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22 Feb 2008 : Column 663

House of Commons

Friday 22 February 2008

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Orders of the Day

Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.34 am

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I thank the many people who have contacted me regarding the Bill and the huge the number of colleagues who have expressed their support for the measure. The media have already noticed that my sponsors reflect all strands of opinion inside the parliamentary Labour party, and because of that I am confident that the Government will listen to my comments as I know that I speak for so many colleagues.

I do not want to dwell on why no progress has been made, but want to provide an opportunity for the House and the Government to start to resolve one of the most important employment issues that we have had to address since the implementation of the minimum wage.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I attended a meeting on Wednesday with, among others, the Institute of Directors. It informed me that it has been assured by the Government that they are against the Bill. Is that the hon. Gentleman’s understanding as well?

Andrew Miller: It is my understanding that the Government are in favour of resolving the problem, and that is what I want to happen. I am not particularly worried whether it happens through the vehicle of this Bill or this Bill amended, or by some other measure. I, and the many people supporting the Bill, want the issue resolved, and soon.

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Is it my hon. Friend’s impression, as it is mine, that the same bureaucratic forces deep in Whitehall are against the Bill as were originally against the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill? Does he agree that what is required is for Ministers to put down their collective foot and ensure that fairness is provided for agency workers?

Andrew Miller: My right hon. Friend speaks with authority given his responsibility in taking that Bill through the House. A solution that might wake up some civil servants is to put agency staff in Whitehall. They might think a bit differently then.

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I remind the House that the stories of doom and disaster that we have heard from some quarters are based on precisely the same arguments as we heard when we introduced the minimum wage—threats that 250,000 jobs will be lost and threats about the slow-down of the economy. We face the same doom merchants, recycling the same speeches. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. My Bill, if introduced with care, will not impact at all on our competitiveness.

I want to consider the substance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s interview in Davos on 25 January this year, when he said:

He went on to say:

He was trying to develop a vision for what he saw as the 2020 economy, in which the 6 million unskilled jobs in the British economy are replaced by a much smaller number of jobs. He then said:

That is precisely right. It is a very good analysis of what the economy needs and what British workers need to do to help us to get the economy moving in the right direction in the race for the top. It is that model that we should be targeting, not a model that is based on exploiting workers at the bottom end of the pile. If Britain, and indeed Europe, intend to compete in that race, that will undoubtedly be based on a highly skilled and highly motivated work force.

Although temporary workers will continue to be needed to fill the peaks in demand and to help us to deal with unexpected circumstances, the notion that the number will remain the same as today’s figure of approximately 1.4 million runs contrary to any logic. We simply cannot achieve the goals set out by the Prime Minister without addressing the issue that we are dealing with today. Doing nothing provides a short-term advantage to some businesses, but it does little to provide the necessary ingredients for us to reach that 2020 goal. After all, few agencies have any clear training objectives. So my first argument in favour of the Bill is that it is in the best long-term interests of the economy to encourage employers to plan for the long term and to establish a well-trained and well-motivated work force.

The second argument, which has brought so many of my colleagues together, is that what the Bill proposes is morally right, which is surely the basis on which we should legislate. At the end of the day, that should be a powerful motivator, and it should be central to our thinking in Parliament. How can it be right for people to work alongside one another with the same skills doing the precisely the same task, yet one category of employee is worth less than another? The concept of equal value should surely apply to anyone in such circumstances. I am not arguing that there is no need to use agency workers, as they create the flexibility that is sometimes needed, but I am arguing that they should not be routinely used as a means of dodging the cost of sick pay, holiday pay, pensions and any other part of the package available to permanent employees.

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Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): Like many of my colleagues, I am interested in the substance of my hon. Friend’s speech and the Bill. Does he agree that the Opposition Benches are quite bare? There are no Liberals in the Chamber and very few Tories. [ Interruption. ]

Andrew Miller: The sole Liberal, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), has returned to the Chamber.

As usual, my hon. Friend has made an astute observation about what happens in the House. It is fascinating that Labour Members, who represent working people, have turned out en masse to support the measure, while the Opposition Benches are devoid of Members.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Scottish National party would hate to be left out of this little discussion. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is support among nationalist Members for his Bill, and we will support him today.

Andrew Miller: I am glad of support from the token nationalist in the Chamber. I wonder whether the rest of them will participate later in the vote.

I should like to illustrate my argument with a few cases. An agency approached me with irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing by another agency, which was providing labour below the minimum wage. While better policing of existing legislation would help, we need to fire a shot across the bows of offenders, and I want action by Ministers to address the problem. That is slightly outside the parameters of the Bill, but it is important that we look at the issue holistically, and ensure that the abuses that have been identified are properly addressed by using existing legislation as well as incorporating the proposals that I have set out. In the case that I have just raised, the agency was undercut on two occasions by a competitor and, consequently, it could not bid for the work because to do so would be illegal. Yet someone is doing that work, which is outrageous in this day and age. Under existing policing arrangements, it was impossible to deal with the problem.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): In trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman may I give him another example to illustrate the need for his proposals? Next Friday, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is run by a Labour Minister, will announce whether, with Capgemini, it will lay off 600 to 700 people in my constituency, only for them to be replaced by agency workers who do not have the rights that he believes they should have.

Andrew Miller: I genuinely look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s support in the Division.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I congratulate him on the incredible turnout of support, which will send a signal to the Government about what the parliamentary Labour party wants. He is a fair man, so will he tell us what the total cost will be to British industry if his Bill becomes an Act?

Andrew Miller: I do not believe it will be a cost—I think it will be a benefit, because the measure will result in a greater focus on the need to upskill workers in modern industry, thus helping us to move towards the economic model that the Prime Minister postulated in
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his Davos speech. I remind the hon. Gentleman that precisely the same issue of cost was raised by Opposition Members when we introduced the minimum wage. That measure has not resulted in detrimental costs for the UK, and the Bill will not do so, either.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Is not one of the benefits for British industry the fact that the morale of people in permanent employment will be boosted by the knowledge that they will not be replaced, or threatened by, the advance of temporary and agency workers? That will surely impact on their capacity to perform their functions to the best of their abilities.

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The confidence and morale of the work force in any workplace impacts directly on productivity and, indeed, the profitability of the business. That point is blindingly obvious, but it has been missed by Opposition Members. My hon. Friend has hit on a very important matter: if Britain is to be competitive in the race to the top, we must build greater confidence among the work force by getting employers to work with permanent staff. I accept that they have to use temporary and agency workers when absolutely necessary to deal with peaks in demand and emergencies, but they should use their core work force more productively. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill. Will he go a bit further, and confirm that the measure will help to protect employees’ terms and conditions, which will benefit not just agency workers but people in full-time jobs?

Andrew Miller: Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have identified examples in which the bringing in of agency workers, predominantly from central European countries, has not only undermined conditions but damaged good relations in the workplace, which is an unhealthy development. Employers argue that they are trying to achieve more flexibility in the workplace, but they act against their own best interests.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing his Bill. He just made a point about people being brought in from far away, which is happening even in prominent high street supermarkets. The lower wages that those workers are paid are used as a benchmark to try to adjust the wages of permanent staff.

Andrew Miller: Again, my hon. Friend makes a sensible point.

Several hon. Members rose

Andrew Miller: I should like to make a little progress.

Two gentlemen came to my surgery asking for advice about how they could claim redundancy pay, because the depot in which they worked in my constituency had closed. The closure appeared to be a perfectly rational business decision, so when those guys came to see me I asked them why claiming redundancy pay was a problem. They told me that they were employed by an agency. I was curious, and asked them how long they
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had worked for it. One said, “Twelve years”, and the other one said, “Eight years.” Is that a good use of British workers? It is an outrage that a publicly known company—Calor—should act in that way.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that, while agency workers work for low wages on bad terms and conditions the people who run those agencies make profits, which is a very expensive way to go about things?

Andrew Miller: It is an expensive way of addressing employment needs. These so-called permatemps are an unacceptable form of employment.

Viktor, a Hungarian whom I met a couple of weeks ago—colleagues will know that I have a strong connection with that country as chair of the all-party group—is sleeping on the floor of a house with five other young men who are being exploited in Britain in 2008. His problems need addressing through my proposals and through the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), whom I congratulate on that.

Many other examples of abuse can be cited, but I want to deal now with the Bill and the two issues that have historically been a stumbling block in progressing the matter. First, with regard to the qualifying period, some jobs require no training and a permanent employee would be taken on at the particular rate for the job. There can be no argument but that temporary employees in such employment should earn the same as their permanent counterpart from day one. Other jobs require particular qualifications or experience, where the responsibility of the temporary employee is the same as that of the permanent employee, and, again, they should be paid the same. For example, if a temporary replacement for a staff nurse with 10 years’ experience is required, it is fairly straightforward to work out the fair rate for such work from the trust’s pay scales.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend expand his point to deal with gender equality issues? He will be well aware that one of the ways in which gender inequality in wages can arise is when certain jobs are predominantly done by women. Such jobs often appear to be graded at a lower level, and if they are more temporised, there is further inequality.

Andrew Miller: My hon. Friend is spot on, and I thank her for that observation.

The tougher area might be the semi-skilled workers where the particular nature of the work requires a ramping up to the appropriate rate. Why make things complicated? Why should not the same principle apply for temporary and agency workers?

Mark Pritchard: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Miller: No, I shall not give way. I am just coming to a conclusion.

The other stumbling block has been on the issue of enforcement. I do not want an industrial tribunal to be the first line of defence. That should be the last resort,
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used only in extremis. I want the Minister to consider the space that I have allowed him in clause 4 to create a mechanism that is short, sharp and effective, and avoids the overuse of tribunals. He should consider creating that responsibility, perhaps in ACAS, unless somebody comes up with a better idea.

In the long term, the Bill is economically the right thing to do, and, for the reasons that I have described, it is morally the right thing to do, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The Question is, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Hon. Members: Aye.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I call Charles Hendry.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It will have been within the hearing of most hon. Members, especially on the Labour Benches, that there were many Ayes but no Noes, so should a Division have been called?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The Opposition spokesman rose rather late, but he clearly had every intention of participating in the debate.

9.53 am

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Many of us will have been slightly surprised to see so many people here ardently and enthusiastically supporting the Bill, but not one of them seeking to rise in order to speak in support of it. Moreover, the House will have wanted me to speak now to ensure that the Minister has a chance to say what he thinks about the Bill, because we know clearly from what has been said elsewhere that while it has much support on the Back Benches, it is fundamentally opposed by the Government.

The Opposition oppose the Bill because it is unnecessary and misguided. In March 2006, the Government published a consultation paper entitled “Success at Work. Protecting vulnerable workers, supporting good employers”. In it the Government commented on agency workers as follows:

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