Report (1st Day)

Part of Pensions Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 24th February 2014.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Handsworth Lord Morris of Handsworth Labour 3:30 pm, 24th February 2014

My Lords, in supporting this amendment I am pleased to follow my noble friend Lady Hollis. I know that she has marshalled the arguments and found the evidence, which she has advanced with authority and passion. Nevertheless, in this debate I seek to reinforce two points that I feel strongly about. First, all the evidence tells us that many people will be adversely affected by not having national insurance credits, not only while they are in work but, most importantly for this Bill, when they move into retirement. Secondly, for too long we have known that this situation is occurring, but we have made the excuse that not many people are in mini-jobs. That argument no longer holds good. We are told that they are here today and gone tomorrow, so we have avoided tackling the problem.

We must remind ourselves that the economy is changing. It is more demanding and is now a truly 24/7 economy which has to be serviced, so those who are affected by the Government’s lack of effort to find a solution to the problem are hard-working people who deserve not just our praise, but our recognition that they, too, should enjoy the same rights and security as others. The answer we have received so far is that they are only part-timers, although it is recognised that many are earning less than the lower earnings limit. The evidence tell us that many are on low pay and that people have not just one mini-job, but two or even three of them under so-called variable contracts spread over five, six or seven days a week. More than that, although they are in work, they are insecure and many have no knowledge of what they will be expected to do next week or the week after. They suffer the inconvenience of not being able to plan their lives and look after their families. People in mini-jobs are doing what the Government have asked us all to do—to be flexible—but of course flexibility in this instance does not provide the security of universal credit or jobseeker’s arrangements. In fact, these people are being penalised for doing exactly what is required to maintain a stable and robust economy. In reality, this group of people should enjoy a system of deferred credits as they are making themselves ready for work for when the economy gathers momentum, as we all know it will.

I said earlier that we have not tackled this problem because we believe that not many workers are involved, but the numbers have been played down. The DWP states that 50,000 people are affected, and this figure has been widely cited by Ministers in both Houses. However, as my noble friend Lady Hollis set out so clearly in her evidence, that figure of 50,000 is a gross underestimate of the number of people in so-called mini-jobs. I suggest that anyone who doubts the number of people involved visits the interchange at Bank DLR at around 5 pm on any working day. Thousands of financial sector workers flow off the DLR only to be replaced by thousands of cleaners and maintenance workers flowing back to service the offices of Canary Wharf and elsewhere in east London. However, that is not the end of their day. Many return later at night to clean hotels and shops. This can be seen wherever there are offices, factories, shops and restaurants in the towns or cities of the United Kingdom. It is a universal pattern of work that has evolved in the past half decade.

I understand that it has been said that providing fairness to people in mini-jobs will add to the work and put considerable stress on employers, and that the computerised systems of government departments cannot cope with the strain. The technological strain is nothing compared with the mental strain and insecurity of the people who are trapped in these so-called mini-jobs. The DWP and HMRC can resolve this problem. All that is needed is some joined-up thinking. They can resolve it, because we are talking about the lives of thousands of people and about fairness. If they are not provided for today while at work, society will have the responsibility and duty to provide for them in retirement.

In seeking to tackle in-work poverty, the Government are rightly proud of raising the tax threshold incrementally to those earning £10,000. However, what is the point of seeking to tackle the scourge of in-work poverty through the tax threshold system by creating poverty in old age through the Pensions Bill? There is not much point at all. In the past, Ministers have argued that this problem of crediting people with multi-jobs may place a burden on employers. The price of not placing a burden on employers is the price of placing a burden on the whole of society in the years ahead, as some of these workers become pensioners. With part-time working and zero-hour contracts on the increase, this is a reasonable expectation for any civilised society to place on them.

In the lexicon of today’s employment pattern, we hear the language of “mobility”, “flexibility” and “creativity”, but for the economy to thrive and deliver its full potential, management too must break out of its silo mentality and be creative and flexible in its ideas, as it seeks to determine how a reward package can and should be made, to ensure that we provide not just for today’s but for tomorrow’s pensioners. At the very heart of this must be the transferability of national insurance credit. It is simple. All we need are the two major departments of state to sit down, have a conversation and, of course, seek knowledge based on the experience of the people who are at the receiving end of these mini-jobs.

I strongly believe that we should make policy on what is right and fair for the workers affected. By any logic, the Minister must admit that it cannot be right that someone can be unemployed and get a credit, but get nothing for having some type of work—so-called mini-jobs. These workers do not seek favours. On their behalf, I hope that this House will give them fairness.