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Fair Employment Agency

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 7 July 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the proposal by Citizens Advice that the current five employment rights enforcement agencies be merged into a single fair employment agency.

My Lords, the Government are currently reviewing their workplace rights compliance and enforcement arrangements to see whether there is scope to make them more streamlined and effective. We will announce our initial findings later this year.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Clearly, I welcome the establishment by the previous Government of the single pay and work rights helpline. However, does the Minister agree that taxpayers’ money could be saved and the service to vulnerable workers improved if that helpline was administered by one helpline or agency? Further, will she explain how the service provided by the current helpline could be widened to enable it to address the issue of entitlement to paid holidays? That issue was found by government-funded research to be by far the most common employment-related complaint brought by clients of the citizens advice bureaux. Currently, it can be resolved only by application to the Employment Tribunal Service.

I think the first question was to do with Citizens Advice. The review of our compliance and enforcement arrangements is ongoing and part of it is to look at the different enforcement structures that bodies such as Citizens Advice have put forward. The answers from that will come to us in October. On holiday entitlements and workers with holiday pay problems—I imagine that that is what the noble Baroness is really getting at here—at the moment, advice on holiday pay is available on the Government’s Directgov website. ACAS offers pre-claim conciliation. Then and only then, if all else fails, do you go to a tribunal. I hope that that is helpful.

Does the Minister agree that, in addition to the existing benefits of the pay and work rights helpline to the most vulnerable employees, a single fair employment agency would significantly reduce the cost of redress on statutory pay and holiday claims compared with the existing employment tribunal system?

There is, as the noble Baroness will know, a review of the tribunal system at the moment, and she will no doubt wish to put her views to that. As I said, it will report in the autumn.

Does the Minister not agree that the present tribunal system, which makes arrangements for lay people to sit on cases, is a very effective way in which to deal with cases and really should not be changed? There is some suggestion that future cases, particularly dismissal cases, should go before a single judge rather than a tribunal, which consists of lay people as well as a lawyer.

I seem to be giving the same answer to every question. I do not mean that to be dismissive, but there are two big reviews at the moment. Obviously, any questions that are asked and answered in your Lordships' House are the sort of things that go to the review, and I imagine that the noble Baroness herself will give evidence on that.

I say this as someone who sat for 20 years as a lay member of an industrial or employment tribunal, but is the Minister aware that the provision was that people would bring their own cases to the tribunal? They were not required to have legal representation. Would she accept from me that, in my experience, people are sometimes badly represented legally, and even more so by the shark companies that pick up on cases as soon as the names are published and apply and seize these people? They can represent you far worse than you could represent yourself in many cases.

My noble friend speaks from her experience, which is usually very good on these matters. Yes, I agree—people should never feel that they cannot represent themselves in the courts. I have no doubt that the tribunal will look at this to make sure that people are very careful and that the advice that they are given does not make their case more difficult than it already is. It is very difficult to go into a court and give evidence; I have been there and I have witnessed it. People can be very nervous in doing so but, at the end of the day, if what they have to say is right and fair, they will win.

Does the Minister recollect that, some weeks ago, the citizens advice bureaux published detailed accounts showing how much was saved from public funds by legal advice on employment? For every £1 spent, £7.13 was saved to the public purse. Will she confirm that these calculations have been checked and found to be accurate, and indeed show that a great denial of justice and a loss to the public purse are being brought about by these savage cuts?

The noble Lord knows how well the Government think of Citizens Advice. We take very careful note of everything it says, which is usually backed by very good figures and evidence. As we have already heard, it is asking for everything to be merged in this way. It has also campaigned on empty justice. Yes, we will listen to everything that it says and, with two big reviews going on, there is a fair chance that the things it is asking for will come about.

Is the Minister aware of the urgency of this situation? She must be aware of the rapidly deteriorating situation in the workplace; a local authority has sent out letters sacking all its workforce at this time. Will she inject just an element of urgency into her department to ensure that the rights of workers have some protection?

My Lords, it is this Government’s hope and plan that the relationship between employer and employee shall be of the best. It is important that we make sure that what we are doing in these reviews reflects the rights of everyone in the case, both the employer and the employed. As to the local authority, it is taking is own decisions and it is not for me to comment upon them.