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Mr. Whittingdale: The CBI's principal objection, and that of many other employers' organisations, is that the arrangement will be imposed on them through compulsion.

Mr. Chaytor: The hon. Gentleman is not answering my question.

Mr. Whittingdale: With respect, I am.

Of course employers support the idea of increasing the amount of training given in the workplace. What they do not support is the mandatory requirement imposed by the Bill for them to accept union learning representatives and to have no say in who those representatives are, or indeed in how many are appointed. We share their objections. As the Engineering Employers Federation has said, this will not improve employee relations, productivity, or the learning levels of employees. Learning representatives will add value only when they work in partnership with employers. Compulsion will add to costs, and will do nothing to increase employers' commitment to training.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The hon. Gentleman should meet some.

Mr. Whittingdale: With respect, let me tell the Minister that I am quoting what has been said by employers' organisations.

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Under the Bill, the number of learning representatives and their selection will be a matter solely for trade unions. That will clearly be open to abuse: employers must be given some say if trust is to be preserved in the workplace.

Finally, let me deal with the provisions requiring partners of benefit claimants to undertake work-focused interviews. At the beginning of my speech, I said that the Queen's Speech had made no mention of an Employment Bill. What it did foreshadow was a welfare reform Bill. I ask the Minister to confirm that this is it: that the Government's much-vaunted intention of achieving fundamental reform of the welfare system has been reduced to a group of clauses headed "Miscellaneous" at the back of the Employment Bill. Of course we welcome measures to help benefit recipients return to work, but this piece of bureaucracy is unlikely to have much effect.

A recent survey showed that in the past four years there had already been more than 50 changes in employment law. Small firms estimate that it is taking them up to 12 hours a week to deal with statutory requirements, at a cost to each of £8,900 a year. Some measures in the Bill are welcome, but its overall effect will be an addition to demands in terms of cost and time which many small businesses simply will not be able to meet.

At any time those measures would be damaging to British business, but they are being introduced at a time when the outlook for many firms is already grim. The sad fact is that, while increasing employees' rights, the Bill is likely to lead in the long term to a decrease in the number of employees, because it will make the burden for some firms unbearable.

6.27 pm

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I am pleased to speak about a Bill that will introduce so many improvements, and benefit so many of our constituents. I agree with the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) that competitiveness is all-important, but we should view the position in the long term. If we share the hon. Gentleman's short-sighted approach to employment relations, how can we end up with a skilled and flexible work force who want to make their company as competitive as possible? I was very disappointed by his mean contribution.

Before I go into the details of the Bill—which will, as I have said, improve things substantially—let me say something to the Minister for Employment and the Regions. I much appreciated his taking the trouble to visit my constituency to discuss, in some depth, the many provisions in the Bill. I believe that similar consultation has taken place not just in my constituency but with the business community, and throughout the country. The fact that the Bill has not prompted a great deal of dissent is surely a measure of the success of the consultation undertaken so effectively by the Secretary of State and the Minister. I also thank the Minister for taking up in correspondence issues raised at a meeting that I had in Stoke-on-Trent.

I should say at the outset that I am a member of Unison, and also that UCATT—the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians—has a close working relationship with my constituency Labour party.

I welcome the introduction of paid paternity leave, which has been well received by constituents to whom I have spoken. I am also glad that we are at last making

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real improvements to maternity leave and pay arrangements. That is great news for women, and I know that it will be welcomed in my constituency.

Reference has also been made to the introduction of a questionnaire procedure for equal pay claims. If we had had such a procedure in the long years of the previous, Tory Government, and if that Government had introduced legislation properly as they were directed to do by Europe, we would not be in the current situation in which many women who worked in the mining industry are unable to claim what should have been theirs by right. That is an advance to be welcomed.

Another advance is the right to time off for union learning representatives, underlining the important role played by unions in developing the skills of the work force. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) was absolutely right to say that we as parliamentarians and as a Government are nowhere if we cannot recognise the importance of investing in the skills of the work force.

In 1999, we were very fortunate in north Staffordshire to have one of the first union learning fund pilots which was operated by the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union. In a time of great change in the pottery industry, entailing much that we would prefer not to have seen, the pilot has grown to 18 learning representatives operating in most factories and pot banks across Stoke-on-Trent. Forty representatives at the CATU learning centre—which is funded jointly by Government and the Stoke-on-Trent college of further education, and with the support of manufacturers—are taking the learning agenda out to people, encouraging them to take up basic skills and take on relevant work, increasing their confidence and contributing to competitiveness. Those advances are welcome, and in the long term they will be as important as the advances in health and safety.

I am very pleased that the Government have not heeded the siren voices calling for the introduction of charges for tribunal applications.

Mr. Swire: I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Lady has in her constituency one of the most successful British companies possibly in the world and certainly in the United Kingdom. Has she at any stage taken the trouble to go and speak to that company to discover whether it believes that any of the Bill's provisions will make it less competitive?

Ms Walley: I am very proud to say that we have many world-class manufacturers and other businesses across north Staffordshire. We have consulted with the chamber of commerce, with which we agree on some issues while having slightly different shades of opinion on others. None the less, I believe that we would not be treating our work force properly if we were to introduce a general costs regime that required the losing party to face all costs. The proposal in the consultation document to establish a presumption in favour of awarding costs was entirely wrong, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the current proposals.

The Government have recognised that charges and the risk of having to pay costs will deter lower-paid applicants from pursuing a case, however strong that case may be. Such an arrangement would in practice deny people the opportunity of exercising their statutory rights.

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Nevertheless, there may still be a problem which I hope that my right hon. Friend will examine both during proceedings in another place and in the light of the letter that I received from my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and the Regions.

The problem is that the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2001, which were introduced in July, added to the list of circumstances in which an employment tribunal can award costs. Before the regulations were introduced, costs could be awarded when proceedings were brought vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably. However, the word "misconceived" has now been added to that list. Consequently, not only poor behaviour but poor knowledge of employment law is to be penalised. The other change that was made in July is that the maximum costs that tribunals can award on the spot were increased from £500 to £10,000.

I ask the Government to re-examine the changes. I am very grateful that a review body has been established, and I recognise that the Secretary of State said in reply to an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) that costs had been awarded in only 252 cases. I wonder, however, whether the new regulations will substantially change that number. I ask her to examine the issue very closely. I would not want people without a union representative or someone else to turn to for help to be deterred from making a genuine case. I hope that we can make some progress on the issue.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Does the hon. Lady recognise that whereas it is true that many employees are not fully familiar with the law, millions of self-employed small business proprietors also are not legal experts and cannot afford a legal adviser when presented with a legal case? Is it not important that we also recognise their difficulties? Is it not important that the Government ensure that any changes protect them equally?

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