In June, the Prime Minister promised an opportunity guarantee for every young person. With 800,000 young people now not in education, employment or training, and only 4,000 kickstart placements to date, the Minister recently told the Work and Pensions Committee, “Watch this space”, and that details on the guarantee would land at the Budget. If the Prime Minister announced it and she supports it, did the Chancellor not get the memo or has the Treasury once again blocked support where it is needed? Can the Government not get their act together on a jobs promise such as the one Labour has proposed so that young people out of work or training at six months get the opportunities that they need?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie.
I thank the Minister for her opening remarks. The regulations are needed to address deficiencies in retained EU law on chemicals and GMOs legislation arising from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Minister has outlined the regulations, but I will cover them briefly in my remarks.
EU law has played a vital role in ensuring that the framework that regulates chemicals and GMOs operates coherently and effectively. That framework includes regulations such as the biocidal products regulation that the Minister mentioned; the classification, including of hazards, labelling and packaging, or CLP, regulations; the regulations concerning the export and import of hazardous chemicals; and the GMO regulations, which lay down measures for the contained use of genetically modified micro-organisms with a view to protecting human health and the environment. We support this instrument, which ensures that retained EU law relating to chemicals and GMOs continues to operate coherently at the end of transition.
The Minister also outlined, as does the explanatory memorandum, why, if the changes were not made, several chemicals regimes in the scope of the instrument would not be consistent with the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol when the transition period ends. The reasons for the instrument are clear, but I want to focus on several concerns about its effective implementation and the transfer of functions to the HSE.
The first concern relates to HSE duties as it becomes the GB regulatory authority. Leaving the EU and the European Chemicals Agency means that the HSE will take on new responsibilities. From 1 January, businesses that wish to apply for an active substance to be approved, or for a biocidal product to be authorised in Great Britain, will need to apply to the HSE instead of the European Chemicals Agency. As the Minister said, the territorial extent of this instrument is Great Britain except for certain provisions. The HSE will take on the functions that the ECHA performs where these are still relevant in Great Britain. For example, it will co-ordinate the active substance evaluation process for Great Britain. It will also introduce its own processes and systems for receiving and processing applications.
The Minister said that she has confidence in the HSE’s capacity, but she will appreciate why I am asking questions about it. The new demands pose concerning questions about whether the HSE is adequately funded, staffed and resourced to deliver its new responsibilities, particularly on top of the additional work it has undertaken due to covid. Since 2009-10, funding for the HSE has been cut by £144 million in real terms: by more than half since Labour was last in Government. Although in May the Government announced £14 million more funding for it, that still leaves a substantial cut.
We know from a response to a parliamentary question that the Government have recruited only 37 full-time equivalent inspectors since March. What review has the Department for Work and Pensions undertaken with the HSE about its resources, systems and processes, and how it will effectively carry out its extra duties, such as confirming the hazard classification and labelling of chemical substances after the end of the transition period?
Is the Minister confident that the HSE will be able to cope with that increase in responsibilities? What assessment has she made of any new specialist skills that may be required? Could there be an economic impact on the chemicals, pharmaceuticals or plastics industries if there are any delays in required work being carried out by the HSE? Has that risk assessment been done as part of any review that the Department has undertaken? There may be a need for further recruitment, and difficulties have been experienced in the past year in finding necessary specialists. Can the Minister therefore guarantee that any extra staff will be in place by the first week of January, ready for EU exit?
With the HSE potentially having to navigate and regulate stand-alone GB schemes and parts of the EU chemicals schemes simultaneously, there will be additional pressure on it. At the same time, staff will be making new regulatory decisions for UK’s entire food and chemicals markets, with limited access to EU data. Not having adequate resources and systems will also put the incredibly hard-working HSE staff under enormous pressure, which is why we and the Government must not ignore this.
None of us wants questions about the HSE’s capacity to deliver an effective chemicals regulation regime into 2021 and beyond. Indeed, this issue has been raised before, and in February this year the Government said that they
“are making sure that the HSE…have the resources and evidence they need to ensure the safe management of chemicals and to protect public health and the environment.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2020; Vol. 672, c. 159WH.]
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which I am sure the Minister noted. It relates very much to the next point that I was about to make.
In February 2019, Mary Creagh, the then Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, also raised concerns about how the new functions would be taken on within the UK and the budget in relation European Chemicals Agency funding. That is not to say there should be direct comparison of EU-wide budgets and what the UK needs, but the HSE and other agencies involved need to be sufficiently equipped in order for our scientists to deliver safe and effective products on to the UK market. For the new work now required of the HSE, other agencies within Northern Ireland and others across industry that will be involved in a proportion of the new work that will be now taken on, what assessment has been made of the level and type of additional resources required?
My second question before I conclude relates to the Northern Ireland protocol. I thank my colleagues in the other shadow departmental teams for their input on this. The Northern Ireland protocol will mean that a number of areas of law in Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the EU after the end of the transition period, as the Minister commented. Changes to the standard policy approach for unfettered access are needed for highly regulated goods, such as chemicals. This will require a strong focus on transparency requirements to ensure that UK regulators are provided with the requisite information, in parallel to that provided to the EU. With regards to unfettered access and the forms required for highly regulated goods, what estimate has the Minister made of costs to business of the additional transparency requirements, and how many exports does she expect will be covered by them?
In conclusion, the amendments to the 2019 regulations relating to the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, are necessary to ensure that retained EU law relating to chemicals and GMOs continues effectively from January. However, I would welcome reassurance about the planning and resourcing for the new functions that the HSE, particularly, and other agencies will take on.
This is one of around 20 statutory instruments that will need to be tabled before the House rises for recess. Will the Minister update us on the timetabling for the remaining SIs relating to the Northern Ireland protocol? With only two weeks until Christmas, she will understand concerns that there may not be enough time for all these to pass through the House before the end of the year with the necessary scrutiny. If she is unable to update us today, perhaps she will be able to forward that information to me after.
I thank the Minister for her responses, but I would be grateful if she will clarify one point. She talked about how the HSE’s existing capabilities could be built on, and said there had been some scoping and mapping. As we are so close to the end of transition, can she say whether any risks and concerns have been raised either by DWP or the HSE to her directly about readiness for 1 January, and whether any resources might still be required?
I thank the Minister for her responses to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, and I understand that some of the REACH regulations are covered by other SIs. However, these are very important points, so could I just probe her on one thing, which relates to the reduction in animal testing that the BPR has promoted? She has given some assurance that this will remain part of UK policy, but could she also give an assurance that if there is any change to that policy at any time, that change will come before the House? I do think people across the country will want to see us keep that commitment into the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I join colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate on the future of work, and on her speech. The range of contributions that we have heard from hon. Members, and the thought that has gone into each, show that the issue should, increasingly, be on the parliamentary radar.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire was right: the status quo is not good enough, and we cannot go back to the past. Many issues have been raised. The hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) talked about the importance of effective employment programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) rightly said that technology is not destiny and that the future is far from certain. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) talked about how building back better cannot be left to the market, talking about a role for Government, communities and the unions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—it is always a pleasure to speak in a debate with him—talked about worrying times for the nation. He is absolutely right. This is an issue that we must all face together, with the concerns of our constituents very much at the forefront of our minds. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked effectively about dignity, identity, self-worth, and the need to reshape our economy and to look at sector councils.
I want to build on some of those themes. The issue has many dimensions. Technological change is creating the future. To some extent, it might replace work but in truth it might also not replace work—it might create those new jobs. How we embrace and shape the technology and changes of the future is down to the choices that we make. Past mistakes cannot be allowed to continue. We should not come out of this period with greater division than we saw not just going into the crisis but before, and with a deeper digital divide creating those who are in and those who are out of prosperity in future.
The imperative that a decent society does not leave people behind must be our priority. Employment will be one of the key themes of 2021. What has to be critical is not just how we create good work and jobs for the future, but access to those jobs and fair and decent pay to go with them. Why is that? Because more than 1 million jobs have been lost during the crisis. Vacancies remain 30% below pre-crisis levels, and forecasts suggest that unemployment will remain substantially above its pre-pandemic level well into 2022.
Too many entered the pandemic in an already precarious position. More than 12 million households began the year with less than £1,500 in savings. They have been hit hard as jobs and income have been reduced. Jobs are becoming less resilient, not more. The latest ONS figures show that more than 1 million people are on zero-hours contracts, almost double the number in 2013. Ethnic minorities, young people, single mothers and the lowest paid have seen their employment hit the hardest, with a double hit on BAME communities disproportionately affected by the health crisis. As has been said, they are the least likely to be able to work at home and those who will struggle for access to the new jobs of the future.
Yesterday, the Government announced an additional £8 billion for green funding for the future. That is welcome, but it does not remotely meet the scale of what is needed to tackle the climate emergency and is far smaller than the €27 billion pledged by France or the €38 billion by Germany. That is why Labour has launched its own jobs-rich green recovery action plan, which includes action to recover jobs, and investment and co-ordination to secure up to 400,000 good, green additional jobs; to retrain workers by equipping them with the skills needed; to deploy the green technologies of the future; and to rebuild business with a stronger social contract between Government and businesses to tackle the climate crisis and ecological deterioration, while promoting prosperity and employment.
I will also make mention of co-operative strategies, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central. A co-operative strategy for recovery that builds from the bottom up, looking at community resilience in our recovery, is an important part of our future. Indeed, those are themes to be discussed at the West London Business conference tomorrow on the future of aviation and communities.
The future of work must mean fair work, and a social security system fit for purpose. Too many workers have had inadequate employment rights and precious little bargaining power. The pandemic has highlighted that the social security system that should underpin those workers’ autonomy in the labour market is woefully inadequate.
It is also important for the Government urgently to conduct and publish an assessment of the financial barriers to self-isolation, including the level of statutory sick pay. If such gaps are not filled, a cohort of people will continue into the next period having to make an impossible choice between self-isolating and putting food on the table. We need to support people back into work, so I hope that the Minister will reconsider the punitive culture behind benefit sanctions, brought back by the Government in July.
The future of work—a resilient, inclusive future, with good work for all—is critical as we think about how we build back better. The theme is now international, reflected in recent reports on the future of work published by the World Economic Forum, the International Labour Organisation, the OECD, the RSA and, of course, the Institute for the Future of Work, which I thank for its work supporting the APPG and its briefing in advance of this debate. Many of these debates look at the acceleration of changes in workforce practices, including the advent of automation and AI.
As change comes, however, we must lead rather than lag. There is a need to review concerns around workers’ rights and protections as labour market structures change, and issues around the future of good work and of workplaces post-covid must be matters for debate and policy. It is not a new area: 30 November marks the fourth anniversary of the launch of the Taylor review, which looked at insecure and exploitative work, the quality of work, and modern workplace values. It is time to refresh that: the Government have only passed legislation on seven of the 53 recommendations to date, despite accepting much of that report. Furthermore, in an answer to a parliamentary question today Ministers were still not able to define when the Employment Bill will be coming to Parliament.
Many employers have sought to do the right thing by employees in the uncertain period in which we live, and unions have been working closely with many of them. Other employers have sought to take advantage of the pandemic to erode workers’ pay and terms and conditions, as discussed in the “fire and rehire” debates in the House. That has exposed the need to strengthen our offer to workers and to enhance the protection afforded them. It also raises how vital it is that we listen to workers and include their views in how we shape the future of work.
According to research by the Fabian Society, some 58% of workers say that they are given no opportunity to influence how technology is used in their workplace. Emerging technological change in workplace practices must look at improved transparency, accountability and involvement: that should be at the centre of any Government plan. That plan could include how the Government will work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people, as well as tackling insecure work and low pay, and transforming the training opportunities available to people at every stage of their lives, with schools, further education and higher education all part of that.
That is why it is so important to reconsider and rethink the proposed cuts to the union learning fund, which is so effective and vital to adult education. It is also important to take tough action to raise standards and root out exploitation in lower paid under-regulated sectors. An ambitious vision for how technology can be used to open up and improve opportunities for all workers should be core and part of a commitment to ensuring that the future of work is resilient and inclusive. Alongside that, we should also be looking to explore and review rights such as the right to disconnect, giving remote and electronically connected workers the tools to disconnect to ensure that their mental health and work-life balance are protected and respected. That issue was highlighted effectively by the union Prospect.
We must look at effective employment support. People must have access to work for the future. Opportunities for access must come through effective Government schemes; the latest figures show that the Government’s Kickstart scheme has so far created opportunities for around 3% of the 600,000 unemployed young people.
We also need to make sure that these are high-quality placements with built-in training opportunities for young people that provide a transition into longer-lasting employment, so that around the country opportunities for young people are sustained into a long-term future. That is important because effective support in work and out of work—including an effective social security system that supports workers—is vital. People will be looking to switch jobs following changes in the labour market perhaps 11 times, on average, in their lifetime. That is very different from the world in which past generations grew up.
In conclusion, future generations will judge us by the choices we make today to support livelihoods and businesses, tackle the unemployment crisis, and face up to the realities of the climate emergency. An economic plan needs a jobs plan, and a jobs plan needs a skills plan. A credible green recovery with sustainable jobs—something that people across the world are looking to—requires co-ordinated action across Government, harnessing investment and regulation, working alongside local government and the private and voluntary sectors to deliver system-wide change right across our country. We cannot let the failure to address pre-covid inequalities, laid bare by this crisis, now be an injustice that we allow to be passported into the future.
In July, the Government chose to reinstate benefit sanctions and conditionality, against the advice of experts. We are now in the covid second wave, with businesses closing, unemployment rising and vacancies halved since March, but last week the Government said that the clinically extremely vulnerable and those they live with could have their benefits cut if they refuse a job that puts them at risk from the virus. Is that really the Government’s policy? Is it not time to end the threats and re-suspend benefit sanctions, or are we no longer in this together?
Our economic recovery will depend much on public confidence, yet polling this morning found that almost half the population believe that the Prime Minister has gone too far. Many have deep concerns that they could put themselves and family members at risk if they cannot properly social distance when they return to work, and it is clear that the workforce and management must agree safe arrangements that people will trust. Will the Government adopt the TUC’s proposals for employers to publish covid-secure risk assessments and urgently increase funding for the Health and Safety Executive, which the Minister knows has been cut by a third since 2010, to enforce these measures?