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Businesses: Employee-shareholder Scheme

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the level of interest from businesses in the United Kingdom in the employee-shareholder scheme, in the light of figures given to the Financial Times in response to a freedom of information request.

My Lords, the employee-shareholder employment status came into force as recently as 1 September 2013. Companies are not required to register or apply to government to use it, and no qualitative assessment of levels of interest has yet been made. However, since 1 September, the online detailed guidance was viewed nearly 15,000 times, with people spending, on average, more than seven minutes on the pages. This clearly shows an initial level of interest in the scheme.

My Lords, last year these Benches argued passionately against the shares for workers’ rights scheme. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it should be scrapped. According to the freedom of information request, the number of enquires that the BIS has received in respect of the scheme is the magnificent total of 19. Let us be honest; it is a flop. Is it not time for the Government to cut their losses?

My Lords, it was not unexpected that this issue would return to your Lordships’ Chamber, and the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, has obliged—although perhaps slightly earlier than I might have hoped. The status has only been introduced recently, so the phrase “early days” springs to mind.

In terms of the point that the noble Lord made about the freedom of information response given to the Financial Times, it was on the number of inquiries that the Government had received on the status. I know that the noble Lord submitted a Written Parliamentary Question to me relating to the number of people who had become employee-shareholders. There were two distinct questions that required different answers.

My Lords, I wonder, when the history of this period is written up, whether this rather shoddy episode might not be taken as representative of the very low quality of policy-making by this coalition Government. This policy was commissioned from a party funder—though not, as far as I know, a hairdresser. It was based—by his own admission—on his private views and published without supporting evidence. It was announced by the Chancellor as the centrepiece of an otherwise empty and vacuous Budget, foisted on the Business Department and pushed through this House by the plucky noble Lord. It is widely derided in this Chamber and openly rubbished by the deputy leader of the coalition, but—and people will remember this—it was voted through by these people on a whipped vote. So I ask the Minister: what is his next trick?

It was interesting to listen to the noble Lord opposite on that. We are doing more than the previous Government did to encourage employee-stakeholders in businesses. This particular scheme is one of several that are geared towards helping, and giving some flexibility to, young, innovative companies starting up. I am pleased to say that there were 270,000 business start-ups in the UK in 2012, the highest annual figure since 2007. In 2012, there were 15,000 more business start-ups than business closures—the second year in succession that this has occurred. Clearly, there is some success coming through, so I do not agree with the tenet of the argument.

My Lords, on the Government’s successes in employee-share extensions, will my noble friend tell us the number of Post Office employees who took up the offer of shares in the recent privatisation? On employee rights, will my noble friend tell us when the initiative of the Secretary of State for Business to have a more generous award on minimum wage rates will come to a conclusion?

First, my noble friend is probably referring to the Royal Mail rather than the Post Office. I can say that around 150,000 eligible Royal Mail employees have been given shares under the free shares offer. Only 372 employees opted out of the scheme, which means that approximately 99.75% of eligible employees received the free shares that they were offered. This is the largest employee-share scheme of any major privatisation for 30 years.

On my noble friend’s second point, the national minimum wage is a vital safety net in protecting the low paid. We have already said that we need to do more to make sure that the benefits of growth are shared fairly. My right honourable friend in the other place, Vince Cable, has asked the Low Pay Commission to extend its expertise to look at what economic conditions would be needed to allow the national minimum wage to rise. The convention is that if there is a rise, it will commence in October, and that the report will be in the spring of 2014.

My Lords, will my noble friend indicate whether the Government are happy that the private equity industry is using the employee-shareholder scheme to create incentives for highly paid executives that will enable them to be awarded shares and avoid capital gains tax?

My noble friend would expect—and will not be surprised—to hear me say that it is not my department’s responsibility to formulate tax policy, and that the figures that were given during the course of discussions on the Bill were very much estimates.

My Lords, while employee share schemes may be less than perfect, and we have heard some negative remarks about them, does the Minister accept that the concept of spreading ownership as widely as possible in our society, turning earners into owners and enabling all parts of society to share fully in the asset growth of the nation is a very good theme that all parties, and their leaders, should strongly encourage, as we have sought to do in the past?

My noble friend makes a very important point. Indeed, it is true that businesses where employees have a stake in the company have been seen to perform better than those where that is not the case. The employee ownership index has outperformed the FTSE all-share by an average of 10% since 1992, so successful employee-owned businesses do see the engagement of the workforce as an integral feature of how the business is run.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Ministers in this House, when they answer Questions, answer on behalf of the Government, not on behalf of their departments?