Employment Bill

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Norman Lamb: I can state that I shall not vote against the clause as a whole. Nevertheless, I agree with a lot of the logic of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

I am at something of a disadvantage in that I did not hear the start of this morning's discussion, and I apologise for that. However, I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for the Minister to recognise that an issue stands to be dealt with. There is clearly concern on both sides—given the contribution from the hon. Member for Doncaster, North—that there is a risk of exploitation in some circumstances. Therefore, particularly at the start, there should be limitations on the right to appoint reps, and on the numbers of those reps.

However, the logic of what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says about legislation not being capable of creating an environment is flawed. There is a massive body of legislation in the employment field, much of which dates back to the Conservative Government, and a large part of which is now widely accepted as being helpful in creating a good environment. One thinks of the unfair dismissal provisions, which originated during the government of Sir Edward Heath. We are creating a framework within which the two sides of the employment relationship work together in a reasonably—[Interruption.] I guess that Conservative Members are saying that they do not agree with anything that Edward Heath came up with.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North): Too young.

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Norman Lamb: I have the benefit of being able to confirm that. If one pushes that logic to its conclusion, one is left with, simply, a legislative framework on health and safety, and nothing else to regulate the relationship.

Mr. Prisk: I understand why the hon. Gentleman takes his view, but he misses the heart of the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, which is that Conservatives feel strongly that there is a need for learning in the workplace, but passionately support organisations such as the Industrial Society, which see the benefits of encouraging the promotion of best practice. Legislation can be—particularly if it is drafted like this Bill—a clumsy tool in that environment.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful for that. That is why I think that the Minister needs to look further at the detailed framework and to recognise the concerns on both sides of this debate. As it stands, the legislation might well be subject to exploitation and could go beyond what is reasonable in any particular workplace.

On a point of detail, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West sought to allay concerns in that only a limited number of reps exist. With respect, that is a non-point. Enshrining the need for reps in legislation will inevitably create a different environment and will, self-evidently, lead to a significant increase in the number of reps.

Rob Marris: That was the very point that I was trying to put to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. The legislation will assist matters.

Norman Lamb: If that is the point, it is fine and I accept it. I will conclude when I have urged the Minister to recognise that there ought to be a limit to prevent unreasonable exploitation in a workplace by trade unions, or individual trade union members or representatives.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): In view of your judgment about the clause stand part debate, Mr. Conway, I will sweep up the points about the amendments and give one or two wider responses to the broader questions that have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North made a series of powerful points, certainly in the first part of his speech, in his special south Yorkshire style. I welcome his strong support for the clause and the new rights that it creates for union learning representatives. As he said, trade unions have always been interested in the training, education and prospects of their members. Indeed, the TUC was founded more than 100 years ago with a call for more technical education. In a small way, the clause reinforces the role that trade unions can play in the modern day to boost levels of training, investment and opportunities through better skills for their members.

Judy Mallaber: Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: I will give way first to the hon. Gentleman and then to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Hammond: I apologise for not posing the question to the Minister earlier, but will he remind the Committee what percentage of union members are in the public or quasi-public sector? In respect of that large percentage of union members, the solution lies in the hands of the Government. It would be interesting to know whether there was universal recognition of union learning reps in all areas of the economy that are within the Government's control as the ultimate employer.

John Healey: I shall return to that point about the precise effect of the clause. I want to deal with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North on the amendments, but I shall first give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley.

Judy Mallaber: Opposition Members contend that the clause is a sop to the trade unions and the TUC. Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from that, we are considering the long-standing development of an education process under which people who have not had access to education have been offered it through the trade union and labour movement, the Workers Educational Association and colleges and courses set up in relation to it? The clause is a logical development of a positive process that the trade union movement has undertaken over the years, not a sop to the TUC.

John Healey: My hon. Friend puts the case, and counters the accusations that we have heard from those on the Opposition Front Bench, quietly, cogently and precisely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North raised a concern that the number of trade union learning representatives might get out of hand if we did not seriously consider the amendments, which were tabled by members of both Opposition parties. Unions do not appoint too many stewards and health and safety representatives in workplaces, so there is no reason to believe that we should have problems with unions appointing too many learning representatives to workplaces. The clause provides rights that are broadly equivalent to those enjoyed by shop stewards and other similar lay officials.

There are no upper limits to the number of shop stewards that unions can appoint. It is correctly left for unions to decide, and that has created no significant problems for employers. There is no reason to believe that such problems might specifically arise in the case of union learning representatives when they have not done for other union lay officials.

Mr. Simmonds: Can the Minister see no circumstances in which a group of trade union officials might exploit the lack of a ceiling for the number of trade union representatives?

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John Healey: I cannot see a scale of concern among Opposition Members that would lead me to accept their arguments in support of the amendments. If the amendments are pressed to a vote, I shall urge my hon. Friends to support me in rejecting them.

Norman Lamb: Will the Minister explain the logic behind the distinction between the Bill and section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 on representatives who are elected in a redundancy situation? In the Act, the employer determines the appropriate number of representatives to represent the employees. Why is there a difference between the provision in the Act and that in the Bill? The Act relates to the non-trade union workplace, while the Bill relates to a workplace where the union has been recognised, but is there any other distinction?

John Healey: The model on which our proposals are based is drawn not from the Act but from legislation that is in place and that has worked well for many years. In the clause, we seek to create rights for trade union learning representatives that are broadly equivalent to those for stewards and similar lay officials. That is the model and the comparator that we used when developing our policy.

Mr. Hughes: I do not want the Minister to be under the impression that I support the Opposition amendments, because I do not. If the Opposition press them to a Division, he can rely on me to vote against them. However, I said in my earlier contribution that the principle behind the amendments was worthy of the Minister's consideration. Not all shop stewards get paid time off work. I can envisage a workplace with a reasonable number of employees and one or two paid stewards and safety reps who get paid time off work. If the unions asked to have six or seven learning reps with paid time off to do a useful job—we must admit that some people in the trade unions can be difficult, although by and large they are not—the employer would say, ''You're having a laugh.'' That is why I said only that the principle behind the amendments was worthy of the Minister's consideration.

3.30 pm

John Healey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification of his overall view and of how he would vote if the Opposition pressed the amendments. I take his points, which he made earlier.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) recognises that there is a case for flexibility, and the application of the clause will suit local circumstances workplace by workplace. However, the limits that the amendments would introduce in the Bill would lead to inflexibilities that, as I explained earlier, are unnecessary and undesirable. I welcome the fact that he does not plan to support the amendment.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) talked about the clause introducing legal compulsion into the system. The clause creates no rights for unions to bargain. It creates no right to

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training for union members. It is a specific, limited right intended to support the work of trade union learning representatives. To be most effective, even when the clause is in place, the representatives will still need to be persuasive and to work in partnership with the employers. Both sides of the Committee have paid tribute to the work of union learning representatives, but the evidence of the four or five years since union learning representatives were established and started to develop their role suggests that the lack of formal recognition puts them at a disadvantage over their colleagues and inhibits their effectiveness and credibility with employers and colleagues.

 
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