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Mr. Hammond: I suppose I should return the compliment given by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd): he sometimes manages to look like the acceptable face of old Labour, and one has to peel away the veneer to see what is going on behind. For all the talk of big tents, some people will be relieved to know that the small tents are alive and well. They are close at hand should we ever need them, as I suspect some of us might in the forthcoming debate.
There is a proper issue at stake. I have acknowledged that and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central is doing me an injustice in suggesting that I pay lip service to it. Apart from anything else, there is a ridiculous confusion. There is no point in having legislation that cannot be understood by a reasonably educated English-speaking person. Clearly the confusion between worker and employee has become intolerable and needs sorting out. We merely want to ensure that that is properly and objectively dealt with on the basis of the facts, of the benefits that are likely to flow from any changes and the costs of making the changes.
We are trying to disentangle the real issue from what I characterise as political horse trading. The hon. Gentleman might deny that until he is blue in the face, but the Opposition and most of the 56 million people in this country do not believe that difficult discussions do not take place on items of the trade union movement's agenda, because it funded the Government to the tune of £9 million to fight the general election campaign that put them here. We want to ensure that this issue is not lost in political horse trading but dealt with properly and objectively on the basis of the facts. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that at face value; it is up to him whether he does so. I detected in some of his comments
Mr. Lloyd: I shall read with interest not only the hon. Gentleman's speech but my own, and I think that if he reads my speech carefully he will detect no such attitude. Flexible working is in the interests of an efficient economy and, very often, it is in the interests of employees; but we must get the balance right.
Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman must understand that such work involves not only flexible working times and patterns for employees but what the Minister described as atypical forms of work. Typically, atypical workers will be difficult to unionise, and I understand that there will be an instinctive reluctance on the part of the trade unions to embrace atypical forms of work. That is a legitimate, self-interested approach, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we must change our attitude in the interests of maintaining flexibility in the economy and trying to maintain our competitiveness against our European neighbours, many of whom are now beginning to embrace concepts of flexibility in the work force after years of our deriding them for not doing so. We must accept that atypical workers will form an important part of this country's total labour force.
In this debate the Minister has, perhaps tactically, thrown up a little smoke in anticipation of the debate to come. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would not want me to stray too far into the subject of trade union funding for the Labour party, but the Bill is about delivering part of the trade union agenda. I am not saying that that agenda is wholly wrong or that we should reject it, but we are entitled to question the relationship between the Government, acting as the Government of the day, the Labour party, recipient of substantial largesse from the trade union movement, and the trade union movement, which has an open and published agenda, some of which is being incorporated in the Bill. Indeed, some of it has been incorporated at a late stage in the Bill's passage. That is a legitimate public concern, and we would be failing in our duty as an Opposition if we were not probing the matter and asking questions.
Judy Mallaber: Will the hon. Gentleman at least accept that the motivation of Labour Members on issues such as those that I pursue, including rights for part-time workers, the worker-employee issue that I raised in Committee, decent working conditions and the ability to combine family and work, arises from genuine individual concern and just happens to be the same as that of the trade unions? Will he please stop casting aspersions on our motivation, because it is not influenced by the question of whether there is money in the equation? I espouse those views regardless of money. Does he accept that Labour Members' motivation is honourable?
Mr. Hammond: I suggest that the hon. Lady get herself a slightly thicker skin. We have a Government who got themselves elected in 2001 on £9 million of trade union money and a pledge to bring the trade unions to
Andrew Mackinlay: I think that there is a third angle. [Hon. Members: "A third way?"] No, a third anglethere is a substantial difference. I have been listening to the debate, and I can no longer restrain myself from speaking. I am of the view that the trade unions are far too acquiescent, and they do not flex their muscles on the Labour party's national executive. They have not exercised their right to interfere with manifestos. This is a matter that will come out in memoirs, but it needs to be said. My criticism is that trade union officials sit on their hands at the national executive committee when the manifesto is being drawn up; they are too deferential to people from the Prime Minister downwards, and then they go to the TUC conference
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) responds, I point out that we are dealing not with memoirs but with new clause 2, and I trust that he will bear that in mind when he responds to the intervention.
The Minister accused me of being veneered. I always think of veneer as rather cheap, and I prefer to be thought of as solid. He suggested that my veneer was peeling away, but we are beginning to see some veneer peeling away on the Labour Back Benches. We have a Prime Minister who appears to be biting the trade union hand that feeds him, and who describes as "wreckers" people who oppose the Government's mandated agenda for reform of the public services, and we have Conservative Members who seek to advance the trade union agenda. It will be interesting for us and, I suspect, for the public, including my constituents who only narrowly avoided a strike by South West Trains today, to see how the Minister responds to some of those issues later this evening.
I sense the House is ready to move on to the next debate. Conservative Members are somewhat reassured by what the Minister has said about the non-piecemeal implementation of the results of the review being undertaken by his Department. We look forward to a full and proper debate on the conclusions of that review before any secondary legislation is proposed. The Minister has previously indicated that there will be proper consultation
'(1) The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) In section 238A (participation in official industrial action)
(a) In subsection (2) the word "(a)" and the words ", and (b) subsection (3), (4) or (5) applies to the dismissal" are repealed; and
(b) subsections (3) to (7) are repealed.'.[Mr. Lloyd.]
'(1) The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (c. 52) is amended as follows.
(2) Subsection (2B) of section 238 (dismissals in connection with other industrial action) shall cease to have effect.
(3) Section 238A (participation in official industrial action) shall cease to have effect.'.
Mr. Lloyd: It is interesting that new clause 5 is grouped with new clause 8 in the name of Conservative Members. I think that, once again, we will see a sharp divide. There has been talk of big tents, but there are big marquees on the Conservative Benches and tents on the Labour Bencheswe know which interest the Conservative party ultimately seeks to represent in these issues.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) does not seem to understand that it is possible to have the concept of fairness in the workplace. We ought to strive towards that and try to ensure that our legal regime is fair for employees and employers because, in the end, that proper balance is in the interests of individual industries companies and society in general. The hon. Gentleman must accept that an attempt to erode the advances made by the Employment Relations Act 1999 would be not only counterproductive but grossly unfair. The Minister for Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who is in his place, was the architect of that pioneering and transforming legislation. Not only the House but the country owes him a debt, because that measure moved industrial relations a long away from the confrontational view of the world of work that characterised the 18 years of Conservative Government. The Conservative new clause coupled with minein fact, I hope it is not coupled with minewould move the clock backwards.
Among other things, the 1999 Act provided recognition that when a lawful industrial dispute occurred, it was not only unreasonable and unacceptable, but incompetent to allow an employer simply to dismiss the work force. That power to dismiss was used relatively rarely. I am sure that
It is a matter of fact that the right to strike is recognised in international obligations, for example, the International Labour Organisation convention. The legitimate right to strike is accepted throughout the world. Nothing in that suggests that there is a desire to strike, or that there is always a happy conclusion to strikesindustrial disputes can be bitter and difficult to resolve. However, sometimes the only industrial weapon that employees have at their disposal is withdrawal of their labour. The 1999 Act acknowledged the right to strike and provided that an employer who tried to dismiss people during the first eight weeks of an industrial dispute would be deemed to have acted unfairly, so employees would have recourse through industrial tribunals. It is right and proper that there is protection that forbids employers to take arbitrary action during the initial phase of an industrial dispute.
It is also a matter of fact that the overwhelming majority of industrial disputes last for nowhere near eight weeks. Eight weeks is an extraordinarily long time for people to withdraw their labour. I remind the Opposition that people who go on strike do not simply not go to work: they do not get paid, they have no money to support their families, and they get none of the things that take people to work in the first place. To strike is no small action.
The eight-week cut-off undoubtedly reflects some sort of compromise. Those who argue that there is a trade union agenda would say that many trade unions wanted more than eight weeks, but the Government at the time took the view that since the provision was a new one, eight weeks was appropriate. However, since the passage of the 1999 Act, we have gained experience of the practical operation of the legislation.
Let me tell the House about a company in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), in which constituents of many of my colleagues representing that part of Wales work. Friction Dynamics was originally part of the Turner and Newell group; it made brake linings and had been in existence for many years. The current owners took over in 1996, and between that time and roughly this time last year, the relationship between management and those who worked for the company deteriorated. Many of the employees had worked there for many yearsfar longer than Mr. Craig Smith, the current employer, had been at the company.
Contemplation of industrial action was triggered by changes that Mr. Smith wanted to make. Some of those changes affected the company's health and safety regime, others involved arbitrary and swingeing cuts of 15 per cent. in basic pay rates, and cuts in shift premiums. The management proposed those serious changes, and the members of the Transport and General Workers Union in the company balloted on and took industrial action: they
Hon. Members might say the strike and the lock-out were equally arbitrary, but let us not attempt to judge the merits of either. I am not here to discuss the merits of Mr. Smith's stewardship of the company, although there are serious questions about how he got there and how the company got into that position. However, during the period of the lock-out, there was no meaningful attempt on his part to negotiate with the trade unions or his employees, only his insistence that he would make the proposed changes. I mentioned that Mr. Smith tried to change the health and safety regime. During the dispute, someone still working in the company lost some fingers; that was because health and safety protection was poor after the employer reduced it.
At the end of the eight-week period, Mr. Smith decided summarily to sack all the members of his work force who had been on strike for one week and had been locked out for a further seven. If Conservative Members rise to justify Friction Dynamics' actions in that case, we will know exactly what the Tory party is about, but I trust that they will speak to the issue. Hard cases define whether law is good or bad. The case I describe does not represent a romantic retreat into old-fashioned trade union defence. This is 2002, and I am talking about a real work force comprising real people whose rights in the workplace were arbitrarily snuffed out by their employer.