My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley secured this debate on the important subject of employment. A huge number of positives have been spoken about today: it is harder to reflect on those having just heard the very powerful contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, but we should not lose sight of the good news on the job creation front. However, as others have pointed out, statistics can tell very different stories. When it is cheaper to employ people than to invest, that is what will happen; productivity will not rise and neither will wages, and many people are suffering the upshot of that situation. It does not add to a national feeling of well-being if your real wages have barely moved in a decade.
We have heard much about the inequalities that are causing such friction in our country. My noble friend Lord Lupton put his mark on the tree and I want to add mine, because there is a real issue in the discrepancy between the top and the bottom in so many companies in our country. It is simply not right, as far as I can see, that people on very low wages are subsidised by the taxpayer, who is effectively subsidising dividends to investors and the remuneration of the chief executive. There is something wrong in that system and we need to address it. First, the owners of those businesses need to address it. Companies have duties that go beyond paying dividends: they have a duty to their staff and to broader stakeholders. That has to be taken very seriously by the people who own those companies.
Nevertheless, we have been growing companies, and the growth in entrepreneurship is to be applauded. There are things that could be done to help those small new companies grow. We need to get better at scaling-up businesses. One thing I would really like to push for is larger companies investing in those smaller companies. Some of them are doing this, by providing mentoring and introducing them to export opportunities, which really help them grow. We have seen it happen in the pharma sector—Unilever is very good at it—but we need much more of it. It is much cheaper for a small business to sacrifice a bit of equity to a big business than to take on loans from banks.
Today, though, I would like to talk about a few specifics, one of which is access to jobs. Yesterday, I talked to a man who runs a manufacturing business in the Midlands. He was deeply unhappy about the fact that, of the very good apprentices he had taken on this year, half had left within three months. It was not because they did not like the work—they loved it—it was the two and a quarter hours on public transport it was taking them to get from the rural areas where they lived to where he was in the city. Even though the Government are improving infrastructure, there is a huge amount to be done. Rural areas are particularly deprived. If we really want people to have access to work, then £2.5 billion for the Transforming Cities Fund is not enough. We need to look far more at rural areas and at how we are going to get people to where the jobs are.
There is also an awful lot of talk about flexible working. It is very clear that people want it; they have caring responsibilities, families to bring up and all sorts of demands on their time. They have a legal right to ask for flexible working, and companies are offering it, but all too often they offer flexible working without quite believing in it. A survey last year by Deloitte and Timewise looked at 1,800 professionals who were doing flexible working: 30% felt that they were regarded as less important than their colleagues; a quarter felt that they had fewer opportunities; and 25% believed that they missed out on promotion. That is not really flexible working; that is people being penalised for not playing the game the old way. Today, there is no need for everybody to be in the office all the time. Technology means that flexible working really can and should work. A survey by YouGov found that 89% of those asked believed that, if they had truly flexible working, they would be much more productive. We need companies to embrace it.
I will also talk about people with disabilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, talked about those who were unable to work being driven into work, but she also talked about those who would like to work. It is so important that we do more to help those who would like to work find jobs. There are 1 million disabled people in the UK who want to work but are not given the opportunity. The rate at which disabled people are employed compared to non-disabled people has been around 30% lower for at least a decade. If they want to work, we should enable them to do so. A new campaign, the Valuable 500, aims to get 500 big businesses signed up to increasing the number of disabled people they take on in their workforce. We should give it full backing. Is the Minister aware of the campaign? Does she believe anything can be done to bolster it?
Finally, I will highlight the work being done to help people move from prison into work. The need for this is overwhelming. Statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that only 17% of offenders get a job within a year of leaving prison, yet if they do so they are far less likely to reoffend. This is really important to the economy, because recidivism costs an estimated £15 billion a year. If we get these people into work, we save money and have a happier workforce and a happier country. The Government have been seeking solutions to this and launched the education and employment strategy. However, two years ago, there was a manifesto promise of NIC holidays for companies taking on ex-prisoners. Are those holidays still available?