Video: Closing speech on the Enterprise Bill's second reading

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): We have had a very good debate, with 25 speakers from the Back Benches. I congratulate everybody on their contributions. I will not go through them all because of the time available, but I will say it has been a very interesting debate.

A lot of Members have tried to categorise or describe the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) said at the outset that it is easier to say what the Bill is not than to say what it is. Clearly, yet confusingly, it is not what it is called: it is not really the enterprise Bill. It is not a well-thought-through coherent visionary piece of proposed legislation that sets out a clear strategic industrial strategy to use every lever at the Government’s disposal to promote British business and enterprise to ease the path for British exports—a real problem at the moment—and take on the underlying fundamental problems of the British economy.

Instead, the Bill is, to use yet another description, a bit of a lucky dip: stick a hand into the bran tub and we will not be quite sure what will come out. Long-serving, modestly paid workers in the public sector—in some cases, as we have heard, even in the private sector where workers, including those at Magnox, have been privatised—might want to remove their watches and rings before they put their hand into the bran tub. The Government are not just after top earners with their exit payments cap; they are drawing on those who have worked loyally for many years on modest pay. They are, as the Secretary of State would say, fat cats. That is what he called them in his opening remarks. He said this provision would capture fat cats. What a disgraceful thing to say about loyal public and private sector workers who will be caught by the provisions. The Government will have to think again and look very carefully at the effects of the provisions. We will scrutinise these parts of the Bill extremely closely in Committee to see if the people the Secretary of State talked about really will be caught by the provisions. Every single one of those individuals will be insulted by what the Secretary of State said earlier on.

We now hear that the Government are adding another little surprise to the bran tub. They are introducing changes to Sunday trading hours, having abandoned previous attempts and having studiously avoided putting the proposal in the Bill when it was introduced in the other place. We now hear they intend to table amendments to the Bill tomorrow. They were not prepared to let us have them today by putting them in the Library, as we asked for. There are, of course, bishops in the House of Lords. I wonder whether the Government were afraid to mention Sunday trading when the Bill was going through the Lords. I wonder whether that had anything to do with it.

How very convenient for the Government that the result of their consultation on Sunday trading should be published the day after Second Reading in this House and not when the Bill was going through the House of Lords. How very unfortunate for the House of Commons that the Government, with all the resources at their disposal, could not manage to publish the consultation before today’s Second Reading, despite having had it for five months, or even manage to timetable the debate for a time after the consultation was ready to be published. How interesting that the Government are rushing into Committee next week, without leaving the customary two weekends between Second Reading and the Committee stage to allow this House enough time to prepare and table amendments. That was done without the usual indications when discussions were held. I will not go into what is said via the usual channels. It is enough to say that a whole new controversial proposal has been introduced into the Bill. That is typical of the Government’s modus operandi—governing from the shadows and treating the House and proper democratic accountability with utter contempt.

The Government have no mandate in their manifesto to change the laws on Sunday trading, no compelling case or evidence of significant economic benefit, and no justification for the late addition to a Bill already more than halfway through its parliamentary scrutiny. It has been through First Reading, Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading in the Lords, and now Second Reading in the Commons, without our having seen the proposals. It is not in their manifesto or the Bill we are voting on tonight, and it is not even in the Library of the House of Commons, so extra time will have to be made available on Report to consider it. They will have to give way on that.

It is a lucky-dip Bill. We can pull out some nicely wrapped goodies, but, as so often with a lucky dip, on unwrapping and closer inspection, it might well leave us underwhelmed by our prize. We welcome the proposals for a small business commissioner, but the Government’s proposal is a pale imitation of what is needed. There are more than 5 million small businesses in this country, but the Government anticipate that the small business commissioner will deal with just 500 cases per year. We know about Australia’s experience, particularly of the small business commissioner in the state of Victoria, the splendidly named Mark Brennan—no relation as far as I know, so I do not have to declare an interest. We know from their experience, that for a small business commissioner to work, they must have the right roles and responsibilities. Our Labour colleagues in the other place have strengthened the small business commissioner proposal, but the Government’s model does not live up to the best practice shown in Australia, or to the Small Business Administration in the USA.

We welcome other bits in the bran tub of the Bill, such as the extension of the primary authority scheme—the local authority one-stop shop for business regulation, which the last Labour Government introduced—and the emphasis on apprenticeships. We also acknowledge that the Government want to build on the achievements of the last Labour Government in rescuing apprenticeships from near oblivion and expanding their numbers considerably, but we need to know about their quality and how the Government will pay for their plans, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey rightly indicated. We also need to know how it will impact on the proposed apprenticeship levy and public services.

We welcome the amendment to the Industrial Development Act 1982 and the extension to digital, but that needs to be set in the context of a proper industrial strategy for the country, not an anti-European, laissez-faire free-for-all that will lead to a race to the bottom for jobs, wages and productivity.

The clauses on late payments and non-domestic rates are welcome, but I want to mention two new items in our lucky dip introduced in the other place. The first are the provisions on the pubs code, which has been mentioned already. I recall as a Minister in the Department, back in 2009-10, clearing all the necessaries before proceeding with the proposals for pub tenants. I went so far as to square them off with the Tory Opposition Front Benchers to ensure that they would proceed after the change of Government. Since then, the coalition and now this Government have had to be dragged reluctantly to do the right thing. As has been said, a market rent option at rent renewal was the minimum required for the Government to fulfil their commitments to tenants, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s acceptance of Labour’s amendments in the Lords. It is about time the Government stood up for local pubs, instead of just sucking up to the pubcos.

The other place introduced amendments relating to the UK Green Investment Bank. The proposed privatisation of the bank by the Government, deleting its statutory green purpose, has become even more pressing with the Chancellor’s announcement about Lloyds bank. Do the Government accept that their privatisation proposals are a mess? They said that they would remove the changes made in the House of Lords to the Green Investment Bank, but do they have a mechanism that will satisfy the Office for National Statistics—my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey asked for that—and guarantee the bank’s green mission? If they do not satisfy the Office for National Statistics, how can they possibly proceed with the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank on those terms?

If it is the wrong time to sell Lloyds, why is it the right time to sell the GIB? Does the Minister agree with her colleague, the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), about the privatisation of the GIB? At the Environmental Audit Committee on 26 November, he said to the Minister:

“Why now? The bank has just made £100K profit. Some people might accuse you of selling your turkey on August Bank Holiday and not Christmas Eve.”

The Minister answered:

“I think it is the right time to do it. The market is in a good place and clearly people are interested so let’s get on with it and do it.”

Christmas eve has come and gone, and the Chancellor tells us the market is far from in a good place, so what is the rush to truss up the GIB and sell it at this point? Would it not be prudent, if the Government want to sell it off, to fatten it up first and sell it later rather than now—if indeed it is possible to privatise it without it losing its green purpose? I put that to the Minister.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey commented on the smallness of this Bill’s vision in comparison with the hyperbole of the Government’s rhetoric. It lacks the ambition to set out a real strategy to meet the real challenges facing British business and industry. Some of its contents are helpful; some are likely to have unintended consequences and cause harm to the lower paid, pensioners and industrial relations. We will scrutinise it carefully in Committee and, if necessary, oppose the parts that are likely to cause harm. We shall not vote against Second Reading this evening, but there are issues in the Bill that we will undoubtedly have to divide on at a later stage. If this is a lucky dip Bill, it is one where the main prize—a proper strategy for UK enterprise and business—has been left out with the raffle.