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Dr. Cable: I shall deal with new clauses 5 and 8 together, as I believe that that is a more helpful way to deal with the issue. The two new clauses pull the existing balance in different directions, and in many respects in extreme directions.

The eight-week rule was a carefully crafted compromise. One new clause seeks to eliminate it entirely, and the other seeks to make it indefinite. Both seem fundamentally unreasonable. A useful starting point—here, I believe, the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) was on the right track—is to put the debate in context. We are living through a period in which industrial action is at a very low level. In the last year for which recorded figures are available, 500,000 days were lost, as against an average of 660,000 over the past decade and about 7.5 million for the 1980s, with comparable figures for the 1970s. During the present period of economic boom, one would expect more industrial action.

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Mr. Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman agree, though, that we are having this debate against a backdrop of what appears to be a change in trend, with a rising tide of trade union militancy facing the country?

Dr. Cable: Indeed, there are specific points that relate to the public services, which I had intended to deal with and which present specific problems. Had new clause 8 been directed to that issue, I would have had more sympathy with it. In fact, the hon. Gentleman's new clause is broadly couched and would withdraw the eight-week rule from all employees in all disputes. I will address the current wave of unrest in a moment.

I agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central that we are in a period of relatively subdued industrial action. It hardly calls for a major upheaval in the legislation, or one that tilts the balance radically in one direction or the other.

Mr. Simmonds: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that new clause 5 would increase industrial discord and strike action above its present level?

Dr. Cable: I doubt that new clause 5 would do that, but I do not support it. I doubt that the new clause would make a great deal of difference. Essentially, we are debating a point of principle, rather than its consequences.

The underlying point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central is that the right to strike is a fundamental right and should not be qualified in the way that it currently is. I do believe that workers have a right to withdraw their labour. There should be a right to strike, but it is not an unqualified right. There are conditions: strike action must be reasonable and must take account of third parties. We will come to that when we deal with the issue of the railways, as I am sure that we will.

Mr. Lloyd: It is one thing for the hon. Gentleman to interpret what I said, but it is another for him to make up things that I did not say. Of course the right to strike is conditioned. I pointed out that the dispute that I described had gone through the full legal provisions, a ballot and so on. It was a legal strike. A strike is quite a constrained activity in our society. Employees cannot simply walk out or withdraw their labour at a moment's notice. Those days hardly existed, and do not exist now.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the new clauses tilting the balance. Does he seriously believe that the change that would be introduced by new clause 5 would have any dramatic effect, taking into account the fact that the overwhelming majority of strikes—not just 99 per cent., but 99.999 per cent.—last for far less than the eight-week period that the provision covers?

Dr. Cable: As I said a few moments ago, I doubt that the new clause would have any dramatic effects one way or the other. The hon. Gentleman raised it as an issue of principle, and I believe that on the issue of principle, he is wrong. If we confined the discussion to the effects on the firm described—the hon. Gentleman told a horrific story, and a rather moving one—I am sure that the facts that he gave are right and I have total sympathy with the work force involved, but the attempt to create legislation around one case seems fundamentally unsatisfactory.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said in an intervention, if there is genuinely an anomaly about a lock-out being included as part of a strike, that is a ludicrous situation and the legislation should be amended to deal with it, probably in another place.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central is in danger of creating a situation in which, say, an entirely different trade union, in a different environment, might embark on a prolonged period of industrial action—which, as the hon. Gentleman said, is difficult and might be costly to the work force—without any regard for its consequences for the industry. The union might refuse to embark on arbitration or conciliation, in which case the employer might well have a genuine feeling of grievance, but there would be no opportunity for the employer to bring the dispute to an end.

Although the hon. Gentleman was correct to say that the right to go to a tribunal is not equivalent to holding on to one's job, the fact remains that after the eight-week period, workers do have protection through the tribunal system. Statute 238A, which is the cornerstone of the Bill, provides a considerable degree of protection. I do not know what happened in the case described, when the 87 workers took the employer to a tribunal, but it provided them with a considerable level of protection, although perhaps not perfect protection. New clause 5 is an excessive response to what was clearly an unjust situation and an unjust action by that employer.

New clause 8 goes wholly in the other direction. By allowing a dismissal to take place for a strike without any period of protection whatever, it would effectively withdraw the principle of the right to strike. It would be likely to make many employers use dismissal as a first rather than a last resort.

Mr. Hammond: My understanding is that until the Employment Relations Act 1999 came into force, that was the situation. The eight-week rule did not apply, and I do not remember it being a burning issue in this place or outside.

Dr. Cable: I remember that there were emotive debates around the 1999 Act, when it was felt that some degree of balance should be restored. I believe that it was, and I would defend the current position.

I would have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge if his new clause were more narrowly drawn. There is a real issue now in the public services, which is quite different from the Friction Dynamics case. In the case of the public services, the victims of the dispute are the general public. We need legislation to deal with that. In some parts of the public services, there are already restrictions on the right to strike. The most obvious and extreme case is the police force, but others are constrained in different ways.

There is an argument for restriction within the public services, and I define public services widely to include the railways, because of the subsidy element. That restriction might well be linked to a willingness to arbitrate. There would be a case for saying that the eight-week protection could be withdrawn in certain circumstances in essential services if the parties to the dispute had refused to arbitrate. The arbitration element in that does not tip the balance towards the employer. If arbitration is

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compulsory, the employer is bound to take the result. The outcome is taken out of management's hands. There is a concession in both directions. If new clause 8 were more narrowly drawn, I would have more sympathy with it. If the Government come under growing pressure from industrial action, perhaps they will amend the Bill in another place. However, the new clause would apply across the national economy, including manufacturing industry, which accounts for only 10 per cent. of industrial action. That is excessive and inappropriate and I cannot therefore support it in its current form.

8 pm

Rob Marris: I shall be brief because we have much to discuss. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked whether there should ever be dismissals during a strike. Most, if not all hon. Members would agree that anyone who committed gross acts of violence against the person or criminal damage could be dismissed. However, many of my colleagues and I believe that no one should be dismissed simply for going on strike. Existing law allows that to happen after eight weeks.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) appears to be under the illusion that those who are fired after eight weeks can simply go to an employment tribunal. They can try, but they will not succeed under current legislation. After the eight weeks have run out and the employer has fired the employee, the latter will not succeed in an employment tribunal because the dismissal does not count as unfair under existing law.

I suspect that most hon. Members hoped that the eight-week rule would shorten industrial disputes. However, it can have the opposite effect. The employer can simply sit out the eight weeks. That tends to lead to longer disputes. If employers know that they cannot simply wait for eight weeks, but might have to wait indefinitely, it would be a greater incentive for them to bargain in good faith. Clearly, Craig Smith has not done that.

Mr. Osborne: Those who served with the hon. Gentleman in Committee remember that he tends to talk about amendments, but not vote for them. Will he assure us that he will press new clause 5, to which he is a signatory, to the vote?

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