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Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): Would my hon. Friend care to comment on the arrogation of power to the Inland Revenue that has occurred under this

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Government--particularly the way in which the Inland Revenue has assumed the operation of the working families tax credit?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are discussing the regulations as they relate to the Employment Relations Bill. The Inland Revenue may be debated during consideration of the Finance Bill, but not during this debate.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I look forward to debating the Inland Revenue's new approach for many hours when my hon. Friend and I consider the Finance Bill.

I have no doubt that the Government will be tempted to misuse the regulations. They have succumbed to temptation before, and the drafting of the latest regulations gives one absolutely no confidence that pressure will not be applied. As a result, many of those who might have used employment services will follow other routes and a grey market in temporary employment will be created.

Miss Kirkbride: My hon. Friend's remarks are very worrying. Many of my constituents rely on the assistance of carers, who are provided by temporary employment agencies. It is very important that the industry is regulated properly. Such people provide a lifeline for the elderly, who are incapable of looking after themselves.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, and I hope that we will have the benefit of the views of those Labour Members who are deeply concerned about such matters. Unfortunately, not many of them have the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), but I hope that they will not be too timid to contribute to this vital discussion.

The proposals and draft regulations require more scrutiny than can be provided on Report. They demonstrate how out of touch and incompetent the Government are in the vital area of employment law.

7 pm

Mr. Byers: This has been an interesting debate. In the past few hours, we have discussed in detail the important role that employment agencies play in the current labour market. I shall seek to address the various concerns and questions that Opposition Members have raised.

I shall begin by addressing the concerns expressed by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). He asked specifically whether the new schedule would be in accordance with the European convention on human rights. I touched on that in my opening remarks, when I referred to the need to meet the requirements in relation to self-incrimination, which were set out in the decision in the case of Saunders v. the United Kingdom. We are confident that the new schedule complies with the convention, and I am pleased to give that assurance.

Mr. Boswell: While I am grateful for that substantive assurance, I also asked the Secretary of State a procedural question about whether a Minister who tables a new schedule automatically considers whether it complies with the convention, whether that compliance is assumed or

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whether, in this particular case, the right hon. Gentleman has studied the new schedule's compliance and he gives that assurance on a one-off basis.

Mr. Byers: When a Bill is presented to the House, the responsible Minister has to sign a statement to the effect that the measure complies with the European convention on human rights. It follows that any amendments or new schedules that are tabled by the Government will also comply with that convention, or they would not be tabled. I am certainly happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that this new schedule complies with the convention.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed concerns about the powers of inspectors relating to entry into premises, including the time of day at which such entry could take place. We heard about the knock in the middle of the night which might not be a friendly knock and the difficulties that individuals could be placed in if they were requested to provide information but lacked the necessary knowledge to do so.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that under the existing section 9 of the Employment Agencies Act 1973, there is a limit on the hours during which inspectors may visit. Those are restricted, in classic legal jargon, to "all reasonable hours". That is the sort of phrase which allows lawyers to make lots of money. Under the proposals before the House, those words would remain in the section. It is appropriate that there is a discretion to determine what is reasonable in the particular circumstances being considered by the court at the time. The existing precedents have established that a reasonable time is during a business's normal trading hours, and we continue to take that view. We can go further and say that in these situations it should be normal practice for inspectors from my Department to visit by appointment. That is good practice, and I intend to give that advice to inspectors on behalf of the Department of Trade and Industry.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a point about whether forcible entry could be made, with damages arising as a result. I am informed that forcible entry is not allowed in the provisions that the House is considering. I hope that those clarifications are helpful to Conservative Members. We try our best.

Mr. Boswell: It is right that we should record our thanks where appropriate, so I say to the Secretary of State that we are very satisfied with the assurances that he has given so far. If he continues in that vein, it may affect the tenor of subsequent events.

Mr. Byers: I am conscious that if I go too far in that vein, I may well be the third Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to depart from office during this Parliament, so I shall move on quickly and try to find a point on which I can disagree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers: Before I resign or afterwards?

Mr. Bruce: The right hon. Gentleman will note that his two Labour predecessors were not as accommodating as he is, so perhaps he is ensuring his longevity in the job.

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However, I suspect that if he gets the legislation wrong for the people from employment agencies who are out in Parliament square, that may truncate his career.

Mr. Byers: We shall try to do our best for employment agencies as we do for other organisations, bearing it in mind that our Government were elected to act for all our people and not just a privileged few, unlike Conservative Members. Those words should help to extend my tenure.

The hon. Member for Daventry also expressed concern about a delay in the time in which someone could be prosecuted. The reason for that delay is that there will be circumstances in which individual workers may have to wait a considerable time before they feel able to complain, for example, about non-payment of wages. When a complaint is made in those circumstances, it is appropriate that a prosecution can be made.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) made an extremely informative contribution, which I am sure was welcomed by most, or at least some, hon. Members. He took us through his experiences in the employment agency service, which was beneficial. I accept his point about an impact assessment for regulations that might be introduced. There was no impact assessment for the regulations that were produced last week because those were in draft form. When the definitive version is produced, an impact assessment will be published along with the regulations.

On pay rates and notice of changes, I want to ensure that the regulations are as practical as possible for agencies. The present regulations contain no requirement to notify workers of their rate of pay, and we receive many complaints about that. That notification is good practice and is given by many agencies. There are contracts that include such notification, but there is no regulation to require that to happen. It is appropriate to ensure that that aspect is covered by regulation. Obviously, the regulation will build on the good practice to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Bruce: I certainly stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that one has to send a contract of employment to an individual. If that contract did not include the rate of pay among its conditions of employment, it would be invalid under employment contract legislation.

Mr. Byers: That legislation would require a written contract of employment to be provided, but the hon. Gentleman's point was that a telephone call could reveal that a job was available and that it was important, at that stage, that people knew the rate of pay at which they were being hired. That is the issue which we seek to deal with in regulations.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about temporary to permanent fees. I make it clear that we do not propose to prohibit the charging of those fees, but there is a need to control the circumstances in which they can be charged. The use of temp to perm clauses without any restriction can have serious consequences for individual workers and stand in the way of a free and flexible labour market. I shall explain why that is the case.

There is broad agreement that it would be wrong to allow the imposition on workers of terms that restrict them from taking up employment. Placing financial

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penalties on hirers who wish directly to employ workers whom they originally obtained through an agency has a similar effect to imposing direct restrictions on employees themselves because fees can be set so high that employers are deterred from hiring any workers who have been supplied by a particular employment agency. We seek to overcome that difficulty.

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