Employment Law: Devolution to Scotland — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:17 am on 6th September 2022.

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[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 2:30 pm, 6th September 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the potential merits of devolving employment law to Scotland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

The Minister will recall that I have spent many hours in this place calling for reform to employment law. She will also be aware of the backlash from unions at an employment Bill being nowhere to be seen in the most recent Queen’s Speech. Indeed, Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress highlighted that vital rights that Ministers have promised, such as flexible working, fair tips and protection from pregnancy discrimination, are at risk of being ditched for good. The fact is that this Government need to get a grip on workers’ rights. If they refuse to do so, then now is the time to devolve employment law powers to Scotland to allow the Scottish Government to enact our own reforms.

The SNP Scottish Government are doing everything in their power to improve workers’ rights where they have devolved competence. Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government have worked to prioritise workers’ rights, calling on employers, trade unions and workers to work together during this challenging time to ensure that workers are treated fairly. The SNP Government refreshed their Scottish business pledge to align with the fair work principles, and they established a new learning network and an international fair work summit. They also published a fair work action plan in February 2019, which set out a range of measures to support employers to embed fairer working practices. That is supported by trade unions across Scotland.

Additionally, the Scottish Government published a gender pay gap action plan in 2019, bringing together a cross-Government group to approach the gendered impact of inequality in the labour market. The Scottish Government are also a champion of the real living wage, which is of the utmost importance during the cost of living crisis. There are nearly 1,500 living wage-accredited employers in Scotland, giving Scotland the highest rate of workers in the UK earning a real living wage.

With the limited powers that they currently hold, the Scottish Government have worked hard to tackle in-work poverty and support those on low incomes and, ultimately, to condemn exploitative zero-hours contracts by establishing a fair work convention to support the fair pay and conditions agenda. However, with employment law reserved to the UK Government, Scotland can only go so far; it is only able to address part of the problem. Full devolution of employment law would allow Scotland to go even further by creating fairer workplaces, increasing wages, reducing insecure work and fundamentally tackling in-work poverty head on. Shifting that power to the Scottish Government would allow them to stop the race to the bottom on workers’ rights that we are seeing in the post-Brexit UK.

Last December, the European Union delivered employee status to gig economy workers, untying them from the constraints of self-employment status and allowing them basic employment rights, such as minimum wage, holidays and sick leave. That reform of workers’ rights in the EU may well have been one of the most ambitious extensions of workers’ rights from Brussels since Britain left the EU, and we are missing out. Since leaving the EU, the UK Government have been complacent on updating employment law to tackle the injustices faced by the UK workforce.

Scotland overwhelmingly supported retaining EU membership, in no small part due to its commitment to the extension and promotion of workers’ rights. Instead, the UK Government’s approach appears to be to leave workers to appeal to the courts where they cannot access justice, as in the Uber and Addison Lee cases. Without reform of existing legislation, workers are left at the mercy of rogue employers. In 2019, this UK Government were elected on a manifesto that promised to introduce measures to protect those in low-paid work and the gig economy. That was embodied in the promise of an employment Bill that would protect and enhance workers’ rights, with the tagline, “Making Britain the best place in the world to work”.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Taylor review reported five years ago and recommended things that the Government should do quickly, including simplifying worker status. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Government have sat on that report for five years with no action?

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The Taylor report gave the Government a comprehensive list of items that they could address, but sadly they have been sleeping on the job.

Although there was no commitment in this year’s Queen’s Speech to bring forward the promised employment law reforms, perhaps the Government now have an opportunity to do so. Will the Minister tell us why we should trust this Government to treat workers’ rights as a priority when, three years after that promise was made, no employment Bill has materialised?

We have already seen the ambitions of the UK Government slip. Now we are knee deep in pandemic recovery, a cost of living crisis and a looming recession. It is imperative that the Government make a concrete commitment to improving workers’ rights.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

We can expect the Tories to denigrate or at the very least be uncaring on workers’ rights, but we have to be honest: the Labour party, certainly in Scotland, has questions to answer too. It denied—indeed, it fought—equal pay for women for decades, and then the minute it left office in Glasgow, it started campaigning for it; it voted against higher offers to council workers; and it stopped the devolution of employment law in the Smith Commission. Had it supported the SNP in the Smith Commission, I would not have had to introduce three Bills to outlaw fire and rehire. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is fair to say that the Labour party, like the Government, has been sleeping on the job when it comes to protecting workers’ rights in the UK. It has failed to stand up for workers and it has often been missing on picket lines.

The pandemic has exacerbated a steady entrenchment of precarious working conditions across the UK. More people than ever before in the UK are relying on zero-hours contracts and participating in the gig economy. It is a sad fact that workers sometimes have to turn away a job because it would cost them more to drive to collect an item than they would receive to deliver it. They simply cannot afford it because the wages are so low. How is it that here in the UK wages are so low and workers’ rights are so abysmal that a worker cannot even afford to attend work to earn money in the first place? It is absolutely absurd, yet that is the position we find ourselves in, with the Labour party, which is set, potentially, to take over at the next general election, also sleeping on the job.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

What the hon. Lady says leads me to think that we need reform of UK employment law rather than devolution of employment law, which would create new barriers to doing business and running services across the UK. Although I would wholeheartedly support the reform of UK employment law, I worry about the implications for companies such as RBS, which has staff all over the country, and the nightmares it could cause in terms of employment rights and breaking up the single market.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The hon. Lady makes a number of points. Given her ardent belief in the Union, she would argue that this is the best place in the world for the protection of workers’ rights, yet we on the SNP Benches have repeatedly—in every facet, in every forum, in every piece of legislation—attempted to encourage the Government to reform employment law and they have failed to do so.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Does my hon. Friend, like me, find it rather bizarre that Christine Jardine seems to have overlooked the fact that the predecessor of my hon. Friend Amy Callaghan was an employment Minister in a Lib Dem coalition? If there was such a need to reform employment law, why did the Lib Dems not do that?

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

Absolutely. There was ample opportunity when the Lib Dems were in the coalition to transform employment law, and that did not happen.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I want to make some progress, but I will come back to the hon. Member.

There are more and more people in insecure work, more and more people with insecure wages, and more and more people with insecure rights in the workplace. More people are under-employed, and more people are holding down multiple jobs and yet struggling to support themselves. Sadly, more and more people are struggling to invoke their workplace rights and unionise.

In real terms, that means more people have been plunged into in-work poverty and are unable to rely on stable incomes, which is invaluable to those trying to make headway through what will be a bleak winter for many families as we approach a cost of living crisis. The impact of the pandemic is clear, the impact of Brexit is clear, and the impact of this Government’s stagnation and failure to act is blatant. I call on the UK Government to either act now or let the Scottish Government do so. I would love to have every competence that this Government have to bring forward an employment Bill and transform employment rights. They have failed to do so, and they do not appear to want to.

I was deeply disappointed that there was no commitment in the Queen’s Speech to improve workers’ rights. The decision to shelve the employment Bill represents a missed opportunity for this Government to make serious progress on changing employment law. They have missed the opportunity to update policies on flexible working, carers leave and paid miscarriage leave, which I have argued for time and again. They have failed to strengthen protections against workplace sexual harassment and other equalities protections.

The Minister will recall that I have spent many hours in this place calling for the introduction of paid miscarriage leave. My hon. Friend David Linden has pursued relentlessly the right for neonatal leave and pay, and I welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce those measures. I have pursued numerous vehicles in Parliament to try to ensure that the important policy of paid miscarriage leave is introduced but, sadly, I feel I am reaching the end of the road. The policy has cross-party support, yet it has been unable to succeed because of the archaic working practices of this place and this Conservative Government’s failure to commit to legislating on the issue. That reinforces why this system will never work for Scotland. It is becoming clearer by the day that we cannot trust this Conservative Government to prioritise workers’ rights. Instead, we see the further entrenchment of socioeconomic inequality in our society.

Scotland did not vote for Brexit, Scotland did not vote for this Conservative Government—it has not done so for many years—Scotland did not vote for this latest Prime Minister, and Scotland did not vote to roll back workers’ rights and leave the European Union. Yet we find ourselves in a situation where this Government will not act, and our Government want to act but do not have the powers to do so.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; she is being very generous. Does she share my concern and that of many others that the Government seem to want to roll back trade union rights further, and are threatening trade unions that they are going to raise thresholds and make industrial action more difficult?

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

I will make two brief points. I find strange the argument that multinational companies are somehow unable to adapt their practices to the conditions required by individual independent countries. That is a fallacy and a fiction. Let me also point to a particular reversal of rights, which I will refer to in my speech if I am fortunate enough to be called. The Government have demonstrated their hostility by intending to scrap the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017—a law passed by our Senedd to protect workers in Wales.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

I thank the hon. Member for that salient point. We can be under no illusion: not only are this Government not interested in protecting workers’ rights, but they are not interested in protecting the devolution settlement in Wales, Scotland or anywhere else, and they are not interested in listening to people across the UK who are crying out for urgent action on the energy cap.

Workers in Scotland and across the UK should be under no illusion: this Government are responsible for one of the most egregious attacks on workers’ rights for over a decade, and there are no signs that that will change. Given the performance of the Scottish Government in this area, does the Minister recognise that the UK Government are hindering the Scottish Government’s ability to act to protect workers’ rights in the way that we would have done if we had remained in the EU?

It is clear that the UK Government are reluctant to take any steps necessary to overhaul employment law and catch up with the realities of work in the current decade. If the Minister remains unwilling to address the failures of this Government, will she give the Scottish Government the powers to do so? I must ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the devolution of employment law to Scotland, and to stop holding us back from delivering vital support and protections to those who need them most, especially now.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions and Inter-Generational) 2:43 pm, 6th September 2022

I congratulate my hon. Friend Angela Crawley on securing the debate. There are endless merits to devolving employment law to Scotland, but do not fret—I have only chosen a few to discuss today. We could look at unpaid trial shifts, fire and rehire—the list is endless—but what underpins this debate for Scottish workers is that we cannot trust the Government of the day in this place to be progressive and look out for the rights of workers, so we need to devolve employment law to ensure that Scotland can bring forward an employment Bill to look out for Scottish workers.

If employment law were devolved, Scottish workers would have the right to protection against vile tactics such as fire and rehire and unpaid trial shifts—tactics that we have seen deployed on our workforce by profit-making companies just to increase their profits that bit more. They are despicable and unnecessary. This Government and previous Governments could have done something about them, but they have deliberately chosen not to.

We can look at both the rights and the opportunities that are being denied. For example, this Government are denying people the opportunity to recover fully from ill health because the level of sick pay is so woeful that people are going back to work before they should. We are ending up with a workforce who are working while still in ill health. If we devolved employment law, I do not believe that would happen. I state on the record that we should also devolve all social security benefits to Scotland, to ensure that statutory sick pay is adequate, and that people with significant disabilities and ill health are fully supported in their return to work.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

It strikes me as really concerning that part of the new Prime Minister’s reforms seems to be to undermine the one tool that workers have at their disposal, which is striking and industrial action. All the rights that people enjoy, including holidays and sick pay, were brought about not by kindly asking but by striking—by industrial action. Any attempt to undermine that by bringing in agency workers—more colloquially known as scab labour—is appalling and should not be allowed to pass.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions and Inter-Generational)

I thank my hon. Friend for that welcome intervention. The new Prime Minister certainly will have disastrous consequences for the workforce across the United Kingdom. Employment law should be devolved to Scotland, and we should stand up against those vile tactics—especially those against the right to strike—and ensure that our workers are protected from them.

It says a lot about a Government when they are unwilling to protect workers’ rights and, instead, their new leader has pledged to cripple them within her first 30 days as Prime Minister. That is why we need employment law devolved to Scotland.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 2:47 pm, 6th September 2022

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Angela Crawley for securing and opening the debate.

It is fitting that we should be having this debate today of all days, when Elizabeth Truss has just been appointed Prime Minister, not least because, if the rumours are to be believed, Kwasi Kwarteng will be her Chancellor. Even more worryingly, Mr Rees-Mogg is set to be Secretary of State for Business—if it was 1 April, most of us probably would not take that seriously.

Part of the reason I think it is appropriate to have this debate today is that our new Prime Minister and our new Chancellor authored a book in 2012 called “Britannia Unchained”. I do not know if the Minister has read the book; unfortunately I have read all of it, and it is pretty grim reading. It asserts that the UK has a

“bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”.

It then says:

The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

That is the view of our current Prime Minister and our soon-to-be Chancellor, in writing about employment legislation and regulations. That highlights why it is so important that employment legislation is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The idea that we would have Conservatives continuing to be in control of employment legislation really is akin to leaving a lion in charge of an abattoir.

Let us look at the Conservative party’s record on employment legislation. Take, for example, the Trade Union Act 2016—the anti-trade union Act. The irony will not have been lost on most of us that that Act requires a certain threshold to be met in order for workers to withdraw their labour, yet the Prime Minister did not achieve that very threshold yesterday as she was elected leader of the Conservative party. There is a case here that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

My hon. Friends the Members for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) and for Lanark and Hamilton East have already touched on the fact that there has been no employment Bill. The reason that we were promised an employment Bill was that, after the Brexit referendum, we were told that Brexit was about improving workers’ rights and environmental standards. The only thing that has happened in connection to any of that is that we are now pumping raw sewage out to sea. That gives us a fairly clear indication of where the Government plan to go if they bring forward an employment Bill: it will not be to strengthen workers’ rights.

My hon. Friend Gavin Newlands has done a ton of campaigning on fire and rehire legislation; shamefully, the Government talked out the private Member’s Bill that was introduced. We have seen little action on P&O Ferries and the shocking treatment of its staff, including one of my own constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East has been doggedly pursuing the Government in her campaign for paid miscarriage leave, something that anybody with an ounce of compassion in their hearts—and the Conservative party like to talk about being compassionate conservatives—should support. That has not been legislated for. I would love to know the Government’s objection to paid miscarriage leave, which my hon. Friend has fought so valiantly to get on the statute book.

All of that stands in contrast to the efforts of the Scottish Government, even though they are very limited in what they can do in terms of employment. For example, the Scottish Government see trade unions very much as partners, not opponents. We see them as rightly there to stand up for workers’ rights. I myself am very proud to be a member of the Unite trade union. The Scottish Government have the view that trade unions should not be seen as the enemy, but the UK Government constantly see trade unions as some sort of opportunity to play political football. Grant Shapps was revelling in every single moment of his dispute with the RMT just recently. He saw it as an opportunity to advance his career—by all accounts, that will probably not do him much good today.

The Scottish Government already have policies that give a clear indication of the direction of travel on supporting workers. We have a clear opposition to zero-hours contracts, which I would call exploitative zero-hours contracts. We have the Scottish Government’s business pledge, which has been refreshed. We have a commitment to the living wage—not the pretend living wage that the UK Government talk about, but the living wage that is actually in line with the Living Wage Foundation and the real cost of living. We fund the Scottish Trades Union Congress with Scottish Union Learning cash.

The devolution of employment law is supported by the Scottish Trades Union Congress. I will wait with great interest to hear from Ian Murray about why the Scottish Labour party opposes the Scottish Trades Union Congress in its call for the devolution of employment law. The Labour party, I understand, considers itself to be the party of devolution, so why on earth does it oppose both the people of Scotland and the Scottish Trades Union Congress on the devolution of employment law?

There is a lot more that I would like to see done if we could devolve employment law. It is quite clear that the UK Government will not bring forward an employment Bill that will adequately improve workers’ rights, but there are a couple of things that I would like us to look at. For example, we must have a very honest conversation, particularly in this place, about the use of unpaid internships. They are absolutely rife in this place: far too many people, presumably even some in my own party, exploit young people from working-class communities by asking them to come down here and do unpaid internships. All of us collectively have to grapple with that. I would like to see a complete ban on unpaid internships and unpaid trial shifts.

I would like us to look at things such as the four-day week. We have just gone through a global pandemic in which the whole nature and world of work have changed enormously. There are a number of things that we could do by learning from the pandemic, and a four-day week is just one. I also want us to deliver proper enforcement of national minimum wage legislation. We have had national minimum wage legislation in statute since 1997, but there have been some years since when the number of prosecutions has been in single figures—if there have been any at all.

There is so much more that we could do with the devolution of employment powers, but in rounding off my speech, I want to go back to the theme I started with, which is the book that our current Prime Minister’s entire political philosophy is based on: “Britannia Unchained”. The reality is that for so long as Scotland remains chained to this failing Union, and this disgusting Conservative Government, I am afraid that we will see more policies like this. By all means, we can call for the devolution of employment law, but we could do something much better: unchain ourselves from this place with the powers of independence.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian 2:54 pm, 6th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Like others, I congratulate Angela Crawley on securing the debate. I take the view that employment law should have been devolved at the outset and should certainly be devolved now. It is an omission, and it might be worth while to consider why it has not been done to date and why, even when we have reviewed it through Calman, through Smith and at other junctures, change has not been taken.

Some of those who opposed the devolution of employment law at the outset have learned hard lessons and have correctly moved on; others will have to explain why they continue to be intransigent, as has been asked by Members. It seems to me to be an omission from the Scotland Act 1998, but that always was an Act that lacked cohesion. It was neither federalism nor logical, and there was arguably no logic to which matters were reserved. Indeed, matters were devolved summarily, which has left us with a situation whereby the economy is devolved but the fiscal levers that can operate it are not. Criminal justice—I was privileged to serve as Justice Secretary—was devolved, but firearms and narcotics were not. Show me a jurisdiction in the world in which firearms and narcotics are not the basis of criminal law or the breach thereof. We had a situation at the outset where euthanasia was devolved but abortion was reserved. We even had the absurdity that Antarctica and powers over it were devolved but foreign affairs were reserved. I do not know anybody in any political party who ever sought for Scotland to have a say over Antarctica.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

That shows the illogicality of the current devolved set-up.

We obviously have seen changes—some have come through Smith, some have come through Calman and some have come through other ways. We now have air weapons devolved, even though firearms are reserved. We have the drink-driving limit devolved, although road traffic remains reserved. Indeed, abortion has since been devolved in order to join with euthanasia as powers within the Scottish Parliament. During my tenure as Justice Secretary, the Scottish tribunal service was established. It became the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, having previously been the Scottish Court Service and Tribunal Service. At the head of the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service sits Lord Carloway, who is the Lord President and the very pinnacle of the judicial system in Scotland. Beneath that, we have tribunals being operated and run in Scotland, yet many of their most fundamental aspects—the law, legislation and regulations—are reserved to Westminster. That makes no logical sense; indeed, it is absurd.

More citizens appear before a tribunal than ever appear before a court of law, yet the tribunal that Scots are most likely to go to in order to seek recompense, change or whatever it is—some aspect of justice—is led by the senior Scottish judiciary, but the organs and levers are controlled. It should have been devolved, and it should be devolved now, because it is essential. We have a new Prime Minister, who has already laid down where she sees things going. I think that is fundamentally wrong, because we cannot go backwards.

I recently read a book about a radical MP called Joseph Hume, who had served in Middlesex, Montrose and Killarney—not in Wales. He came to fame because he opposed the Combination Acts 1799 and 1800. The Combination Acts were legislation that did not outlaw striking; they outlawed the right of workers to organise. They predated laws that came in through Keir Hardie and others. That was not in the 1930s; it was in the 1830s. Joseph Hume opposed the Combination Acts, which existed before Queen Victoria came to power, yet we have an incoming Prime Minister who, in 2022, is talking about ruling out strikes and attacking the fundamental rights of workers to organise. Under the new Administration, we are going back not to the 1930s, but to the 1830s—whether or not employment law is devolved.

Enough is enough. The Prime Minister will have to recognise that whether it comes from law changes in Holyrood, as it should, or from actions in defence to legislative changes here in Westminster, workers ain’t going to take it any more. The changes to be brought in have already seen the likes of the RMT, Unite and the Communication Workers Union out on strike. It is about not just wages, but terms and conditions of employment. We know that, in the fundamental RMT dispute, it is not simply a wage that workers are seeking—not the figures of £55,000 that are bandied about, because the average RMT worker gets nothing like that. It is also about the fundamental terms and conditions: the reduction in workers, making those who remain work longer and reducing the terms of their safety. Enough is enough. It is unacceptable.

I conclude by saying that employment law should have been devolved at the outset, and it should most certainly be devolved now. Irrespective of that, the fight is on. The current Administration may try to bring changes in and use the powers they have here, but those changes will be opposed in Scotland and across the country.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip 3:00 pm, 6th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Apropos of the list Kenny MacAskill gave earlier on, in Wales, we have a legislature that does not have its own jurisdiction, as the jurisdiction is retained in England and Wales. Wales is peculiar in that respect and, possibly, unique in the world.

I congratulate Angela Crawley on securing this important debate and on her dedicated work campaigning for paid miscarriage leave. Like others, she has set out the case for devolving employment law to Scotland very effectively, and many of those arguments apply equally to the question of the devolution of employment law in Wales. I will refer to both countries in my remarks.

The tedious tit-for-tat we have seen in the last weeks and months around the Conservative leadership contest has demonstrated that Scotland and, even more so, Wales are very much an afterthought for Westminster. Our workers would be better protected by laws made in Scotland by Scotland’s Parliament and in Wales by our Senedd. As I said earlier, the situation was made clear when, in June, the UK Government announced their intention to scrap the Trade Union (Wales) Act—a law that was passed by our Senedd in Wales to protect Welsh workers. The UK Government’s response was to announce their intention to scrap it, demonstrating not only their disregard for Welsh workers, but their disrespect for devolution. We have, of course, seen moves to reverse devolution entirely consistent with the argument I am making.

In this regard, I should draw the Chamber’s attention to the Government of Wales (Devolved Powers) Bill, introduced in the other place by my friend and predecessor as hon. Member for Arfon, now Lord Wigley. This important Bill would enshrine in law the principle that powers devolved to the Senedd should

“not be amended or withdrawn without a super-majority vote” of Senedd Members, which would introduce a safeguard—in the short term, at least—against the sorts of action proposed by the UK Government. The Bill is scheduled for Second Reading on Friday. Despite the Westminster Government’s hostile attitude to devolution, further devolution and to devolution as a process—one that, I would say, is one way, not two way—I hope that Lord Wigley’s Bill will, in due course, come before us in the Commons.

Returning to the question before us, devolving employment law to the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd would allow the introduction of an enhanced package of support for workers, which, as others have said, could include paid bereavement leave and miscarriage leave as day one employment rights, outlawing fire and rehire tactics and bringing in properly funded carers’ leave. A further priority for employment law in Wales and, I am sure, in Scotland would be shared parental leave, which is key to enabling more equal parenting, tackling endemic pregnancy and maternity discrimination in the workplace and ending the gender pay gap.

As has already been said, in 2017, amid concerns that uptake of shared parental leave was low, the UK Government indicated that they wanted to re-evaluate the scheme. On 15 July 2022, the newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jane Hunt, told MPs that the Government were evaluating the scheme and would publish findings in due course. We are still waiting for those findings, so I would say to the Minister and any new Minister—devolve the power to a legislature that will act. For what is already clear is that this policy on maternity leave is failing. Using data obtained by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, Maternity Action has calculated that since April 2015 just 47,000 of the 2.95 million new mothers who took statutory paid maternity leave have used shared parental leave to transfer some of their paid leave to the child’s father or other parent. That is just 1.6%. That is the measure of a policy that is quite clearly failing.

One of the main problems with the scheme, as well as the current flat rate of £156.66 per week, is that a parent must transfer the maternity leave entitlement to the partner. That transferability makes the scheme extremely complex and consequentially poorly understood by both employers and parents. There is also the question of eligibility with at least a third of working new fathers failing to meet the qualifying conditions because of their level of pay or employment type. In Wales we have a great deal of low pay and self-employment is a very common pattern. What we need, and what I believe we would get if powers were devolved, is a system based on individual non-transferable rights for each parent to have leave.

There are solutions for the problems that I and other hon. Members have identified today. What is missing is the political will to act. The incoming Prime Minister has signalled that she will restrict workers’ rights collectively to secure fairer employment. Wales’s Senedd and Scotland’s Parliament, empowered with the ability to legislate for employment law, would do things differently, and I sincerely believe that we would do things better.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland) 3:07 pm, 6th September 2022

I thank my hon. Friend Angela Crawley for bringing the debate forward. When we think of the potential merits of devolving employment law to Scotland, the main one is that the Tories would be nowhere near it. That is the selling point for me and a lot of other people. As we leave the pandemic only to enter a cost of living crisis, it cannot be any clearer how little interest this Government have in the lives of ordinary people. The last 12 years of Tory Government have been nothing more than a project of erosion. Not only is poverty on the rise and has been for years, but in-work poverty is rising, too. People who are working all the hours that God sends still cannot afford to live. Wages have not risen. The UK has the lowest level of sick pay in the OECD, and yet we kid ourselves that we are this great nation—this great United Kingdom—and a beacon for the rest of the world. Well, the stats just do not add up.

If we compare Scotland in the UK to what is happening in similar sized independent nations, we see that it does not have to be like this. Just one example: out of all the workers in the Netherlands, only 6.4% of them are low-wage earners. Of all the workers in Iceland, 7.6% are low-wage earners. Finland has 8.6% low earners and Denmark has 8.7%. In the UK, nearly 20% of all workers are low-wage earners. The countries I just mentioned have fewer people at risk of poverty and in-work poverty. They have fewer employees working extra hours and very long hours. They have a lower gender pay gap. They have sickness benefits that actually cover their wage if they are sick—something unheard of here. They are integrating flexible working patterns and learning from the pandemic, as my hon. Friend David Linden said earlier. They are figuring out fairer working practices to move with the 21st century.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I wonder if my hon. Friend could say whether those countries have “Wheel of Fortune”-style things in the morning where people have to phone in and try to win money for their energy bills? In those countries, do they have former Conservative Cabinet Ministers picking the tinfoil off their head and telling them to put it down the back of their radiators to heat their houses?

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Fortunately, they are spared that horror but, here in the UK, that is where we are at: “This Morning” paying bills. Instead of learning from everything that has happened in the pandemic, and trying to integrate fairer work practices, we have a Government running around leaving passive-aggressive notes on desks, telling people to hurry up and get back, when the Prime Minister—sorry, the last Prime Minister—was nowhere to be seen for weeks. They have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted with workers’ rights. All the way from 1830 right through to now, they have proven time and again that they cannot be trusted.

As my hon. Friend Chris Stephens mentioned, we had the Taylor review of modern working practices. That was five years ago, and we have heard nothing, because this Government are all about show not substance. The UK has reneged on its promise to protect EU-derived workers’ protections. During the Tory leadership race, the now Prime Minister promised to scrap all remaining EU regulations by the end of 2023. That means that hundreds of laws covering employment and environmental protections will disappear.

Despite the Government’s commitment to an employment Bill on at least 20 occasions, as we have heard from numerous people, it is still nowhere to be seen. I am not talking about little add-ons because we are nice to our workers. I am talking about fundamental rights: how long we need to work, holiday entitlement and sick pay. Those are all fundamental. The UK is being mismanaged into the ground, and has been for a long time.

We heard earlier from Christine Jardine, who is no longer in her place. She asked whether these arguments meant that changes to rights should apply across the whole of the UK. That is rubbish, because Northern Ireland has devolution of employment law, so why can Scotland not have that? Secondly, there is the idea that we have to wait for reform across the whole of UK. We have been trying. In just the seven years that I have been in this place, my hon. Friend Gavin Newlands, who was here earlier, had the fire and rehire Bill talked out by the Government. Colleagues have tried to get rid of unpaid work trials, yet nothing has come from that.

It goes even bigger than that. Scotland has always played its part. We have not voted Tory since 1955. Yet all we get is Tory Prime Minister after Tory Prime Minister making empty promises, delivering nothing. Scotland has played its part and, frankly, I am tired of trying to tell people in Scotland who are being pushed into poverty, “Sorry, you just need to wait for the rest of the UK to get its act together.” No, not any more. If there is one thing we can see, it is that countries of a similar size to Scotland are successful and fairer. The only difference is that they are not governed by Westminster.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions and Inter-Generational)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. To address the earlier intervention by Christine Jardine, my predecessor, as part of the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government, slashed redundancy notice from 90 days to 45 days. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot rely on this place to look after our workers? Reform is not the answer; that is simply not enough. We need employment legislation devolved to Scotland.

Photo of Mhairi Black Mhairi Black Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend put her point succinctly. To sum up, if you are an average person in the UK right now the chances are that you cannot afford to eat or to heat yourself. You certainly cannot afford to be sick. The one thing that you cannot afford is another Tory Government.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland 3:14 pm, 6th September 2022

It is great to have you in the Chair for this debate, Sir Edward. I pay tribute to Angela Crawley for securing the debate. At the start of her contribution, she said she wanted the devolution of employment law, to get it away from the Tories. That has been the thrust of the debate.

If we look at the context of where we are since 2010—a long 12 years ago—we can see that in-work poverty, low pay and financial insecurity are up for workers across the country. Incomes have stagnated for over a decade and real-terms pay today is equal to, if not lower than, 2008 levels. Wages have suffered a decade of stagnation, and will continue to do so. It is the worst it has been in over a century. The latest figures show that the level of taxation for working people in this country is at its highest in 70 years, which will result in the largest fall in living standards since records began in the 1950s—who knows when that goes back to? The Living Wage Foundation, one of the great organisations of this country, estimates that over 1 million key workers are in insecure work, lacking basic rights and protections, and that across the whole of the economy, one in nine workers is in insecure work and lacking basic rights.

This is a great debate in which to pay tribute to our trade union colleagues, particularly the Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady, for driving a lot of the issues forward. One thing the Government tend to forget is that the most successful companies in this country are those that have good relations with the trade unions and with their employees, where Government, the trade unions, employees and employers work together as partners to create an environment that provides high-quality jobs and pay. It can be done; I say it can be done because the Labour Government that came in in 1997 transformed workers’ rights in this country. I was not in this place at the time, but many of my colleagues who were tell stories of sitting through the night, overnight—maybe you did this yourself, Sir Edward—two, three or four nights in a row, trying to get national minimum wage legislation on to the statute book. That legislation took security guards in this country, who were on the equivalent of 30p an hour, up to a national minimum wage. Of course, now, the difficulty with the national minimum wage is that for too many, it has become a national maximum wage. That is why we need to move on to something much more progressive, and we have committed to do so in the next Labour Government.

All that, alongside the cost of living squeeze—the cost of living crisis—means that things are only getting worse for working people and for the vast majority of the population. Inequality is rising, not just for the individual but across the nations and regions of the UK. When the previous Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, spoke in Downing Street this morning, he did not even mention levelling up; maybe that was because it was always a slogan, and levelling up does not actually exist. The new Prime Minister, as we have heard already in many of today’s contributions, has promised to outlaw the ability to strike and to break strikes by bringing in agency workers. She has called workers lazy and said that they need to graft more. A new Prime Minister is supposed to come in with a fresh broom to resolve some of the problems in our economy, but it looks like she will make them considerably worse for working people everywhere in the UK, wherever they live.

Some of today’s contributions have been absolutely correct about the consequences of those problems for working people. Everybody in the Government—including, I am sure, the Minister—said with consternation that the P&O fire and rehire was a total disgrace. They were calling in chief executives; they were in the House of Commons at the Dispatch Box. The Secretary of State for Transport derided P&O for what it was doing, yet nothing has happened on the back of that. It is correct that the private Member’s Bill on banning fire and rehire was talked out by this Government. Any reasonable Government would have done what always happens with private Members’ Bills: talk it out because they do not want it to be anyone else’s idea, and then take it on themselves and bring forward something that they could live with. However, there has been nothing on fire and rehire.

As we come out of the covid pandemic, if we set aside all the big issues around the cost of living and insecure work and look at employees and workers themselves, we see something really stark in our economy. I will not give away any confidences, but I know a lot of the British Airways staff quite well because we Members from Scotland travel up and down to London regularly. BA treated its staff abysmally—not just over covid, but for the decade before, whether it be on pension rights, pay and conditions, moving their centres of employment from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London, or consolidating all that by banning them from flying home on commercial flights.

When covid came and BA got rid of a lot of those staff, they went and got other jobs. Some have been re-employed in the industry, and when I speak to them, they tell me that they are now having a much better time working for a different employer. When covid finished and BA was desperate for staff, it went back to ask those people if they would like to be re-employed, and every single one of them said no, as we would expect. Those loyal BA staff had made that company the great British product that it is—employees always drive great products, services and businesses—but they were treated so abysmally that when the company came calling and said, “The proverbial has hit the fan. Will you come and help us?”, they said that they would not. That is partly why our airline industry is in such a bad state at the moment.

British Gas did the same with fire and rehire, so there is a litany of issues for the Government to consider.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

It is absolutely right that we give BA and British Gas an absolute bashing, but one organisation that started using fire and rehire quite early on was Asda, a number of years ago. In considering that litany of employers who have indulged in fire and rehire, it would be remiss of us not to call Asda out on that shameful practice, too.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Asda. We could probably spend the rest of the debate coming up with other companies that have done it. There is an argument to be had about whether we should criticise the companies directly, but they are operating within the legislation. If we do not want employers to use fire and rehire—they are looking after a different set of circumstances—we need to change the legislation to stop them doing so. That is why fire and rehire should have been banned.

This a similar debate to one we had maybe five or 10 years ago about zero-hours contracts. I remember when I was in the shadow team for Business, Innovation and Skills back in 2012, we commissioned Norman Pickavance, who had been the HR director at Morrisons—the supermarkets—to write a report on zero-hours contracts. His report said quite clearly that there were ways to ban zero-hours contracts in their entirety without affecting all the issues that the Government hid behind as excuses for not doing so. Ten years later, zero-hours contracts, the gig economy and forced self-employment are rampant, and there is no employment Bill to deal with them.

Will the Minister address the Government’s objection to the Taylor review? What is their objection? Why is there no Bill to enact its recommendations, and why is the new Prime Minister not introducing one? During a cost of living crisis, workers should not be sacked; they should be made more secure, because people should have confidence that a wage will come in so that they can at least partially pay their energy bills and other bills. We will see what happens on Thursday with the cost of living crisis and energy bills, but I suspect that the responsibility for paying energy bill debt will be passed from the Government to the consumer, which is certainly not something that we support.

I agree with Kenny MacAskill, who said that there are inconsistencies in devolution. Nobody ever said that devolution was perfect; it was never going to be perfect. Asymmetric devolution is, by its very nature, imperfect, but we have to find mechanisms to run through some of those issues. Devolution has always been a journey, as the hon. Gentleman himself admitted in mentioning Calman, Smith and others, and it will continue to be a journey, particularly for those who are committed to devolution—I am not sure that many in this Chamber are committed to it, with the exception perhaps of myself.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

Maybe. Well, I am not so sure if the Minister is—maybe she will tell us.

I do not want to get into the issue of bin strikes and so on—David Linden mentioned the strikes—but they go to the heart of something that is infecting our politics at the moment. Our refuse collectors worked all through covid and did a marvellous job, but decided—quite rightly—to strike on the basis that they had been offered a 2% pay rise. People need fair pay rises, particularly the lowest paid. In all our councils across Scotland—it might be the same across England—we have probably the lowest-paid public sector workers out there. They are striking on the basis of pay rates.

We then had an unholy argument in Scotland about who was responsible for the strikes. Then, a few weeks later—one might reflect on adding one and one and getting maybe four, five or two—the First Minister put a funded deal on the table and the strikes were lifted. How can that not be the responsibility of the Scottish Government rather than of the Labour party in Edinburgh? That is beyond my comprehension. That is the kind of debate that we have had, rather than a sensible debate about whether employment law should be devolved to Scotland.

I know that Amy Callaghan has been back a while, but I have not had the opportunity to welcome her back. I wish her well in her continued recovery. Her speech showed that less is more, because she hit the nail on the head with regard to what we should be doing in employment law and getting it away from the Tories. My contention is that the best way to get it away from the Tories is to vote for a UK Labour Government, because it would be better to have a Labour Minister sitting on that side of the Chamber and putting forward Labour policies for workers’ rights.

Can I directly address the hon. Member for Glasgow East? I may misquote him here, but he said that the Scottish Labour party will have to explain why they oppose the devolution of employment law. We do not. The Scottish Labour party’s policy is to devolve employment law. I am not sure if the hon. Member for East Lothian was on the Smith Commission or whether it was his former colleague John Swinney, however, the reason employment law was not devolved was because the UK trade unions did not want that. They were concerned about devolving it without thinking through—

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

If the hon. Member will let me finish the point. This is the fact of the Smith Commission. They did not think through the consequences of cross-border employment and cross-border companies and whether it would make at that particular time a much more difficult framework to operate on.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Can I confirm on the record that the manifesto from the British Labour party for the next general election will have a clear, cast-iron commitment to devolve employment law to the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

It will have a clear commitment to implement what we are currently doing in terms of the Labour party’s commission. I am not going to discuss what is in the commission in a Westminster Hall debate because it is being finalised and will be launched in the early part of November. However, the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed with some of the outcomes of that detailed work.

The commission is not about Scotland as such; it is about all the nations and regions that come under the umbrella of the UK. I know the hon. Gentleman does not believe in the UK, but we do and some of that is in there on devolution. That is the reason the Scottish Labour party, of which I am a member, is entitled to have a different set of policy perspectives from the UK party on a whole host of issues. Gordon Brown’s commission, which will be launched in November, will do some of that.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. His history is a wee bit wobbly. I gently say to him that not all the UK trade unions were opposed to the devolution of employment law, Unite being one of them. If I remember the exchanges I had with them during that debate, the hon. Gentleman was quoting the Trades Union Congress and not necessarily all the UK trade unions.

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

I cannot recall who was and who was not, but the conversations that went on through the conduit of the TUC, which was responsible for taking those conversations forward, had come to the conclusion by speaking to their members that the UK trade unions would not want to devolve. Those positions may have moved since; in fact, I think the GMB’s position has moved since, which is hardly unsurprising given the state we have.

I am sorry Christine Jardine is not here after that rather difficult and strange intervention. In the time that I was the shadow Minister responsible for employment law, I sat across from the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, who was a predecessor, successor and then predecessor again to the Scottish National party in East Dunbartonshire. She was the Minister at the time and took that Bill through the House of Commons, which not only did a whole host of anti-trade union things but extended the qualifying period for employment rights from one to two years. The Liberal Democrats are not sitting on the fence; they are quite clearly on the other side and trying desperately to climb back across the right side. I am disappointed that the hon. Lady came out with that because it undermines her arguments about what she needs to do.

I conclude with a canter through the question of what the Labour party would do. Our deputy leader, my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner, launched our fair work policies at conference last year for a new deal for working people. Launching that, she said it was an attempt to make Britain the best place in the world to work. I think it is an attempt to do that. We did not develop those policies in a vacuum of ideology, which is essentially what the previous Government have operated on—I hope the new Government will be slightly better—but by working with our trade union colleagues and employers, and working together to come up with something that can be implemented for the benefit of the economy and workers.

We would strengthen workers’ rights from day one. We would take away that two-year qualifying period and take it down to day one. That is the right thing to do and it gives people security. It cannot be right to be able to sack someone without a reason at one year and 364 days. In fact, the argument I have always made on that is that if we wait until one year and 364 days to find out if someone is good enough, the manager should be sacked for not doing their job properly. They could find out much earlier in the process if someone is good enough for the job they have been employed to do.

We would ban fire and rehire; that is a fairly straightforward thing to do, which would protect workers in this country and create good businesses. I went on holiday by ferry this year, but I just could not travel on P&O; I used another ferry company. When I saw that big P&O sign as I approached Dover, I just felt disgusted that a firm would do what P&O did to its employees at a time when they require their jobs and their wages more than at any time in the past.

Banning fire and rehire would also make work more family-friendly by helping to balance home, community and family life. We have done that before, through the maternity and paternity pay brought in during the last Labour Government. We would extend statutory maternity and paternity pay now that we are out of the European Union. Shared parental leave is a big issue. In fact, I agree with Hywel Williams regarding the uptake of shared parental leave, but I do not think it is a legal thing. I think it is a cultural thing and also about equal pay, because all the analysis shows that there is such a low uptake of shared parental leave because it is still the father who is the main or highest earner in a family, and sharing parental leave may be a cultural thing in terms of employers and employees asking for it. Those are some of the cultural barriers that we have to break down.

We would ban zero-hours contracts. All workers have the right to regular contracts and predictable hours, reasonable notice of changes in shifts, and wages paid in full for cancelled shifts. We would strengthen trade union rights, raising pay and conditions, and—crucially—we would use fair pay agreements to drive up the pay and conditions of all workers.

I did not want to be political in this debate, but some of my colleagues from the Scottish National party could not resist being political earlier, so I cannot resist now. One of the key things that a Government can use to drive up standards is procurement, and one of the biggest levers that the Scottish Government could pull, given the powers of the Scottish Parliament, is procurement, using it to drive up standards.

However, we have just seen £700 million of licences for ScotWind being issued to companies with no procurement specifications on wages, local employment, apprenticeships and all those kinds of workers’ rights. So, yes, devolving these matters might be the right thing to do, but my challenge to the SNP is not about the principle of devolution but to tell us what it would with it.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman missed the point made in a number of our speeches when we talked precisely about the Scottish Government’s business pledge, which has baked within it various levers regarding how we use procurement. Which parts of the Scottish business pledge does he object to that the Scottish Government have already got in place?

Photo of Ian Murray Ian Murray Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland

The main thing that I object to about the Scottish Government’s pledges and strategies and documents is that they tend to be launched with huge fanfare, including big front pages in the newspapers and pictures of the First Minister plastered all over the television, and then those pledges and documents go on to some shelf somewhere and sit there until they are relaunched again, about one or two years later. The proof is always in the pudding, but I am not sure that the Scottish Government even attempt to make the pudding; they just bring the recipe out now and again. That is my biggest criticism, because it happens on climate, on procurement and in other areas. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to answer the question directly, that is my objection.

There is no objection from Labour to the principle of the devolution of employment law. However, there are lots of issues to work through regarding what it would be like in practice. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about the employment practices of this country, her objection to the Taylor review and bringing its recommendations forward in a piece of legislation, and what the Government—the new Government—will do. Who knows? The Minister might be in the new Government. I see she has her phone on the table; perhaps it will ring shortly and she will have to excuse herself to run away and take a call.

Whatever the Minister’s answer to such a call is, the Government really have to look at what is happening now in the country—with the low growth, high inflation, high tax and stagnation that we have—and find a way to break out of that real problem in the economy. The best way to do that is to have a highly skilled, highly productive, highly stable workforce with career progression. Otherwise, we will end up in 20 years’ time still having the same arguments about why we have a problem in this country with productivity and why we also have a problem in this country with low pay and insecure work.

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:33 pm, 6th September 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward.

I congratulate Angela Crawley on securing this important debate on the potential merits of devolving employment law to Scotland. As Members can well imagine, there is an awful lot for me to respond to, so I probably will not take interventions at this stage, because I do not think there will be time for me to do so.

As the hon. Member is aware, employment matters are reserved to the UK Parliament under the Scotland Act 1998, with a few exceptions, such as the subject matter of the Agricultural Wages (Scotland) Act 1949. The Government have no intention of devolving legislative competence for employment rights matters to the Scottish Government.

The Scotland Acts of 1998, 2012 and 2016 have created one of the most powerful devolved Governments in the world. The Scottish devolution settlement gives the Scottish Parliament power over numerous aspects of its governance and strikes a good balance. The current settlement was agreed between the Scottish Government and the UK Government after extensive cross-party consultation and discussion by the Smith Commission.

We strongly believe that in order for the labour market to work most effectively across Great Britain, the underlying legislative framework concerning rights and responsibilities in the workplace needs to be consistent and must not be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Employers and employees benefit hugely from a single, simple system where employment rights are the same across Great Britain, whether someone is working in Dunstable or Dundee. Devolving employment rights to Scotland could create a two-tier employment rights framework, with Scotland adopting different policy and legislation to England and Wales. This would create a significant burden for businesses. It would be costly for employers who operate on both sides of the border, as they would need to understand the differences between the systems and potentially implement different sets of policies and procedures.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

The Minister makes a point about companies operating over borders and having different employment practices to adhere to. She is, of course, fully aware that employment law is devolved in Northern Ireland. She mentions Dunstable and Dundee. Notwith-standing the lovely big sea border that her Government have just put down in the Irish sea, which I know some in her party are vexed about, why is it good enough for people in Larne but not people in Livingston?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I will get to that in a short while.

Devolving employment rights to Scotland could also disadvantage workers by suppressing the free flow of labour between England and Scotland. Having this valuable free flow of labour is essential, as it increases the chances of workers finding the jobs that will make the most of their skills and employers finding the best employees for their businesses. Office for National Statistics data from 2019 estimates that around 68,000 people work in Scotland and live in England, or vice versa. Devolving employment rights could therefore be highly disruptive for workers who work across the border.

The UK Government remain strongly committed to working together with all the devolved Administrations to ensure the UK’s institutions are working collectively as one United Kingdom. We appreciate and value our ongoing, close working relationship with the Scottish Government, while also respecting their unique devolved nature. Through this close working, we are determined to build a highly skilled, highly productive high-wage economy that delivers on our ambition to make the UK the best place in the world to work and grow a business. Ministers and officials within my Department engage regularly with their counterparts in the Scottish Government, as well as the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, to consider various employment-related issues. I look forward to discussing employment rights issues with my Scottish counterparts too.

I would like to highlight that the UK, including Scotland, has a very strong labour market. Its strength results from balancing labour market flexibility with worker protections. The figures speak for themselves. Early estimates for July 2022 indicate that there were 29.7 million payrolled employees—around 650,000 higher than pre-pandemic levels. The unemployment rate is 3.8%, which is close to record low rates. Making any changes to the current devolution settlement could jeopardise our labour market’s success. On employment rights, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East stated that workers’ rights are being disregarded in the UK. I disagree with that. She also said that Ministers are sleeping on the job. Chance would be a fine thing—since 8 July at least!

It is not only the labour market’s strength that is exemplary. The UK’s record on employment rights is one of the best in the world, giving vital protections to workers. We have one of the highest minimum wages in the world. In April, the national living wage was raised to £9.50. In the UK, people get a minimum of over five weeks of annual leave, whereas the EU requires only four weeks. People in the UK get a year of maternity leave. The EU minimum is just 14 weeks.

I am proud that we have implemented many important changes to the UK labour market, which are benefiting workers across England, Scotland and Wales. In recent years, this Government have brought forward a raft of legislation on employment rights issues. That legislation has closed a loophole that saw agency workers employed on cheaper rates than permanent workers, and quadrupled the maximum fine for employers who treat their workers badly. We have given all workers the right to receive a statement of their rights from day one. We have given parents a new legal right to two weeks’ paid bereavement leave for those who suffer the devastating loss of a child. Mhairi Black mentioned the Taylor review, and the Government are making progress on a number of the recommendations it set out.

The Government supported workers throughout the covid-19 pandemic, taking steps to protect the earnings of workers through the UK-wide coronavirus job retention scheme. We also ensured that furloughed employees who were made redundant received full redundancy payments. In Scotland, a total of 911,900 employees were on furlough during the course of the scheme, and we were able to offer this unprecedented package of support through our ability to act on a UK-wide basis. Our response to the covid-19 pandemic exemplifies that we are at our strongest when we come together as one United Kingdom.

We are going still further with employment rights reforms. Numerous private Members’ Bills have been introduced on the matter of employment rights, and we are working closely with these Members on their proposals. On 15 July, this Government supported two private Members’ Bills on Second Reading. The Employment (Allocation of Tips) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend Dean Russell, will ensure that all tips go to staff, and allow them to bring a claim to an employment tribunal if businesses do not fairly distribute workers’ well-earned tips. The Neonatal Care (Leave and Pay) Bill, introduced by an SNP Member, Stuart C. McDonald, will allow parents whose new-born babies are admitted to neonatal care to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave, in addition to other leave entitlements, such as maternity leave. This will allow them to spend more time with their babies at what is a hugely stressful time. Our productive work with the SNP Member on this Bill goes to show just how far we can make progress on important employment rights issues by collaborating across parties, and between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. My officials have also met their Scottish Government counterparts to discuss the private Members’ Bills, and will continue to engage closely with them throughout their passage.

As well as those private Members’ Bills, on 6 July, we laid legislation that extends the ban on exclusivity clauses in contracts where a worker’s guaranteed weekly income is below the lower earnings limit, which is currently £123 a week. That will ensure that an estimated 1.5 million people have the opportunity to pick up extra work to top up their income if they wish. Two further private Members’ Bills will be considered on Friday, including the Carer’s Leave Bill, which was mentioned earlier. Also mentioned was shared parental leave, which is exceeding the expectations in the targets set for it. The online tool is also proving successful in helping parents decide what to do for their family.

In July, we published guidance to clarify the existing employment status boundaries, making it easier for businesses to comply with existing regulations and for individuals to understand which employment protections apply to them. In April, we made sure that 2.5 million people across the UK received a pay rise by raising the minimum wage and the living wage. The largest ever cash increase to the national living wage will put over £1,000 a year extra into full-time workers’ pay packets, helping to ease cost of living pressures. We are helping younger people too by lifting the minimum wage for under-23-year-olds and apprentices. What is more, in December 2021, we named and shamed 208 UK employers who failed to pay the minimum wage, including 19 Scottish employers.

We take action where it is needed to tackle appalling business practices, such as P&O Ferries firing its employees without consultation. We reported P&O to the Insolvency Service and took an active role in ensuring it treated its workers fairly. In March this year, we announced that we will introduce a statutory code of practice on dismissal and re-engagement—so-called fire and rehire tactics. That will include practical steps that employers should follow if they are considering changes to workers’ terms and conditions and there is the prospect of dismissal and re-engagement. All that comes in addition to the UK Government’s £37 billion cost of living support package, which will benefit households across the UK, including those in Scotland. For these reasons, the Government do not support the devolution of employment rights to the Scottish Government.

Let me turn to some of the points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East spoke about the Miscarriage Leave Bill. The Government recognise that losing a child at any stage is incredibly difficult, and we expect employers to respond with compassion and understanding. Because the death of a child is a particularly tragic event, we have legislated to give parents who lose a child under the age of 18, including cases where a baby is stillborn after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, a right to take up to two weeks off work in the 56 weeks following the death of their child.

Although there is no statutory entitlement to leave for women who lose a baby before 24 completed weeks of pregnancy, those who are not able to return to work may be entitled to statutory sick pay while off work, subject to the eligibility conditions. If eligible for statutory sick pay, employees are able to self-certify incapacity for work for the first seven days of their absence, regardless of the cause. All employees are also entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave a year, and many employers also offer compassionate leave.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General)

My ten-minute rule Bill is due for Second Reading on 16 September. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is simply unfair that a parent who loses a pregnancy or baby at 23 weeks and six days has no right whatsoever to any form of paid leave, while after 24 weeks a parent has the right to bereavement leave and pay? Should that legislation not be extended or provision not be made for parents who experience that loss before 24 weeks? Can she explain why the Government will not do so?

Photo of Jane Hunt Jane Hunt Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I will look at that point, because I understand the hon. Lady’s argument. However, a line has to be drawn somewhere.

David Linden talked about the four-day working week. We appreciate that a four-day working week may work well for some workers and employers, but we do not believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to working arrangements. That is why rather than telling people and businesses how to work, we put individual agency and choice at the heart of our approach to flexible working.

The hon. Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), for Glasgow East and for Lanark and Hamilton East asked why no employment Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech. While I know it is disappointing that it did not include one set out as a single Bill, there is an ambitious legislative programme that includes a comprehensive set of Bills that will enable us to deliver on priorities such as growing the economy. As I mentioned, numerous private Members’ Bills have been introduced on employment rights as a result of the PMB ballot in the Commons. We are working closely with those Members on their proposals, and are grateful to those from across the House who are helping us with that.

Ian Murray and others questioned why we are not banning fire and rehire. Imposing a ban would not be appropriate because in some situations fire and rehire can play a valid role, as businesses may need the flexibility to use this option to save as many jobs as possible. We are taking proportionate action to address firing and rehiring practices by bringing forward a statutory code of practice.

Kenny MacAskill talked about tribunals. The UK Government and Scottish Government continue to work closely on drafting the Order in Council. Once that is concluded, we will look to agree a timeline for the devolution of the first tranche of tribunals.

I thank the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East for bringing this important topic to the House and enabling this debate. While the Government have no plans to devolve employment rights to the Scottish Government, I thank the hon. Members who contributed constructive arguments. We will continue to work with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations as we continue to build on the UK’s record on employment rights.

Photo of Angela Crawley Angela Crawley Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Procurement), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Attorney General) 3:49 pm, 6th September 2022

After 12 years of this Government, it is fair to say that many of the reasons for the cost of living crisis lie squarely at their door. Any Government who fail to understand why workers must have their rights protected and enshrined in law should rightly fear going to the ballot box in a general election. The Government have failed to act on employment and failed to introduce a Bill. If they will not do so and if they will not devolve employment law to the Scottish Government, it simply makes the case for us that independence is the only way for Scotland to ensure that workers’ rights are protected in the way that they should be. It is clear that an employment Bill will not come from this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the potential merits of devolving employment law to Scotland.

Sitting suspended.