Lord Blencathra (Con)
It is irrelevant since breakfast as well, actually. It was based on the employment situation in this country in 2016. It is now all ancient history and I am delighted to see that the free market is driving up wages for those workers at the bottom end of the scale, whose skills are now in great demand—the lorry drivers, white van men, cooks and shelf fillers. I take particular delight that an HGV driver for Waitrose doing an essential job may earn more than a lawyer living off the misfortune of others—I make only a small apology to noble Lords and noble and learned Lords present.
Two weeks ago, I read an article in which a restaurant owner was saying that it was outrageous that he was now having to pay commis chefs—I understand that they are not French socialists but vegetable choppers— £11 an hour and asking what the Government were going to do about it. I hope that my noble friend will say, “Absolutely nothing”. The free market has been used for the last 20 years to keep wages down. Now it can drive up the wages of low-paid essential workers.
Some of the evidence to the Taylor review was spot on. Leeds City Region said:
“It is good jobs that matter—where people feel a sense of stability, have a say in the workplace, know that their effort is recognised and rewarded, have the skills to do the job but also to develop their own potential, and trust that they will be treated fairly. And most critically, that they are paid a decent wage for the work that they do.”
How can anyone disagree with a word of that? The Taylor review had a chapter called
“key labour market challenges ahead”,
identifying poor wage growth and poor productivity. That was in 2017. Now wages and productivity are increasing rapidly, which means that companies will be forced to end the abuses of the so-called gig economy and fake self-employment status. There was only one item in the Taylor review that was accurate, the comment that
“we have to examine why, with employment levels at record highs, a significant number of people living in poverty are in work … if they have no guarantee of work from week to week or even day to day, this not only affects their immediate ability to pay the bills but can have further, long-lasting effects, increasing stress levels and putting a strain on family life.”
Again, who can disagree with that?
Way back in 2017, the review wondered why, with employment at record levels, so many people in work were in poverty. I think that we now have the answer, which has revealed itself over the last few months. While we had 2 million to 3 million cheap EU workers, companies could get away with zero-hours contracts, minimum wage and sometimes not even minimum wage, as we have seen in Amazon warehouses, Deliveroo, Uber and others, which have been committing flagrant abuses of workers’ rights by calling them self-employed. I am completely in favour of flexible working hours—after all, we have it here on a daily basis—but people on flexible hours must have proper legal contracts setting out those hours and their terms and conditions of employment.
Let us stick with employers, employees and genuine self-employed. Let us see wages and productivity rise. I say to restaurant owners, supermarkets and others, “Dry your eyes”—there is no God-given human right that we must have cheap takeaways or cheap eating-out food. If we cannot get strawberries from Morocco, iceberg lettuces from Spain or avocados from Brazil at Christmas—I am almost finished—then too bad. That will be a small price to pay for the huge benefits of the poorest in society earning more. Pay your staff whatever it takes, with proper contracts which may have flexible hours. Train up apprentices and raise prices accordingly. Food is already too cheap in this country for the vast majority of people; if those on low wages are paid a proper wage, they will be able to afford any increase in food prices.
Finally, why should I as a Conservative support this Bill? I believe in caring capitalism and a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. After the Prime Minister’s announcement this week, I think that we are all a bit pink on this side now. I wish the noble Lord success with his Bill.