Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. His amendment, No. 198, seeks to achieve a similar objective to amendment No. 216. We are talking about general principles. The key issue is that trade union learning reps can play a valuable and important role in appropriate circumstances. It is self-evident that appropriate circumstances are those in which relationships between the union, work force and management are such that union learning reps can be an effective part of an overall training programme. It is not clear that it would be good to impose an ideal situation by statute on a sub-ideal working environment. No doubt the Minister could take hon. Members to dozens of companies to show them union learning reps in action as an integral and effective part of company training programmes, but that does not mean that imposing such a model on a business in which relationships between management and unions are adversarial—harking back to the old days—would achieve the same benefits.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems odd that the clause has found its way into the Bill, bearing in mind the view that the Minister for Employment and the

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Regions has stated on previous clauses that the Bill is consensual and finds a middle road? This clause veers towards the left-hand side of the curve of that road.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is right, but the danger is greater than that: arrangements that work perfectly well and deliver good results may be put at risk by the intervention of statutory provisions and may undermine what happens in practice. One size does not fit all. Different employers will have different approaches to training. Many employers operate mentoring schemes, for example. The imposition of a statutory right to paid time off for trade union learning reps will change the geometry of that relationship by introducing into the equation the generally unhelpful influence of statutory provision and regulations.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Further to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds), is it not striking that this provision is the one that employers' federations, such as the Confederation of British Industry, are most strongly opposed to? Although they had questions about the details of some of the earlier parts of the Bill, they gave broad support to much of it. Their real concern has been about this part of the Bill, which reinforces my hon. Friend's point about the non-consensual nature of these provisions.

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Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is right and he leads me to an important point. He says that employers' organisations have been opposed to this part of the Bill; let me explain what happened. I think that I am right in saying that when they thought, as the consultation led them to think, that they were being invited to endorse a statutory framework for trade union learning reps, where those learning reps were appointed by agreement between the employer and the employee, the majority of them were comfortable with that arrangement. They did not understand at that stage of the consultation that the Government were proposing to introduce a unilateral right for trade unions to impose union learning reps on a workplace. That is what the majority of employer organisations find extremely difficult to contemplate.

On that point, the Trades Union Congress brief for today's debate says that

    ''the Government completed its consultation exercise on the TUC's proposal to put Union Learning Representatives on a statutory footing''.

There is no suggestion there that the proposal is the Government's brilliant idea: it is something that the bosses in Congress house or Transport house, or whatever it is called, have told the Government to put into the Bill. The brief continues:

    ''The consultation revealed overwhelming support for the principle.''

The Engineering Employers Federation's brief for the same debate says:

    ''Union Learning Representatives (Clause 43)—This proposal has been opposed by all employer bodies''.

There seems to be a slight discrepancy there.

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There were 89 responses to the consultation. It would be useful if the Minister, instead of listing every one, would tell the Committee, by broad category, who those respondents were. It may be true, as the TUC says, that the consultation revealed overwhelming support for the principle—that is, the support of a large majority of the respondents—whereas, as the EEF says, the proposal is opposed by all employer bodies. That could easily be the case if the majority of respondents were trade unions. It would help if the Minister would clarify that later.

It must also be said that the framing of the clause and the way in which the Government seek to proceed betray their view of industry. The clause appears to suggest that training will be done and employees will be informed about their training needs and have their training needs analysed only if trade unions become involved, if appointed or elected representatives—or perhaps not properly qualified representatives; we shall come to that issue later—are involved in the process. The Bill glosses over the fact that many good employers have large, expensive and elaborate professional training management structures in their companies, and it does not address the way in which trade union learning reps slot into the existing organisation. There is a world of difference between a workplace in which an employer has no effective training or mentoring arrangements, where a union learning rep might be introducing employees for the first time to some of the training opportunities available to them, and a workplace that is committed to the training and empowerment through learning of its work force. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me, and acknowledge that the computer company IBM is a fine example of such a company. It happens to be based in my constituency, so I achieve a double objective by using it as an example.

That company has an elaborate and exemplary system of training and retraining members of its work force so that, as its business changes, they can re-learn appropriate skills and be redeployed within the business wherever possible. They can thus expand their skill base and improve their earnings potential within the business. That training is always, rightly, focused on the needs of the business. Employer-financed and employer-based training will and should be focused on the needs of the employer's business and designed to give the employee an opportunity to advance his position and enhance his deployable skills within that business.

There is no acknowledgment at all in the clause of the role of employers and management structures. There is no requirement for union learning reps to work within an established structure of training and learning in the workplace. In fact, there are no constraints at all in the Bill. The Minister might tell us of some that will be introduced in guidance.

Mr. Simmonds: Does my hon. Friend agree that in this part of the Bill there is no specific provision stating that the training that must be undertaken under the aegis of the trade union training representative must be relevant to the particular business of the employee and employer? That might be very pertinent, especially in IBM.

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Mr. Hammond: Certainly that is true. One commentator on the Bill has observed that it contains absolutely nothing at all to prevent a union learning rep from promoting to employees courses in modern Marxism, if such a thing still exists. No doubt the Minister will tell us that the guidance that the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service will issue will focus on defining training so as to eliminate such an extreme abuse of the process, but my hon. Friend raised a good point. It is not clear that the question will be dealt with of whether the training paid for by the employer that the union learning reps will promote will be relevant to the business of the employer—or at least to the industry in which the employer is engaged—or whether they could promote the advantages of retraining to an employee, giving them the goal of exiting that business, which the employer would regard as wholly negative.

Mr. Osborne: Might a union learning representative train a work force in such things as telephone canvassing or leaflet delivery techniques? I know that a lot of union members take part in such activities once every four or five years.

Mr. Hammond: That is an interesting thought that had not occurred even to my devious and cynical mind. No doubt the Minister will be able to set my hon. Friend's mind at rest—at least, I hope that he will—on that point, if not on others, when he talks about the intended guidance.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): May I refer the hon. Gentleman to line 17 on page 46, where subsection (8) talks about

    ''reasonable in all the circumstances''?

I do not think that the things that he and his hon. Friends have suggested would be considered reasonable in all circumstances by an employment tribunal, to which the matter might be referred under subsection (9).

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman reads on, he will find that subsection (8) says

    ''reasonable in all the circumstances having regard to any relevant provision of a Code of Practice issued by ACAS or the Secretary of State.''

Let us leave out the extreme case of the course in modern Marxism, and talk about an employee working as a technician at Johnson Motors of Hull, to use the example that we have used before. The Minister for Employment and the Regions, told us earlier that there are no longer mechanics in the motor repair industry. They are all technicians, so this employee is working as a technician. For someone to enhance his skills as a technician, perhaps through computer training, because much of what car technicians do these days is computer based, is very different from undertaking training designed to offer them a completely different avenue of employment. That might be beneficial to the individual; I do not disagree that an individual might find it in his interests to broaden his horizons and look to deploy his skills beyond the industry in which he currently works, but I am not persuaded that it is reasonable to expect the employer actively to finance and support that.

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Good employers will seek to enhance the skills and upgrade the capabilities of those who work for them. It would stretch a point to say that an employer had to want actively to engage in helping employees to go and work elsewhere if he were to qualify as a good employer. A good employer should seek to retain his employees, and one way to do that in a competitive labour market is to help them to upgrade their skills so that they can find a path through the business in which they are employed that enables them to gain ever-higher earnings and greater job satisfaction.

 
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