Employment Bill

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Norman Lamb: I am absolutely with the hon. Gentleman over the need to ensure that the new right works as it ought to and is intended to, according the terms of the Bill, rather than being abused in the way that he suggests. Does he not concede, however, that in any given workplace the learning rep might be dealing with a human resources person, employed by the employer, who is equally unqualified, although perhaps very good at the job? It would be a little bizarre to impose a requirement of a specific training qualification on the union side of the workplace, but not on the human resources, employed, side.

Mr. Hammond: An employer dealing with a unionised work force, which is what we are talking about, who appoints a completely unqualified human resources manager is taking a pretty big risk with his business. I certainly would not recommend anyone to buy his shares, but that would be his risk.

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Something very important came from the Minister's response to the amendment. I do not think that we need to have a party political confrontation on the point, but it became apparent to me as he was speaking that part of the problem is that we are trying to address two issues at once. In the Minister's recent remarks about union learning reps, he referred to dealing with illiteracy and the 3 million people who cannot read or write and who do not possess basic numeracy. Of course, that is a major problem in society, which must be addressed. He is right that someone with no formal qualifications and no educational background but who has sorted himself out might be in a better position to take the message to a younger colleague that he needs to focus on acquiring those basic skills. I do not disagree with that.

However, when we were talking about union learning reps at the start of this series of debates, I had in mind something a little more ambitious and exalted and I think that employers have that in mind when they examine the positive role that union learning reps can play. The United Kingdom has to fight its corner in the world, so we need highly skilled people in our workplaces. Skills are becoming outdated at an ever-accelerating rate and we need to encourage in the workplace a culture of learning, relearning and relearning again so that people constantly update their knowledge base and keep ahead of the game. That is where my legitimate concern about unqualified people comes in.

There are two different roles here and one of them is for the chap with no education but a good evangelical line for basic learning who can persuade others in the workplace that they need basic literacy and numeracy. However, the reality is that if someone is employed in a role that he can satisfactorily hold down without basic literacy and numeracy, it is unlikely to be of material value to the employer in the workplace to upgrade those skills. Of course, there is a huge benefit to society at large. I do not deny that, but that is different from trying constantly to persuade higher-skilled and medium-skilled people to test the ceiling of their capabilities by upgrading.

I do not have a solution off the top of my head, but I suggest that the latter role will not be adequately filled by someone with no recognised qualification in that area. I do not think that the Minister intends union learning reps to deal only with the rump end of the problem, the people left behind by the employer's skills and training schemes. I think that he intends those people to mesh into the training and learning schemes that employers develop.

We know that training will be defined in the code to be issued by the Secretary of State, but we have been told nothing about how long it should take or whether there should be any defined, measurable outcome at the end of it. I asked the Minister about that before and did not receive an answer. It seems to me that the training qualification will be satisfied, and that an appointment as a learning rep will therefore stand, if the condition in subsection (4)(b) alone is satisfied. That says that the training condition is met if

    ''the trade union has in the last six months''—

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that is, the six months prior to the rep's appointment—

    ''given the employer notice in writing that the employee will be undergoing such training''.

It does not go on to say, ''and the employee actually undergoes such training.'' As I understand it, the mere giving of a notice by the trade union to the employer is sufficient to satisfy the training condition. That cannot be the intention, and I suggest to the Minister that there is an unintended loophole.

Employers will not take the scheme seriously and at face value, as the Minister would wish them to, if learning reps are to be imposed on them by statute. It will be in everybody's interests if they can take the scheme seriously. An objective measure of qualification must be achieved—the amendment suggests before appointment, but we could come to a consensus that it should be afterwards, once the training has taken place. Otherwise the scheme could be discredited by patently incompetent and unqualified people filling the role of learning reps years down the line following their appointment.

I should like to hear the Minister's response to those points before I decide how to proceed.

John Healey: I shall try to deal with the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

First, he is right to argue that we need a more highly skilled work force that is constantly and regularly reskilled. However, that can happen only if people have the basic skills on which to build such additional training. That is the fundamental problem that has bedevilled so many of our employees in terms of their ability to reskill. It is a block on business and on the opportunities of those individuals. The hon. Gentleman was right to mention the need for different roles. I remind him that that was precisely my argument in response to an earlier amendment that sought to limit the number of union learning reps that could be appointed in any one workplace or bargaining unit.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is worried about the interpretation of subsection (4)(b). As I tried to explain, we are talking about a one-off temporary period of six months during which the newly appointed learning rep has to undertake training to meet the training condition. The key word is ''last''. If the condition is not met after six months, the right to time off to undergo that training, and the rights that accrue from being a recognised union learning rep, fall. Subsection (5) makes it clear that it is a one-off opportunity for a new learning rep to acquire the training to meet the training condition in order to be able to take up the rights for which the rest of the clause provides.

Thirdly, the code of practice and the consultation that will help us to confirm it will cover precisely the range of matters that the hon. Gentleman outlined.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman was worried about the situation of an employer who believes that the training condition in respect of a union learning rep has not been met after the initial six months. If an employer was worried that the training condition had not been met, he would not give time off to a learning rep to carry out duties or fulfil the rights that will flow from

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this clause. It will be incumbent on the union and the learning rep to ensure that sufficient training, and evidence of it, are such that the employer's concern is settled. Ultimately, if the learning rep could not satisfy the employer that the training condition had been met, that would be tested in an employment tribunal. I hope that I have settled the hon. Gentleman's concerns and that he will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister has not settled my concerns about subsection (4)(b). I have heard his comments, but my reading of the Bill is different. I am not a lawyer, but it seems that nothing requires the condition in (4)(b) to be conjoined with another condition that requires training to take place. The Minister has talked about the code of practice; it is not clear that that code will override the Bill. The code of practice will simply enable an employer to define sufficient training, and that is its essential purpose. That is relevant to subsections (4)(a) and (c) but does not seem relevant to 4(b).

I will withdraw the amendment with a view to tabling similar amendments on Report in the hope of probing the important matter of qualification. It is the key remaining issue for employers who recognise that the Government are determined to impose, by statute, union learning reps. Employers want to ensure that those who are appointed will contribute positively to training and learning in the workplace and will be appropriately qualified to do so. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 228, in page 45, line 43, at end add—

    '(5A) This section shall not apply to an employer who has obtained and who maintains ''Investors in People'' status'.

I will not dwell on the drafting of the amendment—the Minister will probably have a hundred reasons why it is technically defective—but it probes the Government on why it is necessary to impose the model of the statutory union learning rep on an employer who is already exercising best practice in relation to training and learning in the workplace.

Many times the Minister has, using one of my favourite phrases, said that we cannot impose a one-size-fits-all solution. However, the clause offers precisely that. The statutory union learning rep is being imposed not where there is no training, or where training is inadequate, but where the training, by the Government's own standards and tests, is first class. The employer may have been certificated for being at the leading edge, yet the Government want to impose, in an unhelpful fashion, a statutory provision.

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