2nd reading
Friday 10th September 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bassam of Brighton Portrait Lord Bassam of Brighton (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise from the Labour Benches to support this excellent Bill from my noble friend Lord Hendy and to congratulate him, as all others in the House have, on his excellent and forensic introduction of it. It is, as one noble Lord described it, a very elegant solution. I say to the one dissenter in the House this morning, the noble Lord from the Conservative Benches, that he should probably have a discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, having heard what he said to us about the state of the law in its current form.

It is unacceptable that millions of workers face insecure employment with low pay, few rights and few protections. The fact that this particularly affects key workers, whose efforts have got the country through the pandemic, is even more distressing. As we have heard today, around 3.6 million workers are in insecure labour. Employers are increasingly scheduling and cancelling shifts at short notice, and 84% of zero-hours contract workers are offered work at less than a day’s notice. Some 15.6% of caring and service workers are insecurely employed, and disabled workers, women and black and minority ethnic workers are all more likely to be in insecure labour too.

How can it be right that so many people face such insecurity? How can it be right that, as we have heard today, so many workers in the UK live in poverty and on poverty wages propped up by universal credit? How can it be right that this situation exists? How can the Government claim to be at the helm of a functioning economy when the existence of food banks has, sadly, become the norm throughout the UK? This insecurity is bad for working people, damaging for the economy and, as we have seen through the pandemic, devastating for public health.

This insecurity stems directly from the statute book. Even the Government recognise this, or seemed to, and had promised to bring forward an employment Bill, but that promise, like many others, has been broken with the legislation seemingly dropped from the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. Perhaps the Minister can explain whether that Bill will ever see the light of day, let alone be introduced to Parliament.

Turning to my noble friend Lord Hendy’s elegant solution, his Bill seeks to fix flaws in our current law where separate employment statuses exist, such as employee, limb (b) workers and the bogus self-employed. Each of the three existing categories has separate accompanying protections with qualifying periods for rights such as statutory maternity, adoption, paternity and shared parental leave. There have been many cases where employers actively exploited the separate categories by falsely putting workers in a category with fewer rights.

For example, concerns have been raised for many years about the extent of bogus or false self-employment in the gig economy where individuals are registered as self-employed although they should qualify for employee or worker status. As we have heard today, this was seen in Uber v Aslam, where Uber drivers argued that they were workers while Uber maintained that they were self-employed contractors. This unfairness must end and all workers must receive the proper rights and protections.

Therefore, we on these Benches support this legislation to create a single status of worker. It would replace existing employment categories and remove qualifying periods for basic rights and protections to give workers day-one rights in the job. This would ensure that all workers receive rights and protections, including statutory sick pay, national minimum wage entitlement, holiday pay, paid parental leave and protection against unfair dismissal. It is important to stress that those who are genuinely self-employed would retain their status as being self-employed.

Does the Minister agree that this would be a positive step forward, or does he believe that, as he recently said, a three-tiered employment status structure provides the right balance for the UK labour market? If it is the latter, can he explain what he means by the right balance? I think the House deserves to hear an answer to that. It is a question that many have asked.

We need to tackle working arrangements that leave millions without a regular wage, key rights and important protections. Workers should and must receive them from day one of their employment, and that is what a Labour Government would do and what this Bill seeks to do. Can the Minister really be on the side of the worker if he opposes this legislation?

It is clear that we need to go much further than this Private Member’s Bill. That is why we are calling for additional rights and protections for the genuinely self-employed, including statutory sick pay, the right to flexible working for all workers as a default, the right to switch off from work outside working hours and new rights to protect workers from remote surveillance. Do the Minister and the Government support those proposals? Does the Minister now see the need for a full and broad-based employment Bill to be introduced as soon as possible? Does he see protections for workers as part of the levelling up agenda? The noble Lord, Lord Holmes, and many other noble Lords today clearly do.

We need a new deal for working people, and my noble friend Lord Hendy’s proposals in this Bill should be front and centre. I hope that the Minister and the Government agree. We will be listening very closely to his reply.