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8.51 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Since their election in 1997, the Government's agenda has clearly been about social justice. Thankfully, social justice has been identified as a relevant consideration in the workplace.

My constituency is very much a rural one, but over the years it has had a fair amount of manufacturing. My previous employer was ICI, for whom I worked for 23 years. Regrettably, not long after I was elected to this place, ICI decided to give up its polyester film business. Nothing can be done when multinationals take such major decisions. Although it was one of the few employers in the constituency that provided well-paid jobs with good terms and conditions, it was, as one might expect, not the backbone of a rural area. Small and medium-sized businesses usually sustain such areas.

My constituency is seen as a low-pay area. The Government's social justice agenda, however, has ensured the introduction of a national minimum wage, which has meant so much to people. Additionally, the working families tax credit has assisted decent, hard-working families, and the new deal has been especially important for young people. Youth unemployment has decreased by about 70 per cent. in my constituency.

Although disappointing, the loss of manufacturing jobs has not been the end of the world. Despite that loss, in the past five years unemployment has decreased by about 33 per cent. in my constituency. Moreover, although unemployment has increased in many other parts of the country in the past two months and although my area is recovering from the serious outbreak of foot and mouth disease, unemployment has continued to decrease in my constituency. We cannot, be complacent, though. We anticipate that, early in the new year, as is the norm, unemployment in our area will increase because of the vast amount of seasonal employment.

Social justice, especially the opportunity to work, is giving people life chances. Nationally, the unemployment level is below 1 million and there are more than 1 million job vacancies. The Employment Service has the difficult job of matching individuals and their skills—or lack of skills in many cases—to vacancies. It is that issue of skill levels that I wish to address.

Many people who enter work after a long spell of unemployment—or who have never worked before—have low aptitude, lack self-esteem and feel shunned by every system that operates. They have often been let down by the education system. Union learning representatives in the workplace assist those who, often through no fault of their own, have found it difficult to gain employment. That is one major advantage of the union learning reps and I am delighted that the Bill will, at long last, recognise the role that they can play.

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Business and industry have, over many years, recognised shop stewards and safety reps, and the need for them to have time off to perform their duties. Now we will see a similar recognition for union learning reps. Research suggests that they have a significant impact on increasing enthusiasm for learning among employees and employers. In particular, research has shown that union learning reps raise interest in training and development, especially among those with numeracy and literacy problems. ULRs share a level of trust with their members and can often engage those who would be embarrassed about admitting their learning needs to their employers or line managers.

The majority of ULRs have been in post for only around two years and their role has been innovative and will continue to develop as time passes. They undertake a wide range of activities, including undertaking training needs analysis, providing information on learning, and advice and guidance to individuals, and negotiating with employers on the learning and skills that people require for their daily jobs. ULRs also often broker learning provision with training providers.

The Bill provides for ULRs to be elected or appointed and to undergo training within a specified period. They will be entitled to reasonable paid time off for training and for carrying out their duties. They will also have protection against detriment, which has been vital for shop stewards and safety reps over the years.

The measures in the Bill further to support working parents are to be applauded. Mothers will now be given up to one year off work and, for the first time, fathers and adoptive parents will have the right to paid time off. That will be warmly welcomed by adoptive parents who have for too long felt disadvantaged, but business will also be helped by having the rules governing maternity, paternity and adoption leave and pay simplified. There is a clear need to improve on the provision that we have had in the past. Improvements in maternity rights have assisted many families and households, but the Bill will deliver real change to help women and mothers in work more than ever before. The Bill also recognises the valuable role that fathers and adoptive parents play in caring for their children and supporting their partners. It will have a real impact on people's lives, benefiting business, parents and, above all, the ones who mean so much—the children themselves.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set up a taskforce on family-friendly employment policies in late June. I firmly believe that parents should have the right to work flexible hours when their children are young. I recently met a couple in my constituency whose son has a severe attention deficiency problem. It is not always possible to determine when a child with such a problem requires extra care and attention, but it is possible for a parent, in consultation with an employer, to ascertain when absence from work is required for case conferences or other meetings to discuss the child. Regrettably, my constituent is not receiving the co-operation of his employer, and is finding that taking time off work to deal with his son's welfare is costing him financially. He has endeavoured at each turn to co-operate with his employer, and has even offered to work exceptional hours to make up for the time that he has taken off.

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I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take on board the recommendations of the working parents taskforce, which is chaired by Professor George Bain. I believe that she gave an indication earlier this afternoon that she would, and I hope that in future the right to request flexible hours will be given to thousands of workers.

I turn now to fixed-term contracts. I used to be a shop steward, and I remember the time in the 1980s when about 60 per cent. of the work force who I represented were permanent staff, with the other 40 per cent. made up of people on short or fixed-term contracts. I intervened on the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) and asked if he had ever been involved with a work force in which short or fixed-term contracts were used. I assure the House that that is not a happy working environment, and I do not want to be involved in such an environment in the future. I regret that the despicable mechanism of short and fixed-term contracts is still used in this country.

The European fixed-term work directive is due to come into force here in July next year. The Government's consultation exercise earlier this year on the implementation of the directive showed that fixed-term employees suffered pay discrimination. I am delighted that the Bill contains a power enabling the Government to make appropriate regulations, and that those regulations will be published in the coming months.

I appreciate that other hon. Members want to make a contribution, so I shall end by saying that there is much in the Bill to be commended. I have mentioned only certain aspects of the Bill, and it will be a pleasure to support it in the Lobby this evening.

9.2 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am pleased to be able to speak in support of the Bill this evening. First, I should declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union.

The debate has featured many excellent contributions in support of the Bill, but more striking still has been the absence of heat or passion in the debate. That is an indication of the degree of consensus among hon. Members, which contrasts with the debates on industrial relations legislation in the early and mid-1980s, the era of Lord Tebbit. It is evident that great progress has been made, and it is a tribute to the Government that they have built a consensus with regard to further reform of industrial relations legislation.

It is also interesting that so few Conservative Members should have bothered to speak in the debate. Not one Conservative Back Bencher is in the Chamber at present, but I want to make particular mention of the contribution from the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). I have been a Member of Parliament for four and a half years, and today was the first time I have heard a Conservative Member speak with feeling about the responsibilities of child care and the difficulties encountered in balancing earning a living and rearing a family. I hope that the hon. Lady's contribution is a straw in the wind—an indication that attitudes in the Conservative party might be changing.

Earlier in the debate, we heard the ritual quotation of the wisdom of Ms Lea, the spokesperson of the Institute of Directors, who opposes as a matter of course every

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small step forward that the Government take towards improving the security and welfare of people at work. Of course, Ms Lea always says that disaster is looming. When the minimum wage was proposed, she said that it would be the end of civilisation as we knew it. No doubt she would have said the same had she been alive when slavery was abolished. The ritual condemnation from the Institute of Directors of any new proposed legislation is rapidly leading to a loss of credibility in its ability constructively to criticise Government proposals.

The response of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) was depressing. His argument suggested that the Conservative party as a whole has moved on little in the past 20 years—arguably, in the past 140 years—because it still considered improving the loyalty of the work force, developing their morale, involving them as part of a common enterprise in support of the business, and investing in their future skills as a short-term cost rather than a long-term investment that would ultimately bring benefits to the enterprise as a whole. I find that view intensely depressing.

The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford was also wrong when he said that the CBI opposed the establishment of learning representatives. It is clear that the CBI supports the principle of learning representatives, although it has one or two reservations about details in the Bill, such as the numbers of such representatives. I wish to express a note of caution about the CBI's comments on learning representatives. In its response to the Bill, it says that some companies with learning representatives have reported that they can play a useful role. That is not exactly strong enthusiasm; indeed, it is slightly patronising with regard to the contribution that learning representatives have made in the past few years.

I make that point because I wish to speak primarily about the role of learning representatives, although other aspects of the Bill are important. For example, I applaud the provisions on maternity, paternity and adoption leave and the dispute resolution procedure. I have experienced industrial tribunals as employee and employer, and fully support the Government's attempt to reform the operation of industrial tribunals, but I feel most strongly about learning representatives. It is one of the most important initiatives in the Bill.

Although I regret the CBI's lack of enthusiasm in supporting the principle of learning representatives, it has a point in expressing a reservation about the fact that the Bill does not specify the number of such representatives who can be established in the work force. That needs to be addressed in Committee. I do not share the CBI's views on wanting a voice in selecting learning representatives. I cannot see how any employer could possibly demand that it should be allowed to choose who should represent the trade union or the work force. However, the CBI has made a valid point about the numbers of learning representatives and the specification of numbers, given that the provision will lead to people having time off.

In my previous profession, I had some experience of vocational training in the work force in many parts of the north-west. I can say, hand on heart, that without exception, the companies that had a deep-seated commitment to investing in and training their work force and encouraged the involvement of trade unions were

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among the most progressive and successful companies in the Greater Manchester area. I pay tribute to the various trade unions which took the initiative some years ago to establish the concept of learning representatives.

As I said when I intervened on the Secretary of State, the Bill has in some respects been left a little behind by the rapidly developing debate about work force development. The performance and innovation unit today published its report on work force development. It expresses strong support for increased investment in this area. I shall briefly quote the summary of the report, in which the PIU argues that we should be


I am not sure that, simply with the establishment of learning representatives, the Bill has fully risen to the challenge in the PIU report. Unless we can in due course—not necessarily in the Bill—establish a statutory right to leave from work for education and training purposes, exactly as we are now agreed on for maternity and paternity leave, we shall not begin to tackle the deep-seated skills crisis in the British work force. I hope that point can be considered in the Standing Committee. About 13 million British workers have no access to training. About a third of British workers have minimal skills in their chosen occupation. About a quarter of the British work force experience difficulties with literacy and numeracy. That crisis cannot be solved unless we have the right to paid education and leave.

The Bill—or a future measure—should focus on workplaces that have no trade union recognition agreements. In my constituency, apart from the health, education and transport sectors, few employers have a work force of more than 200—I can think of only five or six. The vast majority of workplaces have no trade union recognition agreement. Among British workers, the least qualified, the least motivated to obtain new skills and those who hold the most insecure positions are in non-unionised workplaces. That is where we need to focus our attention. Almost by definition, workplaces that have trade union recognition agreements have relatively progressive employers who are committed to investment in their staff. In Committee, I hope that we can consider the position of non-union recognised workplaces.

I applaud the Bill, and congratulate the Government on introducing an important improvement in the security of ordinary working people.

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