that after their housing costs were paid, they were not left with £1,700 of net income to make that energy affordable. That was not the worst that this area of my constituency experienced, nor are high energy costs unique to those using the THERMAflow system. I have heard about bills far in excess of that being received in those remote villages.
Other constituents, who live in a three-bedroom semi with the THERMAflow wet electric heating system and the domestic Economy 2000 meter tariff, had an average monthly energy bill of £270. When they raised an inquiry, they were advised by a ScottishPower representative that THERMAflow wet heating systems can be notoriously expensive to run. That had not been brought to their attention before installation, nor were they given any guidance about how to effectively use the system after it was installed.
ScottishPower is not linked to THERMAflow systems in any way and my reference to it is as the local provider. There are currently 60 or so alternative energy suppliers in the UK who could offer a cheaper tariff but do not. There is no cost-benefit for constituents to switch, which is why we need Government action on energy policy.
It is unacceptable that constituents could not access the cheapest payment method, just because they do not pay by direct debit, in common with many others across the country. Such draconian measures target the least advantaged and most vulnerable in our society. Energy companies must end that discrimination voluntarily or legislation should be introduced to ensure that they do.
Another constituent, who paid ScottishPower for their electricity by direct debit, contacted me in distress in June this year after receiving an outstanding statement for over £1,500, despite making the regular requested payments. That constituent is a vulnerable pensioner who lives alone in accommodation that does not have the THERMAflow system. In fact, their home has no central heating at all. All the distress was down to billing errors because a new meter had to be installed when my constituent did not want to be a victim of an expensive pay-as-you-go tariff.
That is a prime example of someone trying to be prudent, yet still being caught out by a system that lets people down. Fortunately, that constituent was lucky to have the support of their family, who stepped in and found the best available option was to change supplier. That is a bad enough situation, but it begs the question of how a pensioner living alone on a fixed income copes with such a dilemma if they do not have support from their family or others. It exemplifies what I mentioned earlier, about energy price caps being set at a level substantially higher than the cheapest available tariff and proves customers can get a better deal by switching.
It is relevant to point out that ScottishPower is the energy provider in the cases I have talked about and that these are just a few of my constituents who have approached me since the start of the year. These cases do not cover all the constituents who have experienced problems with unaffordable energy costs, because there simply is not time to cover them all. Even with as few speakers we have today, I would be here until next week going through the cases. I am fairly certain that not everyone has come forward for help since I was first elected five years ago.
To summarise, it is deeply regrettable that the UK Government have not met their statutory requirement to debate fuel poverty annually. Additionally, the situations I have highlighted indicate that the energy price cap is not having the desired effect. Indeed, in his statement to Parliament on 20 October, the Business Secretary said that when the price cap on standard variable and default energy tariffs ends there will be
“more to do to ensure consumers will not face unfair prices”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 38WS.]
Although extending the price cap to next year may provide some protection for some customers, that does not go far enough. It is just more of the same. Instead, I urge the Government to prioritise the faster switching initiatives and consumer engagement schemes that the Secretary of State referred to in his statement, and to replace the price cap with a scheme that will ensure all customers are protected from the energy inefficiency and high tariffs imposed by energy providers, which target the least wealthy in our society.
The difficulty with following the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) is that he makes such a comprehensive case. As we prepared our speeches individually, there is some repetition in our remarks. However, as he was speaking, I took the opportunity to take out some of the repetition, as it is such a short debate, rather than take up too much time.
Fuel poverty rates vary significantly across the United Kingdom and cannot be directly compared, owing to differences in methodology. However, the latest estimates show that around 11% of households in England are classed as fuel-poor. The figure is 12% in Wales, 18% in Northern Ireland and 25% in Scotland. That is a remarkable difference, and one that needs to be addressed.
In Scotland, fuel poverty is generally measured on the basis that, in order to maintain a satisfactory heat regime, a household would be required to spend more than 10% of their disposable household income on fuel. Some of the areas of the worst fuel poverty in Scotland are in my constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock. There is deep injustice in that, as many of those areas are in communities still living above the great Ayrshire coalfields that powered the economy and the industrial revolution for centuries and they are home to many wind farms, which power the economy today. Adding to that sense of injustice, those wind farms now play a major part in the transfer of electricity from Scotland to other parts of the United Kingdom. As of April 2020, that transfer stands at 25,000 gigawatt-hours annually—enough to heat 700,000 homes.
Parts of East Ayrshire in my constituency have some of the highest levels of fuel poverty in Scotland—a staggering 32% of households—while neighbouring South Ayrshire, also in my constituency, has one of the lower levels in Scotland, at 22%. Both figures are much higher than the English average of about 11%. Most shockingly, 13% of households in East Ayrshire suffer from extreme fuel poverty and need to spend at least 20% of their disposable income on fuel.
Fuel poverty and the ability to properly heat homes really matters for health outcomes. According to research published in June 2020, cold temperatures are strongly related to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and they double the risk of respiratory problems in children. Cold also suppresses the immune system, increasing the risk of infections and minor illnesses such as cold and flu. Living in poverty exacerbates existing conditions such as arthritis and rheumatism and negatively affects the mental health of the population by increasing the financial stress on households.
We know that 91 per cent of those who have died from the effects of covid-19 had a pre-existing medical condition—commonly, chronic lower respiratory disease. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has warned that fuel poverty puts households more at risk from the worst effects of covid-19. Reducing preventable ill health arising from cold homes will be vital in protecting the national health service and care services this winter.
Without any doubt, the major contributor to the existence of fuel poverty is the overall level of poverty in this country. The Scottish Government have already implemented a number of specific actions to reduce household poverty by increasing disposable household income, which have been widely praised by the United Nations and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The actions include the Scottish child payment, which will commence in February 2021. It will provide families on low incomes with a payment of £10 per week for each child under six, which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said will
“make a significant contribution to tackling child poverty in Scotland.”
There are also community care grants, where £25 million has been paid out to help with one-off cost purchases, to allow those on low incomes to purchase essential household items. Since 2013, an annual package of more than £125 million has been paid to mitigate the impact of the UK Government’s welfare cuts, including the bedroom tax, the two-child benefit cap, the five-week wait for universal credit and the sanctions regime.
The Scottish Government aim to reduce fuel poverty to no more than 5% and extreme fuel poverty to no more than 1% by 2040, but they are constrained by their partial controls over benefits and the levers of the economy. They have also recently introduced a child winter heating assistance programme—a new payment of £200 to help families with severely disabled children.
Using Scottish Government funding and advice, East Ayrshire Council and South Ayrshire Council have had external wall insulation fitted to improve energy efficiency, lower costs and improve health outcomes. In South Ayrshire alone, a programme to fit external wall insulation to 1,900 properties saved more than £400,000 on fuel bills per year and significantly reduced admission rates for respiratory and cardiovascular-related conditions in those areas. That project is an impressive example of what can be done, despite the limitations of the devolution settlement, by the Scottish Government in partnership with local authorities to make a real improvement to lives by reducing fuel poverty.
Despite the fact that Scotland’s energy generation, produced by oil, gas and renewables, is way beyond its domestic demand, energy prices for consumers in Scotland remain high. According to Age Scotland, price capping has made little difference to them.
Fuel poverty is a major issue across all nations of the United Kingdom, but it is particularly serious in Scotland. It has also been brought into sharp relief recently by the number of people working from home or on furlough due to covid-19, and the significant increase in their home fuel bills, by as much as 37%. They have generally not been compensated by employers. The reality of fuel poverty is that today, as winter approaches and we gather here in the relative warmth of Westminster Hall, in all our communities there are families with young children who, through no fault of their own, are out of work; people on benefits; working families on the minimum wage or zero-hours contracts; elderly people alone and isolated; the long-term sick and disabled, and many others, including those who have been excluded by the Chancellor from receiving grants, loans or any other benefits in our society, who have to make the difficult decision daily whether to heat or eat.
Although the Scottish Government have made progress on tackling fuel poverty and improving energy efficiency, the constraints of the devolution settlement, under which 85% of expenditure and income-replacement benefits are reserved to Westminster, prevents the kind of structural change and investment required in a country that has a harsher climate and, ironically, generates far more power than it requires. The immediate impacts on levels of fuel poverty are directly related to general poverty and are the direct result of the austerity policies of the United Kingdom Government over the past 10 years.
To effect meaningful change in levels of fuel poverty, Scotland needs powers on welfare, the ability to cap energy prices to affordable levels, and the control of economic levers, and not only in respect of fuel poverty and overall poverty. That would best be achieved by an independent Scotland or, in the short term, by powers being devolved to the Scottish Parliament as a matter of urgency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans), on securing this debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee. This is a very important subject, and it is a shame that there are not more hon. Members here to debate it, but obviously, between covid and the fact that it is a Thursday afternoon, it is understandable that the Chamber is not as full as it would normally be.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk set out the issues really well. He highlighted the need to work on a cross-party basis. It was interesting to hear about the work undertaken with Falkirk’s forgotten villages. I am sure many of us have villages that claim to be forgotten villages. It is great to see them working together to secure a successful outcome and a gas grid connection. Hon. Members can tell how steeped my hon. Friend is in his constituency and the work that he does for his constituents by bringing forward those examples, defending his constituents and trying to effect change, as highlighted today. My neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, reiterated Scotland’s contribution to the generation of the UK’s energy supply and fuel over the years. He also highlighted how East Ayrshire Council, which is my local authority as well, suffers from fuel poverty and poverty in general, which we would like to be addressed.
On that point, I welcome the fact that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the three Ayrshire councils today signed off the Ayrshire growth deal. One of the proposals of that deal is for a national energy research demonstrator project at Cumnock. The leader of East Ayrshire Council today highlighted the need to tackle fuel poverty, and hopefully that will make a difference in our area.
I am lucky that I have never had the dilemma of not being able to turn on the heating, or faced the awful choice of what to cut out to turn it on, but as my hon. Friends have demonstrated, too many people do face the awful choice of heating or eating, which is simply not good enough. I am sure that all hon. Members present have dealt with constituents who are in that predicament, or who try to get by by heating only a couple of rooms. Heating only a couple of rooms invariably leads to dampness in the rooms that are not being heated, which obviously exacerbates health problems, including mental health problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk highlighted. That has a personal cost as well as a cost to the NHS, which has been estimated at between £1.4 billion and £2.2 billion a year in England. If we tackle the problem, we will improve people’s health and wellbeing and cut costs to the NHS. Sadly, National Energy Action estimates that 10,000 people a year die earlier than they should owing to fuel poverty, so we need to tackle that scourge of society.
As has been pointed out, the four nations measure fuel poverty slightly differently, but there is no doubt that Scotland appears to have a higher rate. Some 24% of Scotland’s population are classed as fuel-poor. That is partly due to the fact that about 15% of homes are off the gas grid and have to pay more to heat their homes.
Within that cohort, in the highlands of Scotland, many customers pay about £400 a year more to heat their homes because they are on restricted meters. They pay a surcharge of between 2p and 4p per unit of electricity used. I highlight that to the Minister. Does he think it is fair that people in the highlands have to pay a surcharge while exporting electricity to the rest of the UK? I hope that that can be addressed. We need a better regulatory framework for off-grid heating, to control pricing for people who have to buy oil and gas. I hope that he will take that away and look at it.
It has also been highlighted that covid-19 has had an impact. People losing their jobs or working at home is exacerbating fuel poverty. Energy Action Scotland estimates that fuel poverty in Scotland could increase by 5% owing to the pandemic. Again, that illustrates the need for action.
I welcome the action taken by the Scottish Government to deliver their new child winter heating allowance. Those payments of £200 a year for those eligible start next month and are automatically paid, rather than people having to claim for them, so everybody will get them in full. The UK Government could look at that, along with the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk for an emergency coronavirus energy grant, to which I hope the Minister will respond.
We also need the UK Government to commit to keeping the £20 uplift for universal credit. That additional money has been a lifeline to many, but those on legacy benefits need a similar increase. That is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but I hope he can speak to the Chancellor about that.
As was highlighted, the Scottish Government have brought forward groundbreaking legislation to tackle fuel poverty. We need to know when the UK Government will bring forward their fuel poverty legislation and strategy. We wait with bated breath for the energy White Paper. The Minister said recently, in a written answer, that he is still planning to publish it in the autumn, but I suggest that in Scotland it is already winter, rather than autumn, so hopefully we will see it soon.
One of the most important factors, apart from income and alleviating fuel poverty, is clearly energy efficiency measures. As we have heard, the Scottish Government have led the way on that. I want to focus a wee bit more on the details of energy efficiency—hopefully without repeating too much of what my colleagues have said. Obviously, it is a no-brainer that greater energy efficiency measures can assist in reducing carbon emissions at the point of use, as well as the demand in energy generation, so that also has an effect on reducing emissions further. Clearly, it will assist in reducing fuel poverty levels and it can be part of a green industrial revolution.
I welcome the 10-point plan and the commitment to making £1 billion available next year to make new, and existing, homes and public buildings more efficient. However, while I welcome that, it does feel like a wee bit of a rehash of previous announcements. We remind the Minister that the Conservative manifesto gave a figure of £9.2 billion, so we actually need to see plans for the rest of that money. I also ask the Minister to consider asking the Chancellor to remove VAT on energy efficiency home improvements, because that makes it more cost-effective for those that can only just about afford to install such measures.
Back to the 10-point plan: I welcome the proposals for installing 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. Obviously, we need to see how that is going to come forward in terms of an action plan and delivery programme. I request the Minister to look at tackling first those that are off the gas grid, and to make the heat pumps more efficient. To transform people’s lives, the plan needs to align with the installation of energy efficiency measures. Hopefully the programme will be co-ordinated in that way—providing energy efficiency and the installation of new heat pumps.
I do welcome those proposals, but I still think that we need more direct UK Government investment in energy efficiency; again, that comes back to following the lead of the Scottish Government. It is not just the SNP that has said that, but energy companies, third sector organisations and the cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in its 2019 report, “Energy efficiency: building towards net zero”. A key point from that report was:
“We note that Scotland’s investment of four times more than England cannot be explained by a less efficient dwelling stock: the latest housing survey data demonstrates that homes in Scotland actually have greater insulation levels than in England. For example, in 2017, 49 per cent of homes in England had insulated walls, compared to 60 per cent of homes in Scotland.”
“that Scotland has made much faster progress in improving the energy efficiency of its fuel poor homes than England, where in some bands, progress has stalled.”
On that, statistics show relative success—44% of Scottish homes were rated as Energy Performance Certificate Band C or better in 2018, compared with just 34% in England and 28% in Wales. In Scotland, the proportion of properties in the lowest EPC bands of E,F or G has more than halved since 2010, reducing from 27% to 12%. In England the figure is still at 16%, and unfortunately in Wales it is even higher, at 20%, although there is a caveat that the Scottish figures are measured slightly differently. No wonder the BEIS Committee concluded:
“The Government appears indifferent towards how public per capita spend in household energy efficiency in England compares to other parts of the UK”
“the governments of the devolved nations treat energy efficiency as a much higher priority than the UK Government.”
That “indifferent” comment is particularly damning. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about that. I know that £1 billion has been announced, but we need to see the rest of that £9 billion commitment.
The Committee on Climate Change first confirmed that policies were not in place to deliver the UK’s ambitions in energy efficiency to improve homes to at least EPC band C. The CCC stated that regulations for the private rented sector prioritise costs for landlords over the costs for renters, and that minimum standards for social housing were required. By contrast, it observed that the Scottish Government were demonstrating how an effective policy package for energy efficiency improvements in buildings might be delivered. They have actually set out a comprehensive framework of standards, backed by legislation. When will the UK Government put in place a proper framework that covers the private rented sector, social housing minimum standards and owner-occupiers, as the Scottish Government have done?
We know our long-term energy efficiency and investment programme will create jobs that allow the programme to deliver the best value, avoiding spikes in cost, as part of a green industrial revolution. Some 27 million homes need their heating systems decarbonised, so it is critical that they are as energy efficient as possible. That is why it would be good to see a long-term Government programme that looked at energy efficiency as a national infrastructure project. Maybe that could be addressed when the national infrastructure plan is published.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned the energy company obligation scheme. The committee on fuel poverty states that those measures do not actually help those who most need help, which confirms the need for direct, targeted investment. We do not want another failure like the green deal scheme, which has put more people into fuel poverty rather than helping them. I know that the Minister has acknowledged that appeals for mis-selling by Home Energy and Lifestyle Management have taken too long, but his Department needs to look at and resolve that matter.
Our net zero commitments will be built in to the next investment period for the transmission grid upgrades. ECO and smart meter costs are all being added to consumer bills. What will that mean for energy users of the future? Will the Government start to consider general taxation as a way to create some of that investment in our energy system?
Everybody will be pleased to hear that I am going to conclude my remarks, but I have a few comments from the BEIS Committee report. The Committee stated that the UK Government must not only match Scottish levels of funding but create a joined-up strategy, and that the
“weight of stakeholder evidence suggests that Scotland designating energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority has helped to improve its policy impact, making energy efficiency policy better designed and funded, longer-term, as well as more comprehensively governed and targeted, than in England.”
I ask the Minister to reflect on that and, I hope, to bring forward similar plans for the rest of the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Members for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) on securing the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
As all hon. Members have said, the scale of fuel poverty, which is present in every part of the UK, is staggering. I say that as a Member representing a constituency less than 10 miles away in which 5,500 households are in fuel poverty—this problem affects every part of the UK. The point about methodology and the consequent difficulties in making comparisons across the four nations was made, but the headline estimated rates show approximately one in 10 households in England and Wales are fuel poor, one in five in Northern Ireland, and one in four in Scotland. Those figures should be a source of shame for each nation. We have heard about the negative impacts that fuel poverty has on health, mental health, and morbidity.
The debate is timely as this issue affects millions across the country. Older people bear the brunt of it, but families—particularly single-parent families—and increasing numbers of younger people are also affected, and the issue has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. The impact has been felt not just because of sharp reductions in income, job losses, and people being furloughed or having to manage on some form of financial support from the state, but, as has been mentioned, because more time at home as the weather turns colder means much higher bills. In the context of the near standstill on the installation of smart meters and of the distinct lack of progress on energy efficiency, there is concern that this winter could see even higher numbers of deaths linked to cold homes.
That more can and should be done to address fuel poverty is, in my view, beyond dispute. A number of schemes already aim to tackle the problem, but they operate with varying degrees of effectiveness, and more attention needs to be paid to making them work better and over a long time. In the short term, we really need clarity on how those schemes will operate in the months and years ahead.
The warm home discount scheme was rightly extended by the Government last month, but we still have no idea about what that means for the amount of the discount or whether coverage will be extended to customers who sign up with smaller energy providers, for example. We need urgent clarity on how that scheme will work going forward.
In its last iteration, the energy companies obligation, which the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk referred to, focused almost exclusively on low-income and vulnerable households. We know that it can make a contribution to reducing fuel poverty through energy efficiency measures, and hence lower bills for at-risk households. However, the ECO is now scheduled to run only to 2022. We need urgent confirmation from the Government that it will be extended beyond that date, and that the cuts made to its overall funding at the time when its focus was revised will be restored.
Beyond the targeted schemes that exist, the best way in the long term to combat fuel poverty is to design it out—to systematically insulate and make more energy-efficient the homes in which those in fuel poverty live, which are largely, it has to be said, in the private and social rented sectors. In most European countries, not just those with more temperate climates, the concept of fuel poverty is largely alien because the underlying efficiency of their housing stock is such that bills are entirely manageable by the vast majority of households. That is not the case across the UK, where we still have some of the worst insulated and least energy-efficient housing stock in Europe.
As the Scottish National party spokesperson mentioned, the manifesto on which Conservative Members stood in the last general election contained a commitment to spend more than £9 billion on uprating energy efficiency in homes, including a £2.5 billion home upgrade grant scheme and a £3.8 billion social housing discount fund. We have yet to see any sign of either measure or, I would argue, any real commitment to rapidly overhauling and upgrading the UK’s housing stock.
Although the amount allocated to the recent green homes grant is welcome, as an emergency measure lasting only for this financial year, and with some real questions about how effectively it can be delivered over that period, there is a real risk that it will ultimately have very little effect. Current statutory energy efficiency commitments require all fuel-poor homes in England to be levelled up to the energy efficiency standards of a current new-build home. At present, the Government are a very long way away from meeting those commitments, and we need urgent action to get us back on track.
So far I have focused on general issues relating to fuel poverty, but the title of the debate invites us to pay particular attention to the role of the energy price cap. The Opposition very much welcomed the price cap when it was introduced in January last year. After all, it was an idea—as the Minister may recall, labelled a semi-Marxist proposal by his party—that we put forward in our prospectus in the 2015 general election.
There was a clear need for a cap to address the issue of companies overcharging consumers, manipulating the goodwill of loyal customers and exploiting so-called sticky customers, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in the population. There is no doubt in my mind that the price cap has saved the poorest households considerable sums of money. It is estimated that the amount is in the order of £75 to £100 for those households on the default price tariffs.
However, as hon. Members will know, and as has been mentioned, the cap was introduced only as a temporary measure until such time as it could be proven that conditions for effective competition in the market existed. Those conditions clearly still do not yet exist. We were pleased that the cap has been extended for a further year after Ofgem reported as much to the Government, but issues of concern remain. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk spoke about the really important one of pre-payment meters.
We know that people on pre-payment meters are often fuel-poor customers. The energy price cap has folded into it the previously existing pre-payment meter price cap, which will lapse at the end of this year. Although protection for those who access their energy in that way will continue to some extent through the default tariff price cap, I hope the Minister agrees that we have to ensure that they are afforded long-term protection when the cap as a whole is lifted, as it inevitably will be.
This has been a good and important debate, albeit an under-subscribed one for the reasons that the SNP spokesperson mentioned. There is a huge amount of interest in this problem, as there should be given its scale. The Opposition urge the Government to devise a more comprehensive strategy on fuel poverty—one that addresses price, efficiency and problems of coverage and access, as well as the root causes. I hope that the Minister can provide the House with some reassurance that his Department is at least thinking along those lines.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, in this excellent debate on a really important issue. I cannot think of a more important issue that the House could debate; very few are more important and more relevant to people’s lives than fuel poverty. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing this important debate.
The challenges of fuel poverty and the affordability of energy for households are a huge concern for everybody—not just for members of Opposition parties, but for the Government. I particularly share the concerns about fuel poverty relating to health issues, both physical and mental, and the difficulties people are experiencing now because of the coronavirus pandemic. Obviously, my view of what the Government have been doing and of the importance with which we regard these issues will be slightly different from that of Opposition Members, but I can assure the House that the Government take the issue of fuel poverty extremely seriously.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, fuel poverty is a devolved matter, with England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all having their own fuel poverty targets, their own policies and in many cases their own definitions. However, we all absolutely share the view that fuel poverty is a critical issue.
It is not a new issue. In 2015, we published a fuel poverty strategy for England, which set out the Government’s approach to tackling fuel poverty then. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we should publish a new fuel poverty strategy. We had wanted to publish it at the end of this year, but we are very hopeful that we can get it out early next year, and it is absolutely critical that we do so.
We are also committed to ensuring that there is appropriate scrutiny, so I am very happy to spend some time dealing with some of the issues raised in the debate. Obviously, I cannot deal with every single issue that has been touched on. We have talked about power generation, fuel poverty and the nature of the devolved settlement—it has been a wide-ranging debate—and I will try to deal with some of the issues. It is vital that we work together to tackle this really important problem.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) was good enough to mention the warm home discount, which was not referred to in any of the speeches by SNP Members. Of course, the warm home discount that he was good enough to mention is a critical part of the Government’s fight against fuel poverty. It provides financial assistance to more than 3 million low-income and vulnerable households each winter, and each one of those households benefits to the tune of £140 a year roughly, which represents £3.5 billion of public money and is a significant contribution.[Official Report, 16 December 2020, Vol. 686, c. 2MC.] It does not abolish the problem but it is a significant contribution, and I think that any fair-minded participant in this debate would have acknowledged that. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for doing so.
We have already consulted on extending the scheme until March 2022, recognising that it offers vital support to people in this country, and we are considering how a version of the scheme, or even the scheme itself, can perhaps be extended beyond 2022. These are matters of grave consideration.
Members mentioned the energy company obligation and that, too, is a scheme that has helped people in fuel poverty to improve the energy efficiency of their homes. It is another great GB-wide scheme, which is worth £640 million a year, and it has made an impact in improving the energy efficiency of homes across the country. Since it began in 2013, under—dare I say it?—this Government, nearly 2.8 million energy efficiency measures have been installed in over 2.1 million homes. Again, that is making an impact. The ECO has always been focused on supporting low-income and vulnerable households, providing improvements to give a long-term benefit to those households. Again, we are planning to consult on proposed changes to the scheme in 2021; we want to see how any future scheme can contribute to meeting actual targets.
Another form of assistance and another scheme, which Members were good enough to refer to, is the green homes grant. It was launched only in September and is a £2 billion programme to improve the energy efficiency of homes in England. Other attendant fuel poverty schemes are available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I remind the House that the green homes grant offers low-income, vulnerable and fuel-poor households up to £10,000 for the installation of energy-efficient and low-carbon heating measures in their homes. There is also a local authority delivery element that considers households of all tenors and of all descriptions within a household income of under £30,000. Local authorities will shortly set out detailed eligibility criteria for that.
The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) suggested that there would not be time to fully implement the green homes grant. We are looking at that, and there is some flexibility in the system. I look forward to making the case that we should perhaps extend it, and there may already have been an announcement in that respect.
[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]
Absolutely. I suggested that there was flexibility in the scheme. One of the reasons that there would be flexibility is that we are trying to increase the number of installers who have the trust mark accreditation, so that they can do the work. It is a good scheme, and it goes some way towards meeting the manifesto commitment mentioned with respect to the £9.2 billion. There is clearly more work to be done and I fully accept that, but we have made a start. It would be irresponsible to say that the Government are “indifferent” to the problem, as was suggested by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. We are not “indifferent” to this important issue, though there may be disagreements as to how best to tackle it. It would be wrong to suggest that we are “indifferent” to that critical and hugely important problem.
The energy price cap was mentioned, and that opens up a whole new avenue of debate. Clearly that has had a role in not only helping people in straitened circumstances, but in helping industry. It has meant that the industry can, overall, be more productive and efficient. That obviously has the effect of driving down costs and thereby driving down prices. We are committed to ensuring fair energy prices for consumers, and that is why we introduced the price cap on default energy tariffs in 2019. The hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich mentioned that it was part of the Labour manifesto many years ago before he even got into the House. I think it was in 2013—the election was in 2015. Clearly, however, there was an issue and the Government accepted that. We introduced the requisite legislation. It is extraordinary that we are being criticised for adopting the policy suggested by the Opposition with which we have, over time, agreed. That shows that the Government do listen to ideas, from whichever quarter those ideas may arise.
The default price cap today protects around 11 million consumers, and a further 4 million households are protected by the prepayment meter price cap from 2021 when that is introduced. It is a big intervention in the way the energy market works and shows that we have a non-ideological approach to the issue. It also shows the Government’s determination to support hard-pressed energy consumers.
In my concluding remarks, I will talk specifically about the covid-19 response. I and the Government are fully aware that the covid-19 pandemic poses unprecedented and unusual problems with respect to fuel poverty. I was struck by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudon that fuel bills had risen by 37% or maybe it was his colleague the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. I fully accept that it is a huge increase.
From the outset of the crisis the Government recognised that the covid-19 pandemic would have a huge impact on household incomes and would lead to more straitened circumstances. That is why the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy acted swiftly to secure an agreement with energy suppliers to support consumers impacted by coronavirus. In fact, one of the first calls that I made was to try to organise a response, and the suppliers understood the difficult circumstances that we were in. We managed to reach an agreement as early as March, which provided real support for those who needed help the most.
The energy companies have responded reasonably well. There is a broad understanding in the sector about the nature of the problems. We have done a huge amount. People talked about poverty in general, and the Government have spent unprecedented amounts to protect jobs and incomes. We have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme until the end of March, which has been welcomed across the country. We have also increased the third self-employed grant and provided an uplift to universal credit, which was mentioned. I am happy to say that we have responded to the concerns by providing an uplift to universal credit.
We have also increased the upfront guarantee of funding for the devolved Administrations from £14 billion to £16 billion on top of the spring Budget 2020 funding. Despite all of the support and the unprecedented level of intervention, it is a sad fact that many households will struggle with their energy bills this winter. We are absolutely focused on that and I speak to energy suppliers all the time about how best we can meet the challenges. From 15 December this year, new rules will require energy companies to identify self-disconnecting prepayment meter customers, people who are confronted often with the very harsh dilemma that was pointed out and choose to take themselves out of the prepayment meter scheme. We require energy companies to offer them support to stay on supply and to offer emergency and family-friendly hours and credit to all prepayment meter customers. That is a world where we are driving change to meet the very problem that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk so ably identified.
In the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I hope I have always extended a warm hand to Members to discuss the issues. We have had an excellent debate. Like the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, I regret the fact that more right hon. and hon. Members could not participate today, but I am sure the question will be revisited soon. I will be very happy to attend a further debate if that is what Members want and also to meet individual Members on a face-to-face basis to discuss these really important issues.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered fuel poverty and energy price caps.
The Future of Work
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McDonagh. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this debate.
It is troubling that we are having this debate against the background of a continuing pandemic, which greatly affects how we can engage with the issue. Unfortunately, this House itself is a case study of how the world of work has not kept pace with events and technological advantages that could have allowed much wider participation in this debate. I have had to travel all the way from East Renfrewshire to speak here, despite the existence of perfectly good digital options. That is nonsensical in the middle of a pandemic.
As a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, I have a particular interest in the terms and the subject of this debate. I thank the CIPD for its work on this issue, as well as the Institute for the Future of Work, Scope, the disability charity, the City & Guilds Group, the Chartered Management Institute, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, trade unions, local authorities and many others that are contributing to this debate. It is clear to them all and to workers all over Scotland and beyond that we cannot and must not go back to the same old same old. The status quo was not right before, and it is certainly not right for the future.
We need to ask ourselves searching questions about the way work should look, including about hybrid or remote working and the prospect of a shorter working week, and the fundamental question about what value we place on the jobs of those who keep us, our countries and our families functioning and safe. We need to tackle head-on the fact that structural inequality is inbuilt in the fabric and systems of work, and use technology more wisely in the future to ensure that bias on grounds of race, sex and disability, to name a few, is stripped out of recruitment and promotion decisions. We need to do better, and this is the time to take that reality forward.
I have spent much of my professional life looking at work from the perspective of the employer-employee relationship. However, working in further education, I also contributed to preparing young people for work, and increasingly helping older people move to the next phase of a multifaceted working life.
The world of work, and with it the education and skills sector, changed significantly long before covid, but this crisis means that we must take stock and re-examine what the future of work should look like. A recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Task Force on the Work of the Future mirrors the findings of the UK’s Future of Work Commission. Both reports highlight that technological change is not eliminating work; it is replacing existing work and creating new work. More importantly, it is changing the quality of jobs and access to them, driving new forms of polarisation and work inequality. It is estimated that 60% of the jobs being done today in America did not exist in 1940; the figures for Scotland and the UK may not differ greatly.
Change in the world of work is constant, but too often the process has been poorly handled, and many parts of the UK bear the scars. As we move beyond this pandemic, we have to learn from past mistakes. The effect of previous Conservative Governments can be seen in too many areas of deep-rooted deprivation across the UK, where existing jobs were closed down before investment in new jobs and skills could build an alternative future.
The brutality of this transition at its worst was recalled in Scotland just last month. The Scottish Government are recommending that hundreds of Scottish miners be pardoned for offences that they were convicted of 35 years ago as they struggled to defend their jobs, their industry and the wellbeing of their communities against an onslaught from Margaret Thatcher’s Government. As the Chancellor has acknowledged, although it would be better if he also acted on this, a decent society should not leave people behind.
The issue we are talking about today are profound and long term. Changes that fundamentally shift the world of work include developments in technology, the reality of climate change and catastrophes such as wars; and clearly this pandemic is having a huge impact on employment. The situation is not helped by a blundering, blustering Prime Minister and a dithering UK Government, who leave announcements of support until they are too late to stop firms folding and jobs being lost. Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, has said that we are at risk of returning to 1980s levels of unemployment—truly a return to the Thatcher years.
Recovery from the pandemic will not be helped by the Prime Minister delivering a half-baked Brexit that will undermine many sectors of the economy. According to the latest employer survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the rise in unemployment will be accompanied by a reduction in training investment, reinforcing a long-standing trend of declining investment in UK workplace training. Just as George Osborne’s austerity agenda held back recovery post-2008, the UK cannot reshape its economy on the back of slashed training budgets.
Kirstie Donnelly, the chief executive of the City & Guilds Group, has warned that
“mass unemployment…left unchecked, will scar the futures of a generation”.
City & Guilds has highlighted the difficulty in accessing work for those who were already disadvantaged, with lower use of personal contacts, previous employers or recruitment consultants. Although working from home can be valuable, it is not a panacea. A recent survey found that those with the lowest household income were six times less likely to be able to work from home. Also, the sectors most impacted by covid include those with the highest share of workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and with its evident effect on those with disabilities or underlying health conditions, the economic impact of this pandemic will be projected into the future unless there is conscious mitigation.
Kirstie Donnelly is calling on the Government to redirect funding to support skills development that promotes social mobility; perhaps the Minister can indicate if that call has been heard. The Scottish Government have announced a £60 million young person’s guarantee, to ensure that everyone aged between 16 and 24 has the opportunity of work, education or training. Scotland will also have a £25 million national training transition fund, to help up to 10,000 people aged 25 or over to develop the skills required to move into sectors with the greatest potential for growth.
More needs to be done, but with major economic and fiscal powers resting with the Treasury, the Scottish Government need Treasury backing to go further. Rather than bypassing them, as the UK Government shamefully plan to do, the Scottish Government need the Treasury to work with them to address Scotland’s needs in a way that meets Scotland’s aspirations. Scotland does not want another Dido Harding or Rupert Soames to be parachuted in to tell us what we need and what we have to do.
We must look at creating a real baseline of fairness below which people do not fall, whether they are in work, education or employment, or are temporarily or permanently displaced from the workforce. As an alternative, we in the SNP are calling for changes in approach, raising the basic floor of protection and welfare, and for a proper examination of alternatives, such as a universal basic income that recognises and supports people as individuals. It is support for people, for workers and for transition between jobs, firms and sectors that needs urgent attention from the Government, not just protecting the status quo of businesses that are not required to maintain fair work standards or reduce executive pay or shareholder pay-outs.
Through their flagship Fair Work First policy, the Scottish Government lead the way. They are rewarding and encouraging employers to adopt fair work practices by attaching fair work criteria to grants and other funding and to contracts awarded by and across the public sector. They ask employers to commit to paying the real living wage, making no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts, and providing channels for an effective voice for workers, such as trade union recognition.
I was pleased to back the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in its fight for equal protection between those who work in the gig economy and those on standard employment contracts. Shamefully, some businesses that rely on workers in the gig economy have continued to operate during the pandemic but have not accepted responsibility for the health and safety of their workforce. We cannot build a resilient and flexible labour market by disadvantaging even further the most disadvantaged in our society, or by stripping workers of the rights that we all used to take for granted. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) is working across parties on his Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) (No. 2) Bill, which has the backing of major trade unions including Unite, the British Airline Pilots Association and GMB Scotland. It is a response to disgraceful actions by companies including Centrica and British Airways, which tried to use the cover of the pandemic to lay off thousands of workers, only to rehire them on diminished terms.
The UK Government have said that they will not use Brexit to erode workers’ rights. Those are two real opportunities for them to prove it. Will the Minister make it clear that the Government accept the ruling of the High Court, and take the action needed to implement it? Will she also commit to backing my hon. Friend’s Bill, or to bringing forward similar provisions in the Government’s own employment Bill to protect and enhance workers’ rights, as was promised in the Queen’s Speech? If the UK Government will not act, they should devolve the necessary powers and let the Scottish Government continue to match or exceed EU standards. After all, that is what was promised, and Scotland never voted to leave the EU in the first place. It is no wonder that people increasingly see a better independent future.
The pandemic has accelerated existing trends in the world of work. How we build on the technologies and the sectors that have expanded since March this year may mark the pandemic as a tipping point for changes in the world of work and the economy. If we want to build back fairer and stronger, we need to be clear about what we want to achieve. The Future of Work Commission argues that the purpose of work is to support health and wellbeing, and to enable individuals to flourish. Economic policy should reflect that goal. A member of the commission, Professor Michael Sandel, said:
“The pandemic has highlighted a familiar problem: The best-paying jobs are not necessarily the ones that contribute most to the common good, and some low-paying jobs have greater social value than their market value would suggest.”
We can either reflect and act, or allow ourselves to be driven headlong by those keen to capitalise on the position that they have gained over this unique period and hang the human consequences.
The economic movement from high streets and retail centres to digital platforms and delivery vans has without doubt pushed existing legislative and regulatory frameworks to the limit. The court victory by the IWGB last week should just be a start in bringing them into alignment. It is not acceptable for the operators of new technologies to prosper by stripping workers of their rights and protections. They are misusing legislation designed to create flexibility to underpin a new dominance for the interests of capital. The UK Government must recognise that and act.
The CIPD is working with the Institute for the Future of Work and the Carnegie Trust to develop guidance to ensure that investment in new technology optimises returns not only in organisational performance, but in job quality. The findings from that work must help to identify areas where legislative change is needed. It is one thing to have Jeff Bezos planning to use drones for deliveries, but the operators of global platforms must not be allowed to treat their workforce as drones, stripped of basic levels of sick pay, never mind the enhanced level that they should have during a pandemic to make sure that they can comfortably self-isolate when required.
Case studies and analysis by the Institute for the Future of Work highlight imbalances in information, wealth and power that come from emerging global platforms. They demonstrate that our legal framework has not kept pace with the new automated technologies, with their use of algorithmic and artificial intelligence-based decision-assisting tools. The UK Government’s hands-off approach to the issue is negligent and flies in the face of commitments to address structural inequalities at work. We need a fresh approach if we are to ensure that historical inequalities are not projected into the future. That is why I support the call for a new accountability for algorithms Act.
The growth of home working has also led to a growing interest in, and growing concern about, such techniques as keyboard and camera monitoring. In a recent survey, the trade union Prospect found that only a third of workers had even heard of such techniques. That should be of concern to us all.
We need to look across this complex subject as a matter of urgency. We need a dedicated work 5.0 strategy, and it needs to be produced jointly with civil society, trade unions and academics, as well as with businesses, to ensure that we can find a fair, inclusive and forward-looking approach to work. We need the UK Government to do what the Scottish Social Justice and Fairness Commission is already doing. As we approach Brexit, that has never been more important.
In conclusion, I reflect on the comment by David Autor, co-chair of the MIT future of work report, which was published yesterday. He said:
“The sky is not falling, but it is…lowering.”
This UK Government need to reprioritise future good work as a cross-cutting role and they need to act now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate. I recognise that there could be no more important subject to discuss in this place. I am pleased that we are able to have this discussion. I will range more widely than our immediate situation, but I will end with a word on where we are and what Government might do.
I will start with a quick scan of what has happened since the last recession. We may be entering a different recession that is happening because demand is being choked off in the economy. The 2008 recession was caused because credit was suddenly cut off and that recession ended quite quickly because the Government and the Bank of England pumped credit into economy. That kept the banks afloat, and through them businesses were able to borrow and stagger on.
The crucial issue is that the great bulk of the money that entered the economy after 2008 fed not into people’s incomes, but into their assets, or the assets of those people who had them. We had 10 years of growth until this year, which is a modern record, but we also had the lowest wage growth for 200 years. Median incomes before covid were still lower than in 2008.
We have had a jobs miracle over the last decade, but these were not jobs as we used to think of them. Two thirds were precarious. I do not mean to criticise the Governments since 2008 that took these steps because things would have been far worse if those steps had not been taken, but we need a different way out of this recession, if we can find one. Most of all, we need to build a better economy that is fit for the times.
The future of work is in large part a debate about automation. I recognise the truth of the claim, that in past times technology has not destroyed jobs but created them, but I do not think that is going to happen this time around to any significant degree. For a start, the new industries that tech is creating are not labour intensive. Some 50 years ago the world’s most valuable company, the telecom firm AT&T, employed 750,000 people. Today’s telecom giant, Google, which is worth about the same as AT&T in today’s money, employs only 55,000 people—less than a tenth of AT&T’s workforce.
Crucially, previous tech revolutions replaced manual labour, which allowed human beings to build new cognitive innovations that created jobs. This time we are seeing cognitive tasks taken over by the machines, not just with clerical work but with projects from design to law and others.
There is a dystopian future, which the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire helped to paint. In that future, inequalities of wealth will get greater. People with assets will get richer and those with the right skills will get more successful. Those without those skills and assets will fight over the low-paid jobs that remain. As Daniel Susskind has shown in his book, “A World Without Work,” many people will find themselves locked out of those jobs by their skills, their attitude or their location.
As the hon. Lady said, this year has accelerated trends that were already under way. The principal victims economically of lockdown have been those in the insecure jobs that have boomed in recent years.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points, but would he accept that there is no inevitability about this, and there is a role for Government? Yes, we need to identify potential growth areas that offer high-skill and high-wage jobs, but we should not simply abdicate from those areas where traditionally we have had a lead, for example in highly-skilled engineering at Rolls-Royce in Derby, and allow those jobs to be offshored, so we lose that potential forever more.
I agree that there is an important role for Government, both in cushioning the effects of change and in helping to nudge change in the direction where it will be the most beneficial for us all. We cannot stand in the way of what technology is doing to the world of work, but we can definitely make it a more comfortable experience for our people. I agree with that. I shall come to what the Government might do in a moment.
Although there has been an acceleration of many of the dangerous and destructive trends of recent years through the lockdown, we have also had a glimpse of a different future. I was going to say that the danger is having millions of people in forced unemployment, with all the harm that entails. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire raised the prospect of universal basic income, but I do not believe that we as a species are ready for permanent idleness.
I gently point out that universal basic income is not in any way, shape or form about enforced idleness. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look around the subject and see what potential there is for better work, and more equal and fair work, under a universal basic income system.
It may be that we are quibbling over terms, and I recognise and accept that there is a role for Government in subsidising some wages. My concern is that there is danger in the idea that it is possible for Government to provide all the income for all the people, so that they do not have to work—which is, of course, the end result of the proposal for universal basic income.
I think it is dangerous to suggest that it is possible for Government to subsidise all the incomes of all the people. We are fundamentally producers, not consumers. I also think that UBI would lead to inflation, as the income that was passed to people would simply lead into higher costs, so we would need a better management than that.
I have spoken of a dystopian future, but there is also a positive vision. The lockdown has given us a glimpse of that different future for some people. In the future more people will work from home. Fewer people will work at all, in the common sense of the word, for a remote boss in a big corporation or organisation. More of our time will be spent with our families and helping our neighbours, and new resources of care and creativity will be summoned from each of us. The Government might directly subsidise some incomes, but in the future that we want that will not be money for nothing; it will be linked to productive, pro-social creative activity. Of course, that is what we saw for some people during the lockdown. We need it for everyone.
As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said, there is a benign scenario in which automation frees up human beings to serve each other, while the machines serve the machine. Let the robots manage the logistics, and we can do what human beings are uniquely capable of, because if there is really nothing in the ordinary way of human work that machines could not do, what is the point of humans? What shall we do in the future? Happily, the answer is obvious. Humans should do what humans are good at—namely the activities of care and creativity.
We are good at looking after each other. Everyone knows from their own lives the foundational need for and value of human help when we are weak, at the start and end of life and at moments of illness or trauma in between. That giving of care might possibly be physically possible for some automation of the near future, but it is unthinkable that we would ever want our children to be nursed by a machine, or a robot to hold our hand as we die. In the new age that we are entering, care will be demanded more than ever, because our societies are ageing. McKinsey reports that by 2030 there will be at least 300 million more people aged 65 and over than there are now. Globally, the number of jobs related to healthcare and social care could grow by 50 million by 2030.
Automation is helping that trend. The duties of hospitality, in retail, cafés, shops, banks and hotels—those are the jobs that human beings are good at. We notice that automation is helping that. Richard Sargeant has written that after the introduction of ATMs—cash machines—the number of bank tellers in the economy rose, because ATMs made the banks more efficient and allowed the tellers, the human staff, to focus on the more complex human role of customer support. If we are good at care, hospitality and customer service, we are also good at creativity. I am talking about art and design, digital innovation, horticulture, philosophy, place making, sport, entertainment and education. We have to use the emergence from the shadow of covid to build back better. That means consciously orienting our economy and our education and skills systems towards those functions of care and creativity. That will require and help to create, as we saw in the lockdown, a more local, family-friendly and environmentally responsible society.
Let me finish on where we are now and the immediate priorities. We recently had a great bust-up in the House on the issue of children in families on low incomes and how they are to be fed in the holidays. We finally reached the right place on that, but I do not deny the role that pressure from Parliament and the media played in getting us there. We got the right result, which is a system whereby alongside more cash for families, which will be delivered in a targeted way through councils, we are enabling more support to be provided through communities. That is the model that we need overall. Yes, people need more cash, and we should consider whether the universal credit uplift should be continued or more flexibly targeted. However, more than money, what we all need is people around us, and that is why I am so passionate about civil society and its role. On welfare, yes to generous universal credit, but I want to put in a word for universal support. The original corollary in the design of universal credit was civil society organisations getting alongside people who were unemployed to support them and their families.
Kickstart is a tremendous programme that the Government have introduced to help young people get into employment at this time. Already 20,000 new placements have been created and 300,000 are due over the coming year. What it enables is more than just a job, which might only be temporary anyway. Crucially, it provides the real social support that young people need to develop the skills, care and creativity that they and the economy need. I urge employers—not just small ones, but large ones as well—to make use of the gateway arrangement, which helps employers to recruit and train young people and to develop the skills that will make them prosper. The future jobs fund, which was a similar programme introduced in 2008, had quite a high drop-out rate, and we need to prevent that.
The activity holiday programme, universal support to help people with employment and beyond, and the gateway system for the kickstart programme are a vision for a better future, so I will end on that point.
I welcome today’s debate and the recent establishment of an all-party group on the future of work, which will be helped by the Institute for the Future of Work.
I want to emphasise a couple of points that have already been made and talk about some of the assumptions that form much of the debate about the future of work. Even before the pandemic took grip, the future of work was attracting widespread attention, reflecting a widespread belief that the robots were coming. McAfee and Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have suggested that automation and artificial intelligence are powering a second machine age that is equivalent to the first industrial revolution. Writers such as Martin Ford have confirmed these technological shifts, and such books shape a narrative of epic technological change, often described as the fourth industrial revolution.
Numerous tabloid headlines have reported the likely displaced jobs through automation. Many of the most threatening estimates can be traced back to a single source: a 2013 article by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne that suggested that nearly half of all jobs classified by the US Bureau of Labor are vulnerable to automation. This has been used to suggest the demise of many millions of blue-collar jobs. Alongside that, in “The Future of the Professions”, Richard and Daniel Susskind suggest that technological forces will dramatically rework white-collar jobs—lawyers, consultants, accountants and health professionals. Reading these pieces makes one feel that almost no job is safe, but can we be so certain?
The approach to automation also corresponds, as has been said, with renewed interest in universal basic income. On the right, Milton Friedman, Hayek, Charles Murray and Richard Nixon have all embraced it to roll back the welfare state and replace it with an individualised transaction between state and consumer. The left-wing case tends to focus on the basic human right to a level of subsistence to shield against work poverty or job loss. Historically, Tom Paine, Bertrand Russell, JK Galbraith and Lyndon Johnson and many others have supported it. The policy is also embraced by many silicon valley titans, presumably to offset their personal responsibilities for structural unemployment. We have seen an upsurge in interest in basic income initiatives such as the Alaskan oil dividend and the UBI pilots in Finland, Scotland, Canada, Oakland, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Much of this appears to be fuelled by the belief that the robots are coming soon. Work is ending with the wholesale replacement of humans by machines. That begs the obvious question: what do we really know about the future of work? How reliable is the data? My basic point is that technology is not destiny. Assertions of technological disruption have always been around. In the 1930s, Keynes argued that by 2030 the average working week would be 15 hours long as new methods of economising on labour exceeded its use.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair.]
We should be cautious about headlines on the future of work that often derive from a single contested source. The Frey and Osborne analysis estimated that up to half of British jobs were threatened by automation. That was famously used by the Bank of England two years later to assert that 15 million jobs were at risk. How confident should we be about such assertions, not least because wildly different estimates co-exist? For instance, McKinsey Global has suggested that only 5% of jobs are candidates for full automation. Clearly, as has been mentioned, jobs will be created by automation, not just destroyed. For example, Frey and Osborne’s projections do not consider new jobs created in health and social care, the creative industries, leisure, in sectors that require interpersonal human skills, and in the technology and telecommunications sectors. Moreover, many of these studies on the effects of automation do not contain any timelines. I read this morning about a McKinsey report based on an analysis of 800 occupations, which estimated that half of all work activities could be automated by 2055, but then said
“this could happen up to 20 years earlier or later”.
So the data is pretty unreliable.
Many of these studies also underplay patterns of labour regulation that can help or hinder automation. The classic example is one of de-automation, literally, through the resurgence of thousands of hand car washes and the disappearance of the automated alternative, driven by the exploitation of migrant labour in the deregulated British labour market. These are questions of politics, not technological destiny.
To return to the statistics briefly, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that 9% of jobs are automatable, yet it also suggests that that is an overestimate, given the likely political and social constraints, redeployment and future job generation. It concludes that
“automation and digitalisation are unlikely to destroy large numbers of jobs.”
A TUC paper estimates between 10% and 30% of jobs to be at risk, yet concludes that the likelihood is that those jobs could be replaced by new occupations and professions. The evidence is at best inconclusive. The UK Government do not appear excessively worried. Their industrial strategy White Paper suggests a growing demand for high-skilled jobs and anticipates an extra 1.8 million new jobs in the next 10 years. That was before the pandemic, obviously.
In a thorough review of the literature, Phil Brown and his colleagues at Cardiff University concluded that technology is not destiny and that human decisions will determine the future of work. Their study states:
“Most studies focus on the potential for automation, without incorporating into their models economic and social factors that may stimulate or deter the replacement of workers by technology.”
In other words, politics. So the future is far from certain; it depends on the policy and political choices that we make.
In recent years, UK labour markets have seen a significant increase in atypical work, including elements of the gig economy. Prior to the pandemic there were some 5 million self-employed, 1 million workers on zero-hours contracts and 800,000 agency workers—since 2008, there have been rises of 24%, 450% and 46% respectively. Those comparatively high numbers are the product of our labour law and policy choices, resulting in work that is less regulated and protected and contributes to sluggish wage and productivity growth.
I will conclude with a few points. First, there is little consensus about future technological disruption. Secondly, the research is contested and, at best, unclear. Thirdly, it is prone to speculation and contains serious methodological flaws. This suggests that a more cautious approach is required, with an emphasis on our political choices rather than reverting to conjecture fuelled by technological determinism. There is nothing inevitable about the future of work. There are political choices about creating and rewarding good work and in upholding the dignity of labour, cruelly exposed by the pandemic. That is why it is so good that we are discussing the subject in Parliament this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this important debate, and I compliment her on her speech and for acknowledging the important role that the trade unions must play in planning ahead for the world of work. Perhaps the subtitle for this debate on the future of work should be “Building Back Better”. I am firmly convinced that there must be a role for Government in building back better; it cannot simply be left to the markets or a matter of nudging. When it comes to many of the employment practices that we have seen arising from the pandemic, notably fire-and-rehire, the Government must intervene and stop that happening.
I am sure that everyone in this room would agree that whatever the future of work looks like, trade unionism must be at the heart of it if we are to see well-paid, highly skilled and secure jobs not just for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children. I have been a member of a trade union, and indeed of the Labour party, since I was 16, so an awfully long time now. In fact, I think it is since I was 15—I may have lied about my age.
It would be remiss of me, as chair of Unite the union’s parliamentary group—[Interruption.] Thank you, comrades. It would be remiss of me not to refer to the strike action that Unite members are being forced to take at the Barnoldswick factory, birthplace of the jet engine, where Rolls-Royce is cutting 350 highly skilled jobs and moving the work offshore. It is fair to say that workers at Barnoldswick are cutting-edge, world-beating—quite simply, the best in the business. Those are surely exactly the sorts of jobs that we need to keep, create and encourage, yet Rolls-Royce—sadly, the Government seem to be standing idly by—is sending them abroad, to Singapore, and ironically to a factory that the Barnoldswick workforce helped to set up. They had been given promises that doing so would never put the home site at risk, but that has turned out to be a gross betrayal of loyal staff by Rolls-Royce management.
It is no wonder that Rolls-Royce workers are striking to save the jobs. They are doing so not just for themselves and their families, but for future generations and for their community. The strike, which was completely avoidable, is now set to continue until Christmas eve and quite possibly beyond that. It is not a pleasant experience to be on the picket line at this time of year, when it is cold and dark, but their cause is just.
The workers will not back down, and neither will their union. The jobs are simply too valuable, not just for the workers and their community but for the whole economy. It is a battle—the battle for Barnoldswick—and they must not lose it, because let us be clear that once the jobs go, they will be gone for good. It is an open secret that these 350 redundancies, on top of the 500 that have already taken place over the last two years, would almost certainly spell the end of that historic site. With only about 150 workers left, the site will simply become unviable. It is not overstating the case to say that that would be nothing less than ripping the heart out of the community. It would be an appalling legacy for the iconic Rolls-Royce brand.
The Government should not be sitting on their hands. People should bear it in mind that Rolls-Royce is doing all that while benefiting from billions of pounds of taxpayer support—support that is meant to be keeping jobs in industry going during the pandemic. It gets worse, because specifically the company is set to receive another £50 million of Government funding for producing a new component for the world-beating UltraFan engine, Rolls-Royce’s next generation of green jet engines. But that must be completed by Christmas for the company to get the money. I am told that Rolls-Royce is currently lobbying the Government to give it an extension to that deadline, and Rolls-Royce is blaming covid for the delay, but that simply is not the case; it is the strike that is preventing Rolls-Royce from meeting the deadline. The workers of Barnoldswick assure me that if the dispute were resolved tomorrow or even today, they could produce that part by Christmas, and only the Barnoldswick workers can make the component, so let us be absolutely clear about that. No other factory and no other workforce in the world have the skills to do that, because if it were possible elsewhere, believe me, we can be absolutely certain that Rolls-Royce would be sending that work there. It is ultra-high-end engineering, and it needs the world-beating engineers at Barnoldswick to deliver the goods.
The Government have a very easy way to end this dispute. The have the power to end it tomorrow if they want to. They can simply refuse to extend the deadline for Rolls-Royce, which would mean that it had to get back to the negotiations, take the job cuts off the table and commit to a viable future for Barnoldswick.
In my capacity of the chair of the Unite the union parliamentary group, I have written to the Rolls-Royce chief executive, Mr Warren East, asking him to take a leaf out of the book of the Barnoldswick workers and show some loyalty to Barnoldswick, the community and the iconic Rolls-Royce brand itself. If Rolls-Royce cares about its bottom line—we can all be sure that it does—that should force it back to the table, but time is running out. I want to take this opportunity to express my solidarity with the Rolls-Royce strikers. I once again offer my full support to them in this historic battle for that historic site, and I hope that other Members will offer their support and solidarity too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for introducing the debate.
It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). He is absolutely right to speak up for the Rolls-Royce workers. We are seeing that the opportunities for employers come on the back of working people when they offshore jobs. That is one of the biggest threats to our economy, and I support Unite in its battles against employers who have done such things.
The reason why the people of Barnoldswick have come to our attention is very much at the heart of my speech. Work defines us; it gives us dignity. It is where we spend most of our waking hours, build our security and friendships, display our skills, and contribute to society. Without work, we lose our identity, purpose and self-worth.
Tragically, for many, work has been hardly an edifying experience in recent times. Slavery conditions, poverty wages, insecurity and uncertainty have framed the working experience for too many. Recently, we have seen a sharp increase in zero-hours contracts, on which many people languish at the behest of their employers. Many jobs, good and bad, hang in the balance as we face a catastrophic tsunami of job losses. We have to build back better.
We have to decide what kind of economy we want to build. There have obviously been advances in technology and automation, but the word “growth” was mentioned again in this debate, and we have to understand what it means. Does it mean depth, or does it mean forever chasing profits for those at the top of organisations at the expense of workers?
I want the Minister to comment on how her Government view economic thinking such as that of Kate Raworth, who is looking at things such as doughnut economics and the value being put in, and Julian Richer, whose work on the good business charter looks at how work can have a more ethical base, including a real living wage, environmental responsibility, fairer hours, paying fair tax, employee wellbeing, a commitment to customers, employee representation through a trade union, diversity, inclusion, timely payments to suppliers and ethical sourcing. That would reshape the economy for the future in a far better, qualitative way.
Before I talk about my constituency, which is due to be the worst-hit area in the country from the current economic crisis—we could see unemployment rise from 2.8% last year to 27% next year, because the recovery from the last economic crisis was built on insecure jobs—I want to highlight three areas where we could see real movement in reshaping the economy. First, we should build sectoral councils. The fragmentation of the economy is not helping our response, so we need the economy to come together. Establishing sectoral councils will provide a framework for employers, workers, trade unions, academics and industrial leaders to come together, build back better, institute a skills analysis and look at the economic opportunities of those sectors. The fragmentation is preventing that from happening, but linking with local and devolved authorities and local enterprise partnerships would be a real opportunity to focus on the future and ensure that the big issues such as climate mitigation are at the heart of the discussions. It is also about building a base for sectoral negotiations to determine things such as pay, pensions terms and workers’ conditions in those sectors.
Secondly, I want to look at the university and further education sector. I have to say that I was disappointed by the debate earlier this week on the union learning fund and the opportunity it brings. Education is at the heart of growth: if we enable people to reach their potential and the extent of their skills, we can do so much more in local economies.
We see real under-employment in the city of York in my constituency. The two universities have now come together with the two further education colleges to form Higher York in order to shape the economy, but we need the education sector to have a more central role in establishing the future of the economy, looking at things such as the skills gap and inequality, and at the wider community interest—not just from the perspective of education alone, and not just looking at higher-end skills. In my city, 30,000 people work in areas such as retail, tourism and hospitality. Those jobs will not be there next week, next month and possibly next year, and we therefore need the university and further education sector to intervene and to address the many challenges that we face.
Perhaps the most difficult conversation that any of us have had over the past eight months has been with small employers and the self-employed, who have poured everything into their businesses—their money, their time, their resources and their lives—only to see them melt away without Government support. In building back for the future, we need to build more resilience into business by building collective support and looking at more social models of business support, to ensure that businesses are more sustainable in the future as they move forward—looking at the co-operative models and social enterprises that have good reach into their communities and real roots, which can address some of the real challenges around employment, too.
I turn briefly to my constituency of York Central. Already the high street is the worst impacted in the country—we have lost around 60 businesses to date, and I daresay there will be many more to come. As those businesses have been struggling, Government grants have been slipping through their fingers into the hands of leaseholders who live offshore and do not pay their taxes in our country. The taxpayer is subsidising that lifestyle, and hard-working people in our local businesses and shops do not see any of the benefits. There has to be responsibility when the Government hand out resources. Although they are saying they are supporting these times, we have to look where that money is ending up—it is certainly not ending up supporting business. I call on the Minister to look at how we can have proper investment and a responsibility put on property tycoons to ensure that the money is not just invested in their tax havens.
On a green new deal, the BioYorkshire project is incredible. It will create 4,000 jobs and retrain 25,000 people to have the skills to bring about a real revolution in the bio-economy, putting York at the heart of that—not just in the UK, but globally. The Government are tying this to a devolution deal that could be two and a half years away, but we need investment in those jobs and skills in York now. Before next Wednesday, can the Minister have words in order to bring that forward, so that we can start the work in creating the jobs that we are losing hand over fist at the moment?
Finally, and most importantly, if we are to have a strong future of work, we need to protect workers’ rights and to think about the real challenges that workers face in the workplace today. After 50 years of looking at health and safety, it is timely that we now have a health, safety and wellbeing commission to look at the wellbeing of workers. We know that issues such as mental health, bullying in the workplace and even the fallout of occupational health services were not discussed 50 years ago. We do not have a legislative framework to protect workers, particularly those who experience issues such as stress, poor mental health and bullying. We need to ensure that such a framework is introduced. Finally, we need to introduce a right to learn and to ensure that the union learning fund is invested in, because this is the opportunity to rebuild our economy.
You are very kind, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for setting the scene, and everyone who has contributed. This is the second time that I have followed the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) in Westminster Hall. I do not know whether we are a pair—one speaks and then the other speaks—but I have always followed her. That may be how life is, but there we are.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. These are incredibly worrying times for the nation—for those with vulnerable family and loved ones, for those with small businesses, and for those with jobs in various industries. The minimum wage is really a minimum for those who have had their hours reduced; they cannot even pay their bills. We do not have all the answers in this place, and we do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we know that we need to work to give opportunities no matter what comes with the new days. We look with expectation to the Minister in relation to that.
Unison has given me a briefing, and I want to use some of those facts in my speech. We are facing the worst jobs crisis in a generation. Up to 1 million people on furlough are in jobs that will not return after covid-19. Those people are significantly less likely to have qualifications than the general population, which will have an impact on the jobs that will be available to them. Some 130,000 of those people do not have an equivalent to a level-2 qualification, and a further 250,000 do not have a level-3, so the ability to support people who lose jobs in such sectors depends on the support available to them.
We always look to the Government and the Minister for help because that is their job. They have been voted in by the people and tasked with providing support, and I believe that they have a responsibility to do so, so how can we help people in those sectors? The number of young people experiencing long-term unemployment has tripled over the last quarter—some 33,000 of 18 to 24-year-olds. A further 65,000 have been out of work between one and two years, with the risk of long-term unemployment should the job climate persist.
That is all very concerning given that we know the scarring related to long-term unemployment for young people. It may impact their future job opportunities, earning potential, and physical and mental health. Take the effect of coronavirus in my own area. The Library’s provision of constituency claimants shows, using what they refer to as the alternative account, that there were 3,035 unemployed claimants in Strangford in August 2020, which is some 1,400 higher than in August 2019. That trend is worrying—even more so when we realise that those who are on furlough will potentially be added to it. It is 5.4% of the population aged 16 to 64. That was what it was when I came to this House in 2010, and we are back there today, unfortunately. It is deeply disturbing.
The furlough scheme extension is welcome. We thank the Government for all that they have done. We will not be churlish about it because many people are in jobs today because of the commitment that the Government made, but we must do more to ensure that people have jobs to come back to. Small and medium-sized businesses in particular have vulnerable staff who are so stressed about going back to work that they are unable to return. Again, I believe that the Minister and the Government must take steps to invest in job protection and in future jobs.
I am thinking of the plethora of small, independent shops and businesses. I will give one example, because it comes to mind: a small kelp shop. Kelp is basically seaweed. This person has found a market for it, made a business out of it, and then came a cropper due to covid-19. There were many one-person starters that were full of hope for the future. I believe that those workers are on universal credit while applying for a new job.
We need more support for the backbone of our workforce: the small and medium-sized enterprises that cannot allow people to work flexibly from home, and depend on the office block buying their sandwiches and coffee. I understand that we cannot tell the future. Oh boy, what if we could? We would all pick the six numbers for Saturday night. We would do many other things, of course, but we would do that if we had the opportunity. However, that does not mean that we do not have to future-proof. That must begin with support for owners of SMEs, to give them confidence that their business will survive, that they will come out the other end, and that we will be here to support them.
We now come to the Front-Bench speeches. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the Scottish National party, 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Kirsten Oswald will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for bringing this debate to the Chamber. What we have to do—and many Members have already done so—is set out the context, both past and present. Change is inevitable. It is coming, and it may just be an age factor, but I realise we cannot roll back time and it is not all bad. There are challenges, but there are also huge opportunities. I do not believe that the future need be either dystopian, or indeed, apocalyptic. The future can be bright if we fight and deliver a fair and just society for all, and that is what we need do.
I also think we need to remember the past, because it was not all halcyon days. My hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire was right to praise the Scottish Government for pardoning minors for convictions in the industrial struggle back in the 1980s, but let us not have any rosy picture about the nature of the jobs: the work in the pits, the work in the yards, the work offshore and the work on fishing boats. It was hard. It was dirty. It was dangerous. I do not think any of us regret that our children are not required to serve in that. So let us remember with pride, but let us also remember that in some ways, the change—in the automation and moving away from those jobs—has been a good thing. The same can occur in a society if we mould it in the manner that we want.
Change is inevitable, as has been mentioned by all speakers. Pre- and post-covid, there were changes. Before covid, in IT automation, the pace, the number of jobs; that was referred to by others, and we spoke about the union learning fund. The number of jobs that youngsters entering into the labour market are required to carry out will be significantly greater than in the days of my grandfather, who almost got a gold watch for going into the same place day in, day out for most of his life. Post covid, the changes have simply accelerated, and we are required to bear that in mind. There are huge challenges, that I will come on to, but equally, we have seen how Zoom has transformed with our very own eyes in these last few months.
New jobs have come about, but sadly, far too many jobs have been lost. Therefore, the first target has to be tackling unemployment. History tells us the dangers that all societies—and especially our own—can face from the challenges of mass unemployment coming around once again. It is not just the difficulties that can be faced in the body politic in the world of politics and governance, but the challenges that individuals face when we see our jobs go, and then heroin and alcohol flood in, so we require to tackle unemployment with a will and with vigour.
That comes back to the basic premise: we need to minimise the challenges and we need to maximise the opportunities. It can be done, because things do need to be done. We do need to upskill our people, as the buzzword goes; we do need to deliver that green new deal to tackle climate warming; we do need to ensure that society allows access for all, especially the disabled and most especially, the young.
I am particularly troubled by the story that a young friend of mine told me. My young friend has a learning disability, but has held down a job and done very well at that job for a significant number of years. He recently lost that job because of the challenges of covid, and I am particularly concerned by what this will mean for people such as him in the future. We cannot build that inequality into the future. What does my hon. Friend think about that?
That is why we have to ensure that we tighten employment legislation that has been loosened over recent years. Other speakers mentioned that, but this is about ensuring rights for all and, as I say, especially the disabled. It also comes on to the point about workplace changes. I have mentioned the nature of the jobs that we have lost, but there was one benefit that came from them, and that was unionisation. It was and remains important that workers have rights. I always remember reading that the largest single site employer in the United States is not Boeing; it is not even the Pentagon. It is Disney World. I recall that my grandfather started his training as a carpenter at Parkhead Forge. It was the largest single site employer in Scotland—up to 40,000 people—and is now a retail shopping centre. The problem is that it has brought about the gig economy, and made it difficult for people to come together to organise. We must have a balance between capital and labour.
Mention has been made about the IWGB. I have been involved with it on foster parents while others have worked with it on the gig economy, but we need to ensure employment rights. That is fundamental. We must address the nature of the work that is taking place, because the gig economy is grinding people down. I am fortunate enough to be a good friend of Paul Laverty, who, along with Ken Loach, wrote the movie “Sorry We Missed You”. That is fiction, but it is based in fact: the story could have been written in 101 different ways, all about the exploitation of individuals who are low paid, hired and fired, and used and abused. They are human beings, not battery hens. As political bodies, we and the Government must ensure that we provide protections for them. That is most certainly necessary.
We must also remember the challenges that are coming around because of covid and those that existed before, such as the gig economy, which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned. During my brief time-out from politics, I went away and wrote books. I wrote one about the dispute in Glasgow in 1919, when, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will know, there was also a huge strike in Belfast, as well as in areas of England. What people forget is that that was not just a battle in George Square between the forces of law and order and our industrial workers, but a strike for a 40-hour week.
If we went out in the streets today and spoke to people, they would say, “Give me a 40-hour week. I’d be grateful if I had a 40-hour week and could live on what I earn.” More than a century on, it is shameful that people cannot get a living wage. That movement was driven because men were coming back after being demobilised from the first world war and there were going to be challenges. Before they went on strike for a 40-hour week, they had argued for a 32-hour week.
We need to start looking at a four-day week, but ensuring that people can pay their way. Countries such as Sweden have shown that working for four days means the same—or increased—productivity as working for five. Far too many people in our country are not working for 40 hours a week, but for far longer. We need to address that because, frankly, it is shameful and there is a better way.
This is not just about the gig economy, but about the type of work that needs to be done. The hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) was quite right: social care is absolutely essential, but it cannot be used and abused. It was hard enough to be on a fishing boat or in the pits, but working for hour upon hour on your feet as a social care worker is miserable. We need to ensure that those jobs are properly recompensed and protected, which comes back to the point about balance between capital and labour, the need for unionisation, and the need for a living wage and not simply a minimum wage.
Society can be better, but there is work to do. We must build and retrofit houses, and do the same for schools, hospitals and other buildings that will be necessary to meet the climate change challenges that we face. We can choose a better way. There are significant challenges; we cannot turn back time, but if the Government are prepared, willing and able to ensure that the rights of workers are protected and that the excesses of individual employers are reined in—there are good employers out there, but some are deeply exploitative—we can get that balance.
Countries such as Germany, which has a right-of-centre Government whom I would not necessarily support, have found that better productivity, better quality of life, and higher standards of living can be and are better delivered by respecting trade unions and even having them on boards of directors—not just in public companies, but in private ones. Will the Minister ensure that adequate workers’ rights and protections are provided? If we provide them, the future can be bright and we can build back better, but the Government must ensure that they take charge to protect workers’ rights, rather than allowing a race to the bottom.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate on the future of work, and on her speech. The range of contributions that we have heard from hon. Members, and the thought that has gone into each, show that the issue should, increasingly, be on the parliamentary radar.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire was right: the status quo is not good enough, and we cannot go back to the past. Many issues have been raised. The hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) talked about the importance of effective employment programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) rightly said that technology is not destiny and that the future is far from certain. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) talked about how building back better cannot be left to the market, talking about a role for Government, communities and the unions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it is always a pleasure to speak in a debate with him—talked about worrying times for the nation. He is absolutely right. This is an issue that we must all face together, with the concerns of our constituents very much at the forefront of our minds. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked effectively about dignity, identity, self-worth, and the need to reshape our economy and to look at sector councils.
I want to build on some of those themes. The issue has many dimensions. Technological change is creating the future. To some extent, it might replace work but in truth it might also not replace work—it might create those new jobs. How we embrace and shape the technology and changes of the future is down to the choices that we make. Past mistakes cannot be allowed to continue. We should not come out of this period with greater division than we saw not just going into the crisis but before, and with a deeper digital divide creating those who are in and those who are out of prosperity in future.
The imperative that a decent society does not leave people behind must be our priority. Employment will be one of the key themes of 2021. What has to be critical is not just how we create good work and jobs for the future, but access to those jobs and fair and decent pay to go with them. Why is that? Because more than 1 million jobs have been lost during the crisis. Vacancies remain 30% below pre-crisis levels, and forecasts suggest that unemployment will remain substantially above its pre-pandemic level well into 2022.
Too many entered the pandemic in an already precarious position. More than 12 million households began the year with less than £1,500 in savings. They have been hit hard as jobs and income have been reduced. Jobs are becoming less resilient, not more. The latest ONS figures show that more than 1 million people are on zero-hours contracts, almost double the number in 2013. Ethnic minorities, young people, single mothers and the lowest paid have seen their employment hit the hardest, with a double hit on BAME communities disproportionately affected by the health crisis. As has been said, they are the least likely to be able to work at home and those who will struggle for access to the new jobs of the future.
Yesterday, the Government announced an additional £8 billion for green funding for the future. That is welcome, but it does not remotely meet the scale of what is needed to tackle the climate emergency and is far smaller than the €27 billion pledged by France or the €38 billion by Germany. That is why Labour has launched its own jobs-rich green recovery action plan, which includes action to recover jobs, and investment and co-ordination to secure up to 400,000 good, green additional jobs; to retrain workers by equipping them with the skills needed; to deploy the green technologies of the future; and to rebuild business with a stronger social contract between Government and businesses to tackle the climate crisis and ecological deterioration, while promoting prosperity and employment.
I will also make mention of co-operative strategies, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central. A co-operative strategy for recovery that builds from the bottom up, looking at community resilience in our recovery, is an important part of our future. Indeed, those are themes to be discussed at the West London Business conference tomorrow on the future of aviation and communities.
The future of work must mean fair work, and a social security system fit for purpose. Too many workers have had inadequate employment rights and precious little bargaining power. The pandemic has highlighted that the social security system that should underpin those workers’ autonomy in the labour market is woefully inadequate.
It is also important for the Government urgently to conduct and publish an assessment of the financial barriers to self-isolation, including the level of statutory sick pay. If such gaps are not filled, a cohort of people will continue into the next period having to make an impossible choice between self-isolating and putting food on the table. We need to support people back into work, so I hope that the Minister will reconsider the punitive culture behind benefit sanctions, brought back by the Government in July.
The future of work—a resilient, inclusive future, with good work for all—is critical as we think about how we build back better. The theme is now international, reflected in recent reports on the future of work published by the World Economic Forum, the International Labour Organisation, the OECD, the RSA and, of course, the Institute for the Future of Work, which I thank for its work supporting the APPG and its briefing in advance of this debate. Many of these debates look at the acceleration of changes in workforce practices, including the advent of automation and AI.
As change comes, however, we must lead rather than lag. There is a need to review concerns around workers’ rights and protections as labour market structures change, and issues around the future of good work and of workplaces post-covid must be matters for debate and policy. It is not a new area: 30 November marks the fourth anniversary of the launch of the Taylor review, which looked at insecure and exploitative work, the quality of work, and modern workplace values. It is time to refresh that: the Government have only passed legislation on seven of the 53 recommendations to date, despite accepting much of that report. Furthermore, in an answer to a parliamentary question today Ministers were still not able to define when the Employment Bill will be coming to Parliament.
Many employers have sought to do the right thing by employees in the uncertain period in which we live, and unions have been working closely with many of them. Other employers have sought to take advantage of the pandemic to erode workers’ pay and terms and conditions, as discussed in the “fire and rehire” debates in the House. That has exposed the need to strengthen our offer to workers and to enhance the protection afforded them. It also raises how vital it is that we listen to workers and include their views in how we shape the future of work.
According to research by the Fabian Society, some 58% of workers say that they are given no opportunity to influence how technology is used in their workplace. Emerging technological change in workplace practices must look at improved transparency, accountability and involvement: that should be at the centre of any Government plan. That plan could include how the Government will work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people, as well as tackling insecure work and low pay, and transforming the training opportunities available to people at every stage of their lives, with schools, further education and higher education all part of that.
That is why it is so important to reconsider and rethink the proposed cuts to the union learning fund, which is so effective and vital to adult education. It is also important to take tough action to raise standards and root out exploitation in lower paid under-regulated sectors. An ambitious vision for how technology can be used to open up and improve opportunities for all workers should be core and part of a commitment to ensuring that the future of work is resilient and inclusive. Alongside that, we should also be looking to explore and review rights such as the right to disconnect, giving remote and electronically connected workers the tools to disconnect to ensure that their mental health and work-life balance are protected and respected. That issue was highlighted effectively by the union Prospect.
We must look at effective employment support. People must have access to work for the future. Opportunities for access must come through effective Government schemes; the latest figures show that the Government’s Kickstart scheme has so far created opportunities for around 3% of the 600,000 unemployed young people.
We also need to make sure that these are high-quality placements with built-in training opportunities for young people that provide a transition into longer-lasting employment, so that around the country opportunities for young people are sustained into a long-term future. That is important because effective support in work and out of work—including an effective social security system that supports workers—is vital. People will be looking to switch jobs following changes in the labour market perhaps 11 times, on average, in their lifetime. That is very different from the world in which past generations grew up.
In conclusion, future generations will judge us by the choices we make today to support livelihoods and businesses, tackle the unemployment crisis, and face up to the realities of the climate emergency. An economic plan needs a jobs plan, and a jobs plan needs a skills plan. A credible green recovery with sustainable jobs—something that people across the world are looking to—requires co-ordinated action across Government, harnessing investment and regulation, working alongside local government and the private and voluntary sectors to deliver system-wide change right across our country. We cannot let the failure to address pre-covid inequalities, laid bare by this crisis, now be an injustice that we allow to be passported into the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to respond to the debate. I look forward to further debates on this issue. I greatly thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing this important debate on a critical topic for the UK. It has been interesting and thoughtful, and the introductory speech was exactly that—as were those from Front-Bench colleagues. I particularly welcome the new APPG on the future of work, which will look at work going forward and the role the Government take. I will try to pick up on some of the points hon. Members have made.
Reflecting on what Members have said, we recognise that the labour market is fluid. We will have to continue to adapt to the forthcoming challenges, emerging technologies and the changing nature of available employment, and the skill sets that are required to remain agile enough for this change in the world in work. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) reflected on the jobs miracle, the barriers and impacts of where we are now compared to where we were, and the inequality challenge. I absolutely recognise the points that my hon. Friend made.
We also heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) who has the art of being in two places at once—brilliantly done today. I failed at that earlier, and I apologise. The hon. Gentleman pointed out, rightly, that for many families this is an incredibly worrying time. The Department for Work and Pensions has stepped up in this pandemic so that we are supporting as widely as possible, but I fully recognise the impact on SMEs and our local independents.
We heard from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) who highlighted the social care challenge—it is absolutely important. We have had a care academy in Scotland through the DWP that has been brilliant, and has highlighted the variety of roles, and impacts, that can be made by those who are part of that amazing world making a daily difference to people’s lives. It is important that we sell and point out that opportunity in the world of work.
I want to pick up briefly on UBI. I believe, fundamentally, it is the wrong approach for the UK. As we heard from my hon. friend the Member for Devizes, it does not incentivise work. More importantly— and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire mentioned disability—it does not target people with additional costs and needs when it comes to the challenges that they face, whether it is disability or childcare responsibilities. We should be careful how we approach that.
We recognise at the DWP that we need to be looking strongly and widely at the labour market. We have an excellent team, which I work with closely, who give me a daily understanding of the labour market so that we can try to take advantage of the opportunities of automation—this emerging technology—and what it may bring. We heard already about the green jobs taskforce which met for the first time last week, which will bring together the views of businesses and employers, as we heard today, and key stakeholders including the skills sector. The taskforce will focus on the immediate and longer term challenges of delivering workers with the right skills for the UK’s transition to net zero, including dealing with the issue of building back greener, as we heard this afternoon, and developing a long-term plan that charts out those key skills. It will also focus on the good-quality jobs that we need, a diverse workforce and supporting workers in high-carbon areas transitioning into sectors such as green technologies.
We heard about the 10-point plan this week from the Prime Minister and his blue-print to focus on jobs and opportunities in the areas where the UK’s industrial heartlands need that support—be they in Yorkshire, the north-east, the Humber, the west midlands, Scotland or Wales. It is important that we drive through a green industrial revolution to support the industries of the future.
It is an absolute focus for us to drive forward local needs and support where they can change the local labour market and local opportunities. Earlier, the hon. Lady also mentioned working with local mayors and local enterprise partnerships, which this Government encourage.
On automation, we know that the increase in productivity, progression and wages that it can bring if we get it right will be really important as we head into this fourth industrial revolution. It is very difficult, as we know, to predict with any kind of precision what automation will do to the labour market, but it is important that we understand new technology, including the enablement of smart robotics and artificial intelligence, grab it and put it in place as part of our process of change. We know that 60% of the jobs in 2014 simply did not exist in 1990, so we know that things will change imminently.
In my contribution—perhaps the Minister was about to come on to it—I said that the indications are that about 1 million people will lose their jobs after covid comes to its end, and those are generally people with low educational achievement. I gave two figures that together almost come to 400,000 of that million people—those who have two GCSEs or equivalent, and those who do not even have a level 3 education. So, although I know that it is not the Minister’s direct responsibility, is it possible for her to look at those people who do not have many qualifications but need extra help?
I was coming on to the interventions that we need to make. At DWP, I have introduced a new sub-brand for our jobcentres: “jobs, community, progression”. It feeds into my passion to shape the future of the labour market, to deal with its structural problems and to reflect the breadth of what we do in our jobcentres, so that people understand that they are there for the reskilling and upskilling of individuals.
That is a key priority for us in the next decade and it is applicable not only to individuals displaced by the pandemic. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, it is also to deal with a structural problem in the labour market, to make sure that the occupational skills base matches what is needed in the labour market, so that people are not left behind and we match businesses’ needs. We recognise that this approach cuts across Government departmental boundaries, but we also recognise that collective action is vital when it comes to jobseekers being able to adapt to changes in the workplace.
No; if I may, I will make some progress.
My Department is leading a cross-Government steering group, with key responsibilities in terms of gathering evidence to inform the right decision making. We have touched on the issue of skills this afternoon. There will be £3 billion, when the skills fund is Barnettised, to have a national skills fund to help adults to get the key skills for the economy of the future.
Also, as a part of wider Government work, I am working with the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy to ensure that all our DWP claimants have the skills sought by local employers, so that there is a clear link between the local labour market and employers.
The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), the Opposition spokesperson, asked for a plan for jobs. We have one—a £30 billion plan for jobs for every part of the country, and for every business, so that businesses can have the confidence through the furlough scheme to retain and retrain staff, and also to be able to hire people by working with DWP and across Government.
We are doing that through the Kickstart scheme, which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred to. This is an incredibly important job creation scheme. It is a £2 billion project that runs through to December next year, so that our young people have the opportunity to get on the employment ladder.
We have our expanded youth offer, including new youth hubs that will bring together all the options that our young people need; sector-based work academy programmes; Job Entry Targeted Support, which will also launch in Scotland in January, is a brand new and targeted support scheme that is already rolling out in England and Wales; we will boost our flexible support fund; and our work coaches are paramount. Conditionality was mentioned earlier. Our work coaches are more empowered than ever to focus on a claimant’s needs and on the challenges they face, to ensure that we have a clear link between our claimants and our work coaches, so that we can support our claimants. We have tailored programmes to help people’s individual circumstances more than ever to make sure that they can get a job and, more importantly, progress in the labour market. The economic outcome will be difficult, but as it becomes clearer, we are targeting our support at the right people and the right areas.
Before the Minister concludes, could she put her mind to the specific things that I asked her to consider? In particular, can she can tell us whether the Government will accept the ruling of the High Court? Will they take forward the fire and rehire provisions, or similar ones, that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) has put forward?
Those are matters for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I can write to the hon. Lady about them. I also note that she mentioned HSE, safety at work and other areas for which I am responsible, which were important points. She also mentioned wellbeing at work, which was our absolute priority before the pandemic hit, and will continue to be.
I am determined that those who were struggling to progress before the pandemic hit—who were perhaps locked out of the labour market before that, despite the record employment—are not left behind. Our focus as a Department and a Government is to build back greener and stronger. That will be powered by technology and skills; by matching retraining with new jobs to secure a better future; and vitally, as we have heard, by connecting communities with all opportunities so that we can level up our economy by ensuring that our labour market thrives throughout the UK.
I again thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us to have this debate. It has been an important discussion and the speeches have been excellent, thoughtful and wide-ranging. I acknowledge the breadth of topics covered and the importance of covering all those topics. Undoubtedly change will come in this area, so we need to look to the future, but we also need to look to action.
Covid-19 is clearly accelerating changes in work, as well as a number of significant employment challenges. We have to look to the future in that context. We have to consider artificial intelligence and technology, and how to use it well and positively. Some Scottish local authorities are looking at how to innovate there; in fact, many organisations are looking at technology in the context of work. Perhaps the Leader of the House, if he is watching the debate or reading the transcript, might reflect on that. We also need to look at the issue in the context of equality. We have to build in equality as we move forward. We cannot allow the pandemic or technology to ever be an excuse to perpetuate inequality at work.
As we go forward, we need to consider the issue of fairness at the heart of all we do. The work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission is worth looking at; the importance of sustainable and fair work cannot be underestimated. Dignity should sit in the middle of everything. We should consider how work needs to look: do we have to have a five-day week or could we move to a four-day week? We should look at the way that collaboration at work makes things possible. The trade unions, such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, are doing excellent work on that.
Different organisations are considering the future of work, including the new all-party parliamentary group on the future of work. We need to consider that along with the employees, who are central to it all. There is nothing inevitable about the discussion that we have had today, or about what is coming down the track in terms of the future of work, except for one thing, which is that the good political decisions and good judgments that we make today can make work better and fairer for tomorrow.
Question put and agreed to,
That this House has considered the future of work.