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Employment Rights

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve employment rights for workers in Great Britain.

My Lords, the UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world. As a result of government action, there are now more employees on the payroll than ever before, and the unemployment rate is close to record lows. We have raised the national living wage to the highest amount yet, and on Friday we supported the allocation of tips Bill and the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill in the Commons.

My Lords, after last night’s debate it is even clearer now that, far from improving employment rights, this Government are attacking them, even against the will of many employers. With new taxes on trade unions, a nudge and a wink to fire and rehire, and changes in the law to let bad bosses break strikes with agency staff, this is an ideological and unwarranted attack on the trade union movement and it will come back to haunt this Government at the next election—at least, I hope so. I ask the Minister again: why are the Government launching an all-out war on the trade unions? Will he accept responsibility for poisoning industrial relations across this country, as many employers are warning?

I could not disagree more with the noble Lord. Given his record it is understandable, but the noble Lord is obsessed with trade unions, which, as I keep reminding him, represent only a minority of workers. The best workers’ right is the right to a job, and this Government are delivering record levels of employment.

We have a national shortage in the workforce of hundreds of thousands, which is a crisis for future growth. Just yesterday we saw a new report from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, which has found that the UK economy could potentially lose up to £39 billion a year from 2024 if we do not resolve labour and skills shortages. Does the Minister agree that improving employment rights is an important way of attracting people back into the workforce and retaining those already in it?

The noble Baroness makes some valid points. We are very proud of our record on workers’ rights. It is about getting the balance right between a flexible economy and allowing employers to manage their workforces. That is what results in the record levels of employment we now have.

My Lords, if the Minister is proud of our record of employment rights, would he agree with me that IR35 has created unfairness in the workplace by taxing 500,000 freelancers and contractors as employees for tax purposes while denying them employment rights? Is it not now time to fundamentally rethink IR35 and, as the Conservative manifesto promised, implement what was contained in the Taylor review?

I have some sympathy with the points that my noble friend has made, but, if he will forgive me, I will leave this for the Chancellor to sort out.

Let us stay on this point. The Minister talks about the record of this Government. Paul Scully, in the other place, said that we will see employment measures come forward in both this Session and before the end of the Parliament. Apart from the statutory code of practice on dismissal and re-engagement, do the Government have a timetable to legislate on the 51 recommendations they agreed to and accepted from the Taylor review? When will we see a timetable for implementation?

We have said that we will legislate when parliamentary time allows. Many of the proposals are being taken forward in Private Members’ Bills that the Government support, and some do not require legislation or can be done through secondary legislation.

My Lords, it seems to me that we have come some way from when David Cameron asked me to do what I could in the House of Lords to help trade unions. When will we have an employment Bill? Does the Minister not think it a good idea to do a bit of love-bombing of the trade unions, to try to get them, as they always are, to work in the national interest alongside the Government? That will get us the best level of co-operation. They may be not highly unionised jobs but some areas are, particularly in the public services, and we need them on our side.

My noble friend did a good job of working with the trade unions, and of course we are willing to talk to and work with all those who are willing and prepared to work with us.

My noble friend Lord Woodley made an important point about workers’ rights, but if you are disabled, the chances are you are not in work at all. That is why we need to close the disability employment gap. In a Written Answer to a Question asked on 7 March, the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, told me that the Government have a £151 million Access to Work budget encouraging employers to take on people who have disabilities. Can the Minister say how many disabled people have secured jobs through this scheme?

I am afraid that those figures are not available to me, but I am very happy to write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, it will come as a great shock to many workers that the Government believe that their legislation gives workers the best protection in Europe. Would the Minister like to take the opportunity to spell out some of those measures, because I do not think many Members on this side understand what he is talking about?

As I said, the best right that workers can have is the right to a secure and well-paid job, which is what we are providing. I have also outlined during previous debates that we have employment rights in this country far in excess of most of the EU standards and which were retained under the Brexit withdrawal Bills. We have an excellent record of workers’ rights, and we should be proud of it.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that one of the big crises facing the labour market at the moment is the withdrawal of many older workers from the workforce altogether? In the context of employment rights and the previous question, would the Government consider paid leave for carers of elderly loved ones or relatives who need to take some time off, just as mothers with young children need paid maternity leave? Would the Government consider facilitating the return of older workers to the labour force in that manner?

My noble friend makes an important point. It is vital, particularly if we are suffering shortages in some sectors, to get as many members of a productive workforce into work as possible. We will keep all these matters under review to see how we can ensure getting more carers back into work.

My Lords, we were hoping that the mythical employment Bill would include a form of the failed shared parental leave scheme, under which only 2% of mothers who started maternity leave in 2021-22 transferred some shared parental leave to the father. It is now more than four years since the Government started their review of shared parental leave, potentially so important to gender equality. When will they finally produce the outcome?

That study is still going on, and I am sure we will let the noble Baroness know as soon as we have a conclusive statement to make on it.

My Lords, does the Minister see any contradiction between cheering key workers during the pandemic and then condemning them when they strike to get the decent pay rise they have been denied for many years?

I do not see any contradiction. This is about getting a balance between those workers who have the right to go on strike and all those other workers who have the right to go to their hospital appointments, take their exams and go to their place of employment.

My Lords, I wonder if the noble Lord could help me. In answer to an earlier Question, the noble Lord, Lord True, explained why the Government have not yet introduced their promised unpaid leave for carers. If I understood correctly, in answer to the noble Baroness a moment ago, the Minister said that he was sympathetic to paid leave for carers. Can he explain the Government’s thinking on this and tell us when we are likely to see some action?

I do not think that those answers are contradictory at all. It is always nice to go further in these matters. We keep all of these employment rights issues under review. As I have said, we have an excellent record, and we will go further when it is possible to do so.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in response to a question in February 2020 on thresholds for constitutional ballots. He said:

“If one had a threshold related to voter turnout, the inflexibility of such an arrangement could easily prove counterproductive and have the paradoxical effect of equating non-participation with no vote, because low levels of participation can void a given result.”—[Official Report, 12/2/20; col. 2265.]

In the light of those comments, what plans does the Minister have to review the trade union legislation which imposes just such ballot requirements on trade unions?

We keep all these matters under review but I do not think there are any specific plans to change those thresholds at the moment. It is very important that, before any strike action, there is proper consultation with employees and a proper secret ballot takes place, so that we can make sure that strike action has support from the workforce.