Baroness Wheatcroft (CB)
My Lords, I welcome the Bill and thank the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, for presenting it in such an effective way. The law can sometimes be an ass and, looking at the distinctions which currently exist in employment law, you can hear it braying. It is time for change. That in 2021 our law still preserves the right of businesses to treat those who labour for them in the way that 19th-century mill owners did is something of which we should all be ashamed. It was in 1819 when the cotton factories Act was passed, and among its provisions was that workers had to be nine years old. We have moved on from there, but nowhere near far enough. At that stage, mill owners argued that any changes to the labour laws would hit productivity and increase prices. What they meant was that they would lower profits. We need businesses to make profits, but not through unfair exploitation of labour. We should have moved on to something much better than that.
In fact, though, the problems are still huge. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found in 2017-18 that 4 million workers lived in poverty, and half of the workers living in poverty were in full-time employment. Nobody can sit in this Chamber and feel comfortable with that statistic. The way things still work in far too many businesses is that companies pay their chief executives and other top staff huge salaries, and pay generous dividends to their shareholders, yet many of their workers are having to claim universal credit. How can that make sense? The taxpayer is subsidising the chief executive’s salary and the dividends. I find that very hard to justify.
We need businesses to compete fairly, and some of them are cheating—there is no other word for it—by taking on people on terms that they will not even understand. How many people really know the difference between being an employee and being a worker? It is a totally bogus distinction. Those companies are out to defraud the country and to defraud their competition, and we must stop them being able to do that. This Bill is a wonderful way to do it.
The Bill also plays absolutely into the levelling-up agenda. It must be fair to make sure that workers who provide their labour do so on equal terms unless they choose to be fully self-employed. I absolutely respect and applaud the right of some people to be self-employed. If you work from home and are self-employed, why not live somewhere in the sun, as many youngsters are now deciding to do, and be in charge of your life, with the work/life balance that you want? But not many people can afford that sort of luxury. They want the security of full-time employment, albeit with flexible hours. If we believe in compassionate capitalism, that is what we should guarantee. I have heard many speeches this morning that I am sure will have swayed the Minister, but I look forward to hearing how, if he does not support the Bill, he can justify that.