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31 Mar 1999 : Column 1110

Orders of the Day

Employment Relations Bill

As amended in the Standing Committee, further considered.

Clause 28

Employment agencies

4.43 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Stephen Byers): I beg to move amendment No. 59, in page 14, leave out from beginning of line 10 to end of line 40 on page 15 and insert--

'. Schedule (Employment Agencies) shall have effect.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 1, in page 14, leave out lines 12 to 21.

No. 36, in page 14, line 21, at end insert--

'(ed) regulating the conduct of hirers in paying appropriate fees to such agencies and businesses for supplying workers for permanent or temporary employment.'.

No. 2, in page 14, line 21, at end insert--

'Provided that regulations under this section shall only be made with the purpose of protecting employees' rights and not otherwise to interfere with the commercial relationship between such agencies or businesses and employers'.

No. 35, in page 14, line 21, at end insert--

'Provided that regulations under this section shall only be made in such a way as to avoid prejudice to the ability of the private recruitment industry to continue to expand its role in the labour market.'.

No. 3, in page 14, line 43, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 15.

No. 34, in page 15, line 38, at end insert--

'(6A) In section 12--
(a) in subsection (5), at the beginning insert "Subject to subsection (6) below,";
(b) after subsection (5) insert--
"(6) Regulations under section 5 shall not be made unless a draft of them has been laid before, and approved by Resolution of, each House of Parliament.".'.

Government new schedule 2--Employment Agencies.

Mr. Byers: I shall speak to amendment No. 59 and new schedule 2, but reserve my comments on the amendments tabled by the Opposition until I wind up the debate later this evening.

I shall explain the motives behind amendment No. 59 and the changes that we intend to introduce through new schedule 2. The proposals make changes that we believe are necessary to the employment agency standards inspectorate's powers of entry and to allow it to take away copies of documents.

It was observed during the passage of the Employment Agencies Bill in 1973 that it was modelled in part on the Croydon Corporation Act 1960. I do not know whether many hon. Members are experts on the Croydon Corporation Act 1960 but, if they are, they will know that the inspection powers follow the lines of governing agencies in the Edwardian era. The wording can be traced

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back further to the Manchester Corporation Act 1903.I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is an expert on that, and I am sure that he will regale us in great detail with sections of that Act. As the proceedings move towards midnight, we shall look forward to that with great pleasure.

Paragraphs 4(2) to 4(5) of new schedule 2 amend section 9 of the 1973 Act to ensure that its powers are appropriate to the beginning of the next century. Modern inspection powers are all the more important now that bureaux no longer have to be licensed. New section 9(1A) enables the Department of Trade and Industry's inspectors to enter relevant business premises, as defined in new section 9(1B). Those provisions extend the range of premises that the DTI's inspectors may enter in the course of their duties.

On the face of it, that seems a draconian power, but we hope that it will help employment agencies. The present wording of the 1973 Act allows DTI inspectors to enter premises to examine documents only if those premises are being used by an employment agency, even though, for practical reasons, the agency may have documents in another building. The changes will introduce flexibility to ensure that documents can be retained elsewhere provided that they can be inspected at reasonable notice and in a reasonable way.

New section 9(1C) takes into account the fact that we are now living in the computer age and allows for computerised information to be held remotely, provided that it is accessible from the relevant premises. The DTI's inspectors will not be able to take documents away with them, but new proposals will allow them to take copies of relevant documents.

Paragraph 4(4) amends section 9(2) of the Employment Agencies Act by replacing the existing provision against self-incrimination with a new provision that takes into account the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Saunders v. the United Kingdom.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde) rose--

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) rose--

Mr. Byers: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Dr. Godman: Will the provisions have any effect on subcontractors, some of whom are utterly unscrupulous, who employ foreign nationals to work in our offshore oil and gas installations? Many of the employees concerned are taken on for disgracefully low wages and their terms and conditions of employment are, or should be, utterly unacceptable in an industrial society such as ours.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend has raised two distinct issues. On levels of pay, he will be aware--he drew the situation to my attention--that people working in the circumstances that he described were not covered by the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, but we introduced in the House a few days ago an order--

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) indicated assent.

Mr. Byers: As the hon. Gentleman indicates from a sedentary position, we introduced an order that will

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extend the provisions of the National Minimum Wage Act to individuals working in precisely those circumstances. Unfortunately, those provisions will not take effect tomorrow, when the national minimum wage will come into force for the bulk of employees, but on 1 May. Although that measure will take effect a month later, I am sure that it will be widely welcome.

We are trying to deal with my hon. Friend's second point, about abuse and exploitation, through the regulations that we shall introduce through the Bill. I can give him some comfort by saying that, when we introduce the proposals by way of regulation once we have consulted on the detail, he will be satisfied that we have addressed those concerns.

Mr. Bercow: The Secretary of State's historical exegesis has been much enjoyed so far by a packed House. On the subject of the notice required before premises are visited and inspected, will he assure the House that he will be guided by one or other of the many precedents in other legislation? It would be helpful if he could tell us at this point by which he will be guided.

Mr. Byers: This legislation stands on its own, and precedents will no doubt be created when it comes to be interpreted. It is far better to allow the courts to consider the wording that the House is putting in place and for them to interpret it accordingly. However, there are rules of statutory interpretation, which will apply to any legislation. It is wholly appropriate that the courts adopt that particular approach, and they will do so in the context of this legislation as they do with all other legislation.

Mr. Bercow: That was a marvellously fluent response, but I am afraid that the fog has, if anything, increased. I intend no discourtesy to the Secretary of State, but will he give the House an idea of what he would consider in this context to be a reasonable period of notice?

Mr. Byers: I have studied law for far too long not to know that one should not try to define what is meant by "reasonable" in any hypothetical situation. It must always be--[Interruption.] I see that the Opposition Whip, who is a lawyer, agrees with that approach.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): I was amused by it.

Mr. Byers: That probably speaks volumes. Reasonableness will always be a matter for the courts to decide in the circumstances of any particular case. The important point to bear in mind is that, if that is what is required, the test of reasonableness, to which the hon. Member for Buckingham referred, must be considered in the circumstances of the case.

I was saying that, in relation to self-incrimination, we have to take into account the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Saunders v. the United Kingdom, and these measures do precisely that.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): In opposition, one is always keen to ensure that one makes a positive contribution to a Bill. I wonder whether the proposal was always intended to be concerned with self-incrimination. When I made a speech on precisely that point in Committee, the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and

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Industry was unaware that, by allowing this sort of inspection, one was effectively giving an unwarranted--I use that word in both its senses--access to people's records. That is extremely important as, once enacted, the Bill will extend the offences that can be investigated by the investigator so that they cover almost anything.

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