I beg to move,
That this House believes that all existing employment rights and protections must be maintained, including the 48-hour working week, rest breaks at work and inclusion of overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements, and calls on the Government to set out to Parliament by the end of January 2021 a timetable to introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire tactics.
May I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his place and wishing him every success in his new role? I am sure that I speak for the whole House in paying a heartfelt tribute to the workers of our country—the women and men who have battled so hard throughout this pandemic, persevering in the most difficult environment that any of us, who have not suffered the horrors of war, have ever known. I am talking about those keyworkers: our nurses, our doctors, health and care workers, shop workers, cleaners, transport workers and, indeed, everybody who has worked so selflessly and bravely battled to maintain services throughout our country. Many of them have had to go to work with real concerns about their own safety and that of their families. Sadly, too many have worked in unsafe conditions because of the Government’s failure to enforce workplace health and safety standards or to provide the financial support needed for people to self-isolate. Tragically, so many workers have lost their lives, including a member of our own House of Commons family, namely Godfrey Cameron, and we grieve with, and for, all who love them. Workers are facing enormous stresses and pressures, and many are having to deal with major mental health challenges. It is with all those workers in mind that Her Majesty’s Opposition bring forward this motion today.
This pandemic has exposed the many deficiencies in workers’ rights and protections, and now there is a real yearning that, when we emerge from this crisis, a better deal for working people is not only possible, but essential. Yes, the economic position is tough, but people came back from a devastating war in 1945 determined to forge a better society for their families to prosper in. Such a moment, as President Biden said, of renewal and resolve is right now. At no time in living memory has it been clearer that the safety and security of working people is inextricably linked with public health and the economy.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend in that respect and I will come on to deal with many of those issues later on in my speech.
Against this backdrop, it is shocking that the Government would even consider embarking on a review to rip up the hard-won rights of working people. As revealed in the Financial Times, the Government have drawn up plans to end the 48-hour working week, weaken rules around rest breaks and exclude overtime when calculating holiday and pay entitlement. If the Government have their way, these changes would have a devastating impact on working people. Quite simply, it will mean longer hours, lower wages and less safe work.
The 48-hour working week limit is a vital protection of work-life balance. It is also a crucial health and safety protection, without which the physical and mental wellbeing of workers and the general public is at risk. But let us not beat around the bush: working longer hours leads to more deaths and more serious injuries. Nobody wants their loved ones cared for by our fantastic, but exhausted and overworked, nurses or ambulance staff, or for buses and trains to be operated by tired-out drivers. After the sacrifices of the past year, it is unconscionable for the Government to plot changes that would endanger workers and the public.
It is not just about making work less safe; the Government are proposing to exclude overtime from holiday pay entitlements, which would be a hammer blow to the finances of the country’s lowest paid and most insecure workers. Under current rules, regular overtime is included when calculating holiday pay entitlement, ensuring that it reflects the hours that are actually worked. Scrapping those rules would mean that the holiday pay that workers get would be lower. The average full-time care worker would lose out on £240 a year, a police officer more than £300, an HGV driver more than £400 and a worker in food and drink processing more than £500.
The losses, however, will be even more severe for those who work irregular hours, such as retail workers, who work lots of overtime. USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, described the case of Leon, a warehouse worker who works night shifts for a major parcel delivery company. Employed on an 8.5-hour contract, but working 36.5 hours in an average week, Leon would lose £2,149.22 per year.
All of that is at the start of the stewardship of a new Secretary of State for Business, who wrote in “Britannia Unchained” in 2012 that the British are
“among the worst idlers in the world”.
The Secretary of State is wrong: far from being lazy, British workers work some of the longest hours of workers in any mature economy, yet our economy still suffers from poor productivity.
The solution is to strengthen employment rights, not to strip them away in a bid to make working people work even longer hours. The Secretary of State excused his comments as being made a long time ago, but in 2015 the right hon. Gentleman wrote and edited another pamphlet, called “A Time for Choosing”, in which he said:
“Over the last three decades, the burden of employment regulation has swollen six times in size”,
before singling out protections on working time, declaring that the UK
“should do whatever we can to cut the burden of employment regulation.”
Does he stand by that?
There is a clear and active discussion about working time and the quality of life for working people. Since time immemorial, that discussion has taken place. I have no doubt that it will be a subject for debate and consideration between now and the next election, and way beyond. It is a perfectly proper area of debate.
The Secretary of State has spent a career calling for employment protections to be weakened, so he has a lot of ground to cover if he is to persuade the country’s 30 million-plus workers that he is on their side.
The hard workers my hon. Friend is talking about includes the many British Gas workers in my constituency, GMB members I met last week. I was very surprised to be told by them that the chief executive of British Gas had called personally to put pressure on them to accept new, worse terms. Bizarrely, he suggested that senior Labour figures had endorsed that. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that is absolute nonsense, that we stand in solidarity with them and that British Gas should get back around the table for serious negotiations? Of course, I draw attention to my membership of the GMB and the support that it has provided me.
I am more than happy and delighted to confirm that that is utter and complete nonsense. Is it likely? I just ask people: is that really likely? Of course it is not.
If the Secretary of State now wants to say that the 48-hour cap, holiday pay entitlements and rest breaks will be protected, and that he will scrap the planned consultation, perhaps he can say so in unequivocal terms here today and vote for our motion.
Today’s motion also calls on the Government to set a timetable to introduce legislation to end “fire and rehire” tactics. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has gained prominence because of the conduct of major employers such as British Airways, Heathrow and British Gas—some in circumstances that they claim to be justified by the covid pandemic. It is about sacking workers and hiring them back on lower wages and worse terms and conditions, including 20,000 British Gas employees who kept working through the pandemic to keep customers’ homes warm and worked with the Trussell Trust to deliver food parcels. I think of the engineer who explained that he was often the only face that people living in isolation were seeing. This is how they are repaid.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that fire and rehire has been around for a long time, but does he agree that that shows just how weak the current unfair dismissal laws are and how they really need to be strengthened?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had an erosion of protections and rights over many years, and we have to deal with it and review it comprehensively.
This also includes British Airways, whose use of fire and rehire was described by the cross-party Transport Committee as
“a calculated attempt to take advantage of the pandemic to cut…jobs”
and weaken the terms and conditions of its remaining employees, and it deemed this “a national disgrace”. The Leader of the Opposition was right to call for fire and rehire tactics to be outlawed, saying:
“These tactics punish good employers, hit working people hard and harm our economy. After a decade of pay restraint—that’s the last thing working people need, and in the middle of a deep recession— it’s the last thing our economy needs.”
We have repeatedly warned that the practice would become increasingly common, triggering a race to the bottom, and I take no delight in observing that this warning has come to fruition. Research published today by the TUC reveals that fire and rehire tactics have become widespread during the pandemic. Nearly one in 10 workers has been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions since the first lockdown in March, and the picture is even bleaker for black, Asian and minority ethnic and young workers and working-class people. Far from levelling up, the Government is levelling down, with nearly a quarter of workers having experienced a downgrading of their terms during the crisis.
Fire and rehire is a dreadful abuse and allows bad employers to exploit their power and undercut good employers by depressing wages and taking demand out of the economy. It is all the more galling when those very companies have had public funds to help them to get through the pandemic. The economic response to the 2008 financial crisis in Britain was characterised by poor productivity and low wage growth. The Government fail to understand that well-paid, secure work is good for the economy, and greater security for workers would mean a stronger recovery. If the Government had listened to the Leader of the Opposition back in September, countless workers could have been spared painful cuts to their terms and conditions, but it is not too late for the Government to act. They can act now to introduce legislation to end fire and rehire and give working people the security they need. If they do that, they will have our full support.
Finally, I turn to the Government’s amendment, in which they say that
“the UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world”
and that the UK
“provides stronger protections than the EU”.
That is simply not the case. The UK ranks as the third least generous nation for paid leave and unemployment benefits out of the US and major European economies. A UNICEF analysis of indicators of national family-friendly policies has the UK at 34th on one index and 28th on another, lagging behind Romania, Malta and Slovakia and just edging ahead of Cyprus.
The Government’s amendment also “welcomes the opportunity” to strengthen protections for workers, but what are the Government doing with the opportunity that they so welcome? What have they been doing on fire and rehire? All we have had is sympathy and hand-wringing, when action was and still is required. Where were they on Rolls-Royce at Barnoldswick? It was Unite the union and the courage and determination of those brave workers that fought to secure their jobs, not this Government. What works best for the UK is what works best for its working people, and undermining their rights and protections does not cut it. Accordingly, Labour will not be supporting the Government’s amendment.
Why did the Secretary of State’s Department embark on this review, and how can it be that his Department has sought responses from companies without the consultation being published? Can he confirm that it is now dead in the water, or does he intend to bring it back at a later date? We were promised an employment Bill that would make Britain
“the best place in the world to work”.
The Opposition would very much welcome a Bill that did exactly that, but given his track record, we have major doubts. Perhaps he can tell the House when we will see that Bill introduced.
From this point on, it is about how we rebuild our country and secure our economy. That objective has to have working people—their interests and their health and wellbeing—right at the forefront. As a bare minimum, that has to include maintaining the basic protections that employees have had up to now and then building on them. Sadly, workers will find no hard evidence of this Government enhancing their rights and protections, but it is what they were promised, and it is what they are expecting, so we will be holding the Government to it.
It will be no surprise to Members to learn that a very long list of people have indicated that they wish to speak. Not everyone will have the chance to do so, but we will begin with an immediate time limit of three minutes for Back Benchers.
I just want to make something very clear and unequivocal at the outset: we will not reduce workers’ rights. There is no Government plan to reduce workers’ rights. As the new Secretary of State, I have been extremely clear that I do not want to diminish workers’ rights, and on my watch there will be no reduction in workers’ rights. I do not want there to be any doubt about my or the Government’s intentions in this area. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) were kind enough to send me a letter in my first week in the job asking for reassurances on this matter. I am happy to report that I have provided those reassurances, and I am very willing to provide them every time.
We will not row back on the 48-hour weekly working limit derived from the working time directive. We will not reduce the UK annual leave entitlement, which is already much more generous than the EU minimum standard. We will not row back on legal rights to breaks at work. I will say it again: there is no Government plan to reduce workers’ rights.
The Government have managed to have a record that is unimpeachable on this subject. Our manifesto promised, among other things, to get Brexit done and to maintain the existing level of protections for workers provided by our laws and regulations. We have delivered Brexit, and we will not use this new-found freedom to reduce workers’ rights. In any case, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough said, our higher standards were never dependent on our membership of the EU. The UK has one of the best employment rights records in the world. It is well known that in many areas the UK goes further than the EU on workers’ protections. We have one of the highest minimum wages in the world, and the Government are increasing this again for workers on 1 April, but in the EU there is no requirement to offer a minimum wage or sick pay. In the UK, people get over five weeks of annual leave, minimum; the EU requires only four weeks. In the UK, people get a year of maternity leave; the EU minimum is just 14 weeks. The EU has only just agreed rights to flexible working, over 15 years behind the UK. The Opposition are simply wrong to hold the EU up as the gold standard. Our equalities legislation, and our maternity and paternity entitlements, are already considerably better than the EU’s. Now we have left the EU, our Government and Parliament are able to decide what rules should apply and make improvements where we believe there is a need to do so.
I have to make progress because lots of people want to speak in this debate.
We have already set out plans to make workplaces fairer. Our manifesto contains commitments to create a new single enforcement body for labour market abuses to give greater protections for workers, as well as plans to encourage greater flexible working. It is totally disingenuous for Labour to claim that we do not stand on the side of workers when our manifesto clearly says the direct opposite.
We will not take lectures on employment rights from Labour, because, as I said, our track record speaks for itself. It was a Conservative-led Government who introduced shared parental leave and pay in 2014, giving parents flexibility in who takes time away from work in the first year of their child’s life. It was a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage in 2016, giving the lowest-paid workers the security of a higher wage to provide for themselves and their families. Ten years of progressive Conservative reforms pushed unemployment to a 45-year low. Before coronavirus hit, our employment rate was at a record high, with over 33 million people in work. By March last year, workers across the UK had enjoyed 26 consecutive months of real pay increases, and women and workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up a larger proportion of the workforce than ever before.
I have to make progress.
I know at first hand through my work as Energy Minister the importance of making sure that we have a high-wage, high-protection, high-skilled labour market to ensure that we can deliver the net zero transition and seize the opportunities of the green industrial revolution. The times have moved on. We have a new net zero focus, and clearly high wages and high skills are really at the centre of what we are trying to do as a Government.
That will be more crucial than ever as we rebuild our economy from the devastating impact of coronavirus. From the outset, the Government have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect our workers’ and our people’s livelihoods. The coronavirus job retention scheme, the first intervention of its kind in UK history, delivers countrywide support to protect millions of British workers. The scheme has helped 1.2 million employers across the UK to furlough 9.9 million jobs and has now been extended until April 2021.
Enforcement bodies are continuing to protect vulnerable workers and to work with businesses to promote compliance throughout the epidemic. We are concerned about reports suggesting that threats about firing and rehiring are being used as a negotiating tactic. We have been clear—
The Secretary of State is speaking about fire and rehire, and his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told me that those tactics were completely unacceptable. Does the Secretary of State agree with those comments and does he share my concern? In September of last year, I met the chief executive of British Gas about that specific dispute and he tried to suggest that they were not using those tactics, despite having written to members in July to do just that. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is completely unacceptable in our labour market?
I think it is unacceptable. I will go further—as a constituency MP, I have a large number of constituents in Spelthorne who work for British Airways and I spoke directly to the old CEO, Alex Cruz, who has since left the company, and made exactly the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made to me. It is not acceptable.
As I was saying, we have been very clear that this practice is unacceptable and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who is the Minister responsible for labour markets, has condemned the practice in the strongest terms on many occasions in this House. We have engaged ACAS to investigate the issue and it is already talking to business and employee representatives to gather evidence of how fire and rehire has been used. ACAS officials are expected to share their findings with my Department next month and we will fully consider the evidence that they supply.
The House should be left in no doubt that the Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. The Government have worked constructively with businesses and unions throughout the pandemic to ensure that our workers remain safe and we will continue to do so as the UK looks towards economic recovery. I am proud of the constructive relationship I had with trade unions in my former role as Minister of State for energy and I fully intend to continue in this vein as the newly appointed Business Secretary. I have already reached out to the union leaders and I spoke to the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, only last week.
I want to conclude by reassuring employees across the country that we in Government continue to acknowledge the immense efforts our workers—our workforce, our people—have contributed to the effort against coronavirus. These are unprecedented times, and we fully understand the pressures that we are all labouring under. We will use the opportunities created by leaving the EU to build back better and maintain a world-leading position on employment rights. The House should be in no doubt that we are the party on the side of the hard-working people of this country.
In his rather selective recollection of what the Government have done on workers’ rights over the past 10 years, the Secretary of State forgot to mention the reduction of consultation periods, the increase of qualifying periods for unfair dismissal and the introduction of employment tribunal fees. Will he mention those things, because they were certainly detrimental to working people in this country?
What I will mention is the introduction of the national living wage—[Interruption.] I will also mention the fact that we have doubled the personal allowance, which was at £6,450 when we came to office in 2010 and is now hitting £12,000. We take no lessons or lectures from the Labour party on helping the most vulnerable people in our society. This Government have a proud history of protecting and enhancing workers’ rights, and we are committed to making the UK absolutely the best place in the world to work.
Before I open the Floor to other Members for their contributions, I can confirm to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister will not be moved this evening.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Secretary of State has not moved the selected amendment, as he has just said, and therefore the question before the House remains the question already proposed, as on the Order Paper. We now go to the Scottish National party spokesman, Drew Hendry.
Madam Deputy Speaker, a very happy Burns night to you, the staff and everyone else. Could I also welcome the Secretary of State to his place this evening?
Workers deserve our thanks, our respect and our appreciation. Scotland should not have to protect hard-fought workers’ rights from the Tories and their Brexit chaos. By reneging on their promise to protect EU-derived workers’ rights, the UK Government would again prove that it is impossible to trust anything the Tories say, especially on Brexit. The SNP is clear that it rejects any regression of workers’ protections. However, the Scottish Government’s ability to tackle unfair working practices and to fully protect workers’ rights remains limited. As employment law is reserved to Westminster, the UK Government must take action.
Madam Deputy Speaker,
“using threats of firing and rehiring is unacceptable as a negotiating tactic”.—[Official Report, 13 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 293.]
These are not my words, but the words of the Prime Minister earlier this month, so why is nothing being done to stop this? While the SNP would support any legislation seeking to ban fire and rehire practices, the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill—is available now to do just that, and the Tories and Labour could help us change the law within weeks by backing his Bill.
When my hon. Friend introduced his Bill in June 2020 to ban fire and rehire practices, he wrote to the current leader of the Labour party and the then Tory Business Secretary—incidentally, with nearly 100 MPs co-signing the letter—urging them both to back his Bill. Given that the Labour leader called on the UK Government to
“Introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire”—
“If you do that, you will have our full support”—
surely now Labour must get behind the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend. To quote Burns,
“A mind that is conscious of its integrity scorns to say more than it means to perform.”
To my hon. Friend’s great credit, he has in fact submitted two Bills to Parliament over recent months seeking to outlaw the practice, which have been backed by all major trade unions, including Unite, the British Airline Pilots Association and GMB Scotland. The current Bill extends workers’ rights currently under the Employment Rights Act 1996 to prevent employers from forcing workers to sign up to wage cuts and inferior conditions under threat of dismissal. The simple amendment he proposes to existing employment legislation would benefit millions of people overnight, supporting responsible employers, while making it clear to those with less scruples that these sorts of actions are not permitted in any country across the UK.
The SNP has called time and again for the UK Government either to get behind my hon. Friend’s employment Bill or to bring in their own legislation to give millions of workers at Centrica and elsewhere the same protections enjoyed across Europe. We should all be willing to put party differences aside and work together in the interests of workers. The UK Government have a duty to act swiftly and decisively to ban fire and rehire practices. Until this happens, more employers will be encouraged to follow suit. Companies such as British Airways, Tesco and Centrica are the tip of the iceberg, and workers across these isles face unprecedented attacks on their wages and conditions via despicable tactics such as fire and rehire.
As I have said, my hon. Friend has led the charge to ban fire and rehire tactics and ensure that workers are not the victims of bosses looking to cut costs. We will of course listen to the warm words today, but the fact is that the Tories and Labour could help us change the law within weeks by backing the Bill. Let them now commit to action to support that Bill.
Turning to other matters, I think we have all been shocked by the details of the UK Government’s shabby and heartless treatment of their own Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency workforce that have emerged over the weekend. That sets a worrying precedent for the coming months and years in relation to workers’ rights.
We have heard from the Secretary of State tonight that he will not be following up the package of deregulatory measures following the UK’s exit from the EU. He said that he would not be ending the 48-hour week, and that he would not be tweaking the rules around rest breaks at work, overtime pay or other changes. But, of course, we have heard Tory Ministers make countless empty promises to protect EU-derived workers’ protections, and now that we have left the EU there are few who do not believe that they are going to renege on that promise.
Even if we believed that the Tories were intent on protecting workers’ rights—admittedly, that is a big ask—surely they would simply maintain those that were already enshrined in EU law, rather than ploughing ahead with a review and selecting what they want to discover. Despite initially dismissing the reports of watering down rights, the Tory Business Secretary confirmed last week that
“we wanted to look at a whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep.”
Of course, we can easily read that as the Government keeping the bare minimum that they can get away with.
With each day that passes, the damage being inflicted by the Tories’ Brexit deal on businesses and jobs becomes clearer; they have earned zero trust. As with fishing, they have shown that they will break any promise and sell out any group of workers, no matter the cost. As the STUC general secretary Roz Foyer said:
“We are alarmed, if unsurprised, by reports of early attempts to downgrade workers’ rights through amending the commitment to the EU Working Time Directive. We will vigorously oppose any attempt to dilute existing rights and are pleased that the Scottish Government, in line with its commitment to Fair Work, supports us in this.”
The SNP and the Scottish Government will continue to work in partnership with trade unions to challenge the UK Government to avoid a race to the bottom when it comes to pay and conditions. As I have said, people in Scotland can see that the Scottish Government’s ability to tackle unfair working practices and fully protect workers’ rights remains limited while employment law is reserved to Westminster, even though they are doing all they can to embed fair work practices across Scotland. In July 2020, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture issued a refreshed joint statement with the STUC, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Institute of Directors and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, outlining the sheer commitment to fair work practices in Scotland across the public, private and third sectors.
The Scottish Government also published their fair work action plan last year to drive forward the ambition for fair work to be the norm in workplaces across Scotland. Through their flagship fair work first policy, they are rewarding and encouraging employers to adopt fair work practices by attaching fair work criteria to grants and other funding, as well as to the contracts awarded by and across the public sector. This includes: asking employers to commit to paying the real living wage, not the pretendy one that we hear about in the Commons so often; no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts; and the provision of channels for an effective voice, such as trade union recognition.
Fair work first criteria will be incorporated into the policies and practices of the Scottish National Investment Bank, and are embedded across the enterprise and skills agencies, including the new South of Scotland Enterprise agency. If an anti-worker ideology continues at Westminster, it is vital that powers over employment are devolved to Scotland to allow our Parliament to get on with the crucial job of supporting employment and helping businesses to thrive.
By breaking the promise to protect EU-derived workers’ rights, the UK Government will again be proving that it is impossible to trust anything that the Tories say, especially on Brexit. We in the SNP are clear that we reject any regression of workers’ protections. The Scottish Government now need the powers to tackle unfair working practices and to protect workers’ rights. Employment law should no longer be reserved to Westminster. In the meantime, fire and rehire is an abomination. The UK Government and Members of all parties must now support my hon. Friend’s simple but effective Bill to outlaw it.
Scotland has not voted for a Tory Government since 1955. Unlike other parties, the SNP wants to put workers’ rights, and all other powers to create a fairer Scotland, in Scotland’s hands—not in the hands of Tory Governments we never vote for. Twenty opinion polls in a row have shown that the people of Scotland back that proposition. They must, and will, have their democratic right to choose a better future with independence.
May I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), about those workers who continue to go to their physical workplace during the pandemic? We should all pay tribute to them and share that noble sentiment. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his promotion to the Cabinet—it is well deserved. I know he will champion business in these challenging times and, in particular, the principles and practice of free enterprise.
We may not be moving the amendment, but I am particularly proud that it contains two words that we did not hear at all from the Opposition: job creation. Let us be clear: no matter what anyone says, there is broad consensus now across the House and the country about keeping the fundamental employment rights we have. Employers are familiar with them, employees understand them and the country generally supports them. However, it would be quite extraordinary, facing the economic pressures that we do, if a Conservative Government did not look at what supply-side reform, including deregulation and cutting red tape, could be brought forward so that we can strengthen our recovery as we eventually come out of lockdown, and there are two key reasons why they should do that.
The first is obviously the strength of the challenge. I am very proud that, as the Secretary of State said, we had the lowest unemployment since I was born in 1974 before we went into the pandemic. However, covid and the action that we have had to take have created inevitable economic pressure, and the impact on jobs will be seismic. In that context, the Government should use every lever at their disposal to strengthen the recovery as we move out of lockdown. That must include looking at what areas can be deregulated, while keeping fundamental employment rights in place.
The second reason is that we have to understand one of the most important assets of our economy. One of the key strengths of UK plc is that we have a flexible labour market. The World Economic Forum and others have recognised that. It is a key factor in why huge multinationals like to invest in the UK, and inward investment will be a crucial part of our recovery. It would therefore be deeply unwise if we were now to send a message to the rest of the world that we were going to unwind our flexible labour market.
This is about the message we send. If we had a four-day week—it seems that the Labour party is still considering that—there are many who would support it, but the message that that would send is that we were not going to be pro-business or to drive a strong recovery. Instead, the message we should send is that we will look at every single action we can take across Government, in every Department, to prioritise jobs, jobs, jobs and to achieve the two outcomes we must achieve above all else: reducing the risk of long-term scarring from covid to the economy and, most important of all, maximising those two great words—job creation.
I join the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) in paying tribute to all those who have worked through this covid crisis, and particularly to those in essential services.
I support the motion, and I agree with everything said from the Labour Front Bench: we must have no watering down of hard-won employment rights. However, a new employment Bill is also an opportunity for new rights, which are sorely needed by families in today’s world of work. The structure of our current rights was based on the notion of the employed male breadwinner, supported by the wife at home looking after their children. Even if she worked, her primary responsibility was to the children, and she would be supported by her own mother, who would most likely be retired. However, most women now work—many are self-employed rather than employed—and grandmothers, who used to be able to be relied on to step in, are still working.
We have introduced important rights, such as the right to request flexible work, paternity leave and parental leave, but there are glaring omissions, which should be addressed in any future Bill. A man or a woman employee is entitled to paid sick leave, but what if the child is sick? Parents cannot leave a sick child at home on their own. We should back our working parents when their child is sick. Instead, we leave them in the lurch. One parent—usually the mother—has to ring the employer and beg for time off, often to be told she has to take it as holiday or unpaid leave, which is especially hard for low-income families.
In a future employment Bill, we therefore need to give a parent of a primary school-age or younger child who cannot go to school or nursery when they are sick the right to paid leave. Other countries do that. That also needs to extend to grandparents, in case that is who is best placed to take the time off when the child is sick. Many parents rely hugely on grandparents, especially in the first year of a baby’s life, so we should factor them into parental leave too. Currently, the mother and the father can share 50 weeks’ leave between them. We should make it so that that could be split between, say, the mother, the father and one of the grandparents. The point is to give families the choice.
The Government mentioned having more employment rights for families in their manifesto. That is encouraging, and there will be strong support for that from the Labour Benches, but also from the Government Benches and, above all, from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. If he wants to do some good and make a difference, I look forward to him agreeing across parties to make progress on this.
I am very glad to have been called in this Opposition day debate, but I admit some curiosity as to why we are actually having it. The United Kingdom has one of the best records on workers’ rights not just in Europe but in the world, and since we have left the EU the Government could not have been clearer: those rights that we have are not going to be downgraded.
In fact, we start from a stronger position on workers’ rights than much of Europe already. We have one of the highest minimum wage rates in Europe. We do not just have parity with the EU on sick pay, paternity pay or annual leave; on these issues we exceed the EU by quite some way.
Our policy must be to diverge, but not to downgrade. If we want to attract the best people, businesses and teams, we need to show that we are the best place to live, to do business and to trade. We do not achieve that by slashing workers’ rights and making the UK a hostile environment for employees.
It is absolutely right now that we have full control of our laws that the power should rest with Parliament to determine what rules should apply to the UK and how they should be enforced. These next crucial years should be a time when we enhance workers’ rights, giving people stability and certainty in the workplace and enabling a high-employment economy where it pays to work. Recovering from coronavirus will mean we need to demonstrate a fresh sense of dynamism and evolve our economy, so that we are able to build back and so that people have the certainty and dignity of a job and the protection afforded within it.
Therefore, it is crucially important, especially now, that we protect those in low-paid work in the gig economy, and I am delighted that we are bringing forward measures to crack down on employers who abuse employment law, whether by refusing sick pay or even just taking their employees’ tips. We are scrapping the loophole that allowed some firms to pay agency workers less than permanent staff, and perhaps most profoundly, in a simple change that will make a huge difference to so many, we have extended the right to a day-one written statement of rights to all workers. That simple change details their rights and benefits, meaning over 1.5 million people in the current workforce will have their leave and pay entitlements set out clearly for the first time.
The road to recovery from coronavirus will be very bumpy indeed, but we will not recover at all if we do not look after the workers who turn up every day and who are the engine of our economy. I believe that the Government see just how crucial they are, and I am disappointed, but not surprised, that once again the Opposition would much rather champion headlines than support policies that they know they should be following.
Is it not totally mind-blowing, in fact utterly grotesque, that during this pandemic the world’s 10 richest men have boosted their wealth by over £400 billion—half a trillion dollars—and here we are debating the upcoming Conservative attacks on working men and women, the bedrock of this nation, many of whom have paid a huge price during this pandemic? How many of these people will face a slash to their wages—a cut in their wages, terms and conditions—as a result of new legislation introduced by this Government?
It is crystal clear that key members of this Cabinet see coronavirus and Brexit as a perfect storm for tearing apart workers’ rights. Brexit gave this Government the opportunity they have long craved to set a bonfire under workers’ rights, and of course the mayhem caused by the virus has only served to fan those flames.
The appointment of the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) to his current position of Secretary of State fired the starting pistol; it gave the green light to the ideological attack on Britain’s workers. He has a very well documented and ideological view on the working people of this country. In 2012 a group of newly elected Conservative MPs published “Britannia Unchained”, a book that unashamedly claimed:
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world.”
“We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.”
They boomed it loud and clear from the rooftops, including the right hon. Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), and of course for Spelthorne, who are now key members of the Cabinet. We need to look very carefully at what they have to say.
We have massive issues with regard to fire and rehire, which has been mentioned before, and I will also mention Heathrow, Barnoldswick, and the GMB action at British Gas. I ask the Secretary of State whether it is not time that British Gas got back around the table with the GMB, and time to stop scoffing at the loyal workforce and outlaw this heinous practice of fire and rehire. We need to ensure that constructive dialogue takes place with the trade unions and the workers in order to make progress.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to send my best wishes to those in Scotland and around the UK who are celebrating Burns night this evening.
While I am an ardent supporter of workers’ rights, I will be abstaining on the motion this evening. I will briefly explain why: the recent use of these Opposition day debates to fuel hate campaigns on social media has been disgraceful. I welcome Opposition day debates, and I certainly welcome scrutiny of Government, but at this time of national crisis, with so many people worried about their jobs, their incomes and their health, having this type of aggressive political campaigning that seeks to mislead about the views of Members on my side of the Chamber is like pouring petrol on a bonfire. I hope our abstaining will inform people a little bit better about how Opposition day motions fit into the workings of Parliament.
To return to this evening’s important debate on workers’ rights, I add my thanks to all the workers who have continued to go to work throughout the pandemic to keep our country moving. I believed—probably naively—that the scaremongering on workers’ rights being eroded or abolished was just lines from the 2016 edition of the remain handbook, but the Labour party appears determined to perpetuate these myths. I am mystified when people say it was only our EU membership that led to us having workers’ rights, or that our membership of the EU was the only reason our workers’ rights were maintained. It is simply untrue.
To list a few of the really positive changes the Government have made, they have increased the reference period for calculating holiday pay to ensure greater fairness for those with variable working hours, scrapped the Swedish derogation to ensure agency workers are fairly treated and fairly paid, and required all workers to be given a written statement of their rights by their employer on day one. We estimate that 1.5 million people now have their rights set out clearly for the first time—this is such an important change, and I welcome it. I also welcome the strengthened protections for parents who tragically lose a child. While we all hope those rights are never needed, I commend the Government on having them in place when people are having such a horrific time.
Many people want to speak in this debate, so I will end by welcoming the words of the Secretary of State on ensuring that our workers’ rights are protected and making clear that we have no plans to erode them. I also welcome his commitment to investigate abuse of fire and rehire tactics, and look forward to his future work in this area.
As a former trade union official, I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate. In the short time I have this evening, I would like to touch on the importance of workers’ rights in ensuring a happy, productive and innovative workforce.
As we have already heard, Ministers stated on a number of occasions that Brexit would enhance rather than weaken the EU-derived employment rights UK workers currently benefit from. Yet here we are less than one month after the end of the transition period and those rights are already under threat. If the proposed changes go ahead, they will likely lead many people, including the key workers Ministers have been clapping during the pandemic, out of pocket and working even longer hours.
Trade unions have a key role to play in all this. Employers want a motivated and productive workforce. Unions want their members to be treated fairly and to be able to participate fully in the workplace without compromising their family lives or general wellbeing. Longer working hours and changes to rest breaks will likely lead to a decrease in efficiency and an increase in sickness. The exclusion of overtime from holiday pay entitlement calculations will lead to employees feeling undervalued and resentful. And this is before we even start to consider employees who might need other support or reasonable adjustments.
Having strong employee rights and absolute clarity around those rights means that employees and employers alike can plan their time more effectively, work at a sustainable pace and help to nip causes of resentment and conflict in the bud. It does not take an employment rights specialist to understand that happy and fulfilled employees are much more likely to not only fulfil the basic requirements of their jobs, but to innovate and create positive change.
In October 2019, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), the then Business Secretary, said in this Chamber:
“As we leave the European Union, we have a unique opportunity to enhance protections for the workforce and tailor them to best support UK workers.”—[Official Report, 29 October 2019; Vol. 667, c. 205.]
I will finish by asking the current Secretary of State why his Government are not using this opportunity to strengthen those protections, rather than to reduce them. If he remains unconvinced, perhaps he should speak to some of our colleagues in the unions.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Now that we have left the EU and regained full control of our laws, it is absolutely right that Members in this place have the power to debate and decide what works best for the UK, and therefore which rules should apply, including on things like business growth, innovation, job creation and, of course, strengthening protections for workers. I was pleased to hear Ministers reaffirm, as they have time and again, the Government’s commitment to not lowering the standards of workers’ rights. Despite the scaremongering from the Labour party, this country goes further than EU minimums on workers’ rights, such as on paid leave, maternity leave and entitlement to sick leave, among others.
Moreover, under this Government the national living wage is set to increase again to £8.91 an hour from April 2021. This means about £345 extra per year for someone working full time. For the first time, more young people will be eligible for the national living wage, as the age threshold will be lowered from 25 to 23. Helping the low paid, improving access to opportunity, and encouraging innovation and growth is what the Conservative side of the House continues to fight for. That is why in our 2019 manifesto we committed to raising workers’ rights and standards, including new protections for workers, while preserving the dynamism and job creation that drive our shared prosperity. That was an election, of course, in which this Government received the overwhelming endorsement of the British public. It is a pledge I know the Government are committed to maintaining.
In my experience the best way to improve conditions for British workers is to have low unemployment in a free market, accompanied with targeted and direct investment in skills and training. That must be the case, and even more so as the covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our daily lives and our economy. As well as a sustained period of record lows of unemployment, this Government have gone further to protect and safeguard jobs by investing world-leading amounts during the pandemic and saving jobs with the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and a multitude of measures aimed at keeping businesses going during the pandemic. On low pay, on job creation, on lowering unemployment, on creating opportunity and on maintaining and enhancing workers’ pay and conditions, it is this Government that have the record to be proud of, and it is this Government that will make a success of Brexit for hard-working British people such as those in my Bridgend constituency.
I wish to speak in favour of the motion in the name of my hon. and right hon. Friends. I declare at the outset that I am a member of the GMB and Unite unions.
The fact that the Government have consulted businesses on these changes shows that there is an outdated attitude towards industrial relations and workers’ rights at the heart of the Government. Good employment law protects the good employers from the bad. Employees are people; they are not tools that can just be laid aside on the whim of an employer. People have lives to lead, bills to pay, mortgages and rent; many of them have families that they need to support—to feed, to clothe and to plan holidays with. A contract of employment is a way of being able to plan ahead with security for those things. The terms should not be changed just on the whim of an unscrupulous employer.
Creating a culture where workers feel insecure in their jobs undermines the economy; it makes them less likely to spend money or to take out loans for bigger items. Creating such an environment is not just immoral but self-defeating, and attitudes need to change. Businesses need to understand that they need to act for the common good. It is no longer good enough for them to hide behind the fact that they are serving shareholders and to say, “This is why we are forced to rape the economy or pay poverty wages,” and fail to protect workers’ rights.
The covid pandemic, climate change and the state of the global finances make it imperative that we all work together for the common good. The solution is not to enfeeble workers or trample on their rights, yet companies such as British Gas and British Airways are telling their workers that they will be sacked and rehired on worse conditions. Those are hardly the British values that we want to promote globally.
British Gas/Centrica is sacking 20,000 of its workforce. It is telling them that they must sign new contracts dictated by the company or consider themselves to be sacked in April. Doing that at the time of a pandemic is grotesque. Centrica as a group had an operating profit of £901 million for 2019. In the first six months of 2020, the operating profit of its domestic heating business in the UK was £229 million, up 25% on the same period the previous year. Why are the workers who delivered that being treated so appallingly by that company?
I met workers from British Gas. Between them, they have many years of service to the company; some are the second or third generation in their family to work for British Gas. They are proud of the company that they work for; they value the jobs they do and the customers they serve.
I would also like to declare that I am a member of Unite the union and was previously a regional official.
From the 10-hour day campaign in the 19th century through to the campaign for a 35-hour week in the engineering industry in the 1990s, the struggle to protect workers from exploitation and exhaustion has been part of the trade union movement’s DNA. When the current working time limits were first introduced, I was a convenor on the factory floor at the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port. I saw at first hand how those reforms improved the lives of people working in some of the most challenging and hazardous conditions imaginable—quite literally, cutting hours saved lives. Now those fundamental rights are under threat, and while I am no longer a union officer, I am privileged to be able to speak in their defence in the Chamber today.
The revelation that the Business Secretary is reviewing the working time directive is a matter of great concern. It threatens my constituents, for whom secure and well-paid work is already in short supply, as well as millions of workers across the country. The Government’s intent to take a wrecking ball to the hard-won gains of the labour movement, such as the 48-hour working week limit, holiday pay and rest break entitlements, is clear. The Prime Minister’s pledge that workers’ rights would be “higher than ever before” following our departure from the EU is exposed as yet another empty promise.
We should not be surprised. Many Government Members have long seen Brexit as a vehicle to attacks the rights of workers and the trade union movement. In 2012, the Secretary of State joined other senior Members now in the Cabinet in slandering British workers as being
“the worst idlers in the world”
and advocating a ruinous programme of deregulation and privatisation that would condemn workers’ rights to the dustbin of history. The fact that the new Secretary of State has chosen now to review workers’ rights shows how deeply out of touch the Government are with the mood and needs of the country. Instead of stepping up support for the millions of people who are still struggling desperately to make ends meet, including the nearly 3 million taxpayers yet to see a penny in financial support, this Government have instead frozen key worker pay, look set to cut universal credit and now want to undermine employment rights.
Let us be clear: diluting workers’ rights will do nothing to address the economic catastrophe we face. It will only compound the suffering and misery of the millions of British workers already suffering in-work poverty. As I speak, GMB members at British Gas are engaged in the most significant industrial dispute in the sector’s recent history. Their experience should serve as a potent reminder to every Member in this House that too many workers are still denied basic respect and security in the workplace. While British Gas employees have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to keep our homes warm and connected, their employer is cynically using fire and rehire tactics to cut pay and working conditions.
I must start by saying that I am slightly confused as to how the Opposition have concluded that UK employment rights are an area of weakness in which to attack the Government. So far, aside from the usual baseless scaremongering, I still have not heard much in the way of common sense, fact or understanding. The United Kingdom has one of the best records in workers’ rights in the world, going further than the EU in so many areas. As the Government have stated time and again, that is not going to change.
Now that we have left the EU and regained full control of our laws, we can use this historic moment to enhance workers’ rights, not row back on them, ensuring that we can be a high-wage, high-employment economy that works for everyone, as we do right by the millions and millions of people in this country who work hard, get on and do the right thing.
I think all in this place can agree that the global pandemic has changed almost everything in daily life, including the world of work. Perhaps at no other stage in any of our lifetimes has it been more crucial that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the workers, grafters and go-getters who knuckle down and get on with it—the hard-working people of this nation who can turn sparks of inspiration into the tangible outputs of a dynamic economy.
To take politics out of it, all of us in this place and all well-run businesses know that providing employees with safe, secure and rewarding work environments is the way to get the best out of them. The package of measures we will maintain and strengthen builds on some of the best examples of good practice that are already in Britain’s best businesses. Before I got into politics, I saw a whole range of workplaces: I pulled pints, laid bricks and shovelled pick ‘n’ mix at Woolworths. I saw how a workforce that is tret well is a workforce that goes above and beyond to deliver results.
When it comes to workers’ rights, this nation is a world leader in countless areas, particularly when compared with the EU. For example, the EU has no requirement for a living wage. Here in the UK, it will be £10.50 an hour from 2024. The EU has no minimum requirement for sick pay. Here in the UK, it is 28 weeks. The EU’s minimum standard for maternity leave is just 14 weeks, compared to 52 weeks here in the UK. The EU’s minimum annual leave requirement is just 20 days, compared with a minimum of 28 days in the UK. Then there is the right to flexible working for all employees, on which this nation has led the way, and it has made a huge impact on the quality of life for so many families in my constituency and across the country. We introduced it and have maintained it in the UK since the early 2000s. The slow, glitchy and creaky EU agreed rules on it very recently, and it will offer the rights only to parents and carers.
I believe that one’s true character and nature is seen when the chips are down and crisis strikes. Even their staunchest critics would have to concede that this Government have stepped up. They know on what side their bread is buttered. When it comes to supporting businesses and workers, whether that is by taking unprecedented action to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK—
Today is the Welsh Valentine’s day, so I wish all key workers and everyone in the Chamber dydd Santes Dwynwen hapus.
So here we are, and what I am listening to is absolutely disgraceful. Workers in this country are facing the biggest crisis in generations, yet the Government have decided to strip away the rights of those key workers who are keeping this country going, and we know that those with low paid jobs are going to lose out the most. Managers, directors and, yes, even Members of Parliament like us will not be the big losers in any erosion of employment rights. It will be those on zero-hour contracts, those at the beginning of their careers and, as usual, women who will be disproportionately affected.
The Prime Minister proudly told us that he would not do anything to undermine workers’ rights, yet here we are facing a shake-up of the protections that are in place to defend workers and consumers from unsafe situations. Earlier this evening, I heard the Secretary of State say that his Government’s record stood for itself. Well, if we want to catch a glimpse of what we can expect from this Government, we need look no further than how they treat their own workers—yes, their own civil servants at the DVLA offices in Swansea. During the first lockdown, my office was contacted by numerous constituents complaining that they had family members shielding and they were at high risk themselves, but during this lockdown the situation has escalated. Since September 2020, 535 cases of covid-19 have been recorded among DVLA staff, sparking an outbreak in the call centre that has been declared an incident across all other sites of the DVLA.
I have been inundated with calls since the news broke on a weekend, and before. Many people are petrified of going into work there, but they have all asked for anonymity because they are scared of a backlash from senior management if it is found out that they have complained. This is the senior management team that would not engage with the local health protection team. It is incredible that a formal notice under regulation 8 of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) Regulations 2020 had to be given in order to get the DVLA management to co-operate with the incident management team. Even this evening, I am receiving messages about this. This is utterly shocking behaviour from one of the biggest employers in Swansea, and that employer is this Government. This is a Government agency that is treating its staff in a wholly unacceptable way. That is unacceptable, but thanks to the First Minister in Wales, the PCS and other agencies, it is being dealt with—
Order. The hon. Lady has exceeded her time. I am wondering whether people who are participating virtually know that there is a clock on their screen. I hope that they can see it, because three of the last five speakers have spoken past their three minutes. I hope that the system is working. If by any chance it is not, I hope that someone will tell the broadcasting team.
May I first declare that I am a member of Unite and the GMB trade union? Workers in Manchester and up and down the country are currently preoccupied with negotiating the coronavirus pandemic, trying to stay safe and well, caring for their children, fulfilling their working responsibilities and keeping businesses afloat while the Government are debating how best to rip up hard-won workers’ rights in post-Brexit Britain. The Minister says that no workers’ rights will be reduced, so can he confirm that the Government will not abandon the cap that prevents people from working more than 48 hours a week, and that they will not take any steps to undermine the entitlement to paid holidays or rest breaks at work?
Years of repeated assurances from the Government about their intention to protect and even strengthen workers’ rights after Brexit have now been revealed to be utterly meaningless. Many of the workers who will be affected by these changes are the same key workers that the Minister was so keen to clap for in the summer. Working people in my constituency have been to hell and back over the past year. They have made immense sacrifices and put themselves and their families at risk and yet this Government think that they have too many rights.
The motion also calls on the Government to end the abhorrent practice of fire and rehire, which has been used to threaten workers across the country, dismissing employers only to re-employ them on less favourable terms. This current environment means that working people are effectively paying for the economic impact of the covid-19 crisis. In Manchester, GoNorthWest is pushing ahead with its threat to fire and rehire bus drivers on new contracts. This will result in a 10% reduction in the number of drivers employed, an increase in unpaid working hours, and drivers’ conditions slashed.
Meanwhile, thousands of British Gas workers are being threatened with fire and rehire by the parent company, Centrica. Unions, including Unite and GMB as well as others across the country, are fighting this threat of fire and rehire and I thank all of them for their commitment and determination to protect working people during this difficult time. The Government could step in and stop this disgusting practice today, but instead they have chosen to tear up these rights. Weakening workers’ rights in the midst of a global pandemic and with the UK suffering the worst recession of any major economy is deeply unfair and reveals much about this Government’s priorities.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to talk about fire and rehire practices, which have been a source of enormous stress to many of my constituents. The Opposition asked the Government tonight to enact new law without any acknowledgment of what the common law currently says. When the Employment Appeal Tribunal considered the practice of fire and rehire in 1990, it said that
“you simply cannot hold a pistol to somebody’s head and say, ‘henceforth you are to be employed on wholly different terms’”
and remunerated at 50% of your contract. In those circumstances workers have a right to bring a claim for unfair dismissal, which the Court of Appeal later confirmed they have even if they take the new terms so long as they make it clear they are working under protest, and of course the tribunal can always order reinstatement at previous pay. The only way that an employer can get away with fire and rehire is by showing that there was a genuine business reason for their action. Here, I think, there is a vulnerability. We know that, after covid, many businesses will be able to show a fall in profitability as a way of justifying poor employment practice, but the answer, respectfully, is not to enact new laws, but to enhance the powers that already exist, for example, of employment tribunals to test the functionality of the business reason that is advanced.
The other elements in the motion on holiday pay, working time and rest breaks all have their provenance in the Employment Rights Act 1996, which, of course, is Conservative legislation. The Opposition argue that this Government threaten the right to include overtime in the calculation of holiday pay. That was only decided on in 2014 by the Employment Appeal Tribunal. It looked back at the working time regulations 1998 and found that workers should have had overtime in their holiday pay all along and, what is more, they had suffered an unlawful deduction from wages as a result of that. For 12 years of a Labour Government, British workers were short-changed in their holiday pay and that Government did nothing to close that loophole, so forgive me when I say that it is surprising to hear that it is we on this side who are threatening that particular right.
That is my overall concern about this debate. I am concerned that the Opposition are not really interested in confronting the real challenges facing the labour market because they are too busy fighting the battles of yesterday. What do the Opposition say, for example, about automation, which the ONS says threatens 1.5 million jobs in this country over the next few years? We on the Conservative Benches may not have all the answers, but at least we are doing the thinking and asking the right questions—for example, with strategies such as the lifetime skills guarantee to build dexterity and resilience in the labour market. We are coming up with creative, progressive solutions for the issues that lie ahead.
I suggest to the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) that perhaps she should read some of the Labour party’s policy papers on automation and a range of other subjects.
I was not shocked to learn that the Tories were reviewing trade union rights—it is what Tory Governments do every time they are elected. I was also not surprised that the so-called review of rights is to be undertaken by a body comprising several notorious anti-trade union employers. Nobody can trust this process and nobody can trust the assurances this evening from the Secretary of State, a man who has spent his life threatening trade unions and employment rights.
If any Member believes we have the best employment protections on the globe, as we have heard, I urge them to look at how my constituents who work at Heathrow airport are being treated by their employer, Heathrow Airport Ltd. I remind colleagues that when at the beginning of the pandemic many Members were desperately seeking to have their constituents repatriated, it was my constituents at Heathrow who worked throughout to keep the airport functioning to enable their return. The reward from their employer has been that all 4,000 workers have been fired and hit by forced rehire on vastly inferior contracts, with wages cut by 25%—£8,000—without any chance of protection in law, contrary to what the hon. Member for Newbury said, because the company has ridden a coach and horses through the existing legislation.
While Heathrow management argues in court for a third runway on the grounds that aviation will soon return to normal, elsewhere it is using the pandemic to impose cuts in wages and terms of employment. Unite the union offered a deal that would enable temporary measures to be put in place to save money until the airport returns to normal, but it was rejected by the company. Heathrow Airport Ltd has a record of borrowing to pay massive dividends and high director salaries but paying little in tax, and it is also now using traditional strike-breaking measures.
Industrial action is starting again at Heathrow. Unite members in the Uxbridge constituency have not had a word of support from their local MP, but let me send them my message of support and solidarity. If this Government want to reassure us about their employment credentials, they can confirm tonight that they will legislate to close the loopholes in the existing law with regard to fire and rehire; they can condemn Heathrow Airport Ltd for the treatment of its employees; and, yes, Ministers can join me in sending a message of solidarity to the strikers at Heathrow.
Here we are again: another Monday, another Opposition day motion based on one newspaper report and framed to satisfy Labour’s endless search for social media attack ads. I speak as the proud granddaughter of a docker, from a working family. The Secretary of State has made it crystal clear that the UK does indeed have one of the best employment rights records in the world—one to be proud of, never dependent on the EU and frequently stronger than the EU’s. Our manifesto commits us to maintaining existing protections for workers and we will embrace the opportunity to decide which rules work best for the UK—those that encourage business growth, innovation and job creation.
The Government not only commit to maintaining existing workers’ rights but look to the future—a future in which we need to ensure that those same workers enjoy all the opportunities of an agile and dynamic jobs market. I have said it in this Chamber before and I do not hesitate to say it again: the heroes of our health crisis have been the incredible doctors, nurses, care workers and key workers. The heroes of the economic crisis will be the job creators, innovators and entrepreneurs who will create the high-growth jobs of the future. They need a Government who will prepare the best pitch for them, focusing on jobs, skills and working conditions fit for the 21st century. The working environment is changing at pace as we speak. Tens of thousands of people are working remotely from home, which raises new issues. To what extent should employers be able to constrict workers’ homes as workplaces? To what extent should employers be able to monitor employees? How can we protect workers against potentially overbearing, all-encompassing technology? How can we scale up innovation and skill our workforce to deliver the green technology of the future?
The Labour party does not have any answers. The Labour party is permanently rooted in the 1970s. It has just confirmed that it is considering a four-day week. Labour Members recently stood on a manifesto that aimed to nationalise energy, mail, water and transport and even establish a state drugs company. While Labour wants to turn the companies that delivered our life-saving vaccines into the Trabants of the pharmaceutical sector, this Government will care for the future of work and the future of workers.
This Government, like all Tory Governments, have an obsession with the supposed need for deregulation. It is not just a reasonable concern with promoting what works, while respecting and protecting employees—were it just that, we would not be here tonight. Rather, it is an article of faith and impossible to disprove to the true believer. We have some sensible, proportionate, humane regulation of work, but it is not sufficient, and there is the possibility of an individual member state opting out. The UK, even while in the European Union, was the member state making the most use of that opt-out provision. Still, the true believers say it is not enough; Opposition Members are protesting too much, and the Government have no plans to reduce workers’ rights. But we must measure the value of this Government’s word against their dire real-world performance—the promises made, the reassurances given and the piffle deployed. By that measure, reality is already trumping bluster, so anyone but the true believer would be naive to take them at their word.
I would be happy enough to be proved wrong, of course. The review, now apparently abandoned, might have given my constituents in low-paid, insecure extensive and intensive jobs some relief. I share their concern for protecting the working time directive, the right to paid annual leave, proper breaks from work and all the rest of it, and protection from fire and rehire. If, however, this abandonment is in fact just a tactical pause, may I suggest a few topics for a future review? It might consider why the UK is not following the international trend towards lower working hours. It might look at how many low-paid workers in insecure, long-hours jobs are also doing another job, just to make ends meet. It might consider why parental leave is so insufficient, or it might assess the contribution of breaks, minimum rest periods and leave from work to promoting productivity and preventing employee burn-out.
It might consider those things among a host of other matters, so as to achieve the Secretary of State’s stated aim of a “really high standard” for workers, but I am not confident that a review by this Government would address those important matters. Rather, this looks like a side-step towards the real aim: that of creating a low-wage, low-regulation, free-for-all economy where the cats are truly fat and weakness is a licence to exploit.
I start by welcoming the Secretary of State to his post. We have some of the highest standards of workers’ rights in the world, and I strongly welcome his assurances that those will not be lowered. However, the pandemic has exposed unsettling practices, including some employers using digital surveillance software to track their employees’ homeworking. The most high-profile software used for that purpose was Microsoft’s productivity score, which allowed employers to track users’ activity. While that has since been adjusted to hide individual data, it is clear that other pieces of software could easily fill the gap.
I know from personal experience how distressing this sort of probing from employers can be, albeit in a more analogue fashion. At one stage in my career as a successful sales manager, after my commission was cut, I entered a period where my sales performance slipped. That prompted my employer to take monitoring to a concerning level. A tracker was placed in my car. I constantly received phone calls demanding updates. I received regular, aggressive emails, and I was summoned to meetings. The entire episode was unpleasant and intrusive. It felt like an invasion of my privacy, and as though I was being deliberately bullied out of the company.
To my employer’s surprise, however—and, I imagine, to the surprise of some hon. Members—I was a member of the trade union Prospect. Thanks to its help and attendance at meetings, we arrived at a resolution. By that point, the relationship with my employer had become untenable, and I moved to a direct competitor, Teal HealthCare, part of the Senator Group.
Teal was a dutiful employer, which allowed me the freedom to excel at my job again. It paid me until I was elected. I refer Members to my entry in the register of interests. It was incredibly supportive when I became an MP, and I thank Teal and the Senator Group for their backing, and Prospect for helping me through a difficult period. Ironically, after moving to Teal, I helped to win the biggest contract awarded in the sector, in direct competition with the employer that drove me out—he who laughs last.
The important point, however, as digital monitoring begins to appear more attractive to employers, in particular if some seek to adopt remote working patterns after the pandemic, is that that approach can backfire. Used properly, performance monitoring is a vital tool for managers to encourage progression and to resolve workplace issues to the benefit of the firm and of the employee. However, clearly there is a distinction between monitoring performance on the one hand and monitoring activity on the other. I hope that employers reflect on that.
Finally, I strongly recommend that anyone in a professional environment—
I am speaking today as a proud and long-standing member of Unite and the GMB. I have received support as set out in my entry in the register of interests.
Over the past nine months, we have seen the shameful tactics of fire and rehire used to hit workers in the middle of a pandemic and in the worst economic crisis in 300 years. The inaction of this Government as that has happened has been inexcusable.
Six months ago, I spoke in this Chamber to raise the case of a constituent of mine who had started working for British Airways more than 20 years ago, and who faced losing their job or being rehired on worse pay and terms than when they had started. Despite having taken hundreds of millions of pounds of Government money intended to protect workers’ jobs, British Airways laid off more than 12,000 staff altogether, while pushing ahead with plans to fire the rest and to rehire them on worse terms and pay.
At the time, I warned that if the Government let British Airways get away with that, we would see other companies following the same shameful path. That is exactly what happened. Workers at Heathrow airport were forced to take four days of strike action last month over plans to fire the entire 4,000-strong workforce and to rehire them on inferior contracts, resulting in pay cuts of up to £8,000 a year. They are due to walk out again in February. As I said when I attended their rally—organised by Unite—with my neighbours, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), I will stand by them throughout their dispute.
Likewise, British Gas has now announced its own fire and rehire scheme. The GMB is leading the fight against changes to terms and conditions covering the 20,000-strong UK workforce, including pay freezes and changes to working hours. Engineers who refuse to sign will lose their jobs at the end of March.
Fire and rehire is immoral and should be banned. Today’s motion seeks to outlaw those tactics, and to protect holiday pay entitlements and the right to work no more than a 48-hour week. The Prime Minister promised that, after leaving the EU, our standards on workers’ rights would be higher than ever before. Members on the Government Benches have the chance to prove today that that is a promise they intend to keep.
For the Labour party to decide on our employment rights, it first needs to win a general election. The good news is that the British working classes will not allow that; they do not trust Labour.
The United Kingdom has one of the best records on workers’ rights anywhere in the world, but of course the Labour party is still bitter about us leaving the EU. It does not think that our elected MPs should have the power to decide what rules apply in the UK. It is the policies of the Labour party that threaten workers’ pay and conditions. It wants to keep people on benefits and flood the workplace with cheap labour, through free movement. How does that help the British worker? It does not.
Our new Business Secretary has been very clear: we are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights. Why would we? It makes no sense at all. Even the Mayor of London, who gets most things wrong, got it when he said there was no evidence for Labour’s claims that workers’ rights would be eroded after Brexit.
However, I think we should always look at strengthening employment rights, especially when some workers are being exploited by people who, quite frankly, should know better. Let us start with the Labour party. During the 2015 election, I recall that security guards at Labour’s offices were being paid less than the living wage, despite the Labour party being an accredited living wage employer. I am not quite sure who the Labour party leader was at this time, but perhaps the Minister could remind the House when he sums up.
In 2018, four Labour Front Benchers advertised jobs in their offices for below their own £10 an hour living wage pledge. It is total hypocrisy: they say one thing and do another. They say they are against private schools, yet send their own kids to private schools. They say they want better workers’ rights, yet fail their own employees.
In a nutshell, we have some of the best protections in the world, and I am confident that this Government will go much further. Meanwhile, I predict that the Labour party will slide much further back, as the real workers in this country are sick to death of hearing them moaning all the time. Now, I have done my time, done my graft, done my shift down the pits, but what do they really know about workers’ rights? Absolutely nothing, because most of them have never done a proper day’s work in their lives. Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; that’s me done.
A few years ago, a number of free market extremists published a book claiming that British workers
“prefer a lie-in to hard work”,
slandering them as
“the worst idlers in the world”
“work among the lowest hours”.
One of the authors is now the Foreign Secretary, another the Home Secretary, another the International Trade Secretary, and another the new Business Secretary, who has established a new, 30-strong panel of business leaders to discuss changes to workers’ rights. Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite the union, is right to warn the Government against refusing to engage with the trade unions on the same basis.
These authors turned Cabinet members would all proudly call themselves Thatcherites, and they now want to use both Brexit and this current economic crisis to drive back workers’ rights—a chance to deliver Thatcherism 2.0. Unemployment is set to soar. Millions will be thrown further into poverty and debt. The Conservative party views that not as a crisis but as an opportunity—a chance to exploit people’s vulnerabilities and their fears of not being able to feed their children—to force them into ever-worse working conditions.
With fire and rehire as a blueprint for the economy, one in 10 workers already affected and a race to the bottom, who will benefit? For over 40 years, ever since Thatcher set about smashing the trade unions, the share of the cake going to workers has been getting smaller. In 1976, wages made up 64% of GDP; the figure now is only 54%. That is a huge transfer from workers to line the pockets of the already super-rich. That is why poverty is up. That is why people find themselves working harder and harder just to stand still. More attacks on workers’ rights will make it even harder.
We will hear denials from the Conservative party that it plans to dilute workers’ rights. It has a chance to show that it has no malintent, by backing Labour’s motion that opposes fire and rehire and protects rest breaks at work and holiday pay entitlements. Given that the Tories like to claim that they are now the party of workers, they should go even further by giving everyone full rights at work from day one on the job, banning zero-hours contracts and reintroducing sector-wide collective bargaining. Sadly, such change will have to wait for a future Labour Government.
In the meantime, let us be absolutely clear. If the Tories try to proceed with a bonfire of workers’ rights, they will have one hell of a fight on their hands. I salute the trade unions taking part in that fightback. I urge the Government to think again.
Today, we have seen the Labour party do its typical thing for Opposition day debates—roll out its spin machine, this time to cling on to EU regulations by the back door, rehashing lines from the remain campaign—but we can all see through it. My constituents do not want to hold on to EU rules and regulations. What they want is a high-wage, high-skill, high-standard economy: high wages by introducing a new immigration system that ends the practice of people being brought into the UK to undercut our workforce; high skills by using schemes such as kickstart, the lifetime skills guarantee and the new skills for jobs White Paper; and high standards, reflecting the clear commitment from the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who said at the Dispatch Box that there will be “no changes” to workers’ rights in the UK.
We have some of the best standards in the world for workers—there will be no change. What are those standards? We have 28 days of annual leave in the UK, compared with a requirement of 20 in the EU. Parental leave allowance stops for a child of eight in the EU but at 18 in the UK. Maternity leave is paid for 39 weeks in the UK, but for only 14 weeks in the EU. However, protecting UK workers means more than just these rights; it is about making sure that people get a decent wage for the work that they do. Again, it is the Conservative party—MPs on this side of the House—that is committed to making that happen. It is this Government who have cracked down on employers not paying the national minimum wage. It is this Government who have increased the national minimum wage by more than 50% since 2010, and there is 20% more to go before 2024.
Let us not forget that when Labour were in Government, they scrapped the 10p tax bracket, hitting those on the minimum wage. That is not protecting British workers. Let us put that into pounds—under the Labour party, when it left power, someone earning the minimum wage and working full-time would pay £815 a year in tax. Today, someone on the minimum wage working full-time pays £672 in tax. Take-home pay has increased from £767 under Labour to £1,200 today, so the Labour party might want to talk about protecting workers but in reality it means nothing of the sort. It wants to tie us to EU rules in perpetuity, dismantling our flexible workforce. We need to recognise the protections we have, recognise the measures that we have taken and continue to build a flexible, highly skilled and well-paid workforce.
I declare my membership of Unite the union. We all clapped our essential workers last year as they put their lives at risk to keep our country going, but many of them—bus drivers, shop workers, and energy and transport workers—were sadly repaid with the spectre of fire and rehire.
I am informed that nearly 500 Greater Manchester bus drivers at Go North West are potentially facing fire and rehire. This would see a 10% reduction in the number of drivers employed, an increase in unpaid working hours and conditions for drivers slashed. Their trade union, Unite, insists that the firm is using the pandemic to force through changes that it started to develop in 2019, long before covid. The company stressed a desire to make efficiency savings in the business, and I am told that concessions were subsequently outlined by trade union officials. A pay freeze in 2020 was agreed and this, along with driver turnaround and other suggestions regarding lowering overheads, brought considerable projected savings beyond the original amount desired. However, I understand that despite this, changes to drivers’ contracts of employment, a flexible working agreement and a pay agreement are still being demanded. Sadly, Go North West withdrew from collective consultations a week ago. This is no way to treat workers, let alone those who have put their lives at risk in this pandemic. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics highlighted today that bus drivers are an occupational group with raised rates of covid-19 deaths.
Unite is demanding that Go North West immediately suspends the threat of firing and rehiring these workers and returns to the negotiating table, and I agree, but the Secretary of State can play his part too. He can urgently outlaw such fire and rehire tactics. He can amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to provide that it would be unfair to dismiss someone to achieve a reduction in their pay, benefits or conditions of employment. He could also amend it to make it unfair to dismiss an employee for economic or organisational reasons that are not necessary to secure the survival of the business, and define the clear burden of proof. He knows that this crisis has brought with it an opportunity for the most unscrupulous employers to manipulate their workers. Let me be clear: this is abuse, and he has the power to stop it today.
This country is a brilliant place to live and work, and when it comes to supporting workers it is the Conservative party, as was proved at the ballot box just over a year ago, that is the party of workers and of business and the economy. We are also the party that understands what workers want and aspire to, not just in their workplace but in their communities, like mine in Guildford. That is why we stand proudly on our manifesto commitment to raise workers’ rights standards and to strike the right balance between the flexibility that the economy needs and the security that employees deserve, including new protections for workers. It is the Conservative party that has a plan for jobs as we recover from this pandemic, including exciting new green jobs, and it is this party that will help to upskill workers to take advantage of jobs that are, even this minute, being created.
Although it was not moved, I speak in support of the amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Now that we have restored full parliamentary sovereignty, this Parliament will decide which policies are right for workers, our future innovation and our job creation. Because we recognise how important the relationship is between employers and their employees, we have sought to save as many jobs as possible by introducing the furlough scheme. It might feel as though we are in the depths of winter, but I, for one, look forward to the thaw that the vaccine roll-out will bring and the renewed hope for all workers who will be a key part of the green shoots of our economic recovery. I, too, thank all those who have tirelessly continued to work throughout the past year for their courage and fortitude.
Last year, I took part in the baby loss debate, where Members from both sides of this House spoke movingly on this incredibly difficult subject. One of the single most important things we have done is to strengthen employment protections for parents who lose their child, supporting everyone who goes through this tragedy. We have implemented a statutory right for a minimum of two weeks’ leave for all employed parents if they lose a child under the age of 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 20 weeks of pregnancy. Eligible parents will be able to claim statutory pay while absent from work. This is the most generous offer on parental bereavement leave and pay in the world.
We Conservatives are the party of the family. It was a Conservative-led Government who introduced shared parental leave and pay in 2014, giving parents flexibility in who takes time away from work in the first year of their child’s life. Labour has abandoned the family, community, pride in their country, and support for the values that our workers hold dear. Throughout this last difficult year, and going forward, it is the Conservatives who will continue to champion these values. It is the Conservatives who are the party of the worker.
The UK has high levels of workers’ rights. The hon. Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) have helped us to understand why we are having this debate, which is another episode in the long series of Labour Members’ bombastic scaremongering. First, they whip up anxiety on an emotive issue—today, employment rights. They undermine, they misrepresent and they scare the public. Then they bring it to the House and use the authority of this Chamber to legitimise their spin. Opposition day debates such as this never serve to shine a light on issues and foster positive debate; they serve only to attack and to stoke fear. The final stage is to bring the issue online. This is where we see the results of their dangerous rhetoric: it generates such divisive discourse and leads to horrific abuse of Conservative Members, ending with vandalism and even death threats, sadly often targeted at female Members. It has to stop.
It is correct that things such as fire and rehire are challenging, but they are part of an inherent flexibility that has to exist in the workplace but must be used responsibly. The Government have engaged ACAS to provide evidence and report on the situation, and I am confident that it will be properly dealt with. The national living wage is increasing, boosting the income of the lowest paid, and who is responsible? This Conservative Government. The £280 billion package of support to get people through the last 12 months, and beyond, has been brought in by this Government while the Labour party saw it as a good crisis to exploit.
In many areas, the UK has higher levels of employment rights than were required as part of our EU membership, confirming that if we had wanted to have lower standards, we could have done, but did not—and do not intend to. Leaving the EU has not lowered our standards. It has given us the opportunity to continue to raise workers’ rights, just as we always have. I commend the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for her ideas about assisting with child illness. Sadly, she is in the minority in her party in terms of helpful suggestions.
It is typical of the Labour party to avoid talking about the real issues. If it is not employment rights, it is the NHS. In 1997, Tony Blair warned us there were 14 days to save the NHS, then it was 24 hours on the day before polling. By 2012, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) declared we only had three months to save the NHS, before telling us again in 2015 that we only had 100 days. Despite these predictions of doom and disaster, it is still there, and it has brought us through some of the darkest and toughest months in recent history.
The Government are committed to strengthening and protecting workers’ rights, but Labour Members already know that. I urge them to buck up their ideas, drop the spin and join the real debates, because a strong Opposition make for a stronger Government, and that is what we should all be striving for.
As a former industrial policy officer for the trade union the GMB, an employee of USDAW prior to entering this place and a proud member of the GMB and Unite the union, employment rights are a subject incredibly close to my heart. The twin vulnerabilities created by the post-covid economic landscape and the removal of safeguards in European law following the transition period are incredibly troubling.
One such entitlement under threat is the right to holiday pay based on someone’s average hours of work, rather than their contractual hours, within the working-time directive. In Warrington, staff employed by care provider Lifeways are routinely being underpaid when they take holiday—something all of us can agree is a basic working entitlement, and of especially vital importance to care workers who look after our communities’ most vulnerable. One hundred and fifty staff have come together with their trade union, Unison, to lodge a formal grievance to resolve the issue. I stand behind them in this and in their right to escalated action if they do not receive what is rightfully theirs.
But employment rights are of little value if they cannot be enforced, and the 45% increase in the already problematic backlog of employment tribunal single claims since March last year is alarming. This is especially concerning given that, when I raised with the Government the lack of a legal, immediate and enforceable right to request flexible furlough for parents—with 71% of mothers who have asked for furlough for childcare reasons having been denied it by employers, according to research by the TUC—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), suggested that those who have been victimised should contact ACAS—not remotely good enough.
Similarly, contractual rights accrued by workers with long service are shown to be worth naught if the Government do not address the growing scourge of fire and rehire—something that, shamefully, is being threatened by Centrica to key workers in British Gas. This sets an awful precedent for workers everywhere and must be outlawed by the Government.
Finally, this Government’s failure to get a handle on this virus and the procedures of this House during the pandemic have meant that the vital private Member’s Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), the National Minimum Wage Bill, has ended up on the chopping block. The Government must commit to bringing forward this legislation to end the legal loophole that stops care workers from earning at least the national minimum wage as a result of sleep-out shifts. They need this protection more than any claps or other token gestures of support from this Government.
I am fed up of hearing from those on the Government Benches about this country’s record on employment rights while these issues, and many more that cannot be touched on within the time limit for this debate, remain unresolved.
A former Leader of the Opposition called businesses predators, but business is what makes Britain great. It is what will see us flourish outside the EU and what will help us all pull through this pandemic.
As the Opposition seem still to think that business is what sets workers’ rights back, let me give them some insight. The Thomas Dudley Group in my constituency is a family-owned group of manufacturing businesses in the Black Country, employing more than 400 people. Before the first lockdown last March, it made the decision to pay all employees up to 10 days’ full pay while they were off sick with the virus, rather than simply paying statutory sick pay. When lockdown inevitably impacted on the business it saw a 70% reduction in its turnover, but to protect as many staff as possible all directors took pay cuts of between 20% and 50%. Where parents were struggling with childcare, the business supported them to work from home or to change shifts to accommodate it. The business supported some employees with interest-free loans when they found themselves in hardship. It introduced flexitime working where possible to support a better work-life balance and is introducing long-service holidays of a day for every five years worked.
That does not sound to me like predator behaviour at all, and pitching business against workers, as Labour wants us to, is wrong for all concerned. Employers and employees must be given the flexibility to arrange the terms and conditions of employment. We should expect all employers to treat their workers fairly, much like Thomas Dudley in my constituency. However, there are businesses that appear to have pursued fire and rehire tactics. I have constituents who have been in touch with me about this who work for British Gas. When so many are worrying about their jobs and the impact the pandemic will have on their livelihoods, where it is affordable employers should treat their workers fairly and with compassion. I look forward to the outcomes of the work the Government are doing with ACAS better to understand the issue of firing and rehiring.
It is essential that we all come together, whatever our political allegiances, to protect lives and livelihoods. The Opposition would do well to focus on job creation, rather than seeking ways to throttle the economy.
I declare an interest as a member of Unite and the GMB union.
What has this pandemic taught us about how we value and reward the people who work hard to look after our loved ones, teach our kids, deliver our shopping and keep our country moving, even during a crisis? For a start, we should turn all those claps for key workers into proper pay and proper protections. We know that coronavirus has exposed many deep-rooted problems in our country. This should be a turning point for improving people’s working conditions, not an opportunity to smash and grab workers’ rights.
That is why I supported the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) that sought to strengthen protections for care workers to see that they are paid properly for all their hours, including travel time. The fantastic Luton Age Concern is already doing that, but it should be the norm, not the exception.
Health and social care staff have been the backbone of our response to the virus. Earlier this month, I presented a petition on behalf of my constituent Ernest Boateng and more than 100,000 others calling on the Government to ensure paid leave for pregnant women who cannot work from home. Ernest’s wife Mary sadly lost her life to coronavirus in April. She was just 28 and heavily pregnant. Mary worked as a nurse at the hospital in my constituency. No new guidance or risk assessment can bring her back, but we need to look again at how we protect pregnant women in work. I agree with Dr Jo Mountfield from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists who said last week that the Government need to provide more support for expectant mums in this crisis. As the Government bring forward their employment Bill, they must include improved protection at work for pregnant women. So far we have been turned down, but Mr Boateng and I would love the opportunity to meet a Government Minister to discuss the issue. This is important.
That is why Labour acts to protect workers’ rights, while the Conservative party just talks about it. We would not be delaying a pay increase for health and social care workers, many of whom, as we debate here today, are giving blood, sweat and tears on wards as they fight this virus. We would protect people’s free time by stopping the Government’s plan to extend the working week, and we would stop business using the pandemic as an excuse to fire and rehire people on lower pay and weaker terms —just like British Gas bosses are doing in the face of a fierce and fabulous campaign by British Gas engineers and the GMB union. We would stop fire and rehire. Alongside the trade unions, we have campaigned to go further on zero- hours contracts, the gender pay gap and protecting pay and people’s livelihoods. I am proud that Labour has been, and always will be, the party of workers for workers.
There is a lot in this Opposition motion that we can all agree on, which is why the Government are right not to move a counter-amendment. None of us wishes to alter important employment rights such as rest breaks at work, nor should any Opposition MP want to alter the changes brought in by the Conservative Government of the last decade, such as shared parental leave and the national living wage, which has increased a 21-year-old’s earnings by over a third, or more than £5,200 a year. Let us never go back either on the near doubling of the tax-free allowance since 2010, which the Secretary of State referred to, and which amounts to an extra £1,000 a year of take-home pay.
So far, then, there is agreement. However, there were also telling things missing from the shadow Minister’s speech. First, there was a misreading of the Secretary of State, whose first announcement asked for faster payment of small businesses by big business, making sure that those companies—the subcontractors and the members of the Federation of Small Businesses and of the chambers of commerce, and which are the lifeblood of every constituency—get paid properly, especially during the pandemic.
There was a lot else that was missing. The second thing was that the shadow Minister failed to answer my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who asked about the Labour party’s manifesto commitment to a four-day working week. If that is Labour’s recipe for increased productivity, success and Britain’s global way forward, I invite the shadow Minister to come down to Gloucester and talk to some of our Queen’s award-winning manufacturers to get a dose of reality. It is a competitive world, and we do not win with a four-day week.
The third missing element from the speech was that the Opposition did not look at themselves. The worst published cases of employer abuses of employee rights have been in Leicester. Which party runs the council, with 52 out of 54 councillors, and has an elected Mayor, returned three times, and three out of three MPs? It is a national embarrassment, and until Labour sorts out the abuses in Leicester, it should be careful about lecturing anyone on employment rights and protections.
The fourth missing ingredient was the most important issue of all: jobs and job creation in a pandemic and an economic crisis. Today, we know that employers have signed up to offer 120,000 six-month kickstart work placements as soon as it is possible for them to start. Government Departments, such as the Department for International Trade, are on the case too. In a few days, I will host a trade export event in Gloucester to help businesses find new markets, which I hope will lead to new jobs. It is businesses that drive new jobs, as the Secretary of State knows. That is why he is supporting my efforts on promoting more marine energy around our coasts, bringing green energy and sustainable jobs. That is what we need: skills and jobs.
Listening to many Opposition Members, I wonder whether they are residing in some kind of alternate universe. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) gave a wonderfully tub-thumping speech, talking about the Conservative party’s so-called ideological attack on Britain’s workers. The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) claimed the Government are going to strip away the rights of our key workers. What absolute nonsense. Frankly, I find it completely shameful, at a time of national crisis, when our constituents are terrified about losing their livelihoods, when our healthcare staff are battling this virus day and night, and when thousands of volunteers are standing wrapped up against the cold to help roll out the vaccine to keep their parents and grandparents safe, that Labour is once again using an Opposition day motion to spread its mistruths for the sake of a few Twitter likes and to put genuine fear into the very people it claims it wants to protect. It is completely shameful.
I am beyond proud of our country’s record on workers’ rights. Regardless of any referendum fearmongering, it is a record that has never depended on our membership of the EU. In countless instances, we go far beyond the EU: we guarantee five and a half weeks of annual leave compared to the EU’s four; we guarantee 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of which are paid, compared to the EU’s meagre guarantee of 14 weeks; we have had guaranteed paternity leave and pay for 20 years, while the EU only introduced it last year; we guarantee the right to request flexible working, which is something that the EU only provides to parents returning from parental leave. I could go on, but I am sure that the House gets the point. Those are just a few quick examples of our excellent record put in an international context.
I was proud to stand on a Conservative manifesto that promised greater protections for workers, including the introduction of a new single body to crack down on any breaches of employment law. Back when I worked in restaurants, I would see examples of breaches, like managers pocketing waiting staff’s tips at the end of the night. That might seem tedious to some who had never had to scrape a living, but those occasions really made a difference—not just to my wages, but to my overall happiness at work. A more streamlined reporting process for breaches of employment law will go a long way to making workers, particularly those in the lowest-paid industries, feel more secure in their jobs. I really look forward to seeing and scrutinising the Government’s plans for this in due course.
I heard the Secretary of State loud and clear earlier when he said unequivocally that we will not reduce workers’ rights. We can waste taxpayers’ money debating motions such as this one that have absolutely no root in reality and will have no impact on policy, or we can focus our efforts on something that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) rightly outlined as being of paramount importance: job creation. We can debate workers’ rights, but I would rather talk about how we keep our workers in work in the first place. This pandemic has had catastrophic impacts on our economy and on jobs. Instead of fearmongering, I call on my Labour colleagues to stand with us in focusing on—
I wish to declare an interest as a member of Unite the union.
The recent reports that Ministers stand ready to trash the hard-won rights of working people by ending the 48-hour working week, changing the rules around rest breaks at work and not including overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements are a sharp reminder of just how important it is to fight to protect employment rights. Vigilance is essential. I hear and note the Secretary of State’s response to those reports, and make it clear to him that we will hold him to account on these issues. I also point out to him just how selective his history of employment rights is. For example, he seems to have overlooked the fact that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), as Trade Secretary, who introduced the national minimum wage in 1997 on behalf of the Labour Government. He also seems to overlook the fierce opposition that that legislation received from Tory MPs, who claimed that the economic damage would be massive, that it was ill conceived, and even that it was immoral—so we will take no lectures from the Secretary of State on that. The national minimum wage came into force in April 1999 as a flagship policy of a Labour Government, and 2 million people got a pay rise overnight.
Research by the TUC has shown that, of around 3,000 people surveyed, 73% believe that the Government must protect and enhance workplace rights such as paid holidays, and rights for temporary and agency workers. I remind Members on the Government Benches that they were elected on a manifesto that promised to legislate to ensure high standards of workers’ rights. Today they must honour that manifesto commitment and vote with the Labour party to protect those rights.
The Government must also put an end to the disgraceful fire and rehire tactics whereby an employer dismisses an employee and then offers to re-engage them on reduced terms and conditions. The practice is nothing short of shameful. It brings insecurity, misery and anxiety to working people and our communities. British Gas is currently in the process of making thousands of employees redundant in this way. A constituent of mine whose husband works for British Gas and is going through this at the moment wrote to me and described his situation as being “held to ransom”. I am concerned about the way in which he is being treated. I am concerned, too, about the treatment of cargo handlers at Heathrow airport by their employer, British Airways, following the airline’s decision to fire and rehire its cargo division’s workforce on inferior pay and conditions. I pay tribute to the GMB, Unite the union and trade unionists everywhere for their tireless work to protect the terms and conditions of working people. It is clear that it is as important today as it has ever been for people to be a member of a trade union.
To conclude, we need a cast-iron guarantee that all existing employment rights will be protected and that the Government will put an end to fire and rehire.
I would like to declare that I am not a member of Unite or the GMB trade union. When I was elected, I thought I had left the union meetings behind on the railways, but no: today, it feels like I am gate-crashing a 1970s union meeting in the House of Commons, so socialism is definitely alive and well in today’s Labour party.
Here we are again. This is another example of the Labour party, rather than addressing the issues of the day, just wanting to stay wedded to the European Union. The EU position on employment rights is worse than the UK’s by a country mile, yet Labour wants us to be bound to EU standards. Maternity leave is 52 weeks in the UK, compared with just 14 in the EU. Annual leave is 28 days in the UK, compared with just 20 in the EU—I could go on.
We should ask ourselves why the Labour party has really brought this motion before the House today. I think it is because its union paymasters are pulling the strings. The GMB union sent me a briefing last night, so I thought I would do some research into its interest in this debate. That union has filled Labour MPs’ pockets with £360,000 during this Parliament alone, and Unite the union has put £578,000 into the pockets of 61 Labour MPs. These are the unions supposedly fighting for rights, when really all they are doing is funding the Labour party to suppress good, decent, hard-working people from choosing how much they work, earn and save with its proposed 32-hour working week.
This Conservative Government have almost doubled the personal income tax allowance, so a person can earn £12,500 before paying any tax. We have banned exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts. We now have shared parental leave, and we pay to give working parents that flexibility, too. These are signs not of a Government that want to reduce employment rights, but of one who will continue to strengthen them, despite the adversity of the Opposition.
It is a pleasure to welcome the new Secretary of State to his role this evening, and it is also good to hear his commitments at the opening of tonight’s debate that the Government have no plans to scrap the 48-hour working week, or any of the other employee entitlements that the UK has now taken back control of. It will be an immense relief to many employees to hear that commitment from the Government at this time of intense anxiety to so many households in this country.
It is not just the extreme precariousness of our current situation that is keeping millions of workers awake at night: it is the future prospects of many industries once the shadow of coronavirus has lifted. Encouraging though the news of the vaccine roll-out is, we all know that the huge disruption of the past year will not miraculously resolve itself overnight. Hundreds of businesses will not survive, despite Government support, and thousands of jobs will disappear. This is why it is so important for the Government to make a clear statement now about valuing our workers, whatever sector they are employed in. We cannot rebuild our economy if workers are employed in low-paid, precarious work. On low wages, there will be no money left over for discretionary spending after people have met the punishingly high cost of housing. Without permanent contracts, workers cannot make long-term plans, whether for holidays or for moving house.
Like the Secretary of State, I have many constituents employed by British Airways who have been threatened with fire and rehire. They will be disappointed tonight not to hear a commitment from the Secretary of State to outlaw this appalling practice. The message this sends is that businesses are more important than people. The role of the Government is to steward an economy that works for everyone; if a business cannot provide a decent standard of living to its workers, it should free up its capital for one that can. I call upon the Government to outlaw fire and rehire at the earliest possible opportunity, to send the clearest signal that this Government value workers. That would give real substance to the claims from Members on the Government side of the House that the UK has the highest standard of working rights in the world, and that leaving the EU does not affect those rights.
Given the length of time between the referendum and the final deal, it remains a source of amazement to me that the Government still struggle to articulate what the benefits of Brexit are, and how they plan to use all this lovely new sovereignty to deliver for the people of the UK. The Government should start this evening by using their new-found powers and committing to outlaw fire and rehire.
The Secretary of State has been very clear: we are not going to lower the standards of workers’ rights. There is no plan to do so—there is no doubt in this area—so where is the debate?
We have one of the best workers’ rights records in the world—rights that go much further than the EU’s—and high standards that were never dependent on our membership of the EU. The whole point of leaving the EU and acting as an independent country is that it is now up to the UK Government and elected MPs to decide what rules should apply—rules that work best for the UK, including on policies that strengthen protections for workers. The Government’s 2019 manifesto is clearly committed to raising workers’ rights’ standards. We expect all employers to treat their workers fairly and we condemn strongly the use of fire and hire as a negotiating tactic.
Seizing the new opportunities available to us outside the EU is exactly the reason why we left it. We wanted the flexibility to make our own decisions on how best to uphold our high standards, reinforcing our role as a global leader in areas of labour.
We should not forget that our flexible, dynamic market has increased employment levels. The UK has had the third lowest unemployment rate among the G7, which I am incredibly proud of, having seen unemployment when I was a young adult at its highest.
There was no need for a debate on this issue today. Debates such as these prey on people’s lives for the sole purpose of a social media clip for a political soundbite. We should all be working together and debating together on our plan for jobs and the road to recovery, spreading the good news about the fantastic kickstart scheme getting young people into work, keeping people in jobs, and giving people the confidence that while, yes, this pandemic has ruthlessly undermined both our national and personal economies, there is a route out of it.
This is the Government of the worker, and never more so than now. This is the time to come together for the sake of people’s livelihoods and jobs, and to allow this great and united nation to rise quickly above the mire of devastation the pandemic has inflicted on our jobs, the economy and people’s lives.
May I declare an interest as a member of Unite the union, and may I add that I am a very proud socialist?
At the same time that the Tories are clapping our key workers, they are planning to rip up their employment rights, ending the 48-hour working week and removing rest breaks and holiday pay entitlements. This is disgraceful and must be opposed. The Prime Minister’s Brexit withdrawal agreement has left the door open for the UK Government to dismantle workers’ rights, and he seems intent on doing just that.
Here in Wales we are trying to do things differently. In 2017 the Welsh Government passed the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, which disapplied sections of the UK Trade Union Act 2016, which undermines trade union rights. The Welsh Government Bill on social partnership is important for the fair work agenda and for unions in Wales. This Bill proposes that the Welsh Government, trade unions and employers work together in partnership to address issues affecting the workforce and to safeguard and improve people’s working conditions.
The Welsh Government have also taken some distinct steps during the covid pandemic to safeguard workers’ rights, such as enshrining the 2-metre social distancing guidance in law and the requirement for all private sector businesses receiving covid financial support to sign an economic contract that includes a commitment to a fair work agenda.
But all our good work in Wales is at serious risk as the Tory Government move to centralise power away from people in Wales, which we will do everything to stop. The Brexit deal and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 will drive a race to the bottom. We will fight this, which is why the Welsh Government have rightly stated their intention to take legal action against the UK Government on the Act.
Last week, I met local trade union representatives in my constituency of Cynon Valley. All unions expressed extreme concern about the Government’s current threat to workers’ rights, including Unite with its support for taxi drivers in Wales, and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union with its struggle on behalf of low-paid McDonald’s employees, along with the Fire Brigades Union, the University and College Union, the National Education Union and most recently the Public and Commercial Services Union in relation to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency situation; all are already engaged in fighting for their members’ safety and job security. I heard powerful and moving stories from GMB members at British Gas about the bullying tactics used to try to force workers to accept reduced terms and conditions, yet there is a solid determination to stand up against these actions by their employers.
Maintaining workers’ rights is not enough. We need to extend them to create a fairer society, including a ban on zero-hour contracts, the introduction of a four-day working week, a minimum income guarantee, and a social security system that provides a genuine safety net for people. As the American black woman activist Angela Davis says:
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
That is the message I want to give to all fellow trade unionists and workers throughout the UK. Diolch yn fawr.
Another week and another attempt by the Opposition to scaremonger and spread fear—time that could have been used in this place to debate how we respond, collectively, to the pandemic and global health crisis, but time yet again wasted on providing social media videos to scare people across the country. It is as if the Labour party has some kind of holy trinity of scaremongering—the NHS, animal welfare and standards, and employment rights—which they attempt to scare people with time and again. It was Einstein who said that the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We saw it in 2010, 2015, the 2016 EU referendum, 2017 and 2019. Again and again, these arguments were deployed across the country and every single time those arguments were rejected roundly by the public.
I genuinely think Labour Members do not understand the British working class anymore. It is because of our NHS, it is because of our standards in animal welfare and food, and because of our employment rights that people are proud to be British. Time and again, at every election and at every opportunity such as today, they see Labour MP after Labour MP talking down this country and its achievements—the very reasons why we are able to stand tall around the world. It is because of the living wage of £10.50 by 2024 that people are proud to be British. It is because of our 28-week sick pay that they are proud to be British. It is because of our 52 weeks maternity leave that they are proud to be British. And it is because of our minimum 28 days annual leave that they are proud to be British.
Every time we hear from Opposition Members, they try to make the same comparisons with the European Union and the ways that British standards are inferior, but it does not take five seconds to Google those comparisons. There is no requirement in the European Union for a living wage. There is no minimum for sick pay. There is 14 weeks compared with our own 52 weeks for maternity leave, and 20 days rather than 28 for minimum annual leave. It is because of this that people do not believe these scaremongering tactics. It is because of this that they dismiss their many Facebook and Twitter videos. When they look at the Labour party, they no longer see a serious alternative Government, because on occasions such as this, when it could step up to the challenge and debate the issues facing this country, it decides—
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thank you to Opposition colleagues for securing this important debate.
I start by saying I am proud member of the GMB and Unite the union. I also declare an interest as I have a brother who is subject to hire and rehire. As mentioned by colleagues this evening, there have been reports that the Government are considering changes to employment rights, which include ending the 48-hour working week, and removing rest breaks and holiday pay entitlements. Workers are keeping our country going under unimaginable pressure, with many of those in the lowest paid sectors, such as care workers, cleaners, delivery drivers and supermarket workers on the frontline. Right now, the Government should be rewarding workers for their heroic efforts to help our communities in this pandemic and not thinking of ways to rip up the rights that protect them both physically and financially. Workers are facing this alongside public sector pay freezes and the proposed cut of £20 a week to universal credit.
The existing employment rights and protections were implemented to protect workers’ mental health and safety, and to ensure they suffer no detriment while taking necessary time off. Even with those rights in place, we know that many employers do not respect them, and the ramifications for workers’ health and safety are huge. The Government cannot level up and tackle the gross inequalities that bedevil our communities if they are engaged in a race to the bottom on employment rights. They should instead focus on improving employment rights and tackling the injustices that workers already faced and continue to face during the pandemic. One such injustice is the unfair dismissal practices used by some app-based courier and private hire companies. The practice of unfair dismissal is leaving many key workers on low incomes facing potential destitution. They urgently need the support of a Government who have so far overlooked their—
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members from all parties who have spoken in this debate. It is important that this debate has taken place.
In particular, on the Opposition Benches I acknowledge my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman); my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan); my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell); and my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (James Murray), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne). They all spoke, as did a number of Members on the Government Benches, about the real issues that so many workers are facing in the workplace, including during this pandemic. Those issues go to the heart of what this debate is really about: the future of our country and what kind of society we want to build after covid.
We are going through a truly grim experience as a nation, but there will come a time for rebuilding, and we will do that only if we learn the right lessons from the crisis, including about the world of work. Throughout this crisis, we have seen the best of our country—the spirit of coming together in our economy, with business, unions and workers so often working together. That shows the future that we should aim for in industrial relations. I pay tribute to all the key workers who have kept our country going on all our behalf. I also pay tribute to the majority of firms that have looked out for their workers and looked after them, too.
But we have also seen what is wrong: above all, a massive divide of power, class and inequality. To those Members on the Government Benches who asked why we are having this debate, that is the reason: the experience that so many people face in the world of work today. Key workers, who matter the most but are paid the least, have the least job security, and their lives have been most on the line in this crisis. A quarter of the social care workforce is on zero-hours contracts. Nearly three quarters in the private sector are paid less than the living wage. Tragically, we have seen today that these people are among those with the highest death rates from covid.
We have seen the divide between those treated well by good employers and those whose health and lives have been put at risk. There have been 134,000 complaints relating to health and safety at work, but barely 100 enforcement notices. Behind each statistic is a worker and their family, forced into an impossible choice between their health and their job. This is the reality of the world of work today for many people. I say to every right hon. and hon. Member who boasted about how brilliant things are: tell that to the vulnerable workers on the frontline of this crisis. Instead of telling people that they have never had it so good, those Members should be facing that reality.
Tragically, as has been mentioned on both sides of the House, we have seen some employers use the crisis as a smokescreen to lower workers’ terms and conditions. Firms that have seen an opportunity to railroad contract changes through at this most difficult of times include British Airways and British Gas. Those are not isolated examples: a TUC survey released today estimates that a staggering nearly one in 10 workers have been subjected to such degrading tactics.
The divides of class, power and inequality have been acute and at their most extreme during this crisis, but let us acknowledge that they were there before this crisis and will be there after, unless we act. That is the essential context to this debate. The question for this country is which party—which side of the House—will really tackle these issues as we rebuild after covid. The Government would have us believe that it is them—the Secretary of State is nodding—but what do we know?
First, we know—and it was never denied in the debate —that they have spent weeks examining whether to scrap existing workers’ rights. We know that they planned a consultation. We know that they talked to business about it. Indeed, we know from the Secretary of State only last Tuesday at the Select Committee:
“we wanted to look at a whole range of issues relating to our EU membership and examine what we wanted to keep.”
It is pretty clear: they were looking at whether to scrap these rights. The truth is—and, of course, I welcome this—that they have been forced to climb down today because of the outcry, but that does not merit a pat on the back. The very fact that they were considering taking away vital rights, including the 48-hour limit on the working week, from nurses, ambulance drivers, lorry drivers and supermarket delivery drivers speaks volumes.
Secondly, this was not some Whitehall accident; this is what they believe. Let us talk about their record. This is a Government who have cut rights to unfair dismissal, imposed tribunal fees and slashed the Health and Safety Executive’s budget. I know that the Secretary of State is now rather sheepish about it, but he cannot get away from his back catalogue. It was not just one rogue pamphlet, “Britannia Unchained”. It is a systematic set of beliefs. I have been reading up on him. In 2011, after the coalition, he wrote that people should be forced to take out private unemployment insurance; I wonder whether he remembers that one. In “The Innovation Economy” in 2014, he said that Government should exempt new firms from all employment rights for three years. In “A Time for Choosing” in 2015, he specifically targeted the 48-hour week, saying that it costs the economy billions of pounds. And, of course, in the infamous “Britannia Unchained”, he said that British workers were the “worst idlers” in the world.
To paraphrase one of his predecessors, Lord Heseltine, the right hon. Gentleman advocated cutting workers’ rights before breakfast, lunch and dinner and woke up in the morning and wrote another pamphlet advocating the cutting of workers’ rights. And now he expects us to believe that he has had a road to Damascus conversion; he has junked all his previous beliefs. He has gone, if you like, from “Britannia Unchained” to, “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”—from blue Kwasi to red Kwasi. How gullible does he think the working people in this country are? All his previous convictions and all his beliefs—he never believed a word of them. Come off it! The truth is that he is caught between what he truly believes, which is what he wrote time after time, and where he knows the British people are. He cannot solve the problems of power, class and inequality in the workplace because it is not what he believes, and it is not what this Government believe.
Thirdly, if this Government really believed in tackling these divides, where are the measures to do so? Take the ability to fire and rehire, which is one of the subjects of the motion. What is their position? They now say that it is unacceptable, so will they promise to legislate tonight? I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response. It is happening now up and down our country; workers are suffering now. I make this offer from the Front Bench—the Opposition Chief Whip is here, and he is nodding: if the Government want to fast-track legislation on this through the House, we will support them. There are loopholes in the law that allow this to happen, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington said. I want to know from the Minister: will he commit to legislate—not to think about it, not to consider it, not to wait for ACAS, not to wait for a report, not to have an interdepartmental review, but to act? No more vague promises about the future—this is the No. 1 litmus test of red Kwasi and the new approach that he is promising.
Today we heard lots of vague promises about the future. It is four years since the Taylor review of employment practices, but the key proposals have been left on the shelf. Where are the greater protections for people on zero-hours contracts, consulted upon and promised two years ago? Where are they? It is now two years since the Low Pay Commission recommended that all workers on zero-hours and short contracts should be given new rights to a regular contract and compensation for shift cancellation. It is 18 months—the Secretary of State is new in post, so maybe he can read up on this—since the Government consulted on it. Where is their response? Workers need that protection now. They need it in this crisis. Where are the greater protections for self-employed workers recommended in the Taylor review? Where is the single enforcement body? And where, by the way, is the Employment Bill?
This is the bare minimum that the Government should be doing, and they are dragging their feet. The truth is that they cannot be the architects of the future because they are ideologically stuck in the past. It is the wrong priority for Britain, and it is out of step with workers, businesses and families up and down the country. Good businesses know that inequality, division in our country and injustice are a collective problem to solve. The foundation of modern economic success is decent rights, fairness at work and security for working people.
There are big choices ahead about who we are as a country and how we want to live together. The Government have shown in this debate that they cannot rise to the challenge of building a fairer, more equal country. Our workers deserve better. Our businesses deserve better. Our country deserves better. Tonight, in defence of workers across our country and in the spirit of previous generations that rebuilt after previous crises, we will vote for that fairer country.
I thank hon. and right hon. Members for raising many interesting and important points. The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) talked about a back catalogue; well, his was laid bare by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) when he talked about the fact that, when the right hon. Gentleman was Leader of the Opposition, the Labour party, which claimed it was a living wage employer, had security staff at its headquarters complaining that they were not even paid the living wage.
What we are doing here, though, is working on workers’ protection for the 21st century. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) and for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) about the challenge of job creation as well as job protection. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) talked about issues of automation. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Julie Marson) talked about the risks of working from home, saying that if we do not get that right, it is the equivalent of living at work, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) talked about the monitoring of software where people are working from home. We have heard many powerful and passionate speeches today, and I am grateful to everybody across the House who has contributed.
I will start by reiterating what the Business Secretary said in his opening speech: there will be no reduction in workers’ rights. Let me turn to address some of the important issues. Following our departure from the European Union, the Government are committed to maintaining the existing levels of protection for workers provided by our current laws and regulations. As an independent country, it is right that the UK’s Government and elected MPs can now decide what rules should apply that work best for the UK, including on policies around business growth, innovation, job creation and strengthening protection for workers. That means we can look for improvements where we believe there is a need to do so.
As laid out in our manifesto, we will bring forward legislation that will make workplaces fairer by providing better support for working families and new protections for those in low-paid work, and by encouraging flexible working. We have been clear that there will be no reduction in workers’ rights, and the Business Secretary has reiterated that multiple times. In fact, as we have heard, we have one of the best workers’ rights records in the world.
Our high standards were never dependent on membership of the EU. Indeed, the UK provides for stronger protections for workers than are required by EU law: one of the highest minimum wages in Europe, which will increase again on 1 April; 5.6 weeks of annual leave compared with the EU requirement of four weeks; and a year of maternity leave, with the option to convert to parental leave to enable parents to share care. The EU minimum maternity leave is just 14 weeks. The right to flexible working for all employees was introduced in the UK in the early 2000s, and we will build on that, but the EU agreed rules only recently and will offer the right to parents and carers only. The UK introduced two weeks’ paid paternity leave in 2003; again, the EU has only recently legislated for that.
One of the EU’s own agencies, Eurofound, ranked the UK as the second best country in Europe for workplace wellbeing, behind only Sweden. It is totally disingenuous of the Labour party to claim that we do not stand on the side of the workers, and we will not take lectures from Labour on employment rights. On the Government side of the House, we have a track record of driving up protections for workers. It was a Conservative Government that introduced the national living wage and a Conservative-led Government that banned exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts.
By March last year, workers across the UK had enjoyed 26 consecutive months of real pay increases, and women and workers from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds made up a larger proportion of the workforce than ever before. From the outset of the pandemic, the Government have acted decisively to provide an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s jobs. This is real action to drive up protection for workers, not just political posturing and confected argument, as we have seen from the Labour party today.
It is a sad fact, though, that due to the impacts of covid-19 and despite the support that the Government have put in place, some employers are considering making redundancies on a larger scale. We urge employers to consider all alternatives before making redundancies. However, we recognise that it is not possible to save every business and every job.
The House should be left in no doubt that the Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. A number of Members here today have made the point that firing and rehiring practices are illegal in some European countries and that we should look to make them illegal in the UK. First, it is important to note that the legal framework relating to employment law in European countries differs from that of the UK, so we cannot compare like for like. Also, in contrast to the more restrictive European frameworks, the UK’s flexible labour markets mean that we intend to enjoy higher employment rates and lower unemployment than countries with more rigid approaches. Before covid struck, the UK unemployment rate was only 4%, compared with the EU27 average of 6.6%. However, in all circumstances, including where employers are contemplating redundancies, we expect employees to be treated fairly and in a spirit of partnership. Laws are in place to ensure that contractual terms and conditions cannot discriminate unlawfully—for example, on grounds of race, sex and disabilities—and we know that most employers will do the right thing. Most employers want to retain their staff, especially as they have invested in training them over a period of time.
As the Business Secretary mentioned in his opening remarks, the Government take seriously reports that threats about firing and rehiring are being used as a negotiating tactic. I myself have condemned it many times in this Chamber. Officials in the Department have engaged ACAS to gather evidence of incidents where fire and rehire has been used. It has approached a wide range of stakeholders such as businesses, employee representatives and other bodies to ensure that we are hearing a range of perspectives. ACAS officials have made good progress in their independent and impartial discussions and are expected to share the evidence gathered with my officials in February this year. We think that this evidence-led approach is the right one for such a sensitive subject.
I want to conclude by reiterating that there will be no reduction in workers’ rights. Our proud track record of strengthening employment rights while maintaining the freedom and flexibility in the labour market that have supported businesses to create jobs and our economy to grow should leave the House in no doubt that we are a party on the side of workers. As laid out in our manifesto, we will bring forward legislation that will make workplaces fairer by providing better support for working families and new protections for those in low-paid work, and by encouraging flexible working. This will balance the needs of employers and workers, ensuring that everybody benefits from flexibility.
As I said earlier, we have seen a confected, manufactured vote to create snippets and clips for social media, which will foment division. This will foment some pretty poisonous things on social media. I make one challenge today. Conservative Members have talked today about 21st-century issues that we need to tackle in terms of workers’ protections. When Members on either side of the House tweet tonight, they can either tweet a clip about this manufactured vote and who has voted for what, after a useful constructive debate, or they can actually save lives and protect employment rights for 6 million people who are suffering from domestic abuse at the moment. Let us tweet about the fact that responsible employers should sign up to the employer initiative on domestic abuse. This is workers’ protection that we can get right tonight and tomorrow morning on social media. From a business point of view, it will help to tackle a £1.9 billion productivity issue, but it is so much more than a business issue when we talk about workers’ protection. It is about people’s lives, people’s mental health and people’s physical health, and we can all do this today. This is worker protection. This is what this side of the House does. It is real, proactive action for people up and down the country. We will not posture; we will act when appropriate.
Before I put the question, I gently remind the House that if Members shout no, it will be expected that they will not then vote for the motion; indeed, it would be frowned upon if they did so. My hearing is pretty okay, however, and if I hear Members persistently shouting no, a Division will take place. That is what I am anticipating.
That this House believes that all existing employment rights and protections must be maintained, including the 48-hour working week, rest breaks at work and inclusion of overtime pay when calculating some holiday pay entitlements, and calls on the Government to set out to Parliament by the end of January 2021 a timetable to introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire tactics.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.