Employment Bill

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Norman Lamb: There is, in law, a clear distinction between the concept of consultation, the word used in the provision, and that of collective bargaining or negotiation. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central suggested that there is an existing right to bargain collectively on training, but there is not. My understanding of the legislation on the right to recognition for trade unions is that it specifically left training out of the issues over which there could be collective bargaining. It introduced the right to consult on that issue. This provision follows the same legislative framework as the law on the right to recognition for trade unions. It seems that there is a clear distinction and that no further definition is required.

Mr. Hammond: If that is the case, I will be very pleased if the Minister can clarify it. All that he needs to tell the Committee is that a person appointed as a union learning rep, that is, an official entitled to paid time off for certain duties, will not be able, within the definition of those duties, to take part in a bargaining session.

Norman Lamb: Other than by consent.

Mr. Hammond: Exactly.

One concern expressed by employers is that bargaining rights might be extended—there might be creep—as a result of the legislation. Another concern is that, in some circumstances, people appointed as learning reps might be trade union activists to whom the trade union wishes to give formalised recognition,

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and for whom they wish to secure paid time off, as part of a wider process. I am not suggesting that that will be widespread or universal, but since the Minister has clearly ruled out this area becoming subject to bargaining, I think it wholly appropriate to ask him how he can be sure that that will be the case. I give way to the Minister, and he can clarify the matter.

John Healey: I hope and think that I can. The hon. Gentleman has made clear the additional point that he is pursuing. In the context of the legislation that we are examining, the issue is not whether the representatives take part in bargaining, but whether in order to do that they take advantage of the clause's provision for a new right to time off. The purposes for which a trade union representative can claim a right to time off under the clause are specified in new section 168A(2). They do not include bargaining on training.

There are two circumstances in which a union representative may take part in bargaining over training and may get time off to do so. The first is where there is an agreement with the employer to do that. The second is where the union learning representative is also a shop steward. If that individual is engaged in bargaining, their position as a shop steward may give them a right to time off under existing section 168. That would, however, be a right to time off as a shop steward, not as a union learning representative.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister's remarks are helpful, and I suspect that little light bulbs have illuminated on this side of the Committee. They certainly have in my mind. It had not occurred to me that the union learning rep could be the shop steward.

Judy Mallaber: Why not?

Mr. Hammond: It had not occurred to me. Hon. Members opposite look shocked. I think that the whole tenor of the debate has been that the learning rep will be someone with a specialist skill targeted on a wholly different agenda. I take it that the learning agenda is different from the role of shop steward in the workplace.

Mr. Lloyd: The real problem here is that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have not learned a lot during the last 20 years. There is still this image coming through from the Conservative Opposition that the shop steward is a horned beast, a wicked creature designed to do damage to the fabric of our society. The reality of industrial relations is that the shop steward is often the first point of call for personnel management or whatever, because the system is helpful. It would be consistent for a skilled shop steward, used to representing his or her members, also to be the person who upskills him or herself to perform the role of union learning representative. I just do not see wherein lies the problem.

Mr. Hammond: I find it very interesting that trade union membership is at the level that it is, if it offers all those advantages and has transformed and modernised itself as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is remarkable that at the beginning of the 21st century,

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when the majority of the work force is not trade unionised, we are discussing a measure that will apply to a small minority of the work force outside the public sector. We are making primary legislation to deliver a benefit to some employees and not others in a tiny community within the work force.

Forgetting the last part of the Under-Secretary's comments and the subsequent exchange, his clarification was helpful. I said at the outset that this was a probing amendment. I am struggling, Mr. Conway, because I cannot remember whether the Minister replied or merely intervened in my opening comments.

The Chairman: Order. The Under-Secretary made a long intervention, but he has not yet replied.

John Healey: Union learning representatives do not operate in a vacuum. Employers have their own expertise and knowledge of training and learning matters. Good employers will be active in promoting training for and upskilling their work force, which is one of the functions of the union learning rep specified in the clause. Paragraph (b), which the amendment would remove, recognises that union learning representatives should communicate regularly with employers and discuss their work programmes with them. Such dialogue benefits both parties. Initiatives can be dovetailed and, as the hon. Member for Doncaster, North made it clear, employees will often talk to a union learning rep in terms that they would not use to a human resources officer or manager, so training needs can be established by union learning representatives and should be communicated to the company.

The amendment suggests that a belief in such discussion and consultation with the employer is not an essential role of the union learning rep.

Mr. Osborne: The CBI brief seeks a clear statement from the Government

    ''that learning representatives do not have a right to bargain on training with the employer''.

Can the Under-Secretary now provide that statement?

John Healey: I have provided that statement several times today, not least during the recent exchange. If the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will see all the assurance and clarification he requires several times.

Subsection (2)(b) provides a sensible entitlement for union learning representatives to have time off to consult their employer on such matters. It is explicitly restricted to consultations on the performance of union learning representatives' duties as specified in the Bill. It is not a general entitlement to time off to consult the employer on other issues.

Mr. Simmonds: The Under-Secretary said that the union learning representative may be the same individual as the shop steward. Would the time off to which he would be entitled in his role as union learning representative be in addition to the time off to which he would be entitled as shop steward? Would the two be bolted together?

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John Healey: The union learning representative would have the right to time off to perform the duties of union learning representative. The right to that time off is established in the clause and is to enable him to perform the duties specified in the clause.

To return to the amendment, subsection (2)(b) is vital to the working of the union learning rep and in the light of our discussion and the points that we have exchanged, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

4.45 pm

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister. He has given the explicit statement that I sought and he has gone some way to explaining how that would work in practice. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 219, in page 45, line 29, at end insert—

    '(aa) the employer has given his approval in writing to the appointment (such approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed)'.

The amendment addresses the question of employer approval for the appointment of a learning rep. I know that Labour Members' initial reaction will be ''This has nothing to do with the employer. He should not have any power to influence the appointment of the union learning rep.'' That argument sits uncomfortably with what we have all said about learning reps being able to flourish and prosper only in a collaborative environment. It seems not unreasonable to say that an employer cannot have a veto over the appointment of a shop steward, but also reasonable to say that an employer must have some involvement in the appointment of a learning rep, if it is to be anything more than a bauble to be offered as an inducement to a trade union official—more paid time off for the shop steward. That is not what any of us seeks.

Knowing what the instinctive reaction of Labour Members would be, I have inserted into the amendment the words

    ''such approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed'',

a phrase familiar to lawyers. The concept of reasonableness is one that we debated a few minutes ago in relation to another matter and one with which the law is used to dealing. In most cases it would be impossible for an employer to withhold his approval of a proposed learning representative where all the other criteria were met, one of those criteria being appropriate qualifications or competence. We shall come to that issue and I do not intend to address it now.

The amendment would simply include a provision that the employer has a voice in this process that could be exercised where the proposed appointment is unreasonable, having regard to all the facts, where the reasonableness or otherwise would ultimately be determined by a tribunal. I suspect that most employers in most cases would be reluctant to risk exercising the power that I propose to give them here

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to withhold approval in any but the most extreme cases, but it is essential that we recognise the collaborative nature of the process that union learning reps will be engaged on by involving the employer in the appointment process.

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