Tuesday 1 November 2016 6:53 pm

The government wants "flexibility but fairness" for Uber and gig economy workers

Flexibility as well as fairness must be considered when it comes to workers rights in the wake of the landmark Uber driver employment ruling, the government’s digital minister has said.

“Technology is changing employment patterns and it's important we keep up with that and it's important that employers take their employment law responsibilities seriously,” said Matt Hancock, adding that they couldn't simply “opt out”.

"I'm a great proponent of making sure the labour market operates fairly but part of that fairness is also making sure it's flexible, and that needs to be considered too, alongside rights," he said. 

"The truth is that around nine out of 10 Uber drivers say that they value the flexibility," he added, speaking at a committee of MPs debating the draft Digital Economy Bill on Tuesday where Labour called on the government to do more to tackle exploitation in the so-called gig economy.

Read more: Uber's worker ruling is bad news for consumers – and the drivers themselves

“We hope the government will step into the breach,” said shadow digital minister Louise Haigh, who plans to table a fresh amendment to the bill in parliament before its third reading in the House of Commons in the coming weeks and before it heads for approval by the Lords.

Labour’s initial amendment tabled to the committee sought to enshrine the rights of workers in law as part of the legislation and be applicable to any app or platform which “retains significant control” over those providing a service. It was withdrawn after Hancock revealed further detail of a newly launched independent review of the gig economy.

He said the probe, led by Matthew Taylor, the former head of the Number 10 policy unit under Tony Blair, would “consider the appropriate balance of rights and responsibilities, of new business models and whether definitions of employment status need to be updated to reflect new forms of work, such as new on-demand platforms.”

Commissioned by the Prime Minister Theresa May, it is due to report back in six months with recommendations, he said.

The business, energy and industrial strategy committee has also launched its own inquiry into the future of work which will look at how new businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo operate, as well as more established firms such as delivery firm Hermes, and follows in the wake of its grilling of practices at Sports Direct.

Read more: Employment tribunal ruling could cost Uber more than £17m annually

“In recent months we’ve seen growing evidence of agency workers and those working in the ‘gig economy’ being exposed to poor working conditions,” said the cross-party committee chair and Labour MP Iain Wright.

“This growing trend raises questions over employment status and lack of worker rights. The nature of work is undoubtedly changing. It will change further with growing use of technology and a spreading of automation across the economy. This might provide flexibility and choice for some people, but unleash insecurity and squeezed working conditions for others.”

An employment tribunal last week ruled in favour of two Uber drivers who argued they should be classed as workers employed by the startup and were not self-employed. Legal experts believe the ruling – which Uber plans to appeal – could open the flood gates to further claims from drivers and others employed in similar businesses, while the operating models of these new companies may be threatened.

A separate but similar case will be heard this month and involves couriers with City Sprint.

The fresh amendment to put the rights of gig economy workers in the Digital Economy Bill will be debated more widely in Parliament and be voted on by MPs. It is unlikely to gain support from Conservatives for inclusion in the draft bill which is also expected to give every household the right to fast broadband. But, Labour intends to use the debate to raise the profile of the issue and keep pressure on the government to address it.