Draft Part-Time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2001 and Draft National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 (Amendment) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. When I first contested a parliamentary seat, you were my putative parliamentary neighbour. I gloriously stood in Barnsley, West and Penistone in 1987 in the aftermath of the miners' strike. I fabulously converted a 10,000 Labour majority into a 14,000 Labour majority and still made it look like an electoral triumph. It is a pleasure to note that we are working in more harmonious circumstances.

I should like to deal first with the minimum wage regulations. The original legislation was always going to need exemptions and exceptions. The Conservatives do not oppose the regulations. We understand why the Government want to exempt people on Government training schemes. It is revealing to hear the Minister affirm that the regulations are complex: they always are when they attempt to interfere in markets. This exemption has cropped up, quite understandably, and we accept it.

Before we complete our proceedings, however, the Minister might like to rehearse the other exceptions and exemptions, so that we can be satisfied that this particular exemption dovetails with others. For example, are apprentices exempted? It could affect whether people decide to work as apprentices or take part in a Government scheme. As I said, we want the Minister to rehearse the arguments to make it clear that the regulations throw up no peculiar, unforeseen consequences.

I accept that the second document is a small amendment to the part-time workers directive, but I hope that I will be allowed to rehearse our views on its root. It comes from the Government's admitted error, and I can only predict that, if they were to remain in government, we would see many more such regulation, because if we are not even allowed to debate clauses in Committee, we will see more errors. The Minister squints—

Mr. Johnson: It was not a squint.

Mr. Duncan: There was an expression of pain on the Minister's face. He knows perfectly well that, during the past week, timetabling has prevented the House from discussing in Committee several clauses of a Bill. The Opposition, however, believe that it is essential for the democratic process that they should have been so debated. If such clauses are not allowed to be debated in future, we will see the Government coming to delegated legislation Committees, doing a lot of Japanese bowing and apologising for further errors.

The part-time directive sounds great, but in my experience as an employer there are few cases in which a part-time job is directly comparable and mathematically pro-rata with full-time jobs, which is the formula that the directive asks employers to apply and allows employees to claim. It assumes a tidy uniformity in the way in which job descriptions are drawn up, which does not reflect what happens in real life. Quite simply, life is not like that. No one will object to the right to transfer from a part-time to a full-time job, because when employers find that employees are doing a good job, it is natural that they would like them to do more. However, the notion of written statements within 21 days of someone's claim against an employer is a bureaucratic way of approaching any perceived employment problem. It is another example of how the Government are putting burdens on small businesses, particularly those that do not have personnel departments and struggle to afford to take on an extra worker. Despite that, they will be bedevilled by legalistic problems that they could do without.

The directive as now contrived in British law is a classic example of goldplating, whereby a directive from the European Union, following the new Labour Government's commitment to the social chapter, has been handed down in ever more detail and more bossy terms to small businesses that eventually face it as a cost. Perhaps the Minister will tell us which other countries will enforce the directive in as much detail as Britain. Is he confident that there will be equity throughout the EU, so that our employees are not put at a practical disadvantage?

We must debate the directives because, once again, the Department of Trade and Industry failed to meet a deadline that had been set by the EU and had to go back to it to beg for more time to work out exactly what it wanted to do. I wonder whether there was ever a problem in the first place that needed addressing in law. I doubt it because, by and large, a proper understanding can be reached on part-time contracts between two consenting parties without the need for any further intrusion by the state.

I accept that the amendment is a trifling addition to the existing directive, which clarifies the manner in which ACAS can operate. My regret is more that the original statutory instrument already exists, rather than that the small amendment should be made to it. We will not oppose either of the two regulations, but Conservative Members regret the way in which, stage by stage, small businesses in particular find that they are facing mountains of legislation, which they are increasingly unable to understand or implement and which bedevil their attempts to make a profitable enterprise of the risk that they take in the businesses that they run.

4.49 pm

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. Unlike the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), I cannot find any connection between our constituencies, although in the light of statements in the House about tourism, it may be apt if I assure you and others that coming to Weston-super-Mare would be an excellent thing to do at the moment, as there are no foot and mouth problems in the town.

Having made that plug for Weston-super-Mare, I shall talk about these important measures. I support what the Minister said about endorsing a partnership approach, which should be the aim of industrial relations, and about reducing the burdens on small and large businesses, which this fairly modest measure will do.

The number of part-time workers in this country is one of the highest in the European Community, which I welcome. Anything that will assist older people such as myself—I hope that I will not require part-time work in the near future—to carry on in employment or to get back into the workplace and help people with young families to return to work is welcome.

I am especially pleased about the increased involvement of ACAS if difficulties arise. I hope that that process will continue, as tribunals place a big burden on business; business people accept them, but they know that if a matter has to go to a tribunal it is costly and time-consuming. I hope that ACAS will be used much more in future.

The minimum wage proposals in the regulations seem to be modest. My party welcomed the original minimum wage proposals and we support the uprating. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and I campaigned for an automatic uprating, based on the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, which we urged the Government to accept.

As the Minister said, in practice, the minimum wage has been a good measure for working people and also for businesses. I remember that, some time ago, I was a member of the Committee considering the national minimum wage. One sitting lasted for over 20 hours. Conservative Members were being rather long winded and saying how terrible and appalling the national minimum wage would be and how the country would collapse. I am glad that it has not collapsed. Mine is a tourism constituency, with many hotels and restaurants. The minimum wage proposals have benefited workers in that industry. They have been upgraded and feel that they have a worthwhile job because of their new rates of pay and, therefore, work much more effectively and feel more engaged in the business.

My only question about the measure is how many of the work force will be affected by the proposal.

Mr. Johnson: I correct my previous error in failing to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. There is a connection between our constituencies—Hull City beat Barnsley 3-0 on 21 January 1956. A year or two ago, Barnsley was voted the most popular town in the country; fewer people wanted to leave Barnsley than anywhere else. That is a great credit to at least one of its Members of Parliament.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton demonstrated clearly why he failed to appeal to the voters of Barnsley. There is not a list of exemptions and acceptances to the national minimum wage, as he put it. The Low Pay Commission decided in its first report that 16 and 17-year-olds, and apprentices between the ages of 18 and 21 or, if older, in the first year of apprenticeship, should not receive the national minimum wage. In its second report it said that those in the national trainee scheme—a scheme similar to that for modern apprentices—should be exempt under the same terms as those in the modern apprenticeship scheme. We accepted that recommendation last year but, in a technicality, apprenticeships were covered by one clause of the Bill; the national trainee scheme was not covered although we believed that it was. We then found that it could, by an oblique legal interpretation, be classified under a different category and that national trainees could therefore still be entitled to the national minimum wage. We are therefore ensuring that the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission, which the House accepted, is put into force.

The hon. Gentleman did not raise specific points about the two changes, which will allow people, particularly part-time workers, to settle grievances through ACAS and conciliation rather than going through the expense of an employment tribunal. He suggested that his party was opposed to the national minimum wage and the part-time workers directive. I understood that his party had changed tack on the national minimum wage. I should be grateful for clarification on that because the Government would be delighted to fight an election on that issue. We believe that the introduction of basic, civilized standards to the workplace is important and long overdue.

The hon. Gentleman alleged that there were loads of errors in the part-time workers' directive—there was one error, as we freely admit, which we are putting right today. Part-time workers were not given the same right to conciliation as in every other piece of employment legislation. The hon. Gentleman said that, in his experience, the world does not work like that and that part-time workers are very different from full-time workers. The kind of cases to which he referred could be dealt with under the part-time workers directive, which covers any supposedly objective reasons why part-timers are not comparable with full-timers. In my experience and that of many of my hon. Friends, there have been thousands of cases since the implementation of the directive that demonstrate that it is simply a fact that a full-timer will attract night-duty allowance, shift bonuses, extra money for working Sundays and training facilities while a part-timer doing exactly the same job will have none of those additional benefits.

Since the introduction of the directive—which covers about 6 million workers, 80 per cent. of whom are women—there have been around 250,000 cases of part-time workers being given absolutely the same rights as their full-time equivalents. I therefore do not accept the hon. Gentleman's points. He believes his argument passionately, as he believed it passionately when he fought Barnsley a few years ago and as he will doubtless believe it if there is a general election before 1 May 2002. Government Members are happy to argue the points. The part-time workers directive has also led to a reduction of around 92 per cent. in the number of cases going to employment tribunals, which was previously the only recourse of part-time workers.

On the point raised by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter)—I welcome his support for the provisions—I remind Liberal Democrat Members that they originally wanted a regional not a national minimum wage, but we all have to make policy U-turns at some time.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many part-time workers have been affected and I must correct the earlier figure of 250,000. In fact, 400,000 part-timers have enjoyed an increase in their terms and conditions as a result of the directive. It is important that we carry through—

Mr. Cotter: How many part-time workers will be affected by the orders?

Mr. Johnson: It is difficult to tell in terms of the part-time workers regulations because we do not know how many cases go to employment tribunals that would perhaps have been settled through ACAS or a negotiated agreement. On the national minimum wage change, we are ensuring that we carry through the policy that the House has already approved. We shall carry out the recommendation of the Low Pay Commission to exempt national trainees on national training schemes in the same way that we exempt people on apprenticeships. The changes are necessary and I am grateful to the Committee for its support, which I can rely upon unless the Room is invaded in the next few minutes. The orders will be important in rectifying the clear mistakes in the original drafting.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2001.



    That the Committee has considered the draft National Minimum Wage Regulations 1999 (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

Committee rose at one minute past Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Illsley, Mr. Eric (Chairman)
Cable, Dr.
Cotter, Mr.
Dean, Mrs.
Duncan, Mr.
Flint, Caroline
Johnson, Mr. Alan
McFall, Mr.
Pollard, Mr.
Rapson, Mr.
Thomas, Mr. Gareth

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Prepared 14 March 2001