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Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): I, too, believe that the House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Memberfor South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) for his detailed and knowledgeable speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), the experience that I bring to the debate does not nearly match that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, but I speak as one who has used employment services. I am aware that I have not yet spoken on the Bill, but I have a specific interest in employment agencies and in a subset of that group. However, in Surrey, London and in the west country, I have had experience of using employment agencies and I can attest to their value in terms of finding people to work both in the workplace and in the home.

Until I listened to this debate, I had not realised that the incompetence displayed by Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry extended not only to the area that I am about to touch on, but across the board. It would appear that there is a total misconception about the point of temporary workers and the purpose to which agencies are put: both exist to oil the wheels of an enterprise economy, and they are not a threat to the regulated dirigiste economic system to which too many Labour Members still aspire.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend made me think of something. I suspect that Conservative Members do not have the figures, so it would be illuminating to hear the Government's figures on the number of full-time jobs found in the regular economy through employment agencies compared with the number found by the Employment Service, which is a nationalised state industry. I suspect that those figures will bear out the claim that the free market economy created by the employment agencies and their supporting ideology has been far more successful.

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6.45 pm

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because we do know that the number of people finding jobs through employment agencies has trebled since 1992; we also know that, during that period, the Conservative Government deregulated the sector. No one can believe that those two facts are purely coincidental. After last year's announcements by the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), when he was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, it became clear that the Government's policy was far from being one of modernisation. In fact, they are turning the clock back to 1973, whereas we modernised in 1996; that is what is happening through legislation such as the Bill before us today. As the chopping and changing goes on, with new amendments tabled on Report, we see that the Government have no clue what they should be doing, or why they are even beginning to do it.

I have a particular area of concern, and that is the employment of au pairs, a matter which I raised in the House a few weeks ago.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): If the hon. Gentleman's memory stretches back to the mid-1980s onward, he will recall that tenure of employment shifted from permanent to non-permanent or short-term employment. That is what gave rise to the growth of the agencies, because people who had lost their job through downsizing and so on were desperate to find anything to bridge the gap until they found something. That is the insecurity that was built into employment practices during that decade.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if we started to debate the changes in employment practice in the 1980s. However, we have a successful economy, which the Conservatives bequeathed to the current Government; it is capable of generating new jobs and, in the flexible workplace, many of those jobs will be temporary.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Opposition Members might care to learn that, during that decade, the number of temporary workers increased from 6 per cent. of the working population to 7 per cent. In France, where temporary employment is effectively illegal beyond three months, the number of people on temporary contracts is 25 per cent. of all employees. That demonstrates what happens when the Government try to overregulate the market.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In addition, the average time that people spent in a job barely decreased at all under the Conservative Governments, because temporary employment was, and still is, so often converted into full-time employment. The very provisions that threaten us today would jeopardise, not help, that process of conversion to full-time employment.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend's remarks are stirring great interest and we are extremely keen to hear of his experiences with au pairs. One of the reasons for the success of employment agencies and why they would be

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damaged by the Bill is that, now that we have a more specialised labour market, the sort of measure that the Government are trying to introduce--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I find that, when the hon. Lady intervenes, she tends to make a little speech. We cannot have little speeches during interventions.

Mr. St. Aubyn: In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not be tempted down the path suggested by my hon. Friend.

I should preface my next remarks by saying that my wife and I have never employed an au pair. However, a great many au pairs are employed in my constituency, and representatives of several successful and long-standing agencies that create that employment came to see me some weeks ago when, on another occasion, the DTI got it completely wrong--so wrong that, on the same day as the Secretary of State announced that his minimum wage regulations would not apply to au pairs, one of my hon. Friends received a letter from the Home Office saying that au pairs would indeed be affected by the minimum wage legislation.

Mr. Boswell: Is it not because the Government were so arrogant in their assumptions in respect of the minimum wage legislation and so determined to confine the number of exceptions to the minimum that they have had the greatest legal difficulty in scrambling free from the chains that they have loaded on themselves and on an important sector of the economy?

Mr. St. Aubyn: My hon. Friend is right. The jury is out, and we cannot predict how the Government's masters in Brussels will interpret their wriggling on the hook of the regulations that they created. We have received several unsatisfactory letters from the Secretary of State and his colleagues trying to wriggle off that very hook. I am concerned that the regulations being rushed through the House may contain hidden legal traps that will come to light only when the officials in Brussels scrutinise the legislation and reinterpret it in the context of the many directives that the Government have signed.

I must touch briefly on the issue of au pairs. The previous Government, quite correctly, deregulated employment agencies. However, that action had some unintended consequences in the case of au pairs, and some agencies are not delivering the goods. I draw a real distinction between agencies that provide employment in the workplace and those that provide help in the home. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire made clear, adults can assess the quality of employees in the workplace. Companies will continue to use the services of an agency that delivers the goods and will rapidly cease to use those agencies that deliver second-rate employees. The market system will solve the problems.

When it comes to au pairs, the customer is the child in the home who is clearly in no position to assess the appropriateness or otherwise of the care provided. The logic of that argument extends to those who care for the elderly. Will the Secretary of State explain how he believes that the new regulations will affect au pair agencies? Will they continue to be exempt under the published regulations or will they come within the remit

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of his Department? If they do, there may be an opportunity to improve the present situation slightly, but the Government will risk damaging the entire au pair scheme.

I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). In responding to a recent Adjournment debate, she made it clear that she believed that au pairs who work for British families are taking advantage of one of life's big opportunities and must take their chances--I almost paraphrase her words. That approach could not contrast more starkly with the apparent attitude of the Department of Trade and Industry, which believes that employees must be mollycoddled from beginning to end by a Government who know exactly what is good for them. Regulations of the type that the Government propose will prove impossibly bureaucratic.

The Government might also consider the experience of the previous Government in promoting a helpline. In a deregulated system, a helpline is an efficient and cost-effective means by which those who have had bad experiences with employment agencies can alert the authorities and others to the risks that they pose. More practical assistance in the form of promoting that helpline would do more to improve the good-quality employment agencies in this country than the over-burdensome regulations with which we are threatened today. When the Government republished their advice to au pairs, they did not bother to include in their leaflet any information about the helpline that au pairs could call if they found their position unsuitable.

We must also consider that the Government might use the new regulations to force employment agencies to become second-class tax inspectors and tax collectors. A very good volunteer agency in my constituency works hard to find carers for the elderly, who would otherwise not be able to afford the service. That agency has experienced many difficulties because the local Inland Revenue office compels it to keep detailed records. The agency is required by law to provide information about the background details of all potential carers who pass through its doors.

Will the Minister assure the House that the remit of the regulations will not be too wide? We have heard that there might be an unfriendly knock on the door and that the regulations offer wide scope for inspecting business records. How can we be sure that, under the guise of these regulations, there will not be cross-fertilisation with the Inland Revenue and undue and unfair pressure applied to those who run the agencies to become tax inspectors and spies for a Government Department? If the Government are tempted down that road, many people will cease using employment agencies. They will relinquish the benefit of being properly assessed for work for which they are suited and the chance of discovering from employers where their best work prospects lie.

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