Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:33 pm on 2nd December 2014.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 6:33 pm, 2nd December 2014

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green. He is always engaging. I shall come back to the pub in a minute but hope that he will not take offence if I gently remind him that one of the reasons for the high levels of employment is the flexible labour markets introduced by this Government. Some of the removal of flexibility that he was recommending, proposing or thinking about would reduce employment, which we all agree it is essential to preserve.

If one is 23rd in the speakers list, much of what one wants to say has been said already—sometimes more than once; sometimes several times over. However, like other noble Lords, I agree with and support the Government for what they are proposing. I have some questions that we shall wish to examine in Committee but applaud the general direction of travel. I want to make just three points.

First, I congratulate the Government on taking up the challenges of pre-pack administrations in Part 10. Pre-packs have been promoted as a way of saving jobs in the firm in question—and they may well do so. However, in my experience, the ability to write off debts often appears close to a fraud on the creditors. When the firm that has been pre-packed arises like a phoenix from the ashes, no one considers the position of the creditors in the firms that have lost everything. Job losses may have been avoided in the pre-packed firm but may well have been replaced by job losses in the creditor firms. Nowhere is this more important than in pre-packs involving connected parties. I am therefore very glad that the Government are going to tackle this aspect, and I look forward to discussing the details of this in Committee.

My second point concerns the procurement provisions in Part 3. I wrote a report for the Government entitled Unshackling Good Neighbours, which, inter alia, looked at the problems and regulatory burdens that inhibited the growth of small companies, charities and voluntary groups. It is not yet clear to me that the well meaning provisions in Clauses 38 and 39 will enable the Government to tackle the fundamental issues that too often put smaller companies at a competitive disadvantage. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to these. In particular, it is the innate conservatism of commissioners, for whom risk aversion is the default option. Of course, one has to applaud the objective, as explained in the memorandum that my noble friend on the Front Bench so kindly circulated, which is,

“to create a simple and consistent approach to procurement across all public sector authorities”.

However, we have been here before. Four years ago, the Merlin commissioning approach, designed to provide a common governmental template—originally devised by the Department for Work and Pensions—was then being rolled out across government generally. What has happened to Merlin; where has it gone to? Perhaps my noble friend could let us know, either by letter or when she responds.

My final point is about the pub tie, on which, as others have mentioned, the Government suffered a defeat in the House of Commons. I am afraid that I am going to have to upset the noble Lords, Lord Snape and Lord Young, because I was disappointed to hear that the Government do not propose to reflect further on this decision. The arguments are not as simple and straightforward as our colleagues down the corridor believe.

In making these comments, I have to recognise two things. First, in any dispute that can be broadly characterised as David versus Goliath, the British people will instinctively side with David. It is one of our most endearing national characteristics to want to stick up for the little man. Secondly, in any arrangement involving more than 20,000 people—and there are between 20,000 and 25,000 tied pubs—there will always be problems, difficulties or misbehaviours. While we need to deal with and remedy these, they must be set in context and proportion to the whole.