Employment Rights

– in the House of Commons at 2:02 pm on 8th June 2021.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 2:02 pm, 8th June 2021

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the latest steps the Government are taking to protect workers’ rights, as we look to build back better from covid-19. That includes our plans to create a single body responsible for state enforcement of employment rights, modernise the regulator of trade unions and address so-called fire and rehire negotiation tactics.

This Government have been absolutely clear that we will do whatever we need to do to protect and enhance workers’ rights in this most challenging year. In April, for example, we increased pay for around 2 million workers, and the coronavirus job retention scheme has already helped to pay the wages of 11.5 million people across the country. We will continue to champion our flexible and dynamic labour market and to maintain the UK’s excellent record on workers’ rights.

Today, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has published its report on fire and rehire. I know that this is a matter of great interest to employers and workers up and down the country, and I encourage all Members to read ACAS’s report. This Government have always been clear that we do not accept fire and rehire as a negotiation tactic. Workers up and down the country have worked flat out during the pandemic, carrying out essential work to keep our economy going. It is crucial that employers take their responsibilities seriously and act appropriately when it comes to discussions about changing employment contracts.

I have been deeply concerned by reports over the last year that some employers may be turning too soon to firing and rehiring employees and are using this as a tactic in negotiations to put undue pressure on workers to rush into accepting new, and often worse, terms and conditions or face losing their jobs. It is unacceptable and, frankly, immoral to use the threat of fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic to force through changes to people’s employment contracts, or for employers to turn to dismissal and rehiring too hastily, rather than continue to engage in meaningful negotiations. We are not talking about something abstract here—this is about peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

At a time when many workers have shown great loyalty and commitment to carry out essential work and keep our economy going in the face of a pandemic, I expect employers to continue to treat their staff fairly and with respect. That is why my Department asked ACAS to gather evidence on the practice, so that we could evaluate whether further action is needed at this time. I would like to thank ACAS for its work, which has provided my Department with a balanced account, based on insights from employer bodies, trade unions and professional bodies.

The report outlines the circumstances in which fire and rehire can be and has been used, and offers views from a range of contributors on whether and how to tackle the issue. There are different views on whether the practice can ever be justified. For some of the organisations consulted by ACAS, it is never acceptable. For others, in its most legitimate form fire and rehire is a route for employers to avoid redundancies and business failures, after negotiations have been exhausted. However, the report finds agreement that fire and rehire can and should be used only in limited, legally prescribed circumstances. Some thought that this should be further reinforced in law, whereas a number of participants cautioned against new legislation, warning that it may have unintended consequences: it may lead to more redundancies.

This is clearly a complex area. Many of the people ACAS spoke to welcomed non-legislative interventions, such as guidance for businesses, the vast majority of which I recognise want to do the right thing. That is why I have now asked ACAS to produce better, more comprehensive, clearer guidance to help employers explore all the options before considering fire and rehire, and encourage good employment relations practice.

Some of ACAS’s participants raised concerns that fire and rehire is used by employers to break continuity of service to limit the ability of workers and employees to access their rights, as certain employment rights require periods of continuous employment. The Government have already committed to legislate to extend the time required to break a period of continuous service. That will make it easier for employees to access their rights and also deter businesses from using fire and rehire to engineer breaks in employment in order to deny individuals important employment rights.

Despite the unprecedented Government support during the pandemic, this has also been an exceptionally difficult time for businesses. Many businesses have shown an incredible ability to adapt and innovate, and have played a key role in tackling the pandemic. Even so, some employers may need to make difficult decisions, in order to avoid redundancies and to ensure their business can survive and succeed. In those circumstances, employers and employees should always aim to reach negotiated agreements about terms and conditions of employment and exhaust every avenue to achieve this. But the reality is that sometimes, regrettably, negotiations will fail. In these circumstances, employers may need to dismiss staff, and potentially re-engage them. Therefore, any potential reform must be balanced against the possibility of the remedy creating a worse problem than the one it is intended to address: we must be careful not to introduce measures that inadvertently run the risk of businesses going bust, and thus more people losing their jobs.

However, having carefully considered the report, the Government want to send a clear message to employers: even if your business is facing acute challenges, all other options to save jobs and a business should be exhausted before considering the dismissal and re-engagement of staff. I believe that we can achieve this working in partnership with businesses and workers, without heavy-handed legislation.

This House should be left in no doubt that this Government will always continue to stand behind workers and stamp out unscrupulous practices where they occur. That is why today I am also confirming the next steps we will be taking to modernise our labour market enforcement regime. In 2019, the Government published a consultation that set out the benefits of bringing together our three existing labour market enforcement bodies into a single organisation. Today, the Government have published their formal response to that consultation. This new single enforcement body will help the country build back better by taking a smarter approach to the enforcement of employment law. It will make it easier for the vast majority of responsible businesses to comply with the rules. It will ensure a level playing field, through effective enforcement against those who cut corners and exploit workers. Today’s Government response sets out the overarching details of the new body: responsibility for tackling modern slavery, enforcing the minimum and living wages and protecting agency workers will be brought under one roof, creating a comprehensive new authority.

The new body will go further than current enforcement, enforcing holiday pay for the most vulnerable workers, as well as statutory sick pay. It will regulate umbrella companies, enforce financial penalties against organisations that do not meet requirements to publish modern slavery statements, and run the unpaid tribunal awards penalty scheme.

Protecting workers requires support for businesses, too, so that employers understand how to comply with the rules. This is in addition to effective, visible enforcement action to deter irresponsible employers. The body will have a spectrum of powers and responsibilities to achieve that, including the ability to issue guidance and compliance notices and levy civil penalties for certain offences, and the power to prosecute the most exploitative employers.

Protecting workers is not just about support for business and effective state enforcement. Trade unions have an essential role in the workplace; I know from my regular close engagement with unions how important their work is. Today, the Government have published our plans to modernise the regulation of trade unions, bringing the certification officer in line with other regulators. These reforms will implement technical measures passed by Parliament via the Trade Union Act 2016, providing reassurance to union members and the wider public.

We are confirming three changes related to the certification officer today. First, we are extending the certification officer’s powers to enable her to proactively investigate when a third party raises concerns that a union or employers association may have breached its statutory duties; we will also expand the powers available to her to conduct those investigations. Secondly, we will give the certification officer the power to apply financial penalties to unions or employers associations where the most serious breaches are found to have occurred. The sanctions will be targeted only at the small minority of unions that breach their statutory requirements and obligations. Thirdly, we will move the certification to a levy funding model, which will bring the certification officer in line with other regulators such as the Pensions Regulator and the Financial Reporting Council. Proper and fair regulation will ensure that all trade unions and employers associations conduct themselves to the highest standards.

The United Kingdom has one of the best records on workers’ rights in the world, going further than the EU in many areas, and we are determined to build on that record. By modernising our labour market enforcement regime, protecting workers more extensively, supporting businesses to comply with the law and preventing them from being undercut by a minority of irresponsible employers, we can continue to be a high-wage, high-employment economy that works for everyone as we build back better.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights 2:11 pm, 8th June 2021

The Government have overseen a crisis of insecurity and a lack of protections at work, and the proposals announced today will do little to address it. There is no plan to legislate for a single enforcement body, so can the Minister explain how and when that will happen, given that the long-promised employment Bill has been ditched?

There is no new money in this announcement. We had a decade of cuts and underfunding that left us woefully unprepared when the pandemic hit. In the past year, just one workplace in 171 has had a safety or workers’ rights inspection, and not a single employer has been prosecuted and fined for putting workers or the public at risk of contracting covid-19. A staggering 2 million people are paid below the national minimum wage, yet there are currently just 18 employment agency standards inspectors responsible for inspecting 40,000 employment agencies.

Without new funding, the Minister is simply proposing to merge several under-resourced agencies into a single under- resourced agency. The hollowness of the Government’s commitment is underlined by the fact that the post of director of labour market enforcement has been left vacant for the past six months. However, the most glaring omission in this plan is that many of the most exploitative employment practices are perfectly legal.

Bogus self-employment denies millions of workers in the gig economy basic rights and protections, including the national minimum wage, rest breaks and health and safety protections. For those workers it is not a matter of enforcement, because they do not have rights to enforce. They have been totally abandoned by the Government. Will the Minister commit to giving all workers full employment rights to ensure that everyone has dignity and security at work?

On fire and rehire, the Minister says:

“This Government have always been clear that we do not accept fire and rehire as a negotiation tactic.”

These are empty words. The only clear message would be to outlaw the practice. The Government have hidden behind the ACAS report since February, using it as an excuse to do nothing. Today’s announcement that ACAS will be asked to produce further guidance kicks the can down the road yet again. Almost 3 million people—one in 10—have been subjected to fire and rehire since last March.

Allowing working people to be bullied on to lower wages and worse terms and conditions is both morally wrong and economically illiterate. The Government claim to oppose fire and rehire while encouraging it through their inaction because they believe that this one-sided flexibility is good for the economy. How many more millions of workers is the Minister prepared to allow to be fired and rehired before he acts to outlaw the practice?

The proposal to give the certification officer powers to commission investigations and fine trade unions even when there has been no complaint from a member, funded by a levy on trade unions, is an ideological attack on working people. The Minister is proposing to solve a problem that does not exist. The certification officer had a tiny number of cases last year resulting in just one enforcement order. This means that unions will face financial burdens at times when their members are facing hardship, diverting time and resources away from protecting working people to deal with spurious complaints initiated by groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance rather than fighting for members. If the Minister is genuinely concerned about law-breaking, I suggest he looks closer to home. Staff in his Department are balloting for strike action because of repeated breaches of employment law, including unlawful deductions of wages that force staff to rely on food banks, as well as breaching the working time directive and repeated breaches of Health and Safety Executive covid guidelines.

Trade unions are the best mechanism for protecting workers’ rights, yet the Minister wants to tip the balance of power even further away from them. Compare and contrast this with Joe Biden, who is unshackling and empowering trade unions to rejuvenate the American economy and raise living standards. This Government want to hobble trade unions. The Minister has committed his Government to

“do whatever we can to protect and enhance workers’ rights.”

There is a chasm between the reality and the rhetoric. This is another deceit on working people, but I have news for the Minister: he is fooling nobody.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The hon. Gentleman talks about enforcement issues and funding. We have more than doubled the budget for minimum wage enforcement and compliance, which is now over £27 million annually, up from £13.2 million in 2015. There are more than 400 HMRC staff involved in enforcement of the minimum wage. We concluded over 2,700 investigations on the minimum wage and returned more than £16.7 million in arrears to over 155,000 workers. We are determined that people should get a fair wage for a fair day’s work. As we build back better, we will build back fairer, and it will not be on the backs of the lowest paid. That is why we will continue to increase the national minimum wage and the national living wage and also to enforce action on transgressions in that area.

On the Health and Safety Executive and what has happened with covid, the HSE has received £14.4 million in extra funding and has conducted 274,000 spot checks in the past year.

Worker status is clearly complicated when we have three issues of the worker, the employer and the self-employed, but that allows us to have a flexible, dynamic labour market that enabled us, after the last recession, to build back better by delivering more jobs than the rest of the EU put together.

On fire and rehire, we hear a lot in this place about a binary choice, but in reality the situation is far more complicated. As we build back better, we want to make sure that we can protect people’s jobs as well as their working conditions. That is why we have to get that balance right. Only we on the Government Benches will deal with the economy and with businesses, but most importantly with workers who are subject to transgression of their workers’ rights by irresponsible employers, yet not just painting all employers with the same brush.

The hon. Gentleman talked about changes to the certification officer’s duties being ideological. Actually, it is adhering to the law, as it is what we said we would do in the Trade Union Act. All we are doing is implementing what was debated properly and agreed in this place under that Act.

We will protect workers’ rights, protect jobs, and create more jobs, and it will be through a flexible, dynamic labour market, getting that balance right. Rather than just having a 1970s-style binary debate, we want to work for 21st-century working conditions.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement. Many of my constituents work at Manchester airport and will welcome action to address fire and rehire in the aviation sector. A single body for employment rights is also welcome, but I would encourage the Government to go further and establish a single body for whistleblowers to ensure that they are protected from retaliation and blacklisting and that their concerns are properly investigated. Unfortunately, the current legal framework does not tackle these issues, and the recourse for whistleblowers is the heavily backlogged employment tribunal system, where the average wait for whistleblowing cases is more than two years and the success rate is low. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree with me that it is time for an office of the whistleblower to uphold the right to speak up and strengthen these employment rights even further?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I am glad that my hon. Friend had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State recently, and we continue to want to work closely with her and other colleagues on this basis, including my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake, who also raises the issue on a regular basis with great knowledge from his constituents. We do recognise how valuable it is that whistleblowers are prepared to shine a light on wrongdoing and believe that they should be able to do so without fear of recriminations. It is right and proper that we review the whistleblowing framework, and we will do that once we have sufficient time to build the necessary evidence of the impact of the most recent reforms, so we will consider the scope and timing of a review.

Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation)

I thank the Minister for his statement. I know that, across the House, we recognise that strong employment legislation, regulation and guidance help the businesses that respect such standards be more successful, attract more talented and skilled people, and build better teams than those enterprises that play fast and loose with their own employees’ rights.

While the Minister has outlined a number of measures today, with all these things the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Will the Minister commit to working across the Chamber, with trade unions and employers to ensure that the highest employment law expectations are maintained and enhanced, and the experience of the employee is exactly what it says on the tin when it comes to fair and just working practices? Hon. Members’ casework inboxes are already too full of such cases, and if the Minister were to commit to an annual review of the measures in his statement today, that would help ensure that we were getting this right and protecting workers across the four nations of the UK.

Finally, on fire and rehire, I cannot speak on this subject without praising the work of my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands, and his dogged determination in supporting this campaign and his desire to seek fairness for thousands of employees who have been caught in the sordid, pathetic practice applied by unscrupulous employers. Today was the Government’s chance to right a wrong—a chance to end fire and rehire for good. The question is: why has the Minister not taken that chance to put fire and rehire out of its misery and protect thousands of hard-working people across the four nations?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, as I have said, we do not want to go back to the 1970s binary view of workers’ relations. What we want is a 21st-century view, so of course we will continue to look at and review the impact of legislation, guidance and our work on workers’ rights to check that it is working for a 21st-century economy. We will continue to do that, and we will continue to work with colleagues from either side of the Chamber to hear about constituents’ casework. On fire and rehire, as I have said, nothing is off the table. We are charging ACAS with strengthening the guidance in this area to inform responsible employers how to conduct themselves in this area, but as I say, nothing is off the table.

Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Chair, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee

Can I say to the Minister that I am slightly confused by the statement today? He says that the Government say fire and higher is wrong, yet did nothing to intervene to stop its being used inappropriately. He tells us that the single enforcement body will be introduced, which I welcome, but that requires legislation that is not lined up in the Queen’s Speech. This is merely a statement of intent, not a statement of action—a statement of all bark and no bite—so let me ask the Minister: by the end of this year, what will have actually changed?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

In terms of fire and rehire, that guidance will be there. As I have said, fire and rehire in itself is not a binary view. Clearly we need a dynamic labour market. We need to protect businesses from making redundancies and losing those jobs, and we need to save businesses. That is why we are progressing along the way by charging ACAS with strengthening the guidance in this area. We will be working throughout the next few months to make sure, when we have parliamentary time to bring the employment Bill through and create the single employment body, that the guidance will be there and the prep work will have been done.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

The best form of employment protection is a thriving entrepreneurial business sector open to innovation and creativity. The Minister has already outlined that the UK has an enviable flexible labour market with the highest participation rate of people in work, the highest levels of employment we have seen for many years, the fastest ever increases in the minimum wage and the highest take for the minimum wage as a proportion of average earnings. Rather than going back to the ideological arguments of the Opposition, will my hon. Friend join me in praising the Biggleswade branch of the Department for Work and Pensions, which I was in a conversation with today? It is embarking on promoting the kickstart programme to get more people into work, particularly young people.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend speaks in his usual eloquent way, talking up the dynamic, flexible economy that makes the UK fantastic and the envy of the world in terms not only of its workers’ rights but its flexibility, which is why we are attracting so much inward investment. I am glad to hear about the Biggleswade jobcentre promoting the kickstart scheme, because it is such initiatives and the extra money we are giving to employers to take on more apprentices that will create levelling-up potential and give people opportunity.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport)

I was pleased to hear in the Minister’s statement that he accepts there is still some way to go in securing workers’ rights, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. I am surprised he has not concluded that further legislation is required. If the solution is for the new body that replaces these three existing bodies to go further and do more to enhance and strengthen workers’ rights, there must surely be extra funding available to enable it to fulfil its responsibilities. Can the Minister confirm that?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

We have a good history of increasing the funding for enforcement measures, as I have already outlined. Indeed, the single enforcement body, when we are able to introduce it through legislation, will have sufficient funding not only to do its work, but to transition from those three bodies into one.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

I welcome the Government’s statement, because a strong economy utilises all the talents of its workforce. Despite some very strong laws, one in four pregnant women or women on maternity leave experienced discrimination during the pandemic. The Minister knows that every year more than 50,000 pregnant women feel that they have no option but to leave their jobs because they are pregnant. Can he confirm that the new enforcement body will be looking specifically at enforcing pregnant women’s rights at work and outlawing the use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up illegal employment rights abuses?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that she continues to do in this area. The law is absolutely clear that discrimination in the workplace is unlawful, with clear regulations in place that every employer must follow. The pandemic has not changed any of that. There is no place for that under any circumstances. We believe that the most appropriate way forward for pregnant women and new mothers is to extend the existing framework of protections set out under regulation 10 of the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999. We will do that by extending redundancy protections for six months for mothers returning to work and ensuring that pregnant women also benefit from these additional protections. We will bring these forward as part of the employment Bill, which will also be the vehicle that will bring the single enforcement body together.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

May I start by saying that I very much look forward to supporting the fire and rehire Bill of Barry Gardiner, now that my own Bill has fallen? After months of warm words for the victims of fire and rehire from the Prime Minister through to the Minister, is this it? What do we have? Guidance that amounts to nothing more than utterly shameful lip service. The statement states:

“It is unacceptable and, frankly, immoral to use the threat of fire and rehire as a negotiating tactic to force through changes to people’s employment contracts”.

I agree, so can the Minister tell us whether employers will still legally be allowed to do so: yes or no?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I have talked about the fact that fire and rehire should not be used as a bully-boy tactic, but the hon. Gentleman talks about it as if it binary. Can he define exactly what it is? Some of the examples I have heard about over the past year would be considered traditional fire and rehire and would be the subject of this debate, while others have drifted into other areas of employment law.

We need to make sure we can continue the flexibility for employers so that they do not have to make redundancies in the first place, because clearly what would affect those employees badly is not having a job. That is why we need flexibility and dynamism, and we must have measures in place to ensure that responsible employers stick to their responsibilities for the lowest paid.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

That is possibly one of the most mealy-mouthed, weak-kneed, ineffectual statements that I have ever heard in this House. It is a betrayal of working people. Fire and rehire commenced in my constituency with companies such as British Airways and Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd, and it spread like a pandemic, harming my constituents. It is galling that these companies have been receiving taxpayer support through furlough, grants, loans and tax reliefs. We need legislation, not guidance that can be ignored. If the Government are to go down the guidance route, will the Minister confirm that they will insist that no grant, loan or tax relief—no taxpayer support—will go to companies that do not abide by this guidance?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is not at the Dispatch Box talking about mealy-mouthed statements while throwing Chairman Mao’s little red book at me as I talk about supporting business and workers. We will strengthen the guidance. Nothing is off the table. We will clearly see what is going on. We will work with ACAS and colleagues to see how this lands and look at what happens with irresponsible employers. It should not be used as a bully-boy tactic. It is right that we have wrapped our arms around the economy with £407 billion-worth of fiscal and financial support. We now have 407 billion reasons to shape the economy, allow these businesses to survive, protect jobs and create new jobs so that we can build back better.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

Today’s statement will be welcomed across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. I think of great employers such as Churchill China, whose chief executive officer David O’Connor started on the shop floor and worked his way up. That employer invested in the company and its workers, and workers’ rights gave him the opportunity to go from firing a kiln all the way to running a multimillion-pound business. As a former trade union rep, I find it confusing that the Opposition bemoan the fact that trade unions should have to pay a levy, rather than UK taxpayers. I assume that is because they are worried that there will be less money in the Labour party coffers. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no reason why trade unions should not pay their own way? Holding trade unions to account, just like holding business to account, is perfectly acceptable.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

It is great to hear that example of my hon. Friend’s constituent, because that is exactly the kind of flexible, dynamic economy that we are talking about. Someone can come from the shop floor and go right the way to the top of their business. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as was said in the debate on the Trade Union Act 2016, that unions can now be held to account, alongside other regulators. There are strictures looking at unions to make sure they do a good job for their members.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lefarydd. Today’s smoke-and-mirrors announcement—rhetorical, rather than under- pinned by legislation—amplifies this Government’s ongoing failure to introduce a new employment Bill to protect workers’ rights. As we continue to struggle through the pandemic, one thing has become clear: the current approach to bereavement leave and miscarriage leave is insufficient and depends too much on the good will of the employer. Will the Government now consider making paid bereavement leave and paid miscarriage leave an employment right from day one?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

We will continue to work with the right hon. Lady and other colleagues to look at the various issues around neonatal leave and carer’s leave, for example. We have also introduced bereavement leave for newborn children and will look at what more we can do in the employment Bill. She talks about rushing towards legislation, but that should never be the first port of call. It is partnership with employers, employees and government that will ensure a flexible economy that works for everybody.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

I thank the Minister for his statement. One of the biggest issues in employment is people having a job in the first place. I am happy to go toe-to-toe any day on our party’s record in government against Labour’s record. Every time the Labour party has been in government, it has left unemployment higher than when it came in. We have had a great record since 2010 on job creation, and we have now created the conditions to bounce back really well, with great job numbers coming through following the covid pandemic. It is also great to see the Government looking properly at fire and rehire. However, one of the biggest issues for workers in my constituency is pensions. It is brilliant to see auto-enrolment come through, which is great for a lot of workers in the workforce, but will the Minister agree to meet me and look at extending that right to all workers over the age of 18? A lot of my constituents start work on the shop floor at 18, rather than after university at 22.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he talks about a dynamic economy, which is why voters turned in their droves to him to represent them in this place, after decades of under-representation. I will gladly meet him to discuss auto-enrolment.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

The irony that the Government are consulting on enforcement powers against trade unions but only on guidance for bad employers is not lost on me. Talking about bad employers, zero-hour contracts, unclear employment status and short-notice shift changes were all mentioned in the Taylor report given to the Government five years ago—no rushing into legislation there. When will the Government legislate on the Taylor report recommendations, or will it be left to other Members to bring forward legislation to address these bad employment practices?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The hon. Gentleman talks about the certification officer as if it were something new that has just been sprung on people, but clearly it is from the Trade Union Act 2016, so it has been five years, funnily enough. It is only just coming in now because we have tried to get the detail right. As for the legislation from the “Good Work” report that he talked about, the employment Bill will come to this place when parliamentary time allows.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Our business, energy and industrial sectors are pivotal to our economy. Does the Minister agree that the best way of safeguarding jobs and livelihoods for our fantastic workers is to comprehensively ease all covid restrictions in these sectors, and will he please lobby No. 10 to that effect?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Nobody wants these restrictions to go on a single day longer than they need to. We are in the middle of a frustrating period, with the decision to be made on the 14th of this month. We are looking at the data, and every day that goes by gives us a richer set of data to make the best decision for businesses.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

The case won by the GMB trade union against Uber over the status of its drivers is immensely important, but why are the Government leaving it for these issues to be slugged out, employer by employer, worker group by worker group, in the courts? That is in nobody’s interests, so when will the Government finally bring forward the long-promised employment Bill, which is so urgently needed?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The Uber judgment that the right hon. Gentleman talks about was a landmark judgment. It is important that we reflect on that, but it is important that Uber, primarily, reflects on that and makes sure that workers are getting their rights, because every worker is different. Indeed, Uber contracts have changed over the last few years, and other companies working in the gig economy have different contracts, so it is complicated, but that is the definition of flexibility and dynamism. None the less, he asked about the employment Bill, and as I have said, it will come forward when parliamentary time allows.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a former employer, I absolutely support the Government’s approach to strengthening workers’ rights and stamping out bad practice. When it comes to enforcement, whistleblowers are far more effective at identifying inappropriate behaviour or practices than regulators are. Nevertheless, from a position where the UK used to lead in whistleblower legislation, it has now fallen behind. It is a key area that we could work on to improve the situation. Will my hon. Friend the Minister set out the approach that the Government will take to improve the legislation?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s work in this area. I am looking forward to meeting him and his colleagues to discuss it further, to get his knowledge and the experience of his constituent, who has been put in an incredibly tough and invidious position. As I say, we will review the whistleblowing framework once we have had sufficient time to build the necessary evidence, which will include that conversation. We are considering the scope and timing of the review.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Commons)

It would be helpful if we could go a little faster, because the House has a lot of business before it over the rest of the day.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North

Polling for the GMB union found that 76% of the public want fire and rehire to be banned, including 71% of Conservative voters. If only unscrupulous employers use fire-and-rehire tactics, as the Minister said in a previous answer, a non-legislative solution will do absolutely nothing. How much more consensus is needed before the Minister acts to ban fire and rehire, rather than warm words that do nothing to protect workers in his constituency or mine?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I have noticed that I can shrink my long list of responsibilities in the ministerial portfolio down to Minister for unintended consequences. I do not want to have a series of legislation, which is a blunt instrument, as if it is tackling a binary tool. That would have unintended consequences for people’s jobs and livelihoods. We want to have a flexible economy so that we get both right.

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby

I welcome the way in which the Minister is today extending the rights of the most important asset of any business, which is people. I am sure he will agree how essential it is to ensure that flexibilities enable workers to work the hours that suit them best, while also allowing employers to respond to the changing demands of their customers.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need flexibility in the workplace, including so-called zero-hours contracts, for example. We know that the majority of people who work on zero-hours contracts like the flexibility. However, we want to ensure that we can clamp down on things like exclusivity contracts, which is why we banned those. It is important to get the balance right.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities)

The Minister just said that the UK Government will do whatever is needed to enhance and protect workers’ rights, but all he is doing on fire and rehire is to provide more guidance. That is shameful—guidance is not what is needed. We needed to hear about legislation to stop fire and rehire, to outlaw pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and to give flexible-working rights from day one to protect precarious workers, but the UK Government will plainly not do what is needed on employment. Does the Minister appreciate that what is needed now is to devolve this to the Scottish Parliament so that it can do what is needed?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

If the hon. Lady reads the ACAS report, she will see that there is a divergence and a variety of opinions, as well as a wider evidence base about the extent of use and how that is used. That is why we are coming up with a proportionate response. Clearly, the other issues she raises will be in the employment Bill when parliamentary time allows.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I know my hon. Friend understands that right hon. and hon. Members across the House want the UK to be on the front foot on workers’ rights after we leave the EU. Will he offer me a categorical assurance that that will be the case and that there will be no degradation in our world-leading protection?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Yes, absolutely that is the case. We are determined to ensure that this is the best place not only to set up and have a business, but to work—for workers’ rights, high pay and a highly productive economy. That can only be done by valuing our people.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Government may talk about enhancing employment rights, but they never act and never legislate. Recently, workers in York were being forced on to new contracts until a joint intervention by Unite and me, as a Labour MP, stopped the firing and rehiring. I know it is embarrassing for the Minister to have to defend his Government’s empty promises, dither and delay, but to stop bad employers constantly undermining their workers, we need not more guidance, but legislation. Will he bring forward a Government Bill to end fire-and-rehire practices in this parliamentary Session, which should also insist that any changes to contractual terms are negotiated with workers and their trade unions?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I have outlined what we are doing around fire and rehire. Extra and enhanced workers’ rights will come in the employment Bill. The workers the hon. Lady describes have recourse, through ACAS and employment tribunals, to take their employers to task.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

I welcome today’s announcement. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the nuance in fire and rehire. Speaking as an employment barrister, I stress that the issue that we lawyers have had is that the employer is required to show only that it is a genuine reason—in other words, low profitability. They are not required to show that they have exhausted every other option, and I welcome the fact that that is now a devolved function of ACAS. Will he consider putting the last resort clause into primary legislation—either the Employment Rights Act 1996 or the new Bill—to give employees rights to go to tribunal?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank my hon. Friend, as ever, for her considered response in this area, with the expertise that she brings to bear. Clearly, as I say, nothing is off the table. We are putting the guidance in place with ACAS, but we will look at more measures should we need to.