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Workers’ Rights

Volume 828: debated on Monday 6 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to legislate to ensure high standards of workers’ rights.

Over the past year, we have proven our commitment to supporting workers across the UK by raising the national living wage to its highest rate yet. The Government are supporting six Private Members’ Bills to increase workers’ rights. These deliver enhanced protections for new parents, unpaid carers and hospitality workers. They also give all employees easy access to flexible working and workers the right to request a more predictable contract.

My Lords, the Tories won the last election by promising improvements to employment rights, but we have seen completely the opposite. I am sick and tired of posing the same questions to the Minister time and again concerning the protection of TUPE legislation. We never get a straight answer, and I believe that it is disrespectful to this House. The Minister’s attitude to date has always been, “Let’s just wait and see.” That cannot possibly be right when we have employers and employees wondering what is coming round the corner—if, indeed, there are any fundamental changes to the Government’s thoughts on employment legislation. So, for the fourth time of asking: will the Minister confirm that TUPE will remain to protect workers’ wages and terms and conditions? Or, failing that, will he finally admit that the British people were hoodwinked at the 2019 election?

I thank the noble Lord for raising this matter, and I think it right that we look at employment rights. He asks what is coming round the corner, and I will tell him: the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill, the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill, the protection from redundancy Bill, the Carer’s Leave Bill, the employment relations Bill and the Workers (Predictable Terms and Conditions) Bill, all supported by the Government. Three of those Bills were brought into this House on Friday with the wonderful cross-party support of everyone here who believes in actually doing something for workers and giving them the protections this Government will afford them.

My Lords, do not workers’ rights apply equally to all our school leavers this summer, regardless of whether they were educated in the independent or public sectors? If those rights do apply, why has the Bank of England announced that independent sector pupils, including those on bursaries, will be excluded from its education presentations and group talks? Surely this is social discrimination. Will my noble friend approach the Bank and ask it to think again?

I thank my noble friend for that question. I saw that article myself and I was surprised by it. It is not for me to comment on the tour practices of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, but this is certainly worth further inquiry.

I want to come back to the issue of paid care workers. Care workers are skilled workers who are often subject to low wages and poor working conditions. Without urgent reform, this sector will continue to suffer from high vacancies that jeopardise the quality of care. Currently there are 165,000 vacancies, an increase of 55,000 from last year. Is not the answer that if more money is provided to these skilled workers, many of the problems the care sector faces will no longer exist?

I appreciate the noble Lord’s point. It is an incredibly important sector, and the approximately 1.5 million people who work in it are to be cherished and celebrated. The Government have put £7 billion into the sector over the last two years, which clearly is a follow-on from the crisis we faced during Covid. I will be pleased this afternoon to place a statutory instrument before this House to raise the national living wage and the minimum wage by a substantial 9.7%. All these things will help, but I am always aware that we must do all we can to support that important and vital sector.

My Lords, I think the Minister mentioned hospitality work. Freelance work has been a long-term and growing aspect of the economy, with 1.77 million freelancers contributing £125 billion to the economy. What attention are the Government going to give to those insecure workers’ rights?

I thank the noble Earl for that point. Hospitality has been an important focus for this Government, which is why we are introducing the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill, an important measure to ensure that, when you tip, the money actually goes to the service staff who have supported you. To my surprise, and probably that of many other Members of this House, in many instances it did not. These are the sort of Acts we absolutely need to focus on, and I am always delighted to have further conversations about how we can do more to protect this vital sector.

My Lords, the employment Bill that was promised back in 2019 has been promised time and again; in fact, on 20 different occasions we have been promised a comprehensive Bill that would deal with workers’ real concerns. Millions of workers in this country are on zero-hours contracts, false self-employment or other forms of temporary work, or stuck in low-paid employment, and now with the prospect of real fears and concerns about what will happen to their rights. Can the Minister explain why there has apparently not been time to bring forward a Bill that would give workers much-needed and urgent protection on everything from TUPE to sexual harassment to insecure contracts, yet the Government have found time to bring forward two red-rated Bills, on retained EU law and strikes, that will make it harder for workers to stand up for their rights?

I enjoyed that question because it bites into my time for answering questions, so I thank the noble Baroness. It is very relevant to realise that this Government have invested a huge amount of time in focusing exactly on this, and I would like to go through a few quick points. Apart from increasing pay by raising minimum wage levels, we have extended the ban on exclusivity clauses, which is vital for allowing flexibility in the workforce; we have introduced legislation to ensure that an equivalent to the minimum wage is paid to thousands of seafarers, who are in a sector that is very important to this country and needs protecting; we have closed loopholes that allowed agency workers to be employed on cheaper rates than permanent workers; and we have quadrupled the maximum fines for employers who treat their workers badly. I have mentioned the list of employment legislation that we are bringing in, and we continue to try to do more. If you look at it in the round, better than having one huge, complicated piece of legislation is getting these measures through in their own way and actually making a difference to the workers in this country. That is how I would prefer it.

My Lords, the disability work gap remains stubbornly wide. Can the Minister update the House on the workforce review being conducted by the DWP, which is examining proposals for subsidies for occupational health services that could close that gap?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. I am afraid this is not my department, but I would be delighted to come back to her with a Written Answer.

My Lords, both the Minister and I founded and ran our own businesses before coming to this place. I hope he will agree not just with me but with many business leaders and trade unionists, such as my noble friend Lord Woodley, that decent working conditions for employees’ security, health and well-being directly lead to improvements in productivity. Will he remind his government colleagues that a surefire way to make UK plc more productive would be to enshrine the highest standards of workers’ rights in legislation and not to seek to weaken or remove them through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill or the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill going through both Houses?

I thank the noble Lord for that point and for the extraordinarily high level of collaboration we engaged in last week when we were doing exactly this: bringing in protections for workers—in this case, the Carer’s Leave Bill, which will allow carers the flexibility to have a much-needed one week of unpaid leave. Ultimately, the best way to strengthen the workforce in this country and to enable businesses to give pay rises is to encourage the sorts of policies this Conservative Administration have brought into play, which have resulted in nearly 4 million new people in work, the average and minimum wages going up by over £8,000 and—

This is important, because if you do not have a strong economy, you cannot deliver the sorts of benefits this country needs and the strength of pay, which is the most important thing in a proper workforce.

My Lords, I am sure the catalogue the Minister read out is welcome to many people. I was here last Friday when we brought some of those laws forward, but the fact of the matter is that the wealth generators of this country who go to work every day feel that the Government do not particularly see them as colleagues. May I ask the Minister to do his best to get the social partners back together again and, in particular, to meet with the TUC and other people who want to improve the benefits and productivity of this country so we can all work together as a team?

I thank my noble friend for raising that point. It is important that we work collaboratively, and my department does meet regularly with the unions in terms of trade advisory groups. We will continue to do so, and to collaborate to ensure that we have the best framework for employment, employment rights and business in this country.