I beg to move,
That this House has considered the covid-19 outbreak and employment rights.
It is fair to say that the pandemic has stress-tested a great many things across our civic, political and private lives. Day in, day out, jobs are being cut in many sectors across our economy. The jobs market is no exception, and neither, sadly, are employment rights. For far too many people an employment contract offers zero protection and has been rendered worthless, but despite some warm words the Government have not lifted a finger to help.
My interest in fire and rehire stems from my duty as a constituency MP for Glasgow airport, from my role as a transport spokesman and from my membership of the Transport Committee. Firing and rehiring emanates from the aviation sector, and in particular from British Airways. Among our first witnesses when the Committee looked at the impact of covid-19 on transport was Willie Walsh, the then chief executive of International Airlines Group, which owns British Airways. The company had just announced huge job losses—roughly 12,000 from a workforce of 42,000 were to be cut, while the reward, if that word can be used, for those who attempted to remain was a threat that they would be fired and rehired on reduced terms and conditions. For some, the reductions in net take-home pay were simply savage, with cuts of 40%, 50% or 60% not uncommon.
The workforce were understandably traumatised. I received hundreds upon hundreds of emails from British Airways staff. I spoke to cabin crew in tears at the treatment meted out by Mr Walsh and his willing deputy, Mr Cruz, and other BA management. It seems that Mr Walsh tried to make some of these changes a decade or so previously but failed; the pandemic has seemingly given him perfect cover to try again. I could not believe that that was legal. Perhaps naively, I thought that a contract and the law governing it would offer an employee and employer equal protection. Of course, we now see that there is no equality of arms whatsoever.
Following Mr Walsh’s appearance before the Committee, which it would be fair to say was not overflowing with modesty or contrition, further examples of firing and rehiring being deployed against thousands of workers came to light. That should not have come as a surprise to the Government. We and many other Members across the House had warned that without Government action other companies would follow in BA’s footsteps. Centrica British Gas has threatened over 20,000 employees with termination if they do not sign up to new, inferior contracts. Menzies Aviation, a ground handler at many UK airports, including Glasgow, assured me personally that it would not follow the British Airways lead but then copied and pasted its tactics for its own use. Heathrow, which other Members might touch on, is doing the same to its workforce. Unsurprisingly, many have voted for industrial action.
We should be crystal clear about what is happening and has happened. It is reprehensible to treat workers like this. It is counter-productive, self-destructive and flies in the face of what we in society should be willing to accept. In the words of a former Conservative Member, it is the “unacceptable face of capitalism.” Tory Ministers, including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have been queueing up to slate firing and rehiring, not least the Minister himself, who said last week:
“The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 718.]
He slightly blotted his copybook just two minutes later, when he seemed to boast about the UK’s flexible labour markets and how easy it is to hire and indeed to fire workers. On that latter comment, I hope that he misspoke or that that was not what he intended, but that is how it came across to many people. The Minister and I met to discuss my fire and rehire Bill, which would outlaw the practice. He said that while the Government could not support the Bill he remained open to looking at further protections for workers in this area. Perhaps the change in management at No. 10 will allow a new and more collegiate approach on this issue. I know that it is a policy that many of the Minister’s colleagues are not pleased with. When he responds, will he say that he will work with me to strengthen workers’ protections in this area – perhaps in the Government’s Employment Bill? If he wishes to confirm it now, I would be happy to take an intervention, but if he will do so in his summing-up that would be good.
No one denies the unprecedented challenges facing business across the country. Aviation in particular has seen its business model receive its biggest shock since the war. There will be a debate on the issue tomorrow, so I will not go into detail, but as an example, Glasgow airport in my constituency has seen passenger numbers drop year on year by 83%, while some regional airports in England have seen drops of more than 90%. No serious person can argue that this is not a huge hit to an industry that has secured hundreds of thousands of jobs around these isles. The way to meet those challenges is by acting responsibly and being open with staff and trade unions about what the future might hold. In recent months, I have spoken to dozens of union reps, mostly from aviation but many from other industries too, and it is crystal clear that they recognise the position their employers are in. They know that change has to be on the table if their industry is to have a sustainable future. They are not reactionaries who want business and commerce preserved in aspic. They want their members and workers to be treated with respect, dignity and as partners as management come up with plans for the months and years ahead. A temporary problem, albeit for a more prolonged period than we would like, requires temporary solutions. Other airlines have managed to make such agreements with their work force. Threatening staff with the sack is not respectful, is undignified and is certainly not partnership.
I know that many Government Members—perhaps not the Minister—do not like to do so, but we should look at Europe. Partnership working is the norm, not the exception. The idea of management and workers coming together to plan a way forward, with the former working with rather than against the latter, is not some kind of socialist utopia. It is the stuff of advanced economies right across the continent—economies that are in most cases more advanced, wealthier and fairer than ours. That is not a coincidence. There is cross-party support for banning firing and rehiring. Members from every party in the House co-sponsored my Bill and I know that many Government Members are quietly supportive of the principles of the Bill.
Moving on from firing and rehiring, I welcomed furlough when the Chancellor announced it in March and I welcome its extension until next March, although the way in which that extension was announced and the way in which repeated calls for extension were flat-out ignored until the last minute—in fact, after the last minute—were sadly typical of the way the UK Government have handled employment and the economy over the past months. The U-turn has come far too late for thousands of workers made redundant after months of delays and uncertainty. Many good businesses have gone under and millions have been excluded completely. It is clearly still a system with many flaws, not least of which is the power it gives employers over workers, especially when those workers are worried for their jobs and livelihoods.
There is no appeal. An employee is entirely at the mercy and discretion of their employer as to whether to go on furlough or not. That is a lopsided arrangement. An employer can simply say that it is not worth the paperwork, terminate a worker’s contract and leave them to the pittance provided by the benefits system rather than furlough at 80%. The employee has zero rights under law to challenge, appeal or ask a third party to intervene.
Similarly, as we have seen in my constituency, where over 70 people have received no furlough payments due to flaws in the application process, there is no appeal to HMRC for any discretion. Over 70 households, instead of having access to furlough over the past eight months, have had to resort to food banks and the kindness of neighbours to get by, all because their employer was bought over and the change was not recorded by HMRC until one day after an entirely arbitrary furlough deadline was imposed retrospectively.
Returning to the aviation and travel sector and permanent part-year contracts that contain a provision to extend hours through the winter, I have been made aware that TUI is refusing to claim furlough payments for more than 500 permanent part-year employees on the basis that they are not extending the contracts this year due to lack of demand. However, the scheme has provision to claim for such employees, based on the amount earned in the same month last year or an average of monthly earnings for the tax year 2019-20. I hope that the Minister will join me in asking TUI and anyone else planning something similar to think again and to do the right thing. No one is asking for the furlough scheme to be a free-for-all, but it cannot be beyond the wit and imagination of the Treasury to come up with a system that gives some rights and power to the employee, rather than putting every single furlough egg in the employer’s basket and leaving workers with no recourse except to beg their bosses for some relief.
I welcome the Government’s introduction of bereavement leave for the parents of a deceased child. It is a decent and humane policy, and it deserves recognition. Now it is time to look at bereavement leave across the board and to give workers a right to paid time off at a time of grief and personal loss. That seems particularly pertinent when many have unfortunately lost a loved one to covid-19. It is a policy that would undoubtedly cost in the short term but could very well save money. Sue Ryder states that losing someone can have serious consequences not only for mental and physical health; it also costs the UK economy an estimated £23 billion a year due to presenteeism, absenteeism and reduced employment.
We have a situation whereby the UK’s sick pay system is, by a long way, the worst in western Europe. It is a system that has been shameful for years but is now being exposed as completely out of step with every single one of our neighbours and allies in Europe. Two years ago, the Council of Europe’s European Committee of Social Rights called the UK’s SSP system “manifestly inadequate”. In a sane world, that should have set off some kind of alarm in Whitehall, but here we are in the middle of a pandemic, asking people to self-isolate for the greater good yet providing a system of support that is manifestly inadequate.
Our nearest neighbours recognised the scale of the challenge right at the beginning of the pandemic. Ireland’s enhanced illness payment provides €350 a week to anyone who tests positive or has to self-isolate. Up to 10 weeks of payments can be made to people who have tested positive. It has ensured high compliance with self-isolation and helped provide some financial security for households who would receive a pittance if they lived in the UK.
There is no practical reason why the UK is so far behind our nearest neighbours; it is simply a matter of political choice and ideology. I know the Chancellor and his social media team are busy building the Rishi brand, and he would like to paint a picture of himself as the saviour of the economy, right down to delivering discounted katsu curries to diners’ tables. However, his signature is strangely are missing from a pledge to keep sick pay the lowest in Europe. His lack of photo ops to promote the UK’s position near the bottom of the league table perhaps says a lot about how well such boasts would go down with voters.
Citizens Advice tells me that the current employment rights enforcement system is not up to task for dealing with the challenges exposed by the pandemic. Employees who have been unfairly treated have very few options for redress. For many people affected by the redundancy crisis, employment tribunals are the only place they can turn to in order to protect their rights and seek a fair outcome. There are currently six bodies that enforce employment rights in various ways: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The situation is messy and piecemeal. Along with Citizens Advice Scotland and others, I welcome the proposal to set up a single enforcement body for employment rights. Can the Minister tell us when it will finally be introduced? Will it be included in the Employment Bill, and can he give us a timescale for that Bill?
My final point is brief and to the point. Surely the most basic of employment rights ought to be receiving a fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work. The UK Government’s national minimum wage, or the so-called living wage, is not a real living wage; it does not meet the minimum income needed for an acceptable living standard. The different rates of the living wage for young people are wholly unjust and discriminatory, and they do not take account of young people’s needs, responsibilities and living costs. The Chancellor could and should do what is right by increasing the statutory minimum wage and ending the age discrimination within it.
Rebuilding the economy after covid will become the biggest challenge that our society faces once the virus is under control. Workers must be part of that rebuilding and not treated as serfs. They and their families should not be threatened with financial disaster if they do not accept attacks on their pay and conditions. Enhanced employment rights are not just the right thing to do morally; they are the right thing to do economically. They ensure that workers have greater security, and therefore encourage spending within the economy, providing vital income and custom for our retail and service sectors.
The impact of covid has highlighted the fragility of many people’s working conditions—the fact that their family’s future hangs by a thread, which can be cut at a moment’s notice whenever management decides. That has to stop, and a much more equitable balance between employer and employee must be found as soon as possible, for the good of everyone on these islands.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this debate. I should first declare an interest. Many Members will know by now that I am a lifelong trade unionist and former regional secretary of Unite the Union. My experience in the labour movement spurred me to stand for Parliament, so I warmly welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate.
The British public have been asked to make enormous sacrifices to win the war on covid-19. Livelihoods have been lost, businesses forced to close and families separated. At the same time, people have come together in a newly found spirit of solidarity and community-mindedness. Across my constituency of Birkenhead, people have given up valuable time to produce and distribute personal protective equipment, deliver food parcels and look after the most vulnerable and isolated. They understand that we are all in this together but, for some, that message has fallen on deaf ears. Instead of playing their part, several large companies have cynically exploited the public health crisis to slash pay and attack working conditions. Despite receiving millions in taxpayers’ money, companies such as British Airways and Sainsbury’s continue to lay off vast swathes of their workforce. Such attacks have shone a spotlight on the many limitations placed on trade unions to hamper their ability to act in support of their members.
Employment rights in the UK are among the worst in western Europe. Our employment laws are the most draconian of any western democracy with the exception of the United States. Over the past 40 years, successive Conservative Governments have introduced restrictions on the right to strike, to picket, to belong to a trade union, to access industrial tribunals, and more besides. Each piece of legislation has eroded the ability of the unions to act effectively. As the Trades Union Congress has highlighted, the Trade Union Act 2016 represented the most serious attack on the rights of trade unions and their members in a generation, yet the crisis has shown how vital it is to have a strong labour movement. With unemployment spiralling out of control and covid-19 hitting frontline workers hardest, trade unions have leapt to the defence of their members.
Shop stewards have fought hard to keep their members safe in the workplace. Members have gone on strike to defend highly skilled, dignified work at sites such as Rolls-Royce, Barnoldswick. The trade union movement played a pivotal role in the introduction of the furlough scheme in March, as well as securing its extension last month, but too many employers regard the unions, to quote a former Prime Minister, as the “enemy within”. The scandalous practice of fire and rehire is a glaring example of why we need to overhaul the employment laws system. The Government must now acknowledge the central role that the trade unions have to play in forging Britain’s economic recovery. The Government have already withdrawn their knee-jerk reaction to banning socially distant picketing during strikes, but only as a result of a legal challenge by Unite the Union. Now they must follow that up. The Trade Union Act 2016 must go for a start, and a new charter must ensure that when bad employers use bad practices and mistreat their staff, the unions have the means and legal right to fight back.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate, Sir Christopher. I also thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands), my colleague on the Transport Committee, for securing this important debate. It would be remiss of me not to remark on the fact that this is a well-attended debate with representatives from all political parties, apart from the Government party—apart from the Minister, who has to be here. I do not know whether that is a reflection of the importance that the governing party attach to employment rights, but it is a sad indictment.
I declare an interest. I have been a member of a trade union and the Labour party all my adult life, and I have the honour of chairing the Unite parliamentary group. I want to highlight cases of dreadful practices, but I also want to pay tribute to the thousands of employers who have gone out of their way to protect and reassure their employees at a time when they themselves often face unparalleled pressures, stress and uncertainty. However, it is regrettable that some rogue employers have sought to use the covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to force workers to sign up to wage cuts in inferior conditions under the threat of dismissal. While the practice of fire and rehire is not currently unlawful in and as itself, the way in which it seeks to capitalise on people’s vulnerability, particularly at this time during the pandemic, is, in my opinion and in the opinion of most reasonable people, morally despicable and indefensible and cannot go unchallenged. It is noteworthy that these actions are outlawed in most other European countries. My belief, shared by many others, is that that should be the case here, too. I will return at the end of my speech to the Minister’s remarks in our previous debate, as referred to by the sponsor of the motion, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.
I pay tribute to the excellent work of my union Unite in successfully arguing and mitigating many cases of employers attempting to utilise this terrible practice of fire and rehire. However, it has not always been possible to reach agreement, as was the case with the British Airways cargo workers based at Heathrow airport, where more than 850 Unite members have balloted and are set to strike in December over pay cuts of between 20% and 25% and threats to outsource the workforce.
At the same time, Unite the union has announced December strike action at Heathrow airport in protest at the loss of employment rights and wage cuts for not just baggage handlers but firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations and operational and air-side workers. Unless the employer acts in a reasonable fashion, it will effectively close our major airport over the Christmas period.
Fire and rehire is not restricted to the aviation sector, although there are some terrible abuses in that sector. ESS, part of the multimillion-pound Compass group, has been branded Britain’s most heartless employer by Unite, due to the manner in which it is treating staff working on Ministry of Defence bases. They are being forced to sign contracts making them hundreds of pounds a month worse off, with the threat of immediately losing their jobs.
Workers in our criminal justice system are being deprived of one of the most basic employment rights—the right to a safe workplace. Court staff are made to attend workplaces that the Public and Commercial Services Union insists are not covid-secure. The alarming number of outbreaks in the courts suggests that the union is correct. Perhaps this is a direct consequence of there being no assessment process agreed with the trade unions, or of the court service’s refusal to publish individual site assessments and only making them available on request.
I am told that in prisons, some governors have tweaked their exceptional delivery models to permit classroom-based education, despite national guidance that says this must not happen while covid threat levels remain high. The University and College Union is seeking urgent clarification about this, as are its members, who are being made to continue with face-to-face teaching and attendance in person in our prisons, despite the new restrictions. Whether in courts or in prisons, a business as usual attitude from managers is putting loyal staff at unnecessary risk, which is quite simply unacceptable.
In conclusion, a business, a Government and, indeed, every organisation—even society itself—will be judged on how we get through this extremely difficult period. Only last week, the Minister said in the Chamber:
“The very threat of fire and rehire is totally unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 718.]
Will he commit today to outlawing this totally unacceptable practice once and for all?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate.
We live in extraordinary times under coronavirus. It has had a huge impact on all of us, and on our businesses and communities. Although we are talking about employment rights, I recognise that it has had a huge impact on businesses, and I have been working with them, doing what I can to support them through this time. However, some have been less than scrupulous.
Too many working people have seen the very real impact that the pandemic and the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus have had on their work, in many different ways. Like so many other hon. Members, my caseload has increased hugely as workers and their family members contact me to seek advice and guidance on the Government’s measures, their employment situation and the effect on their family income.
The furlough scheme has helped, and I was glad to see the most recent announcements. However, for those on the lowest wages, the national minimum wage—who will get 80% of what we already consider to be the barest minimum that they should be paid and can live on—losing 20% of their income is no mean challenge. There is no reduction in their bills, housing costs and other expenses, so this is a real problem for them. Sometimes we underestimate the way in which so many people are living on the edge. They need all the money that they have to survive and do not have easy access to credit or to help from other sources.
I also want to mention those who do not even qualify for furlough or other payments—those who have fallen through the many cracks in the system, some of which we have already heard about. They may have changed jobs recently, may not have made it on to the HMRC records in time, or they may be self-employed. Speaking to these people in my constituency, I know of the devastation that they have felt—the excluded and the forgotten—as their income disappears and they discover the harsh reality of the universal credit system, although many do not even qualify for that.
Looking specifically at the issue of employment rights and the impact that the pandemic has had on working people, I will highlight some specific issues that I have come across in my constituency, as hon. Members will have in their own.
First, I want to talk about the fire and rehire situation, which many Members have already mentioned, and about joining Unite members at Newcastle business park to protest against British Airways’ plans to reduce staff and to dramatically reduce terms and conditions of employment. Those people felt the fear of redundancy, the fear of less well paid jobs—the fear for their future.
This is not a new issue. As a trade union officer in a previous life, I have certainly come across this before, but we have seen it done in a way which cynically uses Government support and then treats staff so very badly. I support those many BA staff who work in the call centre in Newcastle, just across the river from my constituency, and at Newcastle airport and as cabin crew. I was amazed at how many BA employees contacted me. They appreciate the support, and their employer’s approach makes them feel very hard done by.
BA is not the only employer that has treated its staff badly in this way. There is also the present issue with Centrica, or British Gas, where, hopefully, negotiations are now taking place. There must be better way than saying to staff, “If you don’t like it, leave—take it or leave it”. It is a crude form of industrial strategy—I was going to say industrial relations, but I do not think “relations” is a good word for that—and we need to ensure that we end its use, as it has a devastating impact on people facing that situation.
On redundancies, in my constituency there is heavy reliance on the retail sector, which has been massively hit. Early in the pandemic I met workers employed by Debenhams at the Metrocentre, who had lost their jobs. More than 200 people had lost their jobs, and I believe that Debenhams was in administration so there was not the normal consultation. The shop was shut, and that was it. Many of the people who lost their jobs were women. Other redundancies have gone on in the background as well. Sometimes I hear about them and sometimes I do not, but there has been a real impact.
I want to talk a bit about pregnant workers. A number of women have contacted me because they are concerned about their position—their safety and welfare, and that of their unborn child. The Government have issued guidance, which has been supplemented by the TUC and the trade unions—which is welcome—to safeguard individuals. Not surprisingly, my constituents do not want to be named in the debate. They want to keep a low profile, but they want to see that they are protected. Guidance says that at 28 weeks teachers, for example, should be found alternative work rather than being in the classroom, or otherwise should be home on full pay. It sounds great, but on the ground, for that person in a school where there are other pressures, it is much more difficult to see that that is enforced.
Then there are problems with parents whose children are isolated because they have been sent home from school. That means that in many cases one parent must take the decision to take unpaid leave, if they are unlucky. Many of those people are on minimum wage. I am thinking of a constituent who is on minimum wage and cannot really afford that drop in income, but is not entitled to any isolation payments or anything of that kind. Someone in that position must stop work. Some may be entitled to statutory sick pay, but the existing measures just do not cut it for those people. They do not have enough support for their income. It is a real problem, and there is also the concern, “What happens if my child has to be off again in a few weeks?” There are difficult issues for people, and we need to make sure we can help them through what may be repeated bouts of isolation, to meet their bills and, indeed, hold down their jobs.
Last weekend I made the mistake of looking at my emails on a Saturday, as I suppose many people do. I had a flurry of emails on exactly those employment rights issues. Some were about furlough and how the constituent would be affected, where employers might have a Government grant. One was from some care workers who had come into contact with covid-19 and had to isolate. They are minimum-wage workers. They are not entitled to the isolation payments—they have checked that out—and they fear that it may happen again. We need to find a way for those people to be looked after, not just for their sakes but for all our sakes, because it will help to stop the spread of covid-19 if people can safely take time off without feeling that they will go under.
I want to talk about health and safety. Many workers are in difficult situations at work, because of things they are asked to do. [Interruption.] Yes, I shall be winding up now. I will mention specifically the retail sector campaign by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Respect for Shopworkers Week. Shop workers have had to carry on working and have borne the brunt. In responses to USDAW’s survey, 70% said abuse was worse than normal, 85% had faced verbal abuse, and 57% had been threatened by customers, with 9% even being assaulted. That is an impossible situation for people who are trying to keep things going for the rest of us. I hope that the Government will take steps to address all those issues.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for that warning. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this important debate.
The unprecedented economic impact of the coronavirus has laid bare the weaknesses of UK labour protections. During the crisis, workers’ rights and public health must be prioritised above all else. Yet the Government have allowed corporate giants, including those in receipt of taxpayer bailout funds, to use the pandemic as a cover for further exploiting their workforce.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Leicester. The severe exploitation in sections of our garment industry in Leicester have been laid bare and highlighted by a huge increase in casework received by me, a resurgence of reports, and the coronavirus. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs reported that, over a six-year period, one quarter of all UK textile factories caught failing to pay the minimum wage were based in Leicester. With some textile factories offering less than £3.50 an hour, workers are forced to endure horrific and unsafe conditions. That is particularly shocking, but Leicester’s garment industry is indicative of the abrupt decline in workers’ rights and living standards since the neoliberal deindustrialisation revolution of the 1980s. The result has been the biggest squeeze on wages since the early 1800s, with pay for the average worker still lower in real terms than a decade ago. In the fifth richest economy in the world, 14 million people are living in poverty, 9 million of whom live in households with at least one person in work. Our workers need a radically fairer offer, which means raising the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour, and investing in our communities and infrastructure to aid the necessary transition to a green economy.
Trade unions are the best line of defence against workplace exploitation. I pay tribute to all trade unions, including my own, Unite, and others, including PCS, GMB and Unison, to name but a few. Yet the collective ability of workers to organise has been systematically eroded by decades of anti-trade union legislation. The latest Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Confederation placed the UK among the worst violators of trade union rights in Europe. Forty years ago, eight in 10 workers enjoyed terms and conditions negotiated by a trade union. Today, fewer than one in four workers has that benefit. The Trade Union Act 2016 must be repealed. Trade union autonomy and sectoral collective bargaining must be restored, and the right to take industrial action, in accordance with international law, must be re-established.
One of the most nefarious downward trends in labour protections has been employers’ exploitation of the legal status of workers. We must, therefore, crack down on toxic casualisation. Research by the Trades Union Congress found that 3.7 million people—one in nine UK workers—are in insecure work, including those on zero-hours or short-term contracts, agency workers and temporary casuals, as well as those in low-paid, often bogus, self-employment. Every job should be a good job, one that provides security, dignity and a fair wage. Zero-hours contracts must be eradicated, and hours should be regulated so that each worker gets guaranteed pay for a working week. Rights are meaningless if they are not properly enforced.
The Government must urgently reverse the funding cuts to regulatory bodies, including the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, to ensure that workers are safe and fairly paid. The Government and sections of big business argue that the mistreatment of workers is inevitable and that rights, fair play and dignity in the workplace are unacceptable costs to the bottom line, yet this free-market race to the bottom has normalised poverty, hopelessness and exploitation in our communities.
I will end by saying that the coronavirus has demonstrated the need for us to build a society built around the principles of solidarity, and in which all of us, regardless of our job, can live in dignity.
Thank you, Sir Christopher. As Liberal Democrat spokesperson for equalities, I want to limit my remarks to disability employment and covid.
This debate is very timely. Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That landmark piece of legislation established for the first time the civil rights of disabled people in the UK, including in employment. We have made some progress since then. The disability employment gap has decreased steadily over the years, falling from 33% in 2013 to 28% in 2020 but that, of course, is not good enough, and the pandemic puts us at risk of going backwards on that trend.
New research shows that disabled people are now facing profound harms to their financial security and job prospects: 71% of disabled people who were working in March have been furloughed or had their work hours reduced. There are clear signs that this pandemic has had had a disproportionate impact on the lives of disabled people. Many of them are clinically more vulnerable to the virus itself. Recent research from the charity Leonard Cheshire suggests that covid-19 has also exacerbated employers’ negative attitude towards disabled people. That is a worrying trend. Just 33% of employers recorded that they employed a disabled person on their staff in 2020, compared with 49% in 2018; 42% of employers reported that they were discouraged from hiring disabled people because they were concerned about needing to support them, especially during the pandemic. One fifth of employers admitted that they were less likely to employ someone with a disability.
Without Government action, there is a real risk that the pandemic will throw away the UK’s progress towards equality in the workplace. A national strategy for disabled people is needed, and I hope that that will be a top priority. It is vital that such a strategy provides a clear plan for addressing the inequalities that have widened as a result of the pandemic, not least in employment.
There are opportunities for the Government to promote inclusive workplace practices. Mandatory reporting on the gender pay gap has been a game changer. It brought much-needed transparency to the inequalities faced by women in the workplace. The same principle can apply to improving equality for those with disabilities. I know that HMRC is already doing that voluntarily.
I ask the Government to consider introducing mandatory reporting for large companies on the number of disabled people they employ, as well as their disability pay gap. Covid-19 has demonstrated that flexible working and working from home are doable. Many offices are already thinking about whether to ask employees to return to the office full-time after the pandemic is over. That is a positive step and it could set a precedent that makes work culture more inclusive for those with disabilities. Flexible working is the future for many offices and workplaces. Embracing it as the culture would create real opportunities for those with a disability and would make our country the inclusive nation we want it to be.
I put on record my interest as a member of Unite and GMB. Work is so gendered, which was brought into the spotlight in May when PwC highlighted that 78% of those who had already lost their jobs due to covid were women. Today, I want to focus my remarks on the impact of covid on women at work.
We know that inequality grows, particularly for working-class women. Think about the fact that only 9% of working-class women are able to work at home, compared with 44% of professional women. We know that women are also exposed to extraordinary risks in the light of their duties and their work. More women, particularly working-class women, have had their hours reduced. In June, that reached 52% of all women. Research showed that working-class women had double the reduction in hours of professional women.
Although the virus is gendered in so many ways, it is in particular weighted against women in the workplace. We know that improvements in employment rights would improve opportunity, in particular around absence payments. Statutory sick pay is a massive issue; the fact that we do not have proper statutory sick pay has a huge impact. We also know that women carry the vast majority of caring responsibilities for children and parents, and therefore need additional support. I am, therefore, supporting campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed’s call for a parent isolation grant. We know that working parents are having to take time off for childcare and, as a result, in many cases they do not get any income at all, taking unpaid leave. A grant would be a real game changer in ensuring that women are not further discriminated against and further disadvantaged in the workplace. It would work simply for the periods that parents are having to look after an isolating child, with them being remunerated for that.
I want to highlight the plight of pregnant women. Again, we know that their rights have been curtailed, particularly in the light of increased risk for women in the third trimester of their pregnancy. Yesterday in the Chamber, we heard the difficulties of that. I ask that the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 be fully extended and provision be put in place to ensure that women in their third trimester can get full payment at home and that that should not trigger their parental leave. Finally, I want to put on record the Pregnancy and Maternity (Redundancy Protection) Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller); it is vital to support women in the workplace during this time, in the light of the redundancies they have experienced.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and also to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this important debate. One of the commonest ideas expressed in this crisis is that the world, the economy and our day-to-day lives are going to be different when it is over. One of the things, it seems to me, that many of us here are increasingly concerned about is the impact it will have on employment rights, which people fought for bitterly for the best part of a century. Those rights were hard won and then fiercely defended, but now they are in danger of slipping from what seemed a firm grasp but is becoming looser.
No one can deny the unexpected shock felt by our economy and the impact that covid-19 has had on many sectors, specifically, as the hon. Member said, on the airlines and the air sector in general. As the Member for Edinburgh West, I have also experienced at first hand the trauma of the many employees of Edinburgh airport, connected businesses such as Menzies Aviation and specifically British Airways. Many of BA’s employees, who are constituents, have phoned me just looking for some explanation, help and support for the trauma that they are going through as a result of what some euphemistically call “adjusted contracts” and what elsewhere has been branded, quite justifiably, “fire and rehire”.
However, it is not just British Airways that has used this crisis and used redundancy to make a mockery of the terms and conditions of staff. I have had constituents who were working from home and were then forced to take annual leave because their employers’ IT was not working. I have had people whose jobs disappeared because the company was bought and there was no mention of being TUPE-ed. There is also one section of society that we are forgetting and that is the massive gig economy and the self-employed, who have been completely excluded for 10 months from any support. That is why, as the Liberal Democrat economy spokesperson, I want to see furlough extended not to March but to June next year, until we have, by all predictions, a vaccine and we may be able to resume some sort of normalcy and people’s jobs will be protected.
As we come out of this crisis, unemployment and the fall in vacancies could be disastrous for this country. We will need to keep a needle-sharp focus, not just on our economy but on employment and rights. We must we keep at the forefront of our minds and under our scrutiny of the Government the protection of employment rights. They are not bureaucracy, they are not red tape; they are protection for all of us and our ability to keep a roof over our heads and feed our families.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. A lot of people are self-isolating at the moment; that number could be higher if test and trace worked properly, but we still have hundreds of thousands of people who cannot attend work for two weeks, as the law requires them to isolate. However, they are doing so without any protection from detrimental treatment by their employer, which could be refusal to pay sick pay to which they are entitled, or even dismissal.
I have also heard concerns from constituents that a period of self-isolation could be used to trigger a sickness absence review, or be used as part of a process that is already under way. It is quite possible that if other members of the same household get symptoms or test positive, people might have to self-isolate on multiple occasions. I am sure we can all understand the genuine anxieties people might feel if they have to tell their employer that they are having to self-isolate for a second or third time, so why are there no workplace protections to support them in doing the right thing? The Government could state very clearly, either through guidance or regulation, that a period of self-isolation should be classed as other leave that cannot be called unauthorised leave, sickness absence or annual leave, and cannot be used as part of any disciplinary or capability process. I think that is a very simple ask of the Government.
Fire and rehire is not a new development—it has been around for as long as people have had jobs—but just because it has happened for a long time does not make it acceptable. In fact, it shows that our employment protections are as antiquated as they are inadequate. The current crisis has shone a light on the absolute imbalance of power in the employment relationship, and the way in which so many people feel exposed to the whims of their employer. That powerlessness does not just manifest itself in people losing their jobs: look at everyone on zero-hours contracts, in the gig economy or in agency work. They are literally at the company’s beck and call, so insecurity is baked into the workplace. It is little wonder so many people have a sense of helplessness, but it does not have to be this way. Job security does not have to be an impossible dream, and the first step to understanding that is looking at why rights are so weak, and often illusionary.
That illusion manifests itself in full technicolour with fire and rehire, the very existence of which causes people great concern and bewilderment that they are in this situation. Yes, they are directly employed; yes, they have been there possibly for decades; yes, their terms and conditions have remained constant throughout, and may even have been collectively negotiated by their trade union. Their job has not changed, they have performed well, and the company still makes a profit, so why are they suddenly being asked to come in and do the same job for 20% less? The answer lies in the combination of weak employment laws, opportunistic employers, and an indifferent Government. Together, those factors allow for hard-won benefits to be stripped away through a consultation period that amounts to a box-ticking exercise, followed by the inevitable slide into weakened terms and conditions, which will often make it easier for the employer to do the same thing all over again in a year or two. It is a race to the bottom that has been accelerated by coronavirus, and it is about time that race was stopped.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for having secured this debate. Let us leap straight in on the point that was just raised by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders): the issue of asking people to self-isolate, after being traced through track and trace, is vexed when it comes up against people’s right to an income.
As in other parts of the country, Cumbria’s NHS and public health services have been incredibly successful at tracking and tracing people. Their success rate has been 98%, compared with the Government’s failed equivalent programme, which has a success rate of something like 65%. However, if a person is contacted by the NHS in Cumbria, because of the Government’s failed system, they are not able to access the grant. That is an outrage, and for the past month, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health has been raising this as an issue; so far, the Government have failed to answer it. A right to an income is surely something that should be at the top of all of our agendas for our constituents.
I also want to refer to parental leave, particularly maternity leave. When the Government were coming up with the self-employed income support scheme back in March, they put together a scheme that looked at a self-employed person’s income over the past three years. If that person had taken parental leave—most likely maternity leave—during those three years, they ended up with a reduced income. That is a real blow to people, particularly women who have taken maternity leave in that time, and it shows the Government’s lack of concern for those people who have taken time out to raise a family. On top of that, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, many people do not feel able to, or cannot, return to work after their maternity leave, simply because childcare is not available. Many of them are not able to be furloughed; many have lost their jobs, and they form part of the 3 million people in this country who have been excluded from any kind of Government support.
Many employers in the Lake district and the Yorkshire Dales have done a tremendous job trying to support their staff, and have kept them going for as long as they could. Despite the fact that 40% of the entire workforce was on furlough at one point and we have seen a sixfold increase in unemployment in the south lakes, they nevertheless kept their employees going for as long as they felt they could, but after that short summer season at the end of August, they let their staff go.
The Government have now announced an extension of furlough after months of most Members in this room urging them to make a commitment much sooner, but they left it so late that many employers in my constituency and elsewhere let their staff go in early September. Guess what? The Government will not backdate furlough to anybody who was let go before 23 September. There will be hundreds of thousands of people in this country whose employers did their best to keep hold of them, but realised they had the choice of losing their business and losing all their other staff or losing some of their staff. They made that difficult choice. Because the Government dilly-dallied for so long over extending furlough, there are thousands in that position. The Government should bring forward the date to which furlough can be backdated to the beginning of September.
I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). We did look forward to this debate taking place earlier on. Unfortunately, it was postponed but with the chance to return to it today.
The figures of redundancy are extraordinary and frightening for my constituency. In Strangford, despite the furlough scheme and support scheme, which cannot be sustained in the long term, there were almost 2,700 actual claimants for unemployment—1,315 higher than March this year. That is double and it does not even account for those who were furloughed as well. For those aged 18-24, there were 650 claimants compared to 335 back in March, so it is younger people in particular as well.
We are facing what may well be the greatest recession in living memory. It must be remembered that the backbone of our economy is found in the SMEs, and it is for my constituency in particular. These are dire times. People in work are so happy to be in work that there is a danger of exploitation, and we must look at and regulate how staff are treated.
I want to quickly outline the issue for airline staff, who are having terms and conditions altered and have no choice but to accept that. How could they kick up when they knew the alternative was straight-out redundancy? While we received assurances that this was not the case, I was not surprised to be asked to sign a letter to the Minister from those opposed to these grave tactics—that is what they are— and I was pleased to be a signatory to that and also to participate in this debate.
I get a British Airways or Aer Lingus flight twice a week. The staff are courteous, kind and hardworking in the face of adversity. It angers me that they are being taken advantage of when their back is against the wall—when it is unlikely that they can refuse and walk away with dignity into another job. As I outlined at the start of my speech, every sector is in difficulty.
One of my constituents sent me a letter, which said:
“It is shameful that over the past few months major employers have used mechanisms for sacking tens of thousands of workers so that they can reduce terms and conditions”,
This letter refers to
“GMB members at British Gas/Centrica and British Airways”
as well. It goes on:
“The result is a negotiation that can never be conducted in a fair and balanced way. I think we need a change in the law to stop this from happening.”
I, along with every other right-thinking decent person, am asking for urgent intervention and not only for my numerous constituents who have contacted me, but also in the name of honour and decency. We cannot allow unscrupulous shady dealings to go unanswered and we must step up to do our part for the airlines, as we do for other staff as well. We all have moral obligations, for example when companies deliberately hire people for shorter hours and do not give holiday and sick pay in proportion. It is up to us in this place to provide the legislative framework to protect the workers. These are tough times and we must support our businesses that seek to retain staff, but we cannot turn a blind eye to those who are deliberately drawing up new contracts or job descriptions. We can only come through this if we do the right thing on behalf of our workers and those people who need us to protect them, or at least to legislate to provide that protection. We can only come through this if we do the honourable thing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on initiating this important debate. I certainly note that, as the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said, the number of Members taking part shows the real importance of this issue. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s Bill—the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill—and commend that to Members, as well as the work that he is doing to end the practice of firing and rehiring.
The days of people worrying for their lives when they go to work should be long gone. Gone, too, should be the days when staff have to put up with salaries that do not pay the bills and with exploitative contracts that take advantage of job insecurities. Employers have a duty to look after their staff, and it is even more important in these difficult times that workers are properly rewarded with a real living wage and working conditions that allow them a comfortable life. It was a tough slog to get the employment rights that we enjoy in the UK, and we cannot let them be one of the casualties of this crisis.
One easy step that the Government could take would be to support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North to stop firing and rehiring on less favourable terms. They could also ensure that employees understand their existing rights and the working mechanisms to ensure that employers meet their obligations.
It has been clear historically that many Conservative Members are not fans of workers’ rights, as many ex-mining communities such as those in my constituency will testify. More recently, with the Trade Union Act 2016, Conservatives did all they could to undermine trade unions and workers’ collective bargaining rights. Perhaps they prefer working practices to be a little like the way No.10 appears to operate: a wild west where following the rules and showing respect for others goes out the window.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachel Maskell) referred to the rights of women and working mothers, on which I should like to focus in my comments. There are fears that, without action, this pandemic could set women’s employment back a generation. Unlike previous recessions, many of the sectors most devastated—retail and hospitality—are major employers of women. We know that women are more likely to be in insecure contracts, to have greater caring responsibilities and to be in a precarious position over coming months as jobs are on the line.
A joint report from Maternity Action, “Covid19: new and expectant mothers in the front line”, cites a TUC survey from June, when one in four pregnant women and new mothers surveyed had experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough. In the same month, a survey by the Office for National Statistics found that parents, at 13.6%, were almost twice as likely to report that they had been furloughed as workers without children, at 7.2%. I am grateful for the fact that the furlough has eventually been extended, but fears remain that many hundreds of thousands of furloughed jobs will be lost, with a new wave of discrimination when the scheme winds down.
Another private Member’s Bill that the Government could throw their weight behind was introduced by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on pregnancy and maternity protections. I certainly urge them to do so. This would be similar to the legal framework in Germany, strengthening redundancy provisions for pregnant women and new mothers and ensuring that jobs are less likely to be put unfairly at risk during maternity leave. It could be done swiftly and would benefit thousands.
Why would the Government not embrace such a cost-effective solution? In theory, extending maternity and paternity leave regulations and ensuring that a suitable alternative vacancy is offered when one is available are not without cost, but doing so has so many benefits. Women’s rights and protections when pregnant are in existing health and safety guidance, but it is worth placing that on the record because there seems to be some confusion about it in the comments of some hon. Members.
Pregnancy is not an illness: it is important that we are absolutely clear about that. The guidance, however, is often little known or understood. If pregnant employees cannot work from home, employers should undertake a risk assessment to determine what steps must be taken to make the workplace safe for them. If an employer is unable to provide a workplace that meets those requirements, a pregnant woman must be suspended on full pay.
When the UK Government gravely warned pregnant women about the dangers of the covid-19 virus, they could and should have clarified those rules. Instead, many women report being forced to take annual leave or unpaid leave or to use maternity leave early when the pandemic meant they could not safely perform their roles. Surveys have found that around half of pregnant women have had a risk assessment carried out, and equally few feel confident that their employer will, in accordance with the legislation, accommodate the outcome of the risk assessment. Surely, looking after pregnant women should be a priority of any Government or any civilised society.
The UK Government’s response to pregnant women and mothers who have been unfairly treated has been to advise them to take matters to an employment tribunal. I am delighted by this Damascene conversion to the value of employment tribunals, given that the trade unions had to drag the Government through the courts to get rid of the fees that prevented access to tribunals for those who could not afford it. Tribunals are a vital tool, but early prevention in disputes is a far better cure. So why not get the guidance right in the first place? Why not make these issues legally enforceable and put deterrents in place for bad employers? Why put all the extra stress and pressure on the employees to fight their corner and put extra pressure on a tribunal system already feeling the strain?
So far, from written questions that I have asked on these matters, very few answers have come my way and they do not offer much comfort to tax-paying workers struggling to get by while facing discriminatory practices under the cover of the current pandemic. I urge the Government to improve the commitment to employment rights, tighten up laws where necessary—we have heard a few examples today—and make sure that they really do wrap their arms around everyone by protecting them from unfair employment practices.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this important debate. I declare my interest as a proud member of Unite the union.
In March the Prime Minister told people across the country that the Government would put their arms around every single worker, but what has taken place in the past eight months has been nowhere close to what he promised. Instead we have had the silent erosion of employment rights and protections without a whisper from the Government. There is no doubt that this crisis has been brutal for working people, who have been laid off and made redundant in their droves and who have seen huge falls in the wages that they take home at the end of the day. It has been a brutal awakening that the rights and protections that they are supposed to enjoy, rather than acting as bulwarks against abuse by their employers, are in reality worth little more than the paper they are written on.
One of the most fundamental workers’ rights is the right to a safe workplace, as set out in numerous pieces of legislation, and the importance of that right could not be more pronounced during this pandemic, where otherwise benign workplaces such as retail have been turned into high-risk places, with high rates of contact with members of the public putting staff at risk from coronavirus. Despite that, huge numbers of workers were told to return to work over the summer, their employers spurred on by the dwindling support and increasing limitations of the furlough scheme, without proper precautions to ensure that a safe workplace was being put in place—effectively rolling back the right to a safe workplace.
The ability to demand this return to work, and the failure to put proper protections in place, putting staff in great danger—as we have seen in the health and social care sector—are a direct result of gutting local authority resources and in particular the Health and Safety Executive, which has been left powerless to enforce the rules that it was formed to uphold, with almost £150 million in real-terms cuts between 2010 and 2018 and about 500 inspectors let go. As we have seen at British Airways and Centrica, or British Gas, unscrupulous employers have been using this crisis—as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) said—as cover to unilaterally push through dramatic changes to employment contracts and to water down staff pay, terms and conditions. These unfair, unethical and underhand fire and rehire tactics, used by some of the largest and most profitable businesses, are essentially a legal loophole for blackmail that leaves workers worse off, as employers know full well that, in an increasingly uncertain employment market and under the threat of redundancy, workers cannot say no.
Such tactics also allow bad employers, who are happy to chop away at rights and pay or to let staff take the fall for poor business decisions and mistakes while sitting on vast financial reserves and still paying bonuses and dividends, to flourish, while good employers, who care about and invest in their staff, are punished as a consequence. These are the last things that people in our economy need in the middle of a recession. The Government should be helping businesses to boost wages, improve productivity and invest in their work force, not to shed staff and cut wages and employment rights. While they are at it, they could end the scourge of zero-hours contracts and insecure work.
Just look at Optare in North Yorkshire, where a last-minute concession was drawn from the Government to ensure that workers had the right to picket, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) said. Look at Ark Academy school trust, whose cleaning contractor, Ridge Crest, told the reps from United Voices of the World to drop their union and they would get PPE and the London living wage. Look at the Leicester garment workers, knocking out fashion for Boohoo at record speed, having their pay withheld and otherwise being paid half the national minimum wage. Where is the enforcement from the Government?
Then there are workers whose rights have been breached and who have been put at risk by their employer over this period, but who actually know the rights and protections that the law affords them. They still have to overcome the hurdles that are put in place by an enormous backlog in the employment tribunal system. The figures have soared to over 450,000—an increase of almost 50%. Even if a worker has been forced to return to work in an unsafe environment, has had their wages and conditions cut or has been unfairly dismissed, they are not likely to get justice for the best part of two years, if not longer.
Justice for such basic matters that takes two years to be served is not justice. Rights that cannot be enforced are not rights at all; they are just gestures of good will that employers can readily ignore on a whim. Vital and fundamental employment rights that were built over years of what were extraordinary struggles, often in the face of huge adversity, have been demoted to little more than platitudes, rather than real, meaningful and enforceable rules and protections.
While this takes place, the Government look on. Although they have set out guidance for workplaces to be made covid-secure, they have failed to make it clear that the guidance does not circumvent or replace the statutory protections that are currently in place, thereby reminding employers of their legal obligations towards the health and wellbeing of their staff, even within the offices of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
The Government have refused to back the Health and Safety Executive and to give it the teeth it needs to hold bad employers to account for their unsafe workplaces, putting staff in danger from covid by returning only a measly £14 million out of what has been a £150 million cut since the last Labour Government. It is simply illogical that the Government brought in new powers to restrain citizens from putting others at risk in the public sphere, while at the same time neglecting the enforcement of workplace protections, thereby allowing employers to flout the law in the workplaces they control and to put at risk the health and safety of workers and, in turn, the wider public.
In discharging his duty to keep safe all who work in this place, the conduct of the Leader of the House has been woeful and reckless in the extreme. On the outrageous tactic of firing and rehiring, the Government’s record is no better. They tell us that they expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and to follow the rules, and they have made it clear that they regret some of the decisions that have been taken. The Prime Minister had the audacity to tell BA staff in an email that employers should not be removing staff or changing terms and conditions, yet the Government have still allowed employers such as BA to take the taxpayer’s money and to lay off huge numbers of staff without consequences. They have refused to commit to stand up against such exploitation by bad businesses and to legislate to ban this tactic for good, as the Leader of the Opposition has rightly called for them to do.
Such outright indifference to the struggle of workers to keep their jobs, wages, rights and conditions takes place against a backdrop of the Government undermining the strength and bargaining power of trade unions that are fighting to protect jobs. However, we should not expect anything less from the same Government who sought to curtail the ability of working people to do that, through imposing employment fees.
President-elect Joe Biden said in his campaign:
“Today, however, there’s a war on organising, collective bargaining, unions, and workers. It’s been raging for decades, and it’s getting worse with Donald Trump in the White House.”
That is exactly the position in the UK after 10 years of Tory rule. After a decade of brutal austerity cuts by the Government, they have undermined protection for people at work and increased the risk to their health, safety and welfare. However, the pandemic has exposed just how much damage austerity has done, and how far these rights have been eroded.
The excuses offered by the Minister will be that such concerns are commercial issues—he has said it before—and that they are to be resolved by employers and workers. That is not good enough, and it shows just how far removed from reality the Government have become. It also demonstrates just how inadequate and unenforceable our current employment rights and protections are, and why, more than ever, we need a new employment rights settlement that can properly protect working people across the country.
I urge the Minister to confirm that the Government will never again put obstacles in the way of working people upholding their rights and seeking redress, and to guarantee that the protections afforded to working people will be strengthened in the employment Bill that has yet to appear before Parliament, a year after being promised. Their boast was that the employment Bill would
“Protect and enhance workers’ rights as the UK leaves the EU, making Britain the best place in the world to work.”
Well, let’s see it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. Like everyone else, I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing today’s important debate. This is a really important matter—a collective matter—and we have heard a number of excellent contributions from across the Chamber detailing individual issues within the overall, encompassing issue of workers’ rights.
Clearly, covid-19 has had a massive effect; it reaches deep into our economy and society. It has required us, as a country, to wrap our arms around the economy and around businesses and employees as well. The Government have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s livelihoods.
I appreciate that the Minister is under siege, so I will just ask a simple question. If we are truly wrapping our arms around workers and employees, will he take steps to ensure that the awful practice of fire and rehire is outlawed, because it is unnecessary and is having an appalling effect?
The reason why I am limiting interventions is that I want to leave the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North time at the end of the debate to sum up. I will clearly cover fire and rehire in a second.
Before doing so, I want to look at just some of the ways in which we have wrapped our arms around the economy and around businesses and employees. We have done that through the furlough scheme, which has allowed 1.2 million employers across the UK to furlough 9.6 million jobs. As we have heard, that scheme has been extended to the spring. With regard to the self-employment income support scheme, there is an increase under the third instalment of the grant, covering November to January.
It is also important that we help to get people, and particularly young people, back into work; we have heard about that from other hon. Members today. That is why, as we have announced, more than 19,000 jobs have been created so far through the kickstarter scheme, helping young people from across the country into the workplace and into a variety of sectors. In addition, 1.3 million businesses have had a Government-guaranteed loan to support their cash flow through the British Business Bank. That is delivering £8 billion to more than 98,000 SMEs—something close to my heart.
The hon. Gentleman talked about fire and rehire tactics. A key aspect of building back better is to continue championing a flexible and dynamic labour market, which gives employers the confidence to retain and hire staff, while maintaining a framework that protects individuals. For those who, sadly, lose their jobs, clear laws about unfair dismissal will ensure that their rights are protected. We have tightened the protections throughout the covid-19 pandemic. For example, we have made sure that statutory redundancy pay, statutory notice pay and unfair dismissal compensation are based on a furloughed employee’s normal pay rather than furlough pay. People who, sadly, are made redundant will receive the same level of financial compensation as they would if they had not been furloughed.
To understand better the issues in relation to fire and rehire, the Government are working with ACAS, and we are bringing together a number of roundtables with businesses, employee representatives and other bodies to discuss these issues in more detail. The House should be left in no doubt that this Government will always continue to stand behind workers and to stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur.
We have responded swiftly and effectively to the pandemic.
I am grateful, and I will keep my intervention brief. Can the Minister confirm, if he is having roundtable discussions about the practice of firing and rehiring, whether something might be brought forward in the employment Bill, when that Bill is eventually brought forward? If that is the case, will he work with me and others across the House to ensure that those provisions are good enough for the workers of this country?
I will gladly work with the hon. Gentleman in continuing to discuss workers’ rights in this area and other areas. It is important that the employment Bill, when it does come, not only extends workers’ rights in the way that we talked about in our manifesto, but does so in a way that fully reflects the situation we are going through and the lessons learned from the pandemic.
Some hon. Members talked about pregnancy and maternity discrimination. That is not acceptable under any circumstances. We have continued to remind employers of their existing responsibilities under current legislation. Equalities legislation requires that employers must not discriminate in the workplace based on gender, pregnancy or maternity. Following the Government’s consultation in 2019, we are extending the redundancy protection period afforded to mothers on maternity leave to six months, once the new mother has returned to work, and to those taking adoption leave and shared parental leave.
We have taken steps to support new parents by passing emergency legislation that ensures that parents who are furloughed during the period, and are determined to be entitled to maternity, adoption and other family related statutory pay, do not lose out.
I am happy to write to the hon. Lady fully to outline those details. The legislation entitles parents to a rate of pay based on their normal earnings, not their furlough pay.
Employment rights enforcement is as important as ever during this pandemic. We already spend £33 million a year on state enforcement of employment rights. Enforcement bodies continue to protect vulnerable workers and have worked with businesses to promote compliance throughout the pandemic. As has been mentioned, we have committed to go further and establish a single enforcement body for employment rights, to better protect vulnerable workers and create a level playing field for the majority of employers that comply with the law.
I will not because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North to respond.
The Government have acted decisively to protect the health and safety of workers who cannot work from home during the pandemic, including by providing tailored guidance on social distancing in the workplace to enable sectors to reopen and, where exemptions apply, to trade through the new English national restrictions. To date, the guides have been viewed over 3 million times. Where the Health and Safety Executive identifies employers that are not taking action to comply with the relevant public health legislation and guidance to control public health risks, it will consider taking a range of actions to improve the control of workplace risks.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North made a powerful argument about fire and rehire. When I spoke in the Chamber recently, I was absolutely clear that it is not acceptable to use that as a bargaining or negotiating tactic. When I talked about flexibility for firing people, I was not talking about adding any extra power to Goliath over David. Indeed, it is clear that we must have a level playing field.
Small businesses need to be able to thrive, but when employees in big businesses are concerned about collective bargaining and the power of the large employers, that shows that we need to strengthen workers’ rights and not weaken them in any way. We will continue to work with hon. Members across the House. Any sensible employer should know that investing in and working with their people is the biggest strength that they have. I say that as someone who ran small businesses for 25 years.
We have talked about bereavement. I am glad that we introduced the right to bereavement pay for people who have lost a child. There is a day-one right for unpaid leave to respond to other forms of bereavement.
The Low Pay Commission recommends the national minimum wage and the national living wage to Government. We will always respond to the collective view of that body, which encompasses union, independent and employer representation, rather than just taking a Government view, to come up with what is best for the economy, but not on the basis of the lowest paid in this country. We want to make sure we include our manifesto commitment to allow people to benefit as we level the playing field for people aged 23-plus as well.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) talked about retailer abuse, on which USDAW, with whom I have had regular discussions, has had a good campaign. The retailers themselves have raised issues most recently about the closure of pubs and restaurants. In Nottinghamshire, for example, there has been an increase in reported abuse of retailers around the sale of alcohol, so we need to reflect and act on that quickly.
We have heard about zero-hours contracts from a few speakers. Some 3.2% of workers are on zero-hours contracts, and they work an average of 25 hours a week. The Taylor review recommended not scrapping zero-hours contracts. We have got rid of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, but he said that banning such contracts
“would negatively impact…more people than it helped.”
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North once again for securing this important debate. I want to reassure workers across the country that we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them throughout the crisis as we build back better. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will introduce an employment Bill to reflect everything that we have learnt, and we will deliver the Government’s manifesto commitments. The legislation will make workplaces fairer by providing better support for working families and new protections for those in low-paid work, and will encourage flexible working. It will balance the needs of both employers and workers, ensuring that everybody benefits from flexibility. It will also create a new enforcement body for labour market abuses and give greater protections to vulnerable workers.
The hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) talked about the situation in Leicester, which is so important for us all. The taskforce set up in Leicester has visited 140 premises. There are a significant number of live investigations, and we want to do more to make sure we get to the bottom of any reports of abuse in Leicester and beyond. The Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights. We are committed to making the UK the best place in the world in which to work.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing today’s debate. As a former member of that Committee, I could feel the virtual slap on the wrist from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is hundreds of miles away. I am grateful to Members for their attendance. The debate has been very well attended. It is a shame that the only Government Back Bencher was not able to speak this morning. I am grateful to Members’ support for the many issues discussed this morning, including the support for action on firing and rehiring.
The Minister pointed out that he had spent many years running small businesses. I also ran businesses and spent time as a business analyst, so I understand and support the need for flexibility, but that should not be at the expense of workers’ rights. There has to be an appropriate balance, and we do not have that balance in this country at this point in time. Although I remain perhaps naively hopeful for the employment Bill, if the Government continue to refuse to act, will they please devolve employment law to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast? The Prime Minister seems to have dug himself a rather large hole on devolution at the moment, which is grist to the mill for the cause of Scottish independence. I bring that up for the benefit of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), because she is a big, big fan of independence. [Laughter.]
I implore the Minister, as I said in my intervention, to listen and work with Members across the House when shaping the employment Bill. That work should include the abolition of firing and rehiring, and making sure we have appropriate protections for all workers in the United Kingdom. I thank hon. Members again, and I thank you, Sir Christopher.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the covid-19 outbreak and employment rights.