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Lord Razzall: My Lords, I do not want to detain your Lordships for very long, but I should like to make one brief comment. I welcome from these Benches the reduction of the relevant period from two years to one year. As the Minister will be aware, there is no particular magic in one year. From 1971 to 1975, the period was one year. From 1975 to 1979, it was six months. It then went up to one year/two years, for small and large businesses respectively.

There is significant evidence, as the Minister will be aware, particularly from the citizens advice bureaux, that quite a large proportion of the cases that come to them are from people who believe that they have been unfairly treated although they have had less than one year's employment. In the view of the citizens advice bureaux, quite a lot of those cases involve circumstances where, at the end of, let us say, three months the employee has been given a perfectly satisfactory interview with the employer, indicating that everything is going well. In those circumstances, I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government will keep this under

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review together with the question of whether the one-year provision will in due course be lowered to six months.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his comments. He is quite right that there is no particular magic in one year and in recalling that the period has varied considerably over the years. I have, indeed, had the benefit of a briefing from the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux which I read with great care.

I take the point that a substantial part of its caseload on employment problems, which is of course only a part of its total case load, is concerned with unfair dismissal in cases involving less than one year's employment. The noble Lord makes the valid point that the common probationary period is three months. As an employer, I always used to have a three-month probationary period, and I never had any difficulty, even when the formal legal period was two years, in using the end of the three-month period and the review at that time to achieve a relatively amicable parting of the ways if the probationary period had not worked out.

The fundamental point is that good employers will avoid complaints of unfair dismissal anyway. If they have good procedures, as 90 per cent do, there will be no problem in working a one-year period. There is an additional advantage in a one-year period, given our commitment throughout the consultations before the Fairness at Work White Paper and the preparatory work for the Employment Relations Bill and given that the one-year period has been agreed both by employees' organisations and by the CBI and the Association of Conservative Trade Unionists. We like to operate by consensus as far as we can, but I certainly can confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Razzall, says, and that our minds are open to further review, not necessarily in the phrase that he used at the end of his speech, and that we intend to reduce the period as and when it may prove necessary.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Army, Air Force and Naval Discipline Acts (Continuation) Order 1999

4.53 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that the purpose of the order is to continue in force for a further year the Army and Air Force Acts 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 which together provide the statutory basis for discipline in the three services.

The House will be aware that since 1961 an Armed Forces Bill has been brought before the House every five years with the primary purpose of continuing in force the Acts that provide the disciplinary powers in the three armed services. The House will be aware that

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the last Armed Forces Bill was considered and enacted in 1996. It follows that the next such Bill will be brought forward for consideration no later than the year 2001. I therefore invite the House to give the necessary annual renewal to the discipline Act by approving this order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 6th May be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].--(Lord Gilbert.)

Lord Burnham: My Lords, as the noble Lord said, this is an annual event and of course as such in this place we give it entire approval. However, there is one question that I must ask the noble Lord. It concerned the Human Rights Act and this order. Can he assure the House that in no way will discipline in the Armed Forces be affected by the Human Rights Act?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. In a private conversation that I had with him earlier, I was not quite sure of my ground. However, I am now sure and can tell him that the position is unchanged since the last time we discussed these matters.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for moving this order. I remind the House that I have an interest as I command a TA unit. I should like to identify one loophole in the 1955 Act in respect of the TA; namely, that after dismissal parade a TA soldier is not subject to military law because he is no longer on duty. That does not affect the validity or the desirability of this order, but it is possible that there could be an emergency, or some other situation, in a TA centre requiring the use of the power of command. I have never experienced such a problem, but it was drawn to my attention during a course that I took. Some cases could be referred to the civil authorities, but, first, it is not appropriate to bring military disciplinary problems to the civil police. Secondly, the civil police would be reluctant to become involved. This is obviously a matter for the quinquennial review, but I should like to put on record my intention to raise it at that time. The only possible problem is that I might not be here to do so.

My final point touches on the one raised by my noble friend Lord Burnham. Concern has recently been expressed about the summary jurisdiction arrangements in the Army Act. Those arrangements are the equivalent of a magistrates' court. A solider subject to summary

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jurisdiction always has the option of a court martial. However, for the maintenance of good military discipline and morale, it is necessary to have a short, "flash-to-bang" time. These cases must be resolved quickly in order to maintain morale. Therefore, I hope that we keep our summary jurisdiction arrangements as provided by the 1955 Act.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Earl. I must say that he is the first Member of this House from whom I have heard of a loophole in the 1955 Act. I have a magnificent brief in front of me, but it does not touch on that Act and its possible loopholes. Therefore, I undertake to the noble Earl that we in the Ministry of Defence will look into the matter with great diligence and write to him about it. If the noble Earl wants the results of our investigations put on the public record, I can arrange for that to be put in the report of the proceedings of the House.

As regards the effects of the Human Rights Act, I do not think that I can say anything in addition to what I have said on previous occasions from this Dispatch Box. I am very happy to offer the noble Earl, or any other noble Lord, a briefing on precisely what the Ministry of Defence is thinking of doing in the next review in order to facilitate matters--I think that that is the best way of putting it--to ensure that we have all our existing summary discipline procedures in place and that they are all consonant with the requirements of the Human Rights Act. I have no concerns over these matters. I hope very much that the noble Earl will be here two years from now to discuss such matters. I am grateful to him for giving us notice that he proposes to raise the subject at that time.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Local Government (Functions and Standards) Bill

A message was brought from the Commons that they have come to the following resolution, to which they desire the concurrence of this House: That it is expedient that a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider the draft Local Government (Functions and Standards) Bill published in the Command Paper entitled Local Leadership, Local Choice (CM. 4298), and that the Committee should report by 31st July 1999.

        House adjourned at two minutes before five o'clock.

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