My Lords, these regulations are being introduced as part of the Social Chapter that Labour hastily and recklessly signed up to as soon as the Prime Minister stepped through the door of No. 10 three years ago.
Labour signed up to the part-time workers directive on 7th April 1998. But despite having had two full years to implement the measure it had humiliatingly to ask for an extension of time on 7th April this year. Perhaps that is not so surprising because the Secretary of State had a dress rehearsal for his speech on the order on 10th May. Where was that? It was on the BBC, where most government statements seem to be made these days. The information he gave to his listeners was at variance with everyone else's understanding of the proposals and implied that many more workers would benefit than is the case.
"Poor Mr Byers, his head must have been softened by a strenuous week".
My honourable friend, the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, requested Madam Speaker to try to get the order withdrawn until the Secretary of State knew exactly what the order was about, and that was refused, presumably on the ground that it is not necessary for a Minister to understand the legislation he is introducing.
I have to assume that part of the delay in introducing this order--apart from the time it has taken to explain it to the Secretary of State--may have been as a result of the haggling that has been going on with the unions. Employers who may have to familiarise themselves with the new regime will have had less than what may be regarded as a decent period to do so because of the Government's dithering. On the other hand, I have no doubt that the unions with their massive resources and their fingerprints all over the document will be well prepared to deal with it.
I turn to the contents. Fortunately the Government have seen sense. Under Regulation 2 the comparison of part-time workers is going to have to be like with like; that is, between workers with the same type of contract. So without an identical contract a part-time worker cannot claim parity with a permanent employee and claim a pension, sick pay and the like. We congratulate the Government on having resisted the demands that part-time workers for whom there was no direct comparison in the same firm should compare themselves with a hypothetical worker instead. What a feast that would have provided for the lawyers.
Nevertheless, the Government have again failed to resist the temptation to gold plate the already burdensome EC regulations. Despite the original directive entitling member states to exclude part-time casual workers, the Government have not seen fit to do so. The European directive gave member states the opportunity to opt out of applying it to casual workers. Our Government have seen fit to impose this voluntary burden on business. Agency workers are also included. One National Health Service trust has complained that that will push up the cost of hiring agency nurses and care workers. Part-timers employed by the NHS already have the same rights as full-timers. As with the working time directive, the regulation will simply swallow up more of NHS funds.
However, we believe that the worst and most blatant piece of gold plating is the requirement that within 21 days an employer must give an employee who thinks that he or she has been treated less favourably a written statement in order to justify himself. Failure to do so gives rise to an inference that there has been unfair treatment. The statement itself is to be treated as evidence against the employer but not against the employee.
Nowhere in the EC regulations is there a requirement for a written statement, which a prudent employer would probably be well advised to have his lawyers draft for him. In any case, the employee already has a right to go to the employment tribunal for protection. It is absolutely no use the Prime Minister sanctimoniously lecturing the other member states of the EU that they should conduct themselves more like the USA when it comes to business regulation, when his Government lose no opportunity to pile more and more regulation and expense on our industry and apply the most rigorous and bureaucratic interpretation of every edict that comes from Brussels.
Finally, I want to quote from the Government's Regulatory Impact Assessment.
"We do not believe that there is widespread unfavourable treatment of part time employees. Job satisfaction amongst part time workers is higher than among full time workers. The 1998 Workplace Employment Relations Survey found that part time employees were much more likely to regard themselves as fairly treated than were full time employees; 61 % compared with 45%".
Like the CBI, the Opposition support the principle of giving part-time and full-time workers the same pay and conditions on a pro rata basis. The CBI believes that most employers already do so. Part-time employees are a valuable segment of the workforce, especially to smaller employers who may not need or be able to afford full-timers. These regulations, while on the face of it being for the benefit of part-time workers, are likely to lessen their employment prospects and damage small business.
I wonder whether the Minister will clarify one point. I am sorry that I was unable to give him notice of it, but the matter was brought to my attention only late in the afternoon. The Official Report of the other place was late in printing due to the burden of work. At col. 9, the honourable Member for St Ives commented on press speculation that the European judgment on part-time workers entitled to occupational schemes could cost the Exchequer up to £17 billion because of the way it would work retrospectively.
When the matter was debated in the other place, the Minister said in reply that that was an extremely valuable point and at col. 20 he said that it was an important point. But, having read the rest of his reply, I am not sure whether it was likely to cost up to £17 billion. It would be helpful if the Minister could give me an answer today or in writing. I apologise for the delay in mentioning the matter.
I return to the regulations before us. The assessment of the extra burden that this piece of legislation alone will impose on businesses is, in using the Government's own figures, £27.4 million. We on this side of the House are not happy with the regulations, first, because of the extra cost and, secondly, because of the gold plating in the written statement that I mentioned; the inclusion of casual and agency workers.
However, reluctantly and in accordance with the custom of your Lordships' House, we shall not oppose the passage of the regulations, although we believe that they may put a hard burden on businesses.