[Esther McVey in the Chair]
[Relevant document: e-petition 575544, Ban fire and rehire employment tactics]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the use of fire and rehire tactics.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am delighted to be able to bring this debate once again to Parliament, and to be able to combine it with a petition that has been signed by over 15,000 members of the public who, like me, feel passionately about this issue.
Ms McVey, I apologise if you are getting déjà vu, because just over a year ago I stood in this same room and spoke about this very matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) brought an important debate to the House and Members, on a cross-party basis, spoke eloquently for the rights of their constituents in the face of the repugnant practice of fire and rehire. Sadly, the fact that we are here again today is indicative of how little progress has been made by the Government, who have been hiding behind reports and consultations. There has been little concrete action.
Hon. Members would be forgiven for thinking that the Government have been somewhat distracted over recent weeks, as they have been embroiled in another employment debate a little closer to home: Operation Save Big Dog. They have been trying desperately to save the job of a blundering, misleading and morally bankrupt Prime Minister. It is the same old story from the Government: repeated promises, with no action. This is despite the fact that we are approaching the fifth anniversary of the Taylor review.
Hon. Members may recall that, in January 2022, I secured and led a parliamentary debate on the Taylor review and modern working practices. Many of us pressed the Government to keep their promises and initiate reform, but we have had absolutely no joy whatever. We have seen fire and rehire practices condemned by countless Ministers, and the employment Bill has been promised a staggering 20 times over the past three years. The Bill being published has a lot in common with the Prime Minister resigning: both are events that should have happened months ago and that are clearly supported by a majority of the public and MPs, only to be needlessly delayed by Tory incompetence. As they stall, however, unscrupulous employers act.
No less than 10% of workers have faced fire and rehire in their jobs. Almost a quarter of employees say their working terms have been downgraded since the first lockdown, and 800 loyal P&O Ferries workers have been scandalously sacked. All the Government can say is that their planned statutory code will be announced “in due course”. Given how often they say that, I am beginning to think that “in due course” might be their next manifesto pledge and slogan: “Get it done in due course.”
It was not just the issue of the workers being laid off. It was about those whom P&O picked up, who did not know about or understand the health and safety issues on the ferries. That was part of the problem as well, because P&O took away the people who knew what to do and replaced them with people who, with great respect, did not have the same ability.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and that is why it is important that we have skilled workers who need be regarded for their loyalty to the job, and for their competence.
Call me cynical, but it seems that certain policies can be expedited over others, such as the Home Office having no difficulty in swiftly implementing the inhumane Rwanda policy or the Government pushing to break international law, or selling off the popular and successful Channel 4.
Does my hon. Friend not think that part of the problem for the Government of the moment is that, if they try to expedite fire and rehire while we are trying to fire the current Prime Minister, they will unfortunately have to rehire him on worse terms and we will all suffer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and with a great deal of wit.
While the Government can do all the things that I have outlined, it seems that supporting workers’ rights has been abandoned at the bottom of the pile. It is not a priority for this Government, who seem to value their own job security above that of the average working person.
What does the Prime Minister expect from our great British workforce? Under this Government, are workers just meant to put up and shut up about their inadequate pay, conditions and benefits, without having adequate legal protections? Thankfully, due to the excellent work of unions such as Unite, Unison, GMB, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association or TSSA, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers or RMT, ASLEF and others, there is some support and respite from fire and rehire for employees. However, without legislation, I fear that this practice will persist.
It is clear that we need to outlaw fire and rehire. We do not need some sort of consultation but to outlaw it and urgently introduce a Bill to strengthen workers’ rights. Lip service will not stop fire and rehire; an effective ban will. However, Government plans on a statutory code fall woefully short and even then the Government are struggling to implement the bare minimum required. Current Government proposals would mean that the practice of fire and rehire remains legal, consultation procedures would not be improved and workers would continue to be dismissed for not agreeing to an inferior contract. Quite simply, all that that will achieve is to increase a company’s financial calculation before it uses fire and rehire tactics regardless.
We already know that the Government plans do not work. P&O Ferries calculated that it was financially worthwhile foregoing consultations, despite knowing that they were necessary, before cutting almost 800 jobs and replacing those employees with agency workers. P&O’s chief executive said:
“I would make this decision again, I’m afraid.”
Unscrupulous employers are acting without consequence. Companies have examined our current legislation, deemed that it is not fit for purpose and then exploited it. Failing to turn the tide now will be a green light for other employers to behave in exactly the same way.
P&O Ferries did not act in a vacuum. Its decision came after immoral fire and rehire tactics were used persistently throughout the pandemic. British Airways and other such companies were called “a national disgrace” by the Transport Committee for their actions, which put thousands of jobs at risk and led to my inbox being flooded by messages from concerned Slough constituents who work at Heathrow airport. Employees who had worked for BA for decades were threatened with being cast off at the beginning of a global pandemic, which is unforgivable. It was only due to the excellent work of unions on behalf of the workers involved that deals were reached and jobs were saved, but it should not have had to come to that.
British Gas, which is owned by Centrica, threatened the livelihoods of 5,000 employees, using the threat of coronavirus as a smokescreen to act unethically against many of my Slough constituents, and I know that many other right hon. and hon. Members’ constituents were also affected. Before an agreement was reached that brought the dispute to an end, there were 44 days of strike action and 500 workers were dismissed. Again, without the unions thousands more workers would have been left without a job and without representation.
The hon. Gentleman and I walked to this debate together from the main Chamber, where there is severe trade union bashing going on from the Government side. Is that not the reality of the current Government, namely that they are too busy bashing trade unions, not working with them?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. That issue is exactly what we discussed as we made our way from the main Chamber into Westminster Hall. The Government are trying to pick a fight with unions rather than dealing with issues or coming to the negotiating table. For example, the hugely disruptive rail strikes, which will have an enormous impact on many of us, could have been resolved by now if Rail Ministers actually done the job that they were supposed to do.
As I was saying, quite frankly the Prime Minister has job security that employees can only dream of. Put simply, fire and rehire is not a negotiating tactic but a direct threat to workers, it has no place in our modern Great Britain, and the Government should be ashamed that fire and rehire has been allowed to proliferate on their watch.
I hope that the Minister has some good news for the thousands of people who have been affected by this abhorrent tactic, and for the millions more who could be at risk from it. It is disappointing that not a single Conservative colleague—apart from the Minister—has come to speak for their constituents. We should be acting in cross-party solidarity to battle against fire and rehire on our constituents’ behalf, and to press Ministers to finally introduce legislation.
We should have working standards that we are proud of and that celebrate our country’s fantastic workforce, but the Government seem intent on a race to the bottom when it comes to workers’ rights. Warm words will not do it any more; clear-cut legislation will.
Thank you very much indeed, Ms McVey; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate and on opening it so well.
I have had quite a lot to do with the Minister recently. Although I have specific views on the lack of an employment Bill, I pay tribute to him for the constructive way in which he is working with me and my colleagues to ensure that we get neonatal leave and pay in statute—we have been pushing on that matter for a while. I thank my own trade union, Unite, for its helpful briefing in advance of the debate, and I will come back to a number of points on that.
I will not press this point too much given that you are in the Chair, Ms McVey—I know that you are quite an influential member of the Blue Collar Conservatives—but as the hon. Member for Slough was speaking, I was reflecting on the fact that workers’ rights are something that Blue Collar Conservatives should think about. There is no doubt that the British political landscape has changed significantly on workers’ rights. People on this side of the Chamber, and indeed people in Scotland, may not be happy about it, but there is no doubt that the Conservative-voting demographic has changed significantly, and it would be rather foolhardy of Conservative Members—particularly those who represent red wall seats—to overlook blue collar workers who have sadly been subjected to fire and rehire practices. I would not be so bold as to indicate, for the purposes of Hansard, whether the Chair is nodding.
It was interesting that during the Brexit referendum, people were regularly told that Brexit was about taking back control. I happen to believe that Brexit was a bad idea—I still believe that it was largely about deregulation and a bonfire of workers’ rights—but I reserved a degree of judgment post-2016, and the jury is still out on whether the Government take workers’ rights seriously.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government have promised time and again that an employment Bill would be introduced. It is quite telling that there is still no employment Bill three years into this Parliament, particularly when the world of work is changing. Ministers have to confront the reality: actions speak louder than words, so if Brexit was about taking back control and improving workers’ rights, an employment Bill should be forthcoming.
In some respects, I actually feel quite sorry for British Airways. It quite rightly got a lot of flak for its deployment of fire and rehire tactics, but it was not the first company to use them. Asda was doing it long ago, and as we have seen with the likes of P&O, people—bosses, frankly—are pursuing something that is completely immoral but not currently illegal. Without an employment Bill that properly enshrines workers’ rights post-Brexit, the likes of P&O, British Airways, Asda and so many other organisations will go down that path.
One reason why I am concerned that an employment Bill has not been introduced is because it is no secret that the current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) authored—with the right hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel) and for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) and others—a book called “Britannia Unchained”. In essence, the book is about changing ways of work. Bear in mind that the authors are serving Ministers, one of whom heads up the Department that is responsible for workers’ right. I would not normally promote this book, but let me share a key quote from it:
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
I hope the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has changed his mind since he and his colleagues authored that book. The fact that in 2022, companies such as P&O, British Airways, Asda and many others can still get away with practices such as fire and rehire, suggests that the Government’s doctrine has not changed from “Britannia Unchained”. Many of us, particularly in a Scottish context, think that leaving Conservatives in charge of workers’ rights is akin to leaving a lion in charge of an abattoir.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. Fire and rehire is wrong. I know it, everyone here knows it, workers know it, the Government know it, the Prime Minister knows it, and the Minister knows it, too.
Fire and rehire is unfair. It levels down; it is about deregulation and a continual rolling back of workers’ rights and an attack on trade unions. There is not a constituency in the land in which this pernicious and cruel practice has not happened or is not on the verge of happening, with worse terms and conditions held over workers’ heads as a constant threat, keeping them awake at night.
The vile way in which P&O workers were treated recently, handcuffed by private security and marched from their workplace, left me disgusted and angry. The route we are heading in with this Government and workers’ rights means we need to take this seriously. Whether it be fire and rehire, zero-hours contracts or the constant insecurity of those in the workplace, the Government do not care about the plight of working people. If they did, they would have legislated against this damaging practice already and, at the very least, have produced the long-awaited and 20-times promised employment Bill.
If any of my former Conservative colleagues were here, they could correct me, but I hope they agree that the practice makes no sense from economic stance. If we do not stop this abhorrent practice, rogue bosses at firms affecting my constituents, such as British Gas, British Airways, Go North West buses and Asda, aiming to save a few quid with fire and rehire will leave us all to pay. If people end up on lower wages, they will have to claim more social security, such as universal credit. Instead of companies paying for redundancies, it ends with the taxpayer bailing out the companies.
As much as the Government like to preach about work being the best way out of poverty, that cannot be when the majority of people claiming benefits are in work. There is only one winner with fire and rehire, and it is not the workers or their families. It is greedy bosses who continually ride roughshod over working people.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) for his campaign against this practice with his private Member’s Bill last year, which I supported on many different platforms. That Bill was regrettably not taken up by the Government. On a wider note, I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) for the great work he did on the green paper for a new deal for working people, which will go a huge way to forming a transforming Labour Government that will, once and for all, stop fire and rehire.
It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and indeed other Members who have spoken. I feel strongly about this issue, which I have spoken about before. There is nobody in Westminster Hall who does not have deep respect for the Minister, because he always tries to respond to our queries. This issue strikes at the core of employment, so I am keen to hear what he can say to reassure us on some of the things I will speak about.
This is a topical issue that causes many employees across the UK immense stress. There was widespread use of the fire and rehire tactic during the covid pandemic, as there was a need to alter working ways to adapt to the situation. Many employers have used the strategy to their success, but a majority see it as highly ineffective and unfair. In his significant contribution, the hon. Member for Slough mentioned P&O Ferries. When the P&O workers were fired, the agency staff that came in did not address health and safety issues. That is not to be disrespectful to the agency staff, but there are certain standards that must be met, and they were not met. The hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) is absolutely right that it was despicable to come on to the ferry in Larne and lead people off, some of them in handcuffs. That really angered me. I could not believe that any company anywhere could resort to such tactics.
It got worse. Even after some staff were trained in health and safety issues, what happened in the Irish sea? The engines of the ferry from Larne to Stranraer went off, and it floated in the middle of one of the busiest sea lanes around Britain for more than two hours until the staff could get the engine restarted. That is another example of the potential safety impact of fire and rehire tactics.
I want to put on the record how strongly I feel for those who lost their jobs. The Minister knows all about this, because I brought it up in a question on the day that it happened, as the news broke that Thursday. He answered my question very helpfully and said that he was trying to address the issue, and I think he has shown a willingness to do so. It is important to note that this process is not unlawful, as the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said, but it does involve dismissals. Many employers have been taken to court for unfair dismissal, and the technique has the potential to turn extremely nasty. If I was one of those workers, I would be pretty narked, to use an Ulster Scotsism.
A survey of workers by the TUC in November found that, since March 2020, 9% of workers had been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions. Fire and rehire is becoming a common technique for both large and small businesses. The Government have said that it should not be used as a negotiation technique, but that it should not be made illegal. I follow others in asking the Minister whether he would be prepared to consider introducing legislation on fire and rehire, which has been used to the detriment of workers in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need clarity and we need legislation that brings change.
Back home in Northern Ireland, this technique has been used by employers amidst the pandemic. Almost one in five 18 to 24-year olds—20% of that workforce—have said that their employer tried to rehire them on inferior terms during the pandemic. Black and ethnic minority workers are almost twice as likely as white workers to face fire and rehire policies. If such policies are detrimental to somebody because of their skin, their religion or whatever it may be, that is wrong, and I underline my request for the Government to introduce legislation to enforce that. As the unions have stated, one in four workers—25%—said that they had experienced a downgrading of employment terms and conditions as a result of fire and rehire.
We have seen the fire and rehire technique causing major problems, for instance in British Gas. Around 7,000 British Gas engineers staged 44 days of strike action after the company threatened to sack them if they did not sign up to detrimental changes to their terms and conditions. Why would they sign up to that? I do not understand how a company can just say to people, “Tell you what, we are just going to change all your terms and conditions, and you need to sign this or you are away.” Perhaps I am old-fashioned and see right and wrong in very simplistic terms, but I see that as wrong. We need to protect the workers. I am not putting the Minister on the spot—forgive me for being fairly direct about this—but we need legislation that does so.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—indeed, my hon. Friend in this instance—for giving way. Part of the problem is that at the moment the Government insist on stronger regulation and guidance, but that is clearly not the solution. That did not and would not help the workers at P&O, whose chief executive admitted that he knew he was breaking the law and said he would do so again. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that guidance is not the solution; it has to be legislation?
I thank my colleague the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I agree with that, sincerely in my heart. As I said earlier, the Government have said that fire and rehire should not be used as a negotiation technique, but that it should also not be make illegal. Well, that is a legislative change that the hon. Member for Bury South wants to see, as well as everyone who has spoken and everyone who will speak afterwards. I want to see that legislative change in place as soon possible.
It is essential that an environment is created whereby people enjoy their work. I am very privileged to do a job that I always wished to do, but never for one second did I think that I, a wee boy from Ballywalter, would actually be here, so I am fortunate. People need to enjoy their work if they are to work hard and make a contribution to how their firm progresses. If staff are unsettled and unhappy in their work, for whatever reason, there is an onus on the employer to work harder to make them happy.
Moreover, employers rely on workers to fulfil goals and create successes, hence the need to prioritise their needs and not be dictated to. If someone wants their firm to be successful and do well, they need a happy workforce, and vice versa. I have six girls who work with me in my two offices, and I can say in all honestly that they seem fairly happy, so maybe this employer is treating them the right way. I understand how important it is to motivate staff and keep them happy.
Although there are things that the hon. Gentleman and I disagree on politically, I had the great pleasure of visiting him in his constituency and meeting the staff in his constituency office. Would he reflect—as I hope will the Minister—that many of the staff who work for us would be appalled and would not stand for it if we turned around to them and said, “Do you know what? We are going to fire you from your job, but then you can come back and work for less pay, less holiday time and more uncertain hours”? Does he think that parliamentary staff, including the staff of the Minister and the Secretary of State, would sign up for that?
The answer, as we all know, is that they would not. This House protects the workers here by setting bands of pay, giving them the right conditions for their holidays and if they are sick. It does it here, so I think it should do the same for other workers, which is what I would like to see.
Employers must follow a set minimum dismissal procedure and a collective redundancy process is involved. The depth of this issue has to be met with scrutiny and we must hold business owners to the highest level of account to ensure that our workers are protected.
There definitely needs to be greater communication within Government. I say that with great respect, because the Minister knows that I hold him in the highest respect because of the way he does his job. When we ask him questions, he comes back with the answers—he really tries when giving us answers. I say that for no other reason than that it is the truth; I mean it and I want to put it on the record. There also needs to be greater communication in the devolved Administrations, where legislation may be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.
We need to take action and protect our workers. Hire and refire is an unfair and unjust practice, and the Minister and the Government must take responsibility for the one in four workers who have experienced a downgrade in employment terms, whether financially or with other conditions, such as for sick pay. In this day and age, that is disgraceful. The aim is to tackle exploitative employment practices, increase clarity in the law and make employees aware of their rights.
This debate makes employees aware of their rights, but we need legislative change to protect them. I gently but firmly ask, on behalf of my constituents and all of those across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that the Government provide clarity on their stance on fire and rehire tactics. I want to see legislative protection, because the ultimate goal is to protect the workers.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey, not least as a fellow north-west MP, and alongside so many north-west MPs here today—as a region we certainly punch above our weight, and I am glad that we are leading the call on fairness, dignity and decency at work.
How many more debates must we have before the Government finally ban fire and rehire. Labour colleagues have tried every possible avenue to get protections for workers whose bosses threaten worse conditions or the sack. We have had countless urgent questions, Opposition day debates, private Members’ Bills and early-day motions —all of those have been scorned by the Government. I nearly said “rogue bosses” earlier, but the point is that, on a technical level, such employers are not rogue; they are complying with the law, which does not prevent this Dickensian practice. That is despite the public being overwhelmingly against it, and despite the misery it has caused to our constituents who work for British Gas, British Airways, the University of Liverpool, Go North West and Tesco. Despite the Prime Minister himself stating that it is unacceptable, still the Government refuse to act.
Voluntarism does not work as an approach—we cannot just hope that employers do the right thing; we need legislation. As with so many issues, the Prime Minister speaks out of both sides of his mouth here. While calling it unacceptable, he and his Ministers also state that fire and rehire is a necessary tool for employers. Unfortunately, that is revealing of their entire mindset towards employment rights and industrial relations. Everything must be based on the stick—on threats—rather than trusting workers and trade unions to be mature negotiators. As a former officer for the trade union GMB, and in my early career at the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, I successfully fought against such practices for almost a decade before becoming an MP. Seeing how widespread they now are, and how employers treat the Government’s inaction as a tacit endorsement of those kinds of practices, is utterly appalling to me.
With examples of fire and rehire spiralling during and since the pandemic, British workers deserve better. As the cost of living crisis turns the screw on household incomes month by month, Ministers must be aware that even those in work are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Incomes are already way behind prices. Maintaining the ability of employers to fire and rehire gives them the wink from Government that it is an acceptable tool, and one that will continue to grow unless stopped.
Fire and rehire makes employment rights and contractual terms and conditions basically worthless. Long service usually entails some sort of reward and recognition for that service. However, I remember being on the picket line at British Gas during the most recent dispute over the practices, and hearing from someone who had spent 30 years working for the company only for it to seek to tear up everything that he had earned in that three decades of loyalty and put him on worse terms and conditions. That is a slap in the face for the loyalty he had shown that company.
The skills, experience, insight and knowledge of the people who have worked for companies for years risk being lost in order to save a few quid for the employers. That is totally inhumane and does not make any business sense. It raises an important question about the productivity gap in the UK if we are willing to let experienced, capable and skilled workers be fired by their employers for not taking either a pay cut or a cut to the terms and conditions that they have built up over time. Ultimately, if those sorts of practices become even more widespread, what is next? Where does the race to the bottom in our labour market end?
Fire and rehire flies in the face of the Government’s stated aspiration of levelling up. It is yet another opportunity for the Government to change course and offer some security to workers buffeted by soaring costs. It is about the kind of country and society that we want to live in. Ministers boast about employment levels, but this is an opportunity to ensure that work is worth it, that employees have rights at work, and that it pays to be in work. Let us have a commitment today to ban fire and rehire, and let us also have a date for the employment Bill—before we do not have any employment rights in this country that are worth the paper they are written on.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this important debate.
I should begin by declaring an interest: I am proud to call myself a lifelong trade unionist, having served both as a shopfloor convenor and, more recently, as the north-west regional secretary of Unite the union. However, in all my decades in the trade union movement, I do not think I have ever seen workers so much at the mercy of unscrupulous and uncaring bosses as they are today. I say to colleagues in this room that when we at last sweep away this tired and ailing excuse for a Government, one of our first priorities must be not only to outlaw fire and rehire, or even to establish new workers’ rights, although those are both vital; we must also unshackle the unions from decades of onerous anti-trade-union legislation, which bears so much responsibility for the parlous state of affairs we face today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough has set out the case against fire and rehire with characteristic eloquence, and it does not need repeating. After all, this is hardly a complex matter. Fire and rehire is wrong. It has used the spectre of the dole queue to condemn workers into accepting the most heinous attacks on their pay and working conditions. It is a form of industrial blackmail that has been happening on a massive scale throughout the pandemic, and it must be stopped. My constituents know it, especially the 130 workers at the local Wabtec site who were threatened with fire and rehire only in February. The wider public know it, with 70% of them, including 69% of Tory voters, wanting to see it made illegal. Even the Prime Minister knows it, as he said so many times from the Dispatch Box.
When the Minister rises to make his contribution, much of what we will hear will be familiar: “Fire and rehire is wrong; this Government back good employers; and every worker deserves security and dignity in the workplace.” The question now is: what is he going to do about it? Empty platitudes will not comfort the single parent who has just been told to accept a pay cut or face the sack, and nor will they clothe or feed a child in the north end of my constituency who is being forced to bear the brunt of this Tory cost of living crisis.
I warn the Minister that the act is wearing thin. The British public can see clearly now that, for all their mealy-mouthed excuses and empty pledges about introducing a statutory code of conduct, this Government have no interest whatsoever in standing up for British workers. In fact, at every stage they have given bad bosses the green light to treat their workers exactly how they please. When my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) came forward with a credible plan to tackle the scourge of fire and rehire, the Government Whips spun into action to ensure that his efforts were thwarted.
My message to the Minister is this: prove me wrong. Stand up today and show us that there is more to this Government than warm words and empty rhetoric. Show us that this Government are capable of mustering a shred of empathy for the millions of workers whose working lives were totally upended during the lockdowns. Prove to us that you care. Unless the Minister has come here armed with a plan to put an end to fire and rehire once and for all, my advice would be that it is better to stay silent than to confirm all our suspicions. The time for talk is over—what British workers deserve now is action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on his excellent exposé and on all the work that he has done on this extremely serious topic, which affects the whole of society.
Security at work is absolutely fundamental to workforce productivity, but it is also fundamental to stable communities. It enables people to plan ahead and work out what they can afford, and it offers the necessary security to take on the tenancy of a home, or to take out a loan to buy a car that they might need to get to work. It is absolutely vital for people’s mental health, because wondering every single second whether they will have a job next week does nothing at all to ease stress or help someone’s mental health. There are enough difficulties in life, particularly at the moment, without having to worry constantly about work insecurity.
The growth of fire and rehire is absolutely terrifying, especially when we see what were considered to be respectable and “safe” companies, such as British Airways and British Gas, go down the route of using such tactics. People now rightly feel that no job is safe anymore. Of course, there have always been exceptional circumstances in which, sadly, jobs were lost, but that is very different from the current situation in which companies are seemingly using fire and rehire tactics with very little pretext other than as a cost-cutting exercise, with employees suddenly faced with having to accept much worse pay and conditions with very little warning. Having pay and conditions cut is bad enough, but it can also affect someone’s security of tenure. A permanent contract can be replaced with a short-term contract, with no guarantee that the fire and rehire process will not be repeated a year or two later. Sadly, this situation is not confined to the private sector; it is now affecting workers in many parts of the public sector.
I remind Members of the effect of the casualisation of the workplace. A young man in my constituency worked from the age of 18 in factory after factory, job after job. He did not have a permanent job before he was 25. He was a good worker, but he could only get agency work—last in, first out. Companies and employers are getting a higher and higher percentage of their workforce as agency workers. The workers are paid less, but it costs the companies more because the agency takes a considerable cut.
That has an impact on a young person who is setting out in life. I am sure most of us in this room were able, when we first started working, to go into a job with a stable environment in which we hoped to stay for a number of years. That young man eventually set up as a landscape gardener on his own because it had become intolerable to be pushed from pillar to post. This is in an area where there are many manufacturing opportunities, but the culture has become increasingly difficult.
Is that not precisely the problem? Because an employee has such poor rights, they might become self-employed, where they will probably not have the security of a pension, sick pay and holiday pay, and they will be pushed further into insecurity. We therefore need an employment Bill, and we need to ban fire and rehire. We all know that the world of work is changing, so there needs to be a comprehensive package from the Government that includes banning fire and rehire. We need legislation that reflects what is happening in 2022, because time has moved on.
Absolutely. As the hon. Member says, there are so many other costs—massive costs to society, the economy and the public purse—wrapped up in the culture of fire and rehire.
This causes constant worry, mental health concerns and disruption. It is okay when someone starts out as a single individual, but it becomes more complicated if they have a partner or children. It is complicated by how far they can travel to work and where the agency sends them. Deciding whether they can accept the gaps between work becomes even more of a nightmare, and of course they have responsibilities. It must be depressing for them to look at someone up the road who they thought had a very good job with British Airways, only to see that he, too, has been subject to fire and rehire and is being asked to sign a new contract. They may have thought that one day they would have a permanent job and security, and now they see older workers having to sign on the dotted line to take worse pay and conditions. That is nothing to look forward to, and it does nothing for the cohesion of society.
As the TUC has documented, 3 million workers in this country have been told to reapply for their jobs. We already have 3 million workers on zero-hours contracts or casual contracts and 5 million self-employed, some of whom are pseudo self-employed. As we know, that is a way for employers to get out of paying the full costs of employing them.
Not only is allowing employers to use fire and rehire bad for the workers, but it undermines good companies that want to play fair by their employees. The willy-nilly use of fire and rehire by unscrupulous employers to cut costs can catch decent employers unawares, undermine them and risk putting them out of work. That can spiral out of control and become a real race to the bottom—who can pay less and therefore cut costs and make more profit with less pay to the workers? This race to the bottom with lower wages leads to much greater reliance on benefits, at huge cost to the public purse.
We are also clocking up a pensions time bomb. The Minister may say that we have auto-enrolment, but there are thresholds for that and part-time workers, in particular, are likely to miss out. When we—the generation coming through now—get to pension age, what will we find? We will find that a far higher percentage have to rely on some form of state help because they have not been able to put money by. Why is that? Because it has gone into the pockets of companies that have not been playing fair.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) on the private Member’s Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and his careful explanation of how it would work. Of course, we must not accept covid as an excuse—and it is nothing but an excuse. We all know that this is about increasing profit. There is also no truth in the statement “We cannot afford the current contracts.” We have labour shortages at the moment, so we have to afford it.
It is not just about fire and rehire, although that is the subject of today’s debate and is very important. We want much greater security from day one at work. I will not set out all of Labour’s manifesto commitments on this, but it is fundamental to our belief in a secure, cohesive and stable society that we should have security at work from day one.
The only solution to fire and rehire is an outright ban. That is not revolutionary; it is simply about respecting existing contracts and sticking to the law. A ban would be good for workers, productivity, community cohesion and the public purse. I therefore implore the Minister to take the issue seriously and introduce the necessary legislation without further delay.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey. While I will not be as impertinent as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), it is rather disappointing that we have not heard from one Government Back Bencher in this debate. I would have thought that this issue affected workers right across these islands—across every nation and region of the UK—so I would have expected at least one of them to contribute. It is disappointing that that has not happened.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on giving an excellent speech to open the debate. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and particularly to my role as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group and my membership of the Glasgow City branch of Unison—one of the largest branches in the UK. I look forward to going to the Unison conference tomorrow and seeing my fellow Glaswegian delegates.
It is clear that this practice has been growing for decades. Under Labour control, Glasgow City Council was using the practice of fire and rehire in 1990s. I say that not to make a cheap political point, but to show that the practice has, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, been growing for too long. My real fear is that the threat of fire and rehire—dismissal and re-engagement, to use its legal term—is used as a negotiating tactic before negotiations even begin. Some employers hold that over trade union and employee representatives’ heads, saying “This is what we can do”, before negotiations even start. That leads to cuts in terms and conditions and, indeed, dismissal and re-engagement, which has been going on for far too long.
Other hon. Members have referred to the disgusting Zoom meeting where P&O Ferries workers were fired—by a particular person, who, as I understand it, is a former employee of Royal Mail, and who did exactly the same thing to Royal Mail staff, threatening them. He is not a friend of the worker by any means. Firing staff by Zoom was one of the most disgusting things that I have ever seen. Frankly, the Government should have put forward an emergency Bill to deal with fire and rehire at that time, or they should have put it in the employment Bill. I remind Members that that Bill was in the Conservative party manifestos for 2015, 2017 and 2019. We are still waiting for it seven years after it was first promised.
The Minister said in Hansard on 25 January—not a date that Scots can forget because it is, of course, Burns day—that there would be an employment Bill “in the Queen’s Speech”. There was no employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech, as other hon. Members have mentioned. That is important for a number of reasons, as we are now seeing, because the casualisation of fire and rehire interferes with people’s worker status and cuts terms and conditions. Those of us on the Work and Pensions Committee know that; for the past three weeks, we have been discussing the impact that fire and rehire—and the lack of an employment Bill—has on occupational pensions, because it affects auto-enrolment. The consequences are devastating for wages and pensions, including occupational pensions, which are deferred wages.
I once again outline the SNP’s complete opposition to the appalling practice of fire and rehire. I note that most EU countries have some form of block on fire and rehire, and it is illegal in some countries. Once again, we find the United Kingdom lagging behind Europe when it comes to worker protections. I am concerned that that signals a race to the bottom on standards, as the UK risks falling behind the European Union on basic workers’ rights.
In the cost of living crisis, job security is perhaps more important than it ever will be. Firing workers in this way is wrong in any circumstance, let alone doing so during a cost of living crisis and an economic crisis. I question the Government’s conscience and thinking in not tackling this issue by legislative means. Reform is long awaited and will be crucial. As many hon. Members have touched on, the impact of fire and rehire on black and minority ethnic workers and women is considerable. I recommend that the Minister reads the TUC report of January 2021 in relation to in-work poverty and adequate living standards for many workers. We have had debates on in-work poverty fairly recently, and I am sure that we will have more, but I am concerned that fire and rehire continues to lead to in-work poverty for many workers across these islands.
I commend the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), who has just concluded his remarks in the Chamber and is not in this debate. He was, of course, the first person to put forward legislation to end the practice of fire and rehire. He has Glasgow airport in his constituency, so he has had the British Airways issues, Rolls-Royce in Hillington and at least one other employer that engaged in fire and rehire. The pressures on workers in his constituency were quite considerable, and his Bill certainly has my support and that of my colleagues and many Members across the House. He will probably be tabling that Bill again tomorrow, and I encourage all Members of the House to support it. He has the support of more than 100 MPs who signed an early-day motion urging them to back that legislation.
My SNP colleagues and I have campaigned tirelessly to update current employment laws. Tomorrow, I will be tabling a Bill on this very issue—the workers (rights and definition) Bill—and I will of course be attaching fire and rehire to that. The Minister is listening to me intently, as he always does. I know that on 29 March, he announced the introduction of a new statutory code on the practice of fire and rehire. However, he will be aware that the Trades Union Congress has said that his plans “lack bite” and
“won’t deter rogue employers like P&O from trampling over workers’ rights.”
I hope the Minister will take this opportunity to respond to me about those remarks from the TUC, because although he is introducing the statutory code, it is certainly the view of everyone who has spoken in this debate that there should be firm legislation to ensure that the practice of fire and rehire is made illegal and ends.
Although employment law is reserved to this place, the SNP Scottish Government, with their Fair Work approach, are committed to doing everything in their power to protect employees from exploitative practices in Scotland throughout the cost of living crisis and beyond. There must be meaningful dialogue between employers and employees and their trade unions. I say that here because I suspect that we will not hear very much about it in the other debate that is going on right now. It certainly was not mentioned when my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and I were in the Chamber. I look forward to the Minister telling us that there will be legislation, and giving us a date for an employment Bill to tackle not just fire and rehire but the many other exploitative practices across these islands. As other Members have outlined, an employment Bill to protect workers’ rights is needed now more than it has ever been.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Ms McVey. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing today’s debate and giving us an opportunity once again to highlight why the abuse of fire and rehire really needs a legislative response from this Government—not warm words and future promises but real, concrete action to tackle this national disgrace.
My hon. Friend made a number of very important points and he was right: this Government seem to have shown more interest in saving the Prime Minister’s job than in saving those of their own constituents. As has been mentioned, the fact that there is not one Tory Back Bencher here today shows people everything they need to know about where employment rights sit in this Government’s list of priorities. My hon. Friend was exactly right when he said that the Government’s pledged action will still mean that workers can be dismissed for failing to agree to worse terms and conditions. That is really the nub of it—that is what we need to put an end to.
All the Back Benchers who spoke today put the case very well, but I want to draw attention to some of the contributions—in particular, that from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). He was right when he said that everyone, even the Prime Minister, knows that fire and rehire is wrong. My hon. Friend said that it was levelling down; I agree. He was also right when he said that it does not make sense economically, either. I am pleased that he spoke about our party’s green paper on employment rights, because that fantastic document will transform the lives of working people. It contrasts sharply with the lack of ambition that we have seen time and again from this Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) said that this tactic causes misery for many people and the majority of our constituents want to see an end to fire and rehire, so the Government would be doing something that was popular with the public if they listened to what we are saying. My hon. Friend rightly said that it is not enough to expect employers to do the right thing, because they do not all play by the rules. I pay tribute to her work as a trade union officer fighting against this practice. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. We should think for a minute how much worse the situation would be if we did not have trade unions willing to defend workers’ rights. Sadly, all we hear from this Government are negative stories about trade unions and how they want to reduce their power, rather than any support for their defence of working people. I agree with my hon. Friend that tackling this practice is about what kind of country and society we want to see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) spoke of his decades of industrial experience as a trade unionist. I thank him on behalf of my constituents, whom he has represented on many occasions, for the work that he has done to support them. He has shown time and again how a good trade union can really make a difference and work constructively with employers, to the benefit of everyone. I commend him for the direct challenge that he made to the Minister about where we are going to end up. I suspect that my hon. Friend will be disappointed, but we all live in hope.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) made some excellent points about some of the wider issues in the workplace, and said that the fundamentals were about job security and people making financial commitments. We do not talk enough about the impact on people’s mental health of the uncertainty hanging over them. She was right that fire and rehire is often used as a pretext for cost cutting. If employers get away with it, they will try it again. She rightly highlighted the expansion of insecure work. Many young people, like the constituents she referred to, do not have any experience of a secure job.
As we have heard, fire and rehire is not a new development. It has been around for as long as people have had jobs. Just because something has happened for a long time does not make it right or acceptable. Even the Prime Minister seems to agree with that, although, as we have heard today, there is little evidence of him wanting to do anything.
Why, if this power has always been there, is it coming to the public’s attention much more now? Sadly, in the last few years we have seen a proliferation of companies, including many household names, adopting fire and rehire tactics as a first port of call rather than the last. British Airways, Sainsbury’s and Weetabix are just three household names that have used the tactics, and there are many more less public-facing companies that are doing exactly the same. Wabtec and Valeo in Yorkshire are two more recent examples.
Of course, P&O is the most high profile and possibly the most egregious example of how the scales of justice are tilted too heavily against the ordinary men and women in this country who just want to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. They do not want to have the arrangement just for a while, until their employer decides it wants to move the goalposts and takes away their existing terms and conditions, presenting it as a fait accompli.
The reason we need action along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) in his private Member’s Bill, which the Government blocked, is that such cases have highlighted how employers price in the cost of riding roughshod over existing laws and conclude that it is a price that they are prepared to pay. They see their legal and moral obligations in the same light as they do the people who work for them—numbers to be counted, risks to be assessed and, in essence, just a barrier to making more money.
The Transport Committee said about British Airways that its use of fire and rehire was “calculated”. For too many employers, that is the case. Consultations are simply tick-box exercises, not that P&O even pretended one was necessary. Could the Minister update us on the progress in the P&O criminal investigation promised by the Prime Minister, or will that, like so many other Government promises, never come to fruition?
The genesis of fire and rehire is in the current workplace settlement, which places too much power in the hands of the employer and too little in the hands of the employees. This imbalance does not just manifest itself in this situation, but in a whole range of issues in the employment relationship. We could look at zero-hours contracts and the gig economy, or agency workers, as we have heard. Insecurity is baked into so many workplaces. It is little wonder that many people feel a sense of helplessness.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is outlining so many of the issues that we see in terms of workplace insecurity. It is quite clear, given the lack of an employment Bill, that this is not an area that the Government are interested in. Does he, as the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, agree with the Scottish TUC that it is important that we devolve employment law to the Scottish Parliament if Westminster will not act?
Tempted as I am to get into the niceties of devolved powers, what I will say instead is that the people of this entire country need a strong Labour Government that will bring back employment rights for everyone.
As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the scrapping of the employment Bill, which has been promised by the Government on no fewer than 20 occasions, is symptomatic of a Government that do not see this issue as a priority. Does the Minister accept that a code of practice, even a statutory one, will not be of any use if it comes after the event? Does he accept that it would simply be another factor for employers to bake into their calculations? And does he agree that it will not stop fire and rehire happening again in the future?
I ask all those who oppose the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North, which was unfortunately blocked, to put themselves in the shoes of one of their constituents. That constituent might have worked for the same company for 10, 20 or even 30 years, giving loyal service and going the extra mile, and only asking in return for stable terms and conditions that remain constant throughout. But then, out of the blue, even though their job has not changed and they have performed their duties well for their employer, who is still turning a healthy profit, they are told that their contract is ending and that, if they want to remain employed by the company, they will have to work the same number of hours, doing exactly the same job, for 20% less pay than they receive now—and if they refuse, they are out of the door without even a redundancy payment. Is that not an injustice? Is that not an affront to the respect that someone who has served their employer for so long deserves? Is that not something that we in this place ought to be looking to end?
We often talk about the cost of living crisis and how wages have not kept pace with inflation for well over a decade now. The obscenity of fire and rehire makes that difficult situation even worse. We know that if someone is fired and rehired and gets a 20% reduction in their pay, they will not be able to get a 20% reduction in their mortgage or their rent, or in their other household bills. What does the Minister say to people who find themselves in that situation? What should they do?
The destructive combination of weak employment laws, opportunistic employers and an indifferent Government is currently allowing hard-won benefits to be stripped away, with a descent into weakening terms and conditions. It is a race to the bottom, which I am afraid has been accelerated by coronavirus. It is time that race came to an end. The Government say that they are on the side of ordinary working people and that they want to level up the country, but how can they do that if time and again we are shown that an employment contract is not worth the paper it is written on?
I wonder sometimes about the level of understanding in the Government about how modern workplaces operate. Some recent examples of their ignorance include starting a petition asking the Leader of the Opposition to call off industrial action commenced by an independent trade union; leaving notes on civil servants’ desks asking when they will come back in—Cabinet Ministers think that if someone if working from home, they are not really working—and, of course, the obscenity of security staff and cleaners in Downing Street being abused for pointing out that lawbreaking was going on. When it comes to employment rights, this Government are as clueless as they are vindictive.
We do not have to accept that this is the norm. We can return stability and respect to the workplace, we can reward loyalty, and we can end the cruel lottery of fire and rehire. We just need a Government committed to doing those things. But let us not stop at ending fire and rehire. I want to see this country becoming a leader in employment protections, not lagging behind the likes of Kosovo, Estonia and Mexico. Let us end the obscenity of British workers being easier and cheaper to get rid of than workers in just about all the rest of western Europe. Let us end the disgrace of this country always being at the head of the queue when a multinational is looking to make redundancies.
Let us end the mindset that as long as someone has a job, that is job done. It is not—security, prosperity and stability are all under threat from this lopsided legal framework. It is in all our interests that we have strong workforce protections. We grow as an economy and a country when we have secure employment. It is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society, and if this Government do not want to legislate to make that happen, then they should step aside for a Government who do want to.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.
First of all, I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing this debate on the use of fire and rehire tactics. It is an important issue, and we have heard today how worrying and unsettling it is for people when their employer wants to change their contract or puts them at risk of redundancy, especially when workers are already worrying about how they will pay their bills.
I speak to businesses every day and know that most employers try to do the right thing by their staff, and that decisions to change terms and conditions are not taken lightly. Let me be clear, as I have said many times, that we expect companies to treat their employees fairly and to do right by them. There are legal obligations and procedures that employers must abide by. We expect employers to act with fairness and compassion and to comply with the rules.
The Government have always been clear that the threat of dismissal and re-engagement on reduced terms—so-called fire and rehire—should not be used as a negotiation tactic. We expect employers to engage properly and meaningfully with their workforce and representatives, and to consider alternative options. Dismissal and re-engagement should be considered only as an option of absolute last resort, if agreement cannot be reached.
The UK has a strong labour market and its success is underpinned by balancing flexibility and workers’ protections. It is vital that we continue to strike that balance, while clamping down on the poor practices of some unscrupulous employers, some of which we heard about earlier. Our response to fire and rehire has been carefully considered, reflecting the seriousness of the issue and the importance of avoiding inadvertently creating a situation where employers have no choice but to make their staff redundant.
When the pandemic led to cases of firing and rehiring, we asked ACAS to conduct an evidence-gathering exercise to help us better understand the issue, so as to get behind the headlines and work out a quantitative and qualitative understanding. The Government then went further and asked ACAS to produce new guidance, to ensure that employers were clear on their responsibilities. That guidance was published in 2021 and clearly sets out the employer’s responsibilities when considering making changes to employment contracts.
The guidance is clear that fire and rehire should be used only as the option of last resort. I urge all employers to make themselves familiar with that. ACAS stands ready to help mediate disputes, should either party seek its services. ACAS has also published guidance for employers and employees.
The Government are going further still. As has been mentioned, on 29 March, I announced that we would introduce a statutory code of practice on dismissal and re-engagement.
Can I say gently to the Minister that there is some confusion in his position? He says that it is the Government’s view that fire and rehire should not be a negotiating tactic. Surely, the problem is how employers can go into negotiations if they can legally dismiss and re-engage. Is he saying that if an employer, or a representative, in a negotiation says, “We can dismiss and re-engage and we may very well do that,” they are in breach of the code that he has just outlined?
I will come to the statutory code in a second and explain how that works. Even the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who talked of banning fire and rehire and ran a campaign that involved many Members here, actually explained in the debate in the Chamber that his Bill would not ban fire and rehire. It would limit it but not ban it. Even he understood that, in certain circumstances, there needs to be that flexibility.
The statutory code includes practical steps that employers should follow if they are considering changes to terms and conditions and there is the prospect of dismissal and re-engagement. A court or employment tribunal will take the code into account when considering relevant cases, including those related to unfair dismissal. The tribunals will have the power to apply an uplift of up to 25% of an employee’s compensation if an employer unreasonably fails to comply with the code where it applies.
Most employers do their best to comply with the law, but the code will clarify best practice standards and deter those employers who try to cut corners, pushing the bar even higher for employers who seek to do the wrong thing. We will hold a public consultation soon, to seek views from across employers, individuals, unions and beyond.
I know that the Minister genuinely wishes to see betterment, as we all do. We gave some examples. Three or four Members referred to P&O Ferries. The Minister and the Government condemned the chief executive of P&O Ferries for his tactics, and they were right to do so. British Gas is another example of doing it totally the wrong way and disregarding the workers. I note that 20% of my constituents in Northern Ireland found that fire and rehire tactics were wrong. What will the Minister and the Government do to protect workers where, as the Minister and the Prime Minister have said, companies have done wrong?
I will come to P&O Ferries now before I address the other points that Members have raised. The Government have been clear that the dismissal by P&O Ferries of 800 loyal seafarers without any notification or consultation was absolutely unacceptable. I was sat behind the chief executive—literally, not figuratively—during the Select Committee hearing. Like everyone else, I was appalled when I heard him say that he would do the same thing again. That was absolutely horrific to hear.
I will develop that in a second.
As I was saying, the chief executive of P&O Ferries admitted to breaking employment law. He demonstrated—not only in his actions on that weekend, but in the Select Committee hearing—absolute contempt for workers who had given years of service to his company. That was not just a case of fire and rehire, which is the subject of the debate; in the main, it was just fire, because the vast majority of those workers had no prospect of re- engagement. We have urged P&O to reconsider, but those calls have fallen on deaf ears.
The Minister has probably made this point better than the rest of us: P&O’s acceptance that it was breaking the law very much makes the case for an employment Bill to strengthen workers’ rights. Anecdotally, the number of cases of fire and rehire is on the increase, partly because companies see others getting away with it. Do the Government hold any data on how often fire and rehire is happening, and if so, will they publish it? If they do not have that data, why not?
I will talk a little about that in answering the question from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), about what the Insolvency Service is doing in relation to P&O Ferries.
We engaged ACAS to better understand exactly what fire and rehire actually is. A lot of the reports in various media are not strictly about fire and rehire, because it is never quite as binary as it appears. However, there are some egregious examples, and I think we can all agree that we want to eliminate them, or at least push the bar so high that it is just not viable for employers to take that sort of action. As a result of the inability of P&O Ferries to hear not just what this House was saying but what the country was saying, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport set out the nine steps that we are taking to force it to rethink its decision and to prevent such cases from happening again in the maritime industry.
To come to the shadow Minister’s point, the Insolvency Service is now pursuing its own inquiries. It has commenced formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances around the redundancies. Those investigations are ongoing, so I am not in a position to comment any further on them for the time being, but I wish the Insolvency Service every speed in its efforts, as we all want a result that holds P&O Ferries to the highest account.
I thank the Minister for outlining the statutory code and the Government guidance on improving working practices. To improve modern working practices, when will the Government finally legislate on the 51 recommendations that they accepted from the 2017 Taylor review?
I will come to that in a moment.
I mentioned that ACAS has been helping us on both quantitative and qualitative data. We have moved to guidance, and are moving towards a statutory code, and my colleagues can see that action is taking place. Members have asked where my colleagues are. A number of them are in the main Chamber, tackling the issue of the rail strikes; if they go ahead, there is a distinct possibility that they will affect smaller businesses and workers. My colleagues are paying attention to that immediate risk to people up and down the country.
We have discussed fire and rehire on a number of occasions, and will continue to discuss it. As I have said, we want to eliminate the most egregious instances of its use. There has been a lot of conversation about the employment Bill. I must correct the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden): our manifesto commitment was not to bringing forward an employment Bill, but to bringing forward measures that might be put in it. I bore all my officials and civil servants with my talk of the difference between output and outcome. I doubt any worker with a rogue employer is thinking, “I wish there was an employment Bill.” They are probably thinking, “I need carer’s leave,” “I need neonatal leave,” or, “I need flexible working.” Those are the things that affect people up and down the country; it is not that they need a single piece of legislation, tied up with a bow. That would be neat, clearly, but it is the measures to which we are committed, and that we will deliver.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. Let me quote Hansard for his benefit. He said, in a Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies):
“Clearly, the employment Bill, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West knows, is primary legislation. It will be announced, when it comes forward in parliamentary time, in the Queen’s Speech.”—[Official Report, Third Delegated Legislation Committee, 25 January 2022; c. 24.]
Why was the Bill not in the Queen’s Speech?
I said, “in parliamentary time.” It will be when parliamentary time allows. We have a manifesto commitment to delivering these measures in this Parliament. The Queen’s Speech relates to this Session, not this Parliament. Clearly, it would be neat to have the measures in a single legislative vehicle, but I think we would all find that workers up and down the country are interested in the net result—what happens to them in their daily life. We are task-focused, rather than process-focused.
As I say, our manifesto commitments remain. The hon. Gentleman will see employment measures come forward both in this Session and before the end of the Parliament, because we want to act. We have pledged to do many things, and we absolutely want to stick to those pledges.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East talked about productivity. I will not comment on individual workers, but there is no doubt that companies in the UK are less productive than companies elsewhere in the G7, so we need to work on our productivity as a nation, and as businesses. That involves a whole raft of things, including working practices, the relationship between employers and employees, and infrastructure. If we raised our productivity to German levels, it is estimated that we could add £100 billion to our economy. Those are pretty substantial gains, if we can get there.
I am going wider than workers’ rights and productivity. That is why we are rolling out the Help to Grow management scheme for smaller businesses, and other things. This is huge. We need better transport connections. That is part of the levelling-up agenda. There are lots of things within that, and I do not underestimate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Our employment landscape is very different from that in Germany. In Germany, they tend to ask permission—it is courts first there, whereas we tend to be tribunal led. There are big differences.
One of the key things I want to raise about productivity relates to what the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) said. She was absolutely right to say that job security leads to a better, more productive, happier and more loyal workforce. That allows workers and employees to plan and it results in better mental wellbeing. That is why, by setting statutory minimums in legislation, guidance and codes, we want employers to go further. Frankly, it makes business sense for employers to go further, rather than follow the egregious example of P&O. What is the point of taking people on and training them, which involves costs, time and resources, only to then cast them aside and have to do the same thing again?
The Minister says that rational and good businesses would not do this, but the fact of the matter is that hundreds of businesses are being undermined because some businesses are using fire and rehire. It is being used repeatedly and in many different sectors. It is no good saying that it does not make logical sense; we need the legislation to back that up. That is what we want the Minister to bring forward.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about parliamentary staff. Before becoming a Member, I worked in this place for a little while. I was an avuncular figure because I was about 20 years older than everybody else. People would come to my office in tears because former colleagues—they are not in this place any more—did not know how to employ people. The way in which they treated some of their staff was absolutely appalling. I have seen it at first hand.
The hon. Member for Llanelli rightly mentions the behaviour of some employers, and we have heard a number of examples today. Almost a year ago, The Independent reported that one employer was making a third of its workforce redundant and then taking on other people on less secure contracts. The Labour party claimed that by doing so it was putting itself on a firmer and fairer footing ahead of a general election, when it was telling people to use their own laptops, anti-virus software and firewalls, and to work from home. That is what I mean about outcomes and outputs. We can have great words, but if an organisation is not acting on them, that is no good to the employees who trust it. People want something that is flexible and that works to protect jobs but that also gets the best out of workers. It is really important that we work for that.
Let me leave the House in no doubt that this Government will continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. We will provide further updates regarding the consultation on the statutory code in due course, and we will inform the House and keep Members up to date on what we are doing on fire and rehire.
As a proud trade unionist, I am extremely grateful for the role that trade unions play in supporting their members and workers. I am also grateful to hon. Members from across the House—or perhaps I should say from across the Labour party, the SNP and the DUP, because not a single Conservative Member attended to support their constituents—for speaking eloquently about the need to stop this Dickensian practice, and to ensure that workers are not being levelled down.
Many of us are extremely irked by the fact that the Minister gave a lot of warm words but no action. There is no Bill to ban fire and rehire. There has been no mention of adopting into legislation the 51 recommendations that the Government accepted from the 2017 Taylor review of modern working practices. If the Minister is running out of ideas, I gently suggest that he should perhaps copy-paste the Labour party’s proposed Green Paper on employment rights. People will be left in no doubt from today’s debate that the Government are not on the side of workers.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).