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Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is entirely right, but that problem is not only faced by small employers. In my experience, many large employers face vexatious complaints with threats of employment tribunals and end up having to pay people, because it is often cheaper to pay them off than to defend the case at a tribunal. Big companies suffer from that just as much as small companies.
Mr. Chope: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling the House about that, because he has an enormous amount of experience of working for a big company. In a sense, there is an analogy between what happens with regard to an employment tribunal and what is happening today with the Government. In the face of the threat of defeat by their own Back Benchers, the Government have given in, even though they had right on their side. That is exactly the problem confronting employers when faced with a tribunal. They have right on their side, but the pressure is on them to appease and to give into those who do not have right on their side. Therefore, these provisions will add to costs, delays and uncertainties.
As has been said already by a number of contributors to the debate, the law of unintended consequences will come to apply in a big way. Often in the House, we pass regulatory measures and find that the consequences in the real world are rather different from what we expected, but in this case we know what the consequences will be, because they have been flagged up by employers across the country, both large and small: there will be fewer opportunities in the workplace for temporary and agency workers, and fewer opportunities for those who are not currently in work. The result will be bad for those individuals and for the least able people in our society: the people we want to help mostcertainly those whom we on the Conservatives Benches want to help most.
Philip Davies: We are united in our opposition to this Bill and hope that it does not come into effect, but if a Bill of this nature were enacted, what qualifying period should there be before the equal rights of temporary workers took effect? I said, as many employers do, that at least a year should go by before such workers are considered for the same employment rights. Will my hon. Friend share with the House what he thinks about that matter?
Mr. Chope: My hon. Friend asks me my opinion. I think that one year is the absolute minimum. One year is the period before the unfair dismissal rights come in under permanent employment [Interruption.]
Mr. Chope: I am not put off by private conversations in the Chamber, although obviously they are out of order. However, at a time when this House is increasingly regarded as an irrelevance to our national life, such behaviour sets a very poor example to those who may be watching our proceedings on television. This week, as you will know Madam Deputy Speaker, quite a lot of schoolchildren are on half term. Instead of watching their Gameboys, perhaps they are watching the Parliament channel.
Mr. Chope: I hope, and indeed the record will show, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you have not called me to order, that for 32 minutes my contribution has been pertinent and in order, as were those of my hon. Friends. Does the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) wish to intervene?
I will not dwell on that matter any more, but the time scale and the view that a minimum period of one year should pass before the legislation comes into play is important. My view is that even one year would be too short a period, because that would create a cliff face. It may result in a large number of agency and temporary workers who have been employed for 11 months finding that their contract has come to an end, not because they are not up to the job or not providing a good service to their employers, but because the employers do not wish to take the risk of effectively taking them on as permanent employees. Therefore, my answer is that I think that a period far in excess of one year would be appropriate.
I hope that the promoter of the Bill will respond to the debate, particularly on this issue. The commission has been suggested by the Government as a vehicle to avoid having to face up to what the Bill demands head on. I would be grateful to the promoter of the Bill if, when he winds up the debate, he is able to tell us how he envisages the time scale for that commission working.
Simon Hughes: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a bit like one of those afternoons on Wimbledons centre court when the main match has finished and people leave to do other thingsincluding, I gather, a well-deserved photocall on the front steps for the supporters of the previous Bill.
We now move on to something no less important, which has an effect on no fewer people. I have the honour and privilege to propose the Leasehold Reform Bill, which is designed to reform the law affecting people who have bought their properties from local authoritiesan issue that matters hugely to that group of people ever since the right to buy first came into play under Mrs. Thatcher in the 1980s.
I have been in this place for nearly 25 years, which people may think is a good or bad thing. I have applied every year in the ballot for private Members Bills, but this is the first time that I have succeeded and I am very grateful that I have got there at last. The paradox is that this was the first year in which someone elsenone other than my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg)actually signed the book for me because I could not be here on that day. I am doubly grateful for my right hon. Friends intervention, without which the Bill would not be before us. I am grateful to him and other co-sponsors: the subject of the Bill is a live issue in all their constituencies.
Let me explain the numbers affected in a borough such as mine. I am one of three MPs for the borough of Southwark: the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), represents the middle section and the Minister for London, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), represents the southern part, along with part of Lambeth. The figures from the local authority suggest that Southwark has 41,000 council tenants, that 1,300 have bought their property from the council and are now freeholders, and that there are 13,000 leaseholders. Hence 13,000 Southwark council leaseholders are affected, and in addition a significant number of people in my constituency area have bought their properties from the City of London corporation, as Southwark contains a significant number of City of London corporation properties.
That provides an idea of the numbers of people with leasehold properties in many inner London authorities,
but there are significant numbers in many other urban areas, and obviously smaller numbers in authorities with less municipally owned housing stock in the first place. That shows the scale of the potential constituency of people affected by these matters. That is why, over the years, colleagues in all parts of the House have raised leasehold issues on the Adjournment, in parliamentary questions and in debates on legislation.
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman refers to the numbers in inner London, but I can certainly tell him that the numbers may be even greater in outer London, where the boroughs are geographically large and had more council housing to start with. I believe that his Bill raises some important points. I know from my own casework that leasehold charges are a matter of great concern to many council tenantsor former council tenants, I should saywho feel that in the London borough of Barnet, for example, the arms length management organisation, Barnet Homes, has not treated them fairly, particularly when very large bills for tens of thousands of pounds come through the door.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful for that. I was not in any way trying to suggest that the hon. Gentlemans borough or many other local authorities do not have huge issues. He is absolutely right to reflect those concerns, as indeed the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who is on the Conservative Front Bench today, has done over the years. Regularly attending our constituency surgeries are council leaseholders, leaseholders from the organisations that succeeded the local authority in managing the housing stock, and members of housing associations.
The force of the Bills potential implications was brought home to me most when, some time ago, a pensioner couple who had just managed to get some money together to buy a very small City of London corporation flat on the well-maintained Avondale estate on the Old Kent road came to me with a bill of £27,000. They probably did not have even £1,000 savings, let alone £27,000. Eventually, after long negotiations, we managed to get it down to about £11,000, but even so, that was the charge they had to pay.
When people consider security in a tenanted property, many of them understandably think that it may be better to acquire ownership, as far as they canit is not freehold ownership; it is long leasehold ownership, which involves a lease of 21 years, 99 years or whatever. Their families often encourage them to do that and may assist in the process, so it is a perfectly natural position for someone to find themselves in.
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