Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:23 pm on 2nd December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills) 6:23 pm, 2nd December 2014

It took a long time for noble Lords to appreciate that masterly piece of wit.

As I said, I listened to the Minister’s contribution but I want to redress the balance and mention what is missing from the Bill. We have heard a lot today about the flexible workforce and the need to ensure that we have minimum regulation. However, one of the most disturbing statistics I have come across is that only one in five managers of small businesses has any training at all. That ought to be addressed. It is no wonder that they have difficulty in recognising regulation. We tend to forget that, properly applied, regulation saves lives and stops unfair exploitation.

I cannot help recalling that when the Labour Government came to office in 1997 there was real exploitation. Before we introduced the minimum wage, you could go to work and earn about £1 an hour, or even less in some circumstances. Would anybody say nowadays that that was unnecessary regulation? If my memory serves me right, it was vigorously opposed by Members on the Benches opposite, who told us that it would cause massive unemployment. Therefore, we need to adopt a balanced view of regulation and set it in context. My noble friend Lord Mitchell reminded us that exploitation still exists in the form of unpaid internships quite apart from the other instances of exploitation—I do not mean to say this in a dismissive manner—that I hope will be addressed in the Modern Slavery Bill.

I also want to address what I describe as the Panglossian analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, whereby everything is for the best in this best of all possible Governments, given that the deficit is shrinking and there is hardly any unemployment at all. I do not want to negate the significant gains that have been made in employment. However, we need to remind ourselves that some people in this still unfortunately low-wage economy have to have one, two or three jobs to survive, so everything is not as wonderful as it was painted by the noble Lord. We should also remind ourselves that in some parts of the country there are still very high levels of unemployment and disturbingly high levels of youth unemployment. I make those points because it is necessary to set this important piece of legislation in the right context.

Unfortunately, the noble Lord who described this Bill as a Christmas tree Bill has gone but that description amused me. If we get our way, it will be not just a few flashing lights and baubles but will have a bit more substance than that. If it is a dog’s dinner, I hope that it will be a nourishing one with all the right vitamins. No doubt, by the time the Bill has been through Committee, we will get it right.

I want to focus on the employment aspects of the Bill, covering employment tribunals, the national minimum wage and zero-hours contracts. In my view, if anything demonstrates that this Government have run their course and are running out of steam, it is the employment provisions in Part 11. The Government have done the minimum in this part that they thought they could get away with or that they could reach agreement on. I will deal with the points of agreement first. There are measures in the Bill seeking to limit the number of postponements that parties can be granted in a case, which we welcome, with judges being given the power to make cost orders where late applications for postponements are made. Based on my experience as a former practising trade union officer, I think those measures are sensible, as do others, such as the TUC, which points to the difficulties that witnesses face in getting time off work to attend hearings.

However, improving the process once people get to a tribunal will be no more than an academic exercise for those claimants who, frankly, cannot afford to pay the tribunal fees instituted by this Government. We should remember that you cannot even claim for unfair dismissal until you have worked for two years. What the Government have done with those fees is erect a barrier to justice for some of the lowest-paid people in the country. They have simply priced them out of the system. That is the reason for the 79% drop in employment tribunal claims that was referred to earlier. Women and low-paid workers in particular seem to be the principal losers, so parts of the Bill certainly need to be changed in that regard.

I also wish to address the education evaluation section of the Bill in Clauses 75 to 77. The Explanatory Notes state:

“Clauses 75 to 77 are intended to make the sharing of information between Government Departments and schools, colleges and other assessment centres easier. This is expected to have the following benefits: enable parents and students to make more informed choices concerning education and employment destinations; help providers of education and training to evaluate their effectiveness in delivering qualifications”.

As I have said on a number of occasions to this House, when I go to secondary schools to talk to 15 and 16 year-olds about their destinations in careers, my experience is that most are being pushed towards universities. I am not knocking that but we know how important it is for young people to understand that universities are not for everyone and that there are really good prospects in a vocational career. What the Government are proposing does not do enough to ensure that schools live up to their legal requirements to ensure that when they give career guidance it covers the full range of career and educational opportunities for young people.

As someone who enjoys the odd pint or so, I cannot resist having a little ramble around the tied pub and tenancy provisions in the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, who is unfortunately not here, mentioned the dreaded two words: Red Barrel. I was going to my local about 30 or 40 years ago—I dread to think of that now; it shows that I am now over 21. The pub, which is now long gone, was the Alma in Harrow Weald, where I used to enjoy a pint of Manns IPA. I protested at the bar and asked where Manns IPA pump had gone; in its place was the dreaded Red Barrel. We have CAMRA to thank, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, acknowledged, for a fantastic campaign.

We undersell the glories of British real ale, served at the right temperature by a landlord who understands the importance of settling the beer and keeping the pipes clean. We should see it as our equivalent to “appellation controlée”; I mean that seriously because it is important. Not a lot of people know this but we now have more breweries than Belgium, which is an interesting but important statistic. This is an important area. At my current local, the Plough in Norwood Green, I discussed this issue with the landlord at a recent visit. He is a tied tenant who pays a significant amount for his beer, and he will be pleased that there is progress in this area. I am glad that the Government have seen sense because, if they had not done so, we know what would have happened.

I am conscious of the time but will end my contribution by drawing attention to the fact that this Saturday is an institution—I hope it is an institution; it has happened for the second year running—introduced by my honourable friend Chuka Umunna MP after a visit to America, where he observed Small Business Saturday as a means of drawing attention to the importance of small businesses. This Saturday is Small Business Saturday; so it is the duty of every Member of this noble House to make sure that they patronise one of their small businesses. I say that seriously. It makes a significant economic contribution and reminds people of the importance of small businesses.

I thank noble Lords for their sufferance of my contribution and look forward to participating in the proceedings on the Bill.