Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary, but in fact I have the results somewhere in the pile of paper in front of me. I think that he inadvertently referred twice—in the figures of 16 and of 46—to employer representative organisations. One hesitates to talk in terms of sides of industry, but can he say how many of those responses came from

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employers or their representatives, and from employees or their representatives?

John Healey: By all means. As I think I said at the outset, there were 16 responses: from employers such as Lloyds TSB, Corus, Tesco and Thames Water, or from representative bodies such as the Engineering Employers Federation, the IOD and the Confederation of British Industry. The remaining responses were from other types of organisations or individuals.

Mr. Osborne: The hon. Gentleman said that 16 employers or employer organisations took part in the consultation, but will he address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge by saying how many supported the clause?

John Healey: Views were mixed, but I can give the hon. Gentleman a flavour. Some were not supportive, but he may be surprised to learn that some were. Question 3 of the consultation asked:

    ''Do you agree with the proposed entitlements for union learning representatives?'',

to which the Institute of Directors' response was, ''Yes''. In paragraph 19 of its response to the consultation, the CBI states that it

    ''accepts that learning representatives should be entitled to reasonable time off.''

Mr. Hammond: I should put those remarks in context by pointing out that, at the time of responding to the consultation, it was not clear to those organisations that they were being asked to endorse paid time off for learning reps who are appointed without the agreement of their employers. Indeed, in a meeting earlier this week the CBI told me that, at the time of consultation, it was unaware that the Government intended to apply these terms to learning reps without the agreement of employers.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman has moved on to the issue that I was about to address. He suggests that the CBI is taken aback by the idea that trade union learning reps might be appointed by trade unions, and that we in some way hid that fact. That is plain wrong, and I suggest that he examines our response to question 6 of last year's consultation paper, which states:

    ''The Government believes that learning representatives should only be placed on a statutory basis in workplaces where independent unions are recognised for collective bargaining purposes. In such workplaces, the right to appoint learning representatives will be limited only to those independent unions that are recognised for collective bargaining purposes.''

I do not believe that that could be much clearer. Indeed, as with other matters, we consulted on that point with an entirely open mind. As the consultation reminds us:

    ''This is broadly consistent with the way existing time off for union duties is treated under the law.''

Brian Cotter: We need clarification on this point. Is the Under-Secretary saying that the Bill does not imply a right for unions to appoint an unlimited number of learning representatives without the

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employer's agreement? My concern is that the Bill offers insufficient definition in that regard.

John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, my remarks will follow the same format as those of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. I shall deal first with the general points and then turn to the amendments, including the one that he tabled.

Mr. Hammond: Employer representatives told me that they did not understand at the time that the Government were proposing that learning reps could be imposed where there was no agreement between employer and unions. Their comments must be seen in that light.

The Minister cited in his defence question 6 of the consultation. However, that paragraph clearly emphasises not what he suggests, but that learning reps will be appointed only where trade unions are recognised and will be appointed by the unions. Read in its entirety, the paragraph does not suggest that people should understand it to mean that the Government proposed to depart from the existing practice whereby the ability of a union to appoint learning reps is by agreement with the employer in the workplace.

John Healey: Obviously, I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman's conversations with employer representatives. I have explained what was in the consultation document that we published. The CBI made it clear in its response that it knew that this was a matter for debate. Paragraph 8 of the response states:

    ''The CBI strongly opposes the suggestion in the consultative document that a trade union should be given the right to appoint a learning representative without the employers' agreement.''

It could not be clearer than that.

I must correct the hon. Gentleman on one matter. Existing practice does not give the employer a right to veto the appointment of trade union stewards and officials in the workplace—it is quite the opposite. The clause follows established practice.

Mr. Hammond: In case anyone missed it, the Minister just shot a bullet straight through his own foot by confirming that the employer organisation that he cites as having been supportive made it explicitly clear in its response that it is opposed to provisions that would allow learning reps to be appointed in a situation where the employer is not in agreement.

John Healey: I must make it absolutely clear that the hon. Gentleman was wrong to say that nobody in the CBI realised that this matter was covered in the consultation document and something on which they should comment. The CBI took a view, and the Government, in light of the consultation responses and our own judgments, decided not to accept it.

Mr. Lloyd: This is probably a rather unfair question, but can the Minister explain in which circumstances the Government would have gone out to consultation if it would have resulted only in a framework for an agreement between employer and employee? On that basis, the Bill would be unnecessary. The hypothesis put by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is farcical.

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John Healey: The evidence from the experience of learning reps is that there are barriers to their being able to do their job because they do not have rights equivalent to those of other trade union officers in the workplace. I accept that the CBI and other employer interest groups may not fully agree with some aspects of the clause and the policy decisions that inform its drafting. The CBI does not agree with our refusal to allow employers to have a veto over who may act as a union learning rep. On the other hand, there are aspects that the trade unions are not entirely happy with. That is the nature of the decision-making process that the Government must go through.

I am anxious to make progress, but I want to respond to a couple of general points before moving on to the amendments. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge asked how union learning reps would fit into existing professional, company-run training schemes. Experience to date suggests that they generally fit in very well. They do not replace, but reinforce and often complement what a company's human resources department or training department is doing. Our independent evaluation of the activities of union reps showed that learning reps work best and achieve most when companies such as those to which the hon. Gentleman referred are thoroughly committed to training.

I was asked whether union learning reps could provide advice to union members on learning needs that may not have a direct bearing on their work. That is possible. The general idea behind union learning reps is to encourage a learning culture, which should benefit everyone—individuals and businesses—in the longer term. It is worth bearing in mind that any training undertaken by a union member as a result of advice or encouragement from a union learning rep carries no obligation whatever for the employer to cover the cost.

The hon. Gentleman described amendments Nos. 216 and 198 as pragmatic. They seek to restrict the number of union learning reps who could benefit from the entitlement to time off. They would limit the number of union learning reps that a union could appoint in any workplace or bargaining unit. The restrictions are unnecessary and undesirable.

Under new section 168A(8), union learning reps are entitled to time off only when it is reasonable in all the circumstances, defined with reference to a code of practice and in relation to the employee, employer and business. That already places restrictions on unions seeking time off that is unlimited or would damage or disrupt the employer's business. An employer would be entitled to deny time off if a union sought an unreasonable amount of time off for union learning reps. Equally, an employer could argue under subsection (8) that time off was unreasonable if several union learning reps sought time off at the same time.

Mr. Hammond: That addresses the question of whether an employee is entitled to a given period of time off and of a reasonableness test, which will be judged by reference to an ACAS code. That is fair and reasonable, but it does not address the question about the number of representatives. As I understand it, each

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representative will stand alone. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent a union, in extremis, from appointing every member in a workplace as a learning rep, all of whom would be entitled to time off their duties, subject to the reasonableness test in subsection (8), which bites on a single employee's time off, not on the aggregate of employees' time off in that workplace.

John Healey: The purpose of the clause and our policy is to reinforce the role of union learning reps. The right to time off to undertake those duties must be reasonable in the circumstances that I have explained. The Bill already provides necessary protection for employers against disruption of their business, such as in the slightly extreme example cited by the hon. Gentleman. It does that without placing an explicit upper limit on the number of union learning reps. That is my first point: the amendments are unnecessary.

The amendments are also undesirable, because restricting the number of union learning reps able to provide advice to employees would undermine the effectiveness of union learning rep support. If I read the amendment correctly, it would mean that a union could appoint just one union learning rep at a very large workplace or establishment that might have several thousand union members but only one bargaining unit. One size does not fit all, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said in his opening remarks, but the amendment would try to make it do just that.

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