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The Labour Government amended the legislation twice, therefore: in 1999 and again five years later. They had acquired five years of evidence of the workings of the legislation before they changed it for the second time, yet they did not take the opportunity to introduce the change the hon. Gentleman proposes. I can only presume that they did not do so because they thought the legislation was working perfectly well, and I venture to suggest that the situation is the same now.
The unions also argued in their earlier court cases that the current legislation was contrary to article 11 of the European convention on human rights. I am not a lawyer-and I am certainly not a human rights lawyer as I do not like the Human Rights Act and I would like it to be scrapped-so I do not know whether the unions are right. However, if the hon. Gentleman thinks the existing legislation is incompatible with that convention, his union members can take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. If he is right, they are therefore already protected in law. If he and the unions are absolutely certain that it contravenes the European convention on human rights they do not need to change the law through this Bill as they can be safe in the knowledge that the convention, which we are signed up to and which is enshrined in our legislation through the Human Rights Act, is in place.
It needs to be made clear at the outset that this Bill has some vehement opponents, ranging from think- tanks and the esteemed Mayor of London to the CBI. I believe that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Dover who said we are relying on business to get us out of the financial mess that we are in. We need the private sector to be flourishing, so we should take note of what it says with great interest. All those opponents argue that the balance of power between trade unions and employers has shifted too much towards the unions over the past 13 years. That touches on a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who said that perhaps we ought to be looking not at giving further powers to the trade unions and shifting the balance even further towards them, but at whether or not there should be greater regulation of the industrial action that is causing so much damage to our economy. He asked whether we should be considering that, rather than making such action easier.
The points that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made seemed to suggest that his Bill was based on two cases. I could mention other cases, but I do not wish to detain the House unduly by going through all of them at length, as that would be unnecessary. The two cases that his remarks concentrated on were Network Rail v. RMT and British Airways v. Unite. I just want to touch on those cases and the reasons why they are not a good basis on which to introduce this Bill.
Mr Nuttall: I just want to clarify things so that we are talking about the right judgment. There are two cases with the same title and the only way of differentiating them is by the name of the judge involved, so is the British Airways case that my hon. Friend is referring to the one dealt with by Mrs Justice Cox, which I believe was the first one, or the second case, which came before Mr Justice McCombe? Will my hon. Friend be discussing both cases or just one?
Philip Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is, as ever, on the ball. He has just demonstrated to the House how knowledgeable he is on these matters and he rightly says that there are different cases. Either case makes the point, but I am sure that the House will be happy to benefit from his expertise on both if the need should arise and there is any further confusion. I believe I am right in saying-he will correct me if I am wrong-that in the case of Network Rail v. RMT the dispute was largely over safety. So far as I can tell, the case was not about an employment matter, because the signallers were not subject to any proposals for staff redundancies-it is not as if their jobs were being threatened-and the RMT was complaining about a safety issue.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington gave the impression, to me at least, that these cases were clear-cut victories for the unions in terms of their recommendation for a strike and that there should be no impediment to that democratic process being applied. I have to take issue with that initial premise, because the result of the ballot in the case of Network Rail v. RMT was that 3,199 votes were cast, 1,705 of which were in favour of strike action and 1,481 of which were against, with 13 spoiled papers. Therefore, the majority was just 224. I do not know whether or not my hon. Friends would say the same, but I was not originally given the impression of that margin of victory in the speech made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington. He seemed to imply that there had been an overwhelming vote for strike action.
Before we get on to the niceties of why the unions fell foul of the law and why it is right that they fell foul of the law, as it stands, we must take into account-I think that the law should take this into account-the effect of strike action, if it were to go ahead, on the employer, on the economy and on the general public. That should be a factor in determining whether an injunction is granted. If it is going to have a disproportionate effect, we would want the judiciary to be risk-adverse in deciding whether to grant an injunction.
According to Network Rail, the cost of the strike action would have totalled about £20 million. That is a substantial amount of money and it was perfectly right that a judge should insist that everything was done rightly and properly, all above board, before action with such a financial impact on a business-on the taxpayer, I might add-was proceeded with. In the court papers, Network Rail claimed-the RMT did not dispute this, so we can safely say that we are on firm ground-that the strike action would have had the effect of preventing 80% of all rail services in the UK from running. That would have had not only a devastating effect on Network Rail as an industry but a massive effect on many employers, businesses and people who rely on getting about by rail to fulfil their daily duties.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington might think that the RMT had a perfectly legitimate complaint against Network Rail that Network Rail was being irresponsible. That might or might not be true, but I am not entirely sure what grudge the RMT has against businesses, commuters and shoppers up and down the country, who would have been negatively affected by that action. I am not entirely sure why they should be penalised for any actions by Network Rail that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with, but that is the impact that the strike action would have had. The RMT union did
not dispute that in the court case. It is perfectly proper that a judge should consider the impact on other people when bearing in mind whether to grant an injunction. Network Rail made it clear that a strike would have caused immense damage to the economy, to businesses that depend on rail for freight or transport, to commuting workers and to a great many individual rail users.
Nick de Bois: I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. In effect, we have a situation in which every cause will have an effect. My hon. Friend outlines admirably the fact that in this case, if the processes are not followed and a strike subsequently takes place, many people outside the immediate target of the strike action are affected. They have no recourse. They have nowhere to go. When I was running my company, we were in the unfortunate position of having to make a small number of redundancies. We had to go through-and rightly so-a strict but nevertheless somewhat burdensome process and, as a result of a minor technical error, there was the right for redress for those involved. It strikes me that in this situation, the process should be adhered to as strictly as possible because there is no form of redress for those outside the immediate consequences of the action. Does he agree?
Philip Davies: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I know that he is a great advocate for rail commuters in his constituency-he has even had Westminster Hall debates on the problems that his commuters face. He is a great champion for his constituents and I agree with him. This is a very interesting point. If the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington wants to make it easier to have strike action, perhaps, as a quid pro quo, he might consider what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) says and introduce into his Bill a provision that some statutory consultation must take place with all affected parties before any strike action, so that people can understand the full consequences of that action. It might well be that when a union decides that it wants to go out on strike because of a grievance with a particular employer, it does not take into consideration the wider impact it will have on innocent third parties who are no part of the dispute at all. My hon. Friend makes a very good point-perhaps that is an anomaly that should be addressed in legislation. I hope that the Minister was listening carefully to his intervention, because he is in a far better position to do something about that than I am. It is certainly worth considering.
Mr Nuttall: I am not sure that my hon. Friend has picked up on exactly the right point. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) was making the point that if the novel concept of substantial compliance is introduced with regard to the balloting procedure for industrial action by trade unions, surely it would be right, fair and sensible to introduce a similar provision in the legislation relating to redundancies. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) had any representations on what the unions would think if that were the case-if an employer needed only to comply substantially with the law when making people redundant?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He turns the argument on its head: he says that rather than giving unions more arduous responsibilities so
that they have to meet the same demands as employers, perhaps employers should be given the liberty to take the more flexible approach that the Labour party clearly wants to give to trade unions. Whichever way we consider it, it is perhaps unarguable that they should both be subject to the same treatment.
My hon. Friend is right to concentrate on substantial compliance, because it is, in many respects, a nonsensical concept to introduce into law. Virtually anybody could claim, when they flouted the law, that they were substantially compliant with it. If we extended the concept right across the criminal justice system, we would probably find that nobody could ever be found guilty of anything, because they could easily demonstrate that they were substantially compliant with the law-they had broken just one part of it. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington should go back to the drawing board and think again about whether he wants to introduce the concept of substantial compliance in law.
Let me come back to the point that I was making about the impact that the strikes would have had if they had gone ahead. Three million passengers and freight users would have been affected, and the strike would have coincided with the first day back at work after the Easter holidays. That would have had a devastating impact. It is true to say that Network Rail had a robust contingency plan in place, but this comes back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) made about the importance of giving notice to employers, so that they have an opportunity to mitigate the worst impacts of strike action.
Even with that robust contingency plan in place, Network Rail could have run only approximately 4,500 trains on the day of the strike action; the normal figure is 24,000. We are talking about 20% of the service running, and 80% not running. Some of the most important lines into the capital would have run at just 11%. That would have had a devastating effect on the economy of the country, and it is right that judges take that into consideration.
Turning to why the injunction was granted by the courts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said, minor errors are already covered by the existing legislation. I have already outlined the relatively narrow margin of victory in the vote for strike action. Most people would consider some of the errors to be not minor at all; I think that some people would consider them to be rather more major. Network Rail successfully argued that there were serious errors made in the balloting of members. For example, 11 signal boxes that no longer exist were balloted, including East Usk in Newport, Gwent. The RMT balloted it to gather the votes of six registered voters, although it had burnt down in a previous year. That is not a minor error-it is quite a serious error.
Mr Nuttall: I have to come back to this point: bearing in mind that the Bill also seeks to transfer the burden of proof to the employer, if the union does not know where its own members are employed, it is a bit rich to turn the law around and expect employers to do the job that we are talking about. In the case that my hon. Friend mentions, even the trade union could not get its notices sent to the right place.
Philip Davies: That is a fair point, and one might legitimately ask the RMT how close it is to its members when it balloted a signal box that burnt down years ago. It does not give one much confidence that the union has a close working relationship with its members.
People may forgive the RMT for not knowing that the signal box at Pelham in Lincolnshire was demolished in 2008 or that the signal box at Ascot in Berkshire was closed in October 2009. People might ask how the union could be expected to know these things-although I would presume that it should know. However, it is surely difficult for it not to be aware that the signal box at Chalford in Gloucestershire closed down in 1966. One would have thought that the union would have been aware of that. Nor should it have overlooked the fact that the signal box at Northallerton in North Yorkshire closed in 1980. I personally think that those are rather serious errors, not the minor errors that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington suggests when he uses the case as a reason why the law should be changed.
The problems were not confined to signal boxes that were closed down 44 years ago. In 67 locations, the number of RMT members balloted exceeded the total number of employees. I do not know what the rate of union membership is among the staff of Network Rail, but I would be astonished if it were more than 100%. But that is what the RMT seems to think. A further 26 places, with up to 100 employees, were missed out completely, including the key signal box at Rugby. As we have heard, the difference in the vote between those who voted for strike action and those who voted against was 224. It is therefore difficult to argue that the examples that I have given-of the balloting of signal boxes that had burnt down or been closed, of ballot returns of more than 100% and of the failure to ballot some locations-were not material factors that should have been taken into consideration. Those are substantial errors that could have made a material difference to the result.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: It occurs to me that if the Bill were enacted and then used too widely, it would allow malevolent people to use it to push through something against the will of their members and then claim that only minor errors had been made. That would be a slippery slope.
Philip Davies: My hon. Friend is right, and we should guard against that. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman wants to exempt minor errors, which are already protected. He wants to exempt major errors from the scrutiny of the courts and we should be very wary of doing that.
Andrew Bridgen: I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way in this most interesting debate. Does he agree that the Bill is not merely a Trojan horse but a wolf in sheep's clothing, and an attempt to legitimise electoral errors-I am being generous in calling them "errors"-that would disgrace a banana republic?
My hon. Friend is right. That is why I am so disappointed that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington made it abundantly clear from the outset that he did not want to take interventions. He has left the impression-rightly or wrongly-that he was
trying to portray a small change in the law to clear up a small anomaly, and that no one could argue with that because it was all common sense. However, when one gets to the nitty-gritty-
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Ideally, I would like to hear from the Minister before I accept that motion. I understand, Mr Davies, that you have been entertaining the House for 59 minutes. It is a red letter day for all of us, and we are clearly gripped by everything that you are saying, but if you are now able to bring your remarks to a close so that the House can be informed of the Government's position on the Bill, I would be extremely grateful.
Philip Davies: I think that that is a sensible way forward, because we all want to hear what the Minister has to say. I will toss away the Network Rail arguments if you will give me permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, to touch on the British Airways dispute, because the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington spoke about that most of all.
The hon. Gentleman made it clear that the errors that were made may not have made a material difference to the result of the ballot in the BA dispute, but they were clearly not deemed accidental. We should have some protection in law for employers who face strike action by people who have not followed what the law requires of them. The law is not particularly onerous. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North said, many strikes take place throughout the country every year-far too many already happen. It is not difficult for people to take strike action. All we expect is that people fulfil their obligations under the law. In the BA v. Unite case, it is perfectly clear that the judge who granted the injunction felt that the errors were not accidental, that Unite should have known or did know about them, and that they should not be deemed minor.
I will conclude to follow your will, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am afraid that the House will have to miss out on the rest of my contribution. [Hon. Members: "Shame!"] I am very grateful to my hon. Friends. I urge all hon. Members not to consider only the simplistic side of the debate and the opportunity that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington offers to clear up a small technicality, but to bear in mind the massive impact that the Bill would have on employers and the paying public throughout the country-those who rely on our services. The Bill will be hugely damaging at best. However, even from the hon. Gentleman's perspective, it is unnecessary and does nothing to help trade unions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on coming first in the ballot for private Members' Bills. The Bill gives us a chance to debate an important and topical subject-industrial action law. That issue is receiving wide attention in the media. As hon. Members know, some organisations, including the CBI and the Policy Exchange think-tank, are calling for that body of law to be strengthened, and we heard those
voices loud and clear in the debate today. Of course, that is the exact opposite of the effect that the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve through the Bill.
It is not the first time in recent years that the hon. Gentleman has presented a private Member's Bill. A couple of years ago, he tabled the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill, which also centred on industrial action law. I commend him for his determination and consistency of purpose. He has a justified reputation in the House as a doughty defender of trade unions. His knowledgeable and often impassioned contributions to our debates show his deep commitment to that cause. That commitment does him credit, even though many in the House, including some of his hon. Friends, do not always share his views.
If my memory is correct, the last Bill the hon. Gentleman introduced included proposals for root-and-branch reform of strike law. For instance, it contained provisions to restore the lawfulness of secondary industrial action and to repeal the requirement on trade unions to provide notice to employers in advance of industrial action. He presents his current Bill as a modest measure in comparison-it is undoubtedly more modest than his previous Bill, which I suspect was rather closer to his heart and true beliefs than this one-yet modesty is often in the eye of the beholder. Saying that this Bill is more modest than his last does not make it so, despite its seductive title.
The Bill is admirably short-just two clauses. It works by changing section 232B of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. However, as I shall demonstrate in my speech, the Bill is not so modest as it appears at first sight. In fact, it would have the effect of altering the applications of about 15 other sections of the 1992 Act. In some cases, it would significantly relax the procedures that trade unions must follow when organising industrial action-something which the previous Government considered and rejected.
In the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, he made one or two points that the House ought to consider more carefully. He argued that his Bill tries to achieve the original intention of section 232B by applying it to all 15 sections of the 1992 Act, but that is wrong. Section 232B is clearly drafted so that it applies to just four sections of the 1992 Act. Parliament did not therefore intend that it should apply as widely as he suggests, and it is important that hon. Members hear that argument.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of court cases, but it is worth reminding the House that in recent times, the trade unions have been the ones scoring wins in the courts-many of my hon. Friends referred to such cases. For example, the Court of Appeal ruling in BA plc v. Unite this year, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) referred in some detail, found very strongly for Unite and rejected the employer's argument. In Milford Haven Port Authority v. Unite, the Court of Appeal again found for the trade union. In a third case this year-Metrobus v. Unite-although the Court gave an injunction against the trade union, it dismissed many of the employer's arguments with respect to notices, saying that the errors were small and should therefore not be considered.
The case law that has amassed this very year suggests that the concerns of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington are not based on what is true. I strongly urge Labour Members to think carefully about the fact
that real case law developments are helping trade unions. The hon. Gentleman tried to argue that the Bill would reduce uncertainty and therefore that it would give greater clarity and assist the process. As many of my hon. Friends clearly demonstrated-particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)-changing the "accidental" test in the current law and replacing it with a "substantial compliance" test would create uncertainty, because case law has clarified the law, which is in the unions' interests. Therefore, some of the core arguments behind the Bill are flawed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on his speech. Using his legal background, he forensically showed that the test of substantial compliance had extreme shortcomings, and said that it would result in some bizarre outcomes if applied more generally in law.
I welcome the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to her new position as Opposition spokesperson and look forward to our debates, not only on this Bill but on the Postal Services Bill, on which no doubt we will spend some weeks in Committee. She rightly praised the actions of many unions, especially how, during the recession, they have engaged and worked with management in many firms-large and small-up and down the country to preserve and create jobs. I, too, would like to put on the record my praise for those unions and employers who have been prepared to work flexibly-in respect of family-friendly flexibility, pay cuts and reduced work hours-with management to prevent redundancies.
That sort of progressive trade unionism needs to be highlighted and pinpointed. I often think that it removes some of the passion from this debate by showing that many trade unions are committed to ensuring that our economy is vibrant and prosperous, and do not want to undermine firms' ability to move on. I was pleased that the hon. Lady committed the Opposition Front-Bench team at least to the framework of industrial relations law, as Labour did time and time again when in government. I was also pleased that she made it clear that her Front-Bench team will not be supporting the Bill today. She made one argument against it: she clearly opposes the part of the Bill that reverses the onus of responsibility and puts it on employers. That is one argument against it, but, as I will seek to show in due course, there are others on which the House should reflect carefully.
On the wider industrial relations context in which we should view the Bill, I want to comment on an intervention made by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that went to the heart of the matters before us. He reminded the House that trade unions have immunity from prosecution for breach of contract going back to the Trade Disputes Act 1906, which was brought in by a Liberal Government. That immunity is an important special privilege for trade unions, so it is right that Parliament imposes conditions on how they are used. Over the years, all three main parties have supported the role of Parliament in ensuring that there are conditions on the uses of those privileges.
When one looks at the rationale for the Bill, one must bear in mind the industrial relations context in which it is set. It is important to establish that up front, because there are significant differences in our respective understandings of how industrial relations in the UK
are evolving. It is because we start from such different points that I fear our attitudes towards the merits of the Bill will not fully coincide. I suspect that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and his supporters view industrial relations in rather more divided terms than I do. Sometimes from listening to him-I have done so for many years-his seems to be a world in which bosses are always seeking to gain an advantage over the work force. In other words, without the countervailing power of the trade unions, individual workers are always chronically disadvantaged in the work place. His Bill therefore seeks to reinforce and strengthen the countervailing power of trade unions and tilt the balance of the current law and our industrial relations practices in favour of trade unions.
Conflict and confrontation are, of course, a feature of workplace life in some workplaces, but it is much less common than it once was. One only has to think back to the 1970s, when on average 12.9 million days were lost each year through strikes. I am delighted to say that modern-day industrial relations are very different. Of course, the 1970s were also a time of high unionisation in both the public and private sectors, but total union membership has declined significantly since then. In fact, it has almost halved. As a supporter of progressive trade unionism, I take no pleasure in pointing that out. However, those trends are particularly apparent in the private sector. Just 15% of private sector employees are now union members and there are large areas of the private sector where unions are completely absent. They are simply not a part of the landscape.
As I have said, I and the Government more generally are supporters of progressive trade unionism. We feel that unions have much to offer this country. Even now, trade unions represent the largest voluntary organisations in this country-one could perhaps say that they are an expression of the big society.
That is why this Government and my Department want to engage with trade unions. We want to hear their considered views, and to develop a common understanding and an approach to the severe problems that this country faces, which include not just our economy, but the critical state of the public finances. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meets the TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber, each month. I and other BIS Ministers have also had meetings with the TUC and other trade unions. From those discussions we have explored issues of particular concern to trade unions. For example, decisions that I have taken on the national minimum wage, working with the Low Pay Commission, speak to those concerns. We and other Departments operate an open-door policy for trade unions, and in most cases we have retained the joint bodies, such as the public services forum, and partnership arrangements that the previous Government established.
We want to hold a constructive dialogue with trade unions, but of course it takes two to talk. That places an onus on us to listen and to understand the union position on the matters before us and others, but just as importantly, it places a duty on trade unions to engage realistically with the issues that the country and the Government face. Most trade unions are committed to a mature and positive dialogue of this kind. Sadly, there are a few exceptions to that, but I should pay credit to the many unions that do engage. The Government also understand that trade unions have a positive role to
play in the workplace when they engage with the employer. I want to pay tribute to the role of union learning representatives, who help tens of thousands of their fellow workers with their learning and development needs. The Government have therefore committed themselves to continuing to provide support to their work through unionlearn, the training arm of the TUC.
That said, it remains the case that the protective umbrella that the trade unions once provided for this country's work force has disappeared across large swathes of the economy. However, employees in the private sector are not subject to widespread exploitation, nor are they generally dissatisfied with their employment. Indeed, most surveys show that union members tend to be more dissatisfied with their working environment than their non-union counterparts. There are many reasons why surveys show that and why the decline of trade unionism has not led to widespread dissatisfaction or the spread of bad working practices. One reason is that the law provides many more rights to workers-many were introduced by those on the Labour Benches-than it once did. These days, it is the law, rather than the presence of active trade unions necessarily, that provides the guarantee of decent working conditions and fair treatment to millions of men and women up and down our country.
Another key reason, which I want to stress, is that working life and the approach of employers have moved forward. I am glad to say that it has become the consensus among a vast majority of employers that they should develop a new style of employment relations based on engaging and involving employees. Employers are not taking that approach simply because it is fair and progressive in itself, though it is; they have other, hard-headed commercial reasons for adopting such enlightened policies. Employers realise that obtaining the active co-operation of the work force is vital if they want to increase productivity and raise competitiveness in today's tough market conditions. The quality and creativity of workplace performance are increasingly important for business success. More and more employers are developing innovative ways to engage their employees.
I do not know whether Labour will take this position in opposition, but the previous Labour Government certainly grasped that point. Indeed, they were enthusiastic enough to promote the message of employee engagement, which in many ways is the zeitgeist of employment relations, and they commissioned a special and very informative study into the subject, by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, a former adviser to Mr Blair when he was Prime Minister. I have met them both, and I have encouraged them in that work and given support to it from the Department. This forward-looking agenda for employment relations is about securing greater co-operation and engagement in the workplace. It is about identifying common interests between employers and employees, and achieving the shared business goals. It is also about encouraging more employee participation and new forms of ownership. That is not a zero sum game, and this is certainly not about reliving the battles of the 1970s or 1980s.
Looking at the context of the industrial relations behind the debate today, I fear that the Bill does not engage with the new agenda. In many ways, it seems to be a throwback to a previous age, and both the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and we need to draw
a line under our industrial relations history and turn the page. His Bill does not do those things. So, at a very basic level, I have serious reservations about his proposal.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is promoting the new style of industrial relations, and I believe that it has much to offer to our debates in this area. I recently visited the ACAS head office and spent some valuable time with its chairman, Ed Sweeney, and his colleagues. I was deeply impressed with the expertise available to ACAS, and with the commitment of its work force. It is best known for its work on conciliating the settlement of industrial disputes, and its record on that is impressive. Less well known is its work on advising employers and trade unions on good employment practices and the management of change. That work helps to raise productivity and performance, and nips potential workplace problems in the bud. Importantly, it creates a culture of collaboration and mutual support at work. I believe that this approach to industrial relations improves-
John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Minister for giving us the opportunity to hear the Government's response to the Bill, which we have now done. There is other important Back-Bench business today, and I would like formally to move that the Question be now put.
John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Today we have seen a revisiting of past practices of filibustering to deny the will of the House-practices that brought this House into disrepute and that we thought this new Parliament would put to one side. I believe it is a shame and a disgrace. May I ask you to take this matter back to Mr Speaker, to see whether we can review the Standing Orders of the House so that the objectives of democracy are no longer frustrated by a small group of Members?
Mr Davey: May I say to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, for whom I have the utmost respect, that he did not take interventions during his opening remarks? As many of my hon. Friends made clear, that would have assisted the progress of the Bill. I think that new politics is about engagement in debate, and I hope that he will engage in that way in future.
We need to consider the details and the rationale behind the Bill. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington tried to make a case for changing industrial action law. He considers the current legal framework to be intrinsically
unfair and thinks that because it is complicated, it gives rise to great uncertainty and unnecessary legal challenges against trade unions. Industrial action law has been a bone of contention for most of the last century or more, and hon. Members have referred to past discussions. When we look at the history, we see many key moments. We need only think of Barbara Castle's "In Place of Strife" to remind ourselves how divisive and politically damaging to certain Governments this issue can be. Then there was the bruising period of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservative Governments of those days introduced a succession of laws to establish a new legal framework to regulate and democratise the taking of industrial action. I believe that those reforms were long overdue, but it is worth reminding the House that they were resisted every inch of the way by the Labour party when it was in opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been trying to follow what the Minister is saying, and it appears to me-I do not know whether you have the same impression-that he is deviating a long way from the terms of the Bill. He is giving his view of the history of industrial relations in the 1980s and early 1990s, when he should be addressing whatever concerns the Government have about my hon. Friend's Bill.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am listening to what the Minister has to say, and if I consider that he is out of order, I will certainly call him to order. However, I know that he will want to relate his comments more directly to the Bill.
Mr Davey: I certainly intend to do that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I hoped it would help the House if I set out some of the context of the debate. I think that people sometimes have amnesia when it comes to what actually happened in the past.
It is worth reminding Opposition Members that the laws we have today relate not only to the laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s, but to the changes in those laws made by the last Government. My hon. Friends made it very clear that the last Government reviewed and made changes to this very part of our law, and did not adopt changes such as those that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is trying to persuade the House to support today. They did not want to make any significant changes to the law on ballots and notices. Indeed, the last change of any substance that they made was in 2004. That is probably why the hon. Member for Llanelli was unable to support the Bill. She and the hon. Member for Bradford South (Mr Sutcliffe)-when he was doing the job that I am doing now-examined the law extremely closely, and found no case for changing it.
It has hardly been a secret that trade unions wanted to extend the disregard in section 232B, but I presume that when the last Government examined the law, they decided not to listen to those trade union voices. I am pleased to observe the consistency in the position adopted by the hon. Member for Llanelli. Successive Governments have taken the view that the legal framework of our industrial relations law is basically sound, and this coalition Government certainly share that view.
Mr Nuttall: I realise that we need to stick to the point, but I think that the historical context is very relevant. The certainty of the law is of great benefit not just to employers but to trade unions. The danger posed by the Bill is that it will reintroduce a great element of uncertainty.
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I urge Opposition Members, when they debate this issue-not just today but during the weeks, months and years to come-to think about where the trade union interest actually is. The fact that a body of case law has been developed, much of which, as I said earlier, has found in favour of trade unions, is creating certainty. It is clarifying what was previously uncertain. If we changed the law now in the radical way proposed-it is certainly not modest-we should have to go through that whole process again, which would increase uncertainty, and do precisely what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington says he is trying not to do.
Outside the trade union movement, which understandably has its own interests to pursue, I hear no clamour for the law to be changed in the way proposed. It seems that the average worker and even the typical union member do not see the law as unjust; still less is it seen as unfair by the general public. They do not want to see public services disrupted because striking has been made easier-quite the reverse. They want trade unions to help us to manage the painful adjustment that is needed to put this country's finances in order.
The supporters of the Bill argue that the law is too complex. According to them, it places too many procedural obligations on trade unions and as a result it is difficult for unions to comply with the last dot and comma of the law's many provisions. It follows, they say, that trade unions must be given more wriggle room to ensure that they can operate within the law. According to the Bill's sponsors, the existing disregard, which provides some wriggle room, needs to be extended.
Again, I have to ask what has changed to make life so intolerable for trade unions. This legal framework has maintained its shape, give or take some refinements and amendments, for 20 years or more. Surely both trade unions and employers should be accustomed to it by now. They should know its requirements and they should know what needs to happen at every stage of the process to achieve compliance.
Let us remember that we are not talking about matters that are devolved to ordinary members or to local representatives of trade unions to organise unaided on their own. If that were the case, those local representatives perhaps could not be expected to know every provision of the law, but that is not the position that we face, or it should not be the position that we face. Rather, the taking of industrial action is a very serious matter and no sensible union would permit strikes to proceed without the specific authorisation of the union's leadership and the involvement of its professional cadre of workers at every stage of the process. By and large, that is what happens.
Nick de Bois: The Minister touches on a point on which I would welcome some clarity: the consequences of industrial action go far wider than has been mentioned so far, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) highlighted. There is no call for redress for those who are affected beyond the immediate action. Therefore, surely it is responsible for the law as it stands to require the maximum process to ensure that strike decisions are not taken lightly. In that way, those who will suffer as a consequence of that action can at least draw some grim satisfaction from that maximum process. They have no other form of redress.
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend puts his finger on it. We need to weigh in the balance not just the rights of ordinary trade union members, but the rights of the business, the shareholders, the public, customers and other businesses that are affected by strike action. That is why the law has evolved as it has. It is a balancing act. Sometimes people say that the democratic result of a ballot was clearly in favour of strike action but ignore the fact that the procedural way in which the ballot was conducted was against the current law. They fail to understand why the procedures are there. They are there for good reason.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I thank the Minister for giving way with characteristic graciousness. Does he agree that not requiring the trade unions to stick to a rigorous programme risks their going back to the 1970s? All of us have memories of mass meetings, Red Robbo and the will of the membership being entirely overlooked by terrible abuse of procedure, using the law as it then existed to its utmost to stop members having their say. The law as it stands prevents us from going that way again.
Mr Davey: I agree. I put it in another way, which complements the argument that my hon. Friend is making. I think that progressive trade unions welcome the law as it is. It ensures that their reputation, the way they work and their relationship with members is protected because they can show that they have gone through the right procedures. That improves their reputations with not just their members but the public, so I ask Labour Members who support the proposed change to reflect on the long-term implications for trade unions if we went down that route.
Every union must ensure that it has a good grip of the procedures when it enters disputes and that those procedures are professionally run. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask them to ensure that their information systems and membership records are as accurate as possible, using the vast power of information technology currently at our disposal. I suspect Opposition Members would be as intolerant and unforgiving as I am if organisations in other walks of life failed to keep accurate records or provided mistaken advice or a second-rate service. We should expect high professional standards from trade unions, just as we expect the same high standards from others.
The truth is that the previous Government understood that. From their extensive political contacts with unions, they knew there were problems with how some of them were managed. I suspect that they believed union leaders were a mixed bag in terms of their professional competence. That is why they argued for, and introduced, the union modernisation fund. They wanted to inject public funds into unions to bring them up to scratch. Millions of pounds were spent on projects to update membership databases, adopt new technologies and inject modern managerial methods into the running of trade unions.
On the question of new technologies, the Bill would have been better if it had addressed the problems raised by the judges in the Court of Appeal, and if, instead of changing the rules on substantial compliance, it had provided specifically for the internet, e-mail, Twitter and text to be valid means of electronic communication for the purposes of the legislation. That
would have provided a specific clarification that Members on both sides of the House might have been able to support.
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Court of Appeal thought about that carefully in coming to its judgment, but I would not want to go any further and say the law has to be tightened up in that way, because the judge's statements are already quite helpful. I see the thrust and power of my hon. Friend's argument, however.
If the UMF had worked as intended, it should have rectified the deficit in this area. I suspect, however, that problems remain and inefficiencies persist. While we all need to make sure that unions can try to reform in that area, I do not think the law should be relaxed to preserve poor methods of working within unions. Rather, it should be designed-as, by and large, it is-in the expectation that trade unions will run themselves efficiently and spend the money they collect well; their total annual income is more than £1 billion.
The current law not as rigid as the Bill's supporters suggest. At virtually every point, the provisions are designed to take account of the fact that trade unions, just like any other organisation, do not have perfect knowledge and complete information at their disposal. Many provisions in the law are flexible enough to take account of what is "reasonable" or "reasonably practicable" for the unions to achieve.
Let us take the example of the law on ballot notices, which is a major part of the Bill. I know trade unions criticise these provisions a lot. Obviously, notices need to convey information, but according to the law-section 226A of the 1992 Act-that information needs to be
"as accurate as is reasonably practicable in the light of the information in the possession of the union at the time".
"soon as is reasonably practicable after"
"such steps as are reasonably necessary"
The Bill's supporters also believe that the law loads the dice in favour of the employer. According to their analysis, the law makes it difficult, and even impossible in some cases, for trade unions to defend the interests of their members-but, again, where is the evidence that the strike weapon has lost its potency, if used responsibly? The level of industrial action varies from year to year, but in the past 12 months for which data are available about 620,000 days were lost through industrial action. I would like that figure to fall, but such levels of industrial action in the UK are about the average for the EU overall, when allowance is made for the size of each country's work force. In 2007, the latest year for which EU data are available, EU countries lost, on average, 34 days through industrial action per 1,000 workers. The UK figure was similar, although a little higher, at 38 days per 1,000 workers. That does not suggest that the UK laws on industrial action are out of step or are more difficult for British trade unions to navigate than laws elsewhere in the European Union.
Mr Davey: I am not, although I think it is highly unlikely that any EU country does, for the following reason. The way in which industrial relations laws have developed in different countries reflects different traditions, and that is how it should be; I do not think that there is a standard approach in the EU. The British view obviously draws on a very different tradition from elsewhere, but the effect is not dissimilar in terms of the average number of days lost. So the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, the promoter of this Bill, has not made his case; he has not provided evidence to show that our trade unions face particular problems.
The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks contained references to various observations made by advisory bodies to the International Labour Organisation, but the data simply do not support the argument that unions in the UK are uniquely disadvantaged when it comes to organising strike action. The previous Government made it clear that Britain upholds its commitment to the ILO conventions; indeed, there has never been a challenge at the supreme authority of the ILO that we have transgressed our international commitments to those conventions. Some people make rather too much of this by saying that we are somehow breaching ILO standards and other human rights obligations on freedom of association.
It is also worth noting that employers normally choose to settle disputes before industrial action takes place-only a minority of industrial action ballots actually lead to industrial action. According to our estimates, in about 80% of cases where employees have voted for industrial action, no industrial action is subsequently taken. Both sides treat the outcome of the ballot as a stimulus to further negotiation. Once again, such behaviour is difficult to square with the conclusion that employers invariably have the upper hand under our law and could easily obtain an injunction to stop a strike in its tracks or impose their will unilaterally.
Mr Nuttall: On court cases, does the Minister agree that it would have been sensible for the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington to wait before introducing this Bill until the case that the RMT is taking to the European Court of Human Rights had been dealt with, as that may shed some light on the matters that we have been considering this morning?
Mr Davey: My interpretation of the fact that there are some cases before the European Court of Human Rights is that we do not need the legislation at all. Those court cases are dealing with the issues of uncertainty that remain and the case law is helping to develop the situation.
Andrew Bridgen: Will the Minister shed some light on whether we need this Bill and whether there is any requirement for it? Is he aware of the proportion of ballots by unions that have been challenged legally?
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend anticipates what I was about to say. Although it is true that in recent years there have been more applications for court injunctions, we must put that increase into some perspective. It is still relatively rare for the courts to intervene in industrial disputes. Over the past five years, just seven injunctions have been sought, on average, per year. During the five years from 2005 to 2009, there were on average 132 work stoppages each year. With an average of seven injunctions and 132 work stoppages, it is clearly not the case that employers are always going to court and that it is difficult for trade unions to ballot their members, give notices in the proper way and hold industrial action when their members so vote. I am afraid that the facts are entirely against the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington.
Moreover, these cases have not always gone the way of the employer, even when there have been injunctions, as my hon. Friends have said. The Bill's explanatory notes refer to the case of British Airways v. Unite. That case concerned the way that the union notified its members about the outcome of an industrial action ballot. On this occasion, the Court of Appeal upheld the union's appeal and the injunction was overturned.
There are of course other cases in which the trade union lost. Reference has been made to another case involving British Airways and Unite. I freely acknowledge that most balloting processes across our society will contain some flaws. Existing industrial action law makes some allowance for such small errors, but in the case of British Airways v. Unite that Unite lost, the union had made serious mistakes in the balloting process and a large number of people were mistakenly accorded an entitlement to vote. We are talking about a tightly knit group of workers, all belonging to the same, very well-resourced, branch of the Unite union. The union should have known better. Frankly, the union got it wrong and, quite rightly, it had to rerun the ballot.
Nick de Bois:
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been very generous with his time. Given the small number of applications for injunctions, would the Minister like to speculate on the motives behind this Bill? It strikes me that it is simply a device to allow and encourage more industrial disharmony at a time when we clearly
cannot do such a thing, as well as to cover up the failure of unions to get their act together when they wish to follow this process.
Mr Davey: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that were we to pass this Bill, it would not help the economy, in its current fragile state, to recover. There would be a danger of more strike action and that is not something that we want.
The courts are helping to develop everyone's understanding of the practical applications of the law. Let us take the case of Metrobus v . Unite, which is something of a cause célèbre in union circles, and which centred on the time taken by the union to inform the employer of the outcome of a ballot. The employer, of course, has an intense interest in knowing the ballot result. The law therefore specifies that the union should notify the employer as soon as reasonably practicable. In this case, the court considered that the union should have informed the employer sooner. I can understand that the ruling may have inconvenienced Unite, but the ruling sets a clear standard for all unions to follow in future. There should therefore be less uncertainty and fewer legal complaints on that issue, as my hon. Friends have argued.
Let me turn to the detail of the Bill. As I said at the beginning of my response, the Bill amends section 232B of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. That section was inserted in the 1992 Act by section 4 and schedule 3 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Several years later, in 2002 and 2003, the previous Government reviewed the practical operation of the 1999 Act. As a result, section 232B of the 1992 Act was slightly amended. Those amendments were introduced by the Employment Relations Act 2004.
So what does section 232B do? Its provisions enable the courts to disregard small failures by a trade union to comply fully with certain legal provisions concerning the organisation of an industrial action ballot. Those failures concern the requirements set out in four places in the 1992 Act. The first of those is section 227(1), which defines those who should be accorded an entitlement to vote by the trade union. The second is section 230(2), which places an obligation on the trade union to ensure that those entitled to vote are provided with a voting paper by post and are given a convenient opportunity to vote. The third is section 230(2B), which deals with the corresponding obligation on trade unions to ballot those persons entitled to vote who are merchant seamen. The fourth provision relevant to the disregard is 232A(c), which deals with the obligation on trade unions not to induce a person to take industrial action if that person was not accorded an entitlement to vote in a ballot.
"on a scale which is unlikely to affect...the result of the ballot",
and the measures also apply if "the failures taken together" are on a scale that is unlikely to affect the result of the ballot. That test has a strong quantitative component, and it can therefore be used as an objective measure, so the test is relatively easy to apply in practice. Importantly, section 232B applies the law only to "accidental" failures by the trade unions. We have heard quite a lot of comments on that point.
As I have said, the original provision of the disregard was reviewed by the previous Government in 2002 and 2003, and after a detailed and thorough review, they were basically content with the operation of the disregard. They also concluded that other changes they had made to industrial action law had operated broadly as intended, so let hon. Members be in no doubt: the last Government saw no need for provisions such as those in the Bill. Having considered the case for them, and having reviewed them extensively on more than one occasion, they rejected the case for the amendments before the House.
So what are the proposed changes to section 232B? There are four major amendments proposed. I say "major"; the title of the Bill refers to "Minor Errors", but we are talking about major ones. First, the Bill would apply the disregard to many more provisions in the 1992 Act. I counted that the disregard would apply to every aspect of 15 separate sections of the 1992 Act. In combination, those sections specify virtually all the procedures that trade unions must follow when organising industrial action. The disregard would apply to the running of ballots and to the notices that trade unions must provide to the employer or employers concerned before an industrial action ballot and before any subsequent industrial action. That, by any standards, is a substantial change to section 232B.
Secondly, the changes would remove the requirement for the failure by the trade union to be "accidental". It would be replaced by the notion that the disregard applied where there had been "substantial compliance" with the provision or provisions in question. That therefore leaves open the possibility that the disregard will apply to situations in which the trade union knowingly makes a mistake or deliberately decides to flout the safeguards in the Act. We could not accept that change.
Thirdly, as the disregard would be extended well beyond the balloting provisions, we would be introducing a new way of defining the size of the failure to which the disregard applies, where the failure concerns a notice. In such cases, the disregard applies if the failure
"is unlikely to affect a reasonable person's understanding of the effect of the notice".
Fourthly, the Bill places the burden of proof on the employer or other complainant to demonstrate that the failure does not qualify for the disregard. In other words, it is assumed that any failure by the trade union will be small scale and therefore covered by the disregard, unless the complainant demonstrates otherwise-a significant shift in the law, with a new presumption in favour of the trade union.
Earlier in my speech, I identified concerns that the Government have about the overall case for introducing this Bill. But, even if we were to assume that there is a
compelling case for some changes to be made to section 232B, the Government would have serious misgivings about the way the Bill would amend the section. We cannot accept that the disregard should apply to every one of those 15 sections. That would be a major extension of the disregard and cannot be considered a modest measure. Just by way of example, the disregard would extend to section 230(1)(a), which provides that union members should be allowed to vote without interference from, or constraint imposed by, the union or any of its members. Where is the interest in allowing errors with respect to this safeguard?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: As I said earlier, this would be a slippery slope. It is an attempt to take trade union law back to where it was in the 1970s. It would run a coach and horses through the attempts since then to ensure democracy, control, proper procedures and orderly ballots. It is a frightening little Bill that attempts to undermine all that in just two clauses.
Mr Davey: As I looked in detail at the Bill, I became increasingly concerned. I thought initially that it might be something with which we could engage seriously and examine the possible need for reform. But if one forgets the title and looks at what is actually proposed, one realises that it is a significant attempt to shift the law in a direction we do not want it to go.
Philip Davies: The Minister glossed over his last comment too quickly for my liking. Am I right in thinking he said that, as the Bill stands, the union could interfere in the free vote of a few of its members in a ballot but could still argue that it had been substantially compliant?
Mr Davey: That is indeed my interpretation. I may have glossed over it because the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends made a clear analysis of that point in their contributions. I therefore felt that he had already grasped it, as he does so readily.
We strongly oppose removing the requirement for an error to be accidental. The suggested new disregard would apply to situations in which a union had deliberately denied members the entitlement to vote. It could also apply to a situation in which the union pressurised or coerced some individuals to vote in particular ways. Such behaviours are inexcusable, even if they were to occur on a small scale. They would undermine the democratic principles on which the current law is based. The Government cannot support a provision that could allow such democratic abuse to be excused. We have serious difficulties with the proposal to reverse the burden of proof- [ Interruption .]
Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. We have a new coalition Government for the first time in 40 years. It seems to me-and you may wish to rule on this point-that the Tory part of the coalition is setting up the Lib Dem to talk the Bill out.
Mr Nuttall: I am sure that hon. Members who have been present throughout the debate know that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) had many more comments to make and has not had the opportunity to do so. The idea that opposition is being artificially engineered is far from the truth, because my hon. Friend had much more to say, and could well still have been speaking at this moment.
Mr Davey: I am grateful for all the interventions, but I want to present my arguments because there are genuine concerns about the Bill that the coalition partners share, and it is important to put them to the House.
We have serious difficulties with the proposal to reverse the burden of proof. To date, in any proceedings, once the employer has established that there has been a breach of the safeguards, the burden shifts to the union wishing to avail itself of the statutory defence to establish whether section 232B applies. That is consistent with the rules on the burden of proof: the burden generally lies on the party making the proposition. However, the Bill contravenes that general rule of evidence. In addition, it ignores another general rule that parties are not required to establish a negative. Under the Bill, the employer has to establish that the breach does not qualify for the disregard under section 232B. On a practical level, it is unrealistic and unfair to imply a level of knowledge on the part of the employer, which enables the employer to show not only that the law has been broken, but that the lack of compliance is substantial and meets certain thresholds.
Andrew Bridgen: As the Minister said, it is difficult to prove a negative. Also, the burden of proof will be on the employers, yet the unions will have all the information that the employers require to reach such a conclusion.
Mr Davey: I listened to my hon. Friend when he expanded on that point in the debate and he was spot on. It would be a bizarre shift in the law. As one of his colleagues said, it would create a lawyers' charter.
Let me summarise the Government's response to the Bill. Broadly speaking, there is a disconnect between the measure and the modern world of industrial relations. It will do nothing to shift employment relations on to the new ground of employee engagement.
At this time, we need all employers and all workers to pull together in a common cause to lift individual businesses and the economy at large out of the doldrums of weak growth. We need to pull everyone together in that effort. I want trade unions, as well, to exert their positive influence. The forward-looking agenda is theirs, too. They should adopt their rightful place and be on the inside of the debates. I greatly hope that they will engage with the Government at all levels.
In contrast, the Bill is about division at the workplace, and its effect would be to deepen those divisions by encouraging more strikes and other forms of industrial action. Contrary to the views of its supporters, the Bill proposes a major shift in the balance of the law. There is no consensus in our society for such a shift. In fact, employers believe that we should move in the opposite direction.
Successive Governments, with the previous Government very much to the fore, did not want to unsettle the balance of the law on industrial relations. The coalition Government share that mainstream view. We therefore have no current plans to change industrial action law either in the direction proposed by the Bill or in that proposed by others.
The case that the Bill's supporters presented for changing the law is not compelling. The legal framework has been in place for many years, and there is no evidence that it causes problems for trade unions that efficiently go about their lawful business. Parties should know what is needed to comply with the law.
The Bill itself has major defects in its drafting and would encourage undemocratic and coercive behaviour by trade unions. Sadly, it is not a Bill that the Government can support. I therefore ask hon. Members to vote against Second Reading.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): Listening to the debate on the Bill since just after Prayers this morning has been of great interest, as have the points that have arisen and been made by hon. Members on either side. However, I ought to start with a point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who said that we were in some kind of new politics. I think we should be very suspicious of that phrase, because if we look at the annals of history, as I know the House likes to do from time to time, we will see that every generation looks back at the past, and says, "That was a golden age, an age when they knew what to do and did things right and properly. And now look at the times we live in! O tempora! O mores!" as the great Cicero so famously said. He lived in the time of Julius Caesar, so people were making that complaint back in the 50s BC.
It seems to me to be wrong to expect the procedures of this House to be adjusted for some absurd new politics. As we all know from the book of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. That is actually right. Politics is never new or old; it is always the same. People want to get what they want and use strategems and sometimes even tricks to get it. We may be shocked at the tricks, but that is the reality.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said on a point of order that the will of the House was not being shown, but I think it was. The vast majority of the House decided that, actually, the Bill was not of sufficient importance to warrant their attendance.
Mr Nuttall: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. The Bill's title was designed to encourage exactly that response from Members. To be fair to them, I can quite appreciate that they would look at that title and think, "There's not much here, move along," but in fact, when we study the detail of the Bill, we find that it is a very substantial piece of legislation indeed.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to say that his speech reminded me of an age of politics when things worked. His was the form of speech that this House was used to when it was at its greatest, when it was the House from which legislation came that ruled an empire and a quarter of the world.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. My education is furthered every time I listen to you, Mr Rees-Mogg. I am more of an expert now on Cromwell, Cicero and a lot of other great historical figures, but I was wondering whether there was any vague possibility of addressing the Bill before the House today.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Mr Deputy Speaker, I was referring to the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington and following up on those, as I now wish to follow up on the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). His speech was in a fine tradition of the House. In the 19th century, speeches of two and a half hours were common. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was here for the Don Pacifico debate- [ Interruption. ] I am pleased to hear it. The great Palmerston spoke for two and a half hours in that debate, and I feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North is becoming Palmerstonian in his approach to the House.
It is important that our procedures are respected and that they operate fairly and properly. Part of that procedure is that if 100 do not go through the Division Lobby to support a closure motion, there can be no closure. That is perfectly justifiable, and it ought not to be brushed away by some airy-fairy talk of new politics.
Jim McGovern (Dundee West) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I am not quite sure that I am so grateful for his history lesson. When he talks about these days past and the British empire and so on, does he mean when working-class people knew their place?
On the specifics of the proposals, we have to look at the Bill in its context. We need not go back to the great strikes of early history. I was thinking initially of Achilles sitting in his tent and about whether that was a first example of industrial action and the withdrawal of labour, and about whether we should get on to Patroclus and so on, but I thought that would be too abstruse at this time in the afternoon. However, the Bill is important because it would take us back to the industrial relations of the 1970s and 1980s, so the immediate historical context is of tremendous importance. I remember growing up-I was a child once, although I never normally admit to it. We had a wonderful debate the other day with all sorts of people saying they had once been 16. I sat here wondering whether I had ever been 16 and hoping that it had passed by quite quickly. However, when I was a child, I saw the streets, including Leicester square, used as a dumping ground for rubbish because of strikes. They were strikes that had been called not with any democratic oversight, but because unions had the ability to bully their members.
The great lady, Margaret Thatcher-Baroness Thatcher, Lady of the Garter-came in and pulled this country up by the scruff of its neck. She introduced legislation, which was opposed every time by the socialists-they opposed everything she did-to democratise the trade unions and bring them under the control of their members
and to allow this country to be run by its democratically elected Government, rather than by the grand, godfather-like bosses of the trade union movement. Anything that takes us back to those days would be desperately unfortunate and risk our seeing the same number of strikes that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s and the destruction of British industry.
Our car manufacturing was destroyed by strike after strike called from mass meetings. Do hon. Members remember those mass meetings? Do they remember watching them on the television? Do they remember the voice votes controlled by a few bullies? A hand or two would go up, but they would never be counted. That was the type of behaviour we had in this country before the laws that Margaret Thatcher introduced. That put us back on to a proper footing, where prosperity could arise, commerce could take place and business could flourish. We saw the launch pad built for an amazing economic performance that was no longer being destroyed by the trade unions.
Philip Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is further to go down this route, and that if we are trying to make potential strike action fairer, which seems to be the purpose of the Bill, we should instead be providing that more than 50% of those balloted, rather than just of those who voted, have to have voted for strike action before a strike is called?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend knows that I have an affinity for thresholds in other circumstances. Obviously, I am not going to talk about that, because it is not germane to the Bill, but I think it right that a sufficient number should express their will for a ballot to be valid, and that while we are debating Second Reading, we ought to think about what else it could have said, had it been a better Bill-a Bill that the House might have liked and approved on Second Reading. It could have contained further reforms to give power back to the members. I actually believe in the slogan used by Baldwin for his election: "Trust the People". The people are the masters of their politicians, and they know what is best for them, and the greater the democracy in trade unions, the better it is for their members.
I was struck by the Minister's comments that the Bill would make 15 sections of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 subject to accidental mistakes and a broad interpretation. Does that not make the hairs on the backs of hon. Members' necks stand up, when they think of what has gone before, and when they think of the possibilities for manipulation and for people to stand over others as they fill out their ballot papers? Perhaps it would be done in the canteen. Perhaps one person would gather everyone together, and if only 20% of the vote went astray, nobody would mind. It would not be substantial; it would be a minor error, a small failing, a little bit on the side.
Andrew Bridgen: Does my hon. Friend agree that were the Bill to become law, it could be viewed by a vast number of unions and union officials, who are quite capable of running a ballot in line with the current regulations, as a complete insult to their intelligence?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a union cannot run a ballot properly, that is a disastrous state for that union to be in, but people use the mechanisms to hand. We should always be
suspicious-always cautious, always careful-about allowing exemptions, because as soon as we do, people work out how to use them for a purpose other than that which was initially intended. That is why legislation in this place needs to be so properly considered-and considered in due and appropriate detail-because when it is not, people might actually believe the title of the Bill, which I come back to.
As the Minister so rightly said, the title refers to "Minor Errors". Clause 2 deals with the short title, and although I doubt whether the short title of a Bill should very often be a contentious matter, on this occasion I think that it is. I do not think that the Bill ought to be called the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill. If passed, it should be called the Lawful Industrial Action (Coach and Horses) Act 2010, because that, as I said in an intervention on the Minister, is what it would do to the law as it stands. The Bill would get rid of so many safeguards, and this House is here to safeguard the British people-our electors-not just from over-mighty government, but from over-mighty private organisations that may wish to use and abuse their power.
Philip Davies: On that theme, does my hon. Friend agree that one thing that the Bill does not address is the damages that have to be paid by unions that call for action that is later found to be unprotected? Damages are capped at £250,000 in those cases, whereas the strikes at BA, for example, cost BA £40 million.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend makes an extraordinarily good and wise point. This would have been a better Bill if it had sought to raise that cap and made unions responsible for their unlawful errors.
Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): As I might not get the chance to make my own contribution, I wonder whether my hon. Friend shares my concern that, throughout this debate, this new concept of "substantial compliance" has not been properly addressed. It has been introduced to us in this small, "minor-errors Bill", but it is actually a big idea and quite a concerning idea. However, at no point has anyone on the Labour Benches risen to make any attempt at giving us a definition. This debate would have been a great deal more substantial had someone attempted to put some flesh on the bones of that small phrase.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: My hon. Friend is spot-on. We had a discussion about that on this side of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) elucidated for us what was meant by "substantial", and said that in law, it meant an 80:20 level. I am not lawyer, but I was interested by that.
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of members is presumably that of the Carlton club and his knowledge of the shop floor presumably that of Fortnum and Mason. Does his knowledge of the law lead him to understand the jurisprudential concept of de minimis non curat lex?
I am so grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, which is one that I made to the Minister myself, when sadly he was not present. Indeed,
the Hansard reporters asked me to spell it out, so the hon. Gentleman will notice that it is in Hansard tomorrow. De minimis non curat lex is, of course, a right and just principle, but it is in existing law. The question of what is "substantial" is the important one, and an 80:20 test is deeply unsatisfactory, because it simply allows too much impropriety to take place.
For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, who is interested in my clubs-I believe that I am allowed to answer this point, Mr Deputy Speaker, as it was raised in an intervention-I should add that I am not a member of the Carlton club, although I think it is in a very fine building and has an excellent membership, and that I think that Fortnum and Mason is a very fine shop, and would be very happy to place that on record.
Andrew Bridgen: In the light of the interventions from various Labour Members, does my hon. Friend agree that pretending that only they care about workers' rights is a fallacy? My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the union movement. My grandfather was a miner, and my other grandfather-
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful to Mr Speaker for giving me this opportunity to have my first Adjournment debate in this new Parliament. I am also pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) is going to respond. I am smiling to myself a little, because I can remember the days when he first came to the House to work for our party as one of its key researchers. Clearly, the mentoring that some of us gave him has worked to good effect, and we welcome him to this responsibility and his important job in the Department.
During the election campaign, I decided, for the first time in the eight campaigns that I have fought, to set out the top 12 issues that I wanted to flag up as commitments to my constituents. One of those-No. 5 on my list-was entitled "Jobs and the river", and in it I pledged to negotiate with the Greater London authority, the Port of London Authority and local councils
"to provide a local site for boat building and repair, giving jobs and apprenticeships to Southwark residents."
The reason that I am starting that campaign here and now is that the riverside constituencies in London that have a tradition of providing work, and workplaces, for people in the river industries need to have that interest rekindled. The Thames should not simply pass Southwark's northern shores; we need activity to take young people and others into training and apprenticeships, and then into work, in river-based industries.
There are some places in which people can start to acquire those skills. The London Nautical school, just over the border in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), serves her constituency and mine. It is a state school, a community school, with a very fine tradition, and it takes boys from the age of 11 who have an interest in marine and maritime matters, on which its curriculum places a special emphasis. It produces people who go off to work in the Royal Navy and the merchant navy, as well as into all other walks of life. South Bank university, Southwark college and the other further education colleges also provide some of the necessary engineering skills. There is no sense, however, that we are producing people with the skills to work on the river or that we are trying to recruit from the local work force to do the jobs on the river.
You may think, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the days of glory of trade and work on the Thames have gone because there is not as much bustle outside the windows of the Palace of Westminster as the pictures and prints portray, but the reality is that the port of London is hugely successful and the tidal Thames is getting busier, not less busy. There is not only more tourist traffic, but more commercial traffic. It is interesting to note that there is much more commercial traffic doing things that are environmentally good, such as taking waste from one part of London to another, which used to be carried on the roads but was not well received when it was transported in that way.
There are likely to be major pieces of work ahead related to the river. First, there are the plans of Thames Water to have a new mains sewage plant installed across London, which will involve a lot of digging, some of it controversial when it comes to my constituency, but I shall not go into any more detail on that for now. The work for the 2012 Olympics is also producing a lot of construction traffic, much of it using the river. Boats come up and down with materials and products and then take waste and other things out of the way.
The port of London handles 50 million metric tonnes a year; it is the largest port in southern England. About 2 million tonnes move within the Thames area, moving from one part of the river to another. There are links to business on the river-in the City as well as local firms-involving 46,000 full-time jobs; and there are 70 working port facilities on the river, 25 of which are west of the Thames barrier. There are 4 million passenger journeys made on the river every year, and nearly half all the traffic on inland waterways in the UK is on the Thames. That shows that this debate is not relevant only to me and my parliamentary neighbours-or to those of us who, like my hon. Friend the Minister, have the privilege of representing riverside constituencies-as the issues are of national as well as regional and local relevance.
The Thames will get busier in the future. The building of the Thames tunnel from 2013 will mean an extra 100 boats. Then there is the building of Crossrail, bringing the need to transport all the soil dug out of the ground. Further developments are planned in Charlton, for example, and Sainsbury's has a large distribution centre on the river and it is thinking about opening up the wharves nearby to allow for the distribution of goods to shops along the river. Then there is the possibility of a dedicated cruise terminal near Greenwich. If we are to service all that, we will need new boatyards and repair facilities on the Thames.
I want to deal with two reports, which I commend to the Minister. I hope that he will take what they say away with him-not just for his own Department, but for other Departments with an interest. The issues straddle the Departments. My hon. Friend is good enough to reply to my debate on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but the Department for Transport and the Department for Communities and Local Government are also interested.
I would like to share with the Minister some of the conclusions from a report entitled "Assessment of Boatyard Facilities on the River Thames", which was produced in 2007. It points out that there has been an
"increase of 20% in the number of vessels registered"
"The availability of boatyards in Greater London has remained largely unchanged since 2000".
The London plan seeks to protect boatyards against development for housing and other uses, but there has often been a struggle about that-for obvious reasons, as these are valuable bits of real estate on the river, where property developers have an interest in building luxury flats.
"Only two boatyards regularly build boats",
"site for a new boatyard to maintain passenger boats, support vessels and river piers".
"to improve the availability of facilities for emergency repair"-
an issue to which I shall return in a few seconds. Thirdly, the report stresses the importance of having repair facilities here, because otherwise boat building and boat repair have to go from the Thames and round to the east coast. By definition, that takes a while-it is a journey of several days-and has the risk that some vessels are not licensed for that sort of North sea journey, although they are licensed and equipped to work on the Thames.
"opportunity to link the provision of new boatyard facilities with training in marine industry skills".
"The opportunity for the public sector activities and facilities in maintaining boats and passenger vessels should be explored",
"Opportunities should be taken to provide additional facilities for private boat owners in the redevelopment of Thames side sites".
I know the pressures that exist. When I was first elected-more than a quarter of a century ago-I used to be able to walk along the river and see boatyards, boatbuilding and boat repair in my constituency around the Surrey docks. Yes, we have marinas, at Greenland dock and South dock, but we do not have the repair and maintenance facilities. There is nowhere that a 16-year-old can go to learn the skills, which the Thames and Britain need, of working on boats on the river. Strangely, no facilities exist locally to carry out emergency repairs on the river to rudders and propellers. People therefore use the traditional method of beaching the boat at low tide and doing the repair there. Self-evidently, that is not nearly as satisfactory.
The Thames has three working boatyards, but the biggest boats cannot use them. The largest passenger boats must go to East Anglia-to places such as Lowestoft. There are dry docks in use, small boatyards in my hon. Friend the Minister's area of, Kingston and Richmond, some Thames repair facilities in Gravesend and the Port of London authority facility in Denton, and a dry docking facility that has been retained. However, that is not enough by a long way, given the big businesses that still exist, such as Tate and Lyle at Silvertown, which was the largest sugar refinery in the world. There is an eminent firm based in my constituency called City Cruises, run by two of the great protagonists in redevelopment along the river, Gary and Rita Beckwith, to whom I pay tribute for their work generally and for pressing me and others to do something about producing a new facility. There is Thames Clippers based in Trinity Buoy wharf, and Thames Luxury Charters based on HMS Belfast in my constituency. An integrated approach is needed from central Government and local government.
We need to make sure that the price of development land does not price out such activities. Therefore, there is a planning issue for central Government and local Government. When the localism Bill is introduced later in the Session, we need to ensure that central Government and the London government have the necessary powers. We need to ensure that the PLA has the powers to retain yards, if it needs them, and that we do not lose any more sites.
Another point-I think this is the matter on which the hon. Lady wants to intervene-is that we do not have enough qualified people with local navigational knowledge as boatmen on the river. Therefore, during times of peak tourist demand, not enough people are available to run all the boats on the river. In this age, we must not introduce regulations that make it impossible for those who have traditionally worked on the river to retain their qualifications. We must not lose their skills.
Kate Hoey: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, my friend and constituency neighbour, on his chairmanship of the successful Mayor's Thames festival. I agree with all his comments, and I am particularly concerned about the seemingly unnecessary extra regulation, which is being interpreted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Skilled, experienced boat masters, whose standards of safety should make us proud, are being asked to go and take examinations again. For many of them, that is quite insulting. Will he join me in urging the Minister to ask the MCA to engage constructively with Thames boat masters to reach a solution that preserves their existing skills and experience and does not subject them to something that is not legally necessary and does not happen in other inland waterways?
Simon Hughes: I will not repeat the hon. Lady's point: I hope that the Minister will take up the matter with colleagues across Government. I am not arguing for a deskilled or less skilled work force-I was my constituency's MP at the time the Marchioness sank, and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), whom I also much respect on these matters, also remembers those days. We need a highly skilled work force, but we also need to use the skills that are historically acquired, because the Thames is a dangerous river to work on.
People sometimes underestimate the strength of the tides and currents, which are extremely dangerous and can be fatal, as was seen at the time of the Marchioness and has been seen on occasions since. It is vital that we retain our current work force, but also build a new generation to take the jobs.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests with regard to the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. The RMT has learned that some boat masters are being tested on parts of the river on which they never sail. It seems that this is being used almost as an income earner for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, rather than a genuine new regime for ensuring safety.
Simon Hughes: I should be happy to talk to the Government about that, along with the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vauxhall. No one is saying that there should not be an assurance that people have the skills that will enable them to continue to do the job. The Port of London authority tells me that the tests are not full-blown examinations, but oral checks and so forth. We are not asking for a draconian change in the rules or any lessening of safety provision, but we need to ensure that we do not lose the skills that are required. My grandfather was a sailor-he had sailed since he was 16-and I know that as much can be learned from experience as from books, manuals and maps.
I commend to the Minister-I will ask his Department to look at it, and to respond to me-a proposal for a London marine hub, which builds on the Government's policy of using our ports to develop new industries. One of the potential sites is Deptford. City Cruises says that the hub would give us
"strategic infrastructure... a cluster of marine skills and expertise which can develop into a centre of excellence",
"employment creation in an area of London"
"where there are... few new businesses offering skilled and semi-skilled manual work".
That would allow the experience of the old generation to be retained and shared with the new generation. I hope that the Government will respond positively by examining the proposal with the Greater London authority, the Port of London authority and others.
The Government are very committed-as I am-to ensuring that we give much better skills to people who do not aspire to be academics or acquire doctorates, but have manual skills and can use their hands along with their brains in the interests of the economy and the city. We, in boroughs such as mine, are certainly willing to support such initiatives, using our universities and further education colleges.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will see this as the beginning of a dialogue that will, sooner rather than later, provide opportunities on the river for people to be given training and work, while also helping the river business by providing the facilities that we have lost, or are in danger of losing, from the Thames, so that it can become not just a great river to look at and a great symbol of London, but a great working river once more, bringing jobs, skills and success to the London and British economies.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) on securing the debate. It is typical of him that, having made a promise to his constituents at the time of the general election, he is already mounting a very effective campaign. I hope that, working with the Mayor of London and others, he will be able to achieve his aims.
It has always been a privilege to work with my hon. Friend. I have campaigned with him in his constituency, and it is quite humbling to knock on doors and find that, apparently, everyone knows Simon and has been helped by him. He is held in huge regard by his constituents,
and, of course, by many in the House. When I worked as an adviser to the Liberal Democrat party before being elected to Parliament, I worked with him on issues such as the environment and employment. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that he is currently campaigning for employment on the River Thames for his constituents.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I cannot answer every point that he has raised, not least because some were directed at the Department for Transport-although I shall try to assist to a small extent-but also because I am standing in for the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). However, I hope that I can reassure him about some of the issues that he mentioned, and, indeed, encourage him in his campaign. As he said, I represent a London constituency that borders the Thames. Indeed, I live five minutes from the Thames, where there is a small boatyard, Harts Boatyard, as well as a firm called Turk Launches and many pleasure and leisure activities.
My hon. Friend's point about the river's potential for improving our economy was extremely well made. I share his interest in how we can harness the river's considerable potential to fuel economic growth and provide jobs, especially for our young people, in the marine industries. As he said, the Thames already plays a significant role in the economy of London and the south-east. The port of London, for example, is estimated to contribute £3.7 billion a year to the economy. As he said, the port handles over 50 million tonnes of cargo, from fuel to food, cars to containers. It sustains people in a diverse range of employment-manufacturing workers, cargo handlers, drivers, warehouse staff and ships' agents, to name but a few.
In addition, the Thames is growing in importance as a means of transporting commuters and indeed tourists around London. According to Transport for London, the number of passenger journeys has risen substantially in just two years-from 2.75 million in 2006-07 to 3.9 million in 2008-09. That confirms the need for investment in skills, so that that growing activity can be serviced in the way my hon. Friend talked about.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that there are ambitious plans to increase the Thames area's already substantial economic contribution. The London Gateway scheme, headed by DP World, is delivering £1.5 billion of inward investment to build a new deep-sea container port and Europe's largest logistics park. The development, at Stanford-le-Hope in Essex, is the most significant port development in the UK in the past 20 years. London Gateway is the single largest job-creation project in the UK today. It is expected to deliver 36,000 direct and indirect jobs, and contribute around £3.2 billion to the UK economy. Those are developments that I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome.
It is essential that we equip people, particularly our young people, with the skills that they will need to take advantage of those and other job opportunities in the marine industries along the Thames. World-class skills are the bedrock of sustainable economic growth. That was why I was pleased that in the comprehensive spending review this week the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced increased funding for apprenticeships. The Government will boost spending on adult apprenticeships by up to £250 million by the end of the CSR period to
create an additional 75,000 apprenticeship places. I hope and believe that the creation of new jobs and apprenticeships in marine industries in the River Thames basin can benefit from that investment.
The Maritime Skills Alliance, a sector body that works to increase training opportunities within the sector, has recently developed a level 2 maritime apprenticeship. Many of the MSA's members operate along the Thames and it will be encouraging them to offer the apprenticeship to new recruits.
Port Skills and Safety, the industry body that includes the Port of London Authority among its members, is developing a level 2 stevedoring apprenticeship, which it hopes to implement soon. North West Kent college, based at Gravesend, will be a major provider of these new maritime apprenticeships, as well as offering bespoke courses to meet the needs of specific companies. Of course we should not forget the 2012 Olympics and the opportunities that the games will create. Transport for London expects that river transport will play an important role in taking spectators to and from venues. All those opportunities and developments within the apprenticeship sector will speak to my hon. Friend's desire to provide those skills to his constituents, so that they can have jobs along the Thames.
Simon Hughes: I am encouraged and it is helpful to get these things on the record. I hope that colleagues in Government will be positive about promoting and boosting those things. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might reflect on the fact that one of the things that we still need to do is to provide sites for shipbuilding and boatbuilding. Most of the vessels-the Queen Elizabeth was launched by the Queen the other day-are built abroad now, rather than in this country. If we have the skills and traditions, with the space available, we should seek to build more of our own river-based and other ships here, rather than having to buy them abroad and only maintaining them here.
Mr Davey: Although I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we will have a rebirth of the shipbuilding industry on the Thames to the extent and capacity that he has talked about, I share his view that we must support companies that are connected with those issues-repair stations, boatbuilders and manufacturers-so that we can develop that skilled work force. As my hon. Friend is probably aware, the Greater London Authority is working with the Port of London Authority to identify sites for new boatyards, and although they may not be of sufficient size and capacity to accommodate international ocean-going liners, we certainly hope and expect they will be successful in delivering new sites.
The National Apprenticeship Service has identified manufacturing and engineering as two of its target sectors. It will be working with employers and training providers to make additional apprenticeship places available where there is local demand both in the Thames area and nationally. These various initiatives are a good start, but more can be done, which is what my hon. Friend is striving to achieve. I therefore welcome the news that next week NAS London, the GLA and the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and
Manufacturing Technologies are meeting to discuss exactly this issue. My hon. Friend's debate is therefore timely.
Local authorities also have an important role to play in working with local businesses to generate new economic opportunities for their areas. That is why we are introducing local enterprise partnerships, putting in place a structure that will support this vital collaboration and enable boroughs such as Southwark to work with their businesses to focus on economic priorities, including unlocking the untapped economic potential of the Thames.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) talked about boatmen's licences, and I know from discussions I have had with my own constituents who work on the Thames that there has been concern about the changes to the regulations in recent years. My hon. Friend and the hon. Lady will know that these changes arose in part from a need to react to changes in a European Union directive, and this has not been without its challenges. It would be wrong for me to go into too much detail because I am not the Minister with responsibility, but I will ask colleagues at the Department for Transport to respond in detail to the concerns raised. I am not sure whether there is an easy or quick solution, but the fundamental point that has been made is that we must not allow regulations to get in the way of our making sure our young people can have careers on the river, and navigate its dangerous waters safely in the service of Londoners and the many people who visit our capital city. Everyone knows that we have to put health and safety right at the heart of our strategy for using the Thames-my hon. Friend better than anybody given the work he did after the tragedy of the sinking of the Marchioness. We must work with trade unions and local authorities to try to ensure that we have a sufficient supply of boatmen who can provide that critical service. Without their skills we will not be able to make the most of the economic potential of the river; they are central to our strategy for unlocking that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the skills element, therefore.
It is of relevance that the Government are taking bold steps on apprenticeships. We have made it a central part of a very difficult spending review to ensure that apprenticeships, further education and adult education remain as strong as possible despite the difficult financial situation. That speaks to a number of agendas including social justice as well as the one my hon. Friend talked about. He has always strongly argued that the FE sector often provides training and education opportunities that other parts of our education system do not, in that, along with adult education, it gives people a second chance. He is right to highlight that.
I hope that I have given my hon. Friend at least some cause for hope. I and my colleagues across the coalition will be very happy to work with him to try to make sure that his campaign is successful. The coalition is committed to building the economy and spreading economic opportunity both on the Thames and across London and the country.