Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Walker: I probably will not give the hon. Lady the answer that she is looking for, but I fully bought into her Government’s reasons for not signing up to the directive. I was convinced by their arguments on why it would be a bad idea for the UK to sign up to it. I have gone along with those arguments for nine years. The Government have changed their mind, and they need to put forward the arguments, to me and to others, on why the change of course is good. I leave it to the Minister, when he winds up, to make the argument in favour of the country signing the working time directive. If his arguments are good enough and convince me, I will
14 July 2008 : Column 78
certainly join the hon. Lady in the Lobby to vote in support of the working time directive. However, it is incumbent on the Minister to persuade me that I need to be there.

I accept that the minimum wage was a good idea, but I am still concerned about the fact that we tax people who earn the minimum wage. I know that that is outside the ambit of the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I shall not try your patience by speaking on the issue for more than 30 seconds. The minimum wage gives people a salary of about £11,000 a year, but as soon as they earn £5,000 or £5,500, they start paying tax on their earnings, and then have their money laundered back to them in the form of tax credits. That is not right, and it perhaps robs people of their dignity.

I mentioned my concerns about the hospitality industry to the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, who opened the debate. It is disgraceful that when I add £5 or £10 to a bill at a restaurant, and pay on a credit card because I do not have any cash on me, that money can be used to make up the wage of the person serving me. That is wrong, and most people in this country—apart from the few who own restaurants—agree. As the Government struggle to become more popular with the wider electorate, it would be good for them to seize on the issue. The practice is wrong, and they would have the support of the vast majority of the British public if they addressed it. I am not sure whether that would make up the 19 per cent. deficit in the polls, but it would be a good start.

Mr. Simon: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people should not make the mistake of thinking that by leaving a tip in cash they are necessarily ensuring that it will go directly to the worker concerned? Even when tips are left in cash, unscrupulous employers still find ways to divert that income stream to themselves.

Mr. Walker: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am sorry if I misled the House and anybody watching by suggesting that if people leave cash it is more likely to find its way into the pockets of the person who served their table. I would hope that the cash would be put in that person’s pocket before the avaricious restaurant owner got his or her hands on it. Any restaurant chain that carries out the practice deserves to be named and shamed. I really wish and hope that we get to grips with the issue extremely soon, whichever political party is involved.

I turn briefly to the issue of tribunal claims. It concerns me greatly when someone who has been disadvantaged in the workplace and is successful in their claim at an employment tribunal then has to wait months—sometimes longer—to receive the money that they are owed. These people have mortgages, families, outgoings and other costs that need to be met. They will often not have a job, because they have been removed from their previous job unfairly. When a tribunal award is made, we need to make sure that the money is forthcoming quickly.

I did not want to be partisan in this debate, but I am going to be. I am a proud member of Amicus-Unite, a trade union. Like the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), I believe that the trade unions make a positive impact in our day-to-day lives, and we are a better country for having them. I do not want to go against the will of the House, but I have deep
14 July 2008 : Column 79
concern about British National party members being allowed to join trade unions. From my time in Broxbourne, I know how the BNP operates. I have run a three-year campaign against it that has by and large been successful; we removed the BNP councillor whom I inherited when I was selected for my seat.

The BNP operates outside the normal boundaries of acceptable political and democratic behaviour. Its campaigns are nasty and personal. I know that for a fact, because I have been on the receiving end of a number of them. A number of Members here will have given some time to campaigning in the London assembly elections. The literature that the BNP was putting around in those elections was hateful and despicable. It was really unpleasant stuff. Anyone who dares to criticise the BNP, as I do and other brave Members do in their constituencies, is subject to a torrent of abuse and hate—to national campaigns of abuse and hate.

Letters were sent to my office and my local newspaper, and e-mails were sent from wherever in the country I dared to stand up and speak out against the BNP. A low point came in the local elections. My local newspaper ran a poll about who people were going to vote for. The BNP, of course, organised a telephone campaign and a newspaper called me up and said, “Mr. Walker, 52 per cent. of your constituents are going to vote BNP in the local elections. How do you feel about that?” I said, of course, that it was total nonsense—and guess what? I was proved right.

I fundamentally believe that the BNP has no place in any organisation of which I am a member, be it the Conservative party or a trade union. I received this from a BNP supporter:

The writer had also implied that I was being watched. That is the BNP that I have come to know and that operates outside the normal boundaries of political discourse. I accept that, at the moment, many people, for whatever reason, are voting for the BNP—to catch the attention of politicians, to poke us in the eye, to get us to sit up and listen to their concerns. However, voting for the BNP is in a different league from being a member of the BNP, which is a malevolent organisation. Personally, I would not want a member or ex-member of the BNP in my political party, my association or my trade union. There is no place for that party in membership organisations.

7.16 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It is always good to follow a brother. I should declare that I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union section of Unite; perhaps the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and I do have one or two things in common somewhere along the line.

I applaud this Employment Bill. It reforms the law on workplace dispute resolution and unfair dismissal and,
14 July 2008 : Column 80
thankfully, introduces increased penalties and enforcement powers relating to the national minimum wage and agency standards. It also increases compensation awards for workers whose employers make unlawful and unauthorised wage deductions or fail to pay statutory redundancy pay. I am sure that those in the Chamber and beyond are all aware of examples of unscrupulous employers in our communities who are, frankly, exploiting the situation with agency workers and taking each and every advantage to make deductions from people’s earnings.

There are EU workers, including Poles and Lithuanians, in my constituency. Some of those people have had a torrid time. They have worked exceedingly hard for more than 40 hours a week. They work every minute that God gives them—sometimes 50, 60 or 70 hours a week. All sorts of deductions are made, whether for travel support or accommodation support. When it comes to pay-day, they get a pitiful wage for the work that they do.

The Bill also revises the rules on the exclusion and expulsion of union members, following the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the ASLEF case. The TUC welcomes the proposals to strengthen the law against unfair dismissal and the new penalties for rogue employers who flout the national minimum wage. It also welcomes the creation of the fairer method of dealing with national minimum wage arrears owed to workers, which ensures that they do not lose out as a result of underpayment by employers.

I was one of the Committee members who helped introduce the national minimum wage, under the leadership of my right hon. and good Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). That was an exciting time. Despite what others say now, it is worth remembering exactly what happened on the occasions when we sat through the night. One Tuesday, our sitting started at 4.30 in the afternoon and finished at 1 o’clock on Wednesday lunchtime. I recollect some interesting times being chaired by our late and good friend, Gwyneth Dunwoody, who kindly helped to guide us through the night. On the following Thursday, we started at 4.30 in the afternoon and finished at 6.30 on Friday morning. Unbeknown to many of us, no Committee on any Bill in this House had ever sat for as long as 4.30 in the afternoon to 1 o’clock the next day. It came as news to us all at 1 o’clock on the Wednesday that we were still apparently working Tuesday hours. I will never know why that was the case.

The Tories were opposed to the Bill. The Liberal Democrats wanted regional variations for the national minimum wage. However, the whole point of the Bill was to ensure fairness right across the country.

Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman says that he wishes to see fairness right across the country; I am sure that everyone in this Chamber would aspire to that. However, if we compare a national minimum wage paid to somebody who lives in London with that paid to someone who lives in Liverpool, does he agree that its buying power varies tremendously?

Mr. Brown: Absolutely; I would not disagree in the slightest. However, the hon. Lady’s party wanted to introduce regional variations on what we currently have. In other words, in my constituency, people in the neighbouring Scottish borders region would have been
14 July 2008 : Column 81
paid less, which would have reduced the value and purchasing capacity of that pay.

Mr. McCartney: It might be interesting to the citizens of Liverpool that the Liberal Democrats, who control the council there, are into wage cuts for low-paid workers in Liverpool, as they were into wage cuts in the Bill that introduced the minimum wage. It is very important that there is a national minimum wage, and the way to increase it is to join a trade union and have protected negotiating rights. It is not acceptable that someone in Liverpool or the north or south of Scotland who works for a company operating throughout Britain—say, a hamburger chain—is paid less than someone doing the same job in the south-east of England. That is a ridiculous claim by the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Brown: I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend.

John McDonnell: May I place it on the record that if it was inappropriate to have regional variations on the minimum wage, it is equally inappropriate for the Government to introduce regional pay bargaining in the courts service? We will need to consider that again because of the inequities that will be introduced.

Mr. Brown: I say to my hon. Friend, who, like me, comes from a trade union background, that I wholeheartedly support national wage agreements. We need to do our utmost, especially at the current time, to continue to operate on the basis of national pay bargaining.

Lorely Burt: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that £5.20 an hour is a living wage for somebody who lives in London? The point that I was trying to make is that people in London should have more, not that anyone from elsewhere in the country should have less.

Mr. Brown: We have moved on from the £5.20 an hour that we had previously, and thankfully we have moved on from the £3.60. There is the London weighting, as has been indicated. The hon. Lady’s colleagues fought hard to try to introduce regional variations for the rest of the country when the Bill was going through Committee, and thankfully they were defeated.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I support what my hon. Friend says. Speaking as a former union organiser in London, we always strongly supported national wage negotiations, and still do. Beyond that, we negotiated a London living supplement. This is not about regional negotiations or pay variations—it is a totally different animal, and that seems to be lost on some Members of this House.

Mr. Brown: If anyone knows what lies behind all that, my hon. Friend does; he is exactly right in what he says.

I would hate to leave out our Scottish National party colleagues. During the two extremely long Committee sittings that we had when pushing through the national minimum wage, allegations were made that SNP Members had gone to bed. I have to tell the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) that his friend, Alasdair Morgan from Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, disappeared throughout the night on both those occasions.

14 July 2008 : Column 82

Mr. MacNeil: As the hon. Gentleman’s memory is so great, were all the Labour Members present all night? I have no idea, as it happened long before I was here. I note, however, that when it came to Third Reading, his name was not on the voting record. Would he like to explain that?

Mr. Brown: Yes, Labour Members were there through the night, because that was the important time when progress was made. I may have been absent on Third Reading, but I was there on each and every occasion through the night in Committee. It was a momentous piece of legislation, not only for this nation but for the Labour party.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Could we now get on to the Bill that is currently before us? We have all appreciated the history lesson; let us now concentrate on the Bill.

Mr. Brown: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker—I should know better.

There are still clear dividing lines in respect of the national minimum wage. The right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has described the social chapter of European legislation, which includes rights for part-time workers and additional parental leave, as “a historic mistake”. In the Financial Times of 28 March this year, he said:

While this Government are increasing fairness and prosperity at work, the Tories would scrap the help for working people that Labour has introduced. The shadow Chancellor has heaped praise on the report on economic competitiveness by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), which says that regulation to stop small children working is unnecessary and recommends that Britain tears up the entire framework of employment protection agreed with European partners over the past 10 years. In chapter 6 of “Freeing Britain to Compete”, produced by the economic competitiveness policy group chaired by the right hon. Member for Wokingham, he says:

He goes on:

This is the 21st century, and we need to ensure that we are being fair in the workplace and fair to individuals.

I want to deal with a couple of aspects of the Bill. I apologise that I was not here for the start of the debate—I was on a Delegated Legislation Committee—so I do not know whether, in his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs referred to the concerns expressed by Age Concern. It welcomes the review of employment law, but it recommends that the Government should use the legislation to outlaw the process of forced retirement by removing the default retirement age of 65 introduced by the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006. It maintains that the Government got it wrong on employment
14 July 2008 : Column 83
rights for those over 65, leaving them the only group without protection from discrimination when it comes to being dismissed. The default retirement age means that older people cannot choose to work beyond the age of 65 unless their employer allows them to do so. They can be forced to retire, if their employer so chooses, without reference to their capability or conduct, without being given a reason and without being able to challenge the dismissal in an employment tribunal.

Evidence from the United States of America, where mandatory retirement ages are already illegal, suggests that abandoning MRAs in this country could lead to more than 50,000 extra jobs for people over the age of 65. Scrapping mandatory retirement ages would be popular, and Age Concern polling has found that 80 per cent. of people think that there should be no mandatory retirement ages. Businesses are increasingly recognising MRAs as burdensome, fraught with practical difficulties and liable to create confusion for management. The employers of two out of five workers already manage without MRAs. The Employers Forum on Age now takes the view that the future of MRAs is unsustainable. I sincerely hope that Ministers will use the Bill to deal with that issue.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend cites organisations in the private sector, but does he acknowledge, and regret the fact, that among the most bellicose and hard-nosed employers that impose a maximum working age are organisations such as the Royal Mail? It routinely disposes of people who are fit, well, active and who know their areas well; they are lost because of the continuing pressure the organisation is under to downsize its work force.

Mr. Brown: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and there is more than one question within it. He outlines the manner in which the Royal Mail deals with some of its work force, especially as they reach retirement age. It is a tragedy that in the 21st century we are forcing people to retire at what is seen as retirement age when, if people are fit and healthy, they want to be out and contributing to business life.

David Taylor: It keeps them fit.

Mr. Brown: Yes, fit and healthy, and if they want to make that contribution, they should be allowed to do so.

My final point was raised by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who referred to the British National party, and it concerns clause 18, “Exclusion or expulsion from trade union for membership of political party”. The clause addresses the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on unions’ ability to determine their own rules and membership free from unnecessary interference. It relates to the fundamental right of freedom of association, covered by article 11 of the European convention on human rights. The relevant case concerned ASLEF’s attempt to expel a member of the BNP.

Next Section Index Home Page