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Mr. Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend--he has provided a neat point at which to give an example. I shall use as an example the operation of hon. Members' offices--with which we are all familiar. Let us say that, on a Monday morning, an hon. Member discovers that his or her secretary has taken ill or has had a home emergency. We might decide that, for the next week or so, we shall not answer our correspondence, but catch up later--perhaps expecting those who work for us to work that much harder. It is very difficult for parliamentary secretaries to work any harder than they do; we all know the volume of correspondence that they deal with. Those who work in business are faced with the same decision on whether temporarily to take on someone to help with the work.

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It is good for the United Kingdom economy, for employment and for temporary employees if a temporary employee can arrive at a workplace within hours of someone picking up a telephone and saying, "We have a problem; someone has not come in today. Can you get someone down here to take over?"

The temp will be told over the telephone how much he or she will be paid. The amount often varies, depending on the job. Very often, secretarial temps might work as a personal assistant on one day, as a clerical assistant the next day, and in answering the telephone on another day.

Employment agencies try to get the best possible rate for the job. Many Labour Members seem to think that agencies try to pay the temp the lowest possible amount and to charge him or her out at the highest possible amount. In reality, everyone knows what a temp is being paid when he or she walks through the door. It is very much a cost-plus situation. If one is paying £7 an hour and employer's national insurance, the amount charged by an agency is that amount plus whatever mark-up it is trying to get. Therefore, very often, it is in temp agencies' interests to obtain higher wages for temps. Sometimes, however, agencies cannot send someone out at the desired rate, but will accept a lower rate, of which they will inform the temp. The individual does not accept the job until he or she knows the rate.

5.45 pm

The regulations would prevent someone going from a job paying £7 an hour to a subsequent job paying £6 an hour until that individual had come in to the agency and signed a contract saying that he or she agrees the variation. Under current regulations, within 24 hours--it is a very tight time frame--a rate can be agreed over the telephone, and, in that evening's post, the temp will receive a contract stating how much they will be paid, and the company will receive a contract stating how much it will be charged. Under the new regulations, temps would have to sign a piece of paper stating, "I'm aware of the change, and I agree to it." If it is all done by post, they will be able to start work in about three days' time.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that everyone does not know what a temp is earning when they walk through the door? One of the problems for employers who use employment agencies is that they do not necessarily know--and often cannot find out--how much the temp they have engaged via an agency is being paid. Therefore, employers also have no idea of the commission that is being taken by an agency. Does he accept that the regulations and new schedule 2 will help in that process--which many clients find to be an opaque one?

Mr. Bruce: I do not think that the regulations will necessarily allow an employer to know the rate. People often say that one should not put up on a board what everyone in the organisation is earning, but that one should pay people as if that information will be put up on a board--in other words, one must be fair. Temps certainly do know the various available pay rates.

Perhaps the Government's desire to deal with pay rate variations is based on the fact that two temps may go to the same organisation to do the same job, but be charged

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out and paid at different rates. Such a situation sometimes disturbs the work environment. Those in the industry might say, "Unless one is paying temps at a sensible rate, they will leave one agency and go to another."

We thought that the Government were concerned about people's ability to be flexible in marketing themselves, by going from one agency to another. However, in the regulations, they seem to be trying to deal with almost everything but that.

Mr. Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government seem to assume that the 900,000 people who are temping are doing so because they have been thrown on the scrap heap of life, and that they are being exploited by temporary agencies? More often than not, however, people seek temporary work because they enjoy the flexibility that temp work provides. They are able to do different jobs on different days, whereas, on other days, they are free to look after their children, to do the shopping, or whatever. They enjoy that flexibility, which would be restrained and constrained by the Government's proposals.

Mr. Bruce: I believe that Ministers and some of the members of the Standing Committee understand that. However, generally people are hostile to temping. People must understand that there are those who temp because that is how they want to do their business. There is also a group of people who do not want to temp, but want a permanent job.

There would be unintended consequences if the Government stop the temp-to-perm fees.

Mr. Hayes: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bruce: I shall just develop my point. I do not want to lose track of what I am saying. [Interruption.] All right, I will give way.

Mr. Hayes: I shall give my hon. Friend pause for breath and thought. The key point is that not only is there a group of people who are happy with the flexibility my hon. Friend described--he is right about that--but employers are well aware of that fact, and are aware of the good agencies and those that are not so good. I have found from my business and commercial experience that employers build up a relationship with two or three agencies on which they know that they can call because they are reliable. There is no mystery about that, and there is not a great deal of mystery about the standards of those agencies and the prices they charge or pay. It is not always a jungle out there, which is what some Labour Members would have us believe. There is a fair amount of knowledge on the part of the temps and those using them which tempers the worst excesses that are sometimes caricatured by Labour Members.

Mr. Bruce: Having had my train of thought disturbed I shall now return--

Miss Kirkbride: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his wonderful command of the detail of this legislation. His speech is illuminating for Conservative Members and, I suspect, for Labour Members. I should like to be clear about what he is saying about the notification period for

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a change in the hourly rate. There are many people who enjoy temping who may be cross if they cannot have a job that suits their arrangements in a particular week because of the notice period. I am not sure what my hon. Friend is saying about the time involved in the notice period if a telephone call is not enough.

Mr. Bruce: The current regulations are quite clear. If the terms of employment are to be changed from one week to another, an agency can ring someone and say that the terms are different--hopefully, they will be better. However, if someone is working as a personal assistant in a top company for a few weeks and then has to accept a copy typing job because that is all that is on offer, the pay will not be as much. The person may then say, "If there is nothing else for me, that is fine." A fresh contract will then be sent by first-class post and the employment agency will have done what it needs to do.

Under the regulations suggested by the Government, once they had agreed by telephone to work for a certain amount of money, it would be an offence for people to carry out that work until they had signed a contract to say that the terms were different and that they were willing to accept that. We are talking about people who might be contacted at 10 o'clock in the morning because somebody has not turned up for work because of ill health.

Under the proposed regulations, that individual would either have to go to the agency to sign the contract and perhaps lose a day's work or, if that were not possible, they would have to wait to receive the contract in the post, sign it and then return it. It would then be Wednesday or Thursday before they could work. They could not go until the contract is in the hands of the agency because it would be an offence not to have a signed contract. The bureaucracy is silly.

It is important for hon. Members to understand what sort of people might want to temp and what sort might want permanent jobs. Married women with children of school age are often able to come back to do secretarial work without having to work during the school holidays. They may also want time off if their child is to have an operation or to deal with any other domestic emergency. The temp controller ensures that that is taken into account.

During the school holidays, undergraduates or students at technical college may be available for work and some of them may have secretarial skills. They are available at exactly the same time, perhaps with an overlap, as the children are away from school. That is a perfect flexible market. There are two groups of workers, one that wants only temporary contracts, and the other willing to temp, but wanting a permanent vacancy. The regulations are attempting to stop the temp-to-perm process. Temp people would be sent only to where there is a permanent vacancy and a shortlist of those who want permanent work would be sent later.

A company that wants to take on permanent staff now can ring an employment agency and ask for a temp. If that temp proves to be good, the company may not advertise or ask the agency to send a shortlist, but may take them on as a permanent member of staff. The normal way of dealing with that is that a permanent fee is charged. It may be that £10 or £20 is being made on the margin while those people are temping and a recruitment fee is paid at the end of that time. I do not want to see the unintended consequence of employment agencies sending out only those who want to be temps and providing a separate shortlist of those who want permanent work.

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Some people may become unemployed as temps simply because they are looking for permanent work. Temping is a good way for people to get back into permanent employment and to keep their skills up to date. Sometimes those returning to work, particularly women, want to work at a lower skill level because they do not believe that they have sufficient skills. From running employment agencies I have found that people who say that they can no longer do any shorthand or typing often turn out to be brilliant shorthand typists. Those skills can then be developed while working as a temp, specifically to get back into permanent work. There comes a time in women's careers in particular when the age of their children is the crucial factor in deciding whether they need to stay at home during the school holidays. If the children can stay on their own or go elsewhere, women do not need to stop work during the school holidays.

I am worried that the Government's proposals for the temp-to-perm process will mean that employees are no longer used in that flexible way. In fact, I would go a step further. I believe that this is crucial and that the Government do not understand what they are doing. If a company wants a temp urgently, it can ring the agency and ask for one. The agency may be making a few pounds an hour on top of the cost of delivering that individual. The company may believe that that is a bit steep, but agree to it because it has to have that person.

If there is no requirement for that company to pay a permanent fee, it could decide to employ that person directly as a temp. The employment agency would have used its skill in advertising, interviewing and checking skills and so on. That is a reason to prevent employers who are using the skills of the employment agency from employing an individual directly without paying the agency what it has agreed to pay under the terms of the temp contract. A company might cease the temp contract early and take the person on as a temporary worker, working directly for the company.

That is the temp to perm arrangement which would ensure that any individual trying to run a temporary employment business could be undermined by employers, who would say, "No, I don't have to pay a fee if I take this person directly on to the books." That would have unsatisfactory consequences, in particular for what the Government are trying to do.


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