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The first is requiring an employee to be available for work when no work is guaranteed. The second is requiring an employee to sign an exclusive contract when no work is guaranteed, so they cannot take work elsewhere, and the third is when employees are working regular hours over a sustained period but their contract does not reflect that. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill to address the issues with zero-hours contracts, and I will set out how I hope we can give effect to changes that would protect people in such circumstances.

Richard Harrington: Given the hon. Gentleman’s views on zero-hours contracts, will he condemn the Labour councils mentioned by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who have so many employees on zero-hours contracts?

Andy Sawford: Corby borough council employs some people as lifeguards in the local swimming pool on casual contracts that are not exclusive and do not require people to attend for work or else breach the contract. Those are clearly casual employment. Any council, of whatever stripe, that uses such contracts must do so in a way that is fair and reciprocal. I urge Labour councils to give a lead in that, and they are doing so. They are looking at the care sector, for example, where insecure employment has a real impact on the quality of care, as well as on the employees, to address the issue. I applaud them for that and think that the Conservatives’ attempts to use it as a smokescreen is unhelpful in such an important debate.

I urge companies not to wait for 2015, when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has promised to take clear action on this. That is why I met McDonald’s and talked about employment in its business. This week I also met the managing director of Starbucks, and I have talked to employers across my constituency and to councils about care workers. I want them to take action now, because that would be good for their reputation and for retaining a motivated, loyal and trained work force. I am pleased that companies such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons—whose human resources director will lead a review of this issue for the Opposition—are already showing that such contracts are not necessary for a successful business.

The issue of temporary workers working through employment agencies is a particular concern in Corby and east Northamptonshire. For historic reasons, we have a large proportion of jobs through employment agencies, with a disproportionately large number of agencies operating in the town. Rogue agencies that do not adhere to the basic framework of legislation to protect workers are a particular problem.

With great regret, I read recently that the Government intend to abolish the employment agency standards inspectorate, which plays an incredibly important role. I was pleased that the Minister agreed that it could undertake inspections in my constituency. It found more than 70 separate breaches of the law, and also found, working with HMRC, £100,000 owing to local workers because of minimum wage issues. My constituent, Irene Hamilton, said:

“I am so glad I never have to go to work for an agency now that I am retired…I felt that I was invisible…Don’t be sick, don’t go on holiday, no family or funeral problems are expected of agency workers. It was soul destroying.”

Her example is typical of so many people in my constituency.

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There are a wide range of issues. The use of the Swedish derogation, a giant loophole that must be addressed, has been mentioned. I am working locally to implement a code of practice. We must get much better at enforcement. I have also introduced a private Member’s Bill to extend the powers of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to all sectors of the economy—not to license, necessarily, in all sectors of the economy, but to be able to enforce the law in all sectors of the economy. The abuses are widespread, and I hope to have more time on another occasion to speak about some of the issues.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The last two speakers will have a time limit of five minutes each in order that we can hear the wind-ups.

4.31 pm

Mr Iain McKenzie (Inverclyde) (Lab): I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing the debate. I want to concentrate on two examples of employment contracts that challenge employment rights. Many people who are desperate for work sign such contracts, only to find later that they have signed a document that allows the employer to opt out of the natural progression to equal employment conditions. I have been told of employment agencies using and developing ways to absorb into their contracts the list of “reset to zero” the qualifying period for equal pay and conditions. I speak, of course, of zero-hours and pay between assignments contracts.

Austerity has been the spur that some unscrupulous employers have used to introduce erosion of employment rights, as evidenced by the increasing frequency of zero-hours contracts. The zero-hours contract offers no guaranteed work. As part of the general erosion of terms and conditions of employees, employers have increasingly been turning to the likes of zero-hours contracts. Under such contracts, an individual typically undertakes to be available for work, but the employer does not undertake to provide any work, and only pays for the hours worked. The zero-hours contract is now widely used, and a survey by the industrial relations service indicates that 23% of employers now include zero-hours contracts as one of their employment options. The Office for National Statistics also found a major surge in zero-hours contracts during 2012.

Zero-hours contracts quite simply undermine employment rights. The variability of earnings throws into doubt an individual’s eligibility to claim various forms of benefit. The employment rights of those employed on zero-hours contracts pivot on whether the contract imposes “mutuality of obligation” between employer and employee. To gain such rights, it is crucial for employees to prove that the contract constitutes an employment relationship—not as easy as it sounds, but it has been successful, and it is why we see a move to find an even more flexible contract option, which offers a loophole even to avoid the commitments of zero-hours contracts. That is why we witness the growth in pay between assignments.

As we have heard, the pay between assignments contract is sometimes referred to as the Swedish derogation. Someone with experience of the Swedish derogation recently commented in HR Magazine that he was advised that

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“if they ask me to go to an assignment 5 hours away from my home for minimum wage with no expenses and I refuse”,

his contract would expire and he would have to start again with no direct employment in this country. He said that indicates how bad employment rights have got in this country.

The TUC has lodged a formal complaint with the European Commission against the UK Government for failing to implement the temporary agency workers directive properly, which has led to tens of thousands of agency workers being paid less—up to £135 a week less—than permanent staff for doing the same job, despite EU rules saying that they are entitled to equal pay. The Government are yet again failing to protect British workers from exploitation.

Pay between assignments contracts can often be even worse than the much-criticised zero-hours contracts. The whole point of the 2011 agency regulations was to bring the principle of equal treatment, including equal pay for agency employees, into UK law. However, the introduction of these contracts means that many agency workers are signing away their rights to equal pay, which for most people is the most important element of the regulations. The madness here is that, compared with those on pay between assignments contracts, those on zero-hours contracts are actually better off, because they qualify for equal pay after 12 weeks—although that does not always necessarily follow.

I am proud that Labour introduced the minimum wage, one of our greatest achievements in government. In its last budget, my Inverclyde Labour council introduced the living wage. We spent most of the 19th and 20th centuries trying to build up employment rights; let us not spend the 21st century dismantling them.

4.36 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) on securing this debate. I am a proud trade unionist—in fact, I am a member of two trade unions—so I am pleased to speak in the debate. I get angry about the myths that Government Members often cite. Listening to today’s debate, and particularly to the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), people would think that everything in the garden is absolutely rosy and what the Government are doing for employees is brilliant. That is not the world I and my constituents live in.

The economy has not experienced a double-dip recession and sluggish growth, and only just avoided a triple-dip recession, because of the UK’s employment rights, but because the Government cut spending too far and too fast, hitting business confidence and choking off growth. They do not seem to understand that removing the rights of workers only increases job insecurity, harms work force morale and productivity and lowers consumer confidence, making things worse, not better. Only 6% of small and medium-sized enterprises think that excess regulation—all regulation, not just that on employment rights—is a barrier to growth and harms their business, but there is consensus that the real problems are a depressed economy and difficulty with bank lending.

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The Government are keen on international comparisons and, according to the OECD, out of the 36 richest countries, the UK has one of the lowest levels of worker protection, beaten only by America and Canada. That is not a record to be proud of. The Prime Minister has said that his proposals will make it easier to hire people, but we are not that stupid; we all know that this Government’s proposals actually make it easier to fire people. He seems to believe that, with 2.7 million unemployed, including 1 million young people, making it easier to sack people will increase growth. With reasoning like that, it is no wonder that we have never met any of the Chancellor’s growth figures.

Government Members seem to hold the view that it is difficult to sack people, but as a former trade union official who frequently had to tell members that they had no case—using the mantra, “The law is as it is, not as we’d like it to be”—I can tell them that it is already shamefully easy to dismiss workers. The Government’s change to the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims means that almost 60% of all employees under the age of 24, 1.4 million part-time workers, and 32% of all black and minority ethnic employees are not protected.

Having attempted to protect the jobs of such employees, I can attest to how easy it is for them to be sacked. Like colleagues in the House, I can tell some real horror stories, such as the senior railway manager who was accused of gross misconduct. We managed to prove that he was not guilty of any of the charges, but a month later he was given “the envelope”—the pay-off, which he had no alternative but to accept. Workers in a company in my constituency are about to be left in limbo: none of the companies involved in a TUPE transfer was prepared to take responsibility for them, leaving them with no wages, no redundancy payment and unable to claim benefit. I could go on. There is a theme: power remains firmly in the hands of the employer. Our employment protection is already weak and is being weakened further.

Government Members have made various other suggestions to weaken employment protection, including removing small firms from legislation. As about 44% of private sector employment is in SMEs, that would create a second-class citizen at work and make it harder for small firms to recruit good staff.

There have been rumblings about equality legislation, but as the Fawcett Society stated:

“Cutting red tape can all too easily mean scaling back on equality. Many of the regulations being revised—such as protections from unfair dismissal—have been vital in shoring up women's security in the workplace.”

Good employers are not frightened by trade unions and employment rights. The best employers welcome trade unions as partners and have higher than minimum standards of employment rights, but on a zero-hours contract people cannot get a mortgage, buy a car, buy a new fridge or even feed their children. Good employment practice is good for the economy. It promotes confidence and growth. The Government should be promoting good practice, not smashing basic rights.

4.40 pm

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his speech, which was compelling. He made a wonderful contribution. He was right to talk

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about the Government taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights and to raise the issue of the low-wage, low-skill and low-productivity economy that the Government seem to want to create.

I welcome the opportunity to debate the Government’s approach to employment rights. However, it is not the first time we have done so in the House and it will not be the last. Month after month, I and my colleagues have stood in this Chamber and in Committee rooms in the House to oppose policy after policy from this Government, who are seeking to remove the rights of people at work. The list is extensive. I will give just a few examples to highlight where we are: the Government’s Beecroft by the back door “compensated no-fault dismissal” proposals; what has been described as the Chancellor’s bonkers “shares for rights” policy; the increase in the qualification period for unfair dismissal; the introduction of employment tribunal fees; the disgraceful abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board without any debate in the House; changes to the employment tribunal compensatory awards; the removal of civil liability in health and safety; and the cutting in half of the collective redundancy consultation period. Just yesterday, we debated at great length part 3 of the gagging Bill, which would take trade union membership to a different level. All that is creating insecurity in the workplace.

At every opportunity since 2010, Ministers have attacked the rights of people at work. As many Members have said, including my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), the Government have made it easier to fire workers, rather than hire them. It is notable that it has been Lib Dem Minister after Lib Dem Minister who has been doing the dirty work for the Government in this area. That is having a significant effect on opinion across the country. A recent poll showed that 72% of British workers feel that employers have more power than employees. As YouGov reported yesterday, the number of people feeling insecure at work has almost doubled in the past three years from 6.5 million to 12 million—all on this Government’s watch.

The Government’s attitude to the workplace is that employers need more power relative to workers, that the rights of people at work are a barrier to growth and jobs, and that protection in the workplace holds back the economy—and all in the name of economic growth. Taking employee rights and health and safety back to Victorian times will not create economic growth. This insecurity causes great instability for workers. They are already earning £1,500 less a year on average than they were in 2010. The former employment relations Minister, now Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), had it exactly right when he said that there was an inextricable link between job security and consumer confidence and that policies that would damage job security would be “crazy”. He was absolutely correct. Unfortunately, he made those comments before he got the employment brief and systematically set about making some people less secure at work.

The Government’s approach runs contrary to all the evidence, much of which we have heard in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby and others mentioned the OECD. We must remember that before any of these changes were made, Britain’s employment law regime was the third most liberal in the world, just behind only the USA and Canada.

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I would like to pick up something that the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said. He painted a picture of a utopian economy and said that the biggest issue for employers is employment law. Actually, the statistics and analysis do not reflect that. It is worth noting that a survey of SMEs carried out by the Government’s very own Department for Business, Innovation and Skills earlier this year showed that, while 7% of businesses thought that regulation was a barrier to business success, 32% cited the economic downturn as the main issue.

Let us consider that in a day-to-day business. I have run my own businesses. Government Members continually bob up and use the term “unions” in this place as though it was like saying “Macbeth” in the theatre. Those having experience of running their own business know that happy, healthy employees who arrive at work every day being made to feel as if they have a real stake in the business, rather than being treated like cogs in a wheel, make far more productive employees. That has been highlighted by evidence recently produced by the CBI and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): The north-east as a region is more productive than other regions, and it is no coincidence that it has the highest trade union membership in England and Wales.

Ian Murray: My hon. Friend is a committed trade unionist and is committed to the north-east. He highlights an important point. Where there is a partnership between trade unions and employers, it is possible to have a really productive work force, which benefits everyone. Every successful industry in the country has had that powerful and strong relationship between trade unions and employers.

We have talked a lot this afternoon about zero-hours contracts. The CIPD released figures just last month showing that up to 1 million people were on such contracts. I understand the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) wanting to highlight the fact that zero-hours contracts have been around for a long time. Indeed they have, but the issue is the explosion in the number of such contracts in the past few years and their exploitation. They work for some people, and that is something that we have tried to deal with by looking at the ways to resolve some of the issues. But Ministers have not done enough in this area. They have instigated a half-hearted investigation while continuing a laser-like focus on removing people’s rights at work—an approach now synonymous with the report produced by Adrian Beecroft. This timid response is emphasised by the fact that not one Conservative Member of Parliament attended the recent Westminster Hall debate on zero-hours contracts.

We recognise the flexibility of zero-hours contracts, but we have to deal with exploitation on a cross-party basis because everyone in the House realises that it is a problem. We welcome the steps set out by the Leader of the Opposition just last week.

I was struck by some of the issues raised by hon. Members in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) always speaks so wonderfully on these issues. He highlighted problems in some of the industries around the country

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in terms of workers’ rights. It is about dealing with the abuses. This is not about setting one group of people off against another, setting employers off against employees or setting trade unions off against anyone else. It is the responsibility of the Government, politicians and constituency Members of Parliament to deal with those abuses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) mentioned the Lib Dems’ refusing to stand up to the abuse of zero-hours contracts and said that we did not spend enough time dealing with cases of people who are killed at work.

Stephen Lloyd: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Ian Murray: I am struggling for time I am afraid.

It surely cannot be right that people go to work to earn a living for their families and do not return home. We do not concentrate enough on such issues.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned zero-hours contracts. He was right to do so, and I hope that he will join us in trying to deal with the issue. He cares passionately about it, and I hope that we are able to do something on a cross-party basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) always speaks well in employment law debates. I think it struck the whole House when he said at the end of his speech that we had spent the 19th and 20th centuries building up rights and we should not spend the 21st demolishing them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) is passionate when she speaks about her involvement with trade unions, and she is right that the contribution that they make to our communities makes the economy stronger. We should welcome that rather than attacking it.

The signs of the cost of living crisis that faces millions across the UK are there for all to see. The weekly shop is more expensive. Energy bills seem to be rising day to day. Living expenditure such as travel is becoming more and more unaffordable. On top of all this there is a hidden contributor to the cost of living crisis—job insecurity compounded time and again by the Government’s ideological attack on rights at work. The Government fail to recognise that growing insecurity in a Tory-Lib Dem Britain further squeezes people’s living standards and hampers economic recovery.

It has been a good debate this afternoon and I hope that Lib Dem Members in particular take heed of some of the issues raised and change their tack on employment rights.

4.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jo Swinson): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on securing this debate. It has been wide ranging, with contributions of great interest from Members on both sides of the House.

The Government’s vision for the UK’s labour market is for it to be flexible, effective and fair. We want people to be able to access the type of work that they want and

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employers to be able to create jobs and manage their work forces effectively. We can help to do this by minimising the burden of regulation so that employers are free to create jobs and hire new staff. At the heart of our approach is a belief that employers and individuals are in the best position to decide what works for them. The role of Government is to provide the right framework to facilitate that, not to dictate outcomes through heavy regulatory approaches. Crucially, we need to ensure that people are treated fairly at work and that employers can compete on a level playing field without being undercut by unscrupulous employers who break the law and exploit their staff. We therefore launched a comprehensive, Parliament-long employment law review to tackle the perceptions and the reality of employment law burdens and to implement our strategy in practice.

The Government have introduced a range of different measures that have been mentioned by hon. Members. I want to talk about two that have not had a huge amount of focus in this debate but are radical and important. My hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) mentioned the proposals on shared parental leave. That is a radical reform to employment law allowing mums and dads to choose how they share the time off after their baby is born. That is good for children, particularly because the involvement of dads early on in the process can help child development. It is good for parents, making it easier for them to balance their responsibilities with their work. It is also good for employers, who can benefit from a more motivated, productive work force, with a more flexible system that enables working mums who want to return to work to do so earlier.

We are also extending the right to request flexible working that will come in from next April. It has already been available to parents, having been introduced by the previous Government, and it has been a great success, with four in five of the requests made being granted. There are all sorts of reasons why people might want to work flexibly, not just because they are parents. Perhaps they have other caring responsibilities. Perhaps they volunteer in their community. Perhaps they are older workers nearing the end of their working life who, rather than working full time one day and not at all the next, would like to taper their working as they ease into retirement. We need to move towards this situation being much more the norm than an anomaly. We have no need to keep our workplaces stuck in the 1950s with a culture of presenteeism. Modern technology has revolutionised the way that we can work, making people much more productive at different times. Indeed, employers can see the benefits of flexible working too.

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with some Labour Members’ characterisation of what the Government have been doing. Certainly, the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton used some analogies that I would not agree with, but I do agree with many of the things he said. He rightly highlighted the fact that many of the employment rights enshrined in EU legislation can be very important. He talked about the problems of directors’ pay differentials. There is great agreement in all parts of the House that that situation has become unacceptable, particularly where there has been payment for failure. Where there has been great success with a company growing, employing more people and bringing more wealth to the country, I do not think people mind

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payment being made accordingly, but where there has not been that success, there should not be unearned large packages. That is why the Government’s proposals to empower shareholders so that there is much more accountability on directors’ pay are important.

The right hon. Gentleman raised an important point about the normalisation of zero-hours contracts, which many others also talked about. As the hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) said, these contracts are not inherently bad. They can be applied in a fair and appropriate way, and people generally have no problem when there is flexibility on both sides and no imbalance of power in the relationship. Equally, many employers recognise that it would be counterproductive for them, as a matter of course, to put all their employers on to zero-hours contracts, because where the employee is, in effect, taking the place of a permanent full-time worker, or even a permanent part-time worker working 20 or so hours a week, that does not necessarily create the most positive and productive relationship between the employer and the employee. Of course, that is why many employers do not routinely have employees on zero-hours contracts. The point about normalisation is interesting and the Government have been doing significant work on zero-hours contracts. The hon. Gentleman raised some sensible points.

Andy Sawford: Will the Minister give way?

Jo Swinson: I will address some of the hon. Gentleman’s points before taking his intervention.

The hon. Gentleman discussed exclusivity, which is one of the issues highlighted in the Government’s work to date. If somebody is not getting guaranteed work on a contract, there is an inherent sense of injustice in the suggestion that they cannot seek work elsewhere. On the balance-of-power relationship, can a worker actually refuse work, or is it thought that if they do so they will not be asked to do shifts in future? Does the contract reflect the employment situation and is the proper information available? When they apply for a job, does the employee know that it is a zero-hours contract that is being offered, or do they think they are applying for a permanent job? We have been investigating genuine issues over the summer and we will look at how we can address any abuses.

Andy Sawford: I simply want to ask what action the Government have taken.

Jo Swinson: I hope the hon. Gentleman will be a little more patient. As I have said, we undertook a review over the summer and are looking at the information. I hope he will not have to wait too long before we announce the next steps.

My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) made an interesting contribution, particularly with regard to his comments about morality, which is not always a word associated with debates about capitalism and employment, but I think it is important. There is a legal framework for minimum rights, but it is fair to point out that we all have additional responsibilities to one another as human beings and individuals.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) said, most employers are good employers. I do not think that anyone in the House would wish to suggest that that is not the case. We are, therefore, dealing with a minority of rogue employers who can be unscrupulous. Most employers take their responsibilities seriously and want to make sure that they are treating their workers well, not only because they realise the business benefits of doing so, but because it is the right thing to do. It is important to remember that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who is no longer in his place, intervened a couple of times to point out the great success in the apprenticeship sector. I agree with him about that and how important it is that we have made things easier for low-paid workers by cutting their income tax bills, a policy that went straight from the front page of the Lib Dem manifesto to the pockets of hard-working people. I am delighted that my hon. Friend and other colleagues are now so supportive of that particular policy.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised a range of specific concerns about employment issues. We discussed blacklisting yesterday and in previous debates, and the Government will continue to keep a very close eye on that. I urge Members and others to be aware that free and confidential advice is available if people are worried about their employment rights. They should get in touch with the pay and work rights helpline, which is available online or on 0800 917 2368. Anybody can access it, and if they have concerns about national minimum wage payments, such cases can be passed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for enforcement action. Indeed, national minimum wage problems are prioritised on that helpline.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has achieved great success in his own work in improving the number of apprenticeships. He also raised the important issue of employers who do not pay out the award after losing an employment tribunal. He knows that we have been working on that and we will hold further discussions, particularly with the Ministry of Justice, on what action to take.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) mentioned the positive role that trade unions play and how they have driven up safety standards on oil rigs. He was right to highlight that and the role they can play in improving workplaces. The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) talked about zero-hours contracts and the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) echoed many of the points made by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.

Unemployment is now falling. There are 1 million more apprenticeships and 1.3 million more jobs in the private sector. That is a good record, but despite this we must avoid complacency and make further improvements to create more jobs, so that people can get the work they want and employers can take on the skilled workers they need in order to grow.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered employment rights.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)

5 pm

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate, which follows on from the point of order that I made exactly two weeks ago. I also point out that today is the three-year anniversary of the imprisonment of human rights defender, David Rabelo.

While the global community has understandably been focused on the horrific events in Syria, the actions of the Government of Colombia sadly continue to go unnoticed, despite an escalation in their oppression of the Colombian people in recent weeks.

In letters and meetings, we are asked to believe that the Colombian Government have changed for the better and that Colombia has a President who wants to end the war with the guerrillas, bring peace to his country and move his nation forward. I welcome and wholeheartedly support the peace talks. However, I am disappointed to see that in recent months, President Santos and his Ministers have reverted to the tactics used under former President Uribe’s Government of accusing any opposition groups of being linked to terrorism and brutally repressing social protest. Following the public relations campaign of the past year or so, during which President Santos has travelled around to meet world leaders, many of us are afraid that the mask has slipped and that we are seeing the real President Santos.

The ambassador to the UK, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, has tried to convince me that things are getting better in Colombia: that one fewer death means progress and that one fewer disappearance is a good thing. Despite the positive rhetoric, more than 250 civil society activists have been murdered since President Santos came to power and countless people have been imprisoned by the Colombian authorities on the weakest or indeed non-existent evidence. Questions were raised about the Colombian Government’s commitment to justice for victims when we saw the recent military justice reforms, which led to further impunity for military crimes and about which the United Nations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns.

I believe President Santos when he says that he wants to succeed in the peace talks. However, there is a contradiction in negotiating with the FARC, which is on the point of political participation, while at the same time denouncing trade unionists and civil rights activists as terrorists. That does not create a political climate that is conducive to democracy and peace. I know that there are serious opponents to the Government’s peace process, not least former President Uribe, but instead of appeasing those extremists, a strong commitment to peace and democracy needs to be shown.

The ambassador and the Colombian Government should not be surprised at our scepticism. After all, President Santos was the Secretary of State for Defence under President Uribe. As Defence Secretary, he presided over the perverse and sickening incentive scheme that was designed to reward military personnel for the guerrilla body count. My scepticism was reinforced when President Santos responded to the so-called “false positives” scandal by changing the law to give immunity to military personnel.

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That was just incredible. Yes, it can confound our scepticism when we see President Santos negotiating with the FARC to find a peaceful end to the conflict, but he undoes that good by eradicating any opposition by denouncing trade unionists and civil rights activists as terrorists.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): This is a very important issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Colombian Government’s policy of land grabs and removing land from the peasant population is further inflaming the situation in Colombia?

Robert Flello: The hon. Gentleman is correct that that causes further problems. I know that indigenous people are still having their lands taken.

The politicians, trade unionists, activists and media commentators that President Santos denounces are not terrorists, but he knows beyond doubt that it is effectively a death sentence to say that they are. Yet still he does it. Is it any wonder that I and others are sceptical?

I will turn my attention to the events of recent weeks. As a result of the west’s unending drive towards profit without conscience, the US-Colombia and EU-Colombia trade agreements have been put in place with very weak labour and human rights conditions. Trade agreements already disadvantage poor peasant farmers in Colombia, so it is not surprising that they have been protesting. It is estimated that approximately 250,000 peasant farmers have protested, despite the dangers they know they face.

How have President Santos’s Government responded in recent weeks? At least 10 people are dead, more than 800 are wounded and 512 people have been arrested, including 45 children. A curfew was imposed and 50,000 troops were put on to the streets of the country to crack down on strike action. The social movements have said that this amounts to an undeclared state of siege, with demobilised right-wing paramilitaries used to attack demonstrators. However, the peasant farmers have been joined in their protests by health workers and students. Video evidence shows horrific beatings, torture, systematic vandalism and theft of the few possessions and food owned by the peasant farmers by the police. Human rights organisations have catalogued sexual abuse, torture, degrading treatment, beatings, indiscriminate use of tear gas and rubber bullets, and intimidation. As a result of this unchecked state violence, the people of Bogota came out on to the streets in their thousands.

On 29 August, President Santos made a speech putting the blame on the protesters, and sent in the ESMAD riot police. In the same speech, he smeared the Patriotic March movement, knowing full well that it would put them in danger. This followed his public statements about the June protest in Catatumbo, which lead to four protesters being killed.

NIZKOR, a collective of high profile and respected human rights organisations in Colombia, has catalogued the appalling behaviour of the riot police. It reported that ESMAD has been acting in the Boyaca department as an occupying army that has supplanted civilian authority and committed systematic, generalised and indiscriminate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as acts of vandalism and the excessive use of force. The following are just some issues it has reported: indiscriminate shooting of police-issue weapons against the population; sexual abuse of youths

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by police agents, as well as repeated threats to sexually abuse women, partners and daughters of the peasants; acts of torture and other mistreatment that involve the arbitrary use of tear gas in enclosed spaces, including in nurseries with 3 to 6-year-old children inside, as well as the use of elements projected or applied to the bodies of the inhabitants; attacks against helpless youths and minors, who are taken from the demonstrations and assaulted while alone; the indiscriminate firing of tear gas from helicopters over gatherings of people; the arbitrary invasion of homes of peasants and the destruction of their property; the identification, false accusation, persecution and threatening of leaders of the agriculture strike in Boyaca; mass arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; looting, theft of money and other common crimes committed by the security forces while accompanied by the investigative police, even in the capital of the department; the occupation of institutions protected under international humanitarian law such as the Pan-American Educational Institute, the New Bolivarian school and the Paloblanco school, all in Boyaca; and the use of ambulances for the transport of members of ESMAD, the riot police, which in itself constitutes a violation of international humanitarian law.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): It is exceptionally worrying that there has been an escalation in the targeting of human rights defenders, with 37 dying in the first six months of this year.

Robert Flello: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is that escalation that led me to secure the debate.

On 28 August, NIZKOR reported that in addition to the previous offences it catalogued, ambulances were being prevented from going into areas where the security services had injured, and in some cases killed, inhabitants. It is worried that civilian authorities find themselves intimidated or supplanted by curfews, militarisation and the hiding of the identification of riot police and police. I welcome the negotiations that are now taking place between the strikers and the Government, but it took 21 days, many deaths and the arrest of many activists to lead to them.

Let me turn now to the arrest of the deputy president of the agricultural workers’ union. Huber Ballesteros is a prominent agricultural workers’ union leader. He is on the executive of the Colombian equivalent of the TUC, and is a leader of the peaceful, socio-political Patriotic March movement, which, as I have said, has been smeared by President Santos. In the classic, tried-and-tested method of the Colombian Government, Huber has been arrested and is in prison accused of rebellion and financing terrorism. It is the old Colombian Government trick of saying that there are incriminating e-mails on laptop computers and using non-credible witness statements, which have been discredited in previous failed cases and criticised by the UN. So-called evidence that would make a British court wince with shame is trotted out to justify this false imprisonment.

There is a certain irony in the fact that Huber should be accused of funding the FARC guerrillas, when the current Defence Secretary has previously said that FARC funded the Patriotic March. One would have thought the Colombian Government could be at least consistent in their wild accusations! In a way, I am grateful that Huber has not met the same fate as Henry Diaz, the

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agricultural workers’ representative I met 18 months ago in Putumayo district, whose clothes were found, symbolically, between two military checkpoints last year—disappeared and murdered for the crime of representing peasant farmers.

Huber’s reputation internationally is such that he was to be a guest at the TUC conference this week. He is widely respected by Canadian, Irish, UK and US politicians and trade unionists. Sadly, he must travel everywhere in Colombia with a team of bodyguards. Huber is now in La Picota prison. According to Mariela Kohon, the director of Justice for Colombia,

“the prison is intensely overcrowded, prisoners are routinely denied any medical attention”

at all. Indeed, in November last year, she met a prisoner in this very same prison who had literally carved off a slice from his face to remove a tumour.

I am glad to see the Minister in his place, but I have been repeatedly disappointed that successive UK Governments have seized upon the slightest crumb—real or illusory—that Colombia has turned its back on state-backed murder and oppression. Parliamentary answers show Ministers heralding the peace talks, the national protection unit, land restitution and so on as being signs of a better Colombia. We should, of course, congratulate any effort to improve the situation, but Ministers should and must dig a little deeper and judge the Government of Colombia on results, not intent—on concrete actions, not words on paper. Protecting trade unionists because the Inter-American court has ordered it, while at the same time accusing the same people of being terrorists is not coherent. Neither is returning land to peasants while murdering protesting peasants. Engaging in peace talks while intimidating peace activists is, once again, not a coherent approach. We need to see civil society more included in the peace process, and victims from all sides given a voice.

It saddens me to say that our Government have for too long too naïvely accepted the word of the Colombian Government as fact. That can be seen in their welcoming the announcement that there will be no more impunity for military personnel at exactly the time as the Colombian law granting such impunity was changed. No wonder our reputation as a bastion of human rights in the world is so poor in Colombia, particularly among those at the front line of defending human rights. It is shameful to think that the average Colombian views the British as supporters of the oppressor, not the oppressed.

Instead of accepting the sweet words of President Santos, I hope our Ministers will now take a tougher public line, call for civil society’s involvement in the peace talks, publicly reject accusations that the trade unions and the opposition are linked to the guerrillas, get our ambassador to visit Huber in his prison cell in Colombia and speak out about the oppression being doled out with impunity.

If President Santos is genuine about wanting to bring Colombia to peace, he should free Huber Ballesteros. I have received letters from the ambassador, saying that everything is being done through proper process and that the Executive cannot intervene. Well, I am afraid that history has shown otherwise—that all too often the Executive intervenes, and not in a positive way. Now we have an opportunity to intervene positively. If President Santos is genuine, he should stop denouncing anyone he

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disagrees with as a “terrorist”, and he should call off his slavering, rabid riot police and their accomplices in the military and police. President Santos would, I am sure, want the rest of the world to view him as a saviour of Colombia and as the man who brought peace to his country. He can do that, but not by copying Uribe—he needs to be a man of peace, not an elected dictator.

5.13 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): Let me first congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing today’s Adjournment debate, and thank other hon. Members for their interventions. I know that he and others in their places today take a close interest in the situation in Columbia. I know that the hon. Gentleman spoke at the “Justice for Colombia” fringe event at the TUC conference on trade unions and the Colombia peace process—on Tuesday, I believe.

Robert Flello: I was certainly due to speak at that event with Huber Ballesteros. Unfortunately, the business of the House meant that I could not be let loose from here.

Mr Swire: Perhaps other Labour Members would rather have been detained here than have had to face the brothers there. That, of course, was a decision facing them, not the hon. Gentleman.

The events of recent weeks have highlighted both the progress that has been made in Colombia and the challenges which—as we have heard—most certainly remain. The Colombian Government’s announcement of their readiness to begin peace talks with the country’s second largest group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, alongside the ongoing talks with FARC, brings closer the hope of a sustainable peace for all Colombians after decades of conflict. That is something that I believe all of us in the House would wish to support.

At the same time, however, there has been a series of social protests throughout Colombia, highlighting the divisions between rural and urban areas. The farmers are demanding structural reforms that address their needs, promote their competitiveness and secure investment in much-needed infrastructure. The Colombian Government have recognised the existence of genuine grievance in the country, and have pledged to address its underlying causes.

While it is right for us to acknowledge the strides that Colombia has made towards reform since President Santos took office in 2010, it is also right for us to continue to express concerns when we have them, and, as all true friends should, advise when things could be improved. The ongoing protests throughout Colombia remain a particular cause of concern. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s permanent under-secretary raised specific concerns about the violent incidents taking place during protests in the Catatumbo region with the Colombian Defence Minister during his visit to the United Kingdom in June. Also in June, our ambassador to Colombia met representatives of the peasant association who were protesting in Catatumbo, as well as senior Government figures in Bogota. We also remain concerned

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by allegations of police violence against protesters—of which we have heard from the hon. Gentleman—and also of violence by protesters against the police, which have so far cost the lives of eight civilians and one police officer.

We are aware of the recent detention of trade union leader Huber Ballesteros. Our ambassador to Colombia has written to the Colombian prosecutor general to highlight our interest in the case, and to request information on the charges. Staff at our embassy in Bogota are seeking permission to visit Mr Ballesteros in prison.

Although we recognise that the protests have helped to raise the profile of dissatisfaction in the countryside and the need for reform, we should not forget the impact that the strikes have had on others in Colombia. We are concerned by reports of food shortages and dwindling medical supplies, which usually affect the most vulnerable. The loss of income for low-paid workers who are unable to get to work through the blockades will be difficult for them and their families to manage. The impact of the protests on British companies operating in Colombia is also of concern. We are working with the Colombian authorities to ensure that the situation is resolved in the most appropriate and timely manner.

For the reasons that I have given, we welcome the efforts to find a peaceful resolution through dialogue. We are encouraged by President Santos’s statement that there will be an investigation of the recent violence, deaths of protesters, and any use of excessive force by the police.

More broadly, human rights remain an integral part of our relationship with Colombia. We support the efforts of the Colombian Government to address human rights challenges, which we raise regularly with senior Government representatives. When, along with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, I met President Santos during his visit to the UK in June, human rights formed an important part of the agenda. We have a strong and valuable bilateral dialogue on the issue.

The 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights provides a detailed assessment of the key areas in which the Colombian Government have made progress, and those about which concerns remain. Progress that is highlighted includes the peace talks, the creation of the national human rights system and the work of the national protection unit, which now protects more than 10,000 Colombians. However, the report also expresses concern about human rights violations, primarily by illegal armed groups, and about high levels of impunity.

At Colombia’s United Nations universal periodic review in April, we recommended that the Colombian Government increase their efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for threats or violence against human rights defenders, trade unionists, community leaders and journalists. We also recommended that Colombia ensure that its reformed military justice system is fully compliant with international human rights law, and that all allegations of human rights abuses by military personnel are investigated promptly and effectively. The Colombian Government have assured us that this reform will not result in impunity for servicemen. We will press the Government to publish information and statistics on their efforts in this area regularly.

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Robert Flello: I am listening carefully to the Minister’s response. He will be interested to know that following the death of 3,500 men who, as I mentioned in my speech, were persuaded to go to remote parts of Colombia as a sham work opportunity and then killed by the army in order to claim the rewards under this sickening scheme, not a single person has yet been held responsible.

Mr Swire: The Government have assured us that there will be no impunity for servicemen. I raised this with the deputy Defence Minister, Jorge Bedoya, during his visit to the UK in March and we will continue to press the case.

The UK is fully engaged on a range of human rights issues on the ground. Our embassy works with local NGOs and the Colombian Government on a number of projects, whose aims have ranged from increasing access to protection measures for human rights defenders to raising awareness of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Our embassy in Bogota will support a project to analyse risks around next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections and to increase transparency.

Our engagement with Colombia on these issues forms part of a rich and diverse bilateral relationship.

Jim Shannon: On the elections, is the Minister aware of any independent observers who will be monitoring the elections to ensure that they are free, democratic and without restrictions?

Mr Swire: My default position on elections, wherever they are, is that there should be international observers. In my role as Commonwealth Minister and Minister with responsibility for Latin America, Asia and south-east Asia, I am constantly arguing that where there are questions of transparency, people who are respected should be invited from the international community to observe elections. If there is nothing to hide, all that does is validate the elections. So I would suggest to anyone that they invite in election observers. It is a good rule.

Colombia is an increasingly important commercial partner, offering real opportunities for British companies. We are working with UK industry and the Colombian Government to ensure that British businesses are in a strong position to win contracts. We make no apology for that at all. Unlike the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, we regard trade agreements, such as the EU-Andean free trade agreement with Colombia and Peru, as important for economic growth and prosperity in developed and developing countries. I believe that these free trade agreements will eventually benefit all the people, including those living in the most remote areas, the farmers and so on. It takes a little time and it is painful, but that is where we disagree philosophically about free trade.

The UK pushed hard for a legally binding human rights clause in the agreement, which is consistent with our policy to have a frank dialogue with Colombia and Peru on human rights. We strongly encourage British companies to respect human rights in places where they do business. That applies internationally. The UK’s

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action plan on business and human rights, launched by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 4 September, sends a clear message to British firms about the standards expected of them overseas. In May, we part-funded a major event in Colombia on implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and we are now working with the Colombian Government as they create a national strategy of their own.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South for securing today’s debate.

John McDonnell: Before the Minister sums up, may I ask him one specific question? On 14 September it will be the third anniversary of the imprisonment of David Ravelo Crespo. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, raise this case again, ensure that we are expressing our concern about this continued imprisonment of a human rights defender, and perhaps seek access to the prison?

Mr Swire: I will certainly convey the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to the Colombian ambassador here in London and ensure that our ambassador in Bogota does the same.

I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South once again for securing the debate. Hon. Members have highlighted many important points and I fully recognise the concerns raised. All in the garden is not rosy. The Government are not blindly supportive of everything being done by the Government in Bogota—[Interruption.] That might be the perception, but the truth is that we are a critical friend and we believe that President Santos is doing an incredibly difficult job. The end goal, which must be a peaceful negotiation and settlement with the FARC and other groups, is something that we believe will radically transform the lives of everybody in that country, wherever and at whatever level they live.

After almost half a century of conflict, Colombia has made great strides in the last three years towards the goal of a prosperous nation free of armed conflict. I hope that hon. Members will recognise that sometimes, rather than just seeing the glass half empty. Of course there is still more to do; how could there not be, given what the country has suffered over the years? In order to achieve greater progress, Colombia must continue to address the legacy of an incredibly difficult and tragic past and tackle the myriad and difficult challenges it still faces.

This Government will remain a constructive, supportive and critical partner, committed to supporting reform moves under President Santos in order to see a developing and prosperous Colombia where the human rights of all people are respected and where all people can live in safety, not in fear of their lives, and enjoy the prosperity that I believe is owed to them and that, as a result of President Santos’s reforms, will eventually trickle down to them.

Question put and agreed to.

5.26 pm

House adjourned.