Employment Bill

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Mr. Osborne: With great respect to the Minister, the CBI is saying that all those elements are good if union learning reps work in partnership with the employer. I imagine that good employers already provide time off. As we are trading quotes from CBI briefs, one spells out:

    ''Voluntary partnership lies at the heart of a good relationship. All the successful work of learning representatives so far relates to good relationships between employers and unions. Partnerships can only be effective where there is trust and mutual interest. This cannot be achieved by compulsion.''

The CBI goes on to point out:

    ''Learning representatives need the backing of employers. They cannot by themselves bring about a commitment to training within firms. 40 per cent. of learning representatives say they have a big impact in companies where the learning culture is strong. Only about 5 per cent. report that they have an impact in companies where the learning culture is weak.''

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Mr. Simmonds: Another of my concerns is that the compulsory nature of the clause may damage successful voluntary relationships between employers and representatives.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes a telling point, as usual. One is forced to consider the real reason for the clause, and it is to be found not in the creative accountancy of the partial regulatory impact assessment, which suggests that employers will benefit to the tune of £140 million as a result of gains in productivity, but in the cost of £23 million, which is also stated in the assessment.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is trying to probe the real reason for the clause. Is he aware that in Airbags International in his constituency, the textile union has nine learning reps who have encouraged 100 employees to take up learning, mainly through ICT? If he visited that workplace and talked to those reps, he would hear from them and colleagues like them that the barriers facing union reps in the workplace, because they do not have the same rights as other union officials in the workplace, hamper them in carrying out their work effectively. That is the reason for the clause.

11.15 am

Mr. Osborne: No one doubts that union learning representatives can do a good job when they work in partnership with an employer such as the employer in my constituency. We are talking about compelling a relationship that does not exist, forcing union learning representatives on a company that does not want them and perhaps cutting across existing training in the company.

I return briefly to the figures that I quoted earlier to the Minister. It is predicted that the number of union learning representatives will increase by 700 per cent. as a result of these measures. That is a massive extension of union activity and power, and the real reason for the clause.

John Healey: Like the hon. Gentleman, I am delighted when partnership arrangements work so well in many workplaces, but is he not concerned by the results of our evaluation? Eight out of 10 union learning reps say that they face a barrier in carrying out their learning rep activities, one in three do not get time to train for their role and one in two do not get paid time off to carry out those duties. Does he recognise that the clause will help in those circumstances and will boost training efforts in workplaces across the country?

Mr. Osborne: I cannot agree that imposing union learning representatives on companies and imposing a form of training that may run counter to the training provided by the company is a good thing. It represents an extension of union activity and power. It is important at least to limit the numbers, and that is why I shall support the amendments.

Rob Marris: Even I am surprised by the muddle that the Opposition have got themselves into and the ignorance that they display about what goes on in workplaces on the employers' and the employees' or trade union side. It is not up to employers to sanction

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the appointment of union representatives. We live in a civilised society with free and independent trade unions, and it is up to those trade unions to decide who their officers are, including learning representatives. Those officers cannot be agreed through a statutory framework with the employer, because that would impinge on the freedom of trade unions.

Some ridiculous examples have also been cited, such as the one given by the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness of a five-employee firm that has five recognised trade unions. I defy him to come up with a single firm like that; to make such a suggestion is to be completely out of touch with reality. Recognised trade unions exist either where there is a benevolent employer or under the statutory framework, when more than half the employees are in the recognised trade union. The debate shows how out of touch the Opposition are.

Nor can one have, as the Opposition seem to suggest, a statutory framework that imposes union learning representatives on limited companies, sole traders and partnerships. That would, I believe, be unique in English law, which again shows how out of touch the Opposition are. As far as I am aware, in English company law there are only two sorts of officer. Under the Companies Acts, companies must have a director and a company secretary. They do not have to have any other kind of office holder. A sole trader is not obliged statutorily to have any kind of office holder, nor is a partnership, yet the Opposition seem to suggest that we should suddenly introduce and amend a statutory framework to say that every company shall have a director, a secretary and a learning representative agreed between the work force and the employer. That seems an extraordinary proposition.

Mr. Hammond: As the hon. Gentleman has introduced the concept of muddle and has now compounded it, perhaps he could explain what on earth he is talking about. It does not seem to have anything to do with the amendment placing a limit on the number of learning reps or with the broader points made by the Minister or me.

Rob Marris: That again shows how adrift the Opposition are. I am speaking generally to the clause, as did the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Minister and other hon. Members, with some indulgence from the Chair. I am talking about a clause that has been opposed through principled opposition, to use the words of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. That principled opposition seemed to be based on the fact that the clause would allow unions to impose learning representatives on employers. He seemed to request, in contradistinction to that, a statutory framework in which learning representatives would have to be agreed between the work force and the employer. I suggest that to put that in a statutory framework, whether in this clause or any other, would be completely out of touch with reality.

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I am glad to know that both sides support learning in general. The CBI brief for today says that the CBI supports the concept of learning representatives, their right to ''reasonable time off'' and ''normal protection'' for them. So as not to be accused of selective quoting, I will carry on to its next point, which is that

    ''the proposed right for unions to appoint union learning representatives without the employer's agreement is a step in the wrong direction.''

The CBI may think that, but I think that to provide otherwise statutorily would undermine free and independent trade unions. I am opposed to that as a democrat.

On learning generally, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said that he could not conceive of a situation—I am paraphrasing, so he will correct me if I am wrong—in which an employer would pay one of his employees to learn something that would enable that employee to get another job down the road.

Brian Cotter indicated assent.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman nods. If we look at the Ford Motor Company, a pretty successful one in the United Kingdom—

Mr. Hammond: What?

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman says, ''What?'' but it is the Ford Motor Company world wide that has just announced losses, not the United Kingdom division.

The Ford Motor Company introduced, about seven years ago—I stand to be corrected on the date—the equivalent of individual learning accounts. Shop floor workers doing semi-skilled and unskilled jobs could use them to study something like French, although that was unlikely to be of use to them on the shop floor at Ford.

Brian Cotter: In my company, I allowed an employee to get training as an electrician, which was not especially relevant, so I accept the point, but small companies do have problems. Unfortunately I shall be unable to be here in the early part of this afternoon, although my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) will be, so I beg your indulgence, Mr. Amess, if I seem to be summing up the end of the debate in an intervention. Very small companies can have problems with people but, on the other hand, a certain reasonableness is often applied, as I applied it in my company.

Mr. Pearson: On a point of order, Mr. Amess. During the past hour and a half we have had a wide debate, of which more than an hour has been on the general principles behind the clause. That has been helpful, and with your usual sagacity you have allowed it to be in order. Will you inform the Chairman of this afternoon's sitting that there has been a substantial debate and that he can bear that in mind when deciding whether to allow a stand part debate on the clause?

The Chairman: I have been taking advice on the matter. It is clear that hon. Members have decided to have a general debate now. Certainly, the person who

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will take over from me this afternoon will be fully informed of these proceedings.

Rob Marris: Thank you, Mr. Amess. I am grateful for your latitude this morning, and, conscious of the time, will wrap up my remarks.

I refer hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, to clause 43(2), where new section 168A(2) specifies the purposes for which paid time off will be allowed. Turning to new section 168A(8), to which I referred earlier, I echo the Minister's remarks. Time off must be

    ''reasonable in all the circumstances''.

The example of five learning representatives in a five-employee firm, each in a separate recognised trade union is ridiculous, and I do not believe that any such place exists.

Mr. Simmonds: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Rob Marris: No, because I am about to finish my remarks.

Mr. Simmonds: That is very unfair.

The Chairman: Order.

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Rob Marris: I shall try to finish quickly so that the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness has one minute to make his point, if the Chairman allows him. The phrase

    ''reasonable in all the circumstances''

would be interpreted by an employment tribunal accordingly.

Brian Cotter: Thank you for calling me, Mr. Amess, because I have a problem this afternoon.

The Minister mentioned people knowing their rights. I would like to have said more, but we in our party have a clear view, and I do not subscribe to some of the conspiracy theory views of Conservative Members. However, some points need to be rehearsed. Our party believes in training and has shown that clearly over a long period of time. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk will make more points later.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Cotter, Brian
Hammond, Mr.
Healey, John
Hendry, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs.
Johnson, Alan
Laxton, Mr.
Lloyd, Mr.
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Osborne, Mr. George
Pearson, Mr.
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Geraldine
Tami, Mark
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel

 
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