Yes, indeed. I was going on to say that I was really pleased that USDAW, the shop workers’ union, launched its industrial strategy for retail last month to a packed room. I was really impressed by the work that had gone into developing that strategy and by the outcomes it wants to achieve, which are presented under three helpful headings: “Economy and Community”, “People and Productivity” and “Changing Perceptions—Retail Jobs are Real Jobs”. Even in the opening speech of a debate, where I am not so restricted for time as other speakers might be, I do not have enough time to cover all the detail in those three areas of the report. However, I certainly commend it to the Minister, if she has not seen it already; she should look at it, because it has a wealth of positive points and positive ways forward.
What is USDAW calling for? Under the “Economy and Community” heading, it is calling, as others have, for a fundamental reform of business rates; a review of town/city centre parking charges and other transport issues; reform of the tax laws to ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax—for example, by preventing the avoidance of corporation tax—and to create more of a level playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar retailers, which I have already touched on; closing the pay gap between chief executive officers and the lowest paid workers; stronger corporate governance rules to curb asset stripping, which has been one of the issues the retail sector has faced; ensuring that business failure cannot be rewarded with excessive bonuses and pay-outs, as was the case with British Home Stores; and a review of the role and functions of the Competition and Markets Authority, in light of the increase in proposed mergers within the sector—USDAW is really encouraging us to consider the CMA’s role to see whether it reflects the changing retail environment.
Under the heading “People and Productivity”, USDAW is calling for a minimum pay rate of £10 per hour for all workers, irrespective of age; the introduction of legislation to tackle underemployment and insecure work by providing a minimum contract of 16 hours a week for those who want to work that long; contracts that reflect the actual hours that people work and not the hours on their paper contract, which are often exceeded; and legislation to ensure that workers have guaranteed seats on the boards of large companies, with the same duties and responsibilities as other directors, and with measures put in place to ensure that those in such seats reflect the gender breakdown of staff across the company.
The third area is “Changing Perceptions—Retail Jobs are Real Jobs”. That is something that is really close to my heart, having met so many shop workers over the years; in fact, my mum was a shop worker for many years, so it really is dear to my heart. USDAW is calling for an increased focus on retail across Government policy and decision-making mechanisms, to reflect the importance of the sector; promotion and recognition of the benefits of working in retail, to help to develop talent and increase retention levels, because retail offers employees greater flexibility than most sectors, and often allows them to work around their family/caring commitments or studies; and a challenge to the overt perception that women simply work in retail for “pin money”, or that retail is just a stopgap.
A key part of challenging those perceptions is the skills agenda, which means recognising that retail jobs are not just jobs that anyone can do. Dealing with customers day in, day out is a hugely important skill. First, it is a contribution to the social environment that all of us live in; indeed, for many people, it may be the only contact they have with another person. Also, it is a huge skill to deal politely and kindly with other people, and that needs to be recognised. However, further skills will also need to be developed in the future. As we have heard, retail is changing, and different skills are needed, for example in IT and other areas. Therefore, there needs to be some kind of clear path for career progression, to increase both productivity and job satisfaction. I was going off the USDAW script a bit there, but I feel very strongly about that.
I will return to the Government’s industrial strategy. I have already said it is lacking in detail, given the size and importance of the retail sector. The Retail Sector Council brings together Government and industry to
“seek to encourage growth and positive change in the sector as it adapts to rapidly changing consumer habits”.
The workstreams for the Retail Sector Council include business costs; skills and lifelong learning, which I have just touched on; the industrial strategy; employment; the circular economy, which I am told is the environment, wrapping and things such as that; and consumer protection. From the council’s website, I understand that its work will feed into the work of Government Departments, where appropriate, to contribute to and inspire initiatives that support the council’s objectives. It will work, for example, with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government around high streets and communities.
One thing I would stress, as members of the British Retail Consortium have already stressed, is the need for much greater co-ordination between Government Departments, to ensure that when a decision is made by one Department, the knock-on effects are not felt by another. The kind of petty example I refer to quite often is the need, when we talk about, and perhaps reform, business rates, to consider the impact on local government. We must seek to ensure that that longer term issue is not just passed to someone else.
However, there are other issues to consider as well. Clearly, there are issues about benefits, and particularly in-work benefits, which will also affect the economy, as well as decisions by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We all know that it is complex to achieve such co-ordination, but it needs to happen. We also need a retail sector deal, to put retail on a par with other sectors that have already launched such initiatives. As I say, with 11% of the workforce in retail, we really need that deal.
I have a couple of specific things to ask of the Minister. The first is to urge her to look at USDAW’s industrial strategy for retail. It contains a huge amount of detail—I have just touched on some of it—and looks at the growth and development of the retail sector in the future. I very much hope that she and her officials will meet USDAW to go through its report, which is an important document, and will look at its proposals. Secondly, the Minister should look to establish a real vision for retail, not just by tackling known problems, but by developing a vision for the future and setting up a retail sector deal to give retail its due importance alongside other sectors.