Standing Committee B
Thursday 26 April 2001(Afternoon)
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Licences to engage in licensable conduct
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 13, in page 7, line 33, leave out `applicant' and insert `relevant person'.[Mr. Bruce George.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking amendment No. 14, in page 7, line 34, at end insert
`(7A) For the purposes of subsection (7) above a relevant person is
(a) the employer, where an applicant is an individual who in the course of his employment with the employers carries out designated activities;
(b) the applicant, in all other cases.'.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I welcome your return to the Chair, Mr. Benton.
The amendments would require employers to pay the registration fee for their employees. As we adjourned this morning, if memory serves me correctly, I was summarising their purport, and saying that they would inevitably impose a cost on business. Equally, it was only fair to make the point, as the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) did, that if employers did not pay the employee would have to, which could be burdensome. An issue of principle is involved as well as the practical question of whether it is fair to impose a burden on people who are relatively poorly paid. On balance, it cannot be right for people who are poorly paid to be clobbered in such a way.
It would be helpful if the Minister would give the Committee the latest estimate of the level of the fee, if the Government have one. If the employer paid the fee and the employee then left his employment to start work with another employer, would that not be unfair to the original employer who paid the fee? Although on the face of it the case seems to be fairly open and shut, some questions remain. After all, the licence is for the individual, unless it is granted with the proviso that it would lapse on the occasion of someone transferring employment. I do not think that that is the intention of the Government or of the right hon. Gentleman.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): This is an important amendment, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend tabled it. We debated the matter on Second Reading, but important issues have been raised that should be dealt with. In answer to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), we estimate the cost of the licence to be approximately £35 to £40, usually for a three-year licence. That is the scale of fee that we think is right, although it is a ball-park figure rather than an absolute commitment. We do not believe it to be an exorbitant fee. We believe it to be reasonable, and we do not believe that it will deter those already employed in the industry from obtaining a licence, nor those wishing to gain employment in the industry. I agree with the thrust of what my right hon. Friend said about the drive that is required to raise the working standards of the industry, including the levels of pay and training. That is a key part of the process. The measures that he mentioned such as the minimum wageI also mention the working families tax creditare designed to attack the core issue, which is relative low pay and its implications, rather than the various costs that are borne by various people.
In principle, it is right that if the primary responsibility is on the individual to obtain a personal licence, it is appropriate for employers to pay licence fees for their employees. However, I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend that it is more than a hopeit is an expectationof the Government that reputable companies will wish to pay the fees for their employees. He was correct to say that a number of the serious companies involved believe that that is their obligation. As he said, however, they are worried that the playing field would not be level, because other employers would not be under the same legal obligation to pay the fees. Employers believe that it is right that they should be paying the fees, providing quality training and addressing other issues in respect of raising standards in the industry. We expect that reputable companies will wish to pay the fees for their employees, but we do not believeand this is where I part company with my right hon. Friendthat we should impose on all employers the duty to pay.
Employers have, in general, welcomed the Bill, but we are trying to steer a course between good regulation and over-regulation. To force employers to pay a fee that targets employees who are often highly mobilea point made by the hon. Member for Buckinghamwould not necessarily be the right way forward. I regret that I cannot ask the Committee to support the amendment. I urge my right hon. Friend to withdraw it.
I can, however, take the second step that my right hon. Friend suggested, which is to place on record as strongly as I can the expectation of the Government that good and reputable employers will pay the fees for their employees, provide appropriate training, and commit themselves to the business standards that the Bill aims to achieve. I am sorry that I cannot go all the way with him, although his arguments have a great deal of force. To place such a requirement on all employers would be going beyond the balanced approach that we wish to take.
Mr. Bercow: I will resist any temptation to lock horns on behalf of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South, because that would be presumptuous. He is well able to fight his own battles, and no doubt he will continue to do so at every opportunity.
Although there is some logic and wisdom in what the Minister is saying, he may wish to entertain the possibility that, for people at the start of their careers who are very low-paid or who have been through periods of not working at all, the level of the fee could be burdensome. Is he willing to consider a concessionary rate for such people and for those who will be engaged in such work on a part-time basis?
Mr. Clarke: I am willing to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. He has inadvertently reminded me of a point that I should have made more forcefully in response to my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Bercow: I always like to be helpful.
Mr. Clarke: I have noticed that the hon. Gentleman always has that aspiration. Some might call it spin without substance, but I would not say that.
Given how we have drafted the first part of the Bill setting out the obligations of the new authority to review the situation and its implications, it would be possible to reconsider matters after a processing period. If it were established that there was an unlevel playing field that would, in effect, weaken the competitive position of the reputable employer, the situation would be reconsidered.
The point made by the hon. Member for Buckingham about young people coming into the industry seeking concessions is another issue that could be reassessed.
I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart), who I believe, is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, not the GMB.
Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): That can be confirmed with pride. There is a problem in trying to address the issues in the Bill that concerns an industry that has such a wide spectrum of expertise and facilities. I want to comment on what are commonly referred to now as door stewards or venue stewards.
The Chairman: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is making an intervention. If he wishes to make a speech, I suggest that he waits until the Minister has finished his remarks.
Mr. Stewart: Having identified the end of the spectrum, I want to say only that the virtuous circles that the Government are attempting, I hope successfully, to achieve will be compounded by the industrial relations factor to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South referred. The Bill will not be jeopardised, but compounded in a positive sense. The Government can do so much, but other aspects of the industry cannot assist that process.
Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. It recalls to mind the important debates that we had in the Labour movement some 10 or 15 years ago about whether a minimum wage was appropriate or whether it was up to trade union negotiation to resolve the matter. I am glad, as I know he is, that we resolved the issue in favour of the minimum wage. The balance between the role of the state and that of the industrial relations process is delicate and not easy to resolve, particularly when regulating such a complicated business.
Before urging my right hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment, I must say that his worry about the impact of the Bill on parts of the industry in different ways and the danger to competition that could arise if there were distortions is one that would lead the Security Investment Authority, when established, to reconsider the issue. If my expectation that reputable big companies will pay the fees for their employees is not met, that would also need to be dealt with. I hope that he will withdraw the amendment, although I acknowledge that he has raised a serious matter.
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I shall withdraw the amendment reluctantly, not necessarily because of the logic of my hon. Friend's argument, which has a degree of plausibilityI say, a degreebut because what comes out of our discussions in Committee and in the House might be different from what we are debating at present. I am looking to the regulatory process to remedy the short-term failure of the Home Office to draft a Bill that meets my demands.
Mr. Bercow: I do not want to tempt the right hon. Gentleman to dilation, but it might be instructive to members of the Committee if he were to offer us a brief synopsis of the liability arrangements for fees that appertain in some of the countries with regulatory regimes that he has recommended to the Committee.