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5.30 pm

Mr. Bercow: My hon. Friend is a tremendous authority on these subjects. Given that this is our final opportunity to debate employment agencies, does my hon. Friend agree that it is regrettable that the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) is not present? In the Standing Committee, the hon. Gentleman cited an example of appalling bad practice by an employment agency, giving the impression that it was in his constituency. Does my hon. Friend recall, however, that when challenged, the hon. Gentleman was not prepared to confirm that the culprit

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agency was in his constituency, or to name it? The effect is that a cloud of suspicion hangs over all employment agencies in Corby or in close proximity to it. Should that matter not be cleared up as it has created considerable uncertainty and confusion?

Mr. Bruce: My hon. Friend has jumped ahead to a point I had intended to reach. The hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) has three times given his example on the Floor of the House. At least, I assume it was the same example; each time he told the tale, it altered slightly.

Mr. Bercow: It did not improve in the telling.

Mr. Bruce: It certainly did not. The Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services believes that such a case did exist some years ago. The agency involved was investigated, and it ceased to practise some years ago. The federation's disciplinary procedures also make it clear that any agency employing such practices would be declined membership or kicked out of FRES. That was appropriate self-regulation before the minimum wage came in, and the minimum wage regulations also deal with the matter.

It is fallacious to suggest that regulations are required in the new Bill. None of the regulations suggested by the Government seeks to deal with the matter. When we considered the regulations in advance, it seemed that the new clauses would do so. The federation and other bodies were not concerned because bad practice will always occur--perhaps in 1 or 2 per cent. of businesses, or even more. No one in the industry wants the Government to stop taking action against bad practice, but that is not dealt with in the draft regulations.

Mr. Bercow: If it is accurate, my hon. Friend's intelligence on this matter is extremely helpful to the House. Although he is not psychic, does my hon. Friend surmise that his intelligence might explain the absence of the hon. Member for Corby, who will be well aware that it would be a serious matter knowingly to mislead the House? Might the hon. Gentleman know that the example that he gave in a bid to whip up hysteria is dead and bogus, and that he dare not reproduce it this afternoon?

Mr. Bruce: In Committee, we shot the hon. Gentleman's fox. The record makes it is clear that employment agencies in Corby can hold their heads up high. Although their Member of Parliament has slagged them off, they have proved that they are of the highest standard.

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has tried to vilify a Labour Member by claiming that my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) did not give details of a particular company. If Conservative Members read Hansard for Standing Committee E, however, they will find that Members on their own side stated that several agencies fitted the bill, but did not give any details. It is all in Hansard.

Mr. Bruce: The hon. Gentleman should check his facts. I have a complete set of the Committee Hansard which I should be happy to give him if he would like to check.

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Would the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) care to tell us in which columns we can find the allegations that we made against employment agencies in our own constituencies?

Mr. Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, but we should not embarrass the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart), whose contribution to the Committee was very valuable. He has told me off several times for praising him too much. Apparently, genuine praise from this quarter is unwelcome, and he is once again embarrassed by it. His contribution to the Committee was extremely good, as were those of several of his colleagues. I should mention the excellent whipping of the Bill, which got it out of Committee exactly on time, although I do not want to damage anyone else's reputation by saying so.

I acknowledge that new schedule 2, which abolishes clause 28 by replacing it with a much longer schedule, goes some way towards solving the problem of allowing inspectors to enter premises to investigate almost any crime. The new schedule was published only on Thursday, and I did not see it until this week. I do not know of anyone who has read it in detail and produced a definitive view of how it affects employment agencies.

That is not the right way to introduce legislation. The new schedule has not been examined line by line, and we do not have the time to do so on the Floor of the House. I am sure that the Government have tabled the new schedule in good faith to try to deal with problems raised in Committee. However, a two-and-a-half page new schedule is replacing a page-long clause, and we have not examined it in detail. That puts Parliament in a difficult position. We are telling employment agencies that we have, during the few days of Report and Third Reading, created a new schedule that has not been properly debated.

Amendment No. 34 seeks to provide for positive resolution on this point. I hope that the Minister will give us that comfort. We rightly pay tribute to the Government when they do listen, and they were quick in Committee to say that they would allow positive resolution on virtually all other issues raised. This is a major part of the Bill--perhaps even a Bill within the Bill--and it requires time in Committee.

I am worried that draft regulations may be published in a few weeks' time, examined and reported on in May or June, and made on the last day of Parliament, which is exactly what happened with regulations on holiday pay contained in the working time regulations. The regulations would then come in a month later without any chance of discussion, even though we would be able, under the positive resolution procedure, to discuss them when we return in October. If the Minister considers the matter honestly, he will know that people could not ask their Members of Parliament what those regulations meant to them. That is no way in which to introduce major change in an industry that has many employees.

Until quite late in the proceedings, I had not appreciated that, interestingly, the Government have made a regulatory impact assessment of the Bill. Although the House should welcome the Government making such assessments, the problem is that--as hard as I looked--I could not find in that document one word aboutthe regulations' effect on employment agencies. Extraordinarily, there was also no mention in it of cost

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compliance. Ministers have acknowledged that they are planning to introduce many regulations on the issue, but they have not even addressed the issue in the document. I hope that the Government will do the other place the courtesy of providing some type of impact assessment.

We are not talking about a minor part of our economy. The Government themselves believe that, on any one day, 900,000 temporary workers are out working. Therefore, today, 900,000 workers will finish their work, probably at about 5.30 pm, and will expect to be paid for that work. About 200,000 people are employed as permanent staff in employment agencies--attempting to find permanentjobs for people--and in employment businesses, which attempt to hire people out. They comprise about 3 per cent. of the United Kingdom work force.

To get even close to the number of people who would be affected by the regulations, we would have to add together the number of all those employed in the national health service, which is three quarters of a million people, and in the motor industry. We could also add in the number of Members of Parliament. We have to be extraordinarily careful about passing restrictions that will affect all those who take temporary work and the 380,000 people who gain permanent work each year through employment agencies.

Many people who study employment in the United Kingdom and the world say that ever more people are working in service industries. Some people might even say that employment agencies have no positive impact--other than to help other businesses to do more effectively what they do--and that it is a purely service industry. However, closing down or restricting that industry would affect the employment not only of the 200,000 people who work in it, but of the 900,000 people who gain temporary work through it. Such action could also restrict the speed at which the 380,000 people whom it helps to look for permanent work find jobs.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): My hon. Friend is making his point well, but I should like to develop it a little further, and link it to one of his earlier points. Restricting the industry would disproportionately affect certain types of work and jobs. Employment agencies provide particular types of work to a very large group of employees, and are the principal source of employment in certain types of jobs. Restricting the agencies would therefore have a disproportionate effect on certain parts of the labour market, and it is difficult to imagine another type of agency filling the gap.

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