Employment Bill

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Mr. Osborne: Will the Minister concede that the clause will require very small business to have much more complicated employment contracts? Indeed, when he was resisting a powerful argument made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West about written statements at different stages during the schedule 2 procedure, he made the precise point that small businesses do not have access to the sort of clerical facilities that may be required to produce a more complex employment contract. I return to the example of the window cleaner. Is the Minister saying that a window cleaner employing a window cleaning assistant now needs a complicated employment contract that sets out all the details of schedule 2?

Mr. Hendry: The Minister's response was disappointing. The amendment was essentially intended to probe the Minister and giving him a chance to talk about the effect of the Bill on micro-businesses—an opportunity that he declined to take. Specific points put to him were entirely in the spirit of the relevant provisions. For instance, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness asked whether the clause relates to part-time workers, but Minister did not give any guidance or clarification on those matters. That was particularly disappointing.

We responded to a plea for help from the Federation of Small Businesses, which has spoken to us eloquently about the pressure of legislation and regulation and

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has sought to have some of its smaller members spared from further regulations. Again, the Minister has turned a deaf ear.

We sought to offer a degree of compromise to the hon. Member for Manchester, Central and to try to find a place where he and we can meet in the middle. We are not set on particular numbers, but we feel that the Minister should have dealt more thoroughly with some serious issues. We must recognise that the Minister seems reluctant to move further, but I will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

6.30 pm

Alan Johnson: With the best will in the world, I cannot see this as a probing amendment. An amendment that simply excluded businesses of fewer than six employees from the statutory minimum procedures might, at a stretch, have been a probing amendment. We could have discussed why the Government believe, as do 86 per cent. of respondents, including the Small Business Council and the Forum of Private Business, that it is in the best interests of small businesses not to be left subject to employment tribunals without having the help that they need to resolve disputes in the workplace.

If Opposition Members were being honest, they would agree that the amendment is not probing in nature. The measure is purely about written statements, and nothing else. I do not want to be discourteous; I usually try meticulously to answer questions. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness asked a relevant question, which I will answer. Yes, the measure would apply to part-timers, because part-timers will be treated in the same way as full-timers.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford asked whether the measure would mean that every employer had to draw up and issue a new statement to employees. That is not how we envisage matters working. We intend to bring the measures into force in such a way that they can be issued as a statement of change. We do not intend to revise the whole procedure for businesses that do not already have a disciplinary procedure; we just want to add to the written terms and conditions.

That brings me on to the point made by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), who suggested that the measure would be burdensome because it would involve employers putting tons of paper in front of an employee. We toyed with the idea of saying that the contract of employment should be the written statement. We backed away from that for the reasons given to us by many employers and trade unions. They pointed out that some contracts of employment run to a couple of volumes.

The idea of a concise written statement setting out the basic terms and conditions, which already exists in law and will not be changed by the Bill, was felt to be right. The measures add the basic minimum procedures to that. I do not want to return to the argument of the other day about the garage in Hull having to produce everything in writing.

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The Committee has ensured that the procedures are simple. It would have been onerous to add 56 clauses from the ACAS code to the contract of employment. Employers, many of whom will have procedures already, have only to attach such procedures to terms and conditions. If they do not have disciplinary and grievance procedures, they need to introduce and apply such regulations. If they have disciplinary procedures but are excluded by the get-out clause for those with fewer than 20 employees from putting that in the statement, they need to change that and put those procedures in the statement. I do not think that that is onerous.

Having made that distinction, I should say that I do not agree that the Bill will add to burdens on business. Let us discuss other measures as we come to them. I am perfectly happy to debate the fixed-term workers directive, maternity leave and paternity leave when we get to those issues. However, to try to discuss those broad issues in a debate on a narrow clause that relates purely to written statements would not get us far, even in terms of the arguments of Opposition Members.

Mr. Prisk: Part of our point is that every brick in the wall is another burden for small businesses. Sometimes they will be perceived as tiny, but the cumulative effect is often—I must mix my metaphors with care—the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Alan Johnson: We are extraordinarily sensitive to the argument that we are burdening businesses with regulation of any kind. That is why we set up the Small Business Service and why we have introduced the various regulatory regimes. The argument in terms of these tribunals is that micro-businesses end up in front of employment tribunals. It costs them money and time and very often they could have sorted out their disputes through a clear written statement and by disciplinary and grievance procedures in the workplace. That is the kernel of this part of the Bill.

Mr. Hendry: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 37

Use of alternative documents to give particulars

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 87, in page 39, line 41, leave out 'meet' and insert 'discharge'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 85, in page 40, line 8, leave out 'met' and insert 'discharged'.

No. 86, in page 40, line 12, leave out 'met' and insert 'discharged'.

No. 88, in page 40, line 31, leave out 'met' and insert 'discharged'.

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Mr. Hammond: It is generous of the Minister to place it on the record that he is willing to debate the remaining areas of the Bill. I look forward to discussing maternity and paternity leave in due course.

After the heated discussion of the previous amendment , I am pleased to return to matters purely semantic. I had doubts about tabling the amendments, but the more I looked at the Bill, the more I concluded that I have never come across the concept of meeting an obligation. One discharges an obligation, and as far as I am aware, that terminology has been used in other legislation. The clause would be much more elegant and much more readily understood if it said at line 40 on page 39, ''the document contains information which, were the document in the form of a statement under section 1, would discharge the employer's obligation under that section,'' and so on. The remaining amendments repeat the change of the word ''meet'' to the word ''discharge''. I should be fascinated to hear which professor of etymology or whichever science is relevant here—I have probably got that completely wrong and am inadvertently talking about the study of insects—has determined this radical departure in drafting language so that we now have the bizarre concept of meeting an obligation. Where does one meet this obligation? In the street? In the pub?

Alan Johnson: I do not know whether I shall satisfy the hon. Gentleman, but I shall have a go.

First, clause 37 helps employers to comply with the requirement to give an employee a written statement of employment particulars. At the moment they have to supply a document that is such a statement, even if they have also issued a contract of employment or a letter of engagement; they have to do it twice. To meet the requirements of the legislation, they probably have to do so after the employee starts work. We propose that a contract of employment or a letter of engagement containing the necessary particulars, given before or after the employee starts work, will meet the employer's obligations under the Employment Rights Act 1996.

The hon. Gentleman asked who is behind the choice of words. Parliamentary Counsel is my plea, and I am assured that the words ''meet'' or ''met'' mean that the employer has done what he is obliged to do and that nothing further is necessary. If hon. Members are concerned that those words mean anything less, I am happy to reassure them. Changing ''meet'' to ''discharge'' and ''met'' to ''discharged'', as the amendments propose, would add nothing. The amendments are unnecessary, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw them.

Mr. Hammond: The amendment would add nothing but elegance. This stuff is dreary enough.

Mr. Hammond: The amendment would add nothing but elegance. This stuff is dreary enough.

Alan Johnson: We don't do elegance.

Mr. Hammond: Well, he should try. Elegance in the language of parliamentary drafting is to be sought after. It occurs to me that ''satisfied'' would have done

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just as well as ''discharged''. I am disappointed that there is not a more substantive reason for departing from what I understand to be a conventional use of language, but clearly I do not want to dig in over the matter if the Minister feels so strongly. Reluctantly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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