HC Deb 14 July 1965 vol 716 cc496-9

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate fee-charging employment agencies. I think that I should begin by declaring my interest in the subject of my proposed Bill, which seeks to regulate fee-charging employment agencies, as they are called. For many years I was the assistant general secretary of the British Actors' Equity Association and I also have served upon the Public Control Committee of the London County Council, which has among its other duties that of licensing fee-charging agents. I am at present the honorary joint secretary of a body called the Theatres Advisory Council, which is representative of a broad range of interests concerned with entertainment.

My concern in this matter is mainly with theatrical agents, but in dealing with this question I have come into contact with the matter generally, and I find that many of the things which need to be dealt with in the theatrical sphere also need to be dealt with elsewhere. In 1949, the International Labour Organisation issued its Convention No. 96, which provides for the abolition or for the regulation of what are called in it fee-charging employment agencies. Twenty-eight countries have ratified this Convention, most of them, including France and Western Germany, have ratified under Part II of the Convention, providing for abolition. Five countries, including Israel, Japan and Turkey, have ratified the Convention under Part III, which provides for regulation.

In July, 1951, the then Labour Government announced that they proposed to introduce the necessary legislation to ratify the convention. That Government fell later in 1951 and it was not until 1957 that the Conservative Government of the time issued their proposals for ratification. Here again, the Conservative Government's proposals were for ratification under Part III of the Convention, providing not for abolition but for regulation. There was, therefore, the position that both sides of the House had agreed this was a necessary piece of legislation and had decided almost precisely the form which it should take.

These proposals of the previous Administration were discussed with the Trades Union Congress and other interested bodies and in 1958 the Home Office said that negotiations were complete. But nothing happened. In 1960, the Home Secretary of the time said that he did not know when legislation would be introduced. He was right about this and a year later he said that pressure of parliamentary business was such that there was not room for this legislation and so it has been ever since.

The fee-charging agencies have grown and flourished and some of them are very strange weeds indeed, particularly in the world of entertainment. The 1951 Labour Government's proposals were published in Cmnd. 8286 and I would like to quote a sentence from that document. It says: … that it would be in the public interest to provide for such a measure of supervision and control over the activities of fee-charging employment agencies as would enable them"— that is, the Government— to ratify the Convention on the alternative basis described in the preceding paragraph. This was on the basis of regulation. It says, later: They propose, therefore, to introduce the necessary legislation in due course. From time to time representations have been made, but there has never been time. When the question was put once again to the present Government, quite recently, the answer was still the same—not now, some other time, later. It is 14 years since the previous Labour Government announced their intentions to introduce legislation. It is eight years since the Conservative Government issued their proposals for legislation. I have them here and will quote one or two points.

The Conservative Administration in 1957 said that legislation would be introduced to ratify the I.L.O. Convention, as many other countries had done, but that the control would be effected through the larger local authorities. It would provide that everyone wishing to operate an employment agency should have a licence from the licensing authority, and should not charge any fee in excess of a scale submitted to and approved by that authority. There were a number of other proposals. The legislation was not actually drafted, but the broad outlines were agreed.

There were one or two other important provisions under discussion, such as one to prohibit an agent charging commission on the salary of his own employee. This is not so unknown as might be thought. Another proposal was one to prevent an agent acting for an employer and getting his remuneration by virtue of commission charged upon the salary of an employee. This, astonishingly, is quite frequent.

But the broad outlines were agreed and there the matter rested. I seek the permission of the House to introduce this legislation, which has been approved in principle on all sides, and which will be welcomed by the best agents as much as by almost everyone else, both employers and employees, who have experience in the matter.

During the years in which legislation has been awaited, abuses have flourished. The powers of the local authorities are at present virtually non-existent, and in the world of entertainment the practice of employers paying wages through agents instead of direct to artistes has grown up. The B.B.C. is particularly fond of this. There have been cases of agents absconding with the money. There are agents who charge huge percentages to beginners and this is quite legal at present. There are agents engaged by the B.B.C. to cast productions on the condition that they receive their remuneration, not from the Corporation, but from the artistes whom they engage.

This is particularly prevalent in the case of minor rôles, and it often results in the fee being reduced below the minimum. The artiste receives 90 per cent. of his fee, often after quite a long delay, and the agent takes 10 per cent., thereby saving the B.B.C. cost in its casting department.

There are agents who acquire the rights to engage companies on behalf of theatres abroad. For example, an agent recently engaged the Sadler's Wells Opera Company to perform in Australia. He made it a condition of the engagement that the artistes agreed to the Australian management deducting 10 per cent. of the salary of each artiste and paying it to the English agent. He thus drew 10 per cent. of all the salaries of the entire cast each week throughout the Australian engagement. Astonishing as it may seem, all these practices are entirely legal at present, and I believe that it would be widely agreed, on both sides of the House, that they should be made illegal.

This is the purpose of the legislation which I hope the House will grant me leave to introduce. It was to stop such practices that the I.L.O. drafted the Convention. I therefore beg leave to introduce the necessary legislation to bring about the removal of these abuses and the long overdue ratification of this I.L.O. Convention.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hugh Jenkins, Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop, Mr. Bernard Floud, Mr. Eric Lubbock, Mrs. Anne Kerr, and Mr. David Ensor.