Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.15 pm

Mr. Bruce: My hon. Friend's point is sensible.

We would be out of order if we considered in detail the draft regulations that the Minister was kind enough to give us. They cannot be covered on Report, despite the fact that we did not have them to deal with properly in Committee. I hope that I can get his attention so that he can give some pledges when he replies and do what he said that he would do at the outset. He should consider the regulations from the point of view of allowing employment agencies to continue to thrive and flourish.

The Opposition do not believe in over-regulation. We think that self-regulation and many other things work very well. However, we accept that the Government have a mandate to regulate for what they see as employees' rights. Employment agencies are not going to resist what

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1132

the Government have a mandate to produce, but they must be able to operate sensibly. We must understand that a temporary employee or someone applying for a permanent job can act independently of employment agencies and businesses. They can take out temporary contracts with employers. Much bar work and casual labour work in the leisure industry are done in that way. Some employees work through employment agencies. I contend that, in law, individuals, whether employed directly by an employer or by an employment agency, should be treated equally. However, I allow that individuals working in an agency might feel that they do not have enough power of negotiation and might wish the Government to protect their rights. Sensible regulations have therefore been accepted by employment agencies over many years, and they have worked successfully. The industry has developed.

The industry is usually relaxed about regulation. When I ran an employment agency in Yorkshire, it was great to have a licence. If Mrs. Smith decided to run an employment agency because she used to be a temp and thought it would be a great way to make money, which is how my two rivals started, I could close it down for three months. After its first advert for temps, I could ring the Department of Employment and say that someone was starting an employment agency. The Department would send an inspector or write a letter to say that a licence was necessary. A licence could be got without difficulty, but it used to take at least three months. The local authority had to check for planning permission; lots of forms had to be filled in--all the usual bureaucracy. It was great. I paid about £100 a year and had a restraint of trade on anyone who wanted to start competing with me.

Before I started my employment agency, I had been made redundant and had decided to start a management consultancy. As part of the base for that, I was going to have an office services bureau which would make lots of money. I set up the bureau and had people with typewriters and everything else. I spent all the money. I thought that I was a great marketing expert, but, however my cheap my service, I could not grow the bureau fast enough.

I thought, "God, what am I going to do?" The guy who was made redundant with me told me that he was doing interviews for employment agencies. He told me that I should start an employment agency because I would make a fortune. It was foolish; I had an office services bureau sitting there and had interviewed a lot of secretaries. Then I realised that I had an asset in the group whom I had employed and the group whom I could not employ, but who were really good, and that I could start an employment agency. I started almost overnight by ringing a few local companies and saying that I had some super secretaries for their vacancies and asking whether I could send some people around. That is how I started my employment agency. I suspect that if I had not got those early placements, I would have gone out of business very quickly. It is amazing how one can spend money setting up a business.

If I had had to wait the three months that the old system used to allow for, I would never have started. The two existing businesses would still be working today and BOS Recruitment would never have been born. That shows how employment agencies and the Federation of

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1133

Recruitment and Employment Services can be keen on ensuring that there are regulations to protect existing agencies and not necessarily to allow new entrants.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is speaking with great knowledge on this important subject. I wonder whether he thinks that the Government should look again at this rather cumbersome and lengthy draft new schedule in the light of the recently agreed Cabinet policy, which we heard about earlier this week, that regulations should be both necessary and proportionate. I know that my hon. Friend feels that in some ways regulation is necessary, although not always for the best of reasons, but is the new schedule proportionate? Can he draw on his experience to tell us whether the Government should take it back because it is clearly not proportionate to the problem that they have identified?

Mr. Bruce: The Government often come out with extremely good statements of intent. They say that they want to ensure that regulations are proportionate and do not go overboard, but, in trying to regulate, they suddenly discover that regulations beget regulations, and that loopholes appear that then require another set of regulations. That is why the draft consultation document, which runs to 70 pages, was necessary just to say what clause 28 would do. The Government have discovered that they needed to write new schedule 2 because clause 28 was not long enough.

Mr. Byers: I welcome the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to this important debate. It is a shame that he was not here at the beginning of the debate, given its importance. Had he been here, he would have heard me announce that, as a result of our amendment, we are reducing three sets of regulations to one and seven schedules to four. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes that approach.

Mr. Bruce: Although the point was made to my right hon. Friend, I am sure that he will allow me to answer on his behalf. I am sure--

Mr. Byers: Let him answer.

Mr. Bruce: My right hon. Friend cannot make a speech while I am making a speech, if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me. I am sure that you will remind him of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I allow that the Government set out to reduce the number of regulations, but since last Tuesday, when we discussed clause 28 in Committee, the Government have produced new schedule 2, which is twice the length of clause 28. On the Tuesday before we started discussing clause 28, we received draft regulations of 70 pages.

If the Government went through the existing regulations and struck through 50 per cent. of what was there, of course the industry would say that that was good. The words might even be clearer. But that is not what happens. The Government go off with good intentions of simplifying the regulations for employment agencies. I wrote an article for The Interviewer magazine in which I asked whether we should be concerned about the

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1134

regulations or should panic about them. The industry is now panicking. I cannot pass out the draft regulations to all and sundry, because they still have not been made public. When the one person to whom I have shown them saw them, she panicked about what they contained. I accept that the Secretary of State is sincere in saying that he wants to remove regulations, but I am afraid that it is not happening.

Mr. Redwood: Of course I would have liked to be here to hear the remarks of the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend, who is speaking so well, but I went to the shadow Cabinet. Perhaps the Secretary of State agrees that, given the momentous events unfolding here and elsewhere,it was important that I was at the meeting. I was subsequently briefed by my hon. Friend the shadow Minister of State, who was here to listen to the earlier part of the debate.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the length of the regulations is not the only issue, although he rightly says that the latest version is long? The impact on business is also an issue. Only last night, the Secretary of State turned down the opportunity to exempt all small business from this rigmarole. That is why we are still unhappy about the proposals. We would prefer it if he exempted small business from the regulations so that their incredible cost is not imposed on it.

Mr. Bruce: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely powerful point, which I will not attempt to paraphrase.

When the Labour party was in opposition, it wrote in its 1983 manifesto that it would make employment agencies and businesses illegal. I suspect that such a measure could be encapsulated in a small number of regulations, but I predict confidently that if the Minister wants to restrict what contracts can be made between an employment agency or business and an employer who wants to take on staff, the regulations that we have now will pale into insignificance.

No one bothers to go to law about regulations that are reasonable and sensible, but if the Government try to outlaw practices that are normal and sensible and have worked well over the years, their regulations will be tested in the courts. I know that the Secretary of State's officials will be spending an awful lot of time, paper and ink in producing the regulations.

Miss Kirkbride: I served on the Standing Committee with my hon. Friend. The draft regulations were presented to us on the morning when we were meant to debate clause 28. That was breathtaking in itself. They were not to be made available to the employment agency industry. With his superior knowledge, does my hon. Friend have any idea when the industry might see the regulations? It would be wrong if the Bill were to pass through both Houses and become law before the industry could make its representations. However clever my hon. Friend is, there may be things that he has not noticed, and that it is necessary to draw to the attention of the Government.

Next Section

IndexHome Page