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Workers’ Rights

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 23 November 2023


Asked by

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

Protecting and enhancing workers’ rights while supporting businesses to grow remains a priority for this Government. The Government have supported a package of six Private Members’ Bills, which enhance workers’ rights, to achieve Royal Assent, and will lay down secondary legislation in due course to implement these Acts. This package of legislation will increase workforce participation, protect vulnerable workers and level the playing field, ensuring that unscrupulous businesses do not have a competitive edge.

My Lords, I will shock the Minister by thanking him for his support for investment in Vauxhall Ellesmere Port for a new car; it is appreciated. After a challenge by my union, Unite, and others, the High Court ruled in July that the Government had acted unlawfully by allowing bad bosses to use agency workers to break strikes. But now the Government are trying again, launching a consultation in an attempt to get around the court’s judgment, which ruled that their proposals were unfair, unlawful and irrational. Can the Minister explain why the Government seem so determined to crush workers’ rights, despite being elected on a promise very much to improve them?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I believe that, over the last 13 years, we have made significant and wholehearted reforms to workers’ rights legislation to ensure that they are properly protected. On the matter that he specifically referred to, we launched a consultation on repealing Regulation 7 on 16 November. It will remain open for eight weeks, and I very much invite his participation in the process, which will finish on 16 January next year.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that rights are of course important but, as I know from my experience as an MP for 32 years, what workers want most of all is improved pay? Does he welcome the increase in the national minimum wage from £10.42 to £11.44, which is a significant move?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that point. In fact, if I look back to 2016, I see that the national living wage was £7.20 for those 25 and over, and it will soon go to £11.44, which, by my maths, is an increase of over 50% in that period.

My Lords, there are well over 4 million self-employed workers in the country. Does the Minister not agree that much more could be done for their workers’ rights? Furthermore, is he aware of the growing calls within the creative industries for the appointment of a freelance commissioner to oversee the concerns of a group that is significant but relatively neglected within the workforce?

I agree with the noble Earl’s comments about the importance of self-employed individuals, who are the backbone of this country—I have been one myself in the past. That is why, in what I thought was a fabulous Autumn Statement, designed to power this economy forward into the future, the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday cut various sections of national insurance contributions for self-employed people, not simply allowing them to keep more hard-earned money from their work but making their lives easier, which is a fundamental principle of this Conservative Government.

My Lords, the Government made a commitment not to reduce the standards of workers’ rights when EU law was retained. If new EU law improved the standards of workers, what would the Government’s reaction be?

The Government have rightly maintained a whole series of sections of EU law that allow workers to be properly treated. We are also consulting on a range of other areas where we can ensure that workers’ rights are protected—but, I am pleased to say, under British rather than European law.

My Lords, what the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, said applies particularly to self-employed musicians, which are a neglected section of the community. I invite my noble friend to give some real thought to how their lot can be improved.

I am delighted to be taking through the CPTPP Bill, of which one of the key tenets is ensuring that musicians receive a fair proportion of the money they earn from broadcast media. This is just one of the many areas that we are focusing on, and I will also mention the support allocated in the Autumn Statement yesterday to the creative industries in general. We make all the great films in the world here, including “Barbie”, and I hope that will continue, whether you are a self-employed musician or part of a larger organisation.

My Lords, I will follow on from my noble friend’s supplementary question. On Tuesday this week, the Supreme Court ruled that Deliveroo drivers are not entitled to certain rights, including unionisation, because they are considered to be self-employed and not workers. Do the Government have any plans to protect the growing number of workers in the gig economy, rather than allowing multinationals to dodge basic employer obligations by pretending that some of these lowest-paid workers are able to exercise their freedom to turn down work?

The Government have done a huge amount to ensure that principles such as zero-hours contracts can remain flexible, allowing millions of people to do the work they wish to do and allowing students to participate in the workforce, while ensuring that they have the right levels of protection for holidays and other crucial concepts in workers’ rights. It is important that we have a strong economy, which will enable people to have these jobs. I remind all noble Lords that we have increased the number of employed people by over 3 million since we came to power in 2010.

My Lords, when we left the European Union, Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box and promised that workers’ rights would be protected. Will the Minister produce a list from his department of the rights that have been lost since we left the European Union and a list of the Government’s actions to address that issue?

This debate has run for many months. Over the last year in this House—I am honoured to have played my role in this—we have introduced a number of key workers’ rights Acts, including the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act, the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act, the Carer’s Leave Act and, very importantly—I am a generous tipper myself—the Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act 2023, which ensures that people who are given their tips are, rightly, receiving them.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that important though legal rights at work are, they are meaningless unless there are plentiful job opportunities created by a dynamic labour market? It is no use giving workers freedom from being sacked if they have no job to be sacked from or to go to.

In yesterday’s Autumn Statement, a whole range of measures was announced to ensure that we increase productivity and growth in the economy. In particular, I draw this House’s attention to the £4.5 billion plan to encourage advanced manufacturing in this country, which has enabled us—as the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, mentioned—to encourage more car production in this country. Today, I was pleased to read in the papers that Nissan intends to expand its manufacturing lines to make the Qashqai and the Juke. This comes on top of BMW making the Mini in Oxford, the extraordinary gains we have had with Stellantis in Ellesmere Port, and the celebrated Tata gigafactory, which will become one of the largest buildings ever constructed by humans in the world and, clearly, in the United Kingdom as well.

My Lords, the Government have spent some years looking at the case for electronic balloting in trade unions, and have got nowhere. Since it is okay for the Conservative Party to elect its leadership by electronic balloting, does the Minister accept that the technical problems have now been overcome, and that we should speed towards getting electronic balloting allowed for trade unions in electing their general secretaries, et cetera?

I rejoice that the electronic ballot results have produced the leader of my own party. I recommend that trade unions look at ways to modernise—not just the way they ballot but the way they look at the economy. Ending the concept of labour flexibility in this country would be devastating, particularly to the sorts of investment I work on daily, including the celebration of over £20 billion of new capital committed to this country two days ago by a number of Korean companies. They are coming here because of our economic growth prospects and the flexibility of our labour markets, among other things. Trade unionists and all my colleagues opposite should remember that.

My Lords, the Minister is no stranger to hyperbole, but his description of the CPTPP issues around intellectual property contains several misapprehensions. Could he undertake to read, carefully, the debate in Hansard that accompanied that Bill’s Second Reading? There are serious concerns from the creative industries about the clauses on intellectual property.

I will read Hansard on that debate. I seem to remember being there myself; I delegated the opening to one of our newest Members. We promised, during that debate, to have a full consultation on how artists’ rights are treated. It is extremely important that we get the balance right. Ultimately, it is about fairness and equity, and we stand four-square behind that, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree is right.

The noble Lord mentioned the carer’s Act. Does he recognise that we have millions of workers in this country who are paid nothing at all? It is high time we started paying more attention to carers and giving them support. Looking to the future, is one way we could do this not to have a universal wage rather than a minimum wage? In due course, as AI spreads, there will be less requirement for people to be leaving their home, and they will be working more from home. We need to think longer term, rather than short term.

The Government wholeheartedly agree that the support we must give to carers should be continually reviewed. That is why I was so proud to bring in the Carer’s Leave Act and the Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Act, which will result in millions of people being able to take leave in order to look after their loved ones and, we believe, 36,000 parents being able to take up the right to one week’s paid leave. I am grateful for the comments, and we will continue to work in this important area.