Employment Bill

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Alan Johnson: The amendment would ensure that employers had to give reasonable advance notice of meetings held under the statutory procedures. I sympathise with the aim, and I would not encourage employers to hold at short notice meetings for which the employee and accompanying person had no time to prepare. However, that point is covered by the existing wording. Paragraph 13(1) requires that the timing of meetings should be reasonable, which should mean that meetings could not be arranged at times that are seriously inconvenient for employees or their accompanying colleagues. Notice would be of the timing of the meeting, and if it arrived only a short time before the meeting, it would not be reasonable. Similarly, it would be unreasonable to arrange meetings at times that would seriously disadvantage the employee because there was inadequate time to prepare. The amendment is unnecessary. The point is already covered sufficiently in the wording of the schedule.

The right to be accompanied by a trade union official or a fellow worker is crucial and we need to be clear about this. It will apply to virtually all meetings held under the statutory procedure. The relevant provision of the Employment Relations Act 1999 will therefore apply to these meetings. Among other things, that Act sets out arrangements to ensure that meetings are not called at times when the accompanying person cannot attend. In effect the provisions also provide a further set of protections to ensure that meetings are arranged at suitable times. We will look to ACAS to revise its code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures. The existing code already provides some guidance on the arrangement of meetings. We will be asking ACAS to see whether that advice could be refined to give guidance on the application of part 3 of the statutory procedures. The hon. Member's point about notices could be addressed in the revised code.

5.15 pm

Mr. Lloyd: The Minister makes it clear that the principle of the right to be accompanied remains the same. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West simply expressed the concern that ''hearing'' might be interpreted by the tribunal in a narrow and restrictive sense and that ''meeting'' would not cover that. Lawyers and those familiar with tribunal proceedings have expressed concern about this. It is imperative that there is certainty in the Bill and that it enshrines the right to be accompanied.

If there is any doubt, will the Minister consider the wording? Words in Parliament are cheap enough. I am sure that there are many alternative wordings. We must ensure that every worker has the right to be accompanied. That is the spirit of the Employment Relations Act 1999. We must also ensure that no employer is unaware of that right. That may be done through the ACAS code or some other means.

I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister says today and I will support him, but it is imperative that he gets it right.

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend. On amendment No. 31, the right to be accompanied, which once again follows ACAS guidance and is now part of the code, reinforces the point about notices. I am now coming on to the more crucial point about amendment No. 47.

Mr. Hammond: I am anxious to probe the Minister on that point. Was he saying that there is a right to have the meeting arranged at a time that is convenient to the representative accompanying the person, or merely not impossible for him? If he is saying that one cannot arrange a meeting in the middle of the night in the pub down the road that is obviously perfectly sensible. But is he saying that if a person wishes to be accompanied by a specific representative, the meeting has to be arranged around the availability of that representative? If so, he is introducing additional complexity into these arrangements, which he sought to reject when we dealt with notices in writing.

Alan Johnson: That is an interesting point, but it is a different law. I was quoting from the Employment Relations Act 1999. That Act and its accompanying guidance states that if a person is to be accompanied to a meeting, to which they will be entitled under these procedures, the employer must ensure that meetings are not called at times when the accompanying person cannot attend.

Mr. Hammond: Would that apply to this?

Alan Johnson: It would certainly apply to this.

I turn to amendment No. 47, which would ensure that the statutory procedures carry a specific reference to the right to be accompanied. That right is set out in legislation and applies to most meetings that are held under the grievance and disciplinary procedures. The exceptions are less important meetings that deal with grievances that do not affect statutory or contractual rights, and meetings in a disciplinary context that cannot lead to disciplinary action against a worker. That is the existing law on the right to be accompanied, although the Act did not require employers to adopt procedures. The Bill changes that. As I said, from last July, workers had the right to be accompanied to a grievance or discipline hearing, but did not have the right to have such a meeting to be accompanied to.

The Bill will require employers to have procedures and will give clear incentives to employers and employees to use them. Consequently, more meetings will be held under such procedures than would otherwise be the case, so more meetings will be held to which the right to be accompanied will apply. However, we intend to leave the right unchanged by the Bill, which is why there is no explicit reference to it in the schedule. We have avoided the risk of unintentionally changing or diluting the right.

Amendment No. 47 seriously runs that risk because its precise effects are unclear. It may mean that the right to be accompanied applies to all meetings held under the statutory procedures. An employee may have a grievance that his employer does not provide a car park. Employers do not have a statutory duty to provide car parks, and it makes no material difference to the employee's terms and conditions. The 1999 Act states that an employer would not have the right to be accompanied to pursue that grievance. The amendment highlights the danger that problems may be created if one tinkers with provisions. It suggests that the right that we want to preserve would be changed. If the amendment were accepted, the right may apply to meetings about trivial grievances that could not be the subject of a tribunal complaint. That would extend the ambit of the existing right. Even if the amendment does not affect the right, I am not convinced that it should be in the Bill.

I shall deal with the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, which he raised with me last week. The words ''meeting'' and ''hearing'' have the same meaning in this context. The right to be accompanied will apply to virtually all meetings under the statutory procedure. We are absolutely clear about that. There are no mistakes in the wording meaning that a person would lose the right to be accompanied. There are no legal terms to refer to the right in the statutory procedure. The right will apply to meetings held under the statutory procedures as it does now to meetings held under the voluntary procedure.

I understand that the hon. Member for North Norfolk may want to include a reference to the right for presentational reasons because he thinks that more people will learn about the right from including it in the Bill. However, he did not mention that during his remarks. The law serves to define rights and responsibilities, not to publicise such rights. We must ensure that people understand fully the interaction between the right to be accompanied and the statutory procedures.

Rob Marris: May I take the Minister back a little way? When he clarified the right to be accompanied, he appeared to be quoting. I do not have the Employment Relations Act 1999 in front of me. However, I recall that section 10 refers to the right to be accompanied to a hearing. It would assist me greatly if he would indicate a different part of that Act or other legislation that refers to the right to be accompanied to meetings.

Alan Johnson: Perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend on that matter. The point raised was whether ''hearing'' and ''meeting'' had a different legal context, and I am absolutely satisfied that they do not. In terms of the terminology that we are using, ''meeting'' would be much better than ''hearing''. That does not dilute or change the right to be accompanied. In many ways, it strengthens that right, because there are measures on IT1 and IT3 forms, which would provide a useful opportunity to make sure that people are aware of their right to be accompanied. We will undertake a major publicity campaign alerting employers and others of the existence of the statutory procedures, which will publicise the existence of related law, especially the right to be accompanied. That is the proper way to raise awareness of that important statutory right. For all those reasons, the Government cannot accept the amendments.

Norman Lamb: I am happy not to press the amendments, which were probing. It is helpful to have it on record that the Government intend that the right to be accompanied should apply to these provisions. Equally, although I would have preferred a very clear provision, it is helpful that the Minister has made it clear that the Government intend to interpret the word ''timing'' as including a requirement for the notice of the meeting to be reasonable. Given that Hansard can be used in interpreting provisions, that goes some way towards satisfying my concerns. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Further consideration adjourned.[Mr. Pearson.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Five o'clock till Tuesday 18 December at half-past Ten o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Cotter, Brian
Hammond, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs.
Johnson, Alan
Jones, Helen
Lamb, Norman
Laxton, Mr.
Lloyd, Mr.
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Osborne, Mr. George
Pearson, Mr.
Prisk, Mr.
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Geraldine
Tami, Mark
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel

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