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Standing Committee Debates
Employment Bill

Employment Bill

Column Number: 513

Standing Committee F

Tuesday 22 January 2002

(Morning)

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Employment Bill

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. On Thursday, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) requested certain factual information that I have been able to provide to him and other members of the Committee in the form of a short letter.

The Chairman: Thank you.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): Further to that point of order, Mr. Benton. I am grateful to the Minister for making that information available in such short order that it can be brought to bear on today's debate.

May I draw your attention to the fact, Mr. Benton, and ask you to draw it to the attention of the relevant authorities, that, in spite of previous commitments, the new clauses have been printed without line numbers? In the case of a new clause, such as new clause 2, that runs to several pages, that makes it difficult for hon. Members who want to table amendments to identify the line in which such amendments should be inserted, and it makes matters more difficult for the Clerks who have to marshal the amendments. I have raised this issue on several occasions in Standing Committee, and I have been assured that it is has been agreed with the printer that line numbers will be printed the first time new clauses appear. As that would seem to be for everyone's convenience and would inconvenience nobody, I ask once again whether you might raise the matter through the channels of the Chairmen's Panel and see whether anything can be done.

The Chairman: That point of order is noted, and I shall pass it on.

Ordered,

    That the Programming Order of the Committee of 6th December 2001 be amended—

    by the substitution in paragraph (5) (time for conclusion of remaining proceedings) of the words '11.25 a.m. on Thursday 24th January' for the words '7 p.m. on Tuesday 22nd of January'. —[Alan Johnson.]

    Clause 43

    Union learning representatives

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 221, in page 45, line 33, after '(2)' insert

    'and has obtained a nationally recognised qualification relevant to those activities'.

Column Number: 514

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 220, in page 45, leave out lines 35 to 41.

No. 222, in page 46, line 1, leave out subsection (6).

No. 226, page 47, line 4, at end insert—

    '(aa) the training condition referred to in section 168A(4) of this Act is met in relation to him.'.

Mr. Hammond: The amendments primarily deal with qualifications and training for the job of union learning representative. We are all clear that the union learning rep is not a nominal appointment or reward to be given to somebody for long and diligent service in the cause of their union. It is a functioning post that, in best practice examples, will perform a vital function as part of the overall training and learning scheme in a firm. It is therefore essential that the people who fill the posts are properly qualified, which means appropriate qualifications and training to do the job in question.

The Government envisage that union learning reps will be appointed, or perhaps elected in some cases, and, once appointed, will undertake some training to fit them for the job. That is counter-intuitive because we are discussing a particular function for which someone will need a clear knowledge and understanding of the training process and the opportunities available to members of the work force. Opposition Members consider it reasonable for employers to expect that if they pay people to carry out duties during working time, the people who carry them out will be competent and qualified. That is so self-evidently necessary and uncontroversial that I am curious about the Government's objection to the inclusion of a requirement for a nationally recognised qualification for somebody to be eligible to be appointed as a union learning rep.

The rejection by the Government of amendment No. 221, which recommends that a ''nationally recognised qualification''—something like a national vocational qualification—should be required to make a person eligible for appointment as a union learning rep will suggest to employers that the Government see union learning reps less as contributing in a specific function, and more in terms of an award, reward or recognition. I cannot begin to imagine the argument that the Minister will make to suggest that people who are wholly unqualified should be eligible for these posts. The system will be brought into disrepute if people who are eminently qualified to act as learning reps in a workplace are passed over and people who are eminently unqualified are appointed.

If the Minister is unable to accept the amendments, I hope that he will indicate that there will be a requirement in guidance or regulations for appropriate qualification at the time of appointment. If an employer is to be required to recognise the appointment of a union learning rep, there should be a requirement for that person to have appropriate qualifications. The other amendments flow naturally from what I have just said.

John Healey: All the amendments refer to the training condition. Many respondents to our consultation exercise, especially employers, wanted

Column Number: 515

assurances that union learning reps would be sufficiently trained to carry out their specialist duties. There was majority, if not unanimous, support for that and one or two voices, such as that of the Trades Union Congress, were unhappy that we should insist on a training requirement. However, that is the decision that we have come to. Clause 43 requires employees to be sufficiently trained to carry out their duties either at the time that they begin functioning as a union learning representative or within six months of that date.

Amendment No. 220 seeks to remove subsections (4)(b) and (c) from new section 168A. Those subsections deal with the position of a union member who wishes to become a union learning rep but is, as yet, untrained in that role. Such individuals would find it difficult to gain the necessary expertise unless they had time off work to undergo the required introductory training. Indeed, evaluation of the existing union learning reps demonstrates that one in three find that an inability to have time off is a barrier to carrying out the role. The subsections make provision for that by allowing a new but untrained union learning rep to fill the position for an initial six-month start-up period. During that period, the union learning rep would receive the same time off rights as an established rep. However, if the person did not receive the required training during the six-month period, that person would no longer qualify for that right to time off.

Mr. Hammond: Does the Minister acknowledge that there is a difference between training and qualification? The amendments propose that the provision that the training condition is met by training after the appointment be deleted and that, in its place, a recognised qualification is required as a condition of eligibility for appointment. That is, in practice, how we work across the piece. I am sure that his Department does not generally appoint people on the basis that if they undergo appropriate training, they might be capable six months later of fulfilling the role assigned to them. We tend to look for people who are capable of fulfilling it from day one.

John Healey: I accept that there is a difference between training and qualification and I shall come to that when I come to amendment No. 221. Equally, I expect the hon. Gentleman to accept that some forms of training and learning include learning on the job. During the six-month start-up period, new union learning reps will gain important experience in doing the job as part of their development in the role.

Subsection (5) ensures that a disqualified person—a union learning rep who did not take up the initial training within the six-month period—could not immediately requalify for time off by starting a second six-month period. Thus, there is a real incentive for the new union learning rep to undertake the initial training at the earliest opportunity.

Column Number: 516

If there is to be a training condition, we must give all union members an opportunity to meet it. The two subsections are vital if we are not to exclude many people from the opportunity to undertake this role in the workplace in future.

Amendment No. 221 seeks to define the training condition as the attainment of a nationally recognised qualification relating to a union learning rep's activities, as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge explained. At present no national vocational qualification covers all aspects of a union learning rep's role. Some units of existing advice and guidance non-vocational qualifications may well be applicable to that aspect of a union learning rep's role. In addition, there are specially designed courses for union learning reps who need them, which are accredited through the Open College network. It may be possible to design a national qualification in this area, but it is a totally different matter to insist rigidly, as the amendment does, that all union learning reps should obtain such a qualification.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): If the Minister is not prepared to accept the amendment, how can we establish whether someone has undergone insufficient training? Normally, in our education and employment system, we establish that people are sufficiently educated or have undergone sufficient training if they have achieved a qualification. How can we prove that if the Minister does not accept the amendment?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman will recall from our discussions last week that a code of practice is proposed. The clause enables either the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service or the Secretary of State to produce a code of practice that will help to define the training condition. The hon. Gentleman will also recall that we have discussed the balance between specifying provision in the Bill and the need for flexibility of application, workplace by workplace. The same principle applies to my argument about a qualification.

These courses, or a single, formal qualification, may not suit everyone. Union learning reps, like Members of Parliament, come in all shapes and sizes: they have different aptitudes and prior skills and widely varying personal characteristics, and people learn in different ways. We know from experience over the past three or four years that some of the most effective union learning reps are those who have come to learning late; a formal course may not be suitable for them, just as a formal course and the full qualification may not be suitable for someone who may previously have been a careers guidance expert or, indeed, a teacher. If we go down the hon. Gentleman's route, we risk, first, introducing rigidity and, secondly, denying the possibility of becoming a union learning rep to a number of people who might otherwise be able to serve in that capacity and help their workplace colleagues.

10.45 am

 
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