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22 Feb 2008 : Column 694

Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend think that the attitude of the Government today is best described as appeasement? They recognise that they are in no position today to produce the troops in order to defeat their rebellious Back Benchers, which is why they are appeasing those Back Benchers by saying that they will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading.

Mr. Evans: The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), put it succinctly when he said that the Government are looking both ways. They have to produce different messages for different audiences. They are in hock to the trade union movement, but at the same time business organisations, to which they also try to be friendly these days, are telling them about the huge impact that the Bill will have. Looking both ways, which I thought that we left to the Liberal Democrats, is worse than the dithering that we have come to expect from the Government.

Although the Minister has already spoken, I hope that he will at some stage—perhaps in an intervention on one of my hon. Friends who is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—provide some of the answers to the questions about the time scale of the commission. If there are failures in the current agency system they should properly be repaired, and if people are being badly done by by unscrupulous employers who are looking for all sorts of loopholes and are using the agency system as a way of hitting the rights of their workers, we clearly need to address them.

Mr. Greg Knight: On the subject of information from the Minister, does my hon. Friend share my hope that the Minister will tell the House a bit more about the “Know before you go” leaflets and perhaps place one in the Library so that we can look at it? Perhaps he will also tell us how many languages the leaflet has been translated into.

Mr. Evans: I hope that the Minister will be able to do that, because the leaflets are a useful device. If they are only in English, they will be of limited help to a Polish person who has little knowledge of English. I assume that the leaflets will appear in different languages.

Mr. McFadden: The leaflets are translated.

Mr. Evans: Splendid. I assume that the leaflets will be translated into the languages of the countries in which the embassies are based. That is important. I also hope that the Minister will take on board our support for the need to get the information out and perhaps provide samples of the leaflets in the Library so that we can see what message they send.

I know exactly where the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is coming from with his Bill. We want to ensure that the people who work in this country get the proper protection that they deserve. I have great doubts that the Bill will do that, and clearly employers organisations and the Government also have great doubts. The commission is probably the right way to proceed so that we can examine the unintended consequences. It may be that tweaking the existing legislation may afford agency workers the rights that we all want them to have. If not, at least the commission
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can come back and say, “No. Fresh legislation is needed. This is what we need to do and this will be its impact. It won’t destroy jobs and will give the protection that we want to give to agency workers.” If that is the case, I am sure that such legislation will have the full backing of the House.

11.32 am

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). As ever, he spoke a lot of common sense and, as we all know, he speaks with the experience of running a small business.

I totally accept my hon. Friend’s point that the Bill is well meaning and that nobody is trying to do anything untoward. However, such Bills are born out of a total misunderstanding of what it is like to run a business and an ignorance of the pressures that many businesses face. Many Labour Members see businesses as some kind of cash cow or guaranteed profit-making machine and they believe that all those who run them drive round in Bentleys or Rolls-Royces and exploit workers willy-nilly. The reality is that many businesses, particularly small businesses in this country, are struggling to maintain their current employment levels. All that such Bills will do is put people out of work.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) on introducing the Bill. He is a regular and distinguished contributor to Friday debates on private Members’ Bills and I am therefore delighted that he has had the opportunity to introduce one of his own. This is the second time that such a Bill has been introduced by a Labour Member. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) introduced a similar Bill in the last Session and that too had the support of well over 100 Labour Members.

The Bill seeks to secure equal treatment for agency workers and will presumably ensure that they are entitled to the same terms and conditions as directly employed workers. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has argued that we cannot turn away from what is a mounting concern for our communities— legalised discrimination affecting a significant number of workers in this country. It strikes me that this Bill almost reflects the attitude of the Labour Members who would rather have fewer people in work provided that those who are left are employed under the same terms and conditions. As it happens, I would prefer people who have jobs to keep their jobs. That is a noble cause to support, but there is a dogmatic principle that everybody should be paid the same, even if they are a temporary worker. The fact that that worker may then be put out of work seems to be of no consequence as long as everybody sticks to the principle, which becomes an end in itself. I am afraid that I do not share that view; I want to see people in work.

The Government are always talking about having to encourage people to get into work, including those who have never worked before. However, at the same time, it seems that the Government’s Back Benchers are trying to do something that will stop people ever having the opportunity of getting into the workplace. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley spoke about the time that he spent as an agency worker and how that gave him an opportunity to get experience of work and develop a work ethic.

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Mr. Evans: I was thinking of the time when I was at university. I did not pay any fees and received a small grant, but working for the agency allowed me at least to get by. The situation is now doubly worse. There must be many students who have fees as well as accommodation and food to pay for. If the Bill’s impact means that many agency jobs will go, their plight will be even worse. They must be relying on a lot of agency work.

Philip Davies: Such work instils a work ethic in people that we hope will take them further forward, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the pressures facing students. I know from my experience at Asda that we took on temporary workers when we needed them and many of them were students or people looking for work experience for the first time. Most of those people did not work there for years on end; such examples are few and far between. The vast majority of them work for the company for a short time and that does them good. They know what they are being paid, they understand the terms and conditions and are happy to take a job on that basis. They see that it offers them an entrance into the workplace and might well help them finance their studies while they are at university. It gives them an opportunity that they want and that they make the most of. It would be folly to introduce a Bill that might have the impact of not providing those people with an opportunity to get their foot on to the first rung of the working ladder, because it would be unattractive to employers to take them on. We want to encourage people to have a work ethic if they have never had a work ethic before. Agency working is often the way into the workplace for many people.

Mr. Chope: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if the Bill goes through, it will make it more difficult for people to have access to work experience? The Government seem to want to promote work experience among younger potential employees, but this Bill runs against that.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Government also talk about extending the number of apprenticeships, but most people have the understanding that those employed on apprenticeships are not employed on the same basis as permanent staff who have been there for a long time. We all acknowledge that, if people are trying to get a foothold in the workplace, employers need concessions to be encouraged to take them on. It strikes me that the Bill flies in the face of everything that the Government say about trying to instil a work ethic and about getting people who have never worked into work for the first time.

To be fair, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said that the Bill was not designed to end agency working in itself but to ensure that agency workers were paid the rate for the job. The Bill does not clarify the period that agency workers must work before they qualify for equal treatment. Without any indication of the qualifying period, the Bill must appear to everybody—even those who support its thrust—as fatally flawed on that basis alone. I heard talk—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—of six months being mooted as a qualifying period. It is perfectly clear that most hon. Members who have turned up today do not believe that there should be a
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six-month qualifying period; they do not think that there should be a qualifying period at all. The unions that are behind the Bill are clearly against any six-month qualifying period.

Mr. Chope: As the Bill stands—without a qualifying period—it would impact on temporary employees immediately. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should assess the Bill on the basis of its current contents, rather than on what its provisions might be in the future?

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we take a decision on Second Reading, we should judge the quality of the Bill as it stands. I heard the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), say that they would do the typical Liberal trick of supporting the Bill on Second Reading but opposing it on Third Reading. That strikes me as trying to ride both horses at the same time. If the Liberal Democrats are against the Bill, they should vote accordingly on Second Reading.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman misrepresents my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). She said that we would not oppose the Bill’s Second Reading, but that unless it was substantially amended, we would oppose it on Third Reading.

Philip Davies: I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the Bill as it stands, because that is what will be voted on today. If he is saying that the Bill is unacceptable as it stands, may I suggest that he vote accordingly?

Simon Hughes: I do not want to delay the debate. Our position is similar to the Government’s. They say that they will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. They do not support it, but they hope that things will emerge from ongoing discussions—so do we. Such discussions will be more likely to happen if the Bill goes into Committee, because that will put pressure on the Government and focus their mind.

Philip Davies: But the Liberal Democrat spokesman talked about all the problems with the Bill, whether it is slightly amended or not. She suggested that the basic premise of the Bill is wrong. The hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is not the same as the Government’s. The Government are against the Bill, but they understand that the vast majority of Labour Members who are here are in favour of it. The Government have caved in not due to any point of principle of wanting it to go into Committee, but because they are engaged in a cynical tactical manoeuvre to allow them to avoid a huge row with their Back Benchers. They will allow the Bill to go into Committee, no doubt so that they can try to fillet it and make it completely meaningless. I am not entirely sure whether that position is the same as the hon. Gentleman’s. I shall give him the opportunity to clarify the situation.

Simon Hughes: In that respect, the hon. Gentleman is being helpful. As far as I am aware, my colleagues and I have one view—a common view. He is right that that is not the same as the Government’s position.

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Philip Davies: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has been able to clarify the position.

Mr. Chope: Before my hon. Friend gets seduced into thinking that there is a common view among the Liberal Democrats, will he recall exactly what the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) said? I clearly remember that she said that her party would support both a closure motion and the Bill’s Second Reading. That seems to be very different from the understanding of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes).

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend was clearly listening to the hon. Lady’s speech more enthusiastically than I was. I am sure that the Official Report will make exactly what she said abundantly clear. Perhaps the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will clarify the situation once and for all.

Simon Hughes: I really was hoping that we would not get into this. If there is a closure motion, we will support it. We will not oppose the Bill’s Second Reading. We will then see what comes out of Committee. Unless the Bill is substantially amended, we will oppose it on Third Reading.

Philip Davies: I am grateful for that clarification—if it was a clarification. Despite our brief interlude, I am none the wiser about the Liberal Democrats’ position. However, I am sure that other people will have been able to understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

The Bill would ensure that provisions on equal treatment were backed by a stronger regulatory framework that would include mandatory licensing arrangements and better inspection regimes, with strict penalties for non-compliance. The Minister said that the Government did not believe in people going round businesses to inspect for compliance with the law. I am not entirely sure whether that aspect of the Bill would mean that more people would be inspecting businesses and taking up more of their valuable time by asking to see paperwork to determine exactly what they were doing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley made an important point when he talked about the impact of such measures on big businesses rather than small ones. I had the great fortune of working for Asda, which is a very big business that is owned by the biggest company in the world: Wal-Mart.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): And the most exploitative.

Philip Davies: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has visited Wal-Mart in America, but I have. My experience is that Wal-Mart looks after its employees much better than most businesses in this country. I am not entirely sure of his experience of Wal-Mart and its employees, but I would be happy for him to share that with us.

Mr. Greg Knight: My hon. Friend is making the very good case that the Bill could lead to job losses. Those losses could be far greater if France moved in the opposite direction, as we have heard. Is he thus about to argue that the answer would be an EU-wide common employment policy for all member states?

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Philip Davies: My right hon. Friend knows that I would never argue for a common EU policy on anything, certainly while we are a member of the European Union. Once my panacea arrives and we are no longer a member of the EU, I will be happy for the remaining members to impose as many burdens and costs on themselves as they wish, because that will give us a competitive advantage. However, while we are a member of the wretched European Union, I am not in favour of a common position.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman invited me to refer to Wal-Mart. As an ex-employee of that empire, and to give us a measure of its progressive industrial relations in the United States of America, will he indicate its attitude towards the recognition of trade unions?

Philip Davies: I am more than happy to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s question. During my time with Asda and Wal-Mart, the number of people who were members of a trade union fell. Asda recognises a trade union: the GMB. To the best of my knowledge, it has a good relationship with that union. However, during my time at Asda, fewer and fewer people were joining the union, and the reason why touches on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley. From everyone’s viewpoint—especially that of the Government, who are often praising Asda for its employment practices—Asda is a very good employer. It gives its staff good terms and conditions and allows them flexible working. It makes a point of going out of its way to look after its employees, so people do not feel the need to join a trade union as they do not feel that they are being downtrodden.

As my hon. Friend said, successful businesses tend to have two things in common: they look after their staff and they look after their customers. I am not aware of any successful business throughout the world that does not abide by those two principles. Every failed business in the world has two things in common: they did not look after their staff and they did not look after their customers.

I have always believed that of the two, the most important is looking after staff, because companies rely on their staff to look after their customers. If companies are not looking after their staff properly, the likelihood is that they will not be looking after the customers properly. I take no lessons from anyone on the importance of employers looking after their staff. The company that I used to work for made a great point of looking after its staff, which it did probably better than virtually anybody. The result was that fewer people wanted to join a trade union.

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