Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: Although I suspect that, sadly, the days of workplaces that were single establishments with 7,000 employees have mostly long since passed, will the Minister address the substantive point? I acknowledged that this form of words might not be the most appropriate to control numbers—perhaps an amendment should relate to the number of employees per union learning rep—but will he acknowledge that there is a case for limiting the numbers of union learning reps and of people who can be appointed as such? In persisting with the argument that it does not matter how many there are because, somehow, under the operation of subsection (8), their aggregate time off will be limited, he seems to be betraying the real agenda: to allow unions to appoint an unlimited number of officials entitled by statute to paid time off for their union work.

John Healey: No. I am arguing that to set an upper limit on union learning reps is unnecessary and undesirable and that it would, in effect, create a one-size-fits-all policy. Whether or not the workplace is several thousand strong, as I suggested in an example perhaps as extreme as some of those that the hon. Gentleman has cited, the principle is the same. In workplaces with a large number of employees in a single bargaining unit, it would place an intolerable burden on just one union learning rep to have to carry out those functions for such a large number of employees.

Ironically, that approach might cause more problems than it solved for the employer. The same person, who might be a key worker, would always be seeking time off to undertake the union learning rep duties.

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Mr. Simmonds: Will the Minister answer the specific question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge: why can there not be a per capita limit on the number of union training representatives in a particular business unit—perhaps one per 100 employees?

John Healey: I thought that I had answered that point, but if I was not clear, I will answer it by explaining that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made the point himself when he said that one size does not fit all. Such a prescription would cause precisely the sort of problem that he was concerned about.

Where there are several union learning reps, there is obviously more scope for one to stand in for a fellow rep who cannot be given time off for business reasons. In their responses to the consultation, employers recognised the realities of the situation. I again quote the Institute of Directors, which, when asked:

    ''Do you agree that matters such as the number of members represented by a union learning representative should be left to the union to determine?'',

once again answered, ''Yes''.

Placing tight numerical limits on union learning reps would create precisely the one-size-fits-all problem that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is keen to avoid, and would create the sort of inflexibility that no Committee member wishes to impose in the workplace. It would make it difficult for reps to specialise, for example, in providing certain categories of advice, geared to different groups in the work force. One can see that it will be much more efficient for one union learning rep to specialise in support for colleagues with literacy and numeracy difficulties while others look after the interests of graduates. To receive the best guidance, from an employee's point of view, it might be appropriate for a union to think of having more than one union learning rep. The amendments would prevent that.

The clause provides rights broadly equivalent to those currently enjoyed by shop stewards and other lay union representatives. As I explained earlier, there are no upper limits on the numbers of shop stewards that unions can appoint, and it will be left for them to decide. That approach has not created significant problems for employers, and there is no reason to believe that problems that have not arisen with shop stewards would arise in the case of union learning reps. The amendments are unnecessary and undesirable, and they would create inflexibility and complicate a system that has worked well in related areas of trade union law. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Osborne: I shall speak briefly about the clause before moving on to the specifics of the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge was right: part 4 of the Bill contains, not innocent miscellaneous provisions, but a substantial extension of employment legislation to the detriment of employers, and a considerable extension to union power. I may be cynical, but it represents favours not fairness, and we know why. One favour deserves another, and we can imagine the conversation in May

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2001: ''You fund our election campaign and we will give you a load of new union powers.'' [Interruption.] There is muttering from Government Members—

Mr. Tony Lloyd: Laughter.

Mr. Osborne: There is laughter from Government Members, but it is an extraordinary coincidence that trade unions provide millions of pounds to one political party, which introduces new union powers when it gets into office.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, no one is against improving education and training for our population, and no one is against giving the least skilled people in our society basic literacy and numeracy skills. One of the best things that the Government have done is to introduce literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. Lifelong learning and improving the skills of the adult population is another area that needs attention, but the question is whether we should force employers and companies to recognise yet another grade of trade union activist, which is how it is described in the Minister's Department's consultation paper.

Union learning representatives can perform a useful function where they work in conjunction with employers. That is spelt out in many responses to the consultation process, although I am concerned that the Library brief says that one of the principal functions that union learning representatives could perform would be to help employees to open individual learning accounts. Sadly, that is not a function that the union learning representative can perform in future, but perhaps representatives were helpful in helping people to open those accounts over the past few months.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the use that trade union learning reps have made in the past of individual learning accounts. They have managed to encourage many people whom our conventional training system had failed to reach and who had not learned for many years, such as older male workers, part-timers and people from ethnic minorities. The accounts were a useful tool for union learning reps and I hope that, when we are in a position to introduce a successor to the ILA scheme, they will use it.

Mr. Osborne: I am happy to have a lengthy debate about the merits of the Government's ILA scheme because it has been universally praised and shown to be fraud-proof. It is a great shock that they have abolished it.

On the substantive issues that we are debating, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge suggested, the clause has been almost universally opposed by employer organisations. The selective quotes that the Minister has provided have not convinced me that a single employer organisation supports the clause. That is a shame—the Minister has not been present for much of this Committee—because both Government and Opposition Members have broadly supported the Bill's measures. We have witnessed probing amendments and debates, and have divided, I think, on only one amendment so far. Broadly, we welcome reforms to employment

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tribunals and adoption, and paternity and maternity leave and pay, although we never debated the maternity provisions. It is therefore a shame that we have entered controversial and stormy waters.

The Minister quoted the CBI response to consultation. As I read that response, it is absolutely clear. It states:

    ''The CBI agrees that peer promotion of learning can add value but the proposal of a union right to appoint union learning representatives without the employers' agreement is a step in the wrong direction. The CBI believes that there should be partnership on training issues but partnership can only work where all partners are voluntarily engaged in that process.''

It will be useful for the Committee to hear more specifics from the CBI. It believes that

    ''union learning representatives can add values to the workplace learning when they work in partnership with employers; imposing learning representatives would not increase employer commitment to training; collective bargaining on training must not be imposed; the role of learning representatives should be clarified; union learning representatives should have a nationally recognised qualification; time off should be 'reasonable' and agreed by union and employer; normal practice and protections for union representatives should apply to learning representatives.''

Some of the CBI's points are covered by later amendments.

John Healey: So that the Committee has the full picture, would the hon. Gentleman like to complete the quotes from the CBI's response? I, too, have quoted its strong opposition to unions' being able to appoint learning representatives and to employers' not being able to veto them. However, paragraph 19 states:

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

That lies at the heart of the clause. Paragraph 22 states that

    ''there should be a right to unpaid time off for union members to consult with their learning representative'',

which is another crucial part of the clause. Finally, paragraph 23 states:

    ''The CBI agrees with the consultation document's proposals that the protection against discrimination and victimisation for union learning representatives should be similar to those of other union officials.''

That is at the heart and core of the clause.

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