Death of DPD courier is tragedy, says business secretary

The business secretary, Greg Clark, has admitted the death of a diabetic gig economy courier, Don Lane, is a “terrible tragedy” but faced claims that none of the long-awaited labour market reforms the government announced on Wednesday would have saved him.

Lane, 53, collapsed and died from diabetes after being fined £150 by the courier company DPD for attending a hospital appointment to treat his disease. On Monday the Guardian revealed he had missed three other hospital appointments to treat kidney damage, partly because he was afraid of being fined. He collapsed at the wheel of his van while on deliveries a few months later before dying in January.

Amid widespread anger at his treatment, the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, told the House of Commons: “The tragic case of Don Lane, DPD gig worker, epitomised the precarious and unstable working life many people face and the failure of the government to protect workers.”

In an urgent question, she said: “They needed to do something bold today but it appears they are simply papering over these bleak realities with rhetoric. Launching four consultations, merely considering proposals and tweaking the law here and there is not good enough. How would any of this have actually helped Don Lane? It simply wouldn’t, that’s the fact of the matter.”

Lane was treated by DPD as self-employed and there was anger from similar gig economy workers on Wednesday after the government announced labour market reforms that stopped short of bringing in new laws to define self-employment.

Clark earlier told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That particular case is obviously a terrible tragedy and I can’t comment on the details of it, but anyone who is performing work should be clear in a way that too often they are not at the moment whether they are an employee, whether they are a contractor, in which case they are entitled to sick pay. And if they are self-employed then the contractual terms that they operate under must not be so onerous that they should be abusive.”

He added: “If they are self-employed then it is very important that those conditions should not be so onerous as to be unreasonable for example for a person who is sick to be able to take an appointment.”

In a statement DPD said Lane should not have been fined but denied not accommodating his health needs.

The government has announced a consultation on making those categories clearer, but not new laws that could grant employment rights including holiday pay and the minimum wage to an estimated 1.1 million gig economy workers.

Employment lawyers on Wednesday branded the government’s response to the review by Matthew Taylor of modern working practices “underwhelming” and “feeble”, amid widespread fears that significant reform could be slow in coming.

The chief executive of the employment lawyer Thompsons, Stephen Cavalier, said: “It is a limp response to a limp report, which offers nothing but vague platitudes which don’t get to the heart of the issue. On the fundamental issue of defining whether someone is an employee, a worker or self-employed, all that is proposed in the report is yet more consultation, when what is needed, for the sake of millions in insecure employment, is action.”

Susannah Kintish at Mishcon de Reya, who is representing Pimlico Plumbers in a supreme court case about the employment status of its plumbers, said: “The proposals seem underwhelming. There seems to be a focus on transparency rather than any fundamental changes to the law on employment status.”

Responding to Long-Bailey, the business minister Andrew Griffiths told the Commons the government was “acting to ensure good work for all” and that “millions of workers will get greater rights and the access to more protection”.

He said: “The house should be clear. We are consulting in order to act.”

Steve Webb, the former pensions minister and current director of policy at the insurer Royal London, said: “The government response offers little hope for improving the pensions of the self-employed,” and millions of self-employed people faced an insecure retirement.

The insurer Zurich has estimated that gig economy workers are missing out on an average of £75,000 each while auto-enrolment is not extended to cover all workers.