Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I want to put two points to the Minister. First, is he telling us that someone who does not have a qualification at NVQ level is the right

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person to advise others on how to obtain such qualifications? That seems to me to be counter-intuitive.

Secondly, as I understand it, the paragraphs in subsection (4) should be read disjunctively, so subsection (4)(b) stands alone. It therefore says:

    ''The training condition is met if—

    (b) the trade union has in the last six months given the employer notice in writing that the employee will be undergoing such training''.

There is no reference to training being done or being done by a specific date. If the trade union simply gives the employer notice in writing that the employee will undergo the training, that will satisfy the training condition and force the employer to recognise that person as a learning rep. That is entirely unsatisfactory.

John Healey: On the latter point, as I have already explained, the training condition will be met in those circumstances in order to give new union learning reps six months during which they have the right to paid time off to take the initial training required to bring them up to speed as a fully effective trade union learning rep. If they fail to take up that entitlement, the training condition lapses and cannot be reapplied for by the same person. That is why the provision is in the clause.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I urge him to look at some of our evaluation evidence of the experience of union learning reps over the past four years. He may know that one of the biggest problems facing Britain today is that up to 7 million adults do not have the reading, writing and maths skills that we expect of our 11-year-olds. Of those 7 million, at least 3 million are already in the workplace. Our experience has been that some union learning reps with poor basic literacy and numeracy skills are in a perfect position for colleagues with similar difficulties to confide in them and to trust their advice and information about how, after many years in many cases, they can begin to tackle their basic skills problems. The value of union learning reps is that they can move among their colleagues and be someone whom both the employee and the employer can trust to raise the commitment and the motivation to tackle some of the learning and skills deficits that we face in workplaces today.

Mr. Osborne: In the situation that the Minister is describing, union learning reps have considerable responsibility, because they are dealing with people, as the Minister says, who may have poor literacy and numeracy skills, be poor at articulating themselves and need all the help that they can get. Surely that is even more reason why union learning reps should have a basic qualification for advising people? If they do not, we may find that someone with no qualifications, who may honestly be trying to do the best job he or she can, may give poor advice simply by not being qualified to help those people.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman makes a persuasive case, but it supports the case for training if a union learning rep is to do an effective job, and not necessarily the case for a single qualification, which

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may lead to problems of rigidity and may rule out those who would otherwise have a valuable role to play as union learning reps. Above all, I have made it clear that we want to avoid the danger of a one-size-fits-all policy, which would not work in practice.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I think that all members of the Committee respect the argument that many people struggle to read and write—indeed, this morning I am struggling with my own words—but we must not confuse the pastoral role to which the Minister refers with the need for a qualification. Can the Minister explain whether the stance that he has taken this morning contradicts his Department's stance on, say, teaching in schools, which is clearly a comparable situation? The Government have rightly argued that qualified teachers are needed to provide the leadership, qualifications and skills necessary to do the job, and the same is surely true in the workplace.

John Healey: The situation is different. We are talking about lay people who are prepared to undertake extra duties to help their colleagues at work, and we are keen to ensure that such people have the support, information and basic training that they need to do so effectively. That could include diagnostic techniques, the ability to carry out skills audits, basic information advice counselling skills, and knowledge about the type of learning provision that might be available and appropriate. We look to our union learning reps to have such training, information and skills, but as I have contended that is not the same as a formal qualification.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): In terms of previous experience and learning skills, will there be a system of accreditation for those who might not have formal qualifications? Such a system is quite common in other areas of training.

John Healey: For those who are new union learning reps, the proposed code of practice and the provisions that introduce it will cover such matters by defining the training conditions and the circumstances in which they will be met.

Amendment No. 222 would remove the clause's definition of ''sufficient training''. It would also remove the power of ACAS or the Secretary of State to introduce a code of practice that gives guidance on what constitutes sufficient training—the matter on which the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) pressed me a moment ago.

As I argued in response to amendment No. 221, the Government recognise that the experience, attributes and prized skills that individuals bring to the job will vary greatly. I am therefore keen to avoid an unnecessarily prescriptive definition of ''sufficient training'' that treats all individuals as if they need to be, and are, the same. In practice, some individuals may need formal training, but others who learn best in different ways could pick up the necessary expertise by shadowing an experienced union learning rep, or through similar individual coaching and mentoring. Indeed, some may have already gained teaching or

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training experience through their employment. For them, such previous experience might mean that they need little or no further training to undertake the role effectively.

We would expect the code of practice to discuss and deal with those varying circumstances, giving guidance on what should be taken into account in deciding whether an individual is indeed sufficiently trained. I expect the code of practice to be produced by the Secretary of State, although no final decision has been taken on that. It is within the power of ACAS to produce it, although this particular field is perhaps outside its expertise. In either case, a draft code would be put out for full consultation, and it is clear that it would be particularly important for us—or for ACAS—to receive the views of employers, unions and training specialists on its contents.

Amendment No. 226 seeks to ensure that trade union members have the right to access a learning rep only if that rep meets the training condition, and I agree with that aim. There should be no entitlement to time off—although such time off would be without pay—where the rep is a self-styled union learning rep with no backing. However, I believe that the clause will achieve that. It will insert proposed new subsection (2)(b) into section 170 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, and provide an employer who is also a union member with the right to unpaid time off for the purpose of accessing the services of a union learning rep. Proposed new subsection (2)(c), however, provides that that right will apply only if the union learning rep qualifies for paid time off under subsection (1) of proposed new section 168A. To so qualify, a union learning rep will have to meet the training condition, and an entitlement to time off will exist only where the union learning rep has indeed met that condition.

I hope that that somewhat lengthy explanation has given hon. Members the reassurance that they seek, and that, in the light of my comments, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will regard the amendment as unnecessary. Through the consultation exercise, we have carefully weighed views on the question of requiring training and qualification. We have responded to employers' requests that a training condition be attached to the union learning rep role, and in a way that avoids over-prescription by catering for a wide variety of circumstances and for the wide range of individuals who might take up that role. A code will be introduced, giving more detailed guidance. We have also ensured that all qualifying members of a union will have a reasonable opportunity to become union learning reps themselves.

The provisions are sensible and I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment. If he will not, I must urge my hon. Friends to resist it.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I shall be brief. I have already expressed concern about the potential for abuse of this new right—we had that debate last week—and if it is to work, it must include an element

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of flexibility. The amendments are overly prescriptive and could disqualify a number of people who genuinely want to contribute to improving education and skills among union members in the workplace. It would not be helpful to deny such people the opportunity to play a role, and on the whole I prefer the approach in the Bill as drafted. A code of practice that defines how the training should work is preferable to an overly prescriptive system that would deny opportunities to many potentially laudable representatives.

Mr. Hammond: I am not soothed by the Minister's explanations. The issue is important, and it goes to the heart of the question of the Government's motivation in pursuing this measure. Generally speaking, the Government are pretty much wedded to objectively measurable standards, qualifications and thresholds. They like to measure, and to ensure that things are being achieved in a measurable way. Here, however, the woolly suggestion is made that those who are unqualified will be appointed unqualified. They will perhaps undergo some training—I shall return in a moment to the question of how we can be sure that such training will take place—at the end of which the assumption will be made that they are fit to do the job. As I understand it, there will be no test at the end to establish whether such people are competent, capable and qualified to preach to their fellow workers. There appears to be no mechanism for challenging the appointment of a union learning rep if it becomes self-evident during training that he is unsuitable or not committed to the role.

We have fundamental questions about the Government's real intentions. There is no debate about the need to encourage training and learning, or to secure co-operation between employers and those who work for them. The debate is about whether the exercise on which the Minister is embarked is genuinely intended to achieve that objective, and focused towards achieving it, or whether there is an alternative agenda.

11 am

 
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