I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
On my 45th birthday, I am privileged to introduce the Bill and I thank my 11 Labour sponsors, who represent our nations and regions, as well as many trade unions that have long campaigned on behalf of thousands of vulnerable agency and temporary workers. I thank in particular all the unions that support the campaign, including the Transport and General Workers Union, Amicus, the Communication Workers Union, the GMB, Unison, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians and other unions such as Unity, which is my local community union for north Staffordshire, as well as the TUC and TULO, the trade union and Labour party liaison organisation that does a great deal of valuable work for the Labour party.
I thank, too, all my colleagues and other hon. Members who have given up not just a valuable Friday but a one-line Whip Thursday and important constituency engagements to vote for the closure motion on the Off-road Vehicles (Registration) Bill, thus allowing this important issue to be aired. If they had not done so, it would not have received a billing in the House today. Most of all, however, I thank the 50 or so agency workers who came to Parliament this week to lobby their MPs and put their heads bravely above the parapet to tell their stories and speak about the discrimination that they and their families have suffered.
For example, Jane was employed by an agency to drive a street sweeper for Salford council. For three years, she worked for £5.75 an hour, which is 30 per cent. less than the rate for a permanent employee doing the same job, but she was recently sacked by telephone, without any warning or recourse. Steve has worked for nine years at a call centre run by Manpower for British Telecom in Scotland on half the pay, with less holiday and no prospects of promotion or job security, so he finds it difficult to secure a mortgage for his family. Bartek from Poland was recruited by an agency to work for a Woolworths distribution centre near Manchester and Wigan. He was promised decent pay, accommodation and working conditions but, like many other migrants, he found himself badly paid, discriminated against, sharing a small room with others and subject to unreasonable charges that the agency deducted from his pay. Those workers are subject to tensions, because fellow UK workers fear, understandably, that they and their families will be undercut by such employment practices.
One of the themes of the contributions from Manpower agency workers working for BT was the shadowy employment structure implemented by that blue chip company that allows it to absolve itself of responsibility for many employees. After a long campaign on behalf of those workers, this speech will be mercifully short. I hope that colleagues will be disciplined as well, because we want to hear the Minister's response.
First, to dispel some myths, I want to say what the Bill is not about. It is not about regulating flexibility out of our economy. It is not anti-business. It is not about reducing job opportunities. Many of the same arguments were made against the minimum wage, and we have seen over the years that they were plainly wrong. The Bill aims to achieve a better balance for some of our most vulnerable people and their hard-working families between so-called flexibility and pay, treatment, job security and basic human worth.
The Bill creates no great regulatory or licensing superstructure. Like the minimum wage, it creates a more level playing field. It protects responsible employers from being undercut and adds an extension to the floor that we have already provided with the minimum wage to stop the state picking up the tab in the form of benefits that subsidise poor employers. In short, it is not just a trade union Bill. It is a Bill for vulnerable working people and it is entirely in tune with the Labour Government's agenda to help hard-working families.
There are more than 1.4 million agency and temporary workers in all industries in the UK, many in areas such as mine, north Staffordshire, which need regeneration, a better mix of skills and, most of all, greater aspiration, especially for our children. Many people work for agencies or temporarily by choice. Many are well treated and rewarded. Many, however, suffer from lower wages, poorer working conditions, lack of sick pay, fewer holidays and workplace bullying because of their temporary and insecure status.
Recently in the UK, it has become clear that the issue is not just a domestic one, as the example of Bartek showed. Many agencies recruit proactively overseas to fill low-paid jobs, creating tensions and undercutting wages and conditions. This tension is exploited by the likes of the British National party. Action to help vulnerable agency workers is not only right and fair, but was specifically promised as a key part of the Warwick agreement between Labour and the trade unions before the 2005 general election.
As vice-chair of the national policy forum at the time, I can vouch for the fact that that was part of the Warwick agreement and that the Government promised in our manifesto to deliver the Warwick agreement in full, so I hope they will revisit the directive. I welcome, as I hope my hon. Friend does, the Minister's commitment earlier this week to do that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know he is keen to conclude his remarks. I confirm that which has been communicated to him and that which we have been very clear about—that whereas the Government are fully committed to delivering the Warwick agreement and the manifesto commitments that we put before the people at the 2005 general election, we said in respect of the agency and temporary workers agreement that we would agree with the principles of the directive and see what could be delivered domestically. We did not agree, with the greatest respect, to that which is contained in his Bill, which is equal treatment from day one. There is the matter of the qualifying period, which is under discussion in Europe in the context of the directive still being discussed there.
I thank my hon. Friend for confirming that the Government are committed to pressing ahead with UK legislation, which the Bill is intended to give them the opportunity to do, while the directive is stalled in Europe. As for the qualifying period, I shall come to matters of detail shortly. Those matters can equally be discussed in Committee and are no reason for opposing Second Reading.
At Warwick, the Government committed themselves to addressing discrimination against agency workers by backing, as my hon. Friends said, the principles of a European directive on the issue and making early progress on it. Sadly, the directive has been at an impasse since 2002, in part because of the objections of the UK and other countries.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dismore asked when the Government intend to act on our commitments in our manifesto and to our party and affiliates, as arrived at in Warwick. We published our consultative document on temporary, agency and vulnerable workers on
The consultation does not address the principles of the Bill, which concern deep-rooted discrimination on pay and working conditions, although it addresses the problem of talent agencies charging people fees for being wannabe pop idols.
Along with many hon. Members, I hope that my hon. Friend's Bill makes progress. Does he agree that it is necessary to close the advantages that certain agencies use with regard to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs that have led to some workers paying less tax and national insurance than others? Perhaps we should address that in the Finance Bill in addition to his Bill.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although the Government's moves to introduce flexible working are welcome, they have left us in a bizarre position on employees and flexible working? Many of my constituents are agency and temporary workers because they want flexibility, but they do not get the corollary of decent basic working conditions.
Indeed. The situation has left us with a permanent two-tier work force.
I thank the Minister for confirming at this week's meeting that, in line with commitments made at Warwick, the UK will look at domestic legislation, which is what the Bill seeks to achieve. It is difficult to understand the hostility of the Department of Trade and Industry and its officials to the Bill.
To dispel another myth, this Bill tracks the principles of the directive nigh on word for word. It defines basic working and employment conditions, which are contained in article 3 of the draft directive. Clause 5 replicates the wording of the directive with one clarification, which is that pay should include an entitlement to sick pay. This week, we heard, through the lobby, from Maeve, an agency worker in Blackburn who has worked for BT through Manpower for the past two years. She told us that it was a them-and-us situation between agency and permanent employees—the haves and the have-nots. Maeve became very ill with pneumonia, but she could only afford to take 10 days off, because after two years of employment, she had no entitlement to sick pay. That is the reality for many workers in our economy today.
Why does the DTI object so strongly to the Bill? That is a very good question, and the answer is what we have heard from the Minister this week and again today. The DTI objects to agency workers qualifying for equal rights from day one. That has been one of the main issues stalling the directive. If the Government want to negotiate a qualifying period of six weeks, like the Commission, or nine months, which is their latest condition, then they should do it in Committee. If they have signed up to the principles behind the Bill and the directive, there is no reason to oppose the Bill on Second Reading. Any Whip, as the Minister formerly was, would tell any recalcitrant Back Bencher that they can argue about the detail in Committee.
My hon. Friend has made a fair point about the role of Committees, notwithstanding the Government's support for the principles behind the Bill I understand the frustration of people who are employed for long periods of time and who are still classified as temporary workers, which is why the qualifying period in the draft directive is important. The qualifying period should be set reasonably and people should not be taken advantage of. That negotiation is taking place in Europe and not upstairs in the Committee corridor. We are happy to look at any abuses in respect of temporary and agency workers, which is what the consultation document addresses. I invite my hon. Friend and the trade unions that are supporting him to submit evidence to allow us to move forward in this important area.
The trade unions will certainly submit evidence. Like many of my hon. Friends, I say that the discussions should not take place behind closed doors in Brussels but in the open here in London.
This week, we heard a couple of other objections—for example, an alleged difficulty in identifying those with work comparable to that of agency workers. Jane in Salford, Steve in Scotland, Bartek from Poland and Maeve, recovering from pneumonia in Blackburn, would have no trouble identifying someone doing exactly the same job in their workplace. Furthermore, their union reps would say that the concept is well understood in other equal pay legislation from our own Government. If a reasonably comparable worker doing the same or a similar job in the firm or industry could not be found, such people simply could not take a discrimination case to an industrial tribunal. Again, do not object to the issue on Second Reading.
The other objection that we have heard this week—we have heard only three, really—was that there are difficulties over the meaning of "equal treatment" for agency workers in respect of maternity rights. The Government have been very good in progressing the agenda for pregnant women; if we want more precision, we can get it in Committee. If the Bill goes to Committee, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we might help the Government clarify their case.
I want to conclude with the positives of the campaign. The Bill has had an airing, albeit brief. A Department of Trade and Industry consultation saw the light of day last week; it is too narrow and does not touch on the main issues and basic principles of the Bill, as signed up to at Warwick, but at least it gives the workers the chance to highlight further abuses.
Does my hon. Friend accept that page 49, section E of the consultative document states that we will listen to and pay attention to any evidence that is taken? I do not understand how he can describe the consultation as too narrow, given that an open question at the end of the consultation document says, "Give us the evidence".
I welcome the Minister's assurance, which repeats what he said in the meeting this week, that he will listen to the evidence. Frankly, we find it worrying that most of the evidence cited so far has come from employers' organisations. However, there is plenty of evidence for the trade unions, and we shall encourage them to submit it.
Finally, I should say that Jane, Steve, Bartek and Maeve and many thousands like them would like to hear from the Minister now the real reasons why the Government are opposing Second Reading of this sensible Bill. I hope that Members will give the Minister the opportunity to make a more detailed response.
It is important that we get the balance right between protecting employees and providing employment. We support the Government's intention to address bad practices that affect agency workers, but this Bill contains provisions that would change the principles of existing employment and contract law. The effect of those changes would, I believe, be to the significant detriment of job creation in our country.
Contracts with temporary workers are formed under specific circumstances for specific reasons. We should be cautious about allowing the Government to interfere with the ability of employers and employees to contract in such circumstances. Limiting the ability of employers to take on employees on a flexible or temporary basis has the potential to stifle business. It would also restrict opportunities for those who can work only on a temporary basis. Despite the Government's commitment to introduce measures to ease the administrative burden on agencies, the Bill contains a number of provisions that would increase the administrative burden on any business wishing to employ someone on a temporary basis.
Obviously, that would have a serious impact on businesses that by their nature rely on being able to employ workers on a temporary and flexible basis. Businesses with seasonal fluctuations, or those that rely on market demand to decide staffing levels, are heavily dependent on being able to staff their businesses efficiently through temporary or agency workers. There seems to be a risk that the more restrictions that are placed on such contracts, the more difficult it will be for agencies to maintain the fluidity of supply so crucial in that area of employment.
There is also the risk of a knock-on effect by which the increased liability and administrative burden placed on businesses by the Bill would force employers to stop taking on agency workers. That would massively restrict the options open to those able to work only on a temporary basis—for example, students or those looking after young children.
It is necessary to ensure that we achieve a proper balance between the rights of the employer and the employee, and we are currently considering the whole policy area of employment rights with a view to coming up with proposals that will get the balance right. This Bill, however, is not the answer.
I am required to place on record that my party does not support the Bill. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to do so.
Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly on being successful in the private Members' ballot and commending him for choosing this issue. I acknowledge the concern that there is for vulnerable workers in many situations.
I believe that the Government's record in this area is to be commended. We have introduced a raft of protections for people in the workplace—
I hear what my hon. Friend says. I certainly agree that there are some unscrupulous employers out there. They are not restricted to agency worker employers—some employers who are regarded as mainstream also undermine and take advantage of workers' rights.
Our position is that we want to deal with abuses as and when they are identified. I was about to explain how much has already been accomplished and what more we expect to do. The recruitment agencies are in the process of drafting their own code of practice. As my hon. Friend Ian Stewart says, there are decent agencies out there, some of which act as recruiting agents for trade unions—
Order. We had this problem earlier this morning. The further away the Minister gets from the microphone, the less he will be heard by anybody. Moreover, he should address the Chair. It would be helpful were he to bear both those things in mind.
I am, as ever, grateful for your advice and guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will try to comply with both your suggestions.
I agree that not all employment agencies and employers exploit people. Nevertheless, I should like to refer my hon. Friend to an example that is receiving attention in Bedford concerning the exploitation of mainly Polish workers. Because they are vulnerable and their English is not very good, their wages are being docked by way of a whole list of methods. I have reported this to the police and to Revenue and Customs. It is a detailed example in a real place—I have met many of the people involved personally—that he may wish to take on board when he considers the outcome of the consultation. Would he be prepared to meet me to discuss it in detail?
I certainly would not reject a request from a colleague on either side of the House to discuss issues of importance to themselves as constituency MPs, particularly when it involves people being abused or maltreated or relates to Government regulations on health and safety, the minimum wage, paid time off, paid rest breaks, or whatever. If my hon. Friend would be so kind as to supply me with the relevant information, we can feed it into the system and organise a meeting so that we can have a proper dialogue and report back to officials at the Department of Trade and Industry's employment agency standards inspectorate, who are responsible for policing the regulations and ensuring that employment agencies conform to the regulations that have been passed by this House.
Let me return to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, who asked about employment agencies that do not observe the protocols and regulations or best practice as regards the people for whom they are supposed to be finding work. As I said, the recruitment agencies themselves are in the process of drafting a code of conduct. When agencies undermine people's rights, they tarnish the reputation of the whole industry and undermine decent agencies for temporary and agency workers that are doing the right thing in trying to ensure that their recruits are treated favourably. I accept that there are problems but I emphasise that we have an inspectorate, we investigate complaints and, if my hon. Friend has information and details about cases, I am happy to ensure that the appropriate officials receive them.
The Government's record is to be commended. However, we want to ensure that no one is exposed to unfair treatment because of gaps or loopholes in our employment law. Much is happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme referred to the agency workers directive. It is fair to say that that has stalled in Europe for some time. However, Department of Trade and Industry officials were in Brussels on Wednesday to raise the prospect of progress on detailed negotiations.
My hon. Friend said that the details in the Bill mirror the wording of the directive and asked why we could not simply transpose it into United Kingdom law. I acknowledge that he emphasised that he does not want to disadvantage the UK compared with our colleagues in other European Union member states. However, the directive's text is a draft and will be subject to amendment. It would therefore be difficult to deal with the current text in isolation now.
Does my hon. Friend accept that his point that the directive has not only stalled but long stalled in Europe means that many people believe that it will not make progress? Can he give some idea of when the Government will conclude that no progress will be made in Brussels, and that it is therefore necessary to introduce domestic legislation? We need to know when.
I shall deal shortly with the consultative document that we have published. We might have been able to publish it earlier; we did so only last week. It is subject to a normal 12-week consultative period. As soon as that concludes, we will weigh up the submissions to the Government and make recommendations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme made the point that the main issues are defined too narrowly. I have referred to section E on page 49 of the consultation document and I shall revert to it later. The matters that we have identified are those on which we can move quickly and about which we have evidence to demonstrate that we need to move to close loopholes and tackle problems.
In reply to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, we will be in a position to move as soon as possible. We can do so quickly on some matters, but we will probably have to assess others, which may be more complicated, when we receive the submissions. Publishing our consultative document gives a clear sign that we want to move domestically. There is no doubt about that.
I was listening carefully to my hon. Friend's answer. He still has not provided a time scale for when, if there is no progress in Europe, the Government intend to introduce legislation. When will that happen—in this Session, or the next, or next year? Will he give us a general idea of the time scale?
My hon. Friend has been a Member for long enough to know—forgive me, I am not being at all patronising—that there will be an assessment when we finish the consultative exercise. We might then be able to deal with some issues by regulation and some by statutory instrument. Some issues might require legislation. She knows the bidding process for legislative time. I cannot give an indication of whether or not that will happen in this Session. I will be very surprised if we cannot deal quite quickly with some of the more simple issues that will become clear to us as a result of the consultative exercise.
My hon. Friend knows that I always like to help. If the Government were prepared to allow the Bill to be considered in Committee, not only could they rehearse the arguments and find the solutions, but they would certainly be well on the way to being able to move very fast once agreement had been reached in Brussels.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is very much our view that we can move quickly on some of the issues that are detailed in our consultative document, but we will not be able to do so with other issues. I had discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and others on Wednesday this week, and the core principle of the Bill is equal treatment on day one. We are not able to do that and we do not agree with it, because there should be a qualifying period. That is one of the key stumbling blocks in respect of the directive.
As I have said, there are other areas where we can take action and where we are prepared to take action. We have demonstrated that with the minimum standards in the workplace that we have already introduced for temporary and agency workers—the minimum wage, health and safety, paid time off and holiday leave—and many of them will be the principal beneficiaries of the extra public holidays that we will introduce later this year. Again, that proposal is out for its final period of consultation. We can move, and we will be able to demonstrate that quite quickly.
For accuracy and for the record, the core of the Bill is equal pay and treatment, with basic working conditions. The qualifying period could be discussed in Committee.
The point that I was making when my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody intervened on me was about where we are within Europe. That addresses the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme has been making. Notwithstanding that we and officials have been trying to ensure that we make progress in Brussels this week, that is naturally a matter for the Commission and the German presidency. I understand that the Portuguese, who will assume the presidency in July this year, are interested in moving forward, but I know from my limited time as Employment Relations Minister that European negotiations can be slow.
The UK presidency, the Austrians and the Finns clearly worked very hard on the working time directive, but there are additional complexities as a result of now having 27 member states. The Commission's view on the working time directive was that, after the European Court of Justice judgment on SiMAP and Jaegar, some 23 of the 25 states were not in compliance with it. As a result, the agency workers directive has suffered because of the time and effort in trying to get a deal and an understanding on the working time directive.
Does my hon. Friend accept that millions of workers will suffer hardship in the time between the consultations ending and proposals being made, while community cohesion continues to get worse because of the perception that agency workers get less wages, fewer sickness rights and fewer holidays? The community cohesion problem continues to get worse because of our failure to introduce such legislation sooner rather than later.
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, for whom I have great regard, I do not agree with him. There are not millions of such workers. The temporary and agency worker quota of the British economy is 6 per cent. There are 1.6 million such workers, of whom 52 per cent. say that they are entirely happy with the way that they conduct themselves and the job that they do and 26 per cent. say that they do not want permanent jobs and that they prefer the jobs that they have. I agree with him that thousands of workers are being taken advantage of, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said in quoting a number of cases this week. The intention of the intervention is to suggest that we need to protect those people, and I accept that we need to do so, which is why we have issued the consultative document and demonstrated that we are prepared to do something about it as soon as possible.
Several honourable colleagues have referred to the 2005 manifesto. We gave a commitment to our party, which was reflected via the Warwick agreement in the 2005 manifesto, on which we were elected, that we would consider what might be done domestically by legislation if progress was not forthcoming in Europe. My right hon. and hon. Friends know that the Warwick commitment is for the duration of this Parliament, which is not due to finish until 2010. We are 50 per cent. of the way through the manifesto commitments that we made at the Warwick meeting, and 20 to 30 per cent. of the other commitments are under way. We are in discussion about the other 20 per cent. with interested trade unions, the party and the trade union liaison organisation to make sure that Departments and Ministers fulfil the commitments made at Warwick. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have both given commitments to implement the Warwick agreement.
I am doing what I can to respond to the opening comments. I will then outline the Government's position in respect of the private Member's Bill brought forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.
I take that answer to mean no. I am interested in when proposals might be introduced. The Minister has suggested that European Union presidencies, particularly the Portuguese presidency, might be important. We have a three-month consultation period, followed by some internal gestation period, followed by consultations with the Portuguese. That probably takes us past the next Queen's Speech. As we are coming towards the end of the period to which the manifesto applies, and proposals are to be introduced before we get to that point, when will they be introduced? If they are not to be in the next Queen's Speech, in which one will they be?
As my hon. Friend knows, the content of the Queen's Speech is a matter of discussion in the Cabinet and with the parliamentary Labour party. Opposition Members were able to make bids for legislation, and a full and open discussion is ongoing. The manifesto commitments and undertakings given at Warwick to the party, and the manifesto on which we were elected, will be fulfilled. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have said at the Dispatch Box and outside the House that the Warwick commitment will be fulfilled.
I am grateful for the opportunity to put on record what the Government have done, and are about to do, on the question of temporary and agency workers, and the background to our position vis-à-vis the Bill.
We recently published our consultation document, of which Members will be aware, entitled, "Consultation on measures to protect vulnerable agency workers". The issue of the openness of that consultation has been raised. The documents states, at page 24, section E:
"The Government considers it has identified the key abuses requiring action in this document. However, where respondents can identify further measures—legislative or otherwise...we will consider addressing those as well when we take this consultation forward."
It also lists details and specifics as to how we want to do that.
We are also aware that the TUC is establishing a commission on vulnerable employment, which will complement and support the Government's determination to ensure that those who are vulnerable get a fair deal. Links have been established, and the various worthy individuals who have agreed to sit on that commission will be able to help us formulate legislation.
The third strand and pillar of our protection for vulnerable agency and migrant workers is that the Department of Trade and Industry is spending about £1 million to establish two vulnerable worker pilots, one in Birmingham and one in London in the City and east end. The London one is led by the south-east region of the TUC. The Birmingham one is led by Birmingham Forward. We will take evidence from local government, charities, trade unions and voluntary organisations to ensure that we are in a position to understand exactly the nature of the abuse and the advantage that has been taken of vulnerable workers. That will allow us to move forward to protect them in the workplace.
Since 1997, the United Kingdom labour market—
It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed on
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there any way of recording in Hansard that dozens of Labour Members came today to support the Bill, that we decided not to stand to make a speech to make sure that it had a reasonable chance of getting a Second Reading, and that we are extremely dismayed and ashamed of the fact that our Front-Bench colleagues have not acceded to the request of so many—
Order. That is clearly not a point of order for the Chair but the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made will obviously be in the Official Report.