[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]
I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practices in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
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We are expecting votes this afternoon, so if there is any Member who needs to leave to vote, could they please indicate now? Thank you very much.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered fire and rehire practices.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. This debate has been oversubscribed, which I think says something about the strength of feeling and the level of anger at this appalling practice. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for taking part today. One cannot help but notice the lack, or rather the complete absence, of Conservative MPs from today’s call list. I do hope this is not a reflection on how seriously the Government take this issue, but I suspect that is the case. Perhaps the Minister can prove me wrong.
I would like to pay tribute to the workers of our country—the women and men who have battled so hard throughout the past 14 months to keep the country going in the face of covid-19. Many workers have lost friends, colleagues and family members to this terrible virus, and now at least one in 10 of them face a further pandemic of opportunistic employers using covid-19 as a cover to dramatically reduce workers’ pay and terms and conditions. Fire and rehire is a process that involves sacking workers and hiring them back on lower wages and worse terms and conditions—a practice that, according to research published earlier this year by the TUC, has had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and ethnic minority workers, young workers and working-class people.
However, fire and rehire is not new. In 2009, the Confederation of British Industry boasted of using the financial crash to establish a so-called flexiforce, in effect using economic uncertainty as a cover to replace permanent workers with flexible workers. The economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic has provided another opportunity for big business to shift power even further away from workers so that they can boost long-term profits for shareholders. These are some of the same companies that have made use of public money through the Government’s job retention scheme.
Fire and rehire must not be allowed to continue. Workers should not be forced to choose between losing pay or losing their jobs. Parliament must act urgently to outlaw this form of industrial blackmail. That is why I, along with my union Unite, am calling for fire and rehire to be included in next month’s Queen’s Speech, either in the Employment Bill or as stand-alone emergency legislation. It is a national emergency and disgrace that one in 10 workers are currently threatened with a practice that, in the words of the Prime Minister, is “unacceptable” and in the words of the Minister here today is “bully boy tactics.” I am not entirely convinced that the Prime Minister knows what fire and rehire is or what it is doing to thousands of workers across the UK.
Fire and rehire is not a new phenomenon but it has gained prominence because of the conduct of many major employers, such as British Airways, Heathrow airport and British Gas, some in circumstances that they claim to be justified by the covid pandemic. The practice has highlighted how weak the current unfair dismissal laws are in this country and how they need to be strengthened.
I take this opportunity to highlight the example of my constituent Matthew from Hebburn, who is one of many of my constituents who have been affected by fire and rehire. Matthew had worked for British Gas for 16 years. He was an exemplary worker, once proud to drive his blue van, who would have been happy to see out the rest of his working life with the company. He is now newly self-employed, having been one of the 300 to 400 staff who lost their jobs for refusing to sign up to new contracts, terms and conditions imposed by British Gas for nothing more than corporate greed.
Despite making more profit than in the previous year, British Gas has used the pandemic as a cover to impose a “take it or leave it” 15% pay cut and other changes that have affected the time their workforce spend with their families, by making the working week three hours longer. That is a whole month of additional labour added to the year.
Last year British Gas issued Matthew with a fire and rehire ultimatum, giving him and his colleagues a deadline of 23 December. They were told that if they did not agree with the terms offered, worse terms would be forced upon them. This deadline was pushed back until 25 March. Matthew refused to be bullied by British Gas and was therefore given his notice on Monday 29 March. I send solidarity to Matthew and all other workers.
What has happened to loyal workers like Matthew at British Gas is an absolute scandal. It shows utter contempt for the loyalty many have shown for much of their working lives. British Gas, Centrica and their chief executive officer Chris O’Shea should be ashamed of this reckless corporate bullying. It is sad to see what has happened to British Gas, once a nationally respected institution but now a poster boy for the virus of poor employment practice that is spreading like another contagious deadly disease across the UK.
In London, staff at Goodlord were given a choice to take a pay cut or become unemployed. Goodlord asked staff to take a contract with a lower rate of pay, which is below the London living wage.
In Manchester, Go North West drivers have been on an all-out strike for over 50 days against cruel fire and rehire abuses by bosses. The company wants to fire and rehire its drivers and force them to work longer for no additional pay, while also cutting sick pay for drivers with more than five years’ service.
In Loughborough, global field service engineers employed by Brush Electrical Machines, owned by Melrose, are being balloted for strike action in response to fire and rehire pay cuts of up to £15,000. The proposed contracts include reductions to overtime rates, allowances and holidays. The engineers have been threatened with redundancy if they do not sign the new contracts, which will leave them on pay rates well below industry standards.
In Oxfordshire, Jacobs Douwe Egberts will stop workers from taking summer holidays to thwart an overtime ban, starting on 1 May, in an ongoing fire and rehire dispute. My own union Unite is representing its members in all these disputes, but the problem goes much deeper and will only grow if the job retention scheme comes to an end.
Last year, the Government asked the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to produce a report on the full extent of fire and rehire, which was received by Ministers on 17 February. Despite numerous pledges to release the report and respond to it, the Government are still dragging their feet, leading us to wonder what ACAS has written that the Government do not want us to read.
On 23 March, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), during Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions if she could confirm when we would get a chance to see the ACAS report. The Minister told me that the Government find the practice of fire and hire “unacceptable”, but could not give me a date or time when the ACAS report would be released. Here we are, one month later, and the Government are still dragging their feet on this. I hope the Minister will tell us today when the Government intend to make the ACAS report available, because they certainly appear to want to bury it.
We have heard a lot from this Government about levelling up and how Brexit will give us the opportunity to have higher standards across the board. Now is the Government’s chance to prove that they are serious about that. They must understand that well-paid, secure work is good for the economy, and greater security for workers would mean a stronger and quicker recovery. Our friends across Europe understand this. The practice of fire and rehire is already banned in Ireland, Spain and France, and is seen as unacceptable in other competitor economies, where Governments step in to defend their workers. Last week, the Government moved quickly to stop the European super league in its tracks. It showed that they can make things happen when they want to—and feel that they will get a popularity bounce off the back of it.
The Government have made all the right noises about fire and rehire, but so far have done absolutely nothing about it. I hope the Minister will tell us when the Government will back up their words with action and act to outlaw this immoral practice. If this Government are serious about levelling up and raising standards, they must commit to ending fire and rehire once and for all. I hope to see that in next month’s Queen’s Speech, either in the Employment Bill or in stand-alone emergency legislation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. It is important to recognise the situation facing the ordinary workers in this country who are facing these draconian fire and rehire measures. I congratulate my hon. Friend—my great friend—the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall today. It is the working people who have kept our country on its feet. They are the true heroes in every sense of the word. It is the keyworkers, mainly low-paid workers, not the hedge fund managers, Government cronies or indeed the highly paid, who are being subjected to what the Minister quite rightly framed as “bullyboy tactics”.
Security of employment is so important to hard-working individuals and their families. Is it not right that ordinary people are treated with absolute dignity and fairness, not as inconvenient necessities by fat cat millionaires who frankly would sell their own grandmothers for a pound?
The scourge of fire and rehire practices, which have always haunted workforces, has expanded rapidly since the beginning of the pandemic. The Prime Minister himself stated that it was capitalism and greed that got us through this covid pandemic. My message to the Prime Minister is that it was the workforce of this country that got us to where we are today, and the reward for many of them is fire and rehire. These are human beings. They are real people, with mortgages, rent payments, credit cards and credit, with kids and families, with expectations and with ambitions, who have been treated appallingly by employers who care little and a Government that talk the talk but fail to walk the walk. As my hon. Friend said in her opening speech, whether it be Goodlord, where salaries are being slashed by up to £6,000, whether it be Go North West where salaries are being slashed by up to £2,500, Jacobs Douwe Egberts with £7,000 a year lopped off salaries, or Melrose Brush with potentially £15,000 a year slashed off people’s salaries. These are real people. What about the Heathrow worker with 40 years’ service, expected to take a 39.1% pay reduction? The list goes on and on.
This is legalised robbery; it is legalised theft, with astonishing consequences for those doing the right thing. It is ruthless corporate bullying. It is intimidation. It is harassment of people with families, people with bills to pay. We all agree that this is a time of great uncertainty. Fire and rehire must be outlawed. If it is good enough for Ireland, France and Spain, by goodness it is good enough here in the UK. Where is the much-awaited ACAS report, Minister? Come clean. What are you hiding? Publish it if you can. This is simply unacceptable in modern-day Britain. Coming out of a year-long pandemic, Minister, ensure that the draconian practice of fire and rehire is outlawed in the Queen’s Speech. Fix this now and fix it for good—and for those workers out there, join a union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Murray. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing her first Westminster Hall debate on such an important subject and her excellent speech. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery).
I first raised fire and rehire with the Prime Minister on 16 December 2020 at Prime Minister’s Question Time, after highly skilled engineers at Centrica British Gas were told they had to sign new contracts before Christmas or else they would be fired and rehired in the new year on worse terms. The Prime Minister’s response was deeply concerning:
“it is also vital that we have a flexible economy that is able to generate jobs, particularly when we are going to go through a very difficult and bumpy time.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2020; Vol. 686, c. 272.]
During this “very difficult and bumpy time”, as the Prime Minister put it, is exactly when people need stability and certainty in their lives. Yet according to Unite the Union, one in 10 workers is already threatened with fire and rehire, and many more are likely to face this manipulative process as furlough comes to an end.
Earlier this month, I was saddened to see approximately 350 British Gas engineers lose their jobs because they refused to sign a contract with worse terms and pay. Equally sad is the thousands upon thousands of other GMB members at British Gas signing new but worse contracts under duress. Yet when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) raised it with the Prime Minister just last week, he was not even aware of the issue. Four months on from my question, hundreds have been sacked and the Prime Minister still does not have an answer.
It is not just British Gas engineers either; fire and rehire is also used by British Airways in Heathrow, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will go into further detail on those disputes. Go North West drivers have been on strike for more than 50 days, while Jacobs Douwe Egberts coffee producers is starting an indefinite overtime ban on International Workers Day, 1 May, and engineers at Brush Electrical Machines are balloting for action against pay cuts of up to £15,000.
Fire and rehire is an exploitative and illegitimate negotiation tactic that causes real hurt and anger. Household names have betrayed decades of trust from the nation. These tactics damage not only their workforces but their customer base, who will feel the same way at the disgraceful way those businesses treat their employees. The Government have an opportunity with the upcoming Queen’s Speech to work with Labour and the relevant trade unions such as Unite and the GMB to introduce vital legislation that will ban fire and rehire practices and give workers the stability and assurances that they need at this—again in the Prime Minister’s own words—“very difficult and bumpy time”.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. George the gas man was a good friend of my dad when I was a kid. I learned through him, and saw subsequently, that gas workers were and are skilled, trusted, doing an essential job, keeping our communities safe. Theirs was historically a good, secure job, not least because of the history of strong trade unionism.
In 1889 Will Thorne founded the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers—now the GMB—that fought against the shameful treatment meted out to workers in Victorian times. Generations fought to consign such treatment to history, including my union, Unite, asserting the dignity of labour.
The history of the gas industry is also one of trade unions acting as agents of change, managing sometimes difficult processes of change, seeking negotiated outcomes. Gas workers also fought for their country. The Hollyfields Sports and Conference Centre in my constituency has a barrier on which are written the names of 250 workers who died fighting for their country in the first and second world wars.
In 21st century Britain we see a throwback to Victorian times, to the kind of treatment meted out to workers that we thought was history. Paul Vowles of the GMB from Birmingham has said of the 350 members who have lost their jobs that,
“They were salt of the earth, doing a good job, now ending up out of work.”
British Gas could have negotiated an outcome. It might have been difficult, but they could have done it. They chose instead to use fire and rehire, like too many employers in the current climate. The TUC estimates that one in 10 workers have suffered from such treatment or the threat of it. Even worse, some of the employers benefiting from Government support through the covid crisis are the same employers taking advantage of fire and rehire, which is utterly contemptible.
It is clear that the GMB and Unite stand ready to negotiate a solution but the company is not interested. We have to bring home the human consequences. Chris O’Shea, the chief executive, says,
“You’ve got a duty to make your colleagues’ lives as easy as possible.”
Tell that to the single mum who complains of chest pains and says,
“It makes me feel sick that I am nothing more than something on the bottom of Chris O’Shea’s expensive shoes.”
Tell that to the gas worker who every single day during lockdown worked for the Trussell Trust, delivering to the elderly and vulnerable.
In conclusion, what we thought we had consigned to history now haunts the world of work. I say this to the Minister: warm words have been issued in relation to fire and rehire, but the time has come for the Government to act, including in the Queen’s Speech.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Mrs Murray. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this debate. Fire and rehire is the latest in a long line of tools used by the Tories and bullying bosses to drive down pay and conditions of workers. It is a form of legalised robbery. The same work—sometimes more—is expected to be done but for less pay. The aim is simple: to transfer wealth from wages to profits. How do they hope to get away with that? By exploiting workers’ insecurity at a time of crisis. When we should be building a fairer society out of the covid crisis, unscrupulous bosses are being given a green light to intimidate workers into accepting worse pay and conditions.
This is not just about the one in 10 workers threatened so far. Fire and rehire is the new Tory blueprint for the whole economy. It will grow dramatically as furlough ends, unless the law is changed. The aim is to drag down everyone’s terms and conditions, a real race to the bottom. Workers lose out, bosses gain: it is Thatcherism on steroids. Of course, the Prime Minister claims he is against this, but words are cheap; action is what matters. There is not a single Back-Bench Tory MP here for the debate.
The truth is that the Government could ban this disgraceful practice overnight. If the Prime Minister introduced the legislation today, Labour would back it. With the stroke of a pen, the threat would be gone. Other countries have already banned fire and rehire. If only the Tories were as quick in responding to that issue as they are in responding to WhatsApp messages from their corporate sponsors. As a trade union lawyer, before I became a Member of Parliament, I saw the immense suffering of those subjected to fire and rehire, but now it is being carried out on an industrial scale, so the fightback must be on an industrial scale too. I have joined British Gas workers on the GMB picket in Leeds, fighting back against that company’s appalling behaviour; and I commend and congratulate Unite the Union on defending so many workers who have been affected by fire and rehire and on getting that agenda on to the national agenda.
I will end with a message to every worker who has been forced to take action against the disgraceful practice. They have my absolute, unwavering support in standing up to bully boy tactics and the shameful inaction of the Conservative Government.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I declare an interest as a member of Unite and the GMB, and because a family member was subjected to fire and rehire. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this hugely important debate, and for her powerful speech.
I want to give my support and solidarity to my constituents and many people across the country who have been subjected to the immoral practice of fire and rehire. We should be in no doubt that it destroys livelihoods, families and communities, and my disdain for companies using that weapon to cause such misery in 2021 during a pandemic knows no bounds. I hope that the public will show solidarity and support for the workers who are affected, by using their consumer choice and power wisely, and that they will show their disdain for any company that chooses that path.
Bad employers, including a number that have made huge profits in the past year, such as British Gas owner Centrica, which posted profits in 2020 of £447 million, have exploited the pandemic to cut the pay and conditions of workers, through fire and rehire. The roll-call of shame is a long one. A few of the worst are British Gas, British Airways, and Go North West, but there are many others—the TUC estimates that one in seven workers in the UK will be under threat from the practice. I have personal experience of the cost, because my brother and many of his colleagues lost their jobs because of their refusal to sign inferior new contracts with British Gas under the terms of fire and rehire. Years of loyalty and skills were cast on to the scrapheap because certain companies wanted to make workers pay for the pandemic, and protect shareholder profits. It is beyond contempt.
The Minister condemned those bully-boy tactics last month; so when will he take action? The Government have sat on the ACAS report on fire and rehire for more than two months now. What does the report say? When will they release it? How will they address the concerns raised by those independent experts? The tactics of fire and rehire are a stain on this country’s reputation, and they harm our communities’ chances of rebuilding back from the pandemic. They are economically illiterate and they destroy relationships between workers and employers, often beyond repair. I urge the Minister to outlaw fire and rehire—to commit to doing that in the Queen’s Speech—and to start to take action against employers that use those practices. Too many livelihoods have already been destroyed, and he must ensure that not one more person endures the pain that many have already been subjected to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate at a time when the shameful practice of fire and rehire is increasingly weaponised by companies to exploit workers. Fire and rehire should never be acceptable in any circumstances, and I would like to hear the Minister commit to outlawing that anti-worker practice today. It is nothing short of disgraceful that so many companies have been allowed to engage in it in the middle of a global pandemic.
Fire and rehire is not the final option left to the companies in question. They are not struggling to make ends meet. Many continue to pay their chief executive officers six or seven-figure salaries and to fork out massive dividends to their shareholders, while claiming that they cannot afford to pay their staff a decent day’s wages for a decent day’s work. In the case of British Airways, whose former chief executive officer I had the misfortune to encounter on several occasions during my time on the Transport Committee, it attempted to force fire and rehire down the throats of its staff despite making tens of millions of taxpayers’ money for furloughing its workers, and despite the parent company IAG having made billions in profits the previous financial year. Thanks in large part to the efforts of my union Unite, British Airways was forced to ditch some of its plans to fire and rehire 30,000 of their staff.
British Airways was not, sadly, the only UK major employer whose reputation has now been trashed as a result of the decision to pursue that policy. Last year, British Gas told its shareholders that it would slash 5,000 jobs and committed to forcing the remaining 2,000 to undergo a fire and rehire process before it had engaged with the GMB union. In January, Centrica chief executive Chris O’Shea told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that the company had been forced to issue the fire and rehire threat before talks began, by law. In a leaked email that I have here from 22 February, of which I have been made aware, Mr O’Shea informed British Gas’s human resources team it would no longer use fire and rehire as a strategy. He writes in the email that
“I recognise that the use of fire and rehire has led to a lack of trust, and I understand the impact this has had on morale, which is why we pledge never to revisit the use of fire and rehire again.”
If he would never consider fire and rehire again, why did he previously say that it was the only option when appearing before a Select Committee? I am deeply concerned that Mr O’Shea may have misled Parliament in the way that he defended himself, given the subsequent email in which he explicitly states that he would consider another option.
The reality is that Mr O’Shea’s actions mean that people will no longer think of British Gas as a proud British company, and maybe it is time for him to consider his own position. It would certainly be one way of saving the country £775,000. Local authorities have also been caught up in the unsavoury practice, including the Conservative-run Thurrock Council, with changes to terms and conditions that see workers losing over £3,000 a year. Thankfully, an election is coming up next week, so perhaps that will also be consigned to the dustbin of history.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate to ensure that we can all deliberate upon the abhorrent practice of fire and rehire that has, sadly, acutely affected many of my Slough constituents. Our proximity to Heathrow airport and our employment reliance on the aviation sector has meant that the sector’s crash has impacted the jobs of thousands of my constituents. Those devastating job losses have been exacerbated by companies taking advantage, forcing employees into inferior pay and conditions or risk losing their jobs.
Even prior to the covid-19 pandemic, UK employment law was inadequate. The past year has simply strengthened the case for stronger employee rights and protections. Back in 2019, the Government promised an employment Bill to protect and enhance workers’ rights. Even the Minister answering the debate today said in November 2020 that
“using threats about firing and rehiring as a negotiating tactic is unacceptable.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 717.]
Yet nothing has changed since then. These immoral tactics have predominantly affected the hard-working individuals in the aviation industry in Slough, but unfortunately they are not alone in being subject to them.
One of the most blatant uses of fire and rehire seen by my constituents has been with British Gas and its parent company Centrica. Before negotiations began, Centrica’s chief executive officer Chris O’Shea had put that threat on the table. In evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he noted that he was forced into that position, but a letter from ACAS later revealed that the company has recognised the impact that fire and rehire has had on the workforce, and has confirmed that, as part of this agreement, they will never use fire and rehire in any shape or form in the future.
British Gas are, devastatingly, not alone in carrying out these unacceptable actions. Dnata, an airline catering company, offered its workers contracts for just 20 hours a week, with reduced terms and pay, in a fire and rehire scenario, forcing many of the employees to accept and plunging them into poverty. A company in the process of taking over airline catering from British Airways, Do & Co, refused to put its workers on the extended coronavirus job retention scheme, leaving hundreds unemployed. These are just a few examples in my constituency. For many, it is already too late. Even after British Airways eventually ended its fire and rehire practices after incredible work from trade unions and employees, many had still fallen victim to them.
While the past year has been undeniably difficult for businesses, fire and rehire tactics are never acceptable, and I commend the excellent work of unions including Unite, Unison and GMB, which have saved and protected thousands of jobs. The Government must do more. Without direct action from the Government, others will continue to follow, thinking it is acceptable to run their businesses in such a dire way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for her hard work in securing this debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This month, hundreds of British Gas engineers, including many living in my constituency of Birkenhead, were sacked by the parent company Centrica. Despite many years of loyal service, they were thrown on the scrapheap because they refused to accept a devastating cut to their pay and working conditions. They were not alone: from Heathrow airport to the Go North West buses in Manchester, one in 10 British workers has been threatened with fire and rehire practices over the past year. With 70% of those companies continuing to turn a profit, this is not about economic necessity, but about large corporations cynically exploiting a public health crisis to further line the pockets of shareholders.
We have heard plenty of warm words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box about this issue. The Prime Minister has called fire and rehire “unacceptable”, and the Leader of the House has called it “bad practice”, but they still refuse to act. Workers in the UK enjoy no more protections at work today than they did when the pandemic began, because this Government care more about cosying up to their friends in the private sector than they do about standing up for British workers and the very communities they have promised to level up. That is why they have sat on a report from ACAS for two long months; it is why, when my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) asked the Prime Minister to extend his support to British Gas engineers, he acted as if it was the first he had heard about it. I doubt anyone believes that.
Voters in the so-called red wall seats should ask themselves why there is not one single Conservative Back Bencher present today. The answer is simple: they fundamentally do not care. What the British people need now is decisive action to stamp out this abhorrent practice once and for all, so I call on the Minister to ensure that measures outlawing fire and rehire are included in the Queen’s Speech next month.
It is time that the Government put their money where their mouth is, but we must go further still. We have to roll back decades of anti-trade union legislation that has fostered a culture in which employers feel free to attack the rights and conditions of their workers with total impunity, as so many have during the pandemic. If the Government are really serious about building back better in the wake of this terrible pandemic, they need to not only put an end to the plague of fire and rehire tactics, but stop seeing trade unions as the enemy within and realise the vital role they have to play in building an economy that truly works for everyone.
I thank the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for having secured today’s debate. Research from the Trades Union Congress shows that since the first lockdown, one in 10 workers has been threatened with fire and rehire, and that lower paid workers and black and minority ethnic workers have been more than twice as likely to face this practice. As Members have said, although this has been a challenging year for business, over 70% of the companies involved in this practice have been profitable, and over half have been receiving public money during the pandemic. It has never been so clear that this is a battle between big bosses and the low-paid worker, and the Minister has correctly characterised these as “bully-boy tactics”, but unfortunately, action has not followed those words.
We are now four months post Brexit, and not a single piece of legislation enhancing rights or standards has reached the Floor of the House, although we hear daily through various drips, leaks and texts that the voices of those who are doing quite nicely are being heard loud and clear by the Government. The false promises that we had of a prosperous Brexit are increasingly being exposed as cover for a race to the bottom on regulations, including protections for workers, and time and again the Government have dodged converting rhetoric and reassurances into standards and legislative protections. Earlier this year, they were embarrassed into axing a review of ending the 48-hour maximum working week and a review of attempting to remove overtime pay. The pandemic has exposed how precariously and how close to the edge many people have been living, and shown that many people—indeed, most people—want a fairer future.
The term “gig economy” now refers to almost 5 million workers. We have heard how £6 per hour is not unusual pay for fast-food delivery drivers, and that couriers often have such punitive schedules that they cannot take toilet breaks. Flexibility is absolutely a welcome concept in the economy, but these business models put all the risk on to workers and allow the owners of the ideas behind them to accrue all the capital. Instead of the Government designing protections that reflect the reality of modern working life, workers have to go to court to achieve basic protections.
We are also experiencing a wage squeeze. In November, the Office for National Statistics said that there were hundreds of thousands of jobs in which employees over the age of 16 were being paid below the legal minimum, and the number is only increasing. Also, those in the lowest-paying jobs are over five times more likely to be furloughed, which indicates that those jobs are insecure. All this activity underlines how acutely we need legal protections and a decent social security net.
These workers’ demands are very moderate. They do not want Government contracts, or ready access to the Chancellor; they are only looking for a living wage, decent holiday entitlement and the right not to have to work too many hours in a week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing the debate and I declare an interest as a member of Unite.
Pay and terms and conditions of work are fundamental to the lives that people can afford to lead and the pensions they will be entitled to. Constituents have written to me describing fire and rehire as abusive, appalling and immoral, and they are right. It is an attack on the rights of working people, who generate the wealth that shareholders enjoy and who provide the services we need. Dismissing workers in order to re-employ them on worse terms and conditions is quite simply wrong, and it is shameful that any employer would engage in those cynical tactics. The Government must ban fire and rehire.
As a member of Unite, I was proud to support yesterday’s day of action and I pay tribute to the work of the trade union movement. It is a matter of deep concern that the practice of fire and rehire seems to have become more common since the start of the pandemic. Deploying such a tactic at such a time is particularly shameful, and there have been high-profile disputes involving companies such as British Airways, British Gas, Go North West, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and Brush Electrical Machines.
Earlier this year, the TUC estimated that since March 2020 nearly one worker in 10 has been told to reapply for their job on worse terms and conditions. The research showed that young people have been particularly badly affected, with nearly a fifth of 18 to 24-year-olds who were surveyed saying that their employer has tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic. According to the TUC, 15% of the black and minority ethnic workers it surveyed have faced fire and rehire, compared with 8% of the white workers it surveyed.
Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy engaged ACAS to gather evidence of how fire and rehire is being used. The Government received evidence from ACAS on 17 February, yet still they have not published it or responded to it. That is simply not good enough, so will the Minister commit himself today to publishing the evidence and his Department’s response to it without further delay?
In January, a Labour motion tabled in the House of Commons called on the Government to set out for Parliament a timetable to introduce legislation to end fire and rehire tactics. The motion was carried by 263 votes to zero, with MPs on the Government Benches abstaining. That was profoundly disappointing and showed how little the Conservatives care about workers’ rights, terms and conditions.
Make no mistake—the Government’s lack of action is causing misery and financial difficulties for working people. The Secretary of State has described fire and rehire as unacceptable, and the Minister who is here today has condemned it many times in his own words, yet Government legislation to end those shameful tactics has not been forthcoming. Will the Minister do what the Prime Minister failed to do last week and guarantee that there will be a commitment to end fire and rehire in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this incredibly important debate. Fire and rehire practices have become endemic during covid-19, including at Goodlord, Go North West, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, and British Gas, and I fear that they will only become more common as the furlough scheme comes to an end.
I have received much correspondence from constituents here in Cynon Valley detailing the distress and pain caused by these bullying tactics. I commend the trade unions, including my own union Unite, for the tireless work they are doing to expose these exploitative fire and rehire tactics, and I stand in solidarity with all workers who take industrial action to oppose them.
Fire and rehire has little to do with the pandemic. Covid-19 is being used as a smokescreen for unscrupulous businesses to do what they have long done—erode workers’ rights, slash pay, and keep wages and benefits low to increase value for shareholders. The Government’s complacency on the matter has been taken as a green light.
I am sympathetic to the unprecedented position in which UK businesses find themselves, but businesses using fire and rehire tactics are not doing so because of their economic situation. Using the impact of the covid-19 pandemic to attempt to drive down pay and benefits is not going to wash. It is unacceptable that a company such as Centrica plc—parent company of British Gas—which continues to report hundreds of millions in profit each year can even consider forcing unfavourable contracts on its staff. Sadly, that reflects what I believe is an entrenched attitude in boardrooms across the country: employees are not a vital resource to be invested in and supported, but rather an operational cost for those businesses that must be kept to the bare minimum. That is underpinned by a capitalist model that unfailingly puts shareholders ahead of the workers who create that wealth.
Fire and rehire places an immediate financial burden on workers, exposes them to more precarious relationships with employers and, in some cases, might even jeopardise retirement plans. For firms to choose such a path knowing the likely outcomes in the midst of a global pandemic is morally indefensible. That scandalous treatment of workers must be stopped. The Government must act now to introduce legislation to outlaw that practice, as other countries have already done. By failing to do so, the Government are once again choosing to support billionaire bosses over the ordinary working people of this country. Diolch yn fawr.
Firing employees and rehiring them on reduced terms and conditions is a shocking way to treat workers, and I am very proud of my SNP colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), for his tireless work on the issue. It is important to recognise his efforts in this area, even though there has sadly been a collective oversight of his Bill in the debate so far.
Frankly, many of us are fed up with the members of the UK Government condemning this practice while doing nothing to address it. Finger-wagging and head shaking are not going to stop this appalling practice, but legislation will, yet the Government refuse to adopt my hon. Friend’s Bill. While the Government do nothing, we see Centrica workers fired without redundancy for refusing to submit to this appalling treatment. British Airways staff, too, have been subject to this repressive and regressive practice, with Tesco also guilty and others sure to follow.
It is a matter of deep regret and anger in Scotland that the Labour party, working alongside the Tories, conspired in the Smith commission against Scotland having power over employment law, which would have allowed us to protect workers in Scotland. Clearly, the Union is more important to the Labour party than the rights of workers, many of whom fund the Labour party. That is flawed logic indeed, a logic that workers in Scotland are increasingly rejecting. The sudden change of heart from the current leader of the Scottish Labour party to support the devolution of employment law to Scotland—this Damascene conversion as we approach election day—is unconvincing and extremely cynical, since it was Labour that blocked such devolution in the first place.
Let us stop all the hand-wringing and bring my hon. Friend’s Bill to the House again, and let us support it. As for Scotland, we will make our own decisions on employment law soon enough, when we secure and go on to win an independence referendum. Then workers in England will be able to look to Scotland to see what protecting and supporting workers in a fair and just society really looks like.
I refer Members of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my membership of Unite. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who is a good friend, for securing the debate.
The pandemic has changed the world of work for almost all workers. We have seen some employers go above and beyond in supporting their employees, but, sadly, we have also seen some employers using it to attack wages and terms and conditions for their own workforce. I am proud to be a Labour MP, so it should not come as a surprise that I am a socialist and trade unionist. Trade unions offer workers a voice in the workplace, and data tells us that unionised workplaces are not only safer, but benefit from better terms and conditions. I am grateful to all trade unions for standing up for their members against employers who are taking advantage of the pandemic to increase profit margin at the cost of their own workers.
One such employer is British Gas. The parent company, Centrica, has been in a long-standing dispute with the GMB union. I have had a GMB picket at the British Gas office in my own constituency, in Brinnington ward. A few days ago, the media reported that almost 500 engineers had lost their jobs after refusing to be forced into new contracts—a truly shameful day for a household brand such as British Gas. Rightly, the public will not forget how British Gas Centrica treated its workforce.
Unfortunately, there is another dispute in Greater Manchester at Go North West buses. Unite members at this bus operator had been on the picket line for more than 60 days. They have been blackmailed into a taking a significant pay cut. Drivers at Go North West earn on average £24,000 per year, but changes mean they will have to work much longer hours for the same pay. In real terms, that means a £2,500 pay cut. I have visited the picket line on three occasions to show my solidarity with Go North West employees.
Fire and rehire has been used as an aggressive negotiation tactic by household brands. That is completely unacceptable, and we need urgent action, not warm words from the Government. Several Members have already asked when we can we expect the ACAS report to be made public. As constituency MPs, we need to see the report to hold the Government to account.
Urgent Government action is needed to end fire and rehire bullyboy tactics. It is all well and good to clap on the doorstep for our amazing key workers, but what they need is clear Government legislation against fire and rehire tactics, rather than vague platitudes from Ministers. Will the Minister call out bad employers such as British Gas, Goodlord, Brush Electrical Machines and Go North West? We need real action from the Government, not warm words.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I, too, offer congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing her first debate on what is an important and timely issue—fire and rehire. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), as always, and I declare that I am a member and chair of the Unite parliamentary group. I was heartened to see the collective action and solidarity shown yesterday during Unite the Union’s day of action against fire and rehire.
Over the last year, Unite has opposed fire and rehire tactics used by British Airways, Heathrow airport, and SBS technologies. Let us not forget: without our trade unions, workers at those companies would have suffered dramatic pay cuts and had their terms and conditions worsened. However, the best safeguard against such unacceptable behaviour is to outlaw the practice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, many employers have behaved responsibly, but there are appalling examples of bad employers using this bullyboy tactic, as it has been described by the Minister. It is within the power of the Minister and the Prime Minister to outlaw this practice.
I was disappointed when the Prime Minister backtracked at Prime Minister’s Questions last week and refused to commit to outlawing this disgraceful practice when questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson). In fact, he did not even acknowledge the nature of the problem.
During the covid pandemic, one worker in 10 has been threatened with fire and rehire. Many of those firms are receiving Government-funded support. The likelihood is that this is the tip of the iceberg. With furlough ending, many more workers will face the threat of fire and rehire, unless it is outlawed. As other Members have said, the Government asked ACAS to report on the extent of fire and rehire, and we now know, following responses to questions from me and from other Members, Ministers have had the report since 17 February. We need to know what is in that report. Will the Minister commit himself to releasing it this week before Parliament prorogues? The public, who fund ACAS, are entitled to know, and the many workers who, in effect, have been blackmailed, are entitled to know ACAS’s view of the practice.
Lots of people are watching and want to know whose side the Minister and the Prime Minister are on. I hope the Minister will stand with hon. Members here today, promise more than condemnation of fire and rehire, and take action to outlaw the practice once and for all. That has happened in Ireland, Spain and France.
I want briefly to outline some of the implications of fire and rehire in its latest use for individuals, families and communities. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who has been an asset to her constituency and the House since she was elected.
The latest wave of fire and rehire, which is not a new phenomenon, started in my constituency at Heathrow through the activities of British Airways and Heathrow Airport Ltd. Both companies saw the pandemic as an opportunity to implement their long-held strategy of cutting wages and undermining working conditions and terms of employment. The wages and the terms of employment were fought for over generations by trade unions to ensure that people got a decent wage and were treated properly at work. That is all people wanted.
The reaction to the attempt to cut wages on such a scale and to tear up employment agreements was, first, absolute anger. The frustration among the workers at Heathrow was palpable. The staff were so loyal. They were proud to work for British Airways, the national carrier, and many had worked there for decades. Whole families depend on the airport, working for either BA or Heathrow Ltd. They faced wage cuts, even though house prices and rents in my area are so high, and were under real stress, and they were looking at whether they could maintain their livelihood and keep a decent roof over their head.
That stress has brought about almost a mental health crisis in our community. There is real resentment because those companies have made vast profits and taken furlough money from the Government, and they were simply using a short-term crisis to impose long-term pay cuts. Owing to the resolution of my community, individual workers, Unite the Union and others, we fought back and have settled as best we can to protect people, but the protection can come in the longer term only if the Government act and introduce legislation to ban the practice of fire and rehire once and for all.
Lord Hendy reminded us a couple of days ago that fire and rehire is not a new practice. The general strike was provoked by it when the miners were sacked and brought back to work only if they accepted wage cuts. I warn the Government: if they do not act and change the legislation, there will be more industrial action and more disputes, so they need to act with urgency.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray, and I thank the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this incredibly important debate. The fact that it is oversubscribed, similar to my own Westminster Hall debate in November when virtual participation was not possible, shows how important most Members—certainly Opposition Members—consider the issue.
The Tory Government should be embarrassed that the debate is even necessary. Workers in other EU countries who happen across these proceedings through some disastrous fault on their TV will think that Victoria is still on the throne and that the hard-fought-for workers’ rights that were secured in the 20th century were but a dream. Workers in those countries have employment rights based on modernity, not Dickens novels.
Over the past year, I have proposed legislation that would ban fire and rehire through a simple amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996. I have raised the issue with Ministers in this place umpteen times. I have been told by the Prime Minister that using threats of fire and rehire is unacceptable as a negotiating tactic. The Minister said that it is not acceptable to use it as a bargaining or negotiating tactic. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I do not think it is acceptable to have a ‘fire and rehire’ culture.”—[Official Report, 13 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 171.]
The Leader of the House told the Commons two weeks ago:
“The name of British Gas has now been traduced in this House on a number of occasions. People who pay attention to our proceedings may feel that they dislike the way British Gas is behaving and want to get their gas supplied by another firm.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2021; Vol. 692, c. 504.]
On that, I agree with the Leader of the House. Despite giving the company every chance, I have now cancelled my own British Gas contract. That is a small act with regard to a company with revenues just shy of £15 billion last year, but it is the power that each of us has as a consumer.
To be clear, the primary blame, in all these situations, lies with the companies for making these threats, but the role of Government should be to ensure that any employer meets basic standards on worker rights and respect for its workforce, and operates on a level playing field that rests on fundamental rights for its staff. Enshrining that level playing field in law will ensure that the spivs and chancers who seem to have a grip on so many blue-chip companies can no longer undercut and undermine responsible employers, who invest in their staff and work in partnership with them rather than antagonising them.
All the sympathetic statements and expressions from the Dispatch Box do not change a thing for the workers, who are still being bullied by companies and forced into wage cuts and changes to terms and conditions. I agree with every word from Ministers that I have quoted. The difference is that they are Ministers and have the power to act.
As I have said previously, and as almost everyone who has spoken today has said, the Government have a Queen’s Speech in a fortnight’s time, and that must—must—contain a pledge on fire and rehire. They have at their disposal a Government machine that could have a Bill drafted rapidly—I would be happy to send them a copy of mine to copy and paste from if that would speed things along. They have a majority of 80 in this House to get the Bill through its stages and on to the statute book with a minimum of fuss.
The time for words is over. The pictures of the British Gas vans in the gas van graveyards across the country should be evidence of that. Millions of workers across the country are judging the Government on their deeds, and so far the outcome has been lacking, to say the least. In summing up the debate, can the Minister please give that assurance? Potentially millions of workers across the UK are depending on it.
The Government cannot say that this issue has not been pointed out to them many, many times over recent months. The last year has seen British Airways, British Gas, Menzies Aviation, Go North West, Heathrow airport and even Tesco, to name just a few, treat their staff like chattels and threaten them with the sack if they did not sign on the dotted line. I and many colleagues across the House have raised these disgraceful incidents with the Government dozens of times over the last year. Just yesterday we saw protests outside IHG—InterContinental Hotels Group—hotels, following the sacking of 250 staff, some of whom were then asked to come back to their previous jobs, but for less money and with poorer working conditions.
The Government know that this is an issue, because they are sitting on a report compiled by ACAS on it. The fact that we had to force them into commissioning that report is damning, but they have been sitting on the report for more than two months now. More than seven weeks ago, I wrote to the Secretary of State, urging him to share the report. It should be laid before the House at the earliest opportunity. The Government have to justify their lack of action and to apologise to the hundreds of thousands of workers who have faced these threats since they were highlighted to the Government and, in particular, to those who have taken redundancy when they have been faced with these threats or, even worse, have been sacked without any redundancy pay when they have refused to be bullied. Will the Minister, in his summing up, do just that and say sorry on behalf of the Government for their inaction?
I was proud to see the SNP manifesto launched two weeks ago, with a promise to ban fire and rehire in Scotland if the powers over employment law are transferred to the Scottish Parliament. We have been waiting too long for the UK Government to act and bring in legislation to ban it. If they do not want to protect the rights of workers, they should give the powers to the Scottish Parliament, which will act to end the days of bully-boy tactics and put those powers to good use.
I am proud of the SNP policy, of course, but I think my cross-party record on this issue is clear. The fact that Members from every party in this House sponsored my Bills is testament to that. Change of this nature happens only with cross-party support—not only with support from a united opposition, but with some support from the Government Benches. I know that the Minister has been lobbied hard on this issue by many of his colleagues. That is what makes me hopeful—perhaps naively so—about commitments on this issue in the employment Bill.
However, although there is support from and campaigning by a great many Labour Members, including Labour colleagues of mine on the Transport Committee—the hon. Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry), who was a member of that Committee—and many others, including the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), I have been somewhat disappointed by the lack of speed from the Labour leadership to give this issue the parliamentary attention it deserves.
In saying that, I am only reflecting the views of a great many union members whom I have spoken with or who have contacted me. Working as one, we might have been able to force through quicker change that would have helped the British Gas engineers. Moving forward, let us ensure that we have a laser-like focus on the issue, as too many have suffered these threats over the last year.
No one is saying that companies and occupations should be frozen in time, with no room for change when circumstances change. Of course this pandemic has had a huge impact on the bottom line for every business in these isles and around the world, just as the crash of 2008, the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s and the energy crisis of the 1970s had an impact on trading conditions, and I daresay there will come a point in the future when another economic shock will hit us. The way to address those challenges is not by treating “Oliver Twist” as an employee relations handbook, but by working in partnership with workers and their representatives to find a sustainable way forward that benefits all.
That philosophy is embedded in European industry and commerce, and it is embedded in law. I think it is no coincidence that every single one of those countries outperformed the UK on economic output and on the standard of living their citizens enjoy. Nine out of 10 of the poorest areas of the European Union, as was, are in the UK. The race to the bottom on employment rights has dislocated our economic system to such an extent that the poorest out of 500 million people live within a couple of hours of this place.
Many of the companies that have employed or threatened to employ fire and rehire operate across international borders. International Airlines Group, the owner of British Airways, could not copy the tactics they used in the UK with staff at Iberia and Aer Lingus because those countries enshrined in law the rights of employees not to be treated in such a way. Centrica, British Gas’s parent company, is prevented from throwing the same tricks with Bord Gáis Energy employees because the law in Ireland stops it from doing so. It only chose the UK for these actions because it can. Centrica is still selling gas in Ireland and taking payment for that gas presumably because it makes money from it. The difference is that the workers enjoy protection from fire and rehire.
That undermines any argument that legislation against fire and rehire would put companies at a disadvantage. They seem to be doing fine in countries that have already banned it and that have rejected the insidious race to the bottom on employee rights that has characterised Tory Governments for decades. Fire and rehire is part of that race to the bottom.
This Government have the power to end that race right now and legislate to give responsible businesses the level playing field they deserve and our constituents the protections they need to have a more stable and sustainable livelihood. That benefits them, their families and the communities they live in. The warm words from the Government Benches over the last year do not provide that stability. Will there be a commitment in the Queen’s Speech to introduce a Bill banning fire and rehire once and for all? That would give more security and dignity to millions of workers who could face these tactics next.
It is, of course, a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I declare my interest as a member of Unite, GMB and Unison.
I join other hon. Members in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing this important debate on fire and rehire tactics and for the timely manner in which she has done so, with the outrageous firing of hundreds of British Gas employees earlier this month, just because they refused to be bullied by management into signing contracts that put them on worse pay, and worse terms and conditions. My hon. Friend spoke passionately about that case and the abusive bullying behaviour of British Gas’s management. She made a sound contribution that delivered a strong defence of workers’ rights and the protections that should be afforded to them, but which sadly this Government have denied them. My only regret is that we are having to have this debate following this mass firing at British Gas because the Government would not step in when they should have properly done so.
I thank my hon. Friends for their passionate contributions. Let us be honest: the point has been made that it is only Members on the Opposition side who have contributed because the Government could not even convince their own Back Benchers to turn up to defend the fire and rehire tactics that have become endemic on their watch. There is not only the cases of their own constituents who have faced fire and rehire tactics, but the use of these tactics by major companies that have continued to make a profit throughout the pandemic.
We must remember that fire and rehire tactics are not a new phenomenon, a point that has been made in this debate. They had been around long before the coronavirus pandemic. However, the increasingly precarious nature of our economy and the Government’s refusal to do anything about it, along with the uncertainty created by the pandemic, have given unscrupulous employers the cover they need. Let us be clear: the employers making use of these frankly deplorable tactics are unscrupulous—there are simply no two ways about it.
Under the threat of permanent dismissal at a time when the jobs market could not be more challenging, these unscrupulous employers are bullying their staff into signing away their original contract. They are bullying them into signing a replacement contract where pay is lower, rights are weaker and conditions less favourable, and they are shoving those inferior contracts down the throats of their workers, who know full well that they cannot refuse without being fired for good, as we saw at British Gas.
Despite that despicable behaviour, and the fact that such shameful tactics amount to nothing more than legalised blackmail of staff by employers, fire and rehire inexplicably remains perfectly legal under the Government, and big businesses such as Tesco and the coffee giant Douwe Egberts, which have seen rising profits during the lockdown, are continuing shamelessly to use them.
As a result, those who cannot stand up to their employers and have to begrudgingly accept the new contracts face incredible hardship, going from a job that often comfortably supported them and their families to now being forced to rely on food banks, handouts and social security to make ends meet. Indeed, we all saw the heart-breaking stories during the industrial action taken by GMB members at British Gas where engineers made it clear that they were not striking for themselves but for the young children they needed to support. Fire and rehire tactics do not just leave workers worse off; they leave their families worse off too.
However, fire and rehire tactics are not just bad for working people, who are told to work harder but at the same time paid less; they are bad for our economy too. By being able to change contracts on a whim, fire and rehire tactics are allowing bad employers to thrive and get ahead, cutting wages even at a time when many of them are making bumper profits because of the lockdown. As a result, good employers that look after their staff, pay them good wages and offer favourable conditions are being squeezed out, unable to compete with the bad employers. That is hardly the positive example of levelling up or building back better, as the Prime Minister has pledged time and again. That is why the Labour party, the trade unions and working people up and down the country have been calling on the Government to step in and act, to deliver the legislation that will bring a final, definitive end to the use of fire and rehire tactics for good, just as has been done in Ireland and Spain, as we have heard.
Instead of outlawing fire and rehire, all the Government have been able to offer are warm words and consultation—a point that has been made by a number of hon. Members. Warm words, however, do not pay bills, keep roofs over people’s head or put food on the table. As we saw at British Gas, warm words do not keep people in employment. The consultation that the Government have commissioned with ACAS still has not been published weeks after reporting back to base, with findings reportedly still being considered. I say to the Minister that this is not difficult. The findings and recommendations of the ACAS consultation are obvious for all: fire and rehire is bad for everyone. The Government should ban it, so why are they dragging their feet and what are they waiting for?
Last week, the Prime Minister spoke of dropping a “legislative bomb” to stop the European football super league, so they can act when they want to. However, he cannot even muster as much as a legislative firecracker to stop fire and rehire. Only last Wednesday, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister could not even remember the GMB dispute with British Gas and the mass firing of workers who refused to be bullied. No one should ever try to tell us that this Prime Minister is in touch with working people.
Instead of the Government looking out for employment rights, it has again fallen to trade unions to protect working people and to oppose bully-boy tactics. Unite secured a resolution of the dispute with British Airways and continues to oppose Go North West’s buses plans, and the GMB had a valiant fight to protect jobs and livelihoods at British Gas, but their job is made harder by the fact that the Government will not step in to help them by giving the vital legal backing that they need.
The use of fire-and-rehire tactics by unscrupulous employers is a stain on our economy. The contributions made by hon. Members during this important debate make one thing clear: we cannot just temporarily stop the use of fire-and-rehire tactics during this pandemic; we need to end them for good. To that end, the Government must introduce proper legislation, backed by real enforcement, before it is too late—before we see another big bully-boy employer such as British Gas lay off staff and impose new contracts, dismissing the rest who refuse to be bullied.
The Minister must confirm, as I hope he will and as we have called for, that the Government will bring forward such a measure as a matter of priority in the long-awaited and much-delayed employment Bill in next month’s Queen’s Speech. If he does not give a proper response today and resorts to a wishy-washy one—frankly, a trademark of this Government—the consequences for every worker who has been blackmailed and bullied, every family forced to turn to food banks, and every child forced into poverty, will land firmly at his Government’s doors.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing the debate, her first here in Westminster Hall, on fire and rehire. We have heard a lot of powerful and passionate speeches, but before I start on mine, I note that many of my colleagues have been glancing at the annunciator screens around us. Important issues have been debated in the main Chamber. I have seen colleagues on the Government Benches speaking about fire safety and veterans—a lot of issues. Many colleagues have spoken about this subject and will continue to do so.
We heard from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), about the Government giving warm words, about consultation and about people being worse off. On the warm words, however, we agree on many things to do with the “bully-boy tactics” we have heard about today. That also demonstrates the difference when talking about businesses, because with changes to workers’ rights and anything to do with employment, whether for workers or businesses, it is important that we get it right. We have to consult and ensure that legislation is made with careful consideration and debate, and that it is made with people—companies and workers—and not done to them.
Clearly, the flexibility of our jobs market means that the hon. Member for Bradford East was right to say that people and their families are worse off if they get reduced terms. They would also be worse off, however, if their jobs were lost as a result of a different type of restructuring. Again, that is why we need to get the balance right.
We had some international comparisons. Many European countries clearly have more rigid labour markets. Often, in places such as Germany and France, more onerous requirements must be met when considering individual or collective redundancy. In some countries, permission must be sought even to go down that line. So our flexible hiring practice is important to ensuring that our economy is rounded but flexible.
Having said that, however, importantly, we are all constituency MPs and we have heard many examples today. From correspondence I have received—like many Members present—we know that, for those affected, the threat of redundancy or dismissal is always distressing. We expect employers to treat their staff with respect and compassion. That is even more important now, when people feel particularly vulnerable or anxious about the future. I speak to businesses every day and know that the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing by their employees. For most employers, the choice to let someone go is not something to be taken lightly. It usually comes at a time of great financial uncertainty for the business.
I pay tribute to all the businesses and workers that have kept the economy moving throughout an extraordinarily difficult time. In the face of those challenges, businesses have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and innovate. Through the pandemic, our priority as a Government has always been to protect jobs. Through the job retention scheme we have supported 11.4 million unique jobs to date. As we build back better from coronavirus, we will continue to support workers and work with employers to protect and create jobs. In the past year we have helped millions of people to continue to provide for their families as part of our plan for jobs, to protect, support and create employment. As we build back better we will work with employers to protect existing jobs and create new ones.
The Government are always on the side of working people, including those on the lowest wages. Earlier this month, about 2 million of the UK’s lowest-paid workers benefited from an increase in the national living wage and the national minimum wage, including a 2.2% increase in the national living wage, to £8.91—the equivalent of more than £345 a year for someone working full time.
I hear yet more warm words, and I hear about the Government’s support for workers, the furlough scheme, and what have you. Let us concede the furlough scheme. However, what does the Minister say to workers who have taken redundancy when faced with fire and rehire threats, or who have been forced out of a business, or to the British Gas engineers sacked without any redundancy payment?
I will come to fire and rehire. In individual company disputes, in the first instance it should always be ensured that the company and employers can have conversations and dialogues with the unions, should there be a union supporting the workers.
The debate has explored a lot of issues related to fire and rehire, where employers dismiss or threaten to dismiss employees, only to hire them again on less favourable terms and conditions. However, the UK already has a robust legal framework to ensure that employees are treated fairly. Employers are clearly free to offer the terms and conditions of employment that best suit their business needs, but they must always act fairly and not discriminate unlawfully, such as on grounds of race, sex or disability. Redundancy law requires that any redundancy process be fair and reasonable, with appropriate equalities considerations. Those rules include giving a notice period and consulting staff before a final decision is reached. We have clear laws on unfair dismissal, covering such things as the application of unfair selection criteria or failure to consider the possibility of transfer to other work.
However, it is not just a matter of what the law requires; it is in businesses’ own interests to have committed, motivated staff who are properly engaged in decisions about their future. As I have said, in the vast majority of cases businesses want to do the right thing by their employees, and I am determined to help them with that, to make sure that we find the best approach for employers and employees. However, we should tread carefully when considering Government intervention in commercial contractual matters between employers and employees. We must and do protect workers from unfair practices, especially when they put unnecessary stress on people who fear for their livelihoods, but we must also allow businesses to take the sometimes difficult decisions that are necessary to preserve their commercial viability.
Some Members have called this afternoon for the Government to legislate for a ban on fire and rehire. The Government have always been clear that we do not accept the inappropriate use by some employers of fire and rehire as a negotiation tactic. I have met Members and trade unions to discuss the issue, and in those discussions it has been made plain to me what anxiety and distress such tactics cause, particularly when individuals feel that they have no real option to say no and negotiate better terms. We have heard examples of that today. However, it is right and proper to consider the evidence, to avoid any course of action that would run the risk of doing more harm than good.
For example, it would be counterproductive if measures that prevented businesses from rehiring staff on different terms and conditions meant that a business could no longer survive, so that its staff found themselves out of work entirely. That would be the worst possible outcome for both businesses and the people they employ, so we need robust evidence to make robust policy decisions. That is why my Department asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to learn more about the use of fire and rehire. Some Members of the House have continued to call upon my Department to publish this evidence, including during this debate. Let me clarify: we asked ACAS for its help in developing the evidence base on this complex and sensitive issue. We are carefully considering the different issues and viewpoints raised, which is vital for good policy making, and we will set out our steps in due course.
As mentioned today, unfortunately, due to the impacts of covid, some employers may be considering making redundancies. We urge employers to consider all options and alternatives before making redundancies, but we recognise that it is not going to be possible to save every business and every job. Collective redundancy legislation requires employers proposing to make 20 or more employees redundant from one establishment in a 90-day period to consult employees or their representatives, and that must include a consultation on ways to avoid redundancies, reduce their number, or mitigate their impact. Within the same timescales, the employer must notify the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the proposed collective redundancies. Failure to notify is an offence. Employees and/or their representatives may make a claim to an employment tribunal if they consider the employers not compliant with the consultation for collective redundancies. If the tribunal agrees, it may make a protective award of up to 90 days’ remuneration per employee. If a protective award is made against a company in liquidation, the Insolvency Service can pay the protective award, within certain limits.
In spite of the unprecedented support made available by the Government, many people have had to make really difficult decisions about their livelihoods since last March. This includes employers who have spent years investing in and growing their businesses, and workers who have shown loyalty and dedication to a particular profession or service. This debate has highlighted the challenges that everyone is having to face, and the enormous impact that losing a job or the threat of losing a job has on individuals and their families.
I have heard all of that, and I have heard the Minister’s justification for not publishing the ACAS report thus far, but can he guarantee that at some point after the Queen’s Speech—in the next Session—the Government will publish the report in full, and what the Government intend to do about it?
What I will say at the moment is that we are fully considering that, and we will continue discussion and debate on it, because it is important that that evidence base forms part of those policy-making criteria. Employers need to make sure that they can take the decisions they need to maintain their commercial viability during all of this, and as I have said, most businesses are doing the right thing. I have been an employer myself for the best part of 25 years before being elected, and I know what it is like to be responsible for someone else’s livelihood. It is deeply unfortunate, however, that the actions of some unscrupulous employers are tarring others with the same brush. Even at a time when businesses face acute challenges, fire and rehire should only ever be used as an option of last resort. As I have made clear repeatedly, it is completely unacceptable to use threats of fire and rehire simply as a negotiation tactic.
Once again, I thank all hon. Members, and especially the hon. Member for Jarrow, for their personal contributions to this debate.
I thank everybody for their contributions today to what was a really good debate, with some very powerful speeches. Anger at the injustice of fire and rehire has shone through every contribution, without a single word of support for this awful practice. I wanted to touch on a few of the points that have been made, but unfortunately, time does not now allow that.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I say to him that the Government need to act now to end fire and rehire. This shameful practice is taking advantage of a pandemic to strip workers of their hard-fought terms and conditions. He says that we need to tread carefully, but the problem is that people are being trampled over, and I do not accept that we need more debate on this issue, because there is no question of right or wrong here. He says that the Government are always on the side of working people, but I am afraid that is just more empty words, because that is not what I see. Where is the evidence that that is the case?
The Government can no longer ignore the damage done by fire and rehire. If, as they say, they feel it is unacceptable and bully-boy tactics, then they need to show this through actions, not words. Two e-petitions have obtained over 14,000 signatures so far, one of which has over 10,000 and, as such, requires a written response from the Government, which I understand is something else that is still waiting to be received. Our trade unions and their members have done a fantastic job in protecting workers, and they continue to do so. However, I say to the Minister and his Government that we need them to do the right thing and the decent thing, and bring forward legislation next month.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).