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22 Jan 2008 : Column 377WH—continued

Lest I go too far down that road, however, Mr. Olner, I return to the issue of home workers in the UK labour market. I agree that it is an important subject, which raises important issues about the Government’s role in
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securing a flexible labour market that offers people decent rights—one that both contributes to the success of our economy and is good for people to work in. That is what we are trying to achieve, and I would not want people to think that home workers have not been part of our agenda or of the work that we have done in the little over a decade that we have been in power.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East referred to the national minimum wage, which is important, because it was designed to put a basic floor under the labour market, beneath which no one should fall. My hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West also mentioned the distinction between workers and employees, and we will come back to that. However, section 35 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 ensures that those who fall outside the usual definition of a worker—for example, because they may not be obliged to do all their work personally—are still covered by the Act, and it is important that the legislation tried to reach out beyond employees to cover workers.

That was the first thing that was done to ensure that legislation reached home workers and those outside the normal definition of an employee. The second thing was to amend piece rates, to which the hon. Member for Solihull referred, and that was done through the fair piece rates legislation introduced in 2005, which addressed the fact that the bar was set at such a level that it seemed to justify payment beneath the national minimum wage. The way piece rates were calculated was changed to address that problem, and the fair piece rate was amended to ensure that people working at an average rate would get the national minimum wage. Those were important gains for home workers, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East acknowledged them.

The Government also supply guidance on fair piece rates by means of the national minimum wage helpline, which anyone who is in doubt about their rights under the legislation can phone in confidence. My hon. Friend also referred to the fact that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a specific enforcement team dedicated to enforcing the minimum wage in that regard.

My hon. Friend rightly said that there is a difference between passing a law and enforcing it. Although passing a law may be the first necessary and important step, we must all be aware of the fact that the law must be properly enforced. I therefore want directly to address the question raised by the hon. Member for Solihull about action on enforcement, because we have been very active on the issue recently. In fact, only last week, I was with the national minimum wage bus, which is sponsored by my Department. It is visiting 30 towns and cities, distributing information to people in town centres and shopping centres. On Friday we were outside St. Andrews football ground in Birmingham. I also visited the bus in Newham, and it is going on to other areas. It is part of an effort to make sure of two things: first, that people are aware of national minimum wage rates. The bus’s route number is 552, and if one thinks about it that is the right name for it. People can go on the bus and find out directly whether they are being paid the minimum wage, as well as finding out about youth rates. They can also phone the helpline to report in confidence if they are not being paid the correct rate.

We have taken out advertising on local radio stations and in bus stops. There is an online campaign aimed at
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young people and I have written articles for newspapers—particularly those more likely to be read by migrant workers, who are often exploited and not paid the minimum wage.

Awareness is important to our work, and so are resources. The hon. Member for Solihull was quite right when she asked about resources. The Prime Minister, in his final Budget as Chancellor, announced a significant increase in resources for enforcement of the national minimum wage—an extra £3 million or so per year over the next few years. That will allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which does the work of enforcement, to hire more staff to ensure that that important legislation is properly enforced.

As well as awareness and enforcement, there is a third arm to the relevant work, and that is changing the law, which we are doing in two respects. The Employment Bill received its Second Reading in the other place recently, and will eventually find its way to the House for discussion. It will change the law in two important ways: first, by increasing the arrears of minimum wage payable to anyone who has been underpaid, to give people a better deal on arrears and, secondly, by increasing the penalties for employers who pay less than the minimum wage. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West talked about employers and unscrupulous practice. We want to change the law so that employers who underpay the minimum wage will receive stiffer penalties than they do now. I do not think that legitimate business has a problem in that regard. In fact, at the TUC a few months ago, the director general of the CBI said that employers who behave in such a way “should get clobbered.” He rightly sees that illegal exploitation of workers through not paying the minimum wage undercuts legitimate businesses, the vast majority of which want to treat their workers decently and fairly. On those fronts—awareness, enforcement through resources, and changes to the law—it is important to make the Act we passed seven or eight years ago even better suited to today’s circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East also raised the issue of employment status and the employment status review. It was an exhaustive review, which took about four years. The ship of state did not move particularly quickly in that respect, and did not come out with overnight, knee-jerk conclusions. I think that my hon. Friend said that the work lasted from 2002 until 2006. I know that he does not agree with the conclusions he read out, but on the basic distinction between employees, workers and the self-employed, the Government decided not to change the legal framework. I have referred already to new law affecting the minimum wage, which is on the way and will also cover other issues, such as those concerned with employment agencies. It will be debated fully in the House. However, I must be candid with my hon. Friend and tell him that I shall not today announce a shift away from the conclusion reached
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by the Government in the employment status review, which, as I have said, took four years and concluded just two years ago. Nevertheless I should not want right hon. and hon. Members to conclude that workers are without rights and protections. That is not the case. Workers are entitled to the minimum wage and paid leave and they have redress for the enforcement of those rights. We do not want a labour market in which some people enjoy the kind of progress that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West spoke about, while others are abandoned.

John Battle: If I remember rightly, the relevant response did not mention the expression “home workers” and I think that part of the point of the debate that my hon. Friend has initiated this morning is whether, when the Government consider the issue, home workers can be positively and explicitly included.

Mr. McFadden: The review was concluded two years ago and there is no plan to start that piece of work again, now that it has been decided that there should not be a basic change in the legal status of the self-employed, workers and employees. That is not to say that suggestions that the National Group on Homeworking and hon. Members who support the campaigns may make with regard to home workers will be swept aside and not listened to. I do not mean that at all. Home workers deserve the protection of the law. They have it with respect to the national minimum wage and rights under working-time protections, as well as, for example, rights under discrimination legislation and entitlement to statutory maternity pay. They are not a group that should be without protection and it is important that their legal protections should be properly enforced, as the hon. Member for Solihull said.

We have made important advances in the labour market in recent years. The hon. Member for Epping Forest referred to the right to request flexible working, which is another change that we have made. It is intended to recognise the twin responsibilities of family and work, and to help employees and employers cope with them. We have worked step by step, through granting the right first to parents of younger children and to carers. Hon. Members will know that the Government recently announced a review of the arrangements, with a view to extending the right to the parents of older children. The review is being carried out by Imelda Walsh of Sainsbury’s, a senior and experienced business woman. We are trying to establish a labour market that helps families to cope with the twin responsibilities of family and work and supports them in a way that business can accommodate.

Today’s debate has raised important issues. We want a labour market with flexibility, but we also want it to have decency and dignity. That is the core philosophy behind the changes in the labour market that the Government have made in the past decade.

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Regional Spatial Strategy (South-West)

10.59 am

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): There can be no more important issue affecting the lives, and quality of life, of our constituents, than the regional planning strategy that is now set out in what is described as the regional spatial strategy. It has a big impact on every constituency in what I like to call the west country. The west country has a population of more than 5 million—on a par with Scotland, which demonstrates a substantial democratic deficit. Today’s debate should represent the beginning of detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the regional plan for the south-west before the Secretary of State takes any decision on its contents and proposed modifications.

Last Thursday, I asked the Leader of the House

today’s debate,

on this highly contentious strategy.

The response by the Leader of the House bears repetition:

I am happy to contribute to any inquiry, within reason, but I hope to hear from the Minister today how the regional spatial strategy will be held accountable, which is so important.

On 18 July 2007, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) about

the Minister for the South West replied:

That is not a system of regional accountability to this House. Will his advice be based on the views of west country Members of Parliament? Will his advice to the Secretary of State be published? When will it be issued? What about the regional Select Committees, which were promoted by the Government to address the democratic accountability deficit, but which now seem to have been shelved? Have they been conveniently shelved until debate on the regional spatial strategy is over?

The strategy was put on deposit between June and August 2006 and generated 1,982 responses and 14,786 representations. However, fewer than one in 10 of those responding were invited to appear at the examination in public, and despite the plethora of objections and representations, nine key matters only were selected for debate. The process at the EIP was seriously flawed, as I
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spelled out in a letter that I sent to the panel chairman in December 2006. In that letter, I stated that

My request, and those of other Members in the west country, was turned down, on the basis—I suppose—that we were not sufficient stakeholders. Who could be a bigger stakeholder than somebody who needs electing to this Parliament? Instead of the elected representatives, we have a plethora of officialdom and quangodom.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Chapter 4.3.23 of the panel reports states that

Even when very important bodies, such as a county council, make representations, the panel has the power to completely ignore them.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why we need to bring the panel to account, and I hope that we will hear from the Minister exactly how we can do that.

I shall not regale colleagues with all the detailed representations that I made, but will mention one on policy reference number SR25. I wrote:

I suggested that the last sentence of SR25 should be replaced with the following words:

It is almost 10 years since the Government announced a rejection of the predict and provide approach to housing targets. In February 1998, the then Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the Government were

Chapter 2.2 of the panel report provides the context for the whole of the strategy. It states:

That is flowery language for predict and provide—the very policy that the Government said that they rejected 10 years ago. The Government have policies to try and restrain increases in traffic growth, but notwithstanding those policies traffic has increased by 13 per cent. in the south-west in the last 10 years. Why can they not have
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policies to try and constrain the increase in population growth, which is destroying our green and pleasant land?

Next year, England will have a higher population density than the Netherlands, and nearly four times the population density of France. The UK population is forecast to rise to 71 million by 2031; on the Government’s own figures, 69 per cent. of that growth will be as a result of immigration. Net immigration is now 190,000 per year—the highest ever, and unprecedented in our nation’s history. When the Government estimated the net immigration figure at only 145,000, a couple of years ago, they put the proportion of household formation caused by that immigration at 33 per cent., meaning a need for 200 houses every day just to accommodate immigrants. Those figures are now significantly higher and still rising, with the figure of 190,000.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there are still more homes than households in this country, although the closeness between those figures is adding pressure on housing, and that the key issue for the south-west is not immigration, but migration from other parts of the country, which is putting excessive pressure on areas such as my constituency?

Mr. Chope: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to an extent. A large number of people are coming into Christchurch because they are being displaced from other parts of the country where the quality of life is declining, largely as a result of the uncontrolled immigration.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the consequence of migration down to the south-west is affecting the quality of life there? Owing to the pressure to build houses without investment in infrastructure, we are building, in certain areas, the slums of the future, which will cause even more problems for whatever Government is in power.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that point was made very well by Ed Perkins, the editor of the Bournemouth Echo, in an editorial earlier this month, when he argued that the discussion about the regional spatial strategy is one about the quality of life of our area for generations to come. If the high densities required by this strategy and the building on green belts is carried through, I am sure that my hon. Friend’s concerns will be proved right.

Mr. Ellwood: The very area to which the South West regional assembly spatial strategy pointed for building extra houses in Bournemouth was in fact completely under water last weekend.

Mr. Chope: That, I think, is a subject for another day. I cannot get into flooding and building on flood plains in this constrained debate.

Where does such mass migration—uncontrolled immigration—to the United Kingdom leave the west country? The Government tell us that we must sacrifice our own green belt, destroy our urban and suburban townscapes with high-density development built on back
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gardens, and spoil the very features of the west country that make it so attractive to tourists and retirees. West country traffic is up by 13 per cent. in 10 years, but we have not increased road space by 13 per cent.—or even by 1 per cent. Surely, the EIP should have examined household formation and unprecedented immigration, and developed around them a strategic policy that was not based on predict and provide.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): My hon. Friend makes an eloquent case. I shall add to the evidence that he cites by explaining the situation in my constituency, where precisely the point that he has just made applies, too. There is appalling traffic congestion on junction 21 of the M5, and a variety of related problems with local infrastructure and services because of the failure to plan for a sustainable community rather than for a dormitory. Instead, the focus has been on predict-and-provide housing provision, with which local services have not kept up.

Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope to turn to infrastructure, because the panel’s report about infrastructure is one of the most critical issues in the whole matter.

I shall turn to another representation that I made to the panel. On policy reference SR29, I said:

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