Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: As always, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's advice, which I intend to take. If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge presses the amendment to a Division, we should reject it. I have made an important point, which we should pursue. The Committee is a good one; it should not be divided.

We consulted widely with small businesses. None of those that examined the simple three-step procedure asked for the procedures to be in writing. The hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) made an eloquent speech, although I was slightly offended by references to the Post Office, Jaguars and Hull. The detail of his speech did not reflect our experience of consulting organisations. Although the hon. Gentleman may not be persuaded by the argument, and he is joined in that by a few Government Members, he should accept that we shall return to the issue after touching base with the small businesses that returned submissions in good faith.

I am also informed that an extra hour for each case would cost business £3 million. I know that hon. Members will take that into consideration; I work very quickly in my mental calculation on such matters. I assure the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that we will consider the amendment, but we will do so on the basis of our initial principle of light-touch regulation that does not add to bureaucracy. Some eloquent arguments have been made, but certainty is in the interests of small businesses. Whether the amendment is defeated or withdrawn, I will give it further informed consideration.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 12.

Division No. 2]

AYES
Hammond, Mr. Philip Hendry, Mr. Charles Lamb, Norman
Osborne, Mr. George Prisk, Mr. Mark Simmonds, Mr. Mark

NOES
Hughes, Mr. Kevin Humble, Mrs. Joan Johnson, Alan Jones, Helen Laxton, Mr. Bob Lloyd, Mr. Tony
Mallaber, Judy Marris, Rob Pearson, Mr. Ian Smith, Geraldine Tami, Mark Williams, Hywel

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 77, in page 59, line 10, after 'taken', insert

    'within one month of the previous step or action and in any case'.

Opposition Members are used to winning the argument but losing the vote. However, we are not used to winning the argument so convincingly but still losing the vote, so I am disappointed with that result.

I hope that this amendment will appeal to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, because it would do precisely what he suggested was needed. It would beef up the reference in paragraph 12 of the schedule that steps in the procedure

    ''must be taken without unreasonable delay.''

In framing the amendment, I sought not to undermine the principle that no unreasonable delay should be the primary requirement. However, I seek to underpin that slightly nebulous concept with a fixed maximum period of one month between steps in the process. The amendment would ensure that each step and action was taken within one month of the previous one and in any case without unreasonable delay—in simple language, whichever period was the shorter.

I hope that the Minister might be persuaded that the amendment is a good idea. I am not persuaded that the phrase ''without unreasonable delay'' should be deleted and replaced with a fixed time, because in different cases, different periods will be reasonable or unreasonable. Ultimately, the individual circumstances of a case must be considered, but underpinning that with a fixed period would be the right way to make a statement about the speed of the process and the longest acceptable period.

I hope that the Minister will either accept the amendment or tell the Committee what he understands by the phrase ''without unreasonable delay''. He might want to put a shorter or longer period around that concept, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

Alan Johnson: We have no wish to impose set time limits within the process, because that would create inflexibility. The hon. Gentleman says that the provision's wording is needed but insufficient. As the amendment recognises, in some cases, a month may be longer than a party needs to undertake a simple action. Indeed, taking a month might constitute an unreasonable delay. For example, why should an employee have to wait as long as a month after lodging an appeal before the employer arranges an appeal meeting?

However, just as importantly, the amendment fails to recognise that there may be cases in which it is reasonable to allow more than a month between actions in the process: for example, after their initial meeting, the parties in complex cases might agree that some form of detailed investigation should be undertaken, which might involve a third party or the establishment of a joint union-employer working group. Such steps outside the statutory procedure might be sensible in some circumstances.

We do not want to close off opportunities for parties to agree. Our ambition is that the procedure will resolve problems in the workplace, so we do not want to be overly prescriptive. The wording of paragraph 12 achieves the objective in a way that provides the necessary flexibility. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister issue guidance indicating how speedy the process should be in normal cases, allowing for the point that he just made?

Alan Johnson: No, but ACAS undoubtedly will. Timing is an important element of its code, and it will now have to take into account the new circumstances. ACAS is the best source of such guidance.

Mr. Hammond: I am somewhat persuaded by what the Minister says. Obviously, even in framing the amendment, I was acutely conscious that there could be cases in which a much longer period would be reasonable: for example, if one of the parties was seriously ill, it might be necessary to postpone a step.

The purpose of tabling my probing amendment was to ask the Minister for a definition of reasonable delay and how he intends to enforce the measure. Employers' groups have raised concerns about the vagueness of the term ''without unreasonable delay.'' ACAS guidance on best practice would be helpful. In the interest of—dare I say it?—speeding up the debate so that we can move to a more interesting part of the Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Norman Lamb: I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 59, line 13, at beginning insert 'Notice,'.

The Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to take amendment No. 47, in page 59, line 19, at end add—

    '(4) The right referred to in section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 to be accompanied by a single companion applies to meetings under this section.'.

Norman Lamb: Part 3 of schedule 2 states the general requirements that apply to meetings. Paragraph 13(1) states that

    ''Timing and location of meetings must be reasonable.''

Inevitably, there is a certain amount of latitude in interpreting ''reasonable''. None the less, the requirement is imposed on the employer. As well, the conduct of such a meeting must allow both parties to explain their case. That, too, is reasonable.

However, a requirement to give an employee sufficient notice of such a meeting should also be included in the Bill. It must be recognised that the employee, like the employer, will probably need time to prepare his or her case so that the complaint can be dealt with fairly. Such a requirement is particularly relevant because the employee has the right under other legislation to be accompanied at such meetings by a chosen representative, who also would need time to prepare for the meeting. Given that the Bill already refers to the requirement that the timing and location of meetings must be reasonable, it seems sensible for it also to say that notice must be reasonable. I refer again to my earlier argument. This is a perfectly sensible amendment, and I urge the Minister to respond constructively.

Amendment No. 47 would detail the right to be accompanied in the Bill. Although the right to be accompanied to a formal hearing is contained in section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999, there is a clear concern that if the right to be accompanied in meetings under the new procedures is not set out as a basic requirement, employees will be unaware of their rights and employers left in doubt about the requirements on them.

The amendments are intended to provoke the Minister into considering the requirements. The requirement of notice is clear and straightforward. The concept of detailing in the Bill that employees have the right to be accompanied should add clarity. I urge the Committee to accept the amendments.

Rob Marris: Amendment No. 47 is perhaps a question of interpretation. My reading of section 10 of the 1999 Act is that when Parliament—of which I was not then privileged to be a Member—passed the Act, the word ''hearing'' was used. To most people, both lay and professional, ''hearing'' imports something different from ''meeting''. I am not sure about the amendment's wording for the reasons that I will lay out, but I am speaking to its spirit.

Will the Minister clarify whether the word ''hearing'' might be better used for step three, which is the appeal? I appreciate that, early in the procedure, there might be a meeting between two people over the bonnet of a Jaguar for example. However, for an appeal scenario, ''hearing'' would be better used and would import with it the right to be accompanied, which is not evident as the Bill stands. As I said in an earlier debate, if this were to become the subject of a legal dispute of tribunal proceedings, whichever party it suited is likely to say that, had Parliament intended this to be a hearing with the attendant right to be accompanied, it would have used ''hearing'' not ''meeting''. If ''hearing'' were used at certain points in the schedule, that would remove the need for amendment No. 47.

 
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Prepared 13 December 2001