HL Deb 20 May 2004 vol 661 cc872-4

11.15 a.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they are planning to enforce employment rights and the minimum wage for homeworkers, as raised in the Oxfam, Trades Union Congress and National Group on Homeworking report, Made at home.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Government are very aware of issues around homeworking, which is why we have introduced new legislation for fair piece rates for homeworkers to take effect this October, thereby addressing problems over access to the national minimum wage. The working time regulations apply to all workers. The Government have also recognised the need to provide rights and protections to workers to take advantage of union services and are addressing this through the Employment Relations Bill.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Of the some I million homeworkers, many are women, many are carers, and many are from ethnic minorities. Some are paid as little as 73 pence per hour. First, what more can the Government do to enforce the application of the national minimum wage? Secondly, will the Government consider extending full employment rights to these homeworkers, as they thoroughly deserve them?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, on the second point, we are in the process of consultation on exactly that issue, and we expect to able to report on progress on that later this year. My noble friend is right to say that these are vulnerable workers who have clearly been really exploited in the past. That is why the national minimum wage is so crucial in this area. That is also why we were pleased to bring in the regulations early this year—and to enjoy all-party support for their introduction—which will help the situation. I do not underestimate the fact that we need added protection for homeworkers. We all recognise the vulnerability of this group.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Minister rightly said that homeworkers were covered by the Working Time Directive. How do the Government intend to police this for homeworkers?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we intend to ensure that there is enforcement. We are ensuring that the issues that come before tribunals are advancing the cause of homeworkers effectively. Often that has not been the case, because homeworkers have had inadequate access to representation. We are making sure that there is support from Government for a caseworker to take on the more obvious cases that need to be won in this area. Further, we intend to work through the National Group on Homeworking to increase awareness of these issues. As the noble Lord will recognise, a great deal of this depends on people having confidence about their rights. It is important that we get across the information that gives them that confidence.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that times seem to be changing? Not so long ago, the party opposite was up in arms about the introduction of a national minimum wage. It said that it would end in tens of thousands of job losses. While fully agreeing with my noble friend Lord Harrison about the areas of concern to him and others, it is this Government who will address that area, not the party in opposition.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend makes some cogent points. If one takes joy, over one sinner that repenteth". the whole Front Bench opposite changing their minds is greatly to be welcomed.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that his noble friend was actually referring to the Conservative party opposite, not the Liberal Democrats. Does the Minister also agree that it was common ground between the Labour Government and the Liberal Democrats when this legislation went through that the most vulnerable area that needed protection was homeworking? Does he further agree that this is a serious matter? Having passed the legislation is not enough. Will the Government undertake to monitor closely the situation with homeworkers and report back to Parliament on the results of that monitoring?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the House will recognise that the Government are likely to be subject to considerable monitoring of their progress on this important legislation, not least because there are over 400 Members of my own party in the other place who will certainly subject the Government to critical scrutiny. The noble Lord is right. The issues of enforcement and compliance are very important and we are aware that one of the great difficulties with regard to this group of workers is the fact that they often live far away from the retailers which ultimately sell their goods. The problem often rests with the intermediaries of those employers. That is why we have to strengthen in every way we can the protective arrangements that we are putting in place.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the other side of this coin is ensuring that these workers are informed about their rights and what they should be paid? Have Her Majesty's Government considered putting out a series of public service broadcasts to inform these people, most of whom have a television set even though they are probably desperately poor? It is likely that such workers often watch television during the day, which would be an ideal time to schedule such broadcasts.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we support the National Group on Homeworking, which is concerned to spread awareness of homeworkers' rights and, indeed, to spread awareness of the obligations on employers. It is for that group to produce strategies for publicity, although I should add that it has the most powerful ally in the Trades Union Congress, which is also deeply committed to extending rights, protection and information; they are full partners in those activities