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Covid-19: Workplace Protection

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Marcus Jones.)

The last year has seen extraordinary changes in the way we live our lives, with enormous hardship, enormous heartache and enormous sacrifice for many. As has been demonstrated in this place, the way that many people work has changed. I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House staff and Mr Speaker for everything they have done to ensure that Members can still do their jobs remotely and safely.

But not everyone has had that choice. For many, their jobs have not only continued as before, but the dangers and pressures associated with them have increased tenfold. Those working in health and social care are the most obvious example of that, with over 800 people sadly losing their lives so far after contracting covid, but many others have also had to face new pressures and dangers as a result of the pandemic. The Government have been too slow to recognise those challenges, so I want to use tonight’s debate to highlight those issues.

The matters that I intend to raise are a combination of issues drawn to my attention by individual constituents and by trade unions, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Not all the issues raised with me are new deficiencies in workplace protection. In fact, they all follow a familiar pattern that has been given an extra dimension by covid. What they add up to is a difficult environment for workers where legitimate concerns are not addressed or, worse, are met with detrimental treatment.

I will start with self-isolation. This time last year, the Opposition identified a real issue with any strategy to deal with the pandemic that involved requiring those who tested positive to self-isolate. For many, the financial consequences of not going into work are significant. Many people do not get company sick pay, and statutory sick pay is not enough for people to live on, but perhaps more relevant to the debate is the fact that many people are working in jobs where they do not even qualify for SSP. It was not until six months into the pandemic that the Government finally recognised that by introducing the self-isolation payment. However, seven out of eight people do not qualify for it. That remains a huge hole in our defences.

I would like to focus on some of the issues that people have experienced with their employers when they have had to self-isolate. They do not have any protection from their employer for detrimental treatment. That detriment could be refusal to pay sick pay if they are entitled to it, or it could even be dismissal. I have heard from constituents of cases where a period of self-isolation was used by an employer to trigger a sickness absence review or was used as part of a process that was already under way. I am sure we can all understand the genuine anxieties that people might have if they have to tell their employer that they need to self-isolate—even more so if it is for a second or third time—so why do they have no protection for doing the right thing?

The Government could, either through guidance or regulations, state clearly that a period of self-isolation should be classed as “other leave” that cannot be called unauthorised leave, sickness absence or annual leave and cannot be used as part of any disciplinary or capability process. What of those suffering with long covid? Will the Government add that to the list of conditions classed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, or will they expect people to prove that they are protected by the Act every time they want to raise an issue?

In terms of those with long-term medical conditions, we know that people with diabetes are at increased risk. Many with diabetes have been able to shield, but what workplace protections will be in place to support people who are clinically extremely vulnerable when shielding ends on 31 March? Are the Government confident that workplace risk will have significantly reduced after that date? Diabetes UK’s research shows that 69% of people with diabetes working outside the home felt unsafe in their workplace. Covid-19 is not going to go away, and neither are those concerns.

A half-hour debate is probably not enough for the issues that could be raised. I know that the hon. Member has been contacted on numerous occasions by people who feel that their health has not been properly protected since the outbreak of covid-19. Does he agree that the information provided by public health agencies was slow in surfacing and that lessons need to be learnt even at this stage about the guidance given to small and medium-sized businesses on workplace protection, which is very important?

I am grateful for the hon. Member’s intervention; he makes an important point. In the early stages of the pandemic, it was difficult for everyone to know exactly what the right thing to do was, but there is no excuse for that now. We have a lot more detail on how covid operates, and we know that it will be with us for some considerable time.

I turn to fire and rehire. This is not a new development—it has been around for as long as people have had jobs—but that does not make it acceptable. In fact, it shows that our employment protections are as antiquated as they are inadequate. GMB and Unite in particular have been involved in a number of high-profile examples of fire and rehire, and there is no doubt that the pandemic has seen the number of examples of this increase dramatically. The current crisis has shone a light on the imbalance of power in the employment relationship and how many people feel totally exposed to the whims of their employer. Their powerlessness does not just manifest itself in people losing their jobs. The imbalance is endemic across many workplaces. Look at everyone on zero-hours contracts, in the gig economy or in agency work—they are literally at their company’s beck and call.

Insecurity is baked into the workplace. It is little wonder that so many people feel a sense of helplessness. When ruthless employers use the cover of the pandemic to push home their advantage, it is time for the Government to step in. That people have job security in this country is an illusion for many. Even for those who are in what we might consider stable employment, any pretence of job security has been cruelly exposed by fire and rehire, which, I am sorry to say, has become almost as widespread as the virus in the last 12 months. People who face a dismissal and re-engagement, to give it its proper legal terminology, are often concerned that they are in this situation at all. Yes, they might have been employed by the same company for many years. Yes, their terms and conditions have remained largely unchanged. They may even have had them collectively agreed by their trade union. The job itself has not changed. It still needs to be done. They perform well and the company is still making good profits, so why are they suddenly being asked to come in and do the job for 20% less pay?

The answer to that lies in the destructive combination of weak employment laws, an indifferent Government and an opportunistic employer who is seizing the moment to chip away at hard-won rights. What then follows is a consultation period that amounts to nothing more than a box-ticking exercise, followed by an impossible dilemma of losing your job altogether or coming back into work the following week on less money. It is a race to the bottom that coronavirus has accelerated. It is time that race was stopped.

Of course, plenty of employers have struggled this year. We know that. That is why the furlough scheme was created, but there are some employers out there who, despite taking advantage of furlough, have still pushed ahead with fire and rehire tactics because they saw an opportunity to make a few more quid for their shareholders. I personally do not think that employers should be taking taxpayers’ cash with one hand only to be giving out dismissal notices with the other. I would like to see the Government saying to those companies that they take the money on the basis that they will support and protect people in their existing jobs, not chip away at them.

The law on unfair dismissal and “some other substantial reason” needs to be fundamentally strengthened so that the onus is on the employer to show that any such changes were essential to secure the survival of the business. That would raise the threshold for employers seeking to justify dismissal from the current test of “sound or good reason”, which we know tribunals do not examine in detail. It adds insult to injury that those who choose not to succumb to the financial blackmail of fire and rehire do not even get a redundancy payment. The Government should be looking to enhance job protection. The furlough scheme is the start of a recognition by the state that it has a role to keep people in work and keep them secure. Let us not abandon that principle now. Let us build on it.

One of the main problems has been people being asked to go into work despite being able to work from home, which is, of course, contrary to the Government’s “stay at home” message that has been in place for much of the past year. Thanks to the marvels of technology, many more people have been able to work from home, but some employers seem to have a very old fashioned attitude that unless they can see the person in front of them, even if they are just sat in front of a computer screen, they cannot be sure that they are working.

Many people have been forced to go into work unnecessarily, including people with underlying health conditions. I even had a constituent who had to go into work when they were supposed to be shielding; what was particularly of note was that the individual had been shielding from home during the previous two lockdowns and had performed their duties from home without any problem. In the third lockdown, however, that was suddenly not acceptable. That is a pattern we have seen with a number of other employers. Their willingness to support those shielding seems to have dropped off a little bit this year. It is almost as if their patience has worn thin. That has also manifested itself in the number of complaints I have had about staff without any health issues who have also been asked to go back into work contrary to the work at home instruction.

Sadly, we have come across someone who was made redundant after complaining about being required to go to work when they could have easily carried out those duties at home. They did not have two years’ service, so they could not claim unfair dismissal. It was difficult to see how they could use other health and safety-related protections, given the difficulties with that law. It is to be welcomed that the Government have just published new regulations which will extend protection to those classed as workers when raising health and safety issues, but it is disappointing that that is not due to come into force until 31 May. People need that protection now; they needed it 12 months ago. It is good that it is being extended to workers, but there are still too many people who are not classed as workers, or, in the case of Uber drivers, who had to fight a five-year court battle just to get that recognition. The Government really need to clean up and strengthen the rules in this area so that everyone in work has basic protections and we do not have the unfair, uneven and exploitative lottery that it is at the moment.

We are also getting more complaints about businesses that are not adhering to covid-19 measures and, sadly, some constituents are too afraid to tell us where they work because they are fearful of reprisals. They have raised concerns about their employer not applying social distancing, not allowing people to stay at home when they display symptoms, asking staff to come in while waiting for test results and telling staff not to disclose close contacts when they test positive. These are all real examples, and they completely undermine the Government’s attempts to restrict transmission of the virus. People need better support, and they need greater reassurance that when they raise concerns they will be addressed and, critically, that there will be no reprisals for them as individuals.

I spent 15 years before I came here representing people who had been victims of workplace injustice, and very often the reason they had been on the receiving end of that treatment was that they had raised a legitimate concern with their employer. Sadly, it seems that things have got worse rather than better in the past few years. In the past year, those concerns have increased tenfold because the number of issues an employee might reasonably raise with their employer about the inadequate level of protection they get when they go into work has increased considerably.

This is not just about workplace protections now. It is in all our interests that people can go about their business and go to work safely. Those who are in a trade union are able to raise concerns collectively, and one such example is from the GMB. It has raised concerns about the guidance on working in other people’s homes, which has changed during this lockdown. The union believes this is creating greater risk. The guidance now mentions meter reading specifically as being a permitted reason for someone to enter a home. The concern is that those meter readers could become super-spreaders and that they are putting themselves and the householders at unnecessary risk just to get a meter reading, which could be done in a number of ways. Unlike a plumber or an electrician, who might enter a handful of properties each day, meter readers can enter hundreds of homes each day, putting themselves and the public at risk. That really needs looking at again.

I want to say a few words on retail. Those working in supermarkets and other essential retail have been working throughout the crisis and have at times faced incredible pressure. They have played a critical role in keeping the country going and I pay tribute to them, but unfortunately not everyone appreciates the work they do. The shop workers’ trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, surveyed its members and found that 76% of them said that abuse had been worse than normal during the pandemic, that 57% had been threatened by a customer and that 9% had been assaulted. We should not be surprised that abuse has increased, given that enforcing social distancing and face coverings were reported in the survey as being two of the biggest triggers for abuse from customers, and these were not issues before the pandemic started.

This highlights a disconnect between what has been decided in this place—regarding face coverings, for example—and the reality on the ground as to how those rules, which were introduced for a very good reason, are enforced. The police cannot be everywhere, and after a cut of 20,000 officers in the last decade, handing them a plethora of new laws to enforce was never going to be realistic. This is placing those who work in retail and hospitality, to name but two, in a difficult and potentially dangerous position.

When we pass laws in this place about important safety measures to stop the spread of the virus, we also need to look at ourselves and ask whether we are setting the right example. I am sorry to say that there have been a few recent high-profile examples of Government bodies not taking the lead. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea has been in the headlines a lot recently due to the number of cases contracted in the workplace there. I understand that work was commissioned in June 2020 to look at home working at the DVLA, but that the recognised trade union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, has not been granted sight of that report and has instead been told to go through the freedom of information route to see it.

I appreciate that this does not involve the Minister’s Department, but as the Minister responsible for the workplace, can he please have a word with the Department for Transport and point out that discussions about safe workplaces are not a matter to be pursued through FOI requests? This should involve both parties sitting down and engaging in constructive dialogue. I understand that 300-plus desks have recently been removed by the DVLA to ensure that social distancing is possible, but if that is right, how can it also be right that staff had been working in those conditions since last August? Is this lack of distancing the reason that there have been more than 550 positive cases at the DVLA since September last year? The Government and their agencies should be setting an example to other employers on how to operate safely and responsibly.

On that note, perhaps the Minister could also speak to his colleagues in the Department for Justice about the fact that court staff in London and Liverpool have balloted for industrial action because their union, PCS, says that its safety concerns have not been taken seriously, with not even a risk assessment process having been agreed between the employer and union. We really need to be doing better than this.

It is not an understatement to say that workplace health and safety, far from being a regulatory burden, is now a fundamental part of our return to normality and, indeed, key to wider economic success. That means that we need stronger regulatory interventions, and in this regard the decision to recognise covid as a “significant” rather than a “serious” workplace issue limits the options open to inspectors. I hope that that is something the Minister can look at again. A safe workforce is a productive workforce. It is good for employers and the economy. If this pandemic has taught us anything about the workplace, it is that it is too often characterised by insecurity, imbalance and indifference to basic protections. It is time we changed that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing a debate on this important topic. I echo his thanks to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker and the staff of the House, who have allowed us to continue our business to the best of our abilities. I add my condolences to all the friends and families of the people who have lost their lives and suffered throughout this pandemic.

There is no doubt that the pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that the UK has faced, and as Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, I see daily the difficult choices that individuals and businesses have had to make as we manage the threat to public health. One of my priorities has been to support businesses in making their workplaces covid-secure to ensure that they are able to operate as safely as possible, to keep our economy going and to protect workers and customers.

Before I speak in greater depth about the practical steps we have taken, I would like to pay tribute to the businesses we have worked with to make workplace protection a reality. As we have heard, a number of businesses have remained open for the duration of the pandemic, providing us with the essential goods and infrastructure that we need in the short and longer term. I am hugely grateful to them and their incredible staff. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right when he says that safe workplaces and safe staff make a productive workforce. Those businesses have made significant efforts over the past year.

I recognise that many sectors have not been permitted to operate as usual, including, as we have heard, hospitality, personal care, tourism and the performing arts. I commend their perseverance and adaptability in transforming into covid-secure businesses at such speed. Not all those sectors fall under my Department, but I am acutely aware that they continue to face significant pressure, and some businesses have been unable to reopen at all. The road map provides a route out of the current lockdown in England, but I recognise the tremendous difficulties that businesses have been experiencing and continue to endure in the face of the pandemic. We will continue to do all we can to support the British people and businesses through this moment of crisis.

As announced last week in the Budget, and as we heard earlier today, the Budget continues to provide unprecedented levels of support for the economy, protecting jobs and livelihoods across the whole of the UK. The Chancellor announced an additional £65 billion of further measures to support the economy in 2021-22. That will take the total support for the economy to £407 billion—the largest peacetime support package on record.

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the nationwide lockdown measures almost a year ago, the Government have worked tirelessly to develop clear guidance on how to work safely across a range of workplace settings. We consulted numerous businesses, industry leaders, trade unions and local and central Government organisations to develop the covid-secure guidance. We did that in close collaboration with Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive to reflect the latest expert advice at each stage of the Government’s response to the pandemic. The guidance gives practical considerations for how to adapt a workplace to make it covid-secure, including simple but vital measures such as completing a workplace risk assessment that factors in covid-19, cleaning more often—both hands and surfaces—maintaining social distancing and putting in place mitigations where social distancing is not possible.

The guidance also raises other practical considerations, such as considering ventilation in line with HSE guidance—something that will continue to be very important—adapting a workplace layout to facilitate social distancing, and reducing the need for face-to-face meetings, including working from home where possible. It also reminds businesses of the need to support NHS Test and Trace, and to comply with face covering and self-isolation rules and others.

The Minister is talking about risk assessments. Will he look at the concern that I have raised about court staff, and the Ministry of Justice and the Courts and Tribunals Service not agreeing on the process for a risk assessment in their working environment?

I noted the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave of the DVLA and the court system, and I will certainly reflect on those and take them back.

The key thing is that the guidance also reminds employers of their duty to consider those with protected characteristics, as the hon. Gentleman says—those shielding or those with other vulnerabilities—and take particular care to factor their needs into workplace risk assessments. Every organisation is different and employers must translate the guidance into specific actions to take, depending on the nature of their organisation, such as its size and type and how it is organised, operated and managed. The duty is on employers to ensure that the risk assessment for their business addresses the risk of covid-19 to anyone affected by the business. The Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and health and safety representatives within businesses—and, of course, trade unions—ensure that support is available to help businesses to implement the right control measures. So we urge businesses to continue to keep their risk assessments up to date and maintain dialogue with their workers over the measures put in place for their safety. As we have heard, it is not always the case, but we must make sure that we press that home to all businesses.

The guidance does remain robust in the light of the new virus strains, although that is continuously reviewed as new data emerges. To continue to protect the most vulnerable in our society, businesses should continue to follow the guidance, even if employees have received a negative test result or have been vaccinated.

Following the publication of the road map, at this key point in the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Government have taken the opportunity to build on the collective input and insights shared by businesses, unions and representative organisations. Almost a year from its initial publication, the message we hear most frequently is that continuity is key for businesses, and that the guidance is embedded and well understood. That does not mean that there is nothing left to learn about how well the guidance has been working in practice, and we have consulted widely to consider any improvements that we can make ahead of the reopening. The Government will provide further advice on how businesses can improve fresh air flow in indoor workplaces and introduce regular testing, as set out in the road map. User feedback is good and levels of compliance are high, but we must not be complacent. The covid-secure guidelines are underpinned by the health and safety legislation as regards the need to conduct a risk assessment, as well as certain requirements set out in new regulations brought forward by the House under the public health legislative framework. Enforcing authorities have been given the powers they need to enforce covid rules where necessary, for the purposes of controlling the spread of infection. Those powers are robust and proportionate, ranging from issuing fixed penalty notices to closing down a business in extremis. We continue to work closely with businesses and across Government to ensure that we maintain these high levels of compliance. If someone has a concern about the measures in a workplace, they should consult their health and safety representatives in the first instance.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. In terms of the enforcement powers that are at the disposal of inspectors, is the Minister able to say how many improvement notices or fixed penalty notices have been issued?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer at the moment, but I will find that out for him.

We have given more resource to the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that it can do its job to the best of its ability. We do look to people to come forward with evidence, and that includes not just employees but trade unions and other representatives as well. We make sure that we encourage all businesses, especially if they are considering reopening after a period of closure, to take the time to review and refresh their risk assessments in line with the latest advice.

Although there is much cause for hope and optimism with the vaccine roll-out, we must be mindful not to prematurely relax the social distancing and other safety measures that have been put in place to protect workers and the most vulnerable in society. As set out in the road map, covid-secure guidance will remain applicable throughout steps 1 to 3. At step 4, subject to review, we hope to relax legal limits on social contact and open the remaining closed settings, including clubs and large events, and including weddings. But the Government have been clear that some safety measures must still be required from summer onwards.

To cover a couple of areas that we have talked about, I have been working with the retail sector, including USDAW, to help as regards the violence shown to retail staff, who have done amazing work during the pandemic.

Fire and rehire, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, has been raised a number of times in this place. It is important that, yes, we retain our flexible employment practice, but it should not be used as a bullyboy tactic by large companies against their workers. He said correctly that any reasonable, sensible and forward-thinking employer would understand that treating their employees well gets the best out of them, makes it a productive business, and, ultimately, gets the best for the shareholder in the long term. We have charged ACAS with looking at the evidence to see how systematically the practice is being used. It has reported back, and I will be examining what it says.

On self-isolation, we have put in £110 million of funding for the test and trace support payment. A further £20 million per month will go to local authorities from March 2021. That will ensure that local authorities can continue to make payments and support people on low incomes to stay at home and self-isolate when required.

On zero-hour contracts, we must get the balance right to make sure that people who work on such contracts enjoy the flexibility of such work—the vast majority of students and young parents involved in such contracts do appreciate that flexibility. We have banned exclusive contracts, and we want to make sure that, in having that flexibility, people are not being exploited. I look forward to the Employment Bill coming forward so that we can look further at a number of issues around the gig economy, including making sure that our flexible working is a fair way of working. I can confirm that we will continue to work with all sectors of the economy as we forge a successful, long-term recovery from this pandemic. I remain grateful to businesses for everything that they currently do, and will do in the future, to help us to build back better.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.