Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
In last year’s summer Budget, the Chancellor said that he was committed to a higher wage economy:
“It cannot be right that we go on asking taxpayers to subsidise…the businesses who pay the lowest wages.”
When he introduced the national living wage, he said that
“Britain deserves a pay rise and Britain is getting a pay rise.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 337.]
He promised that the change would have only a fractional effect on jobs. He said the cost to business would be just 1% of corporate profits, a cost which he offset with a cut to corporation tax.
Today, the Chancellor said that he wants to help low-paid workers to save with a savings bonus, but how exactly does the Chancellor think low-paid workers can afford to save anything when thousands nationwide will be taking home less money after the national living wage is introduced next month? National employers are using the introduction of a higher minimum wage to reform their reward structures, which is a euphemism for cutting staff pay. The new £7.20 hourly rate should be boosting people’s pay packets but, as the Chancellor knows, the opposite is happening in practice. B&Q has cut staff pay by changing all staff members’ contracts, forcing them either to accept the unfavourable new terms and conditions by the end of this month or lose their jobs. The new B&Q contracts are designed to offset the cost of the new national living wage and save the specialist retailer money without touching shareholder pay. The contracts strip low-paid staff of extra pay for Sunday and bank holiday working; eliminate summer and winter bonuses; and cut London weighting right down.
These workers are non-unionised, represented only by B&Q’s “national people’s forum”, which sounds like something that might have existed in the USSR. The so-called “people’s forum” had a very brief “consultation” on the proposed changes—there was no real negotiation whatsoever. Subsequently, these workers have no one to speak up for them—I say to this House that it is our job to speak up for them. Worse still, they have been told by B&Q management that they will be sacked if they come forward with their story to the press. B&Q staff will be worse off after the national living wage is introduced, as the specialist retailer saves money. The impact on low-paid workers, particularly loyal, long-standing staff who have worked at B&Q for decades, is devastating. Many cases have been reported to me and I have to be careful not to identify the people involved, because they could be sacked. However, let me give the example of just one of them.
Mr Jones, as we shall call him, works at a B&Q store in the south-east, where he has been employed for more than 15 years. He has a family—two children—and is the sole wage earner in his household. He works hard, but works part-time because he is disabled. He works every Sunday he can, as well as all the unsociable hours on offer. But from April, under the new contract he has been coerced into signing, he is going to earn £1,000 less—and he is not alone. If I had the time, I would tell the House about workers—
The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise (Anna Soubry)
Will the hon. Lady agree to meet me, in confidence, in relation to all these people? As the Minister responsible for retail, I undertake to take this up directly with B&Q. May I ask that she also speaks to the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) about this, because I think that between us we could do something about it?
I would be delighted to accept that offer, and I will show my right hon. Friend all the emails I have received about people in desperate situations. These people are the ones who political parties say they are there for: the hard workers—the people who believe it is their job to support their families and who just get on with it. But they are not able to get on with the living wage because their pay is going to be cut.
I was going to come here and say today, “Look it doesn’t have to be this way. Some of these companies just need to pass on a hit to their shareholders. Some of them need to improve productivity and staff training.” But I did not know then that what the Chancellor was going to announce was a further cut in corporation tax. He has given these companies the opportunity to get out of these appalling contracts and give people £7.20 an hour, on top of the benefits they already get. I ask the Chancellor and his Government to make it unquestionably clear that they expect, and we expect, that the honour of the national living wage will be a reality. We are not talking about small companies living on the margins; these are some of the most famous names on our high street. They are currently getting away with murder, and they can because these people have nobody to speak for them.
I may just be a lowly Opposition Back Bencher, but if I can help any of those staff get a decent result on what should rightfully be theirs—this is not because they do not try; it is because of their direct effort—I will be doing my job. I ask everybody in the House to join me in standing up to these companies and saying, “Put the money you’ve got in today’s Budget in the hands of those people who have worked longest and hardest for you.”