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May I first congratulate Mr Holden on his maiden speech? His was one of the more remarkable results on election night, and having heard how late he was selected as the candidate, that makes it even more remarkable. He will never forget his maiden speech, and I think he can rightly be proud of the way he delivered it and the sentiment and sincerity with which he spoke tonight. I would say that all the maiden speeches we have heard today have been of an exceptionally high quality. Indeed, I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Beth Winter for her excellent speech. She has huge shoes to step into, but I have no doubt that she will do that very well indeed.
This Humble Address is another opportunity for a new Government to set out not just their legislative programme for the year ahead, but their plans for how they intend to reshape the country over the next four or five years. It is certainly a broad legislative programme, and it should be pretty good given that it is the second attempt in three months to write one. However, in many areas where they are addressing issues, I feel that there is a lack of ambition, and of course there are huge areas where there is nothing at all.
The subject of today’s debate is jobs and the economy, and there are several proposals that attempt to look at our current workplace settlement. The suggestion that flexible working become the default presumption is to be welcomed. Of course, we have had the right to request flexible working for many years, but it is just that: a right to ask, not a right to have. While it has already given millions of people the opportunity to change their working arrangements to be much more family-friendly, the many who have not had their request accepted have found that the reality is that the employer can almost always find a way to say no. With these new proposals, the devil will always be in the detail, and I do have a big question about what it actually means, as it says in the Queen’s Speech, for the employer to have a good reason to refuse. We will have to explore that in more detail in due course.
Workers will also have the right to request a more predictable contract—that is presumably aimed at the many people on zero-hours or flexible contracts. For the reasons I have set out, the right to request in itself will have to be much more robust than the current legislation, and if it is to be effective it must be alive to the reality of what life on a zero-hours contract is like. Current right to request legislation starts from an assumption that the employer and employee have at least some semblance of balance in their relationship, but the fundamental characteristic of a zero-hours contract is that all the power is in the hands of the employer. How realistic will it be for someone to ask for more certain working hours, when they know it is entirely within the gift of the employer not to call them back the next day if they do not want to? That is a huge challenge to address. Indeed, why do we allow such parasitic, unfair arrangements to continue at all? Until we begin to question their very existence, we will only ever be tinkering at the edges of a fundamentally unfair labour market.
We are told that the Government intend to:
“Promote fairness in the workplace, striking the right balance between the flexibility that the economy needs and the security that workers deserve”,
but that presents us with a false choice. There does not have to be a trade-off between security and flexibility, and until we begin to address those fundamental imbalances in the workplace, we will never get a fair and just workplace settlement. A happy workforce is a productive workforce; it is good for employers and for the economy. Research for the TUC found that one in three workers do not feel comfortable approaching managers about a problem at work, that a third of workers do not feel that they or their colleagues are treated fairly, and that nearly half of workers say that their line manager did not explain their rights at work. Rather than the Government tackling those gross injustices, however, we just get a bit of window dressing.
We must end the culture of weak employment rights, avaricious corporations, and a Government who are indifferent to the needs of working people. We must move towards a period of enlightenment, and rebuild one of the main pillars of what I think makes up a decent society—job security—because without job security, people have no security in their life. Over the next five years, the challenge is to move to a point where the quality of a job is valued as much as the creation of the job itself. Whenever a multinational looks to cut its workforce, we always seem to be at the head of the queue to bear the brunt of that. Why are we seen as a soft touch? Why are British workers seen as easier and cheaper to get rid of than just about anyone else in western Europe? We do not need to give those multinationals any more encouragement, but I fear that we are embarking on a course of action that will increase the risk to British workers tenfold. The Chancellor’s recent comments about not having alignment will be a massive green light to those multinationals, particularly in manufacturing, that are looking for an excuse to move their production elsewhere.
Just a few months ago the aerospace, automotive, chemicals, food and drink, and pharmaceutical sectors wrote a joint letter, warning the Government that potential new trading arrangements could pose a
“serious risk to manufacturing competitiveness”.
Those industries are worth a combined £98 billion to the UK economy, and between them they are responsible for thousands of jobs in my constituency and many others. Their contribution is immense, and I cannot understand what possessed the Chancellor to make those comments about non-alignment over the weekend. I know he is a big Thatcherite, but if he goes through with that he will surpass even her record in decimating the manufacturing industry in the north of England.
I do not doubt that the Government have a mandate to leave the EU, but they do not have a mandate to destroy manufacturing at the same time, or to sacrifice the kind of good, well-paid, highly skilled, permanent jobs offered by many of the industries I have mentioned. They do not have a mandate to jettison the promises made during the election—I think specifically of what the Prime Minister said to those Nissan workers in Sunderland about protecting their jobs. Are those promises now worthless? Will the entire UK automotive sector be cast aside because of some ideological insanity that means that the Government knowingly and deliberately pursue a course of action that will inevitably lead to thousands of people losing their jobs? Labour Members will not stand for that. We might be depleted in numbers, but that will not weaken our resolve to fight for jobs in our communities.
Finally, let me say a few words about housing, because we must not forget the leasehold scandal. Despite the heavy trailing of policies such as peppercorn ground rents and a ban on new leasehold houses, nothing has yet appeared. Perhaps we will see something on those issues, but this Government’s first priority should be to give hope to the thousands of people who have found themselves stuck with leasehold houses that they cannot sell. Under the right circumstances the Law Commission’s report might represent a slight improvement in enfranchisement, but its major downfall is that the remit it was given accepts that those leases were created fairly, in a reasonable, open system where both parties had equal bargaining power. The systematic deception and mis-selling seems to have been overlooked, and victims of that fraud cannot understand how human rights have been brought in to protect those who own offshore trust funds and are at the heart of this scandal. If that is who the Government side with, they must understand what a terrible signal that sends to the thousands of ordinary people up and down the country who find themselves trapped in a nightmare just because they wanted to own their own home. I hope we do not go down that road.
In conclusion, I fear that this Humble Address is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst has the potential, in the many years ahead, to destroy the communities I represent.