Committee (5th Day)
Relevant documents: 11th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 10th Report from the Constitution Committee.
Clause 27 : Employee owners
81D: Clause 27, page 34, line 15, at end insert—
“(d) the conditions regulating the agreement contained in subsection (12) are satisfied.”
My Lords, Amendments 81D and 92 are in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. They are in the first of a series of groups of amendments which address Clause 27. As your Lordships know, Clause 27 allows employers to buy off employment rights otherwise enjoyed by employees. Under this clause, employees can agree to receive shares worth at least £2,000, in return for which they will lose the right to claim unfair dismissal, the right to claim statutory redundancy pay, the right to request flexible working and the right to request time off for training.
What is so objectionable about Clause 27 is that these employment rights were conferred by Parliament over the past 50 years and have been protected by Governments—both Conservative and Labour—precisely because the inequality of bargaining power between employee and employer means that freedom of contract is quite insufficient to protect the employee or the prospective employee. Therefore, to allow these basic employment rights to be traded as some form of commodity frustrates the very purpose of these entitlements as an essential protection in the employment context.
The concept contained in Clause 27 is especially bizarre when there appears to be no demand whatever from employers for such protection and when responsible employers are introducing genuine share ownership schemes. I can think of only one precedent for Clause 27. It is in Genesis, chapter 25, where Jacob refuses to let his famished brother Esau eat some of the broth he has made until he sells him his rights as the first born. Esau agrees because he is famished and says, “What use is my birthright to me?”, compared to the mess of pottage of which he has immediate need. Your Lordships will come in due course to consider whether the correct response from your Lordships’ House to this mess of pottage is to reject it in its entirety—for all the reasons so powerfully outlined at Second Reading by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in particular.
Amendments 81D and 92 seek to ensure that if we are to have Clause 27 at all, the employee and the prospective employee must at the very least be given the minimum necessary protection to understand what it is that they are giving up. The minimum necessary protection that Amendments 81D and 92 would provide is that the statutory rights could be lost only if the agreement satisfied three essential conditions.
The first is that any agreement in this context must be in writing and must set out the rights being traded and the value of the shares that are to be received. One of the surprising features of Clause 27 is that it does not even require the agreement to be in writing—an invitation to subsequent litigation if ever I saw one. Secondly, the individual must receive legal advice on the consequences of the agreement from an independent lawyer. These matters are surely too important for Parliament to allow employees and prospective employees to give up those basic rights without the legal implications being fully explained to them. The third essential protection is that the individual must have received financial advice from an independent adviser—who must be a regulated person—as to the value and the prospects of the shares that he or she is about to receive and for which they are giving up those basic employment rights
The detail of Amendment 92 is modelled on Section 288 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Section 288 is a vital provision. It makes an agreement void if it purports to contract out of the employment rights that Parliament has conferred. At the moment, employees and employers simply cannot contract out of employment rights. Clause 27 conflicts with that basic and fundamental principle. However, Section 288 allows for compromise agreements to settle specific employment disputes in individual cases in employment tribunals. That is a very different concept and entirely acceptable in principle.
Section 288 states that one of those compromise agreements in the context of an individual employment dispute is valid only if it is in writing and if the employee who is settling the case has received independent advice on the terms of the agreement by which he or she is settling the claim—advice from a lawyer, a trade union official or an advice centre worker. Clause 27 involves an agreement much more fundamental in its implications for the individual, who is not just settling an individual employment claim in the tribunal but is generally giving up important employment rights for the future. Therefore, in the Clause 27 context—if we are to have Clause 27 at all—the procedural protection that Parliament confers on the employee must be at least as strong as that which Parliament itself has conferred on the employee who is settling a specific employment claim.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has helpfully addressed that very issue. It has expressed concern that Clause 27 may indirectly and unlawfully discriminate, contrary to EU law, against those workers and prospective workers whose first language is not English, those with learning disabilities or young workers. Therefore, the commission says that a proper justification is required and that depends, in its view, on safeguards such as the receipt of informed and independent advice.
I emphasise that Amendments 81D and 92 would not make Clause 27 acceptable. Clause 27 would remain a provision that knows the price of statutory employment rights but ignores the value of those rights. However, because the amendments would make Clause 27 marginally less objectionable, I beg to move.
My Lords, on Second Reading I expressed my concerns about the whole concept behind this clause. Various Ministers have suggested that only a small group of companies are likely to be interested in these proposals: new, high-technology, rapid-growth, micro and small companies which might want to encourage employees into more commitment and endeavour by offering them shares in their company. So far, so good. However, many employers already do this in this sector, especially those running fast-growing, leading-edge, high-tech companies, because they know that they are going to grow much faster than many other companies and they want to commit their staff to working for them, to share the benefits in the longer term and the hardship of trials that most companies face in their start-up phase.
I declare two past interests. First, I have a foster son who has recently been employed by one such firm, joining it from university. He has received a share package as part of his employment. I have talked to him and some of his colleagues about the benefits and whether they would be prepared to talk about giving up their rights. I will come to that later. My second interest is that I advised St John’s College, Cambridge, as it created the St John’s Innovation Centre in the late 1980s and subsequently was a non-executive director at the centre until 2010. The centre works with entrepreneurs and academics spinning their ideas out of Cambridge and other universities, offering them short-term leases and, very specifically, business, legal and technical advice that is the envy of many other science parks and innovation centres that have developed in the intervening 25 years.
These companies are the exact target audience that Ministers tell us will be interested in the proposals in Clause 27. Having talked to the directors of these small but high-growth companies, I know that many already offer shares, as I mentioned. They, as directors, do not understand why an employer would want to do so in return for a reduction in employment rights. One of their key issues as the company grows is to keep the morale of the staff going during the difficult times. It is very rare for a new company to have an entirely smooth journey to success and reward. Proposing that staff should give up their rights to redundancy pay is an issue, as not all early-stage companies survive and so redundancy is a real possibility. They are also concerned about training. This is absolutely vital in the leading-edge technology sector, where the skills of your workforce are likely to make all the difference against your competitors, particularly the business skills that technical staff may not have had when they arrived at the company. They need those skills in order to progress in their market. Losing part of paternal leave is also a concern, as many of their staff are in exactly the age group likely to be beginning their families.
So if the stick—that is, the loss of rights—is not attractive either to employers or to staff, what about the carrot? The carrot of capital gains tax exemption sounds very exciting but I do not believe that the Government have really understood the two likely outcomes for these high-tech companies. The first, sadly, I have already alluded to. Not all of these companies are a success. Probably one in 100 is. There is a chance that the company will not succeed and that the shares will be worthless.
The second is the unlikely event that the company will do well enough to make those shares really worth something in the future. However, even this route is fraught to those coming in on the ground floor. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the group of employees who joined the company in its first two years were given shares at the then face value. It would not be unusual after their issue, as the company grows and faces all the typical excitements of launching in the market, for those shares to become worthless. But our fledgling company is taking off, and in order to become a really effective player, it will have to take on finance. It often needs to seek that finance when the company is not attractive. So, some business angels or venture capitalists invest in the company, and all the original shares are diluted substantially by this investment. We are only talking about round two of investment at this stage.
Well, the rubric goes, it is better to have a small share of something than a larger share of nothing at all. Often, though, there are three or four subsequent rounds of financing, and those employees are likely to find that their small share becomes a minute one. This is a really risky business. Would many employees understand the risks that they were taking? Would they honestly be prepared to wait 10 years or more for the carrot of the CGT exemption for the one company in 50 to 100 that starts to make a return for its shareholders? I doubt it. I also doubt that many employees would understand the nature of the process that I have just outlined.
That is why my noble friend Lord Tope and I have tabled Amendments 82A, 82B and 91 in this group. For people working in the financial services sector, such as venture capitalists and bankers, the process of growth and new share issues, with the consequential dilution for longstanding shareholders, is common knowledge, but for a young software engineer, perhaps fresh out of university, it is an area that they are likely to know nothing about The amendments in my name and that of my noble friend address this. We believe that employee shareholders under Clause 27 should have access to independent legal advice. More than that, we think that the employer should have a duty to ensure that the employee has a right to receive the appropriate legal advice and that the employer should make a contribution towards that legal advice.
I am reminded of the small print in the public shares issues of the 1980s: shares can go up as well as down. The noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—I am astonished to find myself praying her name in aid—felt that it was appropriate for the ordinary man or woman in the street to have that advice then, so I am sure that it is right to be provided in these circumstances for employees who are unlikely to have had training in the finer points of share prices and rounds of investment in high-growth companies.
Amendment 92, in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Adonis, takes my proposal one stage further, and in a new subsection (12) demands much more specific types of advice as well as a written agreement for individuals being offered the opportunity of employee shares and specifies the nature of that advice in much more detail. Not only do I think that is more useful but I am sympathetic to it.
Amendment 82B would then put the onus for paying for that advice on to the employer. I am sure that this is correct and only fair. If you are giving up your rights as an employee in return for shares that may, though probably may not, increase in value and will certainly be diluted out of sight in the future, that is a complex decision that needs specialist advice and careful consideration by the prospective employee shareholder.
When we come to discuss clause stand part I will return to some of the principles of the clause in general, but I want to conclude on these amendments by saying that all the evidence that I have heard from both employers and employees, in the sector that Ministers say is the one most likely to take this up, is that it just will not be attractive. I hope that the clause will wither on the vine, but if it does not then we must have protection for the employees who are going to be faced with this sort of proposal.
My Lords, I declare an interest in that for many years I was chairman of the Industrial Co-partnership Association. I also happen to be fortunate enough to have floated a company on the stock exchange when we had 1,000 employees, and we gave 10% of the company to our employees.
I am deeply committed to the concept of wider share ownership but I am concerned about Clause 27. I shall give the Committee an example of quite what ownership means to some people. One of the older women in our company came up to me about a month after we had floated it and said, “Guvnor, you just don’t know what it means to me to feel I am part of this company. It has made my life”. That just brought tears to my eyes. People want to belong, and in smaller businesses they can belong and feel that they are names, not numbers.
However, the whole point of wider industrial shareholding is to try to create a sense of common purpose. I fear that the unnecessary obstacles and quid pro quos put into Clause 27 go in exactly the opposite direction; they negate trust rather than increase it. With great reluctance, therefore, I have to speak against the Government, who I am sure are right to encourage wider share ownership. If you wrap it up in complexity, cover it in advisers and make it all too difficult, it simply will not happen, but it is fundamentally the most attractive and important thing to create a wider capital-owning society in which everyone feels they have a stake.
My Lords, at Second Reading I opposed these provisions. In my view, this is yet another attempt by the Government to remove employment rights which have been hard fought for by previous generations. In my view, it is a backdoor means of introducing the Beecroft proposals which were recently condemned not only by trade unions but by many employers as well.
The Government maintain that the new status of employee shareholder is voluntary. Really? Are these proposals voluntary in situations where there is already high unemployment, where people are desperate for any sort of employment? A number of the issues have simply not been thought about. What about mergers? Do employee shareholders take their shares with them or do they have to give them up? What happens to TUPE—the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations—which gives protection to employees? According to an opinion provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an employee shareholder is legally still a worker and therefore still has employment rights—hence the Government’s insistence on the voluntary nature of this new status, so that the worker voluntary surrenders rights.
Of course, while the employee shareholder may have a right to benefit from shares, he or she also shares the risks involved. For this reason, many people—including the movers of Amendments 82A and 82B, and even Amendment 92—have said that before entering this arrangement, the employee must have access to legal advice of an entirely independent kind. It has even been suggested that the employer should pay for this. These are, of course, modifications on a quite unacceptable set of proposals.
I still oppose the whole arrangement. It is one of a series of arrangements in which the Government are seeking to weaken or remove employee rights. We have already discussed the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill in this House, which has a section on employment which is designed to make it as difficult as possible for employees to access employment rights and to take cases to tribunals. It also includes provisions in relation to health and safety at work, making it more difficult for workers to claim.
The LASPO Act, discussed before, also made it clear that legal aid would not be provided in employment cases. It is already becoming clear that the minimum wage is inadequate, and there is talk of a living wage instead. In April this year, cuts will begin to affect a whole range of people on benefits, particularly housing benefits. The Government claim, however, that much of this legislation is meant to assist small and medium-sized employers—SMEs. However, employers are already benefiting from low wages, which are in many cases subsidised by the taxpayer through the benefits system. Clause 27 is yet another attack by the Government on employment rights and on ordinary workers. It should be opposed for what it is.
My Lords, I support all those who have spoken, especially the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. She is right when she says that these rights were hard fought for. In my working life, I recall a time when people lost their job and went out of the door with a week’s wages and, if they were lucky, maybe some holiday pay. It gave dignity to people who were very loyal to their company that, if they were unfortunate enough to lose their job after a decent period of time, they at least got something to tide them over, because redundancy payments are not all that big.
This is an insult to the companies which already give shares to their workers. There is a famous heating company—it is not fair to mention its name—whose owner decided that, because he did not have any direct heirs, he would give the shares to his workers. He did not put any strings on that arrangement; he gave the shares to the workers.
This is bad legislation. We are bringing in a situation where we are saying, “Give up your rights and we’ll give you shares”. We are giving a financial incentive which, at the end of the day, as the noble Baroness said, is not necessarily a financial incentive because shares go up and down.
I remember being in Committee on the famous Tebbit Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is now a fellow Peer. He and many others argued that the trade union movement had been given too much in the way of rights by the previous Labour Government. One of the things they said was that you could not apply for unfair dismissal unless you were employed for a full, consecutive two years. Under the Labour Government, it was a year. The argument was that you had to show loyalty to the company that you were with.
Under this arrangement, workers who are prepared to show loyalty are giving up their rights on the day that they walk in the door and sign them over for shares. They still have to be employed for two years before they can apply for redundancy, and that proves that they are loyal people. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, would recognise that. He said that we want loyalty. Employers are getting that loyalty, but the Government are now saying that they want a facility where people give away their rights.
I can see a situation in places of employment where you will turn worker against worker because some will accept this deal but others will say, “No, I would rather keep my statutory rights”. It could be that pressure will be put on them. I bring the Committee back to Sunday working. During the passage of the legislation on Sunday working it was stated that anyone who had deeply held religious beliefs would not have to work on Sunday. That held for a while, but when new employees came in they were told that if they wanted the job, they had to work on Sundays whether they had deeply held religious beliefs or not.
The Bill states that employers will have to respect workers’ right to say they do not want shares and that those workers will be entitled to their rights under legislation. But what the Government have not considered is the new employees. People coming in the door will be told: “You must accept the workers’ shares, and if you don’t like it then you don’t get the job”. This is bad legislation.
My Lords, I have worked for a long time with minority groups who employ their women in a system that is very similar to what is proposed. They have an interest in the business, they are committed to the business, they have kinship ties, and they have absolutely no rights. They work right through the day, and they share the losses and the gains.
In my long experience, the children of these minorities, who are some of the best educated children because the families use education, grow up and wish to use their education to get out of the informal sector into the formal sector. They wish for a different experience from that of their parents. They want to be workers with rights, entitlements and the possibility of progress. In fact, many of them would work in these new companies without realising that by doing so they were returning to where their parents were. That is not because they are not educated but because of the complexity of the contract. They are happy to have a contract. They sign it, which means it is formal and official. They do not have a lawyer at their side to warn them of every point. It would be a matter of great regret to lose these intelligent people, who, I think, are footloose and fancy free. They may well move on to other countries where they are better paid for having poor contracts. We are losing the confidence of our minorities and possibly the prospect of some very well-educated young people.
My Lords, I declare an interest. Before I joined this House I was a serial entrepreneur. I have started many businesses from scratch. The most recent one employed 200 staff after being in business for four years. I am a big fan of giving employees a stake in the success of the business so that their goals are aligned with those of the founders. It never crossed my mind that my staff should need to forfeit their employment rights in exchange. Snatching these rights is hardly the best way to win their hearts and minds. Managers who feel they need to diminish the rights of their staff to get their full commitment to the success of the business are bad managers and will almost certainly fail. This idea is complete nonsense.
My Lords, when these proposals were announced, I was somewhat lukewarm towards them, for some of the reasons that other noble Lords have spoken about today. However, as I thought about the proposals rather more, it seemed to me that there is some sense to them. They are not proposals for everybody. They are not for individuals who work for the public sector or for large companies; they are relevant to individuals who are by nature high risk-reward in their approach. They are willing to be high-risk takers to build up capital for themselves and their families. The proposals are, as has been articulated, for small and medium businesses, and are certainly not appropriate for larger businesses.
The proposals at present are really rather simple and straightforward and may be capable of improvement but not, I hope, of too much embellishment or the whole point of the principle would be undermined. People have the option whether to participate. If you wish to be an employee entrepreneur, here is the chance to benefit with equity on an extremely tax-attractive basis, but you are going to be taking risks just like the entrepreneur himself. One of the problems with small-company share schemes, as I have experienced in my own career, is that they are very limited. Where options have to be used they end up being taxed at nearly 60% and are not particularly attractive. The carrot of tax-free capital gains is attractive.
The subsequent amendment that I will address shortly suggests a template for and guidance on the new scheme. Particularly as it is new and untried, that is needed. The principle of requiring advice I can go along with to some extent, although requiring barristers seems perhaps to be jobs for the boys. The principle of the scheme seems pretty straightforward. It does not require anyone of huge intelligence to understand the quid pro quo.
Moreover, some of the potential problems have already been addressed via amendments in the other place. There are measures intended to stop any form of coercion. Employees also retain the great majority of their employment rights. Partly paid issued shares cannot be used, so people would not be left with a liability if a company went bust. If shares are inappropriately valued, the deal returns employees to their normal employment status. I am not sure how far one should really go to spoon-feed the principles. If someone is not a natural risk taker, this is clearly not for them, and they should not look to accept a job with this sort of deal.
I am a huge believer in employee participation. I built a business based on virtually all the employees having equity in that business. While the business was being built, we really could not afford to pay people what I would call full market rates, and because we needed the money to build the business there was a trade-off there. But those individuals had to pay capital gains tax on their eventual gains, and some had to pay income tax because option arrangements were used. In a sense, the risk-reward tilt of the balance was not ideal at that stage.
If I were 40 years younger, or even still today, if I were offered the ability to participate in a young business that I felt could be a huge success, I would certainly opt for this scheme. I would look, bluntly, to my own potential contribution to the business as being my best assurance of employment, not to legal rights. The other side of the coin is that when entrepreneurs set up a business, they have to take a tremendous risk. People never think about that. Many of them have to put their home and family at risk. If the business fails, there is a charge on the house and they lose everything. There is a degree of fairness in the sort of risks that entrepreneurs take and the slightly higher degree of risk for employees who are bold enough to want to become employee shareholders.
One concern is that, increasingly, larger businesses are being run by HR departments. An element of Beecroft is correct. Yes, it is a sound principle to protect people who need protection, but I very much hope there is a realisation that if this country is to recover and compete with more dynamic economies, there will not necessarily be as much scope for the protections and featherbedding that have been enjoyed in the good days of the recent past.
I hope that the proposers of these amendments will reconsider them and wait to see what suggestions the Government come up with, at least to provide codes and arrangements that achieve some of their objectives but without having to use the complexities and expenses of the law, which are very costly for very small businesses.
My Lords, the issues in this debate on Clause 27, and the other amendments, have not changed. I take the view that the objectives of the clause and the conditions attached to wider share ownership were wrong then and remain wrong. The issues that British industry faces today are not to do with wider share ownership. Of course, it is to be welcomed if we can provide greater security, commitment and skills; it is very much part of a process of commitment and evolution within the workplace.
At Second Reading, I said that I was no stranger to the concept. I worked in my company for 18 years and was awarded employee preference shares. I welcomed them, and they caused no harm. But I have to tell noble Lords that they did not influence my loyalty, commitment or motivation in that company. I gave of my best because it was a decent company, with its terms and conditions as well as security. Everything that went with it could be described as a model experience. I did not even give the shares a thought. I could not find my share certificate when the time came to dispose of them. That is how little they meant to me. I was no exception in that regard among the more than 3,000 people employed in that company because the company culture was right and the company met the needs of the industry.
We really ought to look at the deficiencies of Clause 27. It does not address training, productivity or investment, be it investment in people, community or the wider concept of society. I do not see too many words about skills in the clause and do not begin to understand how it could be deemed necessary to bring it forward to secure the loyalty and overall commitment that industries need. Indeed, it could be argued that Clause 27 will have a perverse effect on employee relationships within the workplace, because if the workplace is about anything it is about unity, working together and equity of treatment and approach. What we are doing here will possibly sow the seeds of a divided workforce operating in small units where some people are shareholders and some are not. The legislation does not provide equity of security because at the outset your legal rights have to be forfeited. I am old fashioned enough to think that workers’ rights cannot be bartered for sale on the stock market because that brings nothing back into a company.
I say to the Government that sooner or later we will need to address the wider concept of industrial partnership but from a totally different perspective. We are discussing a “buy today, sell tomorrow” concept. If your shares are tradable, do you have any loyalty once you have disposed of them? You certainly do not have any rights because you gave those up at the start point, but do you have any real security? I do not think so. Therefore, I believe that the points that were made at Second Reading and the points so ably made today by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in respect of the legality of the issues involved in the different statutes lead to the necessity to rethink this clause. The clause really needs to get back to considering what industry needs, what is required and what will increase productivity, not just a “buy today, sell tomorrow” culture.
My Lords, it would be extremely helpful if the clause contained a clearer definition of “profit share” and “equity participation”. That is where the confusion will arise and cause the greatest difficulty. Profit share is relatively clear, straightforward, simple and very motivating. I wholly agree with the noble Baroness who talked about that earlier. That is fine, but profit share does not carry with it any of the risks that go with equity. I disagree with the noble Lord; you do not just buy your shares today and sell them. If you are a locked-in minority, especially in a quoted vehicle, you are stuck, you have no way out, and you never will have.
Further, and worse, I have seen this work to the total detriment of the shareholders. I had a company that had a number of ships—we were opening the North Sea oilfields—that were bought and each put into a separate company. It looked like a good, straightforward, long-term profit opportunity, so we had a lot of participation by Scandinavian banks, which would buy a ship and put it into a purpose-built company. The captain might be offered the opportunity of 20% of the equity in that company, meaning 20% of the ship he was going to sail. If that company did not get the contract work, did not make the money and could not service the debts of that bank, the banks in Scandinavia came at those shareholders and took their homes as a condition of their putting in the extra money.
These hazards are not anticipated in what we have here. There are some fearful risks in inviting people to become locked-in minorities, especially in SMEs where you have nowhere to go if there is a problem. Profit sharing does not have any of those problems, so we should be going down the profit-share path, not the equity-participation route, especially where it is given free into unquoted vehicles.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Flight, on being the first speaker in more than 50 on the Bill so far to defend this shares-for-rights proposal. His reward will no doubt be substantial hereafter.
I also welcome the noble Viscount the Minister to our debates on the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, is looking mightily relieved that she has an afternoon off. Her time will return only too soon. The noble Viscount has the thankless job of defending the indefensible—another practice that, if I may extend the analogy used by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, goes back to the Book of Genesis, where Adam had to explain why he had misbehaved in the Garden of Eden. We are rather hoping to expel the entire Clause 27 from the Garden of Eden, but we are first debating some mitigating measures and inviting the noble Viscount to respond.
We start with the issue of coercion. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, said that the issue of coercion had been dealt with, but I contend that it has not. One of the reasons why Clause 27 is fundamentally wrong and flawed is that, contrary to the Government’s own statements and assurances, it is coercive in that it in effect requires individuals to accept jobs without fundamental employment rights. The coercion involved in these shares-for-rights jobs comes in two ways. First, individuals will in some cases have no option but to accept such jobs. We will come to that issue in respect of benefits claimants in the next group of amendments.
Secondly, these shares-for-rights jobs are in all cases potentially exploitative, because there is no requirement for independent advice before an individual signs up. It is therefore likely that individuals, particularly the more vulnerable and low paid, will not be properly aware, or even aware at all as they will not be as informed as the noble Lord, Lord Flight, of the rights they are forgoing in return for shares worth as little as £2,000 at the time they are issued. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said, these shares could be worth even less or nothing at all if the employees want to sell them at a later stage.
A whole succession of noble Lords, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, have made a compelling case for there to be protections, including independent advice before shares-for-rights contracts are entered into. The amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, proposes that there should be legal advice on the rights forgone and financial advice on the valuation and prospects of the shares it is proposed to offer in lieu of employment rights. Without such advice, the scope for exploitation is considerable. Such advice should be paid for by the employer, and there should be an explicit agreement between employer—
Will the noble Lord draw a distinction between the legal advice to be given in the potential sale of a listed company, where the majority shareholders have a separate set of interests and the minority shareholders—the working shareholders possibly have a very different set of interests? Are we to have two separate and parallel sets of lawyers to avoid a conflict of interest between those types of shareholders? That would seem necessary. How is it to be funded?
My Lords, we are talking about individual employees who are seeking to take jobs, which is a different situation from the one that the noble Lord has described. We are not talking about the takeover of companies, which is the issue he raised. However, the noble Lord is right to point out that two different sets of interests are involved. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, we have these rights purely because of an imbalance of power in the relationship between employers and potential employees. If the noble Lord is saying that we need two lots of lawyers on the job, I understand the point he is making but it makes the proposal even less workable and even more unaffordable.
The noble Lord therefore proposes a system that is even more complex and onerous than is envisaged. Such advice should be paid for by the employer, and there should be an explicit agreement between employer and employee stipulating the employment rights that are being foregone and the value of the shares being allotted.
When similar amendments were debated in the Commons, the Minister, Michael Fallon, said that they would impose,
“an unnecessary cost and burden to the employer”.—[Official Report, Commons, Growth and Infrastructure Bill Committee, 6/12/12; col. 484.]
However, this is not a new principle. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, it is, in fact, a principle accepted by previous Conservative Governments. The great noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, was Secretary of State when this principle was enshrined in law. Under the legislation of the previous Conservative Government, there are minimum independent legal advice requirements on the surrender of unfair dismissal rights in what are now called compromise agreements—a key element of which is a written agreement upon which the employee has received advice from an insured independent legal adviser or other specified and qualified person.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, also quoted the advice and recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which could not be clearer. Let me read the recommendations to the Committee. They state that,
“the mere fact of a choice having to be made on which type of employment status to accept could indirectly discriminate against those less likely to be able to make a properly informed or truly ‘voluntary’ decision. This may include those whose first language is not English, those with learning disabilities, or young workers”.
The commission’s recommendations continue:
“In order for objective justification to be established, it is likely to be necessary for the individual to have a right to receive appropriate advice and for the employer to be required to draw this to his or her attention”.
We agree entirely with the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recommendation. It is now up to the noble Viscount to say why it is wrong.
Noble Lords will not be surprised to know that I was expecting a somewhat lively debate on this general issue of shares for rights. I very much appreciate noble Lords’ contributions. Before I turn to the amendments in the group—Amendments 81D, 82A, 82B, 91 and 92—I should take this opportunity to inform the House about the clause. I will have the chance to expand on this during a stand-part debate, but the House might like to understand why the Government are creating the new employment status and what it is aimed to achieve.
The Government are creating a new form of employment contract that companies limited by shares can use. This new status will be known as “employee shareholder”. The employee shareholder will be granted shares in the employing company or the parent company but will not have all the rights of an individual with employee status. The Government are taking this action to offer companies and people more choice, and are giving choice to companies on how they structure their workforce to ensure maximum growth and flexibility, more choice for people in the type of jobs that are on offer to them and new opportunities to benefit from growth and meet their long-term aspirations.
This Government, from the outset, have committed to reforming employment laws, and are doing so through the employment law review. Establishing the employee shareholder status is different. With this change, the Government are creating a new type of employment relationship. It is an employment relationship where both the company and person share the risk and rewards for business more than any other employment type.
I now want to address the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pannick. This clause is not about making a new employment status compulsory for all. It is about adding to the employment statuses that already exist. It sits alongside existing employment statuses such as employee and worker.
Employment law does not stipulate that individuals should have legal or financial advice before accepting a job with the employment status of either employee or worker, or taking up share ownership possibilities. It would be anomalous to impose these requirements for the new employee shareholder status. Neither do we want to stipulate that employers must pay for legal advice. Noble Lords will appreciate that legal expenses can be high, which would be a burden both in administrative and cost terms, in particular for the type of fast-growing company to which this is most likely to appeal.
There is nothing in the clause that prevents individuals from seeking independent advice. This is about creating a new voluntary employment status and not about creating additional burdens for employers.
As for employment contracts, it is important to leave these to employers and individuals to negotiate, discuss, and agree to, although employees are entitled to receive a written statement of employment particulars within two months of the start of their employment. Government are committed to reducing burdens arising from regulation and therefore wish to keep administration requirements to a minimum.
The status, as we have already said, will be most attractive to fast-growing businesses, which will spend time looking for and investing in the right people to help their business grow, and will be willing to give fully paid up shares to the right candidate. These employers will have to invest in employee shareholders by giving them shares, which is a cost to them. It is likely that they are exactly the type of employers who would then struggle to find the additional cost and time to fulfil the amendments my noble friends and the noble Lords are suggesting.
Just before my noble friend passes over this matter, I would like to raise one issue that is not clear to me. When the grant of shares is given, is the value of them treated as taxable income? If so, I certainly think that it should not be part of the deal as something that is tax attractive.
I thank my noble friend for that question. The shares are treated as taxable income, although they are shares, so there would be tax at whatever level payable on the shares received.
I should now like to answer some questions that have arisen. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, stated that there was no demand for this new status. I can understand his concern from other comments made this afternoon. This new employment status will not be appropriate for all companies or be taken up across the board. It simply adds to the options and flexibility available to companies and individuals in determining their employment relationships.
My noble friend Lord Flight has eloquently mentioned this particular issue in his speech. The new status will probably appeal mainly to fast-growing and small start-up companies and individuals as this is the level where employment rights are seen to impact the most.
I would like to address directly the points raised by my noble friend Lady Brinton to say clearly that this particular employment shareholder status will not suit the examples that she cited in or near the Cambridge area. My noble friend Lord Strasburger also cited some example and I suspect it would not suit—
Indeed, it may well be the case, but it is not my position to stipulate exactly which particular companies would be right for this particular scheme; only to say that we are offering this as an incentive and an opportunity for business to help the company grow. If it is not suitable for particular companies, that is absolutely fine—it is not suitable.
My noble friend Lady Brinton also asked why we were removing the statutory right to request time to train. The Government recognise that training in the workplace is important and acknowledge the concerns raised. There is currently no reason to suggest that removal of the statutory right to request time to train, which at present is available only to employees of large organisations—that is, those with more than 250 people—would result in employee shareholders being unable to access training or request it if needed. Larger employers tend to have established appraisal and development processes. On that basis, we do not believe that this proposal will adversely affect future employee shareholders. Employee shareholders can still make non-statutory requests for time off to train.
My Lords, I apologise for intervening again but this point is absolutely critical to the Government’s intended success of the clause, or otherwise—that is, a carrot needs to be available to the employee at the time of the share issue, as well as later when there might be some fruition in terms of the investment. This seems to remove the only carrot at the time of the initial employment.
I would like to think that I could say yes to that. However, it is up to the company to decide, and it is something that I cannot stipulate or guarantee.
I should like to address the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I can confirm that the shares are taxable, but the Chancellor is considering making the first £2,000 tax-free.
I have to say that the noble Viscount has not made the position clear to me. It may well be that everybody else is clear about it but, as I understand it, he is saying that the £2,000 will be taxable, and he appears to be saying that it will be taxable as income. If that is so, the value of the shares in real terms could very well be reduced by 40%. Is that right?
First, it depends on whether the employee shareholders are 40% taxpayers, but I can confirm that tax is payable on the shares that are given.
My noble friend Lady Brinton expressed concern surrounding the share dilution, particularly when small businesses have additional investment. Additional investment shows that a company has potential and this should benefit the shareholders in the long run. We envisage that it will. Minority shareholders already have some protection under company law, and employee shareholders would be able to make appropriate representations under these rules.
I now turn to a question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, concerning TUPE. She asked whether TUPE will be affected by employee shareholders. Exactly how TUPE would apply would depend on the precise details of the transfer, but there is nothing in the employee shareholder clause as it stands that would require an interpretation incompatible with TUPE. It is important to realise that any employee transferred under TUPE cannot be forced by the transferee into becoming an employee shareholder. The employee will still have a right not to be unfairly dismissed or suffer a detriment as a result of refusing an employee shareholder contract. There is nothing to stop business arrangements being made in such a way as to provide that a person who is an employee shareholder in one company becomes an employee shareholder in another company. It is also possible to agree that the employee shareholder would no longer have employee shareholder status and become a full employee. I also want to clarify that if an employee has bought shares privately in a company, and he has transferred to that company under TUPE, he is not deemed then to have become an employee shareholder of the company by virtue of holding shares in that company. That is because the shares were not given to him as part of the employee agreement to become an employee shareholder.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, also raised the issue of Beecroft. I think she said that this was Beecroft by the back door. I reiterate that it is certainly not. The new employee shareholder status is different from the no-fault dismissal proposal because individuals become shareholders of the company at the start of the employee relationship. That is an important benefit conferred by the employee shareholder status. Unlike no-fault dismissal, the employee shareholder status will be freely agreed between employers and individuals in contractual negotiations. Employers will also be free to offer improved contractual terms, such as contractual redundancy payments, as raised earlier, in an employee shareholder contract. After reviewing the evidence, the Government found no compelling reasons to implement the no-fault dismissal proposal.
My noble friend Lord James of Blackheath was concerned that shareholders might be locked in and subsequently would have to pay the debts of the company. The shares must be fully paid up by the company. No financial liabilities are attached to the shares. No personal guarantee can be demanded from an employee shareholder as a condition of the particular status.
I will certainly have to come back to my noble friend with a full answer to that question.
I shall conclude by agreeing in part with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on a particular point. There is indeed a large number of sources of quality legal and financial advice available. The Government do not need to stipulate where people should seek advice, nor would it be appropriate to oblige people to seek such advice when they may not need or want it. The best approach is to provide guidance, which we will do, to ensure that people enter into contracts with their eyes open. That is the approach that we are taking. With those reassurances I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
I am very grateful to the Minister and, indeed, to all noble Lords who contributed to this valuable and, as described by the Minister, lively debate. It confirmed, as many noble Lords suggested, that this is an ill thought out, divisive and unnecessary provision that ought to be put to sleep as soon as possible.
The Minister suggested that Clause 27 simply creates a choice, and asked what was wrong with creating choice? The whole point of employment rights is that they are needed because the bargaining power of the employee is so limited that statutory protection is required. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, suggested that these proposals might be appropriate for some types of employee in some types of employment. There are two difficulties with that defence. First, Clause 27 is entirely general in its terms; it is not confined to particular types of employment and particular types of protection. Secondly, the employees and the employers for whom the noble Lord, Lord Flight, suggests Clause 27 might be appropriate—entrepreneurial employees in high-tech companies—are not operating in a context where the rights to protection against unfair dismissal and redundancy are of particular significance. It does not inspire a great deal of confidence in Clause 27 that the best point that can be made in its defence is that it will not be used very often.
This amendment is about legal and financial advice, particularly legal advice. The noble Lord, Lord Flight, said that legal advice is not needed in this context because the legal implications are very clear. I have to say that they may be clear to the noble Lord, but I can assure him that the implications of signing away one’s basic employment law rights, and what one will receive in return, will not be clear to the ordinary working man and woman who may be invited to sign away these essential protections.
The Minister then said that there was nothing in Clause 27 that would prevent the employee seeking advice. As a judge said in the 19th century, it is rather like saying there is nothing to prevent the employee from staying overnight at the Ritz hotel. Statutory protection is required to ensure that in reality, advice is made available for those who will not otherwise obtain it. The Minister did not address this. I cannot understand why legal advice is—rightly—required by Section 288 of the Trade Union Act in the context of a compromise agreement, but is not required under this clause when the employee gives up his or her employment rights generally.
I hope the Government will listen to the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Turner of Camden and Lady Afshar, and to the noble Lords, Lord Vincent, Lord Martin, Lord Strasburger, Lord Morris of Handsworth and Lord James of Blackheath, all of whom speak from their different perspectives with an enormous range of experience. The Minister and noble Lords will know that there are many other noble Lords who are not here today who are equally concerned by Clause 27. I hope that the Government will listen and do what must be blindingly obvious that they ought to do, which is to withdraw Clause 27 so that we do not need to spend—I will not say “waste”, because it is not a waste of time—any more time on this on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 81D withdrawn.
82: Clause 27, page 34, line 15, at end insert—
“( ) Any individual who declines to enter into an agreement under section 27 of the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 shall not suffer any consequential reduction or withdrawal of any state benefits to which they are entitled to by virtue of their current employment status.”
My Lords, the purpose of Amendment 82 is the same as that of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I hope that we can unite across the House on the simple and fundamental proposition that shares-for-rights contracts should be voluntary, and that individuals on benefits should not be forced to accept them for fear of losing their benefits if they do not.
Before getting to the substance of the amendment, I will raise with deep concern a point of procedure fundamental to the issue of what benefit claimants will or will not be required to do, which is the guidance given to DWP decision-makers where appeals are made against the docking of benefits in cases where a claimant has failed to accept an appropriate job or attend an interview. The Government have said repeatedly through the passage of this Bill through the other place and the earlier stages of our debates in this House that they will amend the guidance so that it is fair. This revised guidance is vital to understanding what will or may happen in practice. I have repeatedly asked that noble Lords see the revised guidance or at the very least a draft of it before we consider this clause. We cannot properly consider it without the revised guidance because the issues at stake are so fundamental. For example, will carers be able to decline to take shares-for-rights jobs, or to attend interviews for them, because they may want to request flexible working? Will a youngster with few or no qualifications be able to decline a shares-for-rights job or an interview for one, since under these contracts they will not even have the right to request to undertake study or training?
I wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the guidance on 9 January. By the time the Committee started I had not even had the courtesy of a reply. I raised this issue on the first day in Committee and the noble Baroness apologised for the absence of a reply—she did so very graciously—and, when I asked whether we would have the guidance by today, she said that she would seek to make sure that we did. We still have not got it. Instead, I have since had a letter from the noble Viscount which is wholly unsatisfactory. He wrote:
“Where necessary, revisions will be made to the guidance. It is important that the guidance is clear and fit for purpose—
it is, indeed, important; it is absolutely vital that it is clear and fit for purpose—
“and this task is ongoing. I will share it with the House when it has been drafted but undertake to keep you informed of progress”.
However, we need the guidance today. I took the noble Baroness to be undertaking that she would at least seek to ensure that we had it today. In view of the fact that we have not had it, I now take the noble Viscount’s letter to me to be intended to resile from the commitment to give us the guidance before we debate this clause.
When are we going to see the guidance? Do the Government really intend that we should debate this clause without seeing it? The noble Viscount owes the House an explanation of what is going on and, before I proceed with my speech, I invite him to give us one so that we know the basis on which we are intended to proceed in debating this clause. Is the noble Viscount not intending to explain to us why we have not had the DWP guidance?
My Lords, I note that the noble Viscount is not even defending the fact that the guidance was not sent to us before this debate started. The first issue he needs to address is why we have not had the guidance before us in Committee even though we were given assurances that the Government would seek to get it to us; and we need to know precisely when the guidance will be forthcoming. I give him notice that if we do not have that guidance by Report there will be significant arguments about the way in which the Government have treated the House. I have been on that side of the Dispatch Box and I regard it as wholly unsatisfactory that we should be expected to debate a fundamental change in the way benefits claimants are treated without knowing what it will mean in practice.
The noble Lord makes a very good point. I stick by the words in my letter that further guidance will be forthcoming. We have some guidance already but we are working hard to improve and expand it. I will come back to the noble Lord as soon as I can to explain when it will be available.
My Lords, the House needs to be aware of the situation that we are in at the moment. The defence that the Government make in respect of the proposal that benefits claimants will not be treated unfairly is that the DWP guidance will be redrafted. That is what the Minister, Michael Fallon, said in the other place and what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said at earlier stages of our debate. We are now being told that the Government are not even prepared to undertake to allow your Lordships to see that guidance before we debate amendments which go to the heart of whether or not claimants will be required to take jobs.
To be fair, I did not precisely say that. I said that I would get back to the noble Lord as soon as possible: I did not say that I would not get the guidance to him before Report. I stick by what I said, both in my letter emphasising that the guidance notes are extremely important and are being worked on at the moment, and, secondly, that I will come back to him as soon as possible—possibly even this afternoon—to give him a time for when the guidance notes will be available. I hope that it will be before Report.
My Lords, I spoke too soon. The noble Viscount has now moved back again and now we are not even at “possibly” this afternoon. However, I think he has got the message.
The provision before us is completely contradictory and wholly indefensible. On the one hand the Government say—the noble Viscount said it again this afternoon—that this is about creating a new voluntary employment status which, therefore, potential employees have the right to choose. When the Bill was first before the House of Commons, Michael Fallon said:
“No one wants to see employees pressurised into making a choice that may not be in their own best interests”.—[Official Report, Commons, Growth and Infrastructure Bill Committee, 13/11/12; col. 9.]
He later added, for good measure:
“With regard to the new status being voluntary … people will choose to apply for and accept employee owner contracts”.—[Official Report, Commons, Growth and Infrastructure Bill Committee, 6/12/12; col. 497.]
This principle, however, is then flatly contradicted by not allowing benefit claimants to make such a choice. On the contrary, if benefit claimants decline to apply for or accept shares-for-rights jobs, they stand to lose their benefits or have them docked. This is a fundamental point that goes to the heart of this debate. Michael Fallon was explicit about this in the House of Commons. He said:
“The Government believe that jobseeker’s allowance claimants must actively seek and be available for work … it is right that employee-shareholder jobs should be as much a part of that consideration as any other”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17.12.12; col. 649.]
He went on to say that in cases where there is the offer of a job without employment rights—an employee-shareholder job—the unemployed person should “normally accept the offer”. Those were his words.
It is simply impossible to square that statement with the Government’s commitment that acceptance of jobs on such contracts would be voluntary. It is clear that benefit claimants will be pressurised into accepting contracts that may be against their own best interests, unless the guidance with which the noble Viscount is unable to provide the House makes it clear that that is not the case. This amendment and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will bring the Bill into line with the Government’s own statements that accepting shares-for-rights jobs should be voluntary and not compulsory. I beg to move.
My Lords, these two amendments are trying to achieve the same objective. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on the wording of Amendment 82. My Amendment 90 echoes those sentiments. We have already discussed, in the previous group, the complex decision required of an individual being asked to become an employee-shareholder, who must take account of current employment rights versus the slim chance of future capital gains. However, there is a further and even more worrying aspect for one particular group of individuals: those who are currently unemployed and in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance.
What will happen to those offered a position in a company on the condition that they become an employee-shareholder and give up some of their rights? I am aware of people who find themselves being made redundant, through no fault of their own, not once but twice, or even more frequently. I am reminded of a friend in Luton who, following the closure of Vauxhall, moved from one company to another in the supply chain and was made redundant four times in the short space of a year. For people with that sort of history, the idea of giving up the right to future redundancy pay will be horrifying and would make the job extremely unattractive. This is not a run-of-the-mill job offer and I would be extremely concerned if an individual turned down a job and share ownership opportunity, and then discovered that his or her JSA was to be cut.
The Minister in another place said:
“The Government believe that jobseeker’s allowance claimants must actively seek and be available for work … and it is right that employee-shareholder jobs should be as much a part of that consideration as any other. If a claimant applies for an employee-shareholder job and is offered a position, they should normally accept the offer”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/12./12; col. 649.]
It is this quote from the Minister that underlies the concern that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has laid out in some detail. I echo that because we have to see the guidance and information to make it exactly clear where the boundaries lie. I will not go back through the timescale of this, but it is essential that all sides of the House—all sides of the House have concerns about this clause—have time to consider the very serious implications for jobseeker’s allowance for people who are sent off for that type of post.
In addition, some people may send off hundreds of job applications but receive only one reply; some may get one interview; some may even get one offer. A job offer for shares-for-rights is a job: do the Government seriously think that someone will turn it down after months of searching? Many people cannot pick and choose jobs, even if they are worried about the reduction in rights, especially in the current climate, with many businesses folding. I cite Paul Callaghan from the legal fund Taylor Wessing, who suggests that shares-for-rights contracts will be optional to the extent that eating and drinking are optional.
The amendment would write into the Bill a statement that makes it absolutely clear that the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus will not penalise an individual who makes the difficult choice to turn down a job. Should they accept it, they must have access to the same legal and financial opinion that we discussed under the previous group of amendments. That needs to be written into the Bill to ensure that protection and to provide Jobcentre Plus with clear and unequivocal direction.
My Lords, I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about the absence of the guidance that the Government are eventually to publish. The whole point of Committee on a Bill is that we can debate in detail the implications of the Government’s proposals. By not publishing the guidance at this stage, the Government are preventing the Committee discussing the essential detail of their proposals. For my part, I do not find it satisfactory, even if the noble Viscount produces answers this afternoon. It should have been done in time for noble Lords to debate the matter today.
In the absence of any guidance, we can proceed only on the basis that Clause 27 does not at all protect the prospective employee from being denied welfare benefits if he or she refuses to take up a job offer which involves the absence of employment rights. Even if there were adequate guidance, I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that guidance is in principle inadequate. The Bill must state clearly the legal position in order to protect the prospective employee.
Clause 27 is bad enough in its implications for employees, as we explained in a previous debate. It is even worse for the prospective employee. Under Clause 27, the employer can refuse to offer employment to applicants who decline to enter into one of these agreements giving up statutory employment rights. The irony is that the worse the job market, the more willing prospective employees will inevitably be to take the job, even if employment rights are lost. However, the poorer the job market, the greater the employee’s need for the statutory protection against unfair dismissal and redundancy that the employee will be giving up. It is a vicious circle indeed.
Amendment 82 and the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, each address a particular vice of Clause 27 in that respect. The vice is clear. It is that the prospective employee who wishes to maintain his or her statutory employment rights—during the previous debate, the noble Viscount emphasised that this is a matter of choice—and refuses to be bought off, is at risk of losing welfare benefits. That is indefensible for a simple reason. Clause 27 can only be based on a theory of equal bargaining power. It is a wholly unrealistic theory, but that is the theory. That is the fig leaf which shelters the substance of Clause 27. Even the fig leaf—the theory of equal bargaining power—is removed by the fact that the prospective employee’s bargaining power is wholly removed if he or she is going to lose welfare benefits if he or she does not agree to take the job in the absence of the statutory protection of employment rights. Therefore, the absence of protection against losing welfare benefits for the job applicant inevitably means that, in practice, Clause 27 does not simply provide for a choice, it imposes an obligation.
My Lords, Amendments 82 and 90 seek to add protections for jobseekers, should they refuse to apply for a job or accept a job offer that is on an employee shareholder contract. I understand the concerns that my noble friend Lady Brinton and the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pannick, have expressed here and at Second Reading, that jobseekers could be coerced into accepting the new employment status and that jobseekers could lose their benefits.
Jobs that will be offered on an employee shareholder basis will not be better or worse than any other job offered on an employee or worker basis. These jobs are as good as any other and should not be treated differently. It follows that the Government do not believe that a blanket ban on mandation is the right way forward. The different terms and conditions on offer for different jobs do not in themselves make it acceptable for a jobseeker to turn a job down. They are still good jobs.
There are circumstances where a job offered under the employee shareholder scheme would not be suitable for an individual because of their particular circumstances or perhaps because of the particular terms and conditions on offer. Please note that the following is a non-exhaustive list, as all reasons cannot be captured and are dependent on the individual case, but I will list a few circumstances where a job might not be suitable for an individual: if a claimant is not capable of doing the job through a lack of suitable qualifications or experience; if a claimant is not physically capable of doing the job due to a physical or mental impairment; if a claimant has an agreed pattern of caring that is not compatible with the job; if a claimant is unable to get to the place of work by their normal mode of transport in time to start work; or if the expenses incurred by working would be an unreasonably excessive proportion of a claimant’s pay. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, brought up the issue of carers. If a claimant is a carer or is doing voluntary work they will have good reason for refusal or failure if the job requires them to start within less than one week. If a claimant has caring responsibilities for a child and is permitted to take up employment and been given 28 days’ notice, they will have good reason for refusal or failure if the job requires them to start within 28 days. I could go on.
The Government believe that there are already strong safeguards in place that ensure that a benefit claimant will not be forced into an unsuitable role. The sanction will only be applied if a claimant refuses to apply for or accept an offer of employment, including for an employee shareholder’s position, after that claimant has been mandated to apply for a job by a jobcentre adviser. The decision whether to mandate claimants will be considered on a case-by-case basis by jobcentre advisers. Advisers will seek to ensure that the job is suitable for the claimant; for example, that it fits within the hours a claimant is available, taking into account any caring responsibilities, as mentioned earlier, in particular for young children.
There is now guidance for advisers that is publicly available—and I will revert to this issue in a moment. We will supplement that guidance to cover any particular issues that may arise with employee shareholder jobs. I am able to update the Committee on the guidance. First, the guidance document is 3,000 pages long, so it is not a light piece of work. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is aware that I have already written to him on the issue of the guidance and he has cited parts of my letter. The guidance is for decision-makers and we have made it clear that the Government are reviewing the existing guidance to ascertain where it needs revisions. This must be done thoroughly and cannot be rushed, and I hope that the noble Lord will understand, despite the fact that it is not ready today, that this will take time, given the size of the document and the important decisions that need to be taken.
Does the Minister accept that even if the Government say that it is likely that very few companies will be offering this type of employee share ownership, having a couple of points of guidance buried in 3,000 pages, or even 300, would mean that the average member of staff at a Jobcentre Plus would probably be unlikely to find the relevant information straight away? Does this not argue for the need to put this very special interest in the Bill?
I would like to pick up only one of the points made by my noble friend. It is important, and I am sure that the officials are working hard on this, to ensure that the guidance that is offered is simple, and that there is a way that those involved who need to go to the guidance can do so quickly and effectively, despite the fact that it is 3,000 pages long.
Does the Minister agree that the simplest way for the guidance to address the matter would be for it to state in one sentence that it was reasonable for the prospective employee to refuse to accept a job because he or she did not wish to give up statutory employment protection rights? Is that what the guidance is going to say or is it not?
I have not seen the guidance but I do not believe that it will say that.
There are two further safeguards for jobseeker allowance claimants. Should a claimant refuse to apply for a job after mandation, a sanction will be imposed only if the claimant does not have good reason. A decision-maker within DWP will be responsible for making that determination. In reaching a determination, they will take into account the claimant’s circumstances, the specific job and the terms and conditions on offer. Again, the Government will supplement the DWP decision-makers’ guidance around any particular issues with the employee shareholder scheme that need to be considered.
Several times the Minister has said that the guidance would be updated with regard to any particular issues that arise from employee shareholder contracts. The particular issue that arises is precisely the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which is that these rights are being withdrawn. If that is not the issue that arises, could the Minister tell the Committee what the issue is that arises which the Government are going to seek to address in the revised guidance?
My Lords, the Minister has come to the Committee to tell us that he cannot begin to tell us the basis on which the guidance is going to be revised, which is his own defence in response to the arguments that the guidance itself will not be reasonable in the circumstances.
I am grateful to the Minister for his patience in giving way. Will he deal with this point? If the guidance does not make it clear that the prospective employee is entitled to refuse a job offer because that offer involves sacrificing employment protection rights, the prospective employee does not have a choice. The defence that the Minister has put forward to Clause 27 is therefore simply inapplicable.
On that particular point, it is important again to emphasise that each case involving an employee shareholder or a would-be employee shareholder will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. I hope that I have set out the process by which that will be undertaken by the jobcentre in negotiation and discussion with the potential employee shareholder. That is where we are at the moment. However, the guidance—which, I repeat, is coming—will go much further towards setting out the details and indeed the guidance for that process to work.
The Government do not believe that the right way of providing the protection sought by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pannick, is through amending this clause. As I mentioned earlier, the jobseeker’s allowance system works on a case-by-case basis, with all decisions made on the merit of the case. The system is sufficiently flexible and robust, and jobseeker allowance decision-makers, with the support and guidance which we have committed to providing, will be able to understand the new employment status. With these reassurances, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pannick, will not press their amendments.
I wish to raise one question. How can a case-by-case examination of a claimant’s refusal determine whether or not it is reasonable for an employee to be asked to give up his employment rights? This is nothing to do with a case-by-case basis, but an absolutely universal principle that would apply to everybody. If a would-be employee decides that he does not want to give up his rights, this is nothing to do with his particular case, but a general principle. Can the noble Viscount respond?
I can only re-emphasise that when a case is taken on a case-by-case basis, this means that, if an individual is seeking a job and an employee shareholder position comes up, the Jobcentre Plus and the officials within the system will be looking at the individual’s case. It is their job to determine the way forward in relation to the employee shareholder position that has arisen.
My Lords, the noble Viscount ended by saying that he hoped that I would withdraw the amendment in light of the reassurances that he had given. With great respect to the noble Viscount, he gave no reassurances whatever. Though I am not intending to press the matter today, the Committee will have to draw its own conclusions from the total absence of reassurance which the Government have provided so far. Not only have they not provided any reassurance, but they have not even given the Committee the basic information that we need to be able to make a judgment as to whether there is any validity in the statements that the Government have made to the effect that issues relating to the new employee shareholder status will be taken account of by DWP decision-makers.
The noble Viscount has a disarming manner, and we commiserate with him for having to defend this proposal to the Committee—I would not wish to have to do so myself. However, when he says that we need to be sympathetic to the Government’s position because this guidance is 3,000 pages long, I feel bound to point out that it is the Government who are seeking to change the law; it is not Members of your Lordships’ House who are seeking to do so. The fact that the guidance is 3,000 pages long is not a defence for the Government not having prepared for changes which they are proposing to inflict on the country and declaring them to Parliament before we change the law. They say that changing 3,000 pages of guidance is a laborious job. I am sure that it is: I spent a good part of this morning trying to read the guidance and to make sense of it. Goodness, even legal eminences of the height of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would struggle with the complexity of the guidance which the DWP issues. If the Government are saying that they need more time, your Lordships would be very happy to give it to them if they wish to withdraw Clause 27 from the Bill and then bring it back when they have got their guidance in order so that we can then look at it with the clause to which it refers. There would be a generally warm reception to such a proposal from the noble Viscount.
I just want to re-emphasise what I was trying to say about the document being 3,000 words long. I wanted to reiterate that this is no small task. One may well say, “You should’ve done it before Committee stage today and certainly before Report”, but as the noble Lord knows, I cannot at the moment give a guarantee that it will be ready by Report. I simply wanted to state that this is a major document, a lot of detailed work is going on, and it will come.
My Lords, I apologise for intervening on an intervention, but I just wanted clarification on this. The noble Viscount just said that the document was 3,000 words long, but I understood that we had been told earlier that it was 3,000 pages. There is some difference.
My Lords, I repeat: it is the Government’s responsibility to prepare the changes to the law and the guidance that they wish to make and to present them to the House before we change the law. The fundamental point is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, made—the difference in respect of these contracts is that employment rights are being withdrawn. The fundamental question, on which we need to see the guidance, is whether the withdrawal of these rights is itself a reason why unemployed people are permitted to decline to attend interviews or accept jobs. If it is not a reason then nothing has changed. This clause therefore flatly contradicts the assurances that have been given to Parliament that the new employee shareholder status is voluntary. I think that that is a very significant point which your Lordships will wish to take into account when we get to Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 82 withdrawn.
Amendments 82A and 82B not moved.
83: Clause 27, page 34, leave out lines 17 and 18
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly at the beginning of this debate because I want to comment on the noble Viscount’s contribution. In the amendments in my name in the group, I simply specify all the rights that it is proposed should be withdrawn through the new employee shareholder status so that the Government will have an opportunity to defend their decision to withdraw them in each case and to provide a longer notice period for early return from maternity and adoption leave. As the noble Viscount knows, we are opposed to each of the withdrawals of rights in Clause 27. The Government have not had the opportunity before your Lordships to explain their justification for the withdrawal of each of these rights. By putting these amendments down, I am giving the Government the opportunity to do so. I beg to move.
My Lords, when I spoke to the first group of amendments I declared my interests as an entrepreneur. I forgot also to declare that in a former life I used to play cricket with Mr Adrian Beecroft, who is a very charming man and a very fine opening bat and cover fielder. However, to my knowledge he has no personal experience of starting or running a business. It strikes me that the authors of this clause have about the same amount of experience as Mr Beecroft in that area but are probably not as good batsmen.
I have two specific questions to address to the Minister. First, which of the rights that this clause requires employees to forfeit is going to enhance their business’s chances of success? Secondly, which of those forfeited rights do the Government think will improve the motivation and commitment of these second-class employees?
First, I apologise for the fact that I have been abroad and therefore not able to follow that part of the Bill that has gone through since I last spent time on it.
On these amendments, I also declare an interest as the founder of a successful small business and as having worked in other successful small businesses. I have to say to my noble friend that I cannot imagine any circumstances whatever in which this would be of any use to any business that I have ever come across in my entire life. One of the problems with government is that not many people who run businesses are in it. I can genuinely say that in 16 years as a Minister, I was one of the few people who had run a big business. Since ceasing to be a Minister, I have run a number of small businesses which are happily getting larger. That is the right way round.
I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to explain in detail why these changes, which are now open to businesses, will be of help. I have not found any businesses that thought that they would be of help. Having explained that, perhaps my noble friend would be kind enough to explain why, if the changes are good in these circumstances, they are not done for everybody. If there really is a huge advantage that would make lots more new jobs, perhaps the proposal is rather limited. I do not think the Government think that, otherwise they would not have limited it in this way.
My problem—and this is why these are very useful amendments—is that difficulties can arise because some employment law is complex. Surely the answer is to deal with employment law as whole, try to make it simpler, remove the anomalies and face up to some of the real difficulties. I speak as someone who, in a relatively small business, had five people on maternity leave at the same time. I do not think that it was the fault of anybody in the business that that happened, but it had an impact. It is very hard indeed for a small business to handle. However, if I were setting up my business again, I certainly would not do it on this basis. I would not take on anybody without proper protection. I have always found it better to be more generous than absolutely necessary by law in the provision one makes. I want a business in which people feel they will have a real say and will play a real part.
I suppose this is a plea, really; I do not understand the connection. I have thought hard about it but I do not see it. Unless the Government can explain the connection—and the amendments in this group enable the connection to be made—I do not know what this proposal is doing in this Bill. I do not know where it comes from and I do not see the need for it. For me, this is the most mystifying moment of a pretty mystifying Bill. This particular moment is more mystifying than others.
I say that as somebody who is entrepreneurial, works hard, believes in capitalism and deeply disagrees with some of the words in the other parallel Bill where I have had to deal with the terribly old fashioned trades union approaches that sounded as if they were coming from 1945—
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, speaks from her seat, but she has put forward some opinions that I have not heard since 1945. I am not on that side but I still do not see this. I hope that the Government will help those of us who are naturally on their side to get out of this miasma—this difficulty of understanding the connection of the two halves. I have great sympathy with the question asked earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. What is the connection and how will it improve things, one by one? I am very ready to be converted but at the moment I am finding it rather difficult.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, posed a series of questions about the benefits of Clause 27. Perhaps I may add to the burdens on the Minister, who is playing a very straight bat—he would be a credit to the cricket team of the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger. I will put these questions to the Minister in the hope that he can explain whether the Government have taken account of two very troubling legal consequences that will follow from the current contents of Clause 27 and which are relevant to the amendments in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
First, some of the rights that the employee or prospective employee is being invited to sell are concerned with issues that are particularly sensitive in anti-discrimination law. There is the right to request flexible working, which is obviously of particular importance to working mothers—as is the eight-week notice period that would be imposed for the return to work after maternity leave. These are very sensitive matters. It is inevitable that employers who seek to rely on an agreement which purports to override rights in this context will face legal challenges under EU law, the expense of which will far exceed the amounts that they would pay to employees for giving up those rights. Have the Government taken that into account in deciding on the merits or otherwise of Clause 27?
I would be grateful if the Minister would comment also on a second legal implication. If the law allows for the sale of unfair dismissal and redundancy rights, it is inevitable that aggrieved employees, when they are dismissed or made redundant at some stage in future, will not go quietly. Having sold their unfair dismissal and redundancy rights, they will formulate their grievances by reference to whatever legal avenue has not been sold. Nothing in Clause 27 affects—and because of EU law nothing in Clause 27 could affect—their rights of protection under anti-discrimination law. So instead of claiming unfair dismissal, or seeking compensation for redundancy, the aggrieved employee will contend that the dismissal or redundancy was based on a prohibited ground. Therefore, my second question to the Minister is whether the Government have really taken into account that any employer that enters into one of these agreements—and it seems highly unlikely that there will be many of them—will not be protecting themselves against the litigation that will result when an employee is dismissed or made redundant in future.
Clause 27 requires employees to give up a range of rights. Many of these rights are ones that the Beecroft report recommended should be removed from employees more generally. The Secretary of State, Vince Cable, hit out at Beecroft’s unfair proposals. He said:
“One of Mr Beecroft’s recommendations was a suggestion to bring in no-fault dismissal. In my daily conversations with businesses, this has very rarely been raised with me as a barrier to growth. Businesses are much more concerned about access to finance or weak demand than they are about this issue”.
Given that the clause is in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill and that the Secretary of State does not believe that giving up the right to claim unfair dismissal is a barrier to growth, why should we ask workers to give it up under this new status? In fact, Mr Cable went even further and stated that it would be counterproductive. He said:
“At a time when workers are proving to be flexible in difficult economic conditions it would almost certainly be counterproductive to increase fear of dismissal”.
I never thought that I would support Mr Beecroft, but he recommended a compensated no-fault dismissal. The Government are going one step further and do not even provide compensation for no-fault dismissal under the employee shareholder status. Given how controversial Mr Beecroft’s proposals were in the first place, and the Secretary of State’s protest, does this not give us further reason for the removal of subsections (2)(c) and (d)? Beecroft also recommended the removal of the right to request flexible working—another of his recommendations that the Government are trying, perhaps, to sneak in by the back door through this status for certain employees. However, I have to say that this directly contradicts the coalition agreement and the mid-term review, which states that the Government will extend,
“the right to flexible working to all employees”.
How can the Government fulfil that pledge when they will be removing the right from employee shareholders?
My Lords, Clause 27 is about providing further choice to the range of employment statuses that employers can consider and choose. I want to take this opportunity to explain to the House the difference between “employee shareholder”, “employee” and “worker”. This will help us understand the context of the noble Lords’ amendments.
People and companies already have a choice in how they wish to work and how they structure their workforce. The choice is usually between hiring someone as a worker, an employee or on a self-employed basis. The difference between these employment statuses is the level of obligation and mutuality to provide and carry out work, and the rights associated with the statuses. I hope that the following explanation goes a little way to answering some questions that my noble friend Lord Deben raised.
Workers have limited rights such as the right to be paid the national minimum wage, protections against unlawful deductions from their pay, paid annual leave and rest breaks, and protection against discrimination, which includes on the ground that they work part time. Employees who meet the relevant conditions have the following additional rights: a general right not to be unfairly dismissed after two years working with the same employer; automatically unfair dismissal rights; statutory redundancy pay; statutory minimum notice period; statutory collective redundancy notice period; TUPE, which was mentioned earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner; the statutory right to request flexible working; and, finally, if they work in a large business of more than 250 employees, they have the statutory right to request training.
The self-employed have limited employment rights linked to discrimination and health and safety. The new employee shareholders will have more rights than someone taken on as a worker, but not all those of an employee. They will not have: first, the right to unfair dismissal except for automatically unfair reasons or on discriminatory grounds; secondly, the statutory right to request flexible working or certain statutory rights to request training; and, thirdly, statutory redundancy pay.
I turn to employee shareholders wishing to return to work earlier than originally planned from maternity, additional paternity or adoption leave. When returning early from these types of leave, employee shareholders will need to give 16 weeks’ notice, compared to six weeks for employees returning from additional paternity leave or eight weeks for employees returning from maternity leave or adoption leave. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, proposes with Amendments 83 to 89 to take out the employment law references in Clause 27, where it states what rights the employee shareholder will have that are different from those of an employee. This includes removing the distinguishing features of the clause and therefore it will remove choice from the options that employers can consider when taking on staff. The amendments would create an employment status that is essentially the same as that of “employee”, but where the employee shareholder would be given fully paid-up shares. In effect, we would be regulating for an additional employment status that essentially already exists in that of “employee” in order for the individual to be given shares. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, knows—he is supported in this by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—employee ownership, either through direct employee share holdings or shares held in trust on behalf of and for the benefit of employees, is already a well known concept that is in use in the labour market. Companies are already free to offer shares to their employees.
My honourable friend Jo Swinson, the Minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, is chair of the implementation group taking forward the recommendations of the Nuttall review which is promoting the employee ownership agenda. The Government do not want to create an additional burden by regulating for something that can already take place in the labour market and that an employer can already offer. Such action would not help growth.
I should like to answer some questions that were raised by noble Lords. First, my noble friend Lord Deben stated that, as he saw it, there was no support from business. I have listened very carefully today to the comments made by other noble Lords. It might be helpful for noble Lords to know that Neil Clifford, the chief executive of Kurt Geiger, the shoe retailer, has stated that this measure would,
“provide a massive boost to innovation and enterprise”.
Becky McKinlay, who runs Ambition, a marketing communications company, is cited as saying that,
“she would have welcomed such a scheme when she started her marketing communications company, Ambition, six years ago because she could not afford to outbid her peers on wages”.
I could go on.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, raised the issue of why we think there is a statutory right to request flexible working and why it is unnecessary for employee shareholders. The statutory right to request flexible working creates a structure for conversations between employees and employers about changes to ways of working that will be mutually beneficial. Employee shareholders will have a greater interest in the performance of their employer as it is linked to the value of their shares. We consider that employee shareholders are more likely to request flexible working if they think it will help them and the company and do not need the statutory right to request. Employee shareholders can still make non-statutory requests for flexible working.
My noble friend Lord Strasburger raised the issue of which rights will increase motivation. As we see it, this new employment status will increase motivation as the employee shareholder will own shares from the outset and capital gains on these shares of up to £50,000 will not attract capital gains tax.
The overall package of the employee shareholder, with the extra risk as well as the extra reward, is designed to ally the employee with the employer more readily. The motivation will be there because the employee will feel more aligned to the objectives of the company and will help more towards building and growing the company. That is one of the clear objectives behind this scheme.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, raised the issue of the legal consequences of selling rights. A full equality impact assessment has been done and no significant discrimination issues were identified. On the European law issues, I can reassure him that no European guaranteed rights have been affected.
My noble friend Lady Brinton asked whether we can ensure that an employee shareholder is treated fairly and not sacked just because their employer does not like them or has argued with them. An employee shareholder would still retain the majority of protections such as, as I mentioned earlier, automatically unfair dismissal rights and rights underpinned by EU law and discrimination legislation. If an employee shareholder was dismissed in any other circumstances, they would not be able to claim unfair dismissal at an employment tribunal, which we understand. Employees do not get the general right to protection against unfair dismissal or to statutory redundancy pay until they have been with their employer for two years, so there are already employees who currently do not have these rights.
In conclusion, Clause 27 creates a new employment status that gives companies and people more choice. This new status is a creative scheme for companies and people who wish to use it. It gives them a new opportunity to better share the risks and rewards of the business. I hope noble Lords realise that this new, innovative status is a force for good in the labour market, and that they will withdraw their amendments so that companies and people can benefit from this additional choice.
I was slightly confused by some of the Minister’s earlier response on the employee status for employee shareholders. I would welcome clarification on whether they are actually regarded as employees, generally, or whether the only respect in which they are not employees is where those rights have been specifically removed by the Bill.
Could my noble friend help the House, before we come to Report, by giving some estimate of how many businesses the Government think will take up this proposition? Given that many of us feel there will be few, it would be helpful to know why we need this big piece of legislation if we do not think many people will take it up. How many employee shareholders of this kind do the Government expect to have in two years’ time?
I thank my noble friend for that question. It is extraordinarily difficult to ascertain a precise figure. It can be only a guesstimate, and I hope that the House will respect that. However, from the figures that we have ascertained, we think that around 6,000 companies will look at this seriously and take up this issue. However, that is, as I say, a guesstimate.
The Minister has just said that it is not clear whether an employee shareholder is an employee. I remind him of the advice that we have received from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which looked at this situation in some detail. It came to the view that an individual who is an employee shareholder was nevertheless a worker, so workers’ rights would normally be applied to that individual. The Government have tried to get over that by saying that because this is all voluntary, the employee voluntarily gives up their rights. During the course of our recent discussion, it has become clear that that is certainly not voluntary. In a situation in which people face either unemployment or the possibility of loss of employment support from the state, it is not really very voluntary, is it?
It may help the noble Baroness if I state again that the employee shareholder agreement between the employer and employee is a specific new contract for a new employment status. However, if, for example, the employer has not fulfilled the basic criteria for ensuring that the employee is properly included and for meeting the criteria for that employee to be an employee shareholder, there is a default position whereby the employee shareholder would revert to being an employee or worker, whatever is applicable. There is a safeguard in place for them.
The noble Viscount said a few moments ago that it is the Government’s estimate that up to 6,000 companies might wish to take advantage of Clause 27. Would he kindly undertake to publish before Report the evidence upon which that assessment has been made?
I would be delighted to furnish the noble Lord with whatever information I can find, but I remind him—he may well know the statistic—that the total estimated number of businesses in the UK is 4,794,000. Therefore, breaking down the figure to 6,000 perhaps re-emphasises that this employee shareholder status is not for every company. It is aimed at a particular type of company, and it is important to round off this debate by emphasising that this is not as big a deal as some noble Lords are making it out to be.
I apologise for intervening again. Can the noble Viscount explain what niche group of companies this provision would interest, given that in our discussion on the first group of amendments, when I outlined the problems facing high-tech, leading-edge companies going through rapid growth—which Ministers have told us was exactly the audience the clause was aimed at—the Minister said that it was probably not appropriate for them? Perhaps he could cite the type of company it is appropriate for.
I re-emphasise that the Government stick by their idea and plan that the provision will suit small start-up companies, but not exclusively those. However, from my noble friend Lady Brinton’s comments, it certainly does not seem to suit the companies that she has been in touch with, and I thoroughly respect that. I say again that this will not suit every company, but I have given quotations from individuals who seem to think that this is a good, innovative new scheme, which I very much welcome. I hope that it will take off, despite the fact that it is obviously quite contentious.
My Lords, we are full of admiration for the way the noble Viscount seeks to defend these proposals before the House. However, I am afraid that I find myself with the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who said that this was a mystifying moment in a mystifying Bill. The mystification gets greater the longer the Government seek to defend the proposal, and does so in three respects. The first is the figure of 6,000, which is in the impact assessment and which the Minister has undertaken to write to noble Lords to defend. However, I have read the impact assessment and the figure appears to be simply plucked out of the air. There seems to be no justification whatever for a figure of 6,000, as opposed to—
I apologise for interrupting and thank the noble Lord for giving way. I made it absolutely clear that this was a guesstimate. When pressed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on the figure, I felt it appropriate to give a figure to the House, and I am quite prepared to come back to the House on it. That figure may indeed change, but I reiterate it and suggest that it is not worth going further on this particular issue.
My Lords, all I need to do to let these proposals collapse is allow the noble Viscount to carry on speaking because, proposal by proposal, his case disintegrates. It turns out that the 6,000 figure is indeed a mystifying figure that has no basis in fact. I am thinking of why he might have chosen that figure—it appears to be twice as long as in the guidance for DWP decision-makers. Perhaps that is the basis on which the figure has been devised. We look forward to hearing the justification for it, and therefore whether this measure is incidental or fundamental.
The truth is that the Government cannot possibly know. However, so far as your Lordships are concerned, we have a responsibility not to put on to the statute book provisions that could be seriously detrimental to the health of the nation. No part of the health of the nation is more significant than people at work and their rights there. It is not satisfactory simply to proceed with the provisions on the basis of figures that have been plucked out of the air.
The second thing that has become clear is that the Government suffer from two fundamental problems of schizophrenia. They want more entrepreneurial zeal in the economy, as we all do, but almost none of the entrepreneurs to whom it looks to generate new companies, new ideas and new ventures supports the proposal and believes it will have the effect that the Government state. A number of noble Lords with a great deal more experience of business ventures than me have made that point. I think I quote the noble Lord, Lord Deben, correctly as saying that he could not imagine “any circumstances whatever” in which he would seek to offer these contracts to employees in a small start-up company as a way of motivating them.
The fundamental problem that the Government have with the proposal—the basis upon which it has been put forward is that it will stimulate in the context of the lack of growth new, vitally needed entrepreneurial zeal and companies—is that the entrepreneurs and companies to which he is looking to provide that energy do not believe that this proposal is necessary. On the contrary, almost all of them are critical because they believe that the reputational damage that it will create may undermine the cause that the Government are seeking to promote.
However, a third big tension that has come through clearly from the noble Viscount’s remarks is that the Government speak with two voices. One part of the Government celebrates the extension of employment rights and says that that is a fundamental objective of the coalition Government established in 2010, at the very same time as another part of the Government celebrates the withdrawal of those rights as being necessary to stimulate the economy in a period of economic downturn. I have a view on these matters, but surely the Government should make up their mind which is true. Is the extension of employment rights essential to stimulate the economy to provide greater flexibility and protection for those at work, or is the withdrawal of those rights necessary to spur economic growth? At the moment, one Minister comes here on one day and says that it is the withdrawal of rights, and another Minister comes here on another day and says that it is the extension of rights.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, referred to the Deputy Prime Minister. At the very time the Bill was going through the House of Commons, he made a speech entitled, “Greater equality for a stronger economy”. That was the title on his website. He said:
“I can also confirm today that the Government will legislate to extend the Right to Request Flexible Working to all employees”.
At precisely the same time, this legislation was brought forward: legislation that withdraws the right to request flexible working from employees who are on these employee shareholder contracts.
Are the Government not aware that there is a fundamental problem when one Minister says one thing and another Minister says another, and the two are totally at variance?
That was indeed why I asked the noble Viscount about employee status and whether this was a new form that would circumvent that. On our Benches, we welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments about increasing flexible working rights to all employees. I remain concerned that this is under threat for the employees of perhaps around 6,000 firms that may or may not take up this particular option.
My Lords, I note what the noble Baroness has said. I strongly support the extension of the right to request flexible working. I think what the Deputy Prime Minister said in that respect was a very positive step forward. I am seeking to reconcile what the Deputy Prime Minister said from the Benches 45 degrees away from me from what the noble Viscount has said, as I understand it, representing the same Government. This is about how we put together the different parts of the Government and understand what position is being presented to the House.
Finally, I will comment on what the noble Viscount did not say. He did not respond to the point about the Beecroft report. The Beecroft report is of some significance and has been referred to by other noble Lords. My understanding of the genesis of this employee shareholder proposal is that, having sought to implement the Beecroft report and having been stopped from doing so by our colleagues on the Lib Dem Benches, in particular by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Chancellor of the Exchequer then sought to bring back the proposals in a watered-down form in return for the award of shares valued between £2,000 and £50,000. Vince Cable probably now regrets having done that deal, but he did so because he believed it would be niche and insignificant, although 6,000 is on the large side, if that is the figure the Government are now putting forward. He thought that if nobody took it up, this was a deal he could just about live with.
However, the acute irony of the proposal before the House is the one which the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, identified: that in respect of one of the fundamental rights being withdrawn—the right not to be unfairly dismissed—the Beecroft proposal for almost all employees who are likely to suffer under this scheme is significantly more generous than the shares for rights proposals encompassed in the Bill. The Beecroft proposal, as she said, required a tax-free payment related to the employee’s salary up to a maximum of £12,000. I took Beecroft to be proposing that that would be the figure for the no fault dismissal fee: £12,000. The offer that employers who are seeking to recruit employees with minimal rights need to make is £2,000. That is, £2,000 in shares, the value of which may be significantly less when they come to trade them in.
Given the choice between a firm contractual requirement to offer £12,000 for no fault dismissal, and £2,000 worth of shares that may be worthless by the time an employee comes to exercise them, Beecroft might actually turn out to be preferable. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 83 withdrawn.
Amendments 84 to 92 not moved.
93: Clause 27, page 36, line 5, at end insert—
“(7) This section shall only come into operation after an independent assessment of the revenue implications for HMRC, conducted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, in respect of each financial year from 2014 to 2030, is laid before both Houses of Parliament.”
My Lords, we are now on the issue of the cost of these proposals to the Exchequer. I would like to invite the noble Viscount to explain more fully to the House what he believes the revenue implications would be as a result of the proposals. The independent assessment by the Office for Budget Responsibility suggests very large figures might be at stake, which is why we are asking for figures to be made available in respect of each financial year up to 2030.
I quote from the policy costings document published by the OBR alongside the Autumn Statement:
“There are a number of uncertainties about this costing”—
that costing being the figure of £80 million over the current spending review period—
“The static cost is uncertain in part because of a lack of information about the current amount of CGT arising from gains on shares through their employer. The behavioural element of the costing is also uncertain for two main reasons. First, it is difficult to estimate how quickly the relief will be taken up; this could make a significant difference as the cost is expected to rise towards £1 billion beyond the end of the forecast horizon. Second, it is hard to predict how quickly the increased scope for tax planning will be exploited; again this could be quantitatively significant as a quarter of the costing already arises from tax planning”.
I would like to invite the noble Viscount to expand on what the OBR said so that we have a better basis for understanding the potential costs of what could be an extremely expensive proposal once the tax planners get going on the opportunities available to them.
My Lords, I apologise for referring again to the coalition agreement, but I am concerned that the tax loopholes proposed under the CGT allowances for employee shareholders conflict with the coalition agreement because the shares that a company gives to employee shareholders will not be liable to CGT.
Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, has said:
“Just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn such behaviour, the same government is trumpeting a new tax policy which looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry”.
He refers to it as a “£1 billion lollipop”. I am prepared to negotiate the billion with Paul Johnson on the understanding that it is only likely to affect a small number of companies. Or perhaps not, because we know that advisers to companies, if they find a loophole will find a way of making it apply to everyone.
The Government have pledged in the coalition agreement to clamp down on tax loopholes and tax avoidance. The agreement says:
“We will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat proposals”.
These include exactly what I have cited earlier. Why do the Government in the draft Finance Bill 2013 create this loophole where shareholders can avoid paying capital gains tax? I quote:
“Legislation will be introduced to exempt all gains made on disposals of up to £50,000 worth of ‘employee shareholder’ shares from capital gains tax”.
The coalition agreement also says:
“We will seek ways of taxing non-business capital gains at rates similar or close to those applied to income”.
We have pledged, as a Government, to raise capital gains tax and yet we are removing it for shares related to employee shareholders. I support the amendment because we need to understand the cost to the Treasury. I would welcome an explanation from the Minister why it is acceptable for one small group of shareholders to be exempt from CGT when the Government are moving in the opposite direction for all others.
I hope that my noble friend will be very careful in his response to this because underneath there are two falsities. The first is the schizophrenia on the side of the Opposition. On the one hand, they say that no one will be taking it up, and on the other hand they say that it might be very expensive. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, should get away with that argument.
I also do not want him to take too seriously the comments about exempting people from capital gains tax. I declare an interest as the chairman of a number of small companies, which are, I hope, growing. I have the feeling that there is a kind of nastiness abroad on this issue, because capital gains tax is very much a destroyer of value and of enterprise. One problem in this country is that many people do not like other people being wealthy as a result of hard work and employment. I dislike that kind of attitude very much. If that is part of the coalition agreement, it is a bad part, because we need a society in which people are encouraged to put their lives into businesses and to gain some of the benefits of that. One reason the United States is so much more successful than other countries is that it has been more sensible about that bit of its taxation. It is very stupid about a lot of other taxation, but on that bit at least it has said that there is a real reason for encouraging people to create businesses. One way of encouraging them is by giving them a lower rate of tax on capital gains and dividends than they would have elsewhere. That seems perfectly right, and one problem that we have is that we have not taken that seriously.
I am not worried about this proposal because I do not think that anyone is going to take it up and so they are not going to lose any money. However, I hope that my noble friend will be kind enough to suggest that the Government will do a great deal more to enable people, through employment, to create wealth and to take some of that wealth in a way that we do not allow them to do at the moment.
It really is sad that we have a society in which it is perfectly proper to say, “We’ve really got to stop people possibly gaining from the creation of jobs”. That is what we mean when we say that we want to make sure that nobody benefits. That is not what I want to happen—and it will not happen—but I hope that in his answers my noble friend will make sure that he does not commit the Government to not taking some pretty radical steps to remove and reduce taxation in a number of areas that will encourage job creation.
I should like to clarify the point that I was trying to make about finding a tax loophole that provides a source of employment for many industry experts. We need a capital gains tax system which is fair and which certainly encourages growth. I do not think that we would suggest anything other than that from these Benches. The concern arises when, on the one hand, the Government say that they want to make a clear, open and transparent level playing field but then, on the other, they create a category that appears to have a built-in loophole.
I am sorry if I misunderstood my noble friend, and of course I accept what she has just said. I find it very hard when the guns are turned on this issue because of the loose use of the words “tax loophole”. This is not a tax loophole; it is a decision—a mistaken decision, I think—to encourage people to do something through a tax concession. I repeat: it is not a tax loophole. I shall tell noble Lords what a tax loophole is. It is Amazon organising itself so that it runs people out of the high streets of Britain by ensuring that it does not pay proper taxes. A tax loophole—I declare an interest as being concerned with the business of packaging recovery—is when Amazon can put packaging on the marketplace and not pay the proper price of so doing. That is what a loophole is. It is not a loophole if the Government specifically say that in particular circumstances people will pay a lower rate of tax. That is a proper use of the taxation system. For goodness’ sake, do not let us use the term “loophole” in this instance. There are some very big loopholes which we ought to be stopping and, for me, Amazon is the biggest example of a company that does not pay proper tax wherever it operates.
I apologise for intervening again and I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. There is absolutely no doubt that we agree about Amazon. Perhaps I may give an illustration from the early 1990s of the sort of loophole that I was alluding to. The Conservative Government of the day created generous tax facilities for investors in the business expansion scheme. When the scheme was originally devised, it was intended for small high-growth companies—where have I heard that before in this debate? Investors would get those tax benefits because they were investing in something that carried a slightly higher risk. I confess, as the bursar of a Cambridge college, that within two or three years every Oxbridge college, and subsequently every university in the country, used the business expansion scheme, and that tax benefit was quickly closed down by the Government, who described it as a tax loophole.
It is exactly that sort of loophole that I want to avoid. I absolutely understand the Government saying that it is supposed to be a niche group of companies that will apply for this, although I still wait to hear which ones they are. However, I would not want to see some sort of tax provision that suddenly made this proposal attractive to the majority of companies in this country. That was not the intention and it certainly has not been the tenor of the debate.
My Lords, first, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Deben for extolling the virtues of employee ownership, which is very much part of the debate today.
This amendment stipulates that the clause should come into effect only once an independent assessment, conducted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, is laid before both Houses setting out the impact on the Exchequer for each financial year between 2014 and 2030.
The OBR’s role is to provide independent scrutiny and certification of the Government’s policy costings ahead of the Budget and the Autumn Statement. The OBR certified the costing of this measure submitted by HMRC using the methodology set out in the policy costings document published at the Autumn Statement, which is available on the HM Treasury website.
The main duty of the OBR is to examine and report on the sustainability of the public finances. The OBR performs this duty independently, with complete discretion to determine the content of its publications and its work programme of research and analysis.
The Government do not publish annual breakdowns of the cost of operating specific tax measures beyond the end of the forecast period, and this has been the case for some time. This will apply to the employee shareholder status in the same way as it applies to the cost of operating any other specific tax measures.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is understandably concerned about the need to support the Government’s agenda for fiscal sustainability. I emphasise that we believe that investment in policies such as this one—aimed at reducing costs on business and increasing productivity —is exactly what is needed at this time. Strong, sustainable and balanced growth is the key to long-term fiscal sustainability. However, I assure the noble Lord that if further provisions are needed to limit its overall costs, we will have the opportunity to include these at a later date.
At this stage, I think it is worth picking up some points that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised concerning the OBR. The OBR, with its responsibility, is right to note that predicting the take-up of new policies such as this one is very difficult. We recognise that, but its comments need clarification. First, the OBR refers to tax planning and not avoidance. Encouraging take-up of this targeted employment policy should not be misconstrued as encouraging avoidance. Secondly, any rise towards £1 billion is estimated to occur well beyond the end of the forecast period—in fact, beyond the 2020s, when national income is likely to be more than twice as high in today’s money. Finally, the draft legislation published on 11 December includes a number of anti-avoidance provisions. If further provisions are needed to address particular avoidance risks, we will have the opportunity to include them at a later date with a view to ensuring that this policy does not become disproportionately costly to the taxpayer.
It gives me the opportunity to answer the noble Lord’s question by saying that the OBR has stated that in the long term this policy could cost up to £1 billion. That figure relates to the future period beyond the 2020s. However, there are uncertainties associated with costs so far into the future and I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that. The Government expect that the new employee shareholder status should help to stimulate business and entrepreneurial activity by affording businesses greater choice on the contract that they can offer to individuals while ensuring that appropriate levels of protection are maintained. If the policy achieves this aim, the cost, which is expected to reach £8 million in 2017-18, is proportionate. The draft legislation published on 11 December sets out a number of anti-avoidance provisions to prevent the manipulation of the capital gains tax exemption on shares received under the status. If further provisions are needed to address particular avoidance issues, as mentioned earlier, the Government will have the opportunity to include these at a later date with a view to ensuring that this policy does not continue.
My noble friend Lady Brinton raised the issue of whether the tax incentives were in effect a tax avoidance scam, if I can put it somewhat indelicately. She did not put it in that indelicate way. The Government have already included provisions to deal with various types of possible abuse in the draft legislation on capital gains tax exemption. If other forms of abuse come to light, the Government will make the necessary changes to combat that with a view to ensuring that the policy does not become disproportionately costly to the taxpayer.
Some concern has been raised, notably by my noble friend Lady Brinton about the capital gains tax exemption. This relates particularly to people taking up this new employment status, and although I touched on it slightly earlier, I shall address it directly. We believe that employee ownership is a good thing. We want people to become employee shareholders and to benefit from the exemption provided. Where it is used properly it should be seen as a measure of success and people should take advantage of this particular exemption. However, the draft Finance Bill published on 11 December takes a robust line on the potential misuse of the exemption and provides several measures that would prevent the misuse of employee shareholder employment status. There are rules to prevent those who control a company, such as company directors, holding exempt employee shareholder shares if they control 25% or more of the voting power in the company. Similarly, rules will prevent people connected to those who control the company, such as spouses or children, benefiting from the exemption. We will prohibit employees from benefiting from multiple £50,000 limits by entering into multiple consecutive employee shareholder contracts with related companies. Instead when related companies are involved, an employee will have a single £50,000 limit applying to all shares received by related companies. We will also ensure that those looking to get around the limit by using company liquidations to dispose of and then receive new exempt shares cannot do so. We will require two years to pass between the liquidation of the company and the employee receiving further exempt shares. This treatment strikes the right balance between preventing abuse and ensuring that genuine entrepreneurs are not unfairly hit.
Finally, the legislation will prevent the manipulation of share values, for example, by placing restrictions on them so that an employee can receive shares that are in fact worth more than £50,000. For the purposes of the capital gains tax exemption the value of shares will be based on an unrestricted market share. Taken together the measures and the safeguards outlined in the draft legislation will ensure that the tax benefits of a new employment status can be misused. I hope that that goes some way to satisfying the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.
Is not the fact that if this works, arguing about how much it costs the Treasury is not sensible? If it works, it will create jobs and make wealth, and the cost to the Treasury will be nil. If it does not work, nobody will take it up and the cost to the Treasury will be nil. It seems to me that this is not a necessary discussion. The only thing that we do not want is for it to be misused. The noble Viscount has explained how the Government intend to do that. No doubt they will do their usual thing of bringing in some more measures to stop it if that were to happen. The real fact is that this is one part of the argument that really does not hold water. We have to accept that if it does not work we have wasted a bit of time, which is not terrible, but if it does work we will have been proved wrong and I will be happy about it. The Treasury will not lose out because there will be jobs, people employed and money being made, which is really worth while.
I am grateful to my noble friend for clarifying that and, of course, he is absolutely right. I felt that it would be helpful to the House to outline the safeguards and to reiterate that the Government have thought very carefully about these issues. Taking up some of the comments made by my noble friend Lord Deben, I emphasise again that it is a risk-reward status as the employee shareholder. The award is: yes, the opportunity is there to be given from between £2,000 and £50,000 and to be aware that if it is £20,000, £30,000, or whatever the figure might be, and the share price happened to double, the total amount, including the doubling would be free from capital gains tax. That is the reward bit, but equally, I am also realistic enough to say that it is possible that the shares might indeed be worth nothing. That is the risk, and it is best to be quite straight and open about that particular issue. With that in mind I hope that the noble Lord is willing to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I do not intend to press the issue today. Let me be brief in response to the noble Viscount. We face a straightforward case of schizophrenia here. One part of the Government tells us that the biggest problem facing the country is debt and another part of the Government produces a proposal, which we are debating today, for a new tax break for substantial shareholders that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates will ultimately cost up to £1 billion a year. When we debate the entirety of Clause 27 on Report, this latest example of schizophrenia will be one of the reasons why we will seek to delete it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 93 withdrawn.
Debate on whether Clause 27 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I have put down a Motion that Clause 27 should not stand part of the Bill to stimulate a last, wider debate on the issue. I note that the noble Viscount has gone over the same ground several times and I feel for him at having to do it yet again. Perhaps our remarks before he speaks will encourage him to make some new points that will help inform the Committee.
There are three essential points to be made on Clause 27, the first of which relates to the extension of employee share ownership. This is an objective that noble Lords in all parts of the House support. Indeed the Government had an official review—the Nuttall review—which reported last year on the extension of employee share ownership. That review made some 30 recommendations. I have the report here. Most of them were excellent recommendations, some of which the Government accepted and some of which they were unable to accept. I simply note that not one of those recommendations of the review that the Government set up specifically to promote wider share ownership related to the creation of an employee ownership scheme akin to the one that we are debating today, involved issuing shares in return for the giving up of employment rights.
The question I want to ask the noble Viscount is: if this is such a good idea, why was it not recommended by Nuttall? Secondly, I want to reiterate all the specific problems relating to the scheme, which have become very clear in our debates this afternoon. There is the problem of compulsion in respect of benefit claimants and the opening to discrimination claims, which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, highlighted. That could mean that there will be an explosion of very expensive and difficult cases before employment tribunals because of the removal of essential rights that will leave employees with no other recourse than discrimination when they believe that they have been badly treated. There is the problem of cost which we have just debated in the previous group of amendments, and a whole set of issues that we have not debated but which were debated in the House of Commons about the status of the shares themselves, such as the voting nature of the shares and how the shares will be tradable, given that most of them are intended to be among the 6,000 companies that the noble Viscount has highlighted. There are start-up companies whose shares will not be listed, so we must ensure that there is a market in which they can sell shares and terms under which they sell them, given that they may have to sell them back to their own companies when those companies are under some stress. There is a whole set of issues relating to the working of the scheme which makes it highly problematic and which may leave small shareholders, in particular, who do have not much money themselves without resources to take independent financial and legal advice. They could be very seriously exposed.
The noble Lord, Lord Flight, told the Committee earlier that if he was 40 years younger, he would relish the opportunity to take advantage of the status and that it would have spurred him to the creation of new companies and new employment. If they were the groups we are talking about, that would be one case. But, as legislators, we are concerned that substantial numbers of employees who do not have access to financial and legal advice will be straightforwardly exploited by these provisions.
The third point I make on the clause as a whole is that almost nobody to whom this proposal is targeted welcomes it. The Government’s own consultation showed that an overwhelming majority of those who responded, including those who responded from within the business community, either thought that this proposal was irrelevant or were actively hostile to it. The noble Viscount cited a few instances earlier of individuals who support it. However, of the 219 consultation responses, only five welcomed the proposal. Five out of 219 is about the same ratio of supporters to opponents as we have seen in your Lordships’ House as this proposal has been debated. That seems to me a compelling reason why the Government would be wise to withdraw the proposal before we debate it again at Report. I beg to move.
My Lords, I agree with all that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. Clause 27 is wrong in principle. It contains inadequate safeguards both in relation to the loss of welfare benefits for those prospective employees who do not wish to give up their statutory employment rights, and also in respect of the need for legal and financial advice for those who are prepared to give up those rights. Clause 27 will also be expensive to the Treasury if there is a take-up, or there is going to be very limited demand. I note that the noble Viscount has attempted to provide the evidence on which the Government estimate that 6,000 companies may be interested in Clause 27. I look forward to seeing that material. I, too, very much hope that the Government will listen to the debates that we have had this afternoon, and take the wise step of withdrawing Clause 27 before we come to consider it again at Report.
My Lords, although I welcome the suggestion that the Chancellor might allow there to be no income tax on grants of up to £2,000, as I understand it, the spirit of the provision is more about the go-getter employee shareholders. I would suggest that if there is income tax on amounts over £2,000, this scheme will not get anywhere because the amount of tax that people pay will be quite disproportionate to the risk they are taking on their equity and to the values—as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, pointed out—of what they are giving up. It is important to sort out by the time we return on Report precisely what the income tax position will be.
My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Pannick. I will not repeat the detail but there are three or four brief points that I would like to make.
I remain concerned about the clause in principle. After our debate today I am even more concerned about the confusion surrounding jobseeker’s allowance recipients going for job interviews and about some of the details of the eligible tax benefits. It is also clear that employers do not want it: the estimate of 6,000—given the response to the consultation to which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred—really says it all. Very few employers want it.
The noble Viscount referred to the balance of the risk and reward but there is another “r” in the equation that he did not mention. He omitted reduction—the reduction of rights for employees certainly seems to counterbalance the risk/reward of a long-term holding of shares. That remains one of the most worrying elements of this clause.
Finally, I want to reiterate the point about breaching the coalition agreement specifically in relation to flexible working. I believe that the coalition agreement talks about flexible working for all employees, not excluding one particular small cohort who may have shares that may be of value at some point in the future, but also in relation to any compensation for unfair dismissal where the proposals of the Government are worse than Beecroft.
I hope the Minister will take on board the comments that were made this afternoon. I would prefer the clause to be removed, but it will certainly need substantial amendment at Report if it is to be anywhere near fit for purpose.
My Lords, I have not spoken to the other amendments to the Bill although I did refer to this issue on Second Reading. Rather than repeat what has already been said extremely eloquently by previous speakers, I just want to remind the House what the Employee Ownership Association has said about this clause. They are the people who are most close to this subject and have the most interest in making sure that this area flourishes, which I think we would all want to happen. The association said:
“Our Members have three main concerns on this matter.
Firstly, proposed legislation has appeared in a Bill before the Government consultation on the possibility of deploying this model of employee ownership has finished. Indeed it has only just started.
Secondly, our Members are very aware that there is no need to reduce the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing so would significantly boost the number of employee owners. Indeed all of the evidence is that employee ownership in the UK is growing and the businesses concerned thriving, because they enhance not dilute the working conditions and entitlements of employee owners.
Thirdly, the appearance of this measure in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill appears to our Members to be completely disconnected”—
as my noble friend Lord Adonis has said—
“to the recommendations in the Nuttall Review. That Review contained a series of recommendations on how to grow employee ownership and none of those recommendations suggested the dilution of worker rights”.
I think that that says it all.
My Lords, we have heard many opinions about this clause. The Government are taking this action to offer flexibility and choice for both companies and people, and this is the right thing to do. The Government know from their engagement with employer organisations and business that there is concern about facing weak or vexatious claims in employment tribunals. This new employment status will address some of these concerns especially in new and fast-growing companies. Importantly, this new status gives people the opportunity to own part of their company and benefit from any growth with favourable tax treatment, which was mentioned earlier in our debate today. Employee shareholders will receive at least £2,000 of shares in the employing company or its parent company. Gains on the first £50,000-worth of these shares will not be subject to capital gains tax. Employee shareholders will have different employment rights compared to employees and workers.
Before a company offers a person an employee shareholder contract, they will need to think carefully about the implications of offering equity in their company. There are many possible implications, but the current owners will first need to be comfortable with diluting their shareholding, an issue which was raised by my noble friend Lady Brinton earlier. If the shares being offered are part of a fresh issue of shares, this will result in each existing shareholder holding a smaller share in the company. This may not be something that the existing shareholders would be willing to do, particularly if they worked hard to build the company up and invested time, money and know-how in that company.
It is important to recognise that an owner of a company, when giving shares to an employee shareholder, is giving away not only the value of the shares issued but possibly a share in the future profits and some of the control. Offering shares to employee shareholders could in some circumstances lead to a shift in the balance of power in the company. Companies will also need to consider if they can afford to issue shares to potential employee shareholders. If they can, it could impact on the dividends of existing shareholders or entail reserves being reduced.
The rewards for both parties could be significant. Let us remember that companies will have completed an extensive recruitment and selection process, ensuring that any new personnel have the right mix of skills and knowledge. Therefore they will not offer this new status of employee shareholder lightly. A growing company may consider that by offering this new status it is demonstrating a long-term commitment to that person. In turn, the employee shareholder will be able to reap the rewards of a successful company.
I reiterate that this status will not be suitable for all, just those where it makes commercial sense for both parties. We envisage such companies to be those that want to encourage a culture of engagement and shared ownership and—this is the most crucial point—where they expect significant growth and want to use this incentive to attract and retain high-calibre individuals.
Similarly, a person being offered an employee shareholder contract will need to consider the implications of being an employee shareholder. This is a most important point to emphasise. They will need to consider carefully the terms and conditions of the employment on offer and decide whether it is suitable for them in both the long and short term, as we all know that the value of shares can go both up and down. Some potential employee shareholders may not disclose at interview their long-term career plans. Perhaps they expect to stay in the role for only a short time. It may be that they are moving abroad in the future or expect to undertake further studies—that is their own business—and they may not want to invest their time in a company to realise long-term rewards. Equally, someone looking only for short-term work may consider that this is exactly the right kind of contract as they could benefit from any short-term growth in the share value.
To ensure that this new employment status is suitable for both the company and employee shareholder, both will need to be confident that the status is right for them. This means that the company may have to sell its growth prospects to the potential employee shareholder as both a viable investment as well as a potential employer.
It is important that we take time to understand how this new status will work in practice and I am sure that doing so will allay some concerns that have already been raised. Clause 27 establishes three clear qualifying criteria, all of which must be fulfilled before a person can be considered an employee shareholder. The first criterion is that the person must agree to become an employee shareholder—it is their choice. Secondly, the person must receive at least £2,000-worth of shares in the employing or parent company that are fully paid up at the commencement of the employment. This means that these shares will have no debts attached to them. Finally, the individual must not make any payment, in money or in other form, for the shares given. If any of these criteria are not fulfilled and the person is still taken on by the company, they are likely to be legally considered an employee. This, again, addresses the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, earlier. This means that they will have all the employment rights of an employee.
I recognise that there have been some concerns that existing employees will be coerced into accepting a change to their employment contract that would make them employee shareholders rather than employees. The Government do not want people to be coerced into the new employment status. This is why Clause 27 establishes clear protections for existing employees. The clause creates two new employment rights—the right not to be unfairly dismissed and the right not to be subjected to a detriment if an employee turns down an employee shareholder contract. This means that if an employee chooses not to sign an employee shareholder contract and is then overlooked for promotion or disadvantaged in any other way, that person could present a claim to an employment tribunal. Secondly, if an employee does not sign an employee shareholder contract and is dismissed for refusing to do so, it would be automatically unfair.
It is clear that all parties will need to consider carefully whether this status is right for the company. Giving away equity is not to be done lightly and many will not think that this is the right course of action for them. Potential employee shareholders will need to consider whether they want to have shares in the company. To help both parties, the Government will be offering guidance on what both individuals and companies will need to consider before entering into a contract of this type. The House will not need any reminder that we discussed guidance earlier today.
Clause 27 stipulates that the minimum value of shares is £2,000 in the employing or parent company. The clause does not stipulate the type of shares that a company can issue, nor does it stipulate the type of shares issued. We believe that this is best decided by the companies in order to suit their commercial situation. The shares may have varying rights, but it is up to them to decide what is right for both parties. Some companies may want to offer significantly more than the £2,000 minimum value of shares. In some companies, new employee shareholders will want to be fully involved as the company grows and take an active role in the progress of the company.
The Government have considered what happens to the shares when an employee shareholder leaves the company they work for. We expect that employers and employee shareholders will agree sensible terms for the disposal and buyback of shares. These terms should normally be part of the contract that the employee shareholder signs. However, many different scenarios might result from an employee shareholder holding shares. The shares’ value may change; the shares may have been traded; in other cases, the employee shareholder may want to keep hold of the shares on leaving the employment and the company may agree to this. The Government do not want to make rules that tie the employers’ hands; they want to give them flexibility in what they and the employee shareholder decide is the best way to dispose of shares at the end of the employment relationship.
However, the Government recognise people’s concerns that employee shareholders could be at a financial disadvantage if companies decide not to offer a fair way of realising the value of their shares. The Government amended the clause in the other place to include a provision to provide power to regulate buyback where the company has undertaken to buy back shares.
I shall now answer briefly some, if not all, of the questions raised by noble Lords in this debate on the clause. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, raised the issue of who was supporting this new status. I could give many quotes but a powerful one has come from the major legal firm of Freshfields. It says:
“For companies whose shares have a real potential for significant growth over a relatively short period, the free gift of shares combined with the available capital gains tax relief may assist companies in attracting and being able to hire, or indeed retain, high calibre or skilled employees who may be prepared not only to waive the required employment rights but to accept below market salaries. This may assist small cash-strapped enterprises”.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised the issue of the consultation process. He said that he thought the consultation responses showed no or very little support for the measure—in other words, why were we continuing with it? We consulted on how to implement this option but not on whether we should proceed in principle. It is a good additional option for companies and individuals. It adds to the existing status of employee and worker and provides those taking it up with flexibility as well as with an opportunity to share the reward and risk that comes with having an interest in a growing company. We recognise, again, that not all companies will wish to use this new status, and that is entirely understandable. What is important is to give those companies which wish to take people on in this different way, and to award them share equity, an opportunity to do so.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, raised the issue of the Nuttall review and asked how this fits in with the employee ownership agenda. “Why was this not recommended by Nuttall”? I think was the precise question that he asked. It is important not to confuse employee shareholders with the employee ownership agenda. Some companies may wish to offer employee shareholder contracts to their workforce to encourage ownership. It is one of many ways of encouraging ownership. The employee shareholder status is separate from the Nuttall review as it is a new employment status.
In conclusion, I return to my opening remarks. The aim of this employment status is to offer people and companies further flexibility and choice in the employment contracts they may use. Removing the clause from the Bill would deny this opportunity to companies and people who have the appetite to share in the risks and rewards of a growing company.
Clause 27 agreed.
Amendment 94 not moved.
Clause 28 agreed.
95: After Clause 28, insert the following new Clause—
“Guidance on employee shareholder status
The Secretary of State shall, within two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, set out in guidance—(a) the preferential tax treatment applicable to employee shareholder status including illustrative examples;(b) the respective rights of—(i) employee;(ii) employee shareholders; and(iii) worker employment status;(c) an explanation of how employee shareholder status gives individuals a share in the risk of companies; and(d) a model employee shareholder contract for early stage companies.”
My Lords, the amendment was intended to be part of the debate on Clause 27. Given that the employee shareholder status is new and that there are still differences of view about its structure, it is obvious that there will be a need for guidance and, in particular, a need for a model employee shareholder contract for early-stage companies. I beg to move.
My Lords, in Amendment 95 my noble friend Lord Flight proposes a new clause relating to the publication of guidance on the new employment status. He makes a good point on the need for guidance. The Government agree that guidance should be available to help companies and employee shareholders fully understand all the implications of offering or accepting these contracts. It has always been our intention to publish guidance on the new status. The issue of guidance is an important one. Good, clear and accessible guidance will be vital to both companies and employee shareholders. We want to ensure that people enter into these contracts with their eyes open.
I will outline what the Government propose to publish by way of guidance and explain what that guidance will cover. The .gov.uk website is the new centralised place for publication of government services and information. The website already has a number of pages that provide an overview of the different types of employment status—such as worker and employee—and list the rights that are attached to them. We will provide an equivalent page on the new employee shareholder status.
Within these overview pages there are links to more detailed information on each individual employment right, and these pages will also be updated to take account of the new employment status. People who look for information on employee shareholder contracts will be very clear which rights they are entitled to and which rights do not apply to the status. This will help them to decide if an employee shareholder position is suitable for them.
Changes to these pages are being revised at the moment and we will be in a position to share draft copies with you before this clause is debated on Report. The Government will also update guidance on the tax treatment of shares and capital gains tax to make it clear to employee shareholders what their obligations are and to set out how the associated capital gains tax exemption and other relevant tax treatments will work.
Any contract of employment is an agreement between an employer and employee and is the basis of the employment relationship. We believe that contracts work best when people and companies are free to decide the terms that best suit their business needs, and to attract the right people to their companies. We will provide guidance for companies to enable them to understand the new status. Companies would do well to take note of the comments of my noble friend Lord Flight on the importance of drawing up good employment contracts that apply equally to the statuses of employees and workers.
While I understand my noble friend’s intention behind this amendment, we believe it is not necessary to legislate on this matter. To state this in the Bill would just introduce more legislation, which in turn would create more red tape for businesses. As the Government have already committed to publish guidance, I hope that with these assurances my noble friend will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
I apologise for intervening. I am grateful for many of the points the Minister raised about guidance and other things that will come forward to us, I hope, before rather than on Report. On a technical point, I wonder whether those who raised issues in this debate could be copied into any correspondence rather than it just going to the single noble Lord who raised the point.
Amendment 95 withdrawn.
Clauses 29 to 32 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.