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10.49 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): One difficulty with a Bill such as this is that it is easy to make a superficial appeal and tug the heart strings, as many right hon. and hon. Members have attempted to do. I suppose that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) is to be admired for his touching remark that he supports the Bill because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) is his oldest friend. However, my main problem is that the Bill exemplifies what is becoming an alarming tendency in our legislative proposals with regard to risk in our society.

Time and again, well-meaning colleagues, backed by pressure groups or quangos, try to persuade us that we must create a risk-free society and that our population--our electorate--should in no circumstances be exposed to any risk. We might as well ban mountaineering, horse-riding, rugby or any other pursuits that cause much more distress, physical pain and worse.

The Bill represents another step in that direction. Time and again, right hon. and hon. Members tell us that when people in our society take a risk and it all goes wrong, we

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must protect them. I want to challenge that assumption. Not only is it patronising, but it carries a danger that we will stifle job creation, which we all say that we support.

Mr. Tyler: Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the House has no right or responsibility to protect people from danger? Is he against seat belts, for example? Is he in favour of road safety?

Mr. Forth: I was against compulsory seat belts, as it happens. Unfortunately, I was not in the House at the time, but I almost certainly would have voted against the compulsory wearing of seat belts. However, I will not allow myself to be drawn excessively into that discussion.

We are talking about jobs and paid work. For hundreds of years, the capitalist, property-owning, risk-taking, shareholding society that we have developed--and from which we all benefit, to such an extent that people are desperate to come to this country to enjoy all its benefits--has been based on entrepreneurship, risk taking by shareholders, and people who work in various ways at different times and in varying places. This time yesterday, Labour Members lamented the tragic loss of a large number of traditional jobs in steel making. It is incumbent on us to ensure that we do nothing to endanger employment that is growing rapidly in society as an alternative to static, traditional, factory-based jobs, which are being lost.

Mrs. Gilroy: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is also incumbent upon us, as parliamentarians, to ensure that young people have adequate communications skills and basic literacy and numeracy? Will he apologise for the 18 years during which the previous Government did nothing effective to tackle those problems?

Mr. Forth: I am very happy to indulge in party badinage this morning. It may--who knows?--enliven, and even prolong, our proceedings. I am always happy to apologise for many of the things that happened during the 18 years of our glorious period in government. If the hon. Lady thinks that she is being politically cute by challenging me to say that not everything that we did was perfect, she will be very disappointed. I am more than happy to confess that many of the things that happened when my party was in government were regrettable. Many mistakes were made.

I am simply trying to prevent the hon. Lady's colleagues from making a similar mistake with this ridiculous Bill. Perhaps we can all join hands in our shared desire to maximise job creation and minimise the dead hand of interventionist legislation that the Bill represents. Surely the House has a duty to guarantee that we do not legislate in haste and leave our voters repenting at leisure when they find that their occupational opportunities have been reduced by our ever-increasing desire to eliminate any risk.

What the Bill calls "outworking" is also termed, in a slightly different context, "teleworking" for those who are more keen on the information technology side. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), may want to refer to that if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because he is a great expert and an aficionado of such matters, which I am not. There is a real danger that this well-meaning but

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ill-directed Bill could endanger the very high-technology jobs that involve outworking or teleworking, and that would be a tragedy.

It is interesting that the excellent House of Commons Library research paper says:

That is the first point that we have to meet head on. It is a familiar problem to those of us who have spent some time here. It is all too easy for well-meaning people, interest groups and Government-paid quangos to identify an area of difficulty, then demand legislation without paying proper regard to the serious damage that it might inadvertently do to the much wider sphere of legitimate, profitable and job-creating sectors in the economy. For the Library to tell us that most people working from home are not the victims of scams is stating not simply the obvious but the necessary.

Mr. Burden: I am following with care the right hon. Gentleman's argument about the need to protect legitimate businesses, one of which, I am sure that he would agree, is direct selling. I have had a letter from the Direct Selling Association, which says:

It gives an example. Admitted, the DSA wants exclusions, and that provision is in the Bill. However, a number of such businesses support the Bill--they do not oppose it.

Mr. Forth: I am very familiar with this concept. I came up against it when I was doing the Minister's job, and I shall make another passing reference to that later. The hon. Gentleman makes a familiar argument. Surprise, surprise, the people already established in the business want to make it more difficult for others to come in. There is nothing new about that; it is a perfectly respectable aspiration. However, let us not blind ourselves to it.

The previous Government--here is a confession for the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy)--were guilty of that as well. Established businesses, trade associations and so on used to say that they were very keen to have more regulation and asked us to raise the hurdle for entry to their business. Of course they were. The last thing that established businesses want is thrusting, enterprising new entrants. Any Bill, such as this, which might deliberately or inadvertently prevent new entrants to the business is, of course, supported by the trade associations.

Mrs. Gilroy: I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman, during his time as Minister in charge of consumer affairs, would have picked up a little more about creating a fair trading ethos, under which good businesses appreciate appropriate and focused legislation that helps to keep crooks out and enables consumers to have confidence in the markets in which they operate.

Mr. Forth: The problem is--and as I develop my analysis, I hope that this point will come out--that the Bill is not focused. It takes an undiscriminating, scattergun approach to what may or may not be a relatively small

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problem. When I was in the post that the Minister now occupies with such distinction, I spent most of my two years fighting off bodies such as the National Consumer Council, which, in any case, the Government fund and whose members the Minister appoints. So I am not very impressed with that as a pedigree. The people at the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux are almost as bad--left-leaning, regulatory, interventionist bunch that they are. [Interruption.] I said that when I was in office, in case the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) is worried about it. Please let us not have any more of that sort of thing.

The House of Commons Library research paper helpfully tells us on page 18 something that we have not heard much of from the Government. It says:

That is a significant figure, because it illustrates what I think we all know instinctively: that this is a rapidly growing area of employment.

We must distinguish, as I did a moment ago, between the outworking sector and the tragic loss of jobs that we have heard about over the past two or three days in our traditional, heavy, factory-based industries. The occupations dealt with in the Bill--outworking, teleworking and other kinds of working from home--have become important as substitutes for the traditional jobs that, regrettably, are disappearing, not least from the constituency of the hon. Member for Northfield. Let us not lose sight of that as a first guiding principle concerning our responsibilities in the context of the Bill.

The research paper continues:

that is nearly 1 million people--

Working at home is something that many people want to do to enhance their household income, their experience and so on. It is that important.

If we do anything that might damage that area of employment, we shall bear a heavy responsibility. We should not take the flip attitude, "So long as we mention scams often enough, the Bill is all right," or patronise people by saying, "We've got to protect gullible people at all costs," and "We won't even assume that you can read anything properly, or that you may be prepared to take the occasional risk."

I reject all that. It is superficial, patronising and wrong-headed. I have a higher opinion of voters than Labour Members do. They seem to assume that people are completely cretinous and cannot look after their own interests or make their own decisions. I would rather err in the other direction, and regard voters as mature

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responsible people, prepared to have a go, prepared to take a chance or even a risk, and prepared to be let down occasionally.

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