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Mr. Weir: I understand that the work force of Friction Dynamics agreed to a pay freeze for four years. It was not a rapacious work force but one who was willing to help out the company. Yet they have been treated as the hon. Gentleman has described.
Mr. Lloyd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman as I had forgotten that; it provides me with a reasonable answer for the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, who may now begin to accept that the company is no employment angel.
Mr. Hammond: I am not going to comment on an individual case about which I do not have the facts. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has gone a long way down the line of reciting allegations about an individual; I certainly do not want to follow that route. For the benefit of Members who may not be fully aware of the history, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the item that he is putting on the agenda in his new clause has not sprung from the Friction Dynamics case? It is a long-standing item on the TUC agenda to remove the eight-week limit.
Mr. Lloyd: With great respect, that is a silly point. We are talking about Friction Dynamics, which is a real company; 87 people are involved. That may not matter to the Opposition Members, who may simply wish to discuss the new clause as a theoretical exercise. However, the world of work is not a theoretical exercise; it is real and matters enormously to the 87 people who have been sacked, their families and their communities.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Will the hon. Gentleman reflect again on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond)? Having moved a new clause, it is incumbent on him to tell the House its scope because we are legislating. I do not know the circumstances of the case so I shall not comment. A bad employer may well be involved, but it is still incumbent on the hon. Gentleman to explain to the House the full scope of the new clause that he is asking us to accept.
Mr. Lloyd: Had the right hon. Gentleman listened, he would have realised the full scope of the new clause, which aims to remove the present eight-week time limit on protection against unfair dismissal. That would apply to Friction Dynamics, Ciba-Geigy and any company or organisation in the land. All legal protection is bound to be based on real-life events. This is not a game or a theoretical or intellectual exercise; it is not something that we are debating in the learned debating societies of our best universities. It is about real people and real employers; it is about companies and employees. In this case, the employer, instead of choosing to work in harmony with his work forcethe hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) made the point that the workers had already made significant sacrifices to try to maintain the company's viabilitywas prepared to abuse the power and rights that, sadly, the law gives him.
Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been generous in accepting interventions. Can he not conceive of any circumstance during an industrial dispute, however long it has gone on, in which it would be appropriate for an employer to dismiss the work force for breach of contract? For example, people may simply refuse to do the job that they have been employed to do. Can the hon. Gentleman not conceive of such a situation arising? Under his new clause, it would never be possible fairly to dismiss a striker.
Mr. Lloyd: Holding out for the bad employer is not a rational way of going about dispute resolution. Bearing in mind that taking industrial action involves a real cost to employees, only a tiny number of industrial actions last anything like eight weeks. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the statistics; he will find that it is all there in evidence.
Conservative Members believe that they can score a political propaganda point in this kind of debate. However, if they seek to make cheap politics out of the situation, they should remember that they do so at the expense of people's livelihoods and families. The present law is defective, and does not give protection to employees; it gives too much opportunity for the arbitrary exercise of power by employers, which is why the new clause attempts to move things on.
Llew Smith: When we debated earlier amendments, we were accused of merely responding to the demands of the trade union movement. Does my hon. Friend not think it ironic that the Opposition spokesperson appears to be responding to demands of rogue employers, of which Friction Dynamics is one?
Mr. Lloyd: I agree, and I invite the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to make his position clear. I have outlined the case; the hon. Gentleman has tried to hide behind the protection of saying, "Well, of course I do not know the details." I have given him the details; if he wants to challenge them, he should do so. But comments on the case should relate to real people. As I said, this is not an empty exercise; it is real and is happening now.
I have spoken for longer than I intended. I know that Opposition Members are champing at the bit because they want to reinvent their version of the class war. I shall therefore conclude my speech and make way for others.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Hon. Members may find it instructive and useful if I give some objective information about the dispute at Friction Dynamics, which is in my Caernarfon constituency. Conservative Members may not wish to hear the facts, but I shall give them none the less.
The dispute has dragged on for 43 weeks, and resulted in the workers being sacked after eight weeks. It is still awaiting resolution, which may not come until next Maymore than a year since the dispute startedat an industrial tribunal. The current owner, Mr. Smith, took over in 1997.
The current owner took over in 1997 and tried to impose a four-day week without overtime, attendance at meetings without pay, removal of bargaining agreements and a no-strike agreement. The employees had agreed to a four-year pay freeze, as the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) said. They tried to negotiate, but came to the reasonable conclusion that their employer was not interested in agreement. They have a proven commitment to the company and its predecessors; many of them have worked there for 20 or 30 yearsall their working lives, in fact. Some trained there as young apprentices.
The workers would not act without thinking or without just cause, particularly given their present circumstances. They would have been aware of the consequences of being out for 43 weeks, and perhaps over a year. The union held a ballot strictly in accordance with the law, and the workers initially went on strike for a week. I accompanied them on their first day back and witnessed the employer himself locking them out; that is the nature of the relationship that he has fostered. The dispute continued. As I said, the workers were sacked after eight weeks and are still out after 43 weeks; they maintain a 24-hour picket and have acted with dignity and moderation. They, and the union, have always been willing to negotiate.
The community in Caernarfon is solidly behind the strikers, including, Conservative Members may be interested to learn, the local business community, which has made a substantial donation to the strike fund. It realises the damage that the dispute is doing to local businesses, not least to Friction Dynamics itself. It realises the damage that is being done to investment in business in north-west Wales. It wants to see the dispute resolved, but resolved with justice.
The employer has been enabled to sack the workers. He has been encouraged in his intransigence and unreasonable attitude by the power that the eight-week rule has afforded him. Some hon. Members might say that if protection from the sack is justified for eight weeks, it is justified thereafter. I would agree, but I would also point to the practical and catastrophic effects that have resulted from the entrenchment of the employer's power to be unreasonable.
It cannot be right or reasonable that a strike is dragged out for 43 weeks, and eventually for more than a year. Workers at Friction Dynamics and in the community of Caernarfon cannot understand why that is allowed to happen. They do not want a tribunal. They want their jobs back in circumstances of justice and fairness. They see justice denied and justice delayed. For that reason, I am glad to support new clause 5.