Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 23rd May 2022

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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My right hon. Friend raises a very powerful point, and he is quite right: children should be taught how to think, not what to think.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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T8. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 27% of children in the UK are living in poverty, which equates to eight in a classroom of 30. A classroom with hungry children is not an environment that is conducive to good learning, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor to plan emergency interventions to tackle such shocking levels of child deprivation and inequality across these islands?

Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 23rd November 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Gavin Williamson Portrait Gavin Williamson
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I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much to highlight the concerns and issues—not just of the University of Keele, but also of students whom he represents—and flag them up to the Department. We have worked very closely with the university sector, and it would be right for me to pay tribute to the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who has done so much to ensure that all students will be able to return home for Christmas in an orderly and safe manner.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP) [V]
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Scottish universities receive an average of 8% of their total research funding from the European Union, with a majority coming from Horizon 2020, so can the Secretary of State tell us whether participation in Horizon Europe is still on the table? If not, how should our universities be looking to replicate that funding?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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Our universities are world leading when it comes to research, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently published a road map. This is a priority for the Government. As the hon. Member will know, Horizon is being actively negotiated with the EU, and that Department has publicly said that it is preparing an alternative, should we not be successful in those negotiations.

Holiday Hunger Schemes

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 6th November 2018

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) for securing this important debate.

In Scotland, there are approximately 170 non-school days a year when children cannot access free school meals, putting a lot of pressure on low-paid families that rely on them. The absence of a free school meal for children can cost families on low incomes between £30 and £40 per week. The Trussell Trust has warned that food bank use spikes not just in the Christmas period but during the summer. As we have heard, in 2017, 593 organisations running holiday clubs across the UK provided more than 190,000 meals to more than 22,000 school-age children.

As we have a bit of time, I have some stats from the Glasgow South West constituency, where activities like those happening in other hon. Members’ constituencies are taking place. Southside Housing Association delivered its Southside Summer Connections programme this year in Cardonald in the Glasgow South West constituency. The housing association delivered the programme as lead partner, along with Hillington Park parish church. This year’s funding was awarded from the Glasgow children’s summer food programme, which is funded by Glasgow City Council. The housing association based the programme on the model it used in the previous two years, providing a breakfast club with free healthy breakfasts and activities on two days a week over the school summer holidays.

The housing association delivered 12 sessions. A total of 311 individuals—112 adults and 199 children—attended or benefited from the programme. Based on attendance figures, the housing association provided a total of 1,182 healthy breakfast meals. There was an average of 99 participants at each session. The programme cost £4,800 for food and activities, and was backed by 17 volunteers from Hillington Park parish church and the housing association. I thank those 17 volunteers for their remarkable work.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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Does the hon. Gentleman think there is a lack of comprehension of what goes on for constituents such as his and mine and those of other hon. Members who have spoken? Is it not the fact that, at the top of our country, there are people from the soft parts of Surrey and from Maidenhead who just do not understand the pressures and the situations that people on low incomes face in the age of austerity?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The hon. Gentleman was referred to earlier as a veteran of Parliament. When I arrived here in 2015, the first thing to hit me—it hit me right between the eyes—was the class differential between some of us on the Opposition Benches and those on the Government Benches. I agree that there seems to be a lack of understanding of what happens in the daily lives of far too many of our constituents as they struggle to navigate their way through life and the social security system. I recommend that he looks at the work of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I am a member. That lack of understanding is evident to us.

Southside Housing Association staff told me that they saw the visible signs of poverty and hunger, and believed that its programme helped people. The housing association also had a back-to-school uniform bank. It alarms me that not only do we have food banks but toy banks, baby banks and school uniform banks are starting to emerge. Some 2,000 items were donated by Glasgow South West constituents in that bank. That is just some of the work the Southside Housing Association managed to do in Cardonald in Glasgow South West. It did similar work in Pollokshields in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss).

As others said, we need to look at the punitive social security reform and austerity measures that lead people into poverty. Tackling poverty and inequality must be Parliament’s key priority. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the UK Government need to follow where the Scottish Government have led on helping children to access food during school holidays. Early intervention will reduce the need for people to rely on holiday hunger schemes and help to reduce the stigma of using such schemes.

The Scottish Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan helps parents to work more flexibly and increases their incomes by helping them with the cost of uniforms, childcare and the like. The fair food fund aims to ensure that everyone can feed themselves and their families. That fund supports community projects such as Crookston Community Group in my constituency, which offers dignified and sustainable responses to food poverty.

Regularly skipping meals has a massive impact on children’s behaviour, concentration and development. The children’s charity Cash for Kids was granted £150,000 to help community organisations support children during the school holidays with activities and access to meals. That funding is the first of the £1 million that will be allocated over the next two years to tackle food insecurity outside term time, and it is just part of the £1.5 million fair food fund, which supports projects to help people move away from emergency food provision and access healthy, nutritious food through community-based activities and support. A number of Scottish local authorities are planning to provide free meals 365 days a year to children from low-income families—a proposal that was welcomed by the Child Poverty Action Group.

However, we need significant social security reform from the Government to ensure that families and children do not go hungry during school holidays. The pressures of child hunger are exacerbated by the benefit freeze and social security reform—decisions on social security have a direct impact on hunger. The overall benefit cap needs to be raised and the benefit freeze ended so that households are not forced into destitution. With the introduction of universal credit, deduction rates for advances, arrears and overpayments, and all other third-party deductions, need to be reduced.

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), drafted a Bill, which I supported, that would place a duty on local authorities to ensure that disadvantaged pupils were fed during school breaks. I would like the UK Government to adopt that Bill and that approach, and learn from Scotland and elsewhere.

Draft Industrial Training Levy (Engineering Construction Industry Training Board) Order 2017

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 21st March 2017

(5 years, 4 months ago)

General Committees
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan.

I can be brief because I agree with many of the points made by the Labour spokesman. I also welcomed the Minister’s comments about ensuring diversity in the engineering construction industry, but I wanted to ask him whether an equality impact assessment has been done—there is no mention of one in the explanatory notes. Also, how do the Government intend to measure diversity in the industry?

Trade Union Bill (Discussions)

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 28th April 2016

(6 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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We in the Scottish National party reiterate our complete opposition to the Trade Union Bill. Can the Minister confirm that it would be strange, on a piece of legislation that affects 6 million workers, for a Government not to consult bodies that represent those 6 million workers? Can he also confirm that the Government were considering concessions as far back as 26 January, when a memorandum in his name was leaked to many media outlets? Can he confirm what ongoing discussions he is having with devolved institutions, which still have major problems with the Bill and its extent as it relates to facility time and other issues?

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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The hon. Gentleman made a valuable contribution to our deliberations at all stages, but perhaps especially in Committee. I seem to remember that his criticism was both vocal and incisive on almost every measure in the Bill. Of course, he is right. Not only do we hold discussions with institutions in society about which we are legislating—I think it would be a little unfair if we did not—but we actually invited them to give evidence to the Committee. One of the most terrifying sights that I have seen in a long time was the general secretary of Unite, the general secretary of the GMB, the general secretary of Unison and the general secretary of the TUC all sitting in a row giving evidence to that Committee. Of course it was right to do that.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that we have consulted the devolved Administrations. I have had a number of conversations by phone and in person with Ministers in the devolved Governments, who have expressed some concern about whether all the provisions in the Bill should properly apply to them, although we are absolutely confident that all the provisions in the Bill relate to reserved matters and therefore apply to everyone and every trade union in the United Kingdom.

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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No, I am not going to give way again; I am going to carry on with my argument. The review will report accordingly to the House.

The power to permit electronic balloting already exists in section 54 of the Employment Relations Act 2004, but we have not yet exercised it because we have not been convinced, and neither have any previous Government, including a Labour Government that held office for 13 years, that the system would ensure privacy, opportunity and minimise the risk of fraud and malpractice. There has been much positive progress in the way that technology can help to address such issues, which is reflected in the reports I have cited.

We have been clear that we will be willing to use the power when we are convinced that the concerns have been adequately addressed. The legislation is framed in a way that requires us first to be satisfied on such matters, and for good reason. That is why, instead of a strategy for roll-out, I am today seeking agreement to a statutory requirement for the Government to publish their response to the review, which would be laid before Parliament, making it readily accessible to hon. Members, who could ask questions and raise matters in the House in the usual way.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Before the Trade Union Bill reached the House of Lords, the Minister wrote a letter to ministerial colleagues that was leaked to the Socialist Worker, for which the Minister may have an explanation. Will he confirm that he will use secondary legislation to put e-balloting in place should the pilot be successful?

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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Madam Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that my relations with the Socialist Workers Party or its newspaper are probably rather less good than the hon. Gentleman’s, so it was not through my good offices that it got hold of any document—not that I accept that it did get hold of any document.

The hon. Gentleman asks a reasonable question, and I have made it clear that the Government have no objection in principle and that we expect statutory elections eventually to move towards online voting, but we will do that with trade union strike ballots when we are convinced that such voting is safe. That is why we want an independent review that will report to Parliament. I will not prejudge its outcome, because if I did, it would be slightly pointless to have the review in the first place.

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Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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I did not have that issue, but that does show that there can be issues with online voting, as there can be with postal voting. While it is not a matter of enormous public interest, because it was not a statutory election, we would be very worried if a statutory election, such as a union strike ballot, was subject to the same level of problems.

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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Have I not given way to the hon. Gentleman already? I will give way one more time and then I will get on.

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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Is the Minister seriously suggesting that whoever is the Conservative party candidate for London Mayor is not a matter of interest to the public? I find his argument bizarre.

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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I am quite happy to explain again that it is not a statutory election.

The review will allow us to consider again the case for e-balloting and ensure that we have assessed the latest technology. Taken together, the review and the Government’s response will enable the Secretary of State to make a properly informed and transparent decision about the risks of achieving safe, secure electronic balloting, and therefore whether such a system should be rolled out.

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Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution on this and other important matters. He has made a significant contribution to the improvement of this Bill. On his particular question, the amendment that we propose agrees with the noble Lords that this review should be commissioned within six months and then reported to Parliament. I have made it clear that we have no objection in principle to e-balloting. If the review suggests that it is safe to embrace, we will proceed with it. I think he will have noted that the amendment specifically suggests that we should be able to introduce pilots. One issue with the existing provisions is that it might not be possible to do a pilot without going for a full application. Such pilots might well be an appropriate phase after the review has been completed.

Let me return now to facility time and the facility time cap. The Government do not agree with the Lords amendment and, in consequence, I am moving amendment 17, which brings back the reserve cap, but with safeguards that respond to the concerns that were expressed in our debates and that led to the deletion of the clause in the other place and were the subject of quite forensic inquisition in both Houses.

Together with the publication requirements, it is my view that a reserve power to cap facility time to a reasonable level delivers our manifesto commitment to

“tighten the rules around taxpayer-funded paid facility time for union representatives.”

I shall reiterate what I said when this House was previously considering the Bill. We are not seeking to ban facility time. That has never been our intention. Our strong preference is that transparency alone should be enough to change practices in the public sector, with employers voluntarily reducing their costs where they are found to be spending more on facility time than is reasonable.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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The Minister is being very generous. In the aforementioned leaked memo to which I referred earlier, there was an indication that there would be concessions and discussions with the devolved Administrations in relation to facility time. Will he confirm whether consultations have taken place with the devolved Administrations, or whether it is his intention to dictate to the devolved Administrations what the facility time should be for their own workforce?

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I never comment on articles in the Socialist Worker. He will also understand that we have regular conversations with Ministers in the devolved Administrations, but all of the matters addressed in this Bill are reserved matters. It is a matter not of dictating, but of this Government fulfilling their duty to legislate on the matters for which we have exclusive responsibility.

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Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Alec Shelbrooke
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I accept that, but as the hon. Gentleman says, the threshold is not uniform, and in the public sector it is right to have a threshold for taking action when there is a lot of employment protection in terms of having jobs to go back to.

Although I have regrets about the threshold for the private sector, I believe that electronic balloting will lead to higher turnouts and will meet strike thresholds, and as long as the system is secure and can be seen to be genuine, it is the right thing to do. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to apply the policy as quickly as possible because that will enable the private sector to meet the thresholds more easily than perhaps it can now.

There is a balance to be struck. There needs to be some control on those in the public sector who cause great disruption to people who work in the private sector who may not enjoy the terms and conditions that they do. I unreservedly support thresholds in the public sector, but I do not have the same regard for them in the private sector. Hon. Members can refer back to Hansard and my comments on Second Reading, which explain my views further.

The Government’s approach to electronic balloting is right. When it can be proved to be safe and reliable, it should be introduced because I believe the Bill will have the unintended consequence of having a bigger effect on union members in the private sector than on union members in the public sector.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my trade union activity in the past 20 years.

In the past few days in the media, we have seen the performance of somersaults of Olympian proportions, and I commend Ministers for that. Having voted down sensible amendments in Committee and on Third Reading to allow alternative methods of voting in industrial action ballots, Ministers found themselves so out of step on the work and organisation of trade unions that even arch-Thatcherites such as Lord Michael Forsyth are friends of the workers by comparison. If I were a member of the Conservative party, I would be very worried about that.

I welcome this minor change. As we have argued previously, if e-balloting is good enough for the Conservative party to elect its candidate for London Mayor, surely it is good enough for trade unions to use when making their choices. As Lord Cormack said in the other place,

“I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are arguing against a system that the Conservative Party felt was good enough for the selection of a candidate for London Mayor”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1861.]

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Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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Given the increase in postal charges in recent years, does my hon. Friend agree that it also costs more to do postal balloting?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Yes, I agree. I also take the view that postal balloting prolongs the length of a dispute because of the time it takes to conduct such a ballot. Electronic balloting allows for greater flexibility and efficiency.

Like the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), we are disappointed that the pilot will not extend to workplace balloting as a secure option, because that would increase democracy in the workplace. The TUC has previously argued that there is no evidence that workers feel intimidated into voting a particular way when ballots take place in the workplace, as has been argued by the Government.

Although the Government have accepted the need to commission an independent review on the use of e-ballots for industrial action, their amendment (a) effectively means that Ministers would only have to publish a response to the review. They would, therefore, not be obligated to introduce a strategy to roll out electronic voting. That is simply unacceptable.

Lords amendment 2 is actually very moderate. The question is whether the Government’s response is good enough or whether it weakens the intent behind the Lords amendment. Having listened carefully to the Minister, we can only conclude that Government amendment (a) does weaken the other place’s intention.

The Government propose to revise the Lords amendment in such a way that Ministers would be required only to publish a response, but they would not need to take any action. That underlines what the Government intend to do after the e-balloting review. They intend to do nothing: there will be no strategy on how to proceed and, therefore, no actual commitment to allowing electronic balloting in the future. That is absurd. If the Government were truly intent on modernising the law, they would allow for electronic balloting and secure workplace balloting. I would be interested in the Minister’s response to that. Our view is clear. Electronic balloting will modernise the law, promoting democracy and inclusion.

We have always been clear that the clause on facility time is completely unnecessary and unwanted. Having such a clause in the Bill signals intent: the Government’s intent to interfere with the facility time arrangements—the basic industrial relations arrangements—not only of devolved Administrations but of local authorities across the United Kingdom. As Lord Kerslake put it in the other place,

“The Government are saying that the costs should be transparently known and proportionate to the benefits…However, this is fully secured…through Clause 12. There is no need for the reserve powers contained in Clause 13.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1905.]

He further stated:

“If, however, the public body is a local authority, it has its own democratic mandate and is answerable to its own electorate for the cost. Given the immense financial pressures now on local authorities, do we really think that they are incapable of making this judgment?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 March 2016; Vol. 769, c. 1906.]

Although we acknowledge that some amendments have been made by the Government, that is simply not good enough. Any attempt by the UK Government to instruct devolved institutions on how to treat their workers should be robustly resisted. Facility time allows union representatives to spend time in the workplace improving the safety and health of their workers. Representatives also promote training opportunities and negotiate better pay, terms and conditions for employers, among many other roles and responsibilities. Limiting the ability of unions to play such a role in our public sector will have a damaging impact on public sector workers across the United Kingdom.

Trade unions are key social partners, which play an important role in sustaining effective democracy in society, particularly in the workplace. The existence of good employment practices is a key contributor to economic competitiveness and social justice. In Scotland, the SNP Government have taken a different approach. We have taken a modern and progressive approach to industrial relations and believe that trade unions are at the heart of achieving fair work. The UK Government should work with trade unions in a social partnership approach rather than launching yet more attacks against them.

Industrial relations mechanisms should be agreed at a devolved or local level. It beggars belief that the UK Government do not believe that a legislative consent motion is required for a UK Minister to dictate policy in these areas. The detail of much of the Bill is set out in regulations, and there will be no formal opportunity for the Scottish Government or the Welsh Government to influence such regulations. Today, we need a commitment from the UK Government that the rights of workers across the UK will not be restricted by the imposition of facility time.

In Committee, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) asked the Minister whether the Health Secretary would

“make regulations that affect facility time in the health services of Scotland and Wales, which are wholly devolved and under the control of Health Ministers in those countries”.

The Minister replied, “Yes,” but stressed that

“health policy and the management of the NHS in those countries will remain…in the control of the Governments” ––[Official Report, Trade Union Public Bill Committee, 22 October 2015; c. 347.]

He was referring to the Governments of the devolved Administrations. I said at the time:

“Having only just debated Evel last week, it seems that the UK Government now want to dictate to devolved administrations”.

On 2 February, the Minister said that the Government would not change the proposals on facility time and check-off provisions in the Bill. However, the infamous letter referred to earlier of 26 January—the letter was leaked by the Socialist Worker newspaper and published widely in other media outlets—contained a number of concessions that the Government proposed to make to the Bill in the House of Lords. Those concessions included giving devolved Administrations the right to maintain facility time and check-off arrangements. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed today that devolved Administrations will maintain that control over facility time. The SNP will continue to push to derail any attempt by the UK Government to dictate to Scotland and other devolved Administrations how they should treat their public sector workers.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
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First, I declare an interest as a member of the GMB. My wife also works for a trade union.

We often hear the cry from Conservative Members that the turnout in union ballots is not high enough. We have before us a mechanism that would at least assist with that, by getting more people to participate in e-balloting. I have seen some pretty poor excuses for statements, but today’s statement about why we cannot introduce e-balloting for trade union ballots must win the prize for the poorest argument.

This Government pride themselves on wanting to be an e-Government on everything from driving licences to the new universal credit, which can only be accessed online. The Minister said the Government need to be convinced that e-balloting would be secure, but in response to numerous interventions from Labour Members, he did not articulate the reasons why he thought the process was in any way insecure. I would respect his position more if he came up with reasons and said what the problems are. The idea of a review is clearly the classic civil service “kick it into the long grass” approach.

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Natascha Engel Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Natascha Engel)
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I apologise to Chris Stephens. I should have called him before the last speaker.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I agree with many of the points he made.

SNP Members have always opposed the Government’s proposals on trade union political funds for the simple reason that it should be up to trade union members to decide where their money goes. It is up to them to decide whether they should support one political party or another, or whether they should sponsor individual candidates, as has happened in some cases, rather than work for a particular political party.

I emphasise the point that this is an attack not just on the Labour party but on the ability of a trade union to organise effectively across a community. Political funds have done great community work, health and safety campaigning, and anti-racism campaigning, sponsoring organisations such as Hope not Hate and Show Racism the Red Card. There is also charity work and international work—trade unions do fantastic work across the world.

It will come as no great surprise to any trade unionist that the change on check-off is not a major one. Unison has said that it has 11,000 different agreements where it contributes to the cost of check-off. We welcome the Government’s U-turn on that.

I have participated in proceedings at every stage of the Bill’s progress. I will say a few words about that. If the voices of those with experience of a trade unionised workplace and those with a trade union background had been listened to and heeded, we would not be where we are now. There perhaps would not even have been a Trade Union Bill. Many Opposition Members have pointed out on a regular basis how unnecessary and unwanted this legislation is.

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I declare an interest as a member of Unison and of the Community trade union, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also say that although I am a member of those unions, I have very good employers in the people of Ilford North and do not anticipate going on strike any time soon.

The Government’s concessions are welcome, but it is something of an irony that it has fallen to the unelected House to defend some of the most democratic elements of trade unions and their commitment to democratic life in the country. For some reason, this Government, who were elected with a slender majority of just 12, seem to think that that majority gives them carte blanche to trample all over the democratic traditions, values and heritage of our country.

It is not just the brazen attack on party political funding, and the Labour party in particular, that the Government have embarked upon with this Bill. Look at their record in the short time that they have governed as a single party. They have sought to rig the House of Commons, pack the House of Lords, gag charities and civil society, and restrict trade unions. This Sunday, new restrictions kick in on any publicly funded body, restrictions that have the potential to gag all sorts of people, including academics. It is a complete dog’s breakfast of a proposal. We will see what the higher education Bill says later this year; the Government will undoubtedly try to have another go at student unions, like they did in the 1990s.

I have been listening to the Minister this afternoon, and in particular, to what he said about the previous group of Government measures, which unfortunately passed, underlining why the Bill should still be opposed. There can be no decent evidence-based argument against trialling electronic balloting for trade union industrial actions and proposals to strike. The Minister himself could not offer a single shred of evidence to argue against a simple trial.

The Bill has really been about delegitimising trade unions. Whenever people go on strike and take industrial action the Government want to be able to say that a hard rump of activists have prompted it. But even the measures in the Bill would not have stopped the junior doctors or London transport workers going on strike. The turnout in both cases exceeded the threshold in the Bill. If the Government are serious about trade unions having broader and greater democratic legitimacy, they should unshackle the hands of trade union leaders and activists, so that they can do what they want to do and have asked to do, namely enter the 21st century by having electronic balloting.

We also had the farce about facility time. That goes to the heart of the Government’s fundamental misunderstanding of the role of trade unions. Full-time reps and staff who are let off part time for facility time play a valuable role in good industrial relations. They take up cases on behalf of their members, and ensure that they are well represented and supported. They advise employers on how to improve the workplace environment. Where there are good industrial relations, with trade unions and employers working together, the likelihood of a strike is lessened, and the workplace environment is better for everyone.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Is another key role for trade unions that of welfare, and giving workers assistance and help that they might not know about?

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman speaks with great experience from his own background in the trade union movement, and good employers value that working relationship with trade unions. When I speak to trade union members—whether in my local authority where I am an elected member of the London Borough of Redbridge, or representatives in other workplaces—they tell me that they do not have excessive facility time; often they do not have enough. They struggle to cope with caseloads, particularly when there are major changes to employment involving terms and conditions or staff numbers. That generates a huge burden and workload, and I do not think that the Government appreciate or value that.

Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 17th March 2016

(6 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain).

What a dismal failure of a Budget from a failing Chancellor. We heard yesterday that there are to be additional spending cuts of £3.5 billion in 2019-20, as austerity is forecast to still be with us 12 years after the financial crisis. Yet we hear that, among other measures, capital gains tax is to be cut. Let us contrast those two measures: tax cuts for the wealthy, and ongoing austerity for everyone else. That demonstrates once again that austerity is no more than a political choice by this Government.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that this Budget contains more cuts than a Bates motel shower curtain?

Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd February 2016

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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Conservative Members are very clear that it should not be possible to call a strike on the basis of an out-of-date mandate, and we are legislating to stop that. We are clear and our candidate to be Mayor of London is clear on that, but Labour wants to oppose this measure and support tube strikes that will prevent people who are paid a lot less than tube drivers from getting to work over the weekend.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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T8. Will Ministers confirm what recent meetings they have had with devolved Administrations, local authorities and other public bodies on their proposed anti-Trade Union Bill? Can they confirm that the proposals, particularly those on facility time and check-off, have no support across the public sector? Is it not time to dump those proposals?

Nick Boles Portrait Nick Boles
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No. I am simply sorry to see yet another party of opposition standing up for illegitimate strikes that cause huge disruption for people who are trying to work hard, trying to get their kids to school and trying to get to work on time. I am glad to say that the Conservatives will be standing up for working people, not trade union bosses.

Enterprise Bill [Lords]

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd February 2016

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Angela Eagle Portrait Ms Eagle
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The Bill has a particular phrase attached to it—public sector fat cats—and when we look more closely at it, we see that it applies to non-public sector workers and non-fat cats. We will be taking a close look at that.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The term “public sector fat cats” surely does not apply to a civil servant who earns less than £25,000 a year, whose length of service may be 30 years or more. The unintended consequence of the policy is that it will impact on the longest-serving employees.

Angela Eagle Portrait Ms Eagle
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There are what I have rather politely and generously, in my view, referred to as unintended consequences of the cap, and I noted with some distaste the Secretary of State’s use of a pejorative term such as “public sector fat cats” to justify the existence of the proposed cap. It is clear that the cap could impact, as the hon. Gentleman says, on those on moderate and even lower pay with long service, and it could impact on pension “strain” payments for workers, rather than on those on the highest salaries with much shorter service.

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that some civil servants earning less than £25,000 a year could be affected by the cap because they have long service. Surely this was not the intention. Again, the Opposition will explore some of the consequences. We have even heard that essential restructuring in some public services is being held up by the unintended consequences of this crude measure.

--- Later in debate ---
Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
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I rise to speak for the SNP, and, unfortunately, against the Enterprise Bill, which contains the typical Tory agenda of the privatisation of public assets, and the penalisation of public sector workers. Although we support the long-overdue creation of a small business commissioner, the action to support small businesses does not go nearly far enough. The Bill is, in our view, a wasted opportunity to back small business, incentivise investment and innovation, and encourage entrepreneurship.

The ill-conceived and badly drafted nature of some aspects of the Bill are particularly disappointing. Our key concerns lie in three areas. First, we are concerned about the level of support for small business. We welcome the concept of a small business commissioner, and it is important that the office has real power and teeth to address critical issues facing small businesses. The picture on private sector late payments is getting worse, and the SNP will press for further protections for small and supply-chain businesses around late payments and retentions. The SNP Scottish Government have a proud record of supporting small and medium-sized businesses, and we want the UK to do all it can. Unfortunately, a commissioner with no powers of reprimand is of little value, and it comes at a significant cost to the taxpayer.

Secondly, we feel strongly that the UK Green Investment Bank has acted as a core investor in the UK’s green economy, and it should continue to do so by sticking to its green objectives. The SNP opposes plans to privatise it, which would result in the loss of a significant public stake and of the bank’s green objectives. The GIB is an established means of managing the pressing and vital transition towards a low-carbon economy.

Sadly, the UK Government are not only failing to give the right support to our oil and gas sector, but simultaneously pulling the plug on renewable technology subsidies and projects, while also privatising the very bank set up to help the UK to meet its green objectives. That is a triple whammy of destruction for the future of our energy industries. The SNP support the Government maintaining a significant public stake in the GIB. Given the impact of devolved law, any privatisation of the GIB in part or in full will require a legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament.

Thirdly, one of the more poorly thought out and drafted parts of the Bill is the capping of exit payments for public sector employees. Despite the UK Government’s rhetoric, that will affect many public servants on low and moderate salaries—midwives, nurses, librarians and social workers—who have given long service to the public sector, as we have already heard. Some parts of the Bill are so poorly drafted that they make little sense. The Bill does not properly reflect the results of the consultation undertaken by the Government or the initial plans drafted following the consultation.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Does my hon. Friend share my concern, and that of the Public and Commercial Services Union, that the consultation period did not follow the Cabinet Office consultation principles, under which there should be a 12-week consultation? The consultation on the exit payments lasted four weeks and took place during a peak holiday period for the civil servants involved.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I share my hon. Friend’s concern. If we are going to have consultations, we should let them run for the full period and take proper cognisance of their results.

The SNP opposes the Government’s plans for caps on public sector exit payments. We note the specific concerns raised in the other place regarding the complete lack of an impact assessment alongside the Bill. That is regrettable, but not unsurprising, as this Government seem to lurch from one piece of disastrous legislation to another.

A small business commissioner may be a great idea on paper, and perhaps even in practice, although I am not entirely sure that, at a cost of about £1.1 million, we will get value for the price paid. If the commissioner has no powers to reprimand, how can decisions be enforced? In 2011, research by the Federation of Small Businesses found that 73% of small businesses had experienced late payment in the previous 12 months, with half having outstanding invoices of £5,000 and a fifth of £20,000. The Department’s own impact assessment sets out research by the payments service BACS, undertaken in January 2015, which shows that the average small business is waiting for £31,900 of overdue payments and that late payment is costing small and medium-sized businesses nearly £27 billion every year.

In Scotland, research released by the Bank of Scotland at the end of January 2016 showed that the amount the typical Scottish SME is owed has ballooned by about 60% in the past two years alone. The research found that the average amount owed to Scottish SMEs on invoices has increased from £50,000 in 2014 to £80,000 in 2016. Late payments were identified as the biggest challenge facing firms. FSB Scotland’s Colin Borland has said:

“One in four smaller businesses will go bankrupt if the amount outstanding grows to £50,000.”

We need stronger and more stringent legislation in this area.

The picture on private sector late payments is therefore getting worse. As I have said, we welcome the Bill’s creation of a small business commissioner, who would assist small businesses. However, the SBC does not have the necessary powers to do the job. We share the FSB’s concerns that little detail has been provided about the exact powers and resources the commissioner will have at his or her disposal—for example, the powers to refer cases to the Competition and Markets Authority or to make legally binding rulings. The UK Government could do much more in the Bill to remedy problems in the private sector caused by moneys being withheld from the supply chain.

I recently met those involved with the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group, which represents 60,000 specialist engineering firms in the UK construction industry. They have called for the Bill to provide for a retention deposit scheme. They explained to me that withholding retentions is a common feature of construction contracts and the devastating impact that has on small and medium-sized businesses. At any one time, £3 billion is held in retentions, and £40 million was lost by UK construction firms in retentions in 2015 due to the insolvency of the main contractor.

We believe that a retention deposit scheme could take the form of the project bank accounts piloted by the Scottish Government. I urge the Minster to engage with my colleague Fergus Ewing MSP, the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism, to hear how well that scheme operates in Scotland. Our Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, announced in April 2013 that we intend to trial project bank accounts. Trials are taking place in NHS Lanarkshire, Transport Scotland’s Inveramsay bridge project and the Scottish Borders Council’s Galashiels transport hub project.

The Scottish Government have also taken action on prompt payment in public procurement. We implemented our prompt payment policy in 2009 by introducing a contract term for all public bodies to ensure that supply chain firms were paid within 30 days under all public contracts. We expect all public bodies in Scotland to follow our lead by implementing and enforcing prompt public payment policies that deal fairly and transparently with businesses, and to publish their results. We hope that they will follow suit and consider those points. Our action on private sector late payments has been supported by the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, Liz Cameron, who said:

“In the current economic climate, businesses need the confidence to invest and grow. Late payments can hold this back and the culture must be tackled from the top down.”

The SNP Government will continue to support the small business bonus scheme, which is delivering rates reductions for more than 100,000 firms across Scotland. We heard earlier at Business, Innovation and Skills questions that there is pressure on the UK Government to look again at that issue. We know that they are considering it and we look forward to hearing the results.

Since its inception, the GIB has acted as a core investor in the UK’s green economy. The SNP wholeheartedly opposes the plans for yet more privatisation, which in the case of the GIB will result in the loss of a significant public stake and the bank’s green objectives. The UK Government must provide assurances that the bank will remain headquartered in Edinburgh and that the full £3.8 billion commitment to the bank will be carried through. We also seek assurances that the UK Government will remain committed to maintaining a significant public stake to ensure that the GIB retains its original purpose as a green bank.

Industry experts have warned that the move to privatise the GIB could deter private sector investment in the UK’s low-carbon economy. Concerns have further been raised over the potential impact that it could have on the tension between the GIB’s longer-term, higher-value projects and the temptation to invest in projects that create short-term returns.

We are particularly conscious of the concerns raised by the Environmental Audit Committee in its 2015 report, which said that

“two key risks to GIB cannot be avoided merely by protecting its green purposes: first, the risk that GIB will move its focus away from novel and complex projects which struggle to find funding in favour of easier and less complex projects, and second, the risk that a privatised GIB could invest in areas which may damage its reputation and undermine its role and leadership in the green economy.”

If a Committee of this House is so concerned, why are the Government not concerned and why are they not taking action in this regard?

It is the firm view of the SNP that the Enterprise Bill’s removal of public sector controls on the GIB would require a legislative consent motion in the Scottish Parliament, given the impact on devolved law. That view is supported by Aileen McHarg, the professor of public law at Strathclyde University, who said it was “incontrovertible” that the green purposes included in the legislation related to devolved matters and that Scottish consent would be required for any change that might

“have implications for future investment in green technologies”.

I hope that the Minister and the Government heed that point and remember that we have devolution for a purpose, not just to mitigate the dire decisions of this UK Government and to pick up the pieces of Tory policy, as is so often the case.

A number of the bank’s investments are relevant to Scotland, including a £2 million investment in a sewage heat recovery system installation programme in locations across Scotland; nearly £30 million of equity investment in the construction of Levenseat Renewable Energy Ltd’s energy waste recycling plant; and a £6.3 million loan to Glasgow City Council to enable the replacement of its streetlights with lower-energy lights. The list goes on. All those projects are significant to the local communities of Scotland and to Scotland as a whole. We do not want any of these opportunities to be lost to yet more privatisation.

Finally, I turn to the plans in the Bill to cap exit payments for public sector employees, which will, despite the UK Government’s rhetoric—and it has been poor rhetoric at that—affect many public servants on low to moderate salaries. The SNP shares the concerns of the union Unison, which opposes the Government’s plans for caps on public sector exit payments. The Cabinet Office has confirmed that some people who earn less than £25,000 a year could be affected because of their long service—that is, serving the public, often for salaries below those in the private sector.

The trade union Unison has pointed out that the proposed cap would affect redundancy payments for a wide range of NHS staff and would not be limited to groups that the public view as executives. Because, as we have heard, redundancy calculations are made on the basis of length of service and earnings, and because a significant number of NHS staff work unsocial hours, capping the payments could affect staff in band 6 and above. The jobs that fall into band 6 include nurses, midwives and paramedics. Are we really saying that those people are fat cats and that they do not deserve such payments at the end of very long, difficult and challenging careers?

In January 2015, the Minister for Employment promised an exemption for low-paid public sector workers. She said:

“This commitment, which will be included in our 2015 General Election manifesto, will cap payments for well-paid public sector workers…Crucially, those earning less than £27,000 will be exempted to protect the very small number of low earning, long-serving public servants”.

Unfortunately, the Bill does not reflect the promise made by the Conservative Government.

The Government’s plans have also failed to take account of inevitable inflation and earnings growth. If this cap is introduced, there must be a commitment to index-link the cap, to ensure that it meets its original intention without becoming more and more punitive over time. The Local Government Association has criticised the Government’s plans, stating:

“The consensus among the respondents to our consultation exercise felt that the policy as drafted with a cap set at £95,000, which includes strain on fund costs, unjustifiably penalises older, longer serving, junior to middle ranking employees in local authorities.”

Unison highlighted a particularly poorly drafted and concerning section of the Bill—well, perhaps it was intended. Under section 5, payments made in respect of death are outlined as exempt, but in the Government’s hurry to introduce those harsher regulations at the last possible moment before the Bill is enacted, they seem to have decided that dead people might be worried that their exit benefits might be affected if they decide to return to work in the public sector. That does not make sense, and it needs reviewing and proper thought.

The rhetoric of the Tory Government on the pay and conditions of our vital public servants stands in stark contrast to the record of the SNP Scottish Government. The Scottish Government introduced the living wage to the public sector pay policy in 2011, initially helping 6,000 public servants and benefiting around 3,000 workers each year. The living wage of £8.25 per hour is now paid wherever the Scottish Government control the pay bill.

In Scotland, the SNP Government highly value our NHS staff. We have not imposed the same unfair contractual changes on junior doctors that the Tories at Westminster are attempting to impose, and we have protected the nurses bursary, which the Tories have scrapped in England. We have maintained a no-compulsory-redundancy policy, while in NHS England there have been more than 17,000 compulsory redundancies since 2010. Overall, there may be some good intentions buried among some bad ideas in the Bill, but the SNP feels that it is a missed opportunity to back small business, incentivise investment and innovation, and encourage entrepreneurship. It is more “bits and bobs” than the bigger picture.

--- Later in debate ---
Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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As other SNP Members have said, the Bill is a typical Government effort. It claims to be ambitious, but does not do enough. It has too much of a scattergun approach and includes too many subjects, although it does allow the Tories to squeeze in old favourites, including privatisation and attacks on public sector workers.

Let me start with the Green Investment Bank—another supposed Better Together demonstration of the merits of Scotland’s staying in the UK, given the decision to site the bank in Edinburgh. Here we are a few years down the line, and it looks like that might go the way of the onshore renewables subsidies, which were also originally provided on the UK Government’s so-called broad shoulders. It beggars belief that a publicly owned green initiative should be deemed suitable for sell-off and privatisation. We therefore need to know what the Government’s commitments are to environmentally beneficial projects and specifically to Edinburgh.

On public sector payments, I have been contacted by constituents who want me to oppose part 8. Those hard-working public sector workers see it as yet another attack on their terms and conditions. We have heard about fat cats, but I can almost bet that the so-called civil servant fat cats will be the ones who get the waivers and their big lump sums. Meanwhile, lower-paid public sector workers with long service will get no waivers, and their lump sums will be limited.

We have heard a lot recently about the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign and women who took early retirement and who are now struggling to get back into the workplace and struggling financially. That demonstrates that we should not limit people’s choices. Some women have just discovered that they need to work six years longer. They will be looking at the options, and at whether they can take early retirement and leave the workplace. The caps in the Bill could affect their choices.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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My hon. Friend is emphasising the discrimination that could come from the exit payments. Does he agree with me and with trade unions such as Unison and the Public and Commercial Services Union that, before these changes are implemented, an equality impact assessment should be carried out?

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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I fully agree with my hon. Friend. The Lords asked for an impact assessment to be undertaken, but that has not happened, so I hope the Minister will take note of that.

To finish on the public sector payment cap, what we need is good governance, not Whitehall-imposed caps. We heard earlier that this is all about devolving power to local government, and this issue is an example of where we could follow that through, rather than allowing Westminster to hit care workers, teachers, nurses and emergency workers.

Let me turn to an issue that other Members have raised: prompt payments and their effect on small businesses. Once again, I would suggest that the UK Government could take a lead from the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government have commissioned a review on public sector procurement in the construction industry, where cash flow can be a major issue.

I am a civil engineer, so I am well aware of the problems late payments can cause, particularly when companies have to make large outlays on materials as part of a job specification. I have actually been a client and a consultant, so I have been at both ends—I have received begging phone calls from companies that are desperate for money, and I have had to go cap in hand to chase up money that a company needed for its cash flow.

That is why I welcome the Scottish Government’s current project bank account trial for public sector procurement projects. Project bank accounts are ring-fenced and underpinned by legal trust status. They allow subcontractors to receive their money at the same time as contractors, rather than having to wait for it to be channelled through the main contractor, which leads to delays and allows the main contractor to withhold moneys to have leverage over the subcontractor.

Another omission from the Bill, which was raised in the Lords, is cash retentions in the construction industry. For too long, that has been the elephant in the room. The Government have not wanted to talk about it, and that seems to have been the case again today. From my experience in the construction industry, I understand the need for a mechanism to deal with snagging at the end of a project or during the maintenance period. I know how difficult it can be to get a contractor back on site once they have moved on to the next job. Equally, however, no contractor should have to wait years to get their retention money back, because that hits cash flows. The 5% retention money is also often the contractor’s profit margin on the job, which shows how important that money is to contractors. With up to £3 billion held in retentions at any one time, and with £40 million lost in 2015 alone due to insolvencies, we can see how important cash retentions are in the construction industry.

The cash-flow problems that can be caused manifest themselves in different ways, such as an inability for companies to bid for other projects because the risk is too high, or borrowing from banks being impeded. Banks do not recognise retentions as a future income because of the uncertainty that goes with the release of retention moneys. That completely impedes companies’ ability to invest in training and apprenticeships. That is counter-intuitive considering that, while one section of the Bill is about encouraging apprenticeships, it does not tackle the issue of cash retentions that stops companies taking on apprenticeships. It seems incredible that the Government recognise cash-flow issues in general, yet avoid dealing with retentions being paid years late.

We can also imagine the administration time that is wasted in chasing these retention moneys up. I mentioned main contractors using payments as leverage over subcontractors, and it is absolutely the same for retention moneys. Specialist engineering contractors have correctly observed that a scheme could be implemented without impeding the Government’s ongoing review. That review is completely reactive in terms of amendments tabled to the Bill in the Lords, and not proactive. Again, that is indicative of the UK Government’s approach.

The suggested model is a retention deposit scheme based on the tenancy deposit scheme. That seems logical, and it would easily align itself with the trial currently being operated by the Scottish Government. A constituent has said to me that he has given up on this issue being addressed in his lifetime. We can deal with it in this Bill.

Student Maintenance Grants

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 19th January 2016

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting (Ilford North) (Lab)
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It says it all about the Government policy that we are debating that so few of their Back Benchers have turned up to read the poor script they have been given by the Whips, and it says everything about how they conduct themselves that instead of having a proper debate on the Floor of the House, with a full vote involving all Members, they sought to have a debate down the corridor and up the stairs, hoping that nobody would notice, in a Committee that nobody has ever heard of.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The hon. Gentleman made a similar point during his Adjournment debate a few weeks ago on student nurses and bursaries. Is he as concerned as me, first, that the Government are increasingly using this device to sneak through their most controversial legislative proposals without debate and, secondly, that it is contrary to the comments by the Leader of the House on 10 December 2015, on this very issue, when he indicated we would have a debate on the Floor of the House?

Wes Streeting Portrait Wes Streeting
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I agree wholeheartedly. In their cowardice the Government are treating with disdain the House and the students we are all sent here to represent. In spite of what the Minister says, there is absolutely no mention in the manifesto of cutting student grants. In fact, we would find Lord Lucan before we found any reference to cutting student grants, so they cannot hide behind a democratic mandate. As a student union president and president of the National Union of Students, I used to have arguments with previous Labour Governments—