HC Deb 15 May 1986 vol 97 cc913-7

'Notwithstanding whatever other determinations a wages council may make in respect of remuneration, the council shall fix a premium hourly rate of remuneration in respect of time worked by a worker on a Sunday.'.—[Ms. Clare Short.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Torney

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot move the motion, because he has not tabled the new clause. The motion can be moved formally.

Ms. Clare Short

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Torney

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise.

I must first declare an interest. I am sponsored by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I must say in passing that I was astounded at the apparent lack of knowledge of some Conservative Members about the way in which wages council orders work and how they tick. I should be happy to explain how they work to the appropriate Conservative group. I am sure that I can do that because I served for many years as a full-time officer of my union.

The Government must surely know to their cost that Sunday is special. Despite the Conservative party's huge majority in the House, it was defeated recently on the Shops Bill. That is proof, if ever it were needed, that Sunday is special. The Government's defeat was evidence of the fact that right hon. and hon. Members thought that Sunday was special. Tory Members contributed in no mean way to the Government's defeat. Sunday is as important a part of the Wages Bill as it is of the Shops Bill. The Wages Bill encroaches on our Sunday just as much as the Shops Bill would have done. Conservative Members cannot have double standards. They defeated their Government then: they should defeat them again.

It has long been established that if a worker is called upon to work on a day that is not a working day, but is a holiday or, as in the case we are discussing, the Sabbath. premium payments should be made. The wages council orders have made it obligatory for such payments to be made by employers to workers called upon to work on the day I described.

Sunday for most people is a day of relaxation. Relaxation is taken in many different ways. Some people favour amateur sports activities, and others may simply wish to rest, perhaps after a hard week's work. Certainly Sunday is a family day when all can be joined in the true spirit of family life and it is also a day for friends. We should never take action which would prevent people from following their democratic right to attend a place of worship. The employer who asks a worker to give up his freedom on a Sunday should be compelled to pay dearly. It is not just a question of workers wishing to increase their earnings. We should make it as expensive as possible for an employer to call upon his employees to work on a Sunday to deter employers from using workers in that way.

Wages council orders were introduced to give protection to workers in depressed industries such as retail distribution, catering and other industries mentioned in the previous debate by many hon. Members, where, through lack of trade union organisation. the workers were unable to seek protection in any other way. In my youth I worked in a shop and I know from experience that without the meagre protection provided by the wages councils I would have been expected to work all hours and all days, including Sundays, for a mere pittance paid weekly.

The introduction of wages councils, while not giving the best conditions to workers in depressed industries, at least provided a basis for better conditions. Wages councils also gave a measure of protection to those workers who were better organised in their trade unions and enabled them to secure better conditions for trade union members.

Wages councils were hailed by the better employers because they had to sell their wares in the same market as bad employers and, therefore, were subject to unfair competition from those bad employers who would not hesitate to exploit workers and force them to work on Sundays without extra payment. Let us not delude ourselves: there are plenty of employers today, certainly in retail distribution which I know so well, who will work their employees on a Sunday without premium payment and will ask them to work unsocial hours if the Bill is passed in its present form.

The Government are not a caring Government. They care for profits, not people. That is shown by the Shops Bill which would have compelled people to work on Sundays. The Shops Bill provided no protection for the conscience of workers and, coupled with the abolition of wages councils and Sunday premiums, would have provided no protection for workers. The Shops Bill would have been aided and abetted by a Wages Bill designed to give greater opportunity for private profit while reducing the standard of life of workers in the lowest paid sections of industry, which includes all forms of retail distribution and catering. We must add to that the mass unemployment and the Government's attacks on the trade union movement which are all designed to create a low-wage, high-profit economy. Therefore, I ask the Government to withdraw the Bill or hon. Members to defeat it when it is put to the vote.

Mr. Trippier

It may be that the hon. Member for Bradford. South (Mr. Torney) was not present two hours ago when I referred to a booklet written by the Trades Union Congress. It sets out the TUC's views, which are in direct contrast to those of the hon. Gentleman. I shall send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the booklet because he will find that the TUC was not in agreement with the latter part of his speech.

Mr. Torney

Which part?

Mr. Trippier

I am somewhat short of time and I do not want to repeat what I have already said to hon. Members who have been here for all of the debate. I think that that is a fair point. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman.

If new clause 4 and amendments Nos. 60, 61 and 62 to clause 14 were to be accepted. they would give wages councils additional powers which the Government cannot accept.

Under the Bill, the powers of councils are limited to fixing a minimum hourly rate for basic hours and a minimum hourly overtime rate for time worked in excess of the basic hours. If a worker works on a Sunday and that time is in excess of the basic hours laid down by the wages council, the worker will be entitled to the minimum hourly overtime rate for all time worked on that Sunday. The Government strongly believe that the role of wages councils should he restricted to providing only basic protection and that other matters, including holiday payments and differential rates, should be left to be agreed between employers and workers.

There was almost universal support among employers responding to the consultation exercise for the view that the system had to be drastically simplified if it were to remain. We really cannot continue to put businesses in a straitjacket in which they are prevented from negotiating, as freely as possible, the terms and conditions of employment they can afford.

If new clause 4 and the amendments were carried, they would undo one of the prime objectives of the Bill—that of releasing employers from unnecessary burdens and enabling them to give more time to running their businesses.

New clause 5 would enshrine in statute the existing rights of 2.7 million workers in wages council trades. The House will wish to know that many of the arguments advanced by the Opposition in support of this proposal were debated at length in Committee. I am happy to restate the Government's case.

Part II of the Bill is about deregulation and simplification. Wages councils have been able to fix a wide range of terms and conditions. That has had the effect of putting employers in the legal straitjacket I referred to earlier, which has made it all but impossible for them to negotiate with their workers in a way that is more closely tailored to the needs of the business. The majority of employer responses to the consultation exercises were clearly in favour of radical reform if the wages council system were to be retained.

The House will wish to be aware that workers currently employed under a contract incorporating any or all of the terms of existing wages orders can expect their employment to continue on that basis unless the terms of their contract are changed. A contract cannot be changed unilaterally, but either party may seek at any time to change the terms of the contract by agreement.

If an employer seeks to change the terms of a worker's contract and the worker is unwilling to accept the new terms, he can sue in a civil court for breach of contract, whether or not his employment has terminated. As a separate right, the worker can, if he wishes, seek compensation through an industrial tribunal on the ground that he has been constructively dismissed, provided he has at least two years' service. It will be for the tribunal to decide whether the change in contractual terms is sufficient in law to amount to constructive dismissal. These are substantial protections, as the House will recognise.

Part II of the Bill is a balanced measure. It will prevent the detailed prescription of a multiplicity of terms and conditions which are more properly for agreement between employer and worker. At the same time. it preserves the essential core of the system by providing basic protection. The amendments are wholly incompatible with the Government's objectives, and I ask the House to reject them.

7.30 pm
Ms. Clare Short

The lack of interest in new clause 4 shows an extreme case of double standards. There was a major revolt in the Conservative party on Sunday trading, when we were told that there was deep concern to keep Sunday special because of people's Christian commitments or humanitarian concern for the family. so the Bill was defeated and the Government were forced to withdraw it. Today, the new clause attempts to minimise the requirement for shopworkers tc work on a Sunday, and no one is interested.

We all agree that some people must work on a Sunday, but most of us think that Sunday work is unfortunate and should be minimised. Anyone who is asked to work on a Sunday should be rewarded accordingly. At the moment shop workers, for example, get double time if they have to work on a Sunday. That makes the work expensive arid means that employers are less likely to demand it. The power to set a premium for Sunday work is being abolished by the Government, which exposes a lack of concern for shop workers and others working on a Sunday. That shows the hypocrisy in the Tory party's stand on Sunday trading. We believe that the power to set a special rate for Sunday should be restored to wages councils so that all workers are not too readily required to work on a Sunday and are adequately rewarded if they are so required.

New clause 5 is also important. It says that those currently employed by wages council industries should not have their conditions of work reduced. The Minister talked about their contract of employment and certain conditions that they might have under their contract, but surely anyone working in a wages council industry has as an implied term of his contract the right to the protection of the conditions that are laid down in the wages council orders. That includes overtime, differential and premium rates, holiday pay and holiday entitlement. Suddenly, by legislation, the Government are weakening the workers' contracts, and the protection that they have.

It is perhaps widely understood that young people will suffer as a consequence of part II, but it is less well understood that adult workers in wages council industries will suffer gravely. No longer will there be provision for holiday pay or holiday entitlement, or premium payments for night work, Sunday or Saturday work, and so on. No longer will there be differentials for skill. There is concern among employers that that will lead to less training and more poaching, and that they will not be able to hold skilled workers. All that is to be wiped away by the Government in their dogmatic adherence to deregulation, as they call it, but we know that it is all about reducing workers' wages.

Amendments Nos. 60, 61 and 62 attempt to give back to wages councils the power to fix premium rates for Sundays, differential rates and holiday pay. The power would not have to be used by the wages council. Why do the Government not allow wages councils to fix those rates if they think they are beneficial to their industries? The Government talk about freedom of choice and freedom for employers and workers to regulate conditions in their own industries as they see fit. We say that the Government do not mean that. If they did, they would leave to the wages councils the power to fix conditions which they thought best for their own industries. Instead, the Government are wiping away those powers and thus reducing the conditions of work for the poorest workers in the wages council industries.

Question put and negatived.

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