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Employment Bill

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 6 April 2022


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to introduce the Employment Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019.

My Lords, in the unavoidable absence overseas of my noble friend Lord Woodley, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government are committed to building a high-skilled, high-productivity, high-wage economy that delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work. We will do that by continuing to champion a flexible and dynamic labour market. As we build back better, we will continue to make it easier for people to both enter and remain in work.

My noble friend Lord Woodley’s Question could not be more topical. Our employment laws failed utterly to protect the jobs, incomes and careers of 800 P&O seafarers, sacked without consultation or warning and marched off their ships by security guards. The Government’s proposals in response are set out in the all-Peers letter dated 31 March from the noble Baroness, Lady Vere. Not included is legislation to strengthen, and in particular enforce, employment rights to prevent repetition of such sacking by ambush. I ask the Minister: why not? Is it connected with the reports that the proposal for an employment Bill in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech was overruled last week by the Prime Minister?

The BEIS Secretary of State has formally commissioned the Insolvency Service to urgently undertake a thorough inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the recent redundancies made by P&O Ferries that the noble Lord referred to. We will not hesitate to take further action if we find evidence of wrongdoing. He will know that the Secretary of State for Transport has also committed to applying the national minimum wage to seafarers.

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed the catastrophic reduction in the number of self-employed people in this country following the implementation of IR35? What has happened to out manifesto commitment that we would implement the recommendations of the Taylor report, which would have provided an opportunity for us to have an employment situation that would encourage the kind of high-tech investment and growth that the Government say they want?

I certainly know the problems that my noble friend is identifying with IR35 and will communicate them to HMRC and the Treasury.

My Lords, if you are disabled you are 30% less likely to have a job than if you are able bodied. In London alone, there are 400,000 unemployed disabled people. In some London boroughs, just one in four disabled people has a job. What will the Government be doing, if they have no Bill, to address this crisis among people with disabilities?

We have an excellent record for job creation in this country, and our unemployment rates are much lower than many others on the European mainland, but I totally accept the point the noble Lord is making. We must all redouble our efforts to make sure that those who are disabled get the same opportunities to work as the rest of us do.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that when the Bill eventually arrives, it will progress the so-called good work agenda, enabling workers with variable hours to request a more stable and predictable contract? I am sure the Minister is aware that the EU transparent and predictable working conditions directive will introduce similar rights on an EU-wide basis from August 2022. Will he confirm that the reason for delay in the Bill is not to avoid similarity with Europe on these issues?

Of course all EU employment directives were transposed into UK law, but they are a minimum standard in many circumstances. As the noble Lord will know, we go far beyond EU minimum standards and we should be proud of that.

My Lords, technology has intruded further into the world of work over the last five years. Many developments are helpful, but some are not. Almost 60% of workers now report some form of technological surveillance at work, often through so-called bossware, often introduced without consultation with unions and workers. How will the employment Bill eventually keep pace with this development, and will it introduce a statutory requirement on employers to consult and disclose the use of algorithmic and AI surveillance on employees, and protect workers from excessive surveillance by technology?

I am afraid that I cannot commit to any specific measures that might be in any future legislation that the right reverend Prelate will be aware of. I recognise the concerns he addressed; it is very important for employers to consult their workforce fully before introducing measures such as this.

My Lords, the 2019 Conservative manifesto stated that it would

“encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.”

On 9 February 2022, BEIS Minister Paul Scully reasserted the Government’s commitment

“to introducing new employment measures”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/2/22; col. 1059.]

covering a range of matters. It is now being reported in the Financial Times that the long-awaited employment Bill is not expected in the Queen’s Speech in May. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the excellent debate led by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, exposing the urgent need for flexibility to stem the rapidly increasing loss of older workers from the workplace, especially due to health reasons and caring responsibilities. If there is no employment Bill in the Queen’s Speech, does this mean that the Government no longer believe that employees deserve this right to request flexible working?

I cannot commit to any particular measures, as I said in response to an earlier question. However, we have a very good employment law framework in this country, as evidenced by our unemployment rate, which is less than half that of France—which has a much more rigid employment framework. Therefore, flexible working is a good thing in this country because we have lower unemployment. The best right anyone can have is to have a job. It is right that we do not change the employment law framework until we are sure that any changes will address the needs of businesses and workers in the post-Covid economy.

My Lords, the response from the Government on P&O has been excellent. It has also shown the need for an employment Bill. At the end of this Session, the pledge in the last Queen’s Speech will disappear. However, we need it in the new Queen’s Speech because, at this moment, many workers are applauding what the Government have done with P&O and are looking to them to honour the promise of the employment Bill made two years—it is more urgent now, not less. I ask the Minister to go back to his department and lobby hard for it to be in the Queen’s Speech.

I have heard what my noble friend has said, and I know the close interest which he takes in these matters and his close relationship with the trade unions. I will certainly take his message back to the department but, as he will be aware, I cannot predict what may or may not be in the Queen’s Speech.

My Lords, the all-Peers letter to which my noble friend Lord Hendy has already made reference contains an excellent proposal to ask European ferry operators and unions to agree a common level of seafarer protection on European ferry routes. Will the Minister undertake to consider legislation to achieve such sector-wide collective bargaining at national level too—as was recently implemented in Spain and proposed in New Zealand?

Part of the problem with P&O is that the ferries were registered in another European country, so presumably it was applying European law in those circumstances. Clearly there is an issue with ferries, which by their very nature cross borders, and I know that the Secretary of State for Transport has announced nine measures, including minimum wage requirements for seafarers operating from British ports. He will want to take those issues forward as fast as he can.

My Lords, will the Minister not admit that this is not the only election promise which this Government have reneged on? They have reneged on the triple lock for pensioners, and now they have reneged on the national insurance rise. When can anyone ever believe what this Prime Minister says ever again?

I am sorry to hear that the noble Lord is disappointed with our progress on employment, but I am delighted to share with him the great news that unemployment was down again last month to 3.9%, one of the lowest rates in Europe. If we had adopted some of the proposals of the Opposition to have a rigid, inflexible labour market, unemployment would go up and many people would lose their jobs. Surely that would be a bad thing for workers’ rights.

My Lords, it is understandable that the Minister cannot give any commitment to what will be in the Bill when it comes. However, given that it was in the 2019 election manifesto and the Government were elected on the basis of delivering that promise, can the Minister give a commitment that they will in fact implement a Bill before this Government go out of office?

I can certainly give the noble Lord a commitment that we are going to attempt to take forward many of the measures that were outlined. There are a number of different vehicles that would enable us to do that, but we have to proceed carefully and cautiously. We do not want to damage the excellent, flexible labour market that we have in this country, which has delivered excellent results, including under the last Labour Government, who also decided not to change our flexible labour market.