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2 Feb 2009 : Column 585

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): To what extent have skills shortages contributed to the difficulty of filling those British jobs with British workers?

Mr. McFadden: As the Prime Minister has said, we need to do more as a country to improve our skills base, but this is not just about the skills of individual workers, but about the companies that apply to do the work, some of which may do so with a permanent work force whom they deploy to do the work. It is not just about the skill of the individual worker, but about the whole package that a company brings when it bids for a contract.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the statement and his comments that he is determined to ensure the robust enforcement of employment rights in this country. Other hon. Members and I attended a meeting a few weeks ago at which we considered the economic climate in this country, in Europe and across the world. Comparisons were made with the difficulties that arose in Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s in order that we may learn from history and ensure that history does not repeat itself. What we have heard in recent days worries me greatly. We all need to be very temperate in our language and ensure that we do not again see what happened in the late ’20s and early ’30s and play into the hands of and pander to the extreme right in any country.

Mr. McFadden: I quite agree with my hon. Friend that we should not pander to the extreme right. He refers to history, and that is relevant on two counts. First, in response to an earlier question, a retreat into protectionism would be a mistake for us and for the rest of the world economy if it was repeated in countries elsewhere. He is absolutely right that, since the end of the second world war, the establishment and growth of the European Union has helped to ensure not only peace but far greater prosperity for its citizens, and we should seek to maintain that in the future.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman opened his statement with some so-called statistics about the benefits of the European Union that, in my view, are at the very least open to debate. Does he not accept, as many trade union leaders believe, that there is problem with the labour mobility directives? The UK Government have not on all occasions stuck up for British interests. If he is interested in seeking to reduce tension on this subject, perhaps he will produce a balance sheet of the number of projects that UK companies are carrying out in France, Germany and Italy, for example, as against the number of projects that are being carried out by those countries in the UK. Perhaps that would give people the facts of the case. Will he do that?

Mr. McFadden: I appreciate that for certain hon. Members any positive statement about the European Union can sometimes be difficult to digest. It is very clear that membership has been good for our trade and growth and for the other matters hinted at by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown). The labour mobility rules have been part of the EU for decades—they have not been invented in
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the past year or two. Labour mobility—the freedom to work throughout the EU in different member states—is one of the basic conditions of EU membership. That is worth bearing in mind in the current circumstances.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be well aware that two large liquefied natural gas terminals are being constructed in Milford Haven and that there are Polish and Portuguese workers on those sites, but that they are seen as being in addition to local and UK skilled Labour. Does he agree that something is seriously wrong if, in the case at Lindsey and other cases around the country, the national agreement is being abided by, yet local UK-based companies are not successful in their tenders? My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) suggested a meeting with all parties to consider the issue. It is absolutely essential that major clients, main contractors, the trade unions and the engineering construction industry sit down with the Government to work out why foreign companies are able to outbid British companies.

Mr. McFadden: I must take issue slightly with my hon. Friend. What is important is an open and fair bidding process for contractors to win the work. We cannot put ourselves in a position whereby every time a non-British company wins a contract, we say that it is unfair. British companies are operating successfully throughout the rest of Europe and throughout the world. What is important is that the rules are applied fairly and properly.

I agree with my hon. Friend about dialogue and interested parties. It was for precisely that reason that, over the weekend, we established the ACAS process to examine some of the claims. Let us see whether the law has been broken. Let us see whether European rules have somehow been contravened. That is what ACAS is doing, and that is why the first meeting was held today.

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): It seems to me that much of this depends on Total’s statement and what has been said by its subcontractors. Are we expecting ACAS to audit the statement, or should other parties do it?

Mr. McFadden: I believe that ACAS is the right body to examine the statement. I believe that it is perfectly capable and perfectly qualified to do so, and that it is respected by both employers and trade unions. That does not mean that we accept every statement made by everyone at face value. It was precisely in order to establish the facts properly that we asked ACAS to look into the issue.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Minister may know that this morning, on a television programme, Derek Simpson said that the Prime Minister had had meetings regarding the three rulings of the European Court only about a month ago, and that some action was expected as a result of those discussions. He added, in reply to a question, that it appeared that that action had been dropped. Can the Minister tell us what action was proposed, and whether it was in line with what the Secretary of State for Health said on the programme yesterday?

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Will the Minister also ensure that if it is impossible to overcome the European Court rulings—which we all know is the case—we will legislate in the House of Commons to ensure that we provide proper and fair treatment for the workers and trade unions of this country?

Mr. McFadden: I am sure that the workers and trade unions of this country will welcome the hon. Gentleman’s strong support. I believe that he was referring to a series of European Court judgments issued over the past couple of years on pay differences between posted workers and workers employed locally. If the statements that have been made are true and, in the subcontracting cases that have been cited in recent days, the same pay rates apply throughout the site, it would appear that the issue of a race to the bottom in wages does not apply in this instance. As for the judgments themselves, as I have said, a European Commission body is examining the operation of the Posting of Workers Directive, and a social partners dialogue on the judgments is in progress at European level.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that there are some very nasty undertones to the discussions surrounding the disputes? In times of difficulty, the traditional role of the Labour party, the labour movement and the trade unions has been to oppose xenophobia and discrimination and to try to engender a sense of solidarity among all workers to enable them to face the difficulties together. Will the Minister convey the message that we want people to be united in the face of economic difficulties, rather than some turning against others on the basis of their passports or ethnicity?

Mr. McFadden: I certainly agree that the rules of labour mobility, to which I have referred, and the rights to work across the EU have been in place for decades. I also agree, and have said, that workers from the EU and from outwith the EU have made a strong contribution. I understand that in times of economic difficulty there will always be heightened concerns about jobs. If those concerns include an allegation that the law or rules are being broken, we will look at them, and that is precisely what ACAS has been charged with doing. However, we will not turn our back on trying to reach out, trade openly and grow our wealth through our links throughout the world. We will take a positive stance on world trade and UK companies operating abroad, because that benefits our country.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): Given the union complaint that it is the transport and accommodation of these workers that may be unfairly subsidised, will the Minister clarify the Government’s position? Is it that he wants to be sure that the directive is not being broken, or is he at all concerned to improve its working?

Mr. McFadden: Our concern is twofold. First, we want to ensure that the domestic employment laws passed by this Parliament are properly observed and enforced. On that subject, we have put increased resources—for example through minimum wage enforcement—in place in recent years. Secondly, we want to ensure that the European rules that apply both to UK companies operating elsewhere in Europe and to
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European companies operating here in the UK are properly and fairly applied. In recent days, there have been allegations on both counts that that may not be the case, and that is precisely what we have asked ACAS to look at.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I agree with the Minister that right-wing anti-Europeanism and protectionism would be disastrous for British workers. Do I understand from his statement that ACAS will investigate the implementation of employment rights in respect not just of statutory minimum standards such as the minimum wage, but the national collective bargaining agreements that apply at all of those sites? The wages there are many times higher than the minimum wage. I still find it puzzling that European companies can bring their labour in, meet all the costs of accommodating and transporting them—both to this country and to and from work—and still claim to abide by national pay rates and conditions of service. That does not seem to add up, and I wonder whether the real answer to that puzzle is to be found in the fact that these subcontractors subcontracted all the way down the line to a point at which nobody really knew whether the workers concerned were being exploited or whether local workers were getting the justice and fairness to which they are entitled.

Mr. McFadden: My right hon. Friend asks several questions, which I will try to answer. He asks about the national agreements setting standards that are higher than the basic minimum wage. He is right about that. Claims have been made that the subcontractors on the Lindsey site abide by the national agreement, and that is a legitimate issue for ACAS to look at. He mentioned the costs involved and I suggest that employers may not always choose the cheapest tender, and that speed or the overall package that a subcontractor offers may be strong factors. The statement issued last night said that the subcontractors did abide by the national agreement, and ACAS will doubtless examine that claim with the employers and the unions involved.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is it not a sad fact that whatever changes the Government or the House may wish to make to the laws governing foreign contracts or the conditions attached to foreign workers, we are unable to make those changes because they are entrenched in superior EU law? Since that powerlessness is undoubtedly an element in the present frustrations, is the Minister aware that changes are on their way, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has recently confirmed that it will be

Mr. McFadden: The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) clearly knew what was coming and thought that he had better get out before hearing that statement. If the time ever came when the Opposition were to get into power, I would be interested to see whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be able to support the policy that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) just outlined. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the policy that he outlined—to resile from the European legal settlement that goes with membership—would end in a clash and that, ultimately, it would lead to withdrawal from the
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European Union. If that is his policy, he can defend it. I have set out a policy today of positive membership of the EU and positive trade throughout the EU that brings wealth and employment to our country. Although that can be difficult, it is not something that we will turn our backs on.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Will the Minister allow me to express my dismay at the way in which he has interpreted the law, which allows European companies to win contracts here and to put up restrictive barriers against employing local people? Can he assure the House that his interpretation is shared by the German, French and Italian Governments?

Mr. McFadden: All the countries are signed up to the European posted workers directive. It is legal under the directive for a company to bid for work and to use its permanent employees as part of the fulfilment of that contract. That is not just a British right; it is part of the directive.

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Points of Order

4.11 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that hon. Members will have noticed today’s inclement weather and the transport difficulties it has caused. We should be particularly mindful of the interests of those who work in the House, many of whom made great efforts to be here today and many of whom will have a very difficult journey home this evening. Accordingly, it might help if I notify the House that we intend to conclude our first debate at 6.30 pm this evening and the second debate at 9 pm to enable members of staff to get home safely.

Mr. Speaker: That is very considerate of the hon. Gentleman. The staff of this House have, under very difficult circumstances, come in to look after the House and to enable the Chamber to sit. I am glad that hon. Members are thinking of the staff. I note that the Adjournment debate is very tight and that no one other than the hon. Gentleman who will promote it will be able to contribute, with the exception of the Minister, of course.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your statement on 3 December at the state opening of Parliament, you said:

You went on to say:

However, in your statement made a week ago last Thursday you said that the police need only

and that the Serjeant at Arms would then approach the Member concerned directly. First, why have you changed your view, if you have changed your view? I believe that colleagues would be far more reassured by your first statement than by the subsequent one. Secondly, if it is ultimately to be left to the Member concerned to decide what to do in such circumstances, that might place them under undue pressure. Surely matters of privilege should rest with the House as a whole, according to the statement made by Speaker Lenthall in 1642.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. In my statement on Thursday 22 January, I confirmed that, in relation to the visit to the office of the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), the police officer exercised no compulsory powers to enter the office or to require any document to be supplied. It was not a matter that involved the seeking of a search warrant. I also confirmed that, in future, any police officer in the House seeking the assistance of a Member and the staff in a Member’s office must advise the Serjeant at Arms, who, in turn, will approach the Member concerned and obtain his or her consent before any action is taken. These requirements are separate from the procedure
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laid down in my protocol relating to circumstances in which the police seek to search a Member’s office under a warrant.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek further clarification because my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) has been approached by the Metropolitan police and asked for access to e-mails between him and me as Front Benchers of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. Has the Serjeant at Arms been notified of this, and does it come under your ruling that such requests will require a warrant and will be referred to you for your personal decision?

Mr. Speaker: Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that, since the occasion on which the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was searched, approaches have been made to the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman to release certain information?

David Davis: That is exactly correct. I understand that a request has been made for electronic communications—e-mails—between me and my hon. Friend, presumably relating to the time when he worked under me on the Front Bench of the loyal Opposition.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter to my attention. This is news to me, and I will investigate whether the proper protocol and the procedures that I have laid down for situations without a warrant have been gone through. I will report back to the right hon. Gentleman and, indeed, the House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your statement, and in the protocol, there is reference to search warrants. Will you take advice on whether—as has been indicated to me—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, on which any search warrant might be based, applies to this House, for the reasons that have just been given? Will you confirm that this is a matter for the whole
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House and, furthermore, that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act does not apply and that a search warrant issued under that Act would be void and invalid?

Mr. Speaker: I will have to deal with that point of order in the same way; I will look into the matter and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am glad that you are investigating this matter. When you have spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), will you consider whether you and he should put in the public domain all the information that the police are requesting from Members’ computers that relates to other Members of this House?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman knows that a resolution of this House says that, while criminal charges are proceeding, the matter should not be discussed— [ Interruption. ] Order. Mr. Penning, try not to do my job. We have just spoken a few minutes ago about how trade unionists should be trade unionists, and one thing that we do not do is try to do the Chairman’s job for him when we are Back Benchers. I was saying that there is a resolution of the House that deals with criminal proceedings, and that I am bound by that resolution. That is the spirit in which I reply to the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).

Mr. Jenkin: Further to my original point of order, and to the subsequent comments that have been made, Mr. Speaker, I am grateful for your clarification. With the greatest respect, may I put it to you that there are people outside the House who do not attach sufficient importance to what you have said? Until the House has debated these matters, and referred them to the Privileges Committee for proper consideration before bringing them back to the House to be resolved, we are pulling our punches and the police are failing to respect your word. That is a serious slight on this House.

Mr. Speaker: My responsibility is to this House. What goes on outside the House is another matter.

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