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 (Eastbourne) (LD): 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 19 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.