Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Prisk: Does my hon. Friend agree that, under new clause 2, we not only seek to stimulate that debate, but in a sense adhere to the spirit of the National Audit Office's view that any new proposal should be properly assessed and involve a regulatory impact assessment?

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although I have to tell him candidly and in confidence that I am not optimistic that the Minister will accept the new clause, I hope that, in response to it, he will take the opportunity on the Floor of the House to confirm that there will be no move to implement the powers under the Bill to change the definition of "worker" so that workers are covered by its scope until the review process is completed, the proper assessments have been carried out, a consultation exercise on the proposed legislative changes has been undertaken and general legislation is introduced to do at a stroke whatever needs to be done across all employment legislation.

In other words, I seek an assurance from the Minister that the inclusion of such provisions in the Bill does not imply that, on the basis of a quick and dirty analysis immediately after the review is completed and as a sop to the trade union agenda, he will present the prospect of including workers in the Bill's scope ahead of a more comprehensive solution if the review deems that necessary. I hope that good practice will require him to do what he would be asked to do under new clause 2, and that he will confirm what I have asked him to confirm so that Conservative Members can be comfortable in the knowledge that the changes will be made on the basis of properly assessed need, cost and benefit.

I hope that the changes will not be part of a wider political trade-off in the Labour party's smoke-filled tower, with Ministers desperately bidding to win trade

12 Feb 2002 : Column 125

union leaders' support for their privatisation of public services, while simultaneously keeping up the flow of cash into Labour party coffers. We hope that the Government will not be tempted to offer sacrifices that perhaps impose more burdens on private sector businesses, while saving Ministers' bacon and the Labour party's funding.

6.45 pm

Frankly, those are our fears, and I hope that the Minister will be able to allay them by accepting new clause 2 or, if he is not in a generous enough mood to do that, perhaps by confirming that he will follow the procedures that I suggest and not use the powers under this Bill until a general Bill is introduced to do so—if, indeed, that is the conclusion of the review.

Mr. Lloyd: I thought that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made a fascinating speech. I congratulate him on becoming skilled at presenting an almost acceptable face for the modern Conservative party. He tries his very best to make calm, seemingly rational contributions on various issues. Indeed, he spoke for the Opposition in that manner in Committee, with one or two exceptions. Nevertheless, we get down to the visceral Tory inside him when he talks about giving sops to the trade union agenda and caving in on the worker-employee issue. Let us be a little more grown up than that. The worker-employee question involves very real issues. The simple fact is that there is genuine legal debate about the implementation of the fixed-term directive and whether the British Government's interpretation of EU law and its incorporation into national legislation is acceptable. The matter may or may not end up in the courts, but it is a serious issue.

Fixed-term contracts in higher education present us with an especially serious issue. Some 11 per cent. of employees in higher education are now on fixed-term contracts. Frankly, it ought to be astonishing that the hire-and-fire mentality is used to run our academic institutions. Let us be brutally honest: we are talking not about universities and higher education institutions dealing with the sudden excess demand that arises in the summer, when 27 more undergraduate courses in physics or philosophy may be required, but about universities cushioning themselves so that they can take on or get rid of staff at summary notice. Many of those people have been employed on fixed-term contracts for many years. Frankly, that is an abuse, and it would be a shame if the current system continued in perpetuity.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's argument—I am with him in that I, too, want to find a comprehensive solution to the worker-employee issue—but he may feel slightly slighted if I tell him that I do not believe that it is the Conservative party's ambition to sort out the issue in favour of those who are often in the most marginal employment circumstances and who will lose that sort of protection. I hold that view because at no time during their 18 years in government did the Conservatives go down that path. There is no evidence that they even wanted to recognise those issues. In fact, the opposite is the case, as they sought to cast into that employment never-never land

12 Feb 2002 : Column 126

far too many of our fellow citizens—people who are just as entitled to dignity at work as those who are formally given the legal status of employee.

The hon. Gentleman would have more credibility if he told us what the Conservative party would be prepared to do if it ever got back into government. What is the modern, Letwinised Conservative party prepared to do? We do not believe that it has any real credibility given the fact that Conservative Members' rhetoric runs in sharp contrast to many of the views that have been expressed. He did not talk about employers abusing their employees by imposing unacceptable employment conditions. He paid passing reference to the fact that that was not acceptable, but we need a little more than the condescending view, "We can recognise bad conditions when we see them." We need to consider how employment law can resolve such evils.

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back, he will remember that we had this exchange in Committee. I suggested that the Inland Revenue had generally been pretty adept at defining a person as an employee, despite all attempts by ne'er-do-wells to define them as something else. I suggested to him that that was a good model on which to base our discussion.

Mr. Lloyd: I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman develop Conservative policy in this area. However, I remind him that an awful lot of the lags in legislation that this Government had to pick up in 1997 were a result of a deliberate and calculated policy. That sort of policy is always justified by the Opposition when the need for flexibility is discussed. He is right that flexibility is important. It is important to employers and it is right and proper that employment relations should be structured so as to allow industry to be maximally efficient. There is no argument about that, and certainly none that mainstream trade unionists would want to advance.

There is also an argument that flexibility cuts the other way and is also about giving the employee access to acceptable working conditions and the opportunity to take advantage of them. We did not hear a lot in the previous debate or even in the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks about the need for flexibility for employees. In that context, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to reflect hard on what is being said, because the new clause has all the marks of a wrecking amendment. It is superficially attractive—it asks us to delay, to wait and to look for a little more information—but the real intent is to cement the current position more permanently, so the day will never dawn when employers are forced to face up to their real responsibilities.

Mr. Hammond: Whether that day will dawn will be in the Government's hands when they complete the review. The point of the new clause and of what I have said to the Minister is to seek his assurance that no piecemeal approach will be taken using the order-making power in the Bill and that he will wait until a comprehensive solution has been proposed, consulted on and implemented across the board as a definitive remedy. Does the hon. Gentleman support that approach?

Mr. Lloyd: No, I do not, and I shall explain why. The issues are intellectually and practically separable.

12 Feb 2002 : Column 127

A decision on what is right and proper in relation to the aspects of the Bill that are covered by the new clause can be made coherently on its own merits. My hon. Friend the Minister will have the legal capacity to make that decision if it is in the interests of the operation of industry, commerce, employers and employees. I urge him to do it at the right time, subject to proper consideration. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that these matters require adequate consultation, but there will be no need to wait if we know what is the right thing to do.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman more generally that we must resolve the overall problem of the definition of employee and worker. I repeat that if he is asking us simply to delay the resolution of that problem, he will find no support among Labour Members. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be reasonably robust in his response and tell him that he is making a good try. However, the real Tory view is coming out in little soundbites designed for the Federation of Small Businesses and in Conservative central office press releases. That is the real voice that he wants the country to hear. Alas, the mask begins to slip away as we reach the end of debate. We look forward to more of that mask slipping to reveal the real Tory party.

Next Section

IndexHome Page