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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Employment Bill

Employment Bill

Standing Committee F

Thursday 6 December 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Employment Bill

9.30 am

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister to move the programme resolution, I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill and it is available in the Room. I would like to notify the Committee that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, I and my co-Chairmen do not intend to call starred amendments, including any that may be reached during an afternoon sitting.

The Minister for Employment and the Regions (Alan Johnson): I beg to move,


    (1) during proceedings on the Employment Bill the Standing Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at half-past Nine o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock, except that on Thursday 6th December 2001 the Committee shall not meet at half-past Two o'clock and on Tuesday 8th January 2002 the Committee shall not meet at half-past Ten o'clock;

    (2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order, namely Clauses 22 to 29, Schedule 2, Clauses 30 and 31, Schedule 3, Clauses 32 to 38, Schedule 4, Clauses 39 to 41, Clauses 1 to 12, Schedule 1, Clauses 13 to 21, Clauses 42 to 48, Schedule 5, Clauses 49 to 51, Schedule 6, Clause 52, Schedule 7, Clause 53, new Clauses and new Schedules relating to requests for flexible working, remaining new Clauses, remaining new Schedules;

    (3) the proceedings on Clauses 22 to 29, Schedule 2, Clauses 30 and 31, Schedule 3, Clauses 32 to 38, Schedule 4, Clauses 39 to 41 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 pm on Tuesday 18th December 2001;

    (4) the proceedings on Clauses 1 to 12, Schedule 1, Clauses 13 to 21 (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 pm on Tuesday 15th January 2002;

    (5) the remaining proceedings on the Bill (so far as not previously concluded) shall be brought to a conclusion at 7 pm on Tuesday 22nd January 2002.

On behalf of the Committee, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Benton. This is the first time that I have served on a Committee under your chairmanship, and I am looking forward to it. As you have four daughters, you will be interested in the family-friendly aspects of the Bill, and you will also be an expert on dispute resolution. We are pleased that you will be chairing our deliberations. I look forward to the debates over the next couple of months; I am sure that they will be constructive and sensible. You see before you the crème de la crème of the Government Benches, loins girded and ready to go.

It is important that we consider the Bill in as timely a manner as possible. The programme resolution was agreed by the Programming Sub-Committee on 4 December. The end date of 22 January is sensible and allows 16 sittings to consider a Bill of 53 clauses and seven schedules, as well as any new clauses that may be proposed. The Government made it clear on Second Reading of the Bill that they would table one amendment.

Sixteen sittings should provide sufficient time for full scrutiny of the Bill, which has been widely welcomed as a balanced package. Its four parts, which cover several different aspects of the world of work, all have as a common feature the modernisation of the workplace and of workplace relations. The resolution proposes that parts 2 and 3 be considered before Christmas and parts 1 and 4 in the new year, a roughly equal split that allows equal time for consideration of each part.

I hope that members of the Committee will agree that our proposals are sensible, fair and reasonable. I ask the Committee to support the motion.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I add my welcome to you as Chairman, Mr. Benton, and to your co-Chairmen, Mr. Amess and Mr. Conway. I have had the pleasure of serving under you before, but I have not yet served in a Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). I am more used to hearing him behind me than listening to his admonitions from the Chair, but I look forward to those when the time comes.

The Minister described the Front-Bench members of the Committee as the crème de la crème. I am interested to hear that description. I wonder whether he will feel the same way about all his hon. Friends when they have given him their thoughts and comments on the Bill that he is charged with pushing through the Committee.

It might be convenient if I declare an interest; I noticed that the Minister did not. I am a director of two companies that employ people and, to that extent, have an interest in the Bill. I know that the Minister and many Government Members have affiliations with trade unions and, therefore, may be considered to have interests. It might be helpful to the Committee if you would give us some guidance, Mr. Benton, as to whether a general declaration of a broad interest will be sufficient or whether we should each declare specific interests. Members could have a specific interest because they have a financial involvement in a law practice engaged in employment matters. How do the advocacy rules apply in that case? I would be grateful, Mr. Benton, for any guidance.

The Minister explained the programme resolution and the timetabling of the Bill. The Opposition object in principle to the timetabling of Committee proceedings. We want to scrutinise the Bill properly and make good progress, but we object to fixed time scales and intermediate mileposts. The Bill illustrates the problems of timetabling. It is difficult to know how much time is needed to scrutinise all aspects of the Bill.

As so often happens, the wording of the Bill explains little. Many of its effects will become apparent only when regulations are published. We have not seen any draft regulations. The Minister may tell us whether he hopes to produce draft regulations pertaining to specific provisions. Although the explanatory notes partly demonstrate the Government's intentions, several working parties will affect the final regulations, especially those which relate to parts 2 and 3 of the Bill, so it may be difficult for the Minister to explain what he expects to be in the regulations.

To scrutinise the Bill properly, the Opposition—and I hope, Government Back Benchers—should probe the Minister. We will table a series of amendments, more than we would like—certainly more than you would like, Mr. Benton—in order to add the regulations to the Bill. We do not expect the Minister to accept the amendments because specifics are better handled by regulations, but he will be able to reassure us about them. Without such reassurances, Committee members will find it difficult to understand what the Bill will implement.

The detail of the regulations is important because the Bill is a package. We have thankfully moved on from the days when industrial relations were adversarial and it was fashionable to talk about the two sides of industry, but two interests are clear: the interests of employers and the interests of employees represented by the trade union movement. Often those interests can coincide and much of the Bill will allow that process to develop. Sometimes they will not coincide, and a balancing process is necessary. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable)—disappointingly, he is not a member of this Committee—described the Bill as a balance between the interests and agenda of employers and those of employees and the trade unions.

The Bill is a delicately balanced package. It is important that we are assured in Committee that the proposed regulations will be made available, and that the package will not be rebalanced behind closed doors between completion of parliamentary scrutiny of the primary legislation and publication of the draft regulations. I make that point to explain why we may at times appear to be pursuing more persistently than would otherwise be necessary the detail of the final regulations. I hope that the Committee will appreciate that.

The intention behind most of our amendments is to tease out of the Minister a commitment on the exact contents of the regulations. We will explore how the work being undertaken outside Parliament—the Leggatt review of tribunal procedures, and the taskforce that was set up yesterday by the Secretary of State to assess employment tribunal practice—will interact with the Bill. We will also explore the influence of that work on the proposed regulations, and to what effect it introduces an element of uncertainty to the Minister's assurances in Committee.

All of those factors make it difficult for us to know exactly how much time will be needed for each stage of the Bill. I suspect that that will depend on how clearly the regulations are formulated in the Government's collective mind—that mythical entity that may or may not exist. Where the Minister has a clear set of regulations in mind, he will be able clearly to answer Committee members' questions, even though he may not be able to circulate draft regulations to them, and business will rapidly be dispatched.

However, where the Minister is unclear about the exact form of the regulations, and work is continuing that will influence their shape, we will need to explore the Bill in more depth. Unlike many Standing Committees on which I have served, I expect that Government Members will actively participate in the debate, which will allow us to explore the issues in greater depth.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I am sure that the response from Government Back-Benchers will be entirely proportionate to the quality of the Opposition's representations, to which we look forward with interest.

I understand that the Bill was substantially re-timetabled at the urging of the Opposition, and that we will consider first the clauses relating to employment tribunals. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) made a valid point about the reliance on regulations and the need for the Minister to clarify their form. As he also said, we await some external developments that may influence the Bill, one of which is the Leggatt review, to which he referred. Why did the Opposition want the Committee to consider the clauses relating to employment tribunals before we had seen the Leggatt review?


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Prepared 6 December 2001