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Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform

Volume 811: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the terms of reference of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform include (1) reviewing existing employment rights, and (2) making recommendations for reform; whether trade unions will be consulted as part of any such review; and when they expect the review (1) to be completed, and (2) to be published.

My Lords, the terms of reference for the task force have been published on GOV.UK. The task force has been commissioned by the Prime Minister to consider opportunities for regulatory reform independently, and to report to him in April. It is a matter for the task force to decide its focus within its terms of reference, and a matter for the Prime Minister as to whether the report will be published.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. On 19 January, BEIS confirmed that a post-Brexit review of workers’ rights was under way; on 25 January, it was confirmed that the plan had been scrapped; on 2 February the task force was announced with a remit to

“scope out … how the UK can take advantage of our newfound regulatory freedoms”.

The chronology provokes nervousness but, for the moment, I do not pursue the reduction of workers’ rights. Instead, I ask: who outside government is being consulted and when will we see the Government’s employment Bill?

My Lords, as to the employment Bill, I am not the Minister responsible but I will answer on the matter before the House. I draw the noble Lord’s attention to the third part of the terms of reference, which mentions

“maintaining the Government’s commitment to high environmental standards and worker protections”.

I hope that allays his fears.

My Lords, the Covid pandemic has affected young people particularly hard in their education and when beginning their careers. To this end, and in terms of “Build back better” and this task force, will the Government put an end to the pernicious practice of unpaid internships? The Prime Minister and the public are in favour of a prohibition. Does my noble friend agree that this would be a clear illustration of levelling up and a labour market that works for everyone?

Again, my noble friend asks me a question which goes well beyond my remit in the Cabinet Office. I note and respect what he says. The Government’s position is that, for some internships, early years in the labour market can help in securing work and gaining experience. However, he raises important issues. As for the task force issue, that is an independent matter for the task force.

The UK has a hard-won reputation, internationally,

“as a great place to set up and scale a business due to its stable and predictable regulatory environment, competitive product and labour markets and dynamic financial sector”.

Regarding the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform, does the Minister agree that we should beware of opportunism at the expense of a more strategic approach and that regulation must be in the service of building a competitive, dynamic and future-focused economy, including net zero, digital, R&D and innovation, and life sciences, for example? Does he also agree that with the UK’s leadership of the G7 and COP 26, we have a chance to reinforce our commitment to international co-operation on equity standards and burnish our credentials as a leading innovator across international regulatory reforms?

I fear I was not able to catch all the matters to which the noble Lord referred. While I do not favour opportunism, I agree that there is great opportunity out there, which flows from the kind of innovation that he describes. Britain certainly intends to be a world leader.

My Lords, given the recent Supreme Court decision in the Uber case, does the Minister agree that it is time to unscramble the unnecessary and divisive distinctions still made in statute between workers and employees, and to remove the taxation differences that affect both groups?

My Lords, I note the noble Lord’s comments and will obviously refer them to the Ministers responsible.

My Lords, in the terms of reference to which the Minister referred, the aim of TIGRR is to “reduce administrative barriers”. Since January, hundreds of thousands of businesses have started to encounter extreme administrative barriers doing things that had previously been seamless. Because of their poor negotiating, the Government have left these businesses—from fishing to cosmetics, advanced manufacturing and food—with miles of new red tape. Does he agree that it is a bit absurd to set up this task force when they have dumped literally container-loads of red tape on British business?

Absolutely not, my Lords. Again, the noble Lord does not show the respect due for the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. The reality is that this task force is asked to look at reducing barriers in whatever context, and I draw his attention to great steps forward. For example, there is the trade agreement with Japan.

My Lords, in response to three questions today, the Minister has said that he cannot answer because it is not his department. He is no novice at the Dispatch Box. Can I gently remind him that at the Dispatch Box he answers on behalf of the Government, not just one government department? My specific question is around the task force that he refers to; none of the questions on it should be a surprise to him at all. I have read the terms of reference. They are about business, environmental standards and workers’ protection, but the only members of this task force are three Conservative MPs. Does he think it has any credibility when there are no representatives of employers or employees on the task force? Would it not have been better set up as a Conservative Party task force, to report to the leader of the Conservative Party, rather than being able to get Civil Service support when it is clearly just a Conservative Party body?

My Lords, I disagree. As to the first part, of course I acknowledge that I answer on behalf of government, but the competence of a Minister to answer on specific questions outside his departmental responsibility is not always the same as that of the Minister responsible. I refer comments on, as I said in another answer. Concerning the second part of the noble Baroness’s question, it is entirely reasonable for any Prime Minister to seek blue-sky thinking, and ideas outside and in parallel to the Government. Mr Blair, for example, did exactly that when calling in the noble Lord, Lord Birt.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm whether the remit covers the plight of part-time working women, particularly those who work, for example, in supermarkets on zero-hour contracts and who have no rights to paid holidays, sick pay or pensions? What is the value of what would be a worthwhile exercise in having the task force if the results are not to be published?

My Lords, I did not say that the results were not going to be published, but that it would be a matter for the Prime Minister whether they will be. That will happen after the report is presented, at the end of April. On the specific issues concerned, as I have said before, I will draw my noble friend’s points to the attention to those responsible. I am sure that within the terms of reference it would be open to them to look at some of the issues she describes.

On 31 January, Sir Iain Duncan Smith wrote in the Daily Telegraph that

“Despite what the naysayers have said, their worst predictions have not come to pass—goods continue to flow”.

In fact, the ONS reports that exports to the EU were down 40% in January, in part due to the increased regulation brought about by Brexit. Does the Minister believe that Sir Iain Duncan Smith will bring a suitably realistic approach to chairing the task force, rather than the sort of blue-sky thinking in that Telegraph article?

My Lords, my right honourable friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith has an extraordinarily distinguished record in government in working on behalf of underprivileged people and the poor. I am sure that he will bring a very open mind to this task.

I declare an interest in that I am a member of the GMB trade union, which has spent the last five years fighting legal battles on behalf of Uber drivers. The Supreme Court ruled last month that Uber drivers were indeed workers, which means that they are entitled to holiday pay, the minimum wage and all the other benefits of being classified as workers. Does the Minister welcome the Supreme Court’s decision and undertake that the Government will bring forward emergency legislation to clarify the position of gig economy workers and address the problem of bogus self-employment?

My Lords, again, that goes beyond my specific remit but I will draw my colleagues’ attention to what the noble Baroness says. Of course the Government consider with respect any judgment made in the courts. I assure her that among those organisations which I understand the task force has reached out to are trade unions.