Young Domestic Workers

– in the House of Commons at 11:40 pm on 19th January 1988.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 12:01 am, 19th January 1988

Young people are still taught at school that slavery was abolished within the British empire a century and a half or more ago. That major step was largely credited to the efforts of one of Yorkshire's most celebrated Members, William Wilberforce, who represented our county between 1784 and 1812.

Unfortunately, there are still parts of the world where slavery is practised, and it is saddening that some developments in our own country seem little removed from those inhumanities of the past. The experience of my constituent Miss Ellen O'Neil, of Thrybergh, near Rotherham, should be seen as an example of a grossly unsatisfactory position and as a warning that fully justifies this debate.

Like the majority of our young people, Miss O'Neil sees little prospect of suitable or normal employment at home, for our economic position is very grave. Vigorous activity and keen determination are displayed in persistent efforts to create jobs, but each step forward seems to be followed by rearward strides.

It is sad that, in our schools, young people receive decent education but see little opportunity. That is the case at Thrybergh school, which Ellen attended. But, in another of my constituency schools—a good school, Swinton—just 8 per cent. of last year's leavers secured normal work last year. Since then we have seen an announcement that Kilnhurst colliery has come to the end of the road. Last Friday I received the news that Canning Town Glass, in my constituency, is to close in April. That closure will cost nearly 480 jobs. The point is made to establish the context of Ellen's experience, but it also illustrates quite unreasonable conduct on the part not only of the domestic employer, but of a substantial British company.

The Canning Town Glass closure has been announced despite full assurances given to me on behalf of Guinness at the time of the takeover in 1985, and expressed in two letters by the then chief executive. Because of those assurances, I did not seek to join the campaign to refer the matter to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Had I known then what I know now—that the assurances were worthless—I, and perhaps my hon. Friends, would have joined in that demand.

I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) are here. One of my hon. Friends accompanied me on a visit to the Under-Secretary of State for Industry this morning. I hope that the Government will insist that honourable conduct is required; otherwise, we shall be demonstrating that, in relation to the direction of our commerce and industry, an Englishman's word is no longer his bond. That lack of reliability and the grounds for distrust are particularly shocking where younger people are concerned. Miss O'Neil's case illustrates the position dreadfully.

My constituent wished, and still wishes, to work with children. Some time before her experience Miss O'Neil studied at Rockingham college of further education in Wath-upon-Dearne where I live. It is a reputable establishment which seeks to serve local communities with considered relevance and to meet the developing needs. A course, sometimes called a nanny course, is run effectively at the college. A number of young ladies have been equipped to work as nannies, and I believe that many of them have had satisfactory experiences. The course is a proper one, although I do not care for the implications for my area. I accept that the girls have had relevant training and that some of them have secured work which is not available in the locality.

Ellen saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Rotherham and South Yorkshire Advertiser. It sought a mother's help to care for a family with three children in Surrey. Ellen applied and was appointed, commencing work on 16 January last year. She was to live in and work from 7.30 in the morning until the parents, her employers, returned home from their work or from their dinner engagements. Ellen stayed just under six weeks and she tells me that the parents stayed at home only about five evenings. That meant that my constituent bore substantial responsibility for long hours from early in the morning usually until very late in the evening. The three children were 6, 9 and 14 years of age. I gather they attended primary day schools, returning home at 3.30 and 4.30 pm.

Ellen was due to be paid £25 per week for those long hours. During the first week her employers borrowed £13·79 from her. Despite Ellen's requests, that debt was not repaid. although her employers were always just about to do so. At first Ellen was to be paid monthly. Then her employers said that they would pay her weekly. She received £25 on 30 January. There was no wage slip or wage packet; perhaps that point could be considered by the Minister.

During her period of work Ellen had just one day and one weekend off, during which she returned home. After further absence of payment and further lack of repayment of debt, she returned home on 24 February. Ellen tells me that she is owed £105·45. Her employers said that they would send the sum on by post. They did not. In March Ellen telephoned her former employers to ask about the money due and was told that it was in the post. Ellen did not receive it.

Ellen consulted a local solicitor who acted properly. The case was heard in Reigate court and was successful. However, on 14 October Ellen was told, almost incredibly, given her experience, that her former employers possessed nothing of sufficient value to cover the costs of removal and sale. So Ellen has not received any of the outstanding sum.

Ellen returned to Thrybergh. Not surprisingly, she has not been able to find another job, so she became dependent upon state benefits, like thousands of my constituents. This is a major point to which I hope the Minister will attend; under the rules, she was assumed voluntarily to have surrendered her employment, so benefit was suspended for six weeks.

Ellen did not come to see me immediately. Perhaps she hoped that the court would secure justice for her. Perhaps she felt that her former employers would act honourably. She exercised a gentle patience, for she has not an aggressive or unpleasant personality. After I had heard Ellen's story in November, I wrote to her former employers. There was no reply. I heard other similar stories and felt that I should seek a debate. I wrote to the employers again on 29 December. There has been no reply to either letter.

There has been not a word in response, not a word of explanation, not a word of regret for outrageous treatment. The people may have difficulties; I do not know. They could have said so, but they did not. I must assume that they have acted in a disreputable and scandalous manner. They did not respond to the normal official inquiry made after Ellen had left. They could have done; that would have eased the difficulties she experienced.

That leads to another major point. We ought not to structure our social arrangements so that penalties are placed upon an employee who can no longer tolerate utterly unreasonable conduct from an employer, who in this case cannot even be bothered to respond to official questions.

Ellen was told that the outstanding sum and her P45 tax form would be sent to her. They were not. What action is taken against negligent employers who may cause difficulty to their employees by failing to provide necessary information to official sources? The Minister should consider that.

We have a good careers office in our area, which makes the best of an astonishing and difficult task. I have corresponded with the principal officer, Mr. Pappini who is an able and most experienced official. He confirms that when a local domestic position is notified it is checked by his service. However, increasingly these jobs are not offered through the careers service or even through the more reputable agencies. The result of private operation is, I fear, that we may have far more serious cases to come.

The careers service takes the view that these young people are vulnerable and that the paucity of legislation creates a need for information and guidance. Obviously, our local careers service can help in South Yorkshire, but it is largely powerless in the southern counties.

I understand that the Government are keen to see our young people entering the service sector, especially domestic service. This situation was a frequent experience in the days portrayed in the television series "Upstairs, Downstairs". However, if this change develops, the Minister should accept that not all such employers are likely to be honourable, as Ellen's case demonstrates. Perhaps the recipient areas should provide a positive careers service to assist incoming young workers.

I have always viewed the privileges of Parliament as an essential right that should be exercised after deliberation. To use privilege lightly is wrong. However, I believe that I am wholly right to use it now. Ellen's employers, who borrowed from her but did not repay, and who employed her but did not provide her with the salary that they promised, ought to be the subject of the exercise of that right. Ellen's employers agreed to pay her £25 a week. They paid her that sum once, and no more. Ellen's employers were seeking domestic service at a dreadfully low wage, given the long hours that she was required to work. It seems that they required her to be on duty while they were at work, and in the evenings, which they, too, enjoyed.

Clearly, Ellen worked for very long hours, probably for much longer than her employers. I suspect that their incomes were very much higher than Ellen could ever dream of securing. Her employers failed to discharge their responsibilities. I do not yet know whether they paid the employer's national insurance contributions. I understand that two other local girls, who returned from a similar experience, found that their employers had failed to pay those contributions. I shall be interested to learn, in due course, whether the contributions have been paid in Ellen's case, and what action will be taken if there has been any employer's negligence.

Does the Minister consider that such negligence should apparently pass without remark or penalty? Ellen's employers were due to pay her £25 a week; they paid her once, and they owe her more. I do not know how much they were paid while they failed to pay her. Her employers were Mr. and Mrs. Atkinson of Field road, Charlwood, Surrey. They have not replied to my letters, although Ellen tells me that Mr. Atkinson is a professional surveyor. I wonder whether that profession really considers £25 to be reasonable payment for a very long week, or whether the relevant professional body has grounds for pride in its member.

I am told that Mrs. Atkinson was employed by Dan-Air, a reputable airline. I wonder whether that or any other reputable airline would regard £25 a week as reasonable pay. Perhaps it should consider that one of its employees obviously considers £25 a week to be a reasonable, fair wage. Of course, wages in Surrey are more than £60 a week higher than they are in South Yorkshire, so presumably the employers thought that they were doing Ellen a favour.

Wentworth is now grievously hurt by economic change, which may be rather welcome in Charlwood, Surrey. Perhaps people there have become so materialistic that they even feel pride and approval that among their number are people who behave as these employers did. I do not know. But once upon a time people, even in such areas, subscribed to the view that we were one nation. We may have been; we are not now. The economic condition of South Yorkshire and Ellen O'Neil's experience demonstrate that.

In this case and in others, the Government and society seem eager and swift to punish or penalise our young people, who give up work, even when they have good reasons for doing so, as Ellen's case reveals.

Am I not entitled to ask the Government to provide a rather better balance in our social arrangements and to respond much more effectively to negligent or disreputable employers? There have been substantial changes in industrial relations law since 1980. More obligation is being placed upon workers and their organisations. Such cases as Ellen's show that there is now an obvious need for action in regard to the defaulting and irresponsible employer. Ellen did not receive her pay. Other girls were not credited with appropriate insurance contributions. There had been no contract of employment, no readily available advice, no wage packet, no proper documentation. Yet, when she gave up her job, there was immediate application of penalty.

I know that good organisations such as our careers service, and good establishments such as the Rockingham college, advise young people to secure an employment contract. But young people desperate for work, operating in isolated conditions, may not feel able to insist upon that provision. Perhaps the Government should do so on their behalf.

Ellen and others of her generation may already have had to tolerate far too much. But it seems that society is determined that they should continue to do so. I find this insistence deplorable, especially when it seems that some of the yuppies and people like them in our community are prepared to allow regional imbalance to reach the outrageous levels which we now face. These levels place an intolerable burden not least upon our young people, and I must ask the Minister whether he would now agree that one is justified in suggesting that Britain has reached such a pass that justice and morality must now be left to the mercy of market forces, as they appear to have been in Ellen's case.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Pendle 12:16 am, 19th January 1988

I should like to begin by commending the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) quite genuinely on his success in getting this issue raised on the Adjournment. The case of his constituent, Miss O'Neil, which has prompted him to raise the general issue of young domestic workers, is indeed a sorry and distressing one. On the facts presented, Miss O'Neil's ex-employers have behaved in a disgraceful and totally unacceptable fashion. But I do not believe that their behaviour is typical of the majority of employers who take on nannies or mothers' helps. In most cases such employers behave honourably towards their employees and many go so far as to treat them as part of the family. But, sadly, there is a small minority of bad employers, and Miss O'Neil had the misfortune to come up against just such a one.

Before I go into the detail of Miss O'Neil's case, I should like to say a few words about the Government's general approach to contract of employment issues. It is a well-established principle that terms and conditions of employment, including rates of pay and hours of work, are, in general, matters for agreement between the employer and the employee concerned, or their representatives. This enables them to agree the terms of a contract of employment to suit the job in question and their particular circumstances and preferences. It would be neither right nor practicable for the Government to intervene in this area. This flexibility gives the potential employee a chance to consider, for example, whether the hours he or she is going to have to work and the pay are acceptable.

A contract of employment does not have to be written down: by starting work the employee accepts the terms and conditions offered and there is an implied contract. But within 13 weeks of starting work an employee is entitled by law to be given a written statement of his or her terms and conditions of work by his or her employer. If the employer fails to provide such a written statement, the employee concerned may apply to have the complaint heard by an industrial tribunal.

In addition, most employees are entitled to be given an itemised pay statement by their employer at or before the time of payment. This has to include details of the gross amount paid and a note of the deductions which have been made. Again, failure by the employer to provide such a statement may result in a case before an industrial tribunal.

The main employment protection measure is, of course, the right not to be unfairly dismissed, and, again, those to whom this right applies may take their case to an industrial tribunal. There is a qualifying period of continuous employment for this right: those who work more than 16 hours per week qualify after two years' continuous employment; and for those who work less than 16 hours per week but more than eight the qualifying period is five years. A qualifying period is necessary to give employers a chance to test whether the person concerned is right for the job and to demonstrate the employee's commitment to the employer. Without such a qualifying period, employers would be reluctant to take on new staff because of the possibility of having to defend an unnecessary tribunal case.

An employee who believes that he is being treated so badly by his employer as to amount to a fundamental breach of contract, and providing he has the appropriate qualifying service, may resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal before a tribunal.

The argument that there is insufficient employment protection is regularly advanced by Opposition Members, but we regularly receive correspondence from employers and others complaining that there is so much employment protection regulation that it puts them off recruiting new employees. Indeed, that complaint has been substantiated by evidence from a number of research projects, and we have some sympathy with it.

Our strategy of deregulation is designed to create the conditions in which enterprise and initiative may flourish and to reduce red tape wherever possible and where it makes sense to do so. That does not mean that we intend to sweep away all employment protection measures; far from it. But we are concerned that we should strike the right balance between the need to protect employees from the most unscrupulous employers and the need to avoid excessive burdens on employers. This will encourage the creation of more jobs and help to tackle the problem of high unemployment to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The consistent fall in the level of unemployment in recent months is evidence of the success of the Government's policy in this area.

Some might suggest that a contribution to the improvement of the terms and conditions of those employed as nannies or mothers' helps would be the introduction of a statutory national minimum wage. However, the Government's view is that such a move would not help the position of domestic workers or the low paid generally.

There are a number of reasons for that. First, it would directly raise the wages of those below the statutory minimum without any change in output. This would not only add to employers' costs and reduce competitiveness, but lead to a loss of jobs, as the rate of pay fixed might be more than some employers could afford. My officials estimate that a national minimum wage of £80 a week could result in job losses ranging between 60,000 and 600,000 over a period of time.

In addition, all experience shows that pay differentials cannot be artificially compressed. As soon as the wages of the low paid are raised, attempts are made by workers with higher rates of pay to press for similar increases to maintain pay differentials, leaving the less well off in the same relative position as before. The pressure to restore differentials would itself add to general wage costs and erode competitiveness. We see no signs that the higher-paid workers are prepared to hold back their claims to help the low paid.

Moreover, a national minimum wage would be inconsistent with our firmly held view that pay is a matter for determination by employers and employees or their representatives. They are in the best position to decide what enterprises can afford or need to recruit and retain staff with the right skills and experience. The Government do not intervene.

The specific case of Miss O'Neil has already been the subject of correspondence between the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls).

I have already explained at some length that contracts of employment are matters for negotiation and agreement between the parties concerned and that it is inappropriate for the Government to interfere. It follows from that that, should either party decide subsequently that they are unhappy with the terms of the contract as agreed, it is up to them to take the necessary action to terminate that contract.

That, I believe, is precisely what Miss O'Neil did. Moreover, when, as it turned out, her former employer did not pay her the wages which were due to her, she very properly took a case in the small claims section of the county court. I must congratulate Miss O'Neil on her determination in sorting out her predicament. I suspect that many other people in a similar situation would have given up at that point. But she continued to defend her rights and obtained a county court judgment against her former employer. That covered not only wages due to her which had not been paid, but money borrowed from her by her employer and not repaid, as well as the expenses she incurred in travelling from her home in the north of England to Reigate to attend the court hearing.

I should say a word here about the unfortunate fact that, although she has obtained a county court judgment against her former employer, Miss O'Neil has been unable so far to recover what is owed to her. I am sure all Members of this House will sympathise with the position in which Miss O'Neil finds herself. She may wish to bear in mind that in addition to a warrant of execution, which she has already tried, there are other means of enforcement open to her. If she approaches the court in which she obtained the judgment, she will be able to obtain a booklet, produced by the Lord Chancellor's Department, entitled "Enforcing Money Judgments in the County Court", which gives details of various alternative methods of enforcement. At the risk of stating the obvious, perhaps I should add that no method of enforcement can guarantee payment of a debt from a debtor who does not have the means to pay.

I come now to the unemployment benefit position of Miss O'Neil. Unemployment benefit is, of course, intended for those people who become unemployed through no fault of their own and remain so throughout the period of their claim. It is a long-established principle therefore that a person who leaves his employment voluntarily without just cause, or loses his job because of misconduct, may lose his entitlement to benefit, currently for up to 13 weeks.

The question whether a person had just cause for leaving his job voluntarily is a matter for the independent adjudicating authorities to consider in the light of case law over the years. The independent adjudicating authorities specially appointed for this purpose under the Social Security Act 1975 are the adjudication officer in the first instance; on appeal, the social security appeal tribunal; and there is a further right of appeal, in certain circumstances, to the social security commissioner.

I understand that Miss O'Neil first claimed unemployment benefit at the beginning of March last year. Entitlement to unemployment benefit depends, of course, on the satisfaction of two contribution conditions. The first is that class 1 national insurance contributions must have been paid on earnings of at least 25 times the weekly lower earnings limit — currently £39 — in any one tax year since 6 April 1975.

The second condition is that class 1 national insurance contributions must have been paid or credited on earnings of at least 50 times the weekly lower earnings limit in the last complete income tax year before the benefit year in which the spell of unemployment begins. The benefit year starts on the first Sunday in January and ends on the first Saturday of the following year. Claims made during 1987 are therefore based on contributions paid during the 1985–86 income tax year. Since Miss O'Neil's employment in Reigate was her first employment, she had not paid sufficient contributions to become entitled to unemployment benefit. I understand, however, that she has been receiving supplementary benefit since the end of March last year.

I have already explained the circumstances in which unemployment benefit may be suspended. When a doubt arises on a person's claim for unemployment benefit, the Department is obliged to seek confirmation from the employer of the reason why the employment ended. In cases in which the employer fails, after reminders, to respond to inquiries about the reasons why the claimant left his employ, consideration is given to lifting the suspension. In such a case, when the suspension is lifted, payment would be made from the date of claim.

I understand that in Miss O'Neil's case her employer failed to return the form sent to establish the circumstances in which her employment had ended. As a result, disqualification of unemployment benefit or contribution credits because she had voluntarily left her employment or had lost it because of misconduct was not considered.

Although I am not aware that in Miss O'Neil's case there was a failure on the part of the employer to pay national insurance contributions, the hon. Gentleman has suggested that that has arisen in other cases that he knows about. I understand from the DHSS, which is, of course, responsible in this area, that it has seen little evidence of any national problem in relation to nannies. It is the view of the Inland Revenue that nannies are in class 1 employment. An individual who has a complaint about this should go to his or her local social security office, which will of course investigate the complaint.

Finally, I should like to refer to the wider issue underlying the matters that we have been discussing tonight—unemployment. Despite the encouraging signs in recent months, it remains a serious problem and the Government are making a significant contribution to overcoming the problem by fostering an environment in which enterprise and initiative may flourish. That leads to the creation of new jobs, by helping those unfortunate enough to be unemployed to relearn the skills of work by a spell on a training course or a scheme specifically designed to help the unemployed back to work.

I am particularly pleased to see that in Wentworth there has been a decrease of almost 13 per cent. in the total numbers of unemployed in the 12 months to December 1987. It is therefore all the more sad and disheartening to hear of the impending closure of Canning Town Glass, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I should like to emphasise that the full facilities of the Department and of the Manpower Services Commission are available to help redundant people to find new jobs, retrain or set up in businesses of their own, and those facilities will be brought to the attention of those involved.

In concluding, perhaps I might return to where we started and the particular case of Miss O'Neil. Can anything be done to prevent that sort of thing happening again? However much we legislate, we are never going to be able to eradicate the sort of behaviour that Miss O'Neil had the misfortune to experience. There are a few unscrupulous employers in this country, and that is an unfortunate fact of life. Individuals do not need to put up with unfavourable working conditions, and before committing themselves to a particular job, it is up to them to be satisfied that the conditions on offer are acceptable. When it is only after starting the job that the employee realises that it is not suitable, then, as I have explained, remedies are available.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.