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The BNP does not exist in my area. I am aware from conversations with other colleagues that it is a despicable organisation, which, in a civilised society, we should not tolerate. I understand the hon. Gentlemans frustrations,
as I understand those of many of my colleagues, about some of the myths and nasty literature that it peddles, not only at election times, but continually, thinking that it can make headway in what it regards as the political world.
Mr. Walker: When my newspaper informed the BNP organiser in Broxbourne that I had received an implied death threat from a BNP member, his response was that I was being oversensitive to some loose language. Does that not accurately sum up the BNP at every level of its hierarchy?
The original clause was too restrictive, but it was amended in the other place and it is now even worse. Unions are too vulnerable to claims made by those expelled on the grounds of their membership of a political party, including the BNP, and the clause does not address the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. I know that my union, Unite, finds that unacceptable.
I again apologise for not being here for the opening speeches by the Minister and the Opposition spokesperson. I hope that the points that I and colleagues have raised will be listened to by the Minister, and perhaps some of the issues in question will be addressed in Committee.
Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): As we are all declaring our interests in trade unions, I suppose I should declare my own. As a trainee nurse, I was a member of the National Union of Public EmployeesI do not think that it even exists any moreand after I qualified I was a member of the Royal College of Nursing. I remember well that in December 1975, as a trainee nurse, we received a pay rise, due to pressure from the unions, that enabled us to eat. The previous monthI started nursing in the Novemberthe paltry amount that we were paid was just about enough to exist on. Although as trainee nurses we were incredibly gratefulI will not go into a history lesson, Madam Deputy SpeakerI do not think that the public purse lost the money as easily as nurses received it. Unfortunately, we all know what happened afterwards.
In my time, I have appreciated the work of trade unions, but we have reached a point where the unions demands made in the name of diversity are causing problems with business regulations. It surprises me that in 2008 we are repealing and amending a substantive Act that was introduced and debated in this House in only 2002. Did the Government get it wrong in 2002? Exactly how much are we repealing, and how much is being amended? I wonder whether the Minister can tell us how many regulations fewer there will be as a result of the Bill.
Today, Nicola Brewer spoke out on how employment law directly impacts on the career progress of women in the workplace. We are beginning to see how the pressure from trade unions on diversity and equality legislation is shooting women in the foot, when it is supposed to help them up the career ladder. I do not think that flexible working and the procedures that employers
have had to put in place to assist female employees is wrong. Some of the comments we heard from employers were appallingputting batches of CVs in the bin before they would even interview women who might cause a problem to their businessbut I wonder whether the amount of equality legislation we are imposing on businesses is having an adverse effect. Perhaps we could use a lighter touch and persuade employers by using incentives or by using the tax system, with benefit-in-kind tax relief, instead of using heavy-handed, burdensome legislation. As Nicola Brewer said today, it seems to be having the opposite effect, and rather than imposing regulation on business I think that there is another way of achieving a desirable outcome.
As someone who ran a business that was all about helping women in the workplace, I do not want us to take a step back. In fact, the issue is about changing the culture in the boardroom and the culture of the people at the top who put womens CVs in the bin and do not employ them because of their gender. The answer is not to hit businesses over the head with a massive regulatory hammer. That is not going to give us the results that we need.
All regulation is a cost to business. As we know, two thirds of businesses in this country employ fewer than 20 people. Half our GDP comes from small businesses, which feel the cost of regulation more than big corporations do. Having run a small business, I know that owners of small businesses need to maintain their market share, increase their growth, guarantee their employees security and look for new business. Achieving all those objectives is vital, but when someone has to juggle regulatory reform too, they need additional employees to manage that, which imposes extra cost. If we are going to tinker about with employment regulations again, I would like to see some way of relieving that cost on small businesses and using the Bill to assist them. The Minister will probably talk about that, which is to be welcomedI know that, in principle, we support itbut there may be another way of doing a bit more for small businesses.
Lord Jones of Birminghamthe famous Digby Jonessaid that the Blair Government were one of the most regulatory-minded Governments. Can the Minister reassure us that the Brown Government are not, or are they the same? Will the Bill reduce the burden of regulation on businesses today, or are we going down the same path of imposing more regulation? The British Chambers of Commerce estimates that Government regulation has cost British business more than £65 billion since 1998. Will the Minister tell us what estimate has been made of the cost of employing people? How much of that £65 billion is directly related to employment costs?
Many small businesses operate in niche marketsI certainly did: I always thought, Whats the point of doing something that somebody else is already doing? It is much more exciting and easier to create jobs if someone can excite by innovating, rather than copying what somebody else is doing. People need the freedom to innovate and the freedom of thought to have ideas and create business, and for that they need to be free from regulation and red tape. It is incredibly difficult for people when all that they can worry about is the administrative process of running their business, which means that they are not free to innovate. Again, the Bill could have done something to help with innovation by
freeing up those who run small businesses, who provide half our GDP. Was the Bill a wasted opportunity?
The Federation of Small Businesses says that many firms are concerned that they are not being taken seriously. They feel that the Government talk to big businesses, but that they no longer talk to small businesses. People who run small businesses have spoken out against the Government, blaming them for not doing enough and for spiralling costs. Again, that is what regulation doesit brings cost with it. The two go hand in hand. In a poll of more than 9,000 businesses, 96 per cent. of owners questioned by the FSB said that they were not satisfied that the Government were taking the right decisions in the interests of small business. Equally, more than 88 per cent. criticised the Government for not doing enough to bring down the rise in business cost.
With the end of a period of relative stability, small business confidence in the government has plummeted in the last couple of years. Employment, tax and fuel policies have left many small firms feeling that their concerns are not being taken seriously enough.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I wonder whether the hon. Lady realises that there were 18 years of Tory rule between all the post-war regulation and now. As a trade union official, I can tell her that the worst period for unemployment, because of the lack of regulation, was under the previous Tory Government. Surely that is the period on which we should concentrate in this debate.
Mrs. Dorries: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, as always. However, we know, as we now enter a recession, that these things are cyclical. I started my business in the 1980s, and it was tremendously successful. Indeed, I know lots of people who did the same. We go through bad patches and good patches. We know that, economically, that is how the cycles work. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not take the point fully, because I am not sure that trade unions have created employment or prevented unemployment, which is more to do with the economic cycle of the time.
All we see is government consulting big business, with small businesses being left out of the loop. But small businesses produce over half of UK GDP and it is important that their needs are addressed if we are to get through the current economic difficulties.
We know that those difficulties will get worse. The former Prime Minister, John Major, said yesterday that it feels as though inflation is more like 8 per cent. than the official figure. Nobody I speak to understands how the official figure is what it is, when it costs so much to go to Tesco and so much to fill up the car. We know that things will get more difficult. Small businesses need not more regulation but less, because they are the ones that we will look to, as we always do when the economy enters difficult times.
Mrs. Dorries: I shall probably answer the hon. Gentlemans question when I conclude. My point now is that I would like to know from the Minister whether the Bill provides less regulation or more. I hope that the Minister will answer that question when he winds up.
There are new fears in the City. A new survey has found that business leaders in London fear for the competitiveness of the City. The study, conducted by KPMG in partnership with the CBI, found that six out of 10 senior executives believe Londons competitiveness is under threat. Richard Reid, the London chairman of KPMG, said that
after so many promises to reduce damaging red tape, policy-makers have to realise that the burden of unnecessary paperwork is seriously hindering Londons success and its ability to just get on and do business in an increasingly competitive world.
David Taylor: In a former life I was a freelance accountant for many small businesses. I have a very high regard for the FSB, for the support that it gives. However, the FSB, in urging the lowest possible level of regulationit is quite appropriate for it to do sois not doing what the hon. Lady seems to be doing, namely making a coded appeal for small businesses to be exempt from national minimum wage legislation.
Mrs. Dorries: I am not making a coded appeal at all. If I was making such an appeal, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would make it directly. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), if I had been here when the House voted on the minimum wage, I would, as someone with an employers experience, probably have voted against it, because I have always paid more than the national minimum wage anyway. However, I am aware that there wereand still areunscrupulous employers, and I think that the national minimum wage is a good thing.
Sometimes there is a cartel of employers who pay only the minimum wage. Sometimes it is difficult for skilled employees who deserve more than the minimum wage to find employment where they live, because a wage ceiling in their area makes it difficult for them to get a salary increase. They cannot move anywhere, because all the employers fix their pay at the minimum wage. The minimum wage has had a detrimental effect on some skilled workers. Indeed, I have some experience of that among my constituents working in the borough of Bedford. They cannot move, because the employers all pay the national minimum wage.
David Taylor: The hon. Lady has decoded her earlier remarks and we are very pleased about that. Is she suggesting a two-tier minimum wage, with the lower tier for unskilled or semi-skilled workers and the higher tier for skilled workers?
Not at all. As I said, I accept that we need a national minimum wage. My daughter works in the hospitality industry, and goodness knows what she would be paid if there was not a national minimum wage. I accept that we need a national minimum wage, but it is not all good. There are those on whom it has a detrimental effect, and they tend to be the more skilled people. They are paid at a rate that does not reflect their
ability because there is almost a cartel of employers holding wages down in different areas. Although the minimum wage may have benefited the majority, there are those who are not benefiting and who would be earning more.
As I explained, there was no coded message in what I said. Opposition Members support the Bill and we agree with its principle. However, the Government have persistently placed more legislative and regulatory burdens on employers, which has the most detrimental effect on small businesses. It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that the Conservative party is committed to reducing regulatory burdens on employers, giving them more power and opportunities in how they run their businesses and encouraging enterprise in all its forms, particularly, I hope, small business. In contrast, the Government have piled extra complexity and burdens on businesses, and I hope that any changes that they make will reduce that burden. If Lord Jones of Birmingham was right that the Blair Government were the most regulatory Government, perhaps this Government can reverse that in the time that they have left and do some good, particularly for small businesses.
A lot has been said about the history of the minimum wage. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) is leaving, which is sad, because I want to give him another history lesson. More or less everybody now seems proud of the minimum wage and nobody wants to see it done away with. Most people would say that it was one of the finest achievements of the Labour Government in the late 1990s. One of the biggest problems is that we first introduced it in the early 1900s, but it took us 90 years to put it in place. One of the saddest things is that the trade unions themselves opposed the national minimum wage when the union of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) proposed at the TUC in 1983 that we should have one. Many trade unions, including, sadly, the National Union of Mineworkers, which I was a member of, voted against that. Thankfully, the Labour party and, eventually, the trade unions saw the error of their ways, and we did something that we should rightly be proud of. I am glad that the majority of hon. Members see that that was the right thing to do, and we should build on that.
We should protect those on the minimum wage from rogue employers, and that is rightly built into the Bill. As everyone in the House seems to agree, we should ensure that tips are excluded and that people are paid properly. If a tip is a tip, that is what it isit is not part of peoples wages. We should also protect the minimum wage from people such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who saidI will put my glasses on to read this quote, because that is how seriously I take thisthat the
minimum wage and other labour market regulation has been the last straw for hard pressed low end industries.
That seems to accord with what the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire has just said. I would argue with herbut I think that she has a pointwhen she says that some employers have made the minimum wage a ceiling, rather than a floor. That is a problem not with the minimum wage, but with rogue employers taking advantage of it, and that is what should be challenged, not the minimum wage itself.
I want to focus particularly on the issue of paying people under 21 the rate for the job, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark), and I want to use my personal experience. I started work at 15 as a fitter at the National Coal Board. I served a four-year apprenticeship. At 19, I was trained, capable and safe. I was able to look after a coal face, and the men there could have been killed if I did not do my job properly. It would have been absurd for somebody to say, You can do the job, but were not going to pay you the rate for the job for another two years because youre too young. We would not do that at the end of somebodys working life, so why should we do it at the beginning if they are capable, safe and properly trained? We should really look at that in some detail, and I ask the Minister to consider it as we make progress with the Bill.
Another point that was raised earlierI am going to put my glasses on againrelated to dispute resolution. It is clear that the intent in the Bill is to reduce the amount of regulation and litigation, and I would normally welcome that, but the truth is that where dispute resolution works well and where we have good grievance procedures and good disciplinary procedures, which people know and understand, lay members who probably do not understand such things will have internal protection if they are supported by trade unions or bodies such as the citizens advice bureau. My worry, which has been raised with me by constituents who sit as lay members of tribunalsthis has been raised clearly alreadyis that the proposals are about taking them out of the loop and letting people with a legal background have sole responsibility for deciding cases that they might not be qualified to decide, in the sense that they do not have experience of the workplace from the side of the employer or the employee, even though they will have a legal background. That is a real worry, and we should address it. We should ensure that the proposals that we take forward are not about reducing the number of people with real knowledge and experience who have sat on tribunals for many years, but about doing the job properly.
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