Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I hoped that some Labour Members might have said something about this matter. It might have been those who are not here today.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): It is a stupid amendment.

Mr. Hammond: Perhaps when the hon. Gentleman is a Minister he will be in a position to say that it was a stupid amendment, but the Minister did not say that. It may be that 90 days is not the right period, but the Minister seems to recognise that there are resource implications. However, it is unlikely to be helpful for the Secretary of State to have to identify them as the resource requirement identified will doubtless be substantially in excess of the resource available. It is likely to be very unhelpful because it will mean that Ministers will have egg on their faces.

In general it is good to have assessments of the resources required as a result of legislation made public so that people can see whether the resources have followed the rhetoric of the legislation and that there is something there to back up the legislation in practice. I take the Minister's point about 90 days. Perhaps a more sensible suggestion would have been six or 12 months.

However, the Minister will not concede anything, other than acknowledging that more resources may be needed, and he does not even admit that that is necessarily the case. Essentially, the matter will be dealt with at Ministers' discretion behind closed doors, which is not what I would have liked. Given the time, I will withdraw the amendment and see if the issue can be tackled in another way at a later stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Power to delegate prescription of forms etc.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 33, line 43, at end insert—

    ''(aa) authorise the Secretary of State to prescribe forms in electronic format for the purposes stated in paragraph (a) above.''.

We are making startling progress, as we hurtle towards the end of part 2. Amendment No. 39 simply seeks to include in the Bill a provision that the prescribed forms may be in electronic format if the Secretary of State so determines. It is part of a modernising agenda, and I hope that the Minister will have no difficulty in agreeing to it.

Alan Johnson: There is very little between the hon. Gentleman and me. The notice of appearance form will be sent to the respondent when he is notified of proceedings against him. It will be available in electronic form, as will the IT1. Existing powers in the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 allow electronic forms to be made available. Clause 25 also provides that the employment tribunal procedure regulations may

    ''make provision about the publication of anything prescribed''

as a result of the clause. I hope that, as a result of those comments, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment, which is superfluous to requirements.

Mr. Hammond: I am not sure whether the Minister said that the regulations would provide for the use of forms in electronic format.

Alan Johnson indicated assent.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister confirms that that is what he said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hammond: Several organisations have raised the issue of formalisation of tribunal proceedings. There is tension between the natural tendency to define in legislation how procedures are to be carried out and the general thrust of the Leggatt review that we should try to resist the tendency of tribunals to become more like courts and, thus, a source of substantial income for lawyers and substantial costs for the rest of us. What does the Minister think about the charge that creating prescriptive formats for forms, as the Bill does, is part of the process, which he rightly seeks to resist, of making tribunals more formal, more like courts and more difficult to navigate for those who are not represented?

Alan Johnson: That is an important point, but I do not accept the argument. Leggatt did not comment on forms. He recommended efficient administrative processes, making full use of information technology. The standard IT1 and IT3 forms—we should call them ET1 and ET3—are used in the vast majority of cases. That is important for several reasons. First, people should not submit forms on the back of a fag packet, so to speak. Secondly, we are introducing elsewhere in the Bill the requirement to have a grievance and discipline procedure in the workplace, and it is important to know that those procedures have been used when an application is made.

Some concern was expressed, particularly by Labour Members, about people who might have problems with the language and feel uncomfortable about the issues. We are determined to design the form with those fears in mind and envisage a tick-box procedure. The new system will give us the opportunity to ensure that the employee's basic written statement is attached to the form. At the moment, it is difficult to get standard and basic information, such as the employee's terms and conditions, in the open. It can take a long time, as the employment tribunal must ask for forms that are crucial to the case. The clause allows us to have that information right from the start, as it provides for the Secretary of State to determine what attachments should be made to the forms. That change is not a retrograde move, but a step forward. In fact, I believe that it will meet the concerns that Leggatt expressed in entirely different respect and make the employment tribunal service run much more smoothly.

6.45 pm

Rob Marris: I share some concerns about the clause and hope that the Minister can reassure me on the time limits that applicants face. That applies to respondents, but with less drastic results than those for an applicant who misses the three-month limit to submit an IT1 or, currently, to apply to the tribunal in another format. In trying to square that circle, or cut the Gordian knot, will the Minister assure me that regulations might be able to preserve the position of the applicant who does not initially use an IT form and puts in the application on the last day—as all too frequently happens? That applicant's position should not be prejudiced simply by having sent a letter to the tribunal on the last day and, under the regulations, the tribunal could ask the applicant to complete the tick-box IT1 form. Some applicants, particularly those who have difficulty with writing and legalese, might have trouble getting hold of the forms. If the Minister assured the Committee that the regulations could provide for such a two-stage process, it would be helpful and might address some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is obviously a transition period as we move from the old system to the new. We should be as user-friendly as possible, particularly for people who must get used to the changing arrangements. We will address that in the regulations. I should emphasise that we will make enormous efforts to ensure that the forms are as widely available as possible. They will be available from the employment tribunal service, job centres—or whatever their fancy new name is from April—and advice and law centres. They must be ubiquitous so that people have easy access to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised an important point, and we will address it when forming the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Determination without a hearing

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 34, line 7, after 'hearing', insert

    'where both parties agree to such a determination'.

The amendment would provide that determination without a hearing can take place only if both parties agree. There is no substantial difference. The explanatory notes say that the Government have that circumstance in mind for allowing determination without a hearing and, perhaps more tellingly, the Trades Union Congress brief also states that categorically.

The clause as drafted is too wide. Henry VIII would be turning in his grave, because it provides for the Government to determine, by means of regulations, that any proceedings can be dispatched without a hearing in circumstances that the regulations may prescribe. I am stretching the point, but there is nothing to stop the Government from drafting those regulations to prescribe circumstances so wide and all-encompassing that they virtually do away with tribunals. I am sure that is not the Government's purpose, but as a matter of principle, if there are narrow circumstances in which the normal procedure will be done away with, it would be appropriate to include those circumstances in the Bill.

Clause 26 would write that into the 1996 Act by saying that tribunals may authorise determination without a hearing in circumstances where both the parties agree. That is the substance of the Government's position; why do they not include it in primary legislation to ensure that a Government now, or in the future, cannot remove classes of proceedings by defining new circumstances in which they could be dispatched, perhaps without the agreement of both parties and without a hearing?

Rob Marris: I rise to oppose the amendment. I see where the hon. Gentleman is coming from but the difficulty is that the proposal would tie in a situation in which an applicant or a respondent did a runner. The hon. Gentleman's fear is that the Government could arrogate too much power to themselves in regulations; the Human Rights Act 1998 can guard against that, but applicants and respondents can disappear and the tribunal would need the agreement of both parties.

 
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