Employment Bill

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Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): My hon. Friend makes a good point. My previous job was in the Post Office. I worked in a large unit with trade union representatives for administrative workers, postal workers—delivery postmen—and drivers. Those workers all came from very different sections and had very different jobs and roles. I would never have been in a position to identify the training needs of post office drivers. I dealt with administration workers, which was very different. All the different posts were part of one unit, so there would have been a need for more than one learning representative in that unit.

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Mr. Hughes: The debate this morning was good, and it is continuing along those lines. Having discussed the matter with colleagues and having listened to the Minister, I can now see their point of view.

However, perhaps the Minister should listen to what has been said about the numbers of reps in a particular workplace. It could get out of hand. I doubt whether many employers would allow it to get out of hand, but some trade union representatives, who are probably not as enlightened as others, may well create some difficulty around that issue. Perhaps the Minister should think about it. As I said, I was concerned about the matter this morning, but I have now heard some encouraging remarks from him and from other hon. Friends.

2.45 pm

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Basically, he is inviting the Committee to start with the thought process that I used to frame the amendment and then take it further to find out whether there really is a problem. The Minister invited us to think that there would not be a problem because subsection (8) would stipulate a reasonableness test at a tribunal. However, employers do not want to have to make judgments about whether to recognise union reps on a daily basis, thinking that if they get it wrong, they will end up in a tribunal.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the amendment, as drafted, may not be effective, because it calls for one employee per bargaining unit. However, I call on the Minister to consider the more general issue of whether a ceiling should be put on the number of union reps. If the hon. Gentleman is endorsing that call, I welcome his remarks. I would be very happy if the Minister were to reject my amendment but say that he would be able to deal with the concern that lies behind it through regulations or guidance.

Mr. Hughes: That was another helpful intervention. I have already said that the Minister should take some time to examine the issue. Do we want people to go to industrial tribunals to argue about the number of learning reps in a given business? I do not think so. That is not desirable, but I think that most trade unions and employers would be sensible about the matter.

In conclusion, the proposal is, by and large, a good thing, and it is encouraging that the Government have made such a proposal. I know that modern management will welcome the measure, because it will encourage more education and training among their work force, which can only be good for British business.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I should say at the start that I am not a union member, but I have been a member of Undeb Cenedlaethol yr Athrawon Cymru—the National Union of Teachers in Wales. My membership was a matter of solidarity rather than of any benefit that I might have gained.

This morning, Conservative Members posited situations in which trade unions might wish to appoint an unlimited number of union learning representatives

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for dubious reasons. Let me posit a similar situation, which might emerge if the amendment were to be accepted, in which a bad employer might restrict the number of union learning representatives to one. The positive intentions behind the appointment of ULRs would then be thwarted. Such a scenario would point to a deeper malaise, which had nothing to do with ULRs, in the business. I would worry about such a business.

I am dismayed by the view taken by Conservative Members. Essentially, they have been implying that training is about producing more widgets per hour. That is not my experience of training. Without being too pious about it, fulfilled workers lead to benefits for employers.

Providing for the possible appointment of more than one union learning representative would allow for flexibility, given that the designated representative might be tied up with essential work for the employer. For those reasons I cannot support the amendments.

Mr. Hammond: In the light of the guidance that you gave the Committee earlier, Mr. Conway, I propose briefly to sum up the conclusions that I have drawn from the debate in relation to the amendment. Then, if I may, I should like to address some of the wider issues on which the Minister has responded, which would otherwise have formed the core of a clause stand part debate.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), because he obviously has direct experience of the union side—if I may use the old-fashioned terminology of industry. Frankly, I do not have such experience. It is interesting that when people set their minds to a problem, they can find that the amount of ground that separates them is not as great as they thought. I can readily concede that perhaps my amendment limiting the appointment of union learning reps to one per bargaining unit or establishment is too severe and too restrictive and would not be appropriate in all situations.

It is very reassuring that the hon. Gentleman can, at the other end of the debate, recognise that there are or could be situations in which some less enlightened trade unions—it is possible to imagine a situation in which an unenlightened trade union would face an unenlightened employer—might seek to abuse the provisions. In such circumstances, it is common sense to have some kind of limit, but to say, as the Minister did, that the imposition of any limit would undermine the purpose of the clause and effectively wreck it, is simply untrue. That is obviously not the case.

My expectation in tabling the amendment was that the Minister would tell me that he understood perfectly the concern, but that the amendment was superfluous and there was no need to worry because the perceived threat could be dealt with by regulations or some other means. I expected him to give me a categorical assurance that disproportionately large numbers of union learning reps could not be appointed in a given workplace, but he has not supplied one. All that I have heard is a blanket assertion that to limit in

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any way the number of union learning reps would undermine the whole purpose of the legislation. That position is unsustainable.

Unless the Minister is able to tell us that there will be some kind of common-sense limit, however flexible, to prevent an abuse of the procedure, I urge my hon. Friends and other members of the Committee who are concerned about the problem to vote for the amendment, merely to emphasise to the Minister that the issue must be dealt with. If the Minister tells me that the amendment is not the way to do it, I am more than willing to take that on board. If he has a better idea or a more flexible way forward, with which he can come back on Report, that would be excellent news.

The Opposition's principled objection to the clause has often been referred to today, as have the responses of employers' organisations. We and they make exactly the same response to the provision. The response of the Confederation of British Industry to the consultation was fairly representative of the responses of employer organisations. It clearly supports the principle of paid time off for trade union learning reps. However, it does not support the idea that, independently and without discussion and agreement with the employer, trade unions should be able to impose trade union learning reps. It is disingenuous of the Minister to claim that the CBI supports the legislation simply because it supports the principle of paid time off for union learning, when its submission makes it absolutely clear that it rejects the notion that that should be imposed by statute.

That is not a philosophical objection to things being imposed by statute. It is the observation that what works well when people get together and fettle it out for themselves, as they say in Nottinghamshire, will not necessarily work well if it is imposed by statute. That is the essential point of principle. If it will reassure the hon. Member for Doncaster, North, I am happy to put it on record that I believe that an enlightened employer who enjoyed a good relationship with a sensible trade union would want to have trade union learning reps in the workplace.

There are some other technical issues—hon. Members will be aware of them from the amendments that we have tabled—that we shall want to deal with later, but that is our general position. We cannot legislate for good relationships between employers and trade unions; they have to grow. We need to educate, not legislate. I urge Labour Members to reflect on that.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Perhaps the divergence between the two sides in this debate is caused partly by the fact that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that there is a rather higher number of enlightened employers—I use his phrase—than we do. Because there is no statutory obligation at the moment, there are only about 3,000 union learning reps, which is not a high number.

Mr. Hammond: Yes, but we cannot have it both ways. The Minister has told us this morning that there are only 3,000 because it is a relatively new concept.

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He suggested that the growth pattern to reach 22,000 during the next eight years was not particularly alarming, given their short life so far and the present pattern of growth. I make a prediction for the hon. Gentleman: if they are doing the good work that I understand they are doing now and if there are sufficient workplaces where relationships are conducive to the appointment of union learning reps, we shall see an expansion in the number of union learning reps even without legislation.

I have talked with employers who have union learning reps in their workplaces and—let us be blunt about it—opinion ranges from highly positive to not particularly damning. That may be reasonably good news, but all those employers have appropriate relationships with their trade unions and work forces, and union learning reps have been negotiated, agreed and put in place. If we impose this regime on all unionised workplaces, it will not work anything like as well. In fact, we are in danger of bringing a good initiative into disrepute, causing damage to structures that are beginning to work well and which, in the normal course of events, I predict will expand beyond the present 3,000.

 
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