Employment

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Alan Johnson: I can see lights going on in many places. The hon. Gentleman offers an interesting invitation, suggesting that an employer would have to request that an employee adopted a different way of working, and that we would lay down the decisions on which the employee could decided not to accept the new terms and conditions, and the employment tribunal would not be able to interfere in any way with the employee's basic decision. We are discussing an unequal situation.

Mr. Hammond: It is interesting.

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Alan Johnson: It may be interesting, but it is also hypothetical. The hon. Gentleman may or may not find this happening somewhere in Runnymede and Weybridge, but I have found it time and time again not only in Hull, West and Hessle but all over the country. Large and small employers are not engaging with flexible working patterns not because there is some problem or barrier with their companies, but because they have always done things that way.

As a trade unionist, I admit that there are faults on both sides. Many unions established a pattern, agreed the shifts that would be worked, and took the attitude that no one could possibly change one dot or comma of a collective agreement that had governed industry for the past 120 years. Indeed, such attitudes still persist. If we leave this matter to culture change and best practice, it will take us a generation to deal with it. That is why legislation is necessary.

Norman Lamb: To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, as the law stands the employer already has the right, in effect, to request a change of terms and conditions with a real sanction attached. If there is a good and substantial business reason for making such a request and the employee refuses, dismissal could be deemed fair. The employer therefore has real power to make such a request to an employee. In that sense the provision would create more of a balance.

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is right. As I recall, a period of notice of about six months applies, irrespective of the views of the employee.

Judy Mallaber: I was going to make a point even before my hon. Friend mentioned the rigidity of some employers. When, in considering part-time workers, the Education and Employment Committee asked representatives of a particular sector why they could not establish different working patterns, they replied, ''Because we can't'', and said that the Committee did not understand the nature of their business. That was as much as they could say, despite the fact that they appeared before us knowing that we were considering the potential for changing working practices. Incidentally, the rigidity of that sector's working practices, its mindset and certain of its attitudes have not helped its businesses overall. Does my hon. Friend agree that, under the regulations, refusing even to consider the matter and offering the excuse, ''Because we can't'', will not necessarily be acceptable? To say, ''We can't, because of X effect on our business'' would be very different, in that it does not involve a suck-it-and-see attitude towards business practices.

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend gives a good example, and I have used a similar one to emphasise the prevailing culture in the workplace, which is changing, but not fast enough. Before the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge jumps in and mentions the Post Office, I should point out that my example relates to telecommunications in the late 1970s, when I was a representative—

Mr. Osborne: Oh, the glory days.

Alan Johnson: They were indeed the glory days. My flares, tank-top and feather-cut hair were on full display, and I was drinking Top Deck shandy.

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Mr. Prisk: So no change there.

Alan Johnson: I am trying to preserve my fashion statement. In those days, a day telephonist had to be a woman, and a night telephonist had to be a man. Between the day shift of female telephonists, who worked more or less 9 to 5, and the night shift of male telephonists was a group of part-timers who existed for the convenience of both shifts. They were class B members of the union, which says an awful lot. I am talking not about ancient history but fairly recent history, and it could be replicated in industries and organisations throughout the country. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 eventually caught up with that practice, but a residue of such practices remains.

To help employers and parents to ensure that they have a full understanding of the process, we plan to introduce the new law with a package of support. Key to that will be guidance containing a wide variety of examples of how the right will apply to help parents to make requests and employers to consider them. We estimate that only 1 per cent. of requests will need to end up at a tribunal and most cases will be settled at the initial meeting.

The approach recommended by the taskforce and accepted by Government encourages both parties to consider flexible working patterns that suit them both. That mechanism will enable employers and parents to explore solutions together, and is based on existing best practice, will promote dialogue throughout the process and encourage both parties to think about alternative solutions. It will contribute to increased productivity, help to make working parents lives easier and benefit their children.

I will briefly speak to the other, less substantial but none the less important, Government amendments. Amendment No. 200 ensures that employees are able to go to employment tribunals when they suffer a form of detriment for applying to work a flexible working pattern. For example, the provision will apply where an employee is held back from promotion after applying to work flexibly and has reason to believe that that is a result of making the request. Amendment No. 201 ensures that the flexible working provisions cover Crown employees, amendment No. 202 ensures that they cover the armed forces and amendment No. 203 ensures that they cover House of Lords and House of Commons staff—there will be cheering in New Palace Yard tonight.

Mr. Simmonds: The Minister mentioned amendment No. 202, which relates to the armed forces. Is the Minister seriously suggesting that serving members of the armed forces will be allowed to guarantee themselves flexible hours as regards turning up for work in the Army, Navy or the Air Force?

Alan Johnson: The armed forces include many personnel who do not work on the front line or who are involved in the direct support of continuing operations. I am sure that the armed forces already do a lot to help those individuals to have the opportunity to work flexibly like other employees. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman is worried about front-line troops, but a clear reason will be set out in

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the regulations as to why any request from them would probably not be granted.

Amendment No. 204 excludes share fishermen from the flexible working provisions. They are a unique category of workers and are routinely exempted from employment rights such as the national minimum wage. Although they are employees, they share the profits of their catch between the crew and agreeing flexible working patterns would not be suitable given the way that they work.

Amendment No. 205 relates to the fact that the provisions require the determination of compensation against an employer to be based on an employee's weekly pay. The amendment establishes that where an employer has been found not to have properly considered a request, the date to be used to determine the employee's weekly pay will be the date on which the employee made his or her formal application to work flexibly.

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Amendment No. 206 ensures that when calculating compensation for failing to consider an application properly, an employee's weekly pay may not exceed the specified amount. That is provided for by the Employment Rights Act 1996 and is currently £250. Amendment No. 207 states that regulations made under new section 80G will be affirmative. The new section covers the employer's duties under the flexible working provision, including the process that they must follow.

The effect of amendment No. 208 is to amend the long title so that it is clear that the Bill contains provisions about flexible working. Hon. Members will have points to raise and amendments to move on this important new clause, so I will stop now and comment further after they have spoken.

Debate adjourned.—[Mr. Pearson.]

Adjourned accordingly at Seven o'clock till Thursday 24 January at half-past Nine o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Conway, Mr. Derek (Chairman)
Cotter, Brian
Hammond, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs.
Johnson, Alan
Jones, Helen
Lamb, Norman
Laxton, Mr.
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Osborne, Mr. George
Pearson, Mr.
Prisk, Mr.
Simmonds, Mr.
Tami, Mark
Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel

 
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