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24 Jun 2008 : Column 58WH—continued

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg, if not for the first time then certainly for only the second.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing the debate and on the measured, concise and powerful way in which he put his case. I know that he has a reputation in the House for being reasonable. Sometimes reasonableness is a byword for someone being regarded as soft and not pursuing their case with vigour, but that is certainly not true of him. He demonstrates that somebody can put their case forcefully but reasonably, and I congratulate him on that. He makes his case even more powerfully in that way. I know that he is an assiduous Member of Parliament for his constituents, whether they be residents or businesses, and this debate is an example of that.

In case I forget, I shall say now that of course I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleague. If he contacts my office we will arrange such a meeting, although I am not sure when, to discuss further the issues that have been raised this afternoon.

We have required all crime and disorder reduction partnerships to draw up alcohol harm reduction strategies. The safer city partnership has consulted partner agencies and the wider public to target problems that it has identified using an analysis of partners’ data and a problem-solving approach. The Government have not only legislated to help CDRPs and law enforcement agencies but committed resources to both prevention and education. The harm that binge drinking does is well documented. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the second phase of our campaign to tackle binge drinking, “Know Your Limits”, which I launched last week, is aimed at reinforcing that message.

According to the police recorded crime statistics at 31 May 2008, all crime is down in the City of London by 6 per cent. compared with the same period last year. I am aware, however, that there have been some problems related to the night-time economy in the area, but I am reassured that the CDRP is working hard to tackle those issues, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The priorities of the recent alcohol harm reduction strategy reflect the concern and commitment to tackle the problems. May I pause for a moment and, like the hon. Gentleman, pay tribute to all the hard work that is done by the City of London police, various local authority staff and all the agencies working to deal with problems in the City of London? Indeed, as he said, as well as dealing with problems from the night-time economy, the City of London police have been made the lead force for tackling fraud, and they are to be commended for all the work that they do on that. I recently met the chief constable to talk about economic crime in the broadest sense and some of the work that is being done on e-crime. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that the City of London police deal with that but are also involved in many other areas of work.

The night-time economy is not only about pubs and clubs. Other businesses and support infrastructures have a critical part to play as well. The night-time economy in the City of London has changed a great deal in the past 18 months, and while the Government have facilitated responsible drinking and leisure activities enjoyed by the majority of law-abiding citizens, they and local agencies are resolute in their determination to deal with those who overindulge or commit offences.

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The City of London operates a taxi marshals scheme from Liverpool Street station. It is vital in ensuring that people socialising in the City can disperse safely and get home quickly. Another example is the work being done by the London Ambulance Service, which ran a field hospital, or temporary treatment centre, based at Liverpool Street station in December 2007. It successfully dealt with those who were drunk or injured through assaults or accidents, and it relieved the pressure on the London Ambulance Service and left it better able to respond to other emergency calls.

We understand that there have been problems with drunks urinating in the street. Clearly, that is unacceptable behaviour. In addition to issuing penalty notices for disorder, the Government urge local authorities to provide appropriate public toilet facilities. We understand that the local authority is trialling temporary urinals around Smithfield market and is set to introduce a new byelaw making it an offence to urinate in a public place. Also, businesses, working with the CDRP, should ensure that they have appropriate dispersal plans in place to address that apparent problem.

The key to successful policing and management of the night-time economy is working in partnership to ensure that the police, the licensing authority, businesses and the health service all share information and work in a co-ordinated way to tackle any problems that are identified by the agencies or the public.

We have recently introduced alcohol disorder zones which provide local authorities and the police with a means of charging licence holders for additional costs of enforcing the law if other measures to tackle alcohol-related crime have failed.

Without going too much into the budgetary questions that the hon. Gentleman raised—as he said, he is pursuing them in other ways—there have been increases in the funding made available to the City of London police. The total budget for 2007-08 was £62.86 million, an increase of 2.7 per cent. over the equivalent budget for 2006-07. The total budget for 2008-09 is £64.12 million. It reflects the unique funding arrangements for the City of London police. There have been years in the past when they have done better than many other forces. The City of London Corporation, as the hon. Gentleman knows, wants to maintain the special status of the City of London police, but that brings with it a requirement to ensure that the force is properly funded.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the problem comes from the fact that the corporation is treated like an education authority for the purpose of funding floors. This time around, the floor for education authorities is 2 per cent., which is less than the police funding floor. In previous years, the funding floor for education has been higher for education authorities than for the police. In those circumstances, they benefit. Having said that, it is clearly an issue, and I know that he is discussing it with others to see what can be done.

Mr. Field: It is a legitimate point, and more than just a debating point, that the connection with education authorities has been positive as well as, more recently, detrimental to the headline figures. None the less, there is concern. The burdens on the City of London police are immense for a range of reasons about which the Minister and I agree, including the predominance of
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terrorism and the almost exponential increase of white-collar crime in a globalised financial and overall economy in recent years.

Those are particularly strong burdens. As I mentioned in specific relation to licensing and the night-time economy, the reality is that the City of London police take on some of the burden that would otherwise be dealt with by the Metropolitan police or any of the other police authorities. I had that in mind rather than just the specific figures, because, as I mentioned, the police-specific grant will be reduced in this financial year, partly because of the floor relating to education authorities.

Mr. Coaker: As I said, I know that the hon. Gentleman is arguing that point with others and seeking changes. I was merely pointing out that it comes from the fact that it is funded as an education authority, which has benefited the City of London police in previous years, but the debate will no doubt continue.

The City of London police have been engaged proactively in a number of initiatives to tackle crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour associated with the night-time and day-time economies. The City of London police are playing their full part, along with key partner agencies, in drawing up an agreed alcohol harm reduction strategy and forming a strategic licensing group.

Also, licensing officers, police and local authority are now co-located within the local authority, which should lead to a much improved and more co-ordinated professional approach to licensing issues and help with the presentation of robust evidence to the licensing committee on clubs and premises causing problems. It has resulted in a more focused approach to the application process dealing with problem premises and the process for reviewing existing licences. It has also improved protocols for sharing information and intelligence, resulting in closer working among the licensing authority, the fire authority, the safer city partnership and neighbouring
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Metropolitan police boroughs to assist in enforcement and flag concerns earlier to the police.

A problem-solving approach has led to a focus on dealing with promoted events by working closely with the Metropolitan police, sharing intelligence and ensuring that applicants carry out rigorous risk assessments before events take place. As the hon. Gentleman said, the police have gleaned effective practice from cities such as Birmingham and their immediate neighbours in Westminster. That has been beneficial. The focus on addressing problems has also resulted in successful work with a major licensee in the City to review its licence and alter opening times, which has caused the other 750 licensees in the City to take note of the police’s determination to tackle problems associated with alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour. I support the police and all involved in licensing in ensuring that the law is rigorously enforced and that people who break licensing conditions can expect a robust response.

We also need to protect young people from the harm caused by alcohol abuse, as well as dealing with those who commit crime and engage in antisocial behaviour. That includes taking action against retailers and licensed premises that sell alcohol to children, giving police powers to tackle disorder related to excessive drink and getting the industry to play their part.

As well as changes to the law, enforcement of the law and increasing good practice in the City of London, we need to consider how to change this country’s culture. It is seen as acceptable for people to behave in certain ways, drink to get drunk and leave others to pick up the tab. Violence associated with alcohol is unacceptable, as is some of the behaviour that we see on our streets. As well as enforcement and all the actions that the hon. Gentleman and I have talked about, we as individuals in society, whether in the City of London or elsewhere, need to ask ourselves whether we can continue to behave in such a way and expect police, local authorities, health services and other agencies to pick up the problem.

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Sally Avis

1.30 pm

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. May I say how much I welcome the opportunity to debate the rights of agency workers such as Sally? The subject is highly topical and I intend to take full advantage of that topicality. I hope to give my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) something to pass on to the relevant Minister for his red box when he is discussing these issues in Europe, namely, an important case study from my constituency that describes the suffering that agency workers endure when they try to protect their redundancy rights.

That suffering has been created by a state of legal turmoil and the delay in implementing legislative reform. The latter was specifically promised as a key part of the Warwick agreement. As vice-chair of Labour’s national policy forum at the time, I can vouch for the fact that the Government promised, before the 2005 general election, to deliver on the Warwick agreement in full. There has been excellent progress on that, and I hope that agency workers will be protected further in the future. The Government are making progress on equal treatment for agency workers, but on the employment status of agency workers, the situation is not so clear-cut, and I intend to press the Minister on that.

I thank the T and G section of Unite the Union for bringing this case to my attention. It is on the side of all workers—temporary, agency and full-time—and, in my own town of Swindon, it has worked very hard to put Sally’s case as effectively as possible.

Half of all agency workers in Europe work in the UK. Currently, 1.4 million individuals in the UK are in temporary employment. They have been the lubricant that has kept our economy flexible and nowhere has the great economic record of the present Government been more evident than in my constituency of South Swindon. We are among the most productive places in the country and, as part of our work force, agency workers deserve a great deal of credit. They have helped to build us this great economy and, while the credit crunch bites, we need to give them—the most insecure members of our work force—some extra security.

I have heard many stories from hard-working union representatives in my constituency about how agency workers are mistreated. Some large distribution or retail companies continue to pay at national minimum wage levels, with the addition of rolled-up holidays into the pay rate. Perhaps most worrying is something that happens with some agencies. If an agency worker from one of these agencies raises issues while on placement, the chances are that in a matter of days, he or she will be gone. I was given an example of that. It had been indicated to a young woman by company management that she was due to be taken on full-time but, upon raising concerns about her holiday entitlement, she was let go for rather spurious reasons.

Even on some of the premium manufacturing sites, agency workers are exposed to unfair practices, be it split-shift working, short-term notice for lay-offs, being used and abused by agencies or generally being treated as third-class citizens. I know that neither the agencies nor the employers want that to continue, because they want what I want—a thriving and fair Swindon.

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The particular case that I have raised is the dismissal of agency worker Sally Avis. I thank Sally for bravely agreeing to put her head above the parapet to tell her story and speak about the discrimination that she has suffered. For more than two years, she worked at Catalent in Swindon for an employment agency called Randstad. There is no question of her performance being an issue. Randstad said that Sally was a good worker and never late for work.

On 8 January, Sally had a call from Randstad saying that it would have to let her go because she fell into one of three categories: one, non-performing; two, non-productive; and three, long-term sick. After bringing that up with her union and appealing the dismissal, the regional manager of Randstad agreed to a meeting at Catalent. Apparently, he was unhappy about the way she had been dismissed. The manager for Randstad said that the dismissal of the group was due to a downturn in work. As Sally was the only one of the group who had more than two years’ service, she appeared to be the only one entitled to a redundancy payment.

The union made a proposal for what it thought would be a reasonable settlement, and the regional manager then sought authority for the payment. However, Randstad’s legal advisers came back saying that Sally was not entitled to a redundancy payment because she was on a contract for services, not a contract of employment. Although the union negotiated a small payment, it was for a lot less than would have been secured had Sally been on an even footing with direct employees. After giving two years of her life to her employer, Sally was dumped.

That exposed the situation that just because someone is treated as an employee of a business for the purposes of tax and national insurance, it does not necessarily mean that they will be classified as an employee of that business for the purpose of employment law. A number of the rights conferred by the Employment Rights Act 1996, or ERA, apply only to “employees”, one of the most important of which is the right to redundancy payments.

Attempts to secure rights beyond that of “worker” status by arguing that temporary workers are employees of their employment agencies have so far, with few exceptions, proved fruitless; that was the case for Sally. Employment agencies have been successful in showing that they are free from this type of obligation to workers.

The possibility of an implied contract between temporary workers and the company at which they do the work has proved useful in the past. However, there is no chance of that situation existing now. In recent months, case law has shown that an implied contract is virtually impossible to prove. Temporary workers are left with no one to turn to—neither agency nor the end user—as guarantors of basic employment rights.

There is similarity between my constituent’s case and that of an important Court of Appeal case, James v. London Borough of Greenwich, a case that reminds us of the reasons why change for agency workers is needed. In James v. London Borough of Greenwich, the claimant was an agency worker who had worked for the defendant local authority for three years. The claimant was absent due to sickness and replaced by a different agency worker. The claimant was not found to be an employee of the local authority and therefore was not entitled to statutory protection from unfair dismissal. The claimant could not sue the employment agency or the end user.

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In his postscript to the judgment in James v. London Borough of Greenwich, Lord Justice Mummery commented on:

He confirmed that only on the ground of necessity can an employment tribunal imply a contract of employment between an agency worker and the end user of his or her services. The Court of Appeal made it clear that it is not for courts or tribunals to extend employment protection rights to agency workers and that further developments will need to come from the Government.

Under section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, Ministers have wide powers to make regulations concerning the employment status of “atypical workers”. So far, they have not done so for temporary and agency workers, despite the fact that these workers are extremely vulnerable, as I have outlined.

Although the situation with regard to employment status is blurred, efforts to secure equal treatment on pay are coming into focus. Previous attempts to rectify the lack of equal treatment at EU and UK level have foundered, but the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, which I supported, received Second Reading on 22 February. It has since been withdrawn as the Government have indicated that they will introduce their own legislation in this sector.

I understand that the Government favour the establishment of an independent pay commission to investigate the pay and conditions of agency workers. The commission would aim to arbitrate on all the contested issues relating to agency workers and attempt to provide full-time comparators for wage purposes.

I welcome the declaration by Government, the CBI and TUC in May that gives the topicality to this debate. The declaration is a joint agreement that, after 12 weeks in work, temporary and agency workers will qualify for the same pro rata pay and conditions as full-time workers. However, that would not seem to help my constituent directly, because it does not deal with her lack of redundancy rights caused by her confused employment status.

The only hope that I can see is that, if equal treatment on pay and conditions is imposed, we will start to see such cases in the courts and we could also see a shift towards the courts favouring equal employment status, but that is not good enough. I have a number of questions, and I would be grateful if the Minister would address them.

The main question that needs answering and which I hope the Minister will be able to help us with is whether she will consider extending the Government’s aspirations to provide the same redundancy rights for agency workers as permanent staff. After giving two years of her life to her employer, my constituent, Sally Avis, was dumped. Does the Minister share my fear that if we do not legislate on employment status and equal conditions, millions of temps will remain in limbo on important rights such as the right to redundancy payments? Will the Minister clarify who should pay redundancy compensation—the employment agency or the end user—if agency workers were to receive redundancy pay?

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