Lord Whitty (Lab)
My Lords, I strongly support this Bill and, slightly to my surprise, I agree with almost every word the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, just said. That indicates the recognition of the injustice and confusion that the present situation causes.
First, like the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, I strongly refute the suggestions that the complexities of defining what is clearly a worker simply reflect or facilitate changes in the labour market or, alternatively, changes in technology or worker expectation. There is absolutely no reason why the gig economy, the digitalisation of so many jobs or changes in standard hour expectations and flexibility requirements of individual workers in companies should require multiple definitions of what a worker is and multiple statuses of what they are entitled to. An individual usually sells their labour subject to the direction of a single employer. An individual may have multiple clients, but there is usually a de facto employer and a de jure employer, whether that is a stand-alone company or an agency. Those workers should, therefore, have the same rights and protections, and indeed the same access to employment tribunals.
Secondly, this Bill discriminates between workers who are essentially in the same situation. Its prime purpose is to resolve that anomaly, discrimination and injustice—and, indeed, that confusion for employers and the courts. The distinction between “employee” and “worker” must be abolished. In terms of protection and entitlement, there should be no distinction.
But that is the easy part. As my noble friend says, there is also the situation of certain agency workers and, particularly, of bogus self-employment. Whether you work for a single employer, several employers, an agency, a labour-only subcontractor or a gangmaster, you should have equivalent rights as a worker—or as an employee, as in the current situation. Whether you are a traditional bogus self-employed person like many in the construction industry used to be, on the lump, a single-client owner-driver or a new-fangled self-employed person in the gig economy, you all deserve the same equivalent protection and rights. The Uber cases clarified some of this; this Bill, I hope, generalises it. But I also hope that it will go further in practice. It will clarify the law and make it easier and more straightforward for employers. Frankly, it will also allow more equitable raising of taxation, thereby helping the Government in their current difficulties.
Bogus self-employment undermines not only workers but the genuine self-employed—and, indeed, the tax authorities. The proposed “dependent contractor” would not really clarify that issue. Most of those who might be so designated are workers by any other test and should be entitled to the full rights.
Finally, to make the Bill work and to ensure that all workers in the economy, however they are currently designated, have similar rights and expectations, we need proper enforcement. One of the problems of the labour market in this country is that there are multiple agencies responsible for different parts of different sectors and different aspects of the employment situation. They range from obvious agencies such as the HSE and the gangmasters licensing authority—I was the Minister who set that up—right through to the Pensions Regulator and the DVLA for drivers. We need a fully fledged employment inspectorate backed by an employment tribunal which should be free at the point of access.
I hope that the Bill goes through its subsequent stages and passes, but I also hope that it is accompanied by a rationalisation and an increasing effectiveness of the enforcement aspect.