|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that in anticipation of the Bill there is quite a strong body of evidence that on a voluntary basis employers are engaged in positive discussions with trades unions and that recognition is taking place in advance of the Bill itself?
Lord Razzall: My Lords, I hope the noble Lord is correct. I shall be delighted if that is the case. As the noble Lord will be aware, the tenet of my argument is that voluntary agreement and not legislative agreement will solve the problems. But, as I say, I do not believe that from these Benches we shall intrude in the private grief of the Labour Party.
We shall probe the Government as regards a number of areas where we believe the Bill does not go far enough. I choose two major areas. One of them is likely to find favour in your Lordships' House; the other, less likely. The area which I anticipate will find favour is that of discrimination on grounds of age. The debate in the other place touched significantly on whether there is a gap in legislation of this nature to give legal rights to argue and claim discrimination on the grounds of age. In a Second Reading debate I do not need to give examples that many people have raised on the issue. As I understand it, the Government's position is that discrimination about age should not be dealt with by legislation but by a voluntary code of practice. I would not wish to embarrass the Government by indicating that when in opposition they took the opposite view. The then Tory government believed that age discrimination should be dealt with by a voluntary code of practice. The Labour Party at the time thought that unacceptable and considered that it should be dealt with by legislation. When we reach the Committee stage we
The area which is less likely to find favour with your Lordships is whether the Bill goes far enough as regards sexual discrimination. A number of examples of discrimination against employees on the grounds of sexual orientation have been well documented in the press. When the Bill reaches Committee stage we shall bring forward amendments. Whatever the view taken by your Lordships, the age of consent should be regarded as a separate issue. Hiring, firing and employment practice where there is evidence of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is quite different from the issue of lowering the age of consent.
In another place, the Government, although sympathetic, felt that there should be a different approach. Age discrimination, they indicated, should be dealt with through a voluntary code of practice. On the subject of sexual orientation they took the somewhat surprising view that it was not a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry, but for the Department for Education and Employment. In these days of "joined up" government, if we are considering legislation which affects employment practices in the workplace it is not an excuse to say that it is not a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry but for another department. When we reach the Committee stage I hope that that is a matter on which the Government will be able to adapt.
There are some areas of detail in the Bill on which we shall wish to probe the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, touched on one which has caused some considerable concern; namely, the "gold plating" of certain provisions which come from European directives. The obvious one is rights being given for time off in relation to a domestic incident. That has been fairly well documented. Those of your Lordships who have studied the Bill in detail will realise that the definition of such an incident will be left to regulation. If it is left to regulation by the Minister, undoubtedly time off for his son to watch Arsenal on a Tuesday afternoon is unlikely to be a domestic incident; it will be a domestic normality. There is clearly concern as to the exact meaning of "domestic incident". It is a gold plating of the European directive that goes further than many would have anticipated.
That leads me to the fundamental concern that we on these Benches have. From her remarks, I think our concern is shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Much of the Bill is left to be dealt with by regulation. There are very significant items in the Bill which the Government say will be the subject of consultation--we accept that--but the nuts and bolts will be implemented by regulation which, under the way our parliamentary democracy currently works, will never really be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny. It is regrettable that the legislation has been drafted in that way. I hope that the Minister who responds will give strong undertakings to the House that, because the regulations will not be subjected to effective parliamentary scrutiny, there will
Finally, I wish to make a point which has not so far featured in the debate. All the surveys seem to indicate that there is considerable confusion among medium and small-sized companies as to the current status of the regulations and provisions to which they are subject. I know that the Department of Trade and Industry has spent time and money trying to give effective notice and information to businesses. However, businesses without significant corporate legal teams or central functional teams that can advise management are, according to the latest surveys, in considerable difficulty as to the impact of the national minimum wage regulations, the working time directive and the regulations that will flow from the Bill. To be fair to the Government, those regulations are constantly changing in the process of consultation. The national minimum wage regulations have been amended as we have gone along to try to reflect consultations with the public.
The Minister says that this is the third and final pillar of the Government's employment legislation. It is absolutely paramount that an effective, proper and extensive information operation is mounted to ensure that particularly medium and small-sized companies know their obligations. I hope that the Minister can assure us that that will be done.
Lord Walker of Doncaster: My Lords, Westminster must be the only place where one can experience a second maidenhood. If I might muddle my metaphor, looking around the Chamber I feel that I am revisiting an old battlefield. When I first came to your Lordships' House I thought it sensible to follow the wise advice of the Procedure Committee to study the form before making one's first speech. Perhaps I have hesitated too long, but I must admit that I have been inhibited, if not intimidated, by my inability to rise to the standard of erudition and eloquence that often illuminates your Lordships' debates. However, I feel that I may have the credentials to make a brief contribution to our proceedings today.
One way or another, most of my adult life has been linked with the stuff of industrial relations. I am proud to declare an interest: for more than 50 years I have been a member, and I am still a member, of the engineering union--the AEU and now the AEEU, in common with some of my noble friends. I remember the long-gone days when I was a youthful shop steward, the days when almost the only way to seek remedy for a grievance at work was to take, or threaten to take, some form of militant industrial action. If a worker was sacked, otherwise victimised, or was ordered to carry out some excessively dangerous task, and if an employer behaved unreasonably, all too often the response was a collective action which damaged the interests of both employers and workers alike: loss of production for one; loss of earnings for the other.
No doubt there are many reasons for the decline--the restraints on the unions imposed by the previous government, as has been referred to, and the persistently high level of unemployment--but I am sure that a significant factor has been the beneficial influence of the legislation passed by Parliament over the past decades. I think particularly of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was introduced by my noble friend Lady Castle of Blackburn and was one of her many achievements. On the other side, the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, introduced the first statutory remedy for unfair dismissal. Those are the kind of measures that have not only contributed to a very great improvement in the statistics of industrial relations but have beneficially transformed relations in the workplace.
It seems to me that the Bill before us today marks a further step along that road. It is yet another move away from the old master and servant relationship to one where employees can feel that they are partners in the provision of goods and services. Promoting the rights and protections of workers is about not only modifying the social relationships of employment but also to do with industrial efficiency and productivity. Before I entered Parliament I spent part of my career in industrial management; I was for a period a work study engineer. I was convinced then, and I am convinced now, that one of the most significant contributions to high productivity is that the workforce should be confident and free of anxiety. If the workforce performs better, we as a country gain from it.
Finally, I wish to make reference to the welcome provisions in the Bill for the updating of the regulations relating to employment agencies. It fell to me in 1974 to produce the first regulations to give effect to the Employment Agencies Act, which was introduced by the late Kenneth Lewis. At that time the Federation of Personnel Services, the collective body representing the leading employment agencies, was the most fervent advocate of regulation, not least because it was being prejudiced by the activities of the cowboy agencies operating in that field. I am delighted with the success of the regulations over the years in eliminating some of the abuses and malpractice that were endemic in the employment agency field 25 years, a quarter of a century, ago. The time is ripe now to update those regulations, and I am pleased that there is provision in the Bill for that to be done.
Perhaps I may be permitted a further personal reflection. The Bill generates for me a feeling of deja vu. My early years in the other place seemed to be dominated by industrial relations and the decline thereof, as well as the consequential and parallel decline of this country's economy between 1974 and 1979.
As the noble Lord, Lord Walker, will well remember, the flagship of the then Labour Government was the Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill, and perhaps the Employment Protection Bill. I watched in fascinated horror as immunities from legal process were conferred upon trade union leaders and massive privileges and undemocratic powers, as I thought, over their trade union members were conferred upon them, under the gleeful but ultimately catastrophic leadership of Mr. Michael Foot.
All that was done in the name of better industrial relations--a cause upon which all were agreed who were ranged against each other in the Standing Committees and on either side of the Chamber in the other place--but strikes became endemic. By 1979, when lost working days were running at nearly 27 million annually, the social and economic consequences brought the government down. Additionally, such burdens had been imposed on employers, particularly small employers, that many were prevented from remaining competitive and were obliged to throw their workforce out of employment.
I am afraid that--I do not doubt with the best intentions--the present Bill suggests to me that the Government are in some respects starting to return to their predecessors' thraldom to the trade union leaders. That thraldom had been progressively dispelled by and with the insistent support of working people on the shop floor. Otherwise it could not have been done in the years of Conservative government that followed. The shop-floor workers showed themselves, to an enormously impressive extent, sick of their enforced so-called representation by many of their trade union leaders. It was representation that they showed they did not want. Against their wishes, their leaders had exploited the ability to secure strike action, even by workforces that had no dispute with their employers.
In our Employment Bill 1980, during the passage of which I had the privilege to serve Jim Prior, now the noble Lord, Lord Prior, we set about, step by step--a phrase which had some significance in those days--
Then and thereafter it was the shop-floor people who most clamantly told us, "Go on. You haven't gone far enough". So we took another step. The Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Prior, was followed by that of my noble friend Lord Tebbit. So it went on until, at the end of that lengthy process, not only had the annual toll of working days lost been reduced from about 27 million to under 1 million, but also unemployment had fallen markedly and British industry was restored to competitiveness. That was why we did it.
Towards the end of that period, or even long before it, strikes had come to seem as old-fashioned in the context of industrial relations as the application of leeches to a fevered patient had become old-fashioned and just about as unhelpful in the field of medicine.
Strangely, throughout that period--and this is why deja vu afflicts me--step after step that we took at the demands of the shop floor was opposed by several noble Lords whose names appear on the list of speakers, and I look forward to their speeches: the noble Lords, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, Lord McCarthy, Lord Clinton-Davis. Time and time again they were opponents of the measures. For some of them, it must have been a long winter.
I believe that towards the end of that period we got the balance about right. I speak of balance because we never wished to be against trade unions; we wished to be against the unreasonable imbalance of the powers of certain trade union leaders.
Now the clock is in part to be nudged back: compulsory recognition of trade unions is to be reintroduced. We had it from 1975 to 1980 and even if those who desire recognition in what is called an "agreed bargaining unit" fall short of a majority by 10 per cent, recognition will be enforced. Dismissing an employee within eight weeks of taking part in a strike in violation of a contract of employment is to be made unlawful, and so on. That will apply to all firms employing more than 20 employees. Virtually every business organisation that has been consulted on the question of the threshold--the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors--pressed for the threshold to be markedly increased. Here I should declare an interest in that I am patron of the chamber of commerce for West Kent.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, perhaps not surprisingly I dissent from some of the propositions advanced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden--although I strongly agree with his opening remarks about my noble friend Lord Walker of Doncaster. I gather that eulogies are not permitted these days but he was a fine example of a Deputy Speaker of distinction in the other place. Occasionally, he even called on both of us to speak. Rarely, but occasionally.
I declare my interest as president of the British Airline Pilots Association, which is a trade union of airline pilots of which the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is not unfamiliar. I was vastly entertained by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon. We are all very fond of the noble Baroness but her suggestion that the present government is a collection of the militant faction resurrected is somewhat far from the truth. I remind the noble Baroness that it is New Labour.
The extraordinary prejudice that was imported into the noble Baroness's speech and that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, as to the current role of trade unions is rather mind boggling. I know that many of us are rather ancient but it is never too late to overcome prejudice. It is time to consider the present state of the trade unions.
I personally believe that there was a case for reform and that the role undertaken by trade unions during the winter of discontent was arrogant. It brought down the Labour government of which I was proud to be a member and that situation was intolerable. However, the Thatcher government went too far. The balance became unacceptable as well. For them, balance is a chip on both shoulders. It was manifestly plain at the last general election that the country had come to recognise that the last government had gone too far and that the power of irresponsible employers had replaced the irresponsibility of some trade unions.
One of the problems is not trade unions but unofficial action, which was often provoked by the very thing that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, spoke about--the rigidity of statutory provision and the inability to modify a position in light of experience. As
My noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury said that we are facing huge challenges in the demands that will be made of industry and hence of industrial relations as we move into the next millennium. We are still far behind France and Germany in terms of productivity, and that has something to do with building up a better, more harmonious relationship at work--where there is greater co-operation and each side seeks to understand the position of the other. It is enormously important that we are prepared to recognise the need to change the environment at the workplace. That is the purpose of the Bill and of a number of other measures. I was privileged to help the National Minimum Wage Bill through this House. Other measures include the possibility of enhancing employee share ownership. All such measures are designed to secure a better environment in the workplace.
I have no doubt that we will learn as we go along. That will not be easy. Attitudes must be changed. Hence the importance of the government provision in the Bill for training facilities for employers and employees alike, to be better able to face the challenges.
I do not imagine for one moment that we will be able to dispense with traditional dispute resolution. It would be folly to think that. But creating a better, more co-operative sense of partnership in industry will invade that area as well. True partnership involves a keener appreciation of the role of each other and the support that each side of industry can afford each other because their ambitions are the same.
The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will not share the argument that one of the great benefits of the European Union is that considerable action has been taken to achieve that end. The EU has decisively rejected the antediluvian view that there always has to be conflict between the two sides of industry. Bitterness, rancour and conflict were the hallmarks of so much of our late industrial past, including the period of Conservative government.
The Bill's provisions provide for dignity at the workplace, and that is the relevance of helping to promote family friendly employment practices. Those, together with the other measures, mirror the Government's ambition to proclaim an interdependent combination of laws and practices because each area of the Bill is dependent upon the other. The establishment of a fair, just and strong society is clearly to be preferred to the ideological approach taken by our predecessors and by some trade unionists in the past.
Frankly, I do not understand the Conservative case, but if the Opposition are saying that paternity leave, extended maternity leave and all the other things criticised by the noble Baroness are dangerous and damaging to industrial relations, is it the Conservatives' intention--if they return to power in 15 or 20 years--to repeal those provisions?
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page