Second Reading

Part of Companies' Remuneration Reports Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 11:58 am on 24th April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 11:58 am, 24th April 2009

My Lords, may I begin by apologising for my late arrival? I was given to understand that the Bill would be read at noon. I shall compensate by keeping my remarks short.

Different people arrived in this House in different ways. In different ways, many of us have a great deal to thank our ancestors for. In my case, it is my father. He was the model on which I have tried to base my life. He used a particular word every day, and on many days he used it frequently. It is a word that we do not hear very much nowadays: "fair". My father, not unlike many of his generation, was able to reduce most extremely complicated issues to the notion of what was fair. Of course today, "fair" is all of a piece with "transparent".

The Bill suggests that greater fairness and transparency should find their way into corporate reports. To me, this debate—and this historic House has seen many debates over the years—falls into the same category as the great debates of the 1870s on the employment of mill girls. We look back on that now and cannot imagine that we ever needed to debate whether young girls under the age of 14 should work a 12-hour day. Yet at the time, to challenge it was seen as revolutionary and extraordinary—an event that might, indeed, endanger the future economic capacity of the country.

We are today discussing something that will happen. The issue is when. Do we have the courage and perspicacity to bring it forward now? Do we wait another five years, or 20 years, when people will find it difficult to understand why on earth we did not bring it in when it was first suggested in 2009? After all, these are not complicated issues.

I picked an interesting fact out of the US Economic Policy Institute report. In 1965, US CEOs in major companies earned 24 times more than the average US worker. In 2007, they made 275 times more. That would not pass my dad's test of fairness, and I very much doubt that it would pass the test of anyone seriously thinking about it in the House this afternoon. Do we want to drift endlessly in that direction, or do we wish to say, "Enough"? Things have got out of kilter. If it requires a level of embarrassment for companies to look at and take note of the direction in which their own corporation is drifting, so be it. Again, I would argue that the time has come.

This may not be a popular remark on my own Benches, but I have been extremely impressed by many of David Cameron's remarks about "caring Conservatism", and how he hopes that his Government, if and when they come to power, will take a different approach to these matters from that which has been traditional. I cannot for one moment believe that part and parcel of caring Conservatism involves a situation in which corporations are able either to hide or encourage a consistent expansion of the gap between the highest and lowest paid and in which the gap can get worse. It would not seem to be of a piece with everything that Mr Cameron has said about his notions of a fairer society. The Bill in its present form may not be perfect, but I hope that its broad thrust, and what is intended here, will be taken seriously.

I should like to offer only one other piece of evidence. I declare an interest as president of UNICEF. Twice in the past two years, UNICEF has published a report card on the well-being of nations. We judge that by whether they are places in which young people will grow up and thrive. Britain's position improved slightly: we were 26th, at the bottom of the previous report; two weeks ago we came 23rd out of 29. I suggest that that is not a placing that any of us can be proud of or would wish to have. Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that all the usual suspects at the top of the list—Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Holland—have significantly smaller gaps between their highest and lowest paid, because they understand the ramifications of a fairer, better and more equitable society. I very much hope that I will live long enough to see our society and this country follow their examples, rather than careen off towards the quite dizzying and absurd situation that the Americans have allowed to happen over the past dozen years.