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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 18 May 2000

[Dr. ASHOK KUMAR in the Chair]

Draft Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000

9.55 am

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000.

May I say how pleased I am to be for the first time in a Committee that you are chairing, Dr. Kumar. I believe that it is your second Committee and I look forward to the wisdom and sagacity that you will bring to the proceedings.

The Government's measures on part-time work will ensure that Britain's 6 million part-timers are no longer treated as second class citizens in the workplace. The measures aim to establish a minimum standard of fairness, and we are determined that the United Kingdom should reap the full benefits of part-time work, without imposing unnecessary burdens on business. Our measures will help the vast majority of employers who already follow good practice and are being undercut by less scrupulous competitors. I shall set out the main features of the new rules and the changes that we have made to them in the light of consultation.

The basic aim of the regulations is simple: to make it unlawful for employers to treat part-timers less favourably than comparable full-timers. That will ensure that part-timers have a right to receive the same treatment as comparable full-timers: the same hourly rate of pay; the same access to occupational pension schemes; the same access to training; the same entitlement to annual leave, as well as parental and maternity leave on a pro rata basis as comparable full-timers.

Once the regulations come into force, part-timers will be able to be treated less favourably only where such treatment can be objectively justified. In all their terms and conditions part-timers will have a right to be valued just as highly as their full-time colleagues.

We received strong representations during the consultation and we looked closely at the responses that we received. There were repeated calls for an extension of coverage from ``employees'' to ``workers''. It was argued that that would ensure that all part timers would be covered by the regulations, including some of the most vulnerable in the labour market. Having listened to the arguments, including the arguments from the Education and Employment Select Committee, we decided that in this instance it would be appropriate to extend coverage from ``employees'' to ``workers''. We have ensured that the comparison is like with like: those on fixed-term contracts with others on the same type of contract, employment agency workers with other employment agency workers, and so on.

We also looked again at the written statement procedure. Having talked to some of the sectors with a high proportion of part-timers, such as the retail trade, restaurants and hotels, it became clear that the procedure needed to be strengthened. As a result, we have ensured that employers will have more time to provide a written statement, and the request for the statement must be in writing. That will provide greater clarity for both workers and employers and provide an important stopping-off point short of a claim being made in a tribunal.

There were strong calls for a hypothetical comparator to be introduced into the regulations. The Government believe that that would have been disproportionate to the problem and unnecessarily onerous on business. However, we have introduced a special provision for workers whose jobs change from full-time to part-time or who return to the same job as a part-timer. That will be especially helpful for women returning to work part-time after maternity leave.

Finally, I turn to the issue of guidance. The directive foresees a vital role for opening up new opportunities and improving the status of part-time employment. The Government have already begun their programme of information with a range of guidance on best practice and compliance with the law on the Department of Trade and Industry's part-time work web page. That programme of information will be rolled out over the next few months and fed into the Government's work-life balance campaign.

In conclusion, the part-time work regulations are the first major piece of employment legislation of the new century, indeed of the new millennium. I believe that is appropriate. Part-time work is going to be increasingly important in the years ahead. The Government have set the right framework for a flexible and fair approach to part-time work. I commend the proposals to the House.

10 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I, too, welcome you, Dr. Kumar, as Chair to the Committee, having not served under your chairmanship before. I hope that it will be the first of many such occasions.

I welcome the Labour party's recognition, at long last, that part-time work is important. Those of us who served in the previous Parliament will remember that whenever unemployment statistics were mentioned, Labour Members scorned the fact that more people had obtained part-time work. Part-time work, they told us, was not proper work, should not be counted and was fiddling the figures. They derided it. I therefore welcome the fact that the Government have at long last recognised the contribution that part-time workers make to our national economy, and how important it is for many people, particularly women, who choose for a range of reasons to work part-time rather than full-time.

The regulations yet again follow on the pattern established by a Government who seek to remove from the employer-employee relationship the opportunity to negotiate workplace conditions of employment. They would put all that on a statutory basis, because the Government know best. The situation is a little more complex than that, of course, arising from a directive under the social chapter—something that the Government have no option but to apply, whether or not they agree with it. The point is somewhat academic because, having signed up to the social chapter, they are obliged to apply any retrospective legislation that has arisen from it since it was conceived.

The Committee will know that during our years in Government, the Conservatives repeatedly refused to tie down employers in the way in which the present Government seek to do. I remind the Minister that we did not act as we did because we are against motherhood and apple pie and fairness in the workplace. The Government must recognise that if they really want this country to remain competitive, many of the measures that they are putting on a statutory basis, including the regulations, are tilting the balance of the United Kingdom, particularly in the context of the European Union, away from being one of the most attractive places for people to set up and run businesses because our non-wage labour costs compare well with other countries.

At the Confederation of British Industry conference dinner on Tuesday night, I heard employers telling the Prime Minister how concerned they were about the burden of regulation. Indeed, the Minister himself was present and will have heard that at first hand. But such statements make no difference whatsoever. The Government still introduce regulation after regulation.

The part-time workers regulations, which arise out of the social chapter, were signed up to by the Government on 7 April 1998. Despite having had two years in which to implement the measure, they have already had to seek one extension for failing to meet the deadline. Now, in the middle of May, employers have just six weeks in which to implement the regulations in their places of work.

We have received umpteen promises from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that he has learned the lessons of the shambolic way in which his Government have introduced such changes as the working time directive and the minimum wage. As if it were not bad enough that they are adding costs to business, the unbusiness-like way in which they deal with the legislative process adds to the burdens of businesses. Chris Humphries of the British Chambers of Commerce said:

    A damaging pattern is emerging here with government leaving insufficient time for business to come to terms with the stream of regulations coming from Europe. With only a matter of weeks before the Part-Time Work regulations are introduced, the timeframe is too short to ensure they are properly understood and implemented, particularly by small firms.

The Government are aware of the deadlines. They have had two years in which to produce the regulations. Delivery on time is not a feature of this Administration. They have had as much advance warning and dialogue as they could possibly have wanted. The Government's pattern of legislating in haste and repenting at leisure must come to an end. I have personally heard the Secretary of State give business a commitment that lessons will have been learned from the way in which they implemented earlier legislation.

Yesterday, I raised with Madam Speaker on a point of order on the Floor of the House the fact that only last Wednesday the Secretary of State, talking about the work-life balance, told listeners to ``Woman's Hour'' on Radio 4 about the regulations, and gave the clear message that the way in which the Government had amended them would result in all part-time workers, regardless of their having to identify the full-time comparator, benefiting from them. His information was so wrong that the following day ``Woman's Hour'' invited a spokesperson from the Trades Union Congress to put right his inaccuracies. He said:

    Poor Mr. Byers. I think it must have fuddled his head because he has had a very tough week . . .

I say to the Minister in all seriousness that it is a contempt of the House—


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