Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: No, I would not like to, though I am tempted. It has nothing to do with amendment No. 79.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge say that workers should have basic minimum standards of protection; that is certainly progress on the previous approach from Conservative Ministers and Opposition spokespeople. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central raised the important point that if we agree that people in the workplace should have recourse to airing grievances and resolving discipline cases because it makes them feel valued as part of the work force, we must ensure that we do not exclude certain groups.

We are making this provision on the basis of a review that has not yet taken place. An important facet of that review must be where and how those currently categorised as workers, not employees, who are therefore not covered by some of the provisions set out in schedule 3, deal with a grievance. How does a discipline case apply to them? That is why the Secretary of State has made this provision to ensure that we can feed the review's conclusions into the basic three-step procedure.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Will the Minister mirror the review's conclusions in the regulations or will he make a decision based on its conclusions?

Alan Johnson: I have given an assurance that we will do nothing before the outcome of the review. Where that review goes and how we deal with it is a matter for another debate. That would come under the Employment Relations Act 1999 rather than the Bill. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge raises an important point. We have had a fascinating debate on a matter to which we shall probably return at a later stage. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has agreed to withdraw his amendments. We can proceed on that basis with my categorical assurance that I will not pre-empt the review's outcome.

The Chairman: I take it that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge still wishes to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: I am sorry, Mr. Benton. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 35, line 18, at end add

    ''and any other organisation representing persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be likely to be affected by the order.''.

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On reflection, I am not entirely sure that I agree with the Minister's assertion that the law of contract predates taxation. That would be pushing it a bit. It takes us into another philosophical debate that goes back about 10 centuries.

Amendment No. 45 is simple and in line with the previous amendment. It would require the Secretary of State, before making an order under clause 29, to consult not only ACAS, but those representing persons or classes of persons likely to be affected by the order. In practice, that would be employers' organisations, tribunals user groups, and so on. I suggest to the Minister that, in the spirit of openness and consultation in framing secondary legislation, that is entirely reasonable.

If we are to depend increasingly on secondary legislation, as apparently we are, there must be a process of consultation with outside bodies. When a Bill receives its Second Reading, outside organisations are galvanised into sending briefings to Members. By and large, regulations do not provoke the same awareness and interest outside this place. Admittedly, even Bills do not always provoke the awareness that they should. In the past two weeks, I have spoken to two senior governing members of one of the country's major employers' organisations, neither of whom was aware of the proposal to introduce extended statutory maternity leave, which is in the Bill, although their organisation has said that it will accept the proposal. We have a problem with awareness among people outside the House who might have useful and important views to put forward.

That problem is even worse when it comes to regulations and secondary legislation because of the lower profile. Therefore, the Secretary of State should be obliged to consult those whom it appears to him would be likely to be affected. That is not terribly onerous or prescriptive. Indeed, I am picking my words from my memory of—I think—the Care Standards Act 2000, in which the relevant State of State was comfortable with the concept of having to consult those who would be affected by the order before making it. The Secretary of State does not have to follow their recommendations, but we believe that he should consult them as well as ACAS before introducing proposals. That is reasonable, sensible and in the spirit of conciliatory employment relations. It recognises that ACAS is not the only player on the field.

Alan Johnson: I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that I will resist the amendment, although I understand the logic behind it. We consulted widely on the proposals and the three-step procedure, and it is rather depressing to hear his comments. The statutory procedures represent a major innovation. This is the first time that such procedures have been set out in statute, and we recognise that we may need to amend them in future.

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Mr. Hammond: The Minister is making my case for me. He just said that he consulted widely on the procedures in the Bill. I am objecting to him having the ability to amend them without consulting widely again.

Alan Johnson: I wish that the hon. Gentleman would be patient and let me finish the various points that I have to make. It was important to make it clear that there was wide consultation before we set the three-step procedure in legislation. It is important also to emphasise the radical change that is taking place. About 900,000 micro businesses will be affected by the change, as well as many small businesses.

If the Secretary of State wants to change the procedure, he or she would have to consult ACAS before introducing an order. ACAS has unparalleled knowledge of employment relations practices. Its views and procedures are always instructive and rooted in its wide experience of workplace behaviour. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is saying that there is anything wrong with that, but he is suggesting that the Secretary of State should consult more widely on every change. As a general rule, I would expect the Government to consult other organisations as well when exercising the powers. That would certainly be the case if major changes to the procedures were envisaged. However, the amendment would require us, unnecessarily, to undertake such consultation on each and every occasion that changes were made. Consulting business about minor drafting changes would impose an unnecessary burden, to coin a phrase. We wish to avoid consultation overload—that is an expression that we can all understand.

We also have practical problems with the broad-ranging wording used in the amendment, which requires us to consult any organisation that represents people ''likely to be affected.'' Our intention is to undertake consultations with as many affected groups as we can identify. However, many thousands of organisations—large and small, national and local—could fall into the category.

Any Government would almost certainly fail to meet a statutory consultative requirement such as the one in the amendment. In principle, there is nothing wrong with the suggestion that we should consult widely, particularly if major changes are taking place. We will always consult ACAS, which has representatives from business and a variety of groups and organisations. However, we do not feel that the amendment helps at all; instead, it would create problems. With those assurances, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister spoke about consultation overload. The Opposition are more concerned about legislative overload. If he would address that, consultation overload would take care of itself.

The Minister quoted selectively from our probing amendment. Its purpose is not to require the Secretary of State to consult every person who might be affected—that would be absurd—but to consult

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    ''any other organisation representing persons appearing to the Secretary of State to be likely to be affected'',

which is less onerous. I did not expect the Minister to accept the amendment. However, I hoped that he would say that, in practice, his intention would be to undertake appropriate consultation whenever an order was proposed, not only with ACAS but with others. I accept that he cannot consult with every organisation and person, but he should try to get views other than those of ACAS only.

Furthermore, consultation should take place before an order is drafted, not when it is a fait accompli. In a completely different area of the brief, I have recently become aware of a statutory instrument that had been drafted in final form and was ready to be laid. It had not been discussed with a major player in the industry, which identified a serious flaw in it. I understand that negotiations are taking place to amend it. We must bring expertise from the outside world into the process at an early stage to avoid badly drafted regulations.

The Minister has not assured me that he will consult appropriately whenever a substantive change is proposed. If he were to confirm that, I would be happy to withdraw my amendment.

Alan Johnson: Let me say again that the Government would expect to consult other organisations if major changes to the procedures were envisaged.

Mr. Hammond: That invites the question of what is a major change. However, I suspect that we will have to be content for the time being. The amendment has served its immediate purpose of getting the Minister to confirm that consulting ACAS is not an alternative to broader consultation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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