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8.30 pm

The new clause has been presented as framing a point of principle. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman, who asked me about the eight-week rule, that I could not defend that as a point of principle. When a point of principle is involved, it should be argued either that it is always unfair to dismiss a striker—that is the hon. Gentleman's argument—or that once a contract of employment has been broken, it is fair to dismiss the person who has broken the contract. No argument can be made in principle for the eight-week rule.

Norman Lamb: I agree that the extreme view that it is never lawful to dismiss people on strike, however long the strike and whatever the circumstances, is unacceptable and that a balance needs to be struck between the competing rights of the parties. But is it not also wrong to go to the extreme that the hon. Gentleman seems to be proposing? Is he really saying that it is reasonable for a group of workers who go on strike lawfully for one day to be sacked with no recourse against their employer through tribunals?

Mr. Hammond: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will leap up to correct me, but as far as I know, until the 1999 Act came into force we were not plagued by outrageous dismissals of work forces who had been on strike for one day. That simply did not happen, for all sorts of practical reasons.

I suspect that neither new clause 5 nor new clause 8 would make a huge practical difference to disputes on the ground. Our aim is to send a signal about climate, mood, balance, and the direction in which the Government are travelling. I am astonished that, in the 21st century, such issues still appear to be at the forefront of some people's agenda. I should have thought that most trade unions—let me qualify that and say "most trade unions in the private sector", which brings me to the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—had long since adopted a much more constructive approach to achieving what was best for them. It staggers me that, in the 21st century, it should still be thought that conferring the ability to strike indefinitely without being dismissed fairly is the way to pursue the interests of workers—employees and trade unionists. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Manchester, Central and his co-signatories fall within the Prime Minister's definition of "wreckers".

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Whether or not new clause 5 is pressed to a Division, I hope that the House will divide on new clause 8.

Alan Johnson: The new clauses concern the protections against dismissal for those taking the protective industrial action introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999. New clause 5 seeks to extend the protections, while new clause 8 seeks to remove them. The Government consider both unacceptable.

New clause 5 aims to amend the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to ensure that it is automatically unfair to dismiss an employee for taking part in protective industrial action at any time, whether during or after that action. The Employment Relations Act 1999 significantly strengthened the protections against dismissal for those taking lawfully organised official industrial action. It made it automatically unfair for an employer to sack employees for taking part in industrial action, either within the first eight weeks of the beginning of the action or after that, if it ended within the eight weeks. Most industrial action is short-lived; the rules therefore protect employees in the overwhelming majority of cases involving industrial action.

The 1999 Act also makes it unlawful to sack employees for taking industrial action after it has continued for more than eight weeks where the employer has not taken reasonable steps to resolve the disputes. "Reasonable steps" include the following of disputes procedures and the involvement of third-party conciliation or mediation. That is an important part of the Act.

It is important to recognise that the Act did not amend some dreadful piece of employment law legislation introduced under the Thatcher regime. For students of these matters, it is the 101st anniversary of Taff Vale, another Welsh dispute. Since then, it has always been the case that workers could be sacked from day one of an industrial dispute. In 1999, we provided protection for the first time for eight weeks, and beyond that if no attempt had been made to resolve the disputes.

The Government believe that those changes represented a major advance in protecting individuals who exercised their fundamental freedom to withdraw their labour. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) says that these things did not occur before. Conservative Members are so wrong about this it almost hurts. One reason why they were swept out of power in 1997 and lost again by a landslide last year is that they refuse to understand the difficulties of people at work and continue to be hostile to free, independent trade unionism. I find it reassuring to know that that gap is still there. [Interruption.] "Absolute rubbish", say Conservative Members from a sedentary position. Yet the Leader of the Opposition has suggested that the solution to the RMT dispute—and no one was more disappointed than Conservative Members when the dispute this week was called off—was to sack the workers from day one. The Leader of the Opposition said on television and is quoted as saying in print that one of the dreadful things that the Government have done was to introduce protection for eight weeks. That must mean that the solution to these industrial problems, according to the right hon. Gentleman—the human resources manager from hell—would be to sack the work force from day one.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says that this was not the case before the 1999 Act was introduced. It was—these things happened all the time.

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I can think of several high-profile disputes in which such things happened. Indeed, I was involved in a low-profile dispute at Critchley Labels in south Wales. It had a work force of 36, 99 per cent. of whom were unionised. Job numbers had to be reduced, to which the union agreed. Management decided that the four people to lose their job were the branch chairman, the branch secretary, the treasurer and the committee member of the local union. The work force took balloted industrial action to protect those four people who were disgracefully earmarked for dismissal. The management then derecognised the union. The work force had a 100 per cent. yes vote for industrial action and were all promptly dismissed on day one of that industrial action.

Conservative Members need to carry forward Letwinisation and understand that what we did in 1999 helped to resolve such disputes. Union recognition did not have to be fought on the picket lines and in the trenches. People who wanted their union to be recognised and were prepared to take official, legal, balloted industrial action for that to happen were no longer forced to go through a recognition procedure that involved a dispute. Instead, they had a sensible procedure to follow.

Conservative Members seem to find it disgraceful and disappointing that unions are picking up members again. I suppose that it is ironic. Who would have thought, 10 or 15 years ago, that at the beginning of the 21st century the trade union movement would be in a better position than the Conservative party? I understand Conservatives' disappointment in that respect. It should not be a matter for disappointment that people can follow a properly regulated procedure under which they vote to have their unions recognised and avoid the kind of dispute that we had at Critchley Labels.

Mr. Hammond: Before the Minister gets too excited about the increase in trade union membership, will he confirm that union penetration in the private sector is 19 per cent. and in the public sector, 63 per cent.?

Alan Johnson: I try not to get excited about these issues. I am merely pointing out that the trade union movement in this country has increased its membership. There have been more recognition deals, including at Honda. Conservative Members seem to view that as the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

As for how such disputes begin, the Employment Relations Act sorted out the problem with union recognition. It also solved the problem caused by the fact that, having held their ballot and got a mandate, union members had to take industrial action within 28 days or the mandate would be lost and they would have to reballot.

That was sensible, and I hope that it may be the solution to the dispute currently predicted at Consignia. These days, if both sides are in constructive discussions they can agree to decide that there is no need for the union to be put in the ridiculous position of having to take industrial action—albeit token action—to keep its mandate. The mandate can be extended by another 28 days so that there is a chance of resolving the dispute through arbitration. That is another of the sensible solutions introduced in the 1999 Act that has helped to resolve disputes.

Mr. George Osborne: I seem to remember that when the Minister was a union leader, he found it more useful

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to employ Lowe Bell than to take his members out on strike—but that is another matter. [Interruption.] Apparently he did both. So that I know where he stands in the spectrum of Labour party opinion on the dispute at South West Trains, will he tell me whether he joins the Prime Minister in unreservedly condemning the strike? Yes or no?

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