Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.10 pm

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate, despite the fact that I had some meetings scheduled for today which, sadly, conflicted with earlier parts of the debate. I apologise to hon. Members whose speeches I missed, but I have been able to hear some speeches and intervene in some.

I shall take up some of the points made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), who made an interesting speech that I enjoyed listening to, although I profoundly disagreed with pretty much everything he said. I found it curious that he said there was a distinct correlation between union membership and participation, and well-being—making a country a better place to live in. The ultimate example of a unionised country was the former Soviet

14 Jan 2004 : Column 896

Union, and I cannot imagine a more horrible country in which to live in the 20th century. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's argument is strictly true.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss Kirkbride: In a minute.

Although I was interested to hear the comparison that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West made between America and Canada, I think he will find that a great many more people wish to go to America to make a fortune or earn their living than to Canada. There may be problems with labour relations in America, but it is still by far the richest country in the world, in terms of both gross domestic product per head and overall GDP. That is manifested by the fact that it has announced that it intends to send a man to Mars at some distant future date. That shows the dynamism and power of the American economy, where there is a much more successful balance between individuals' legitimate desire to make a lot of money, to be very successful and to contribute to society through their taxes, than in the more passive countries that the hon. Gentleman clearly prefers, where trade union rights sometimes hinder the dynamism that makes the difference between economic prosperity and other things, which he may value more.

Rob Marris rose—

Miss Kirkbride: As I have mentioned the hon. Gentleman, I must let him intervene.

Rob Marris: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. Does she recognise, as I suggested when I was speaking, that working people's average income in the United States has not gone up for more than 25 years, although the country has got much richer? The reason for that apparent contradiction is that the rich in America have got a whole lot richer in the past 25 years, whereas the average working Joe, as Americans would say, has hardly got any richer at all. Does the hon. Lady think that such inequality makes for a desirable society?

Miss Kirkbride: I should be interested to see the hon. Gentleman's figures for that, as I am not inclined to believe those statistics. I suspect that spending power in America has got much greater, because taxation rates in the US are a good deal lower than ours, and those of other countries. It is not the amount that people earn, but the amount that they have left to spend when the Government have had their take, that is significant. I do not believe that people in America, even the poorer sections of society there, are significantly worse off than people in Europe. Indeed, I believe they are a good deal better off.

I do not accept, either, the idea that the rich getting richer makes the poor poorer, and I think that even the Labour Government have come to that conclusion. Despite the fact that the Conservative Government were berated for encouraging a growing disparity between rich and poor, the poorer sections of society are becoming better off, although the gap is still widening. When we talk about union regulation, Labour Members might bear in mind the fact that despite all the opprobrium that they attached to the Conservative

14 Jan 2004 : Column 897

Government during the 18 years that they were in power, in the past seven years of Labour government the gap between the rich and poor has got wider—and I am happy to take a bet with Labour Members that that will continue to be the case while Labour remains in power.

The hon. Gentleman also raised another interesting point, which is worthy of mention because it is certainly something that I find in my constituency—he should be flattered that I listened to him so much. He said that all the regulations were a good idea because they put employers on a level playing field, and that employers like that. Some employers might. The really big employers love it. It gives them a competitive advantage because they have systems in place to deal with their personnel requirements and other matters. But the smaller the employer is, the harder it becomes.

I know from my constituency post and my dealings in my constituency, that that affects many legitimate small employers who do a good job. I can think of one building firm in particular that is a model employer and a good business, but which is beside itself because the more the regulation increases and the more onerous the burden of public liability insurance upon them, the more their legitimate business of roofing and doing people's driveways is simply going to the cowboy operators who have no earthly intention of meeting any rule that the Government introduce. More regulation can act as a detriment to the smaller employers who cannot afford it, and find that they are priced out of the market because the customer will accept the cheapest quote on offer. Customers do not consider whether a company complies with the Government's new regulations; they just see the £1,000 difference in the cost of tiling their roof and they go with the guy who is cheaper. That is part of the problem. We want people to be legitimate, pay their taxes and abide by the rules, so we need a balance in the way that we introduce these rules.

Jim Sheridan: The hon. Lady refers to cowboys. Surely we all have a responsibility to report to the proper authorities any cowboys who are undermining legitimate jobs. In addition, if there were no health and safety legislation there would be even more fatalities, particularly in the construction industry.

Miss Kirkbride: The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind the need for balance in all this. It would be a wonderful world if everything that people did wrong in society was reported and dealt with, by prosecution if appropriate, but he will know from his own postbag that we simply do not live in such a world anymore. Creating more rules that have to be policed will not get any of us anywhere. Everyone will ignore them, and the more difficult it is to police the law the less it will be obeyed, the more it will fall into disrepute, and the sadder it is for all of us. If we do not have a society in which proper rules are abided by, we can all—including grannies and everybody else who takes on a rogue builder without realising it—end up with the problems that result from not going to a legitimate builder who can afford to do the job at a suitable price.

The question of balance is the key difference between Opposition Members who have concerns about the Bill and Labour Members, some of whom, it has to be said,

14 Jan 2004 : Column 898

have a strong constituency interest in supporting such a measure—because, as the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), who is smiling, told us, the unions pay some of their wages. We know where Labour Members are coming from, which is one reason why we believe that the Bill is unnecessary and why we are disappointed that other more important pieces of legislation, which we have been expecting in the Government's programme, are not forthcoming. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) said, we would have liked to see a Bill on mental health issues. We would also have liked to see a Bill on the civil service, which I would argue is a much more legitimate matter for legislation than the matters dealt with in the Bill, which although it is not terrible, is largely unnecessary.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I try not to intervene on hon. Members, but there may not be time to deal with the hon. Lady's comments at the end of the debate. She thinks highly of family life, and she will be aware of the Government's family-friendly policies on work-life balance, so is she happy to welcome any of those policies, and would she protect them if she ever got into government?

Miss Kirkbride: The Minister has introduced a red herring. I noticed no family-friendly measures in the Bill. If there were any, I would have liked to discuss them.

Under this Labour Government, employment regulations have become like pouring sand into the machinery of employment creation. So far, the effect has been largely benign, but that will not necessarily be true in future, because the more sand is introduced into the machinery, the worse the situation will be. That is why it is not encouraging to see the Bill going on to the statute book. The hon. Member for Hamilton, South upbraided me when I told him that it was my party's policy to welcome good employment relations, but they are absolutely vital; during the 1970s and 1980s we saw to our cost just how bad industrial relations can be. We welcome good employment regulations and believe that most employers abide by them, while accepting that there are some wicked employers who do not behave in a way that any of us would wish to defend.

I suggest to the hon. Member for Hamilton, South that introducing more regulations is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and that the law in itself cannot create better citizens. Creating more laws will merely make life much harder for the perfectly good, decent smaller employer who goes home every night and has to read a 100-page manual on how to implement the minimum wage, or take up his book on how to pay to working families tax credit, or whatever it is called nowadays—it changes every year, and I can never remember. Administering the benefits system used to be the job of the Benefits Agency; now, under this Labour Government, it is the job of employers.

Next Section

IndexHome Page