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Uber: Supreme Court Ruling

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Uber.

I want to begin by making it absolutely clear that everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work and rewarded for their contribution to the economy with both fair pay and fair working conditions. This means that employers must take their responsibilities seriously, not simply opt out of them. If there is a dispute between the individual and an employer, as seen in the recent case involving Uber, the courts consider each case on an individual basis. The courts are independent and the Government do not intervene. As such, with the Supreme Court being the final stage of the appeal, its judgment is final and Uber will need to take action to align with the judgment.

The Government recognise concerns about employment status being unclear in some cases, and we are committed to making it easier for individuals and businesses to understand which rights and tax obligations apply to them. We have made good progress in bringing forward measures that add flexibility for workers while ensuring the protection of employment rights. For example, we have legislated to extend the right to a written statement of core terms of employment to all workers, making access to a written statement a day one right and extending the contents of a written statement. We have also banned the use of exclusivity contracts and zero-hours contracts to give workers more flexibility. This means an employer cannot stop an individual on a zero-hours contract from looking for, or accepting work from, another employer. We will continue to explore options for employment status that protect rights while also maintaining flexibility in the labour market. This Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, and we are committed to making the UK the best place in the world to work.

Last Friday’s Supreme Court ruling on Uber was a landmark victory for working people, and testament to the hard work of the GMB union, the App Drivers and Couriers Union and the drivers who brought the action. It rejected Uber’s bogus claim that its drivers are self-employed, ruling instead that they are workers and therefore entitled to basic rights that they have so far been denied, such at the national minimum wage and holiday pay. The ruling has far-reaching consequences for tens of thousands of Uber drivers as well as all gig economy workers.

Yet Uber is attempting to dodge the Supreme Court’s ruling, just as it attempts to dodge its responsibilities to its drivers, by trying to interpret the ruling so that it applies to only a tiny minority of its workforce. If Uber ignores the ruling, tens of thousands of workers will be cheated out of their rights, forcing low-paid and precarious workers to spend time and money that they can ill afford in order to litigate to recover withheld wages, in cases that they will likely win but will take years to conclude. The Government should not abandon working people to fight for their rights in the courts, so will the Minister take this opportunity to make it clear that the judgment applies to all Uber drivers, and that the company cannot continue to cheat its drivers out of their basic rights?

Even before the pandemic, one in 10 working adults—around 5 million—were found to be working in the gig economy, in fragile and insecure work, and with one-sided flexibility. It is bad for those workers, bad for the economy and, as we have seen from the pandemic, a disaster for public health. Will the Minister confirm that the principles of the judgment in the Uber case must apply not only to all Uber drivers, but to all those on similar arrangements across the country?

Let me say again that the Government cannot abrogate their responsibility by telling workers to fight for their basic protection through an employment tribunal system that barely functions following a decade of neglect. Working people need a Government who will stand behind them, so will the Minister commit now to legislate to end bogus self-employment and provide security to all gig economy workers?

As I have said, the Government are clear that everybody deserves to be treated fairly at work and rewarded for their contribution to the economy. The judgment has been laid down and there are no further avenues for appeal, so Uber must respond accordingly. The hon. Gentleman talked about clarifying employment status and rights. We are committed to continuing to look at workers’ rights, and to ensure that we consider carefully and in the round all the questions about the various workers’ rights, while keeping flexibility in our employment market.

May I urge the Government not to take an Uber free market approach in these matters, and to recall that the Conservative party has a long history of defending workers from ruthless entrepreneurs? For instance, in the 19th century, Disraeli resisted attempts by the then Liberal Government to prevent workers from picketing when on strike. Can the Minister be absolutely robust today and say, following the question from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), that we believe this is a landmark judgment and that Uber must now accept that its hard-working drivers, many of whom have come from abroad and deserve protection, are employed and deserve all the rights of fully employed people?

My right hon. Friend talks about Uber in isolation, but clearly any number of other operators in the gig economy will be looking at the judgment, and it is important that they respond accordingly. The Government will also respond accordingly, because we always recognise the valuable contribution made by those working in the gig economy, and people do value the flexibility it offers, but we must also ensure that those workers are adequately protected.

I commend the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for securing this urgent question. In towns and cities across Scotland, the rise of the gig economy has been clear for all to see. Despite the flexibility that it offers some workers, it is nowhere near giving them the same rights and protections as others—there is no maternity leave, no holidays and no sick leave. This ruling by the Supreme Court should rightly change that, and I say “should” because, ultimately, employment law remains in the grip of the Tories at Westminster, rather than in the hands of Scotland’s Parliament.

We are all worried about a bonfire of workers’ rights in this post-Brexit world. We have all seen the Government refuse to support the Bill put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) to end the appalling practice of fire and rehire. I heard the Minister’s warm words, but this is an easy opportunity for him to take a small step in the right direction when it comes to workers’ rights. Will he confirm that his Government fully back the Supreme Court ruling and that they will make no attempt through legislation to overturn, undermine or circumvent it?

The Supreme Court ruling is final. We recognise the concerns about employment status and the potential for exploitation. We want to make it easier for individuals and businesses to understand what rights and tax obligations apply to them, and we are currently considering options to improve clarity around employment status. I have previously talked about the fact that ACAS was charged with considering fire and rehire and gathering evidence, and it has done so. It reported back to BEIS, and we will consider what it found.

This is a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court, but many people will be concerned that companies such as Uber should not be left to interpret what it means, because otherwise we will see a disparity between the different companies employing workers in the gig economy—for example, a deliverer for Just Eat is an employee, but one for Deliveroo is not. Will my hon. Friend give serious consideration to the Government legislating to create a level playing field and to stop these abuses?

As I have said, we will look at employment conditions and ensure that employees can understand their status and tax payment conditions. There is a complication, in that the companies my hon. Friend mentioned each have different contracts, so it is important that we have something that looks at all those things in the round.

Does the Minister agree with the GMB union, which fought this legal battle for four years, that now is the time for Uber to face up to its legal and moral responsibilities, pay decent wages and give decent holidays to its employees? It truly is time to legislate, legislate, legislate, rather than look again.

Uber has to respond to the Supreme Court’s judgment, which is final. We have talked about the fact that the gig economy offers individuals flexibility and provides opportunities for those who may not be able to work in more conventional ways, but we must make sure that they are protected and that we have a balance between flexibility and protecting employment rights.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK has often led the way on workers’ rights internationally? What plans does he have to ensure that that continues?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in terms of what we have done on workers’ rights. We have talked about the fact that in no way will we be diluting workers’ rights. We want to make sure that employers, workers and the self-employed understand exactly what their status means and their tax protections, but we have a number of rights that stand up incredibly well in comparison with the EU and other countries around the world.

The Court ruling has confirmed that taxis are a form of public transport, but they are the only ones to not receive coronavirus-specific funding. Will the Government urgently launch a sector-specific support package for taxis set at the same pro rata level as funding for the bus sector and applied retrospectively?

Some taxi drivers will be able to access the self-employed income status and other protections, and discretionary grants are available, but any further support will be outlined in the Budget next Wednesday.

I welcome the Supreme Court judgment. Companies such as Uber can provide well-regarded flexibility, but they can also have staff retention problems globally. Does my hon. Friend agree that companies such as Uber should look at this judgment and, rather than try to find ways around it, look at what they can change that will, among other things, likely help them keep their people for longer?

My hon. Friend raises a really good point. It is important that no employer seeks to wriggle out of its responsibilities, and retention is a sensible approach for any responsible employer.

I know that these issues are close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a constituency neighbour of mine, so it is good to see you in the Chair.

Does not the Minister understand that these issues cannot just be left to the courts and that, in this David versus Goliath battle with big multinational companies that are exploiting workers, avoiding tax and flouting safety rules, people need to see the Government on their side? With that in mind, will the Government finally legislate to give gig economy workers the protection they deserve? Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), is not it finally time to give taxi drivers and private hire drivers the support they desperately need as a result of the impact that the pandemic has had on the pound in their pockets?

On the coronavirus support, as I have said, any further support beyond the self-employment income schemes, the grant schemes and the discretionary grant schemes will be outlined in the Budget by the Chancellor. However, the Government have already taken a number of commitments through, including extending the right for a written statement of core terms of employment for all workers; quadrupling the maximum fine for employers who treat their workers badly; and closing a loophole that sees agency workers employed on cheaper rates than permanent workers. There are a number of areas—I will not go on, Madam Deputy Speaker—where we have progressed, but there is plenty more to do.

Does the Minister agree that encouraging people to be in an employment situation rather than a self-employment one wherever possible is the right thing to do? Will he work with the Treasury to finally amend the tax system so we do not give a perverse incentive for people to pretend that their staff are self-employed when they are really employed, so that people are in the right legal situation and two people doing the same job have the same legal and tax position?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point, but it is a complex issue, and there is complexity to the background as well, so it is only right that we take the time to consider how best to achieve a change that works for everybody. We will certainly bring proposals forward in due course.

The Government have previously pledged that they will bring forward an employment Bill to make the UK

“the best place in the world to work.”

If that is true, can the Minister tell us why we are yet to see a Bill—or has it been kicked down the road indefinitely?

No, it has not been kicked down the road. We are clear that any reforms we bring forward will be required to consider the needs of our labour market today. That is why we are continuing to work with stakeholders to understand the needs and challenges of modern workplaces, to ensure that our vision of the labour market is fit for purpose. We will bring forward the employment Bill in due course.

Does the Minister agree that Uber should pay its drivers more because that is good for those drivers but it is also good for the licensed taxi drivers who feel that they have been subjected to competition from Uber in recent years that is aggressive, unfair and predatory?

My right hon. Friend knows that I am also Minister for London, so I take a keen interest in these important issues. The people who drive black cabs —that premium product—do amazing work throughout; they are icons of London. However, we must get the balance right between having a free market and making sure that the flexibility of the labour market is not impeded by any encroachment on workers’ rights and what is due to them.

These contract conditions have been a feature of our economy for some time, which means that many thousands of workers have been illegally treated by companies such as Uber for years. Can the Minister tell me what the Government will be doing to ensure that those people are transferred to legal employment contracts and compensated for lost rights and benefits?

As I say, it is now for Uber to respond to that judgment. It is there, and it is final: it was a Supreme Court judgment, so there is no further right of appeal for Uber. It must adhere to its legal responsibilities.

Flexible contracts can work well for some employees, but they must not be used by firms to avoid their responsibilities. Does my hon. Friend agree that all workers should have the right to request a more predictable contract, so that the balance of power does not lie exclusively with the employer?

As I said, we have extended the right to a written statement of core terms of employment to all workers, to make sure they understand the conditions they have and their status. We need to do more work in that area, which I am looking forward to doing, as we speak to people to make sure our labour market is fit for purpose.

It is a disgrace that people have had to fight court battles over four years to get basic employment rights, and the Minister must recognise that the only reason they have had to do so is that the Government have sat on their hands for too long. Will the Government finally recognise that the trade-off between flexibility and security is an illusion, and legislate so that everyone who is in work can get the basic protections they should be entitled to in a civilised society?

The gig economy offers individuals flexibility, and countless surveys have shown that the majority of people do like that flexibility—especially younger people and women. However, there is always more we can do to make sure that people understand exactly what they are signing up to, and they definitely must not be exploited.

The many unsung heroes of the pandemic include bus drivers, delivery drivers and taxi drivers, with many of the latter often taking medical staff and patients to hospital and back. While the employment status of Uber drivers is a matter for the courts to determine, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to thank them—and, indeed, all taxi drivers in Dudley North and beyond—for their efforts during these difficult times and for the risks they take?

I thank my hon. Friend, and join him in taking this opportunity to thank all the transport workers and taxi drivers—whether they are black cab drivers, private hire drivers, or indeed Uber drivers—who have been taking people around throughout all of this. I speak to them on a regular basis when, on occasion, I have required a cab to come back from work, and they are in a difficult position. I am wishing them well as we start to reopen the economy.

My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) introduced a Bill to give gig economy workers the rights they have just won in court. This was ignored, as has been my Bill banning the Dickensian practice of fire and rehire, which both the Minister and the Prime Minister have termed unacceptable. Can the Minister tell us when he will report to the House on ACAS’s work on fire and rehire? Does he not agree that the phrases “levelling up” and “one-nation Government” ring hollow when the Government keep blocking SNP-sponsored protections for workers?

We will respond to the fire and rehire Bill when it actually comes through the parliamentary process, but ACAS has completed its work and shared its insights with officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It conducted an independent, impartial fact-finding exercise with stakeholders, making sure there was confidentiality so that we could have frank and honest discussions. We will communicate our response to those findings in due course.

Following on from the previous question, I know that my hon. Friend shares the concerns felt across the House about the fire and rehire tactics some companies have pursued. While our flexible labour market is something to be cherished, does he agree that employers have a responsibility to do right by their workers, especially now?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is sensible business to do right by employees, as well as the moral thing to do.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about my membership of the GMB, which drove this historic victory, along with others. I work closely with drivers in my constituency, many of whom are GMB and Unite members, and I want to praise the Welsh Labour Government for the support that they have given drivers in grants, support and free personal protective equipment during the covid crisis.

However, many of the drivers tell me that although most taxi and private hire drivers charge on average £2.20 to £2.40 a mile, Uber pays only £1.10 to £1.25 a mile. Many drivers are getting into serious debt or even bankruptcy. What will the Minister do to ensure that drivers of Uber and beyond get a fair day’s pay from a fair day’s work?

We will make sure, first, that Uber complies with this judgment. Secondly, we also want to ensure that all employees—all workers—exactly know their rights and status, so that they can look at a number of the other taxi and hire firms available, should they so require.

Ministers have been honest with the country that the Government cannot save every job as we emerge from the pandemic. We must ensure, however, that support is available for those who do find themselves out of work, so will the Minister confirm that the Government will prioritise making support and resources available to jobseekers as well as the provision of retraining for those who need it? How can we ensure that this is effective in very rural areas such as North Devon?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We talk a lot about reopening the economy, but the recovery of the economy is so important. That is why, although we have protected jobs, livelihoods and businesses, we must make sure that people coming back into work can flourish and have a course of self-development. That is why there are now a number of schemes available in Jobcentre Plus that are being rolled out to improve skills.

My hon. Friend will know that the private transport market is a market, and clearly the position of the iconic black taxi cabs in London and the rest of the private hire market have to be considered appropriately. I warmly welcome the decision on safeguarding Uber drivers’ rights, but will he look at doing a wholesale review of the market to ensure that Uber is not advantaged in it in an unfair manner that discriminates against black taxi drivers and the rest of the private hire market?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make sure that we continue to look at the number of private hire licences compared with black cab licences in London to ensure that there is no unfair advantage, but, ultimately, there is a market there, as he rightly says.

We can judge this Government’s sincerity and their claims to care about workers’ rights by the fact that the Secretary of State is on record as saying that British workers are among the worst idlers in the world; of course, her own treatment of her staff would have got her sacked from almost any other job.

Given that in just over two months the Scottish people will, for the sixth time in succession, elect a Scottish Government who care about the rights of workers, is it not time that employment legislation was delegated to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government so that, at the very least, the workers of Scotland can get the government that they vote for?

I am afraid that the question just goes to show that the hon. Member is more interested in votes than jobs and workers’ rights. That is why the employment rights Bill will come before this House in due course.

In Teesside, one of the myths that the Labour party is spreading about our freeport policy is on workers’ rights. Our Teesside freeport bid will create 18,000 new jobs over the next five years. Will the Minister confirm that, if our freeport bid is successful, there will be no downgrades in workers’ rights?

My hon. Friend is a real champion for the Teesside freeport, and he is absolutely right. We have talked a lot here about Uber and drivers, but our drive to ensure that we can have great workers’ rights in this country extends to all manner of employment, including the freeport that he describes and which I hope he gets.

With taxi drivers facing mounting debt and, tragically, recent reports of at least five suicides in the sector, including three mentioning financial worries in their suicide notes, does the Minister agree that drivers and operators need urgent access to extra financial support—including small business grants of £10,000, in line with other small businesses?

There is support for some drivers, although I appreciate that some people fall between the cracks. There is the self-employment scheme for some, discretionary grants are available, and each local authority has had to come up with a policy for how they used that money, which could include drivers. Any further support will be subject to the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget next Wednesday.

Sitting suspended.