I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill will promote the best of modern employment relationships in all our companies, encouraging a culture of fairness and trust in the workplace coupled with rights and responsibilities. We believe that, to achieve the prosperity that we want to see, there must be minimum rights for people while they are at work. That is in the interests of business as well as individuals, and that is why the Bill will be welcomed by good employers and responsible trade unionists everywhere.
This legislation is a balanced and fair package that reflects careful thinking and thorough consultation. It delivers our manifesto pledge to provide minimum standards for treatment at work and to develop family-friendly employment policies. Our consultations began soon after the election, when we asked the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress to hold talks on trade union recognition. They continued last May with the publication of the Government's "Fairness at Work" White Paper.
As that White Paper and our subsequent work on improving Britain's competitive position have shown, wealth creation can be married with a strong, fair and just society. There is no contradiction. We need enterprising businesses to prosper, creating wealth, jobs and opportunities for all our people.
The Bill sets out a radical, forward-looking package of measures that will create a framework of employment relations law fit for the next century. It will replace policies supported by the Conservative party, which were based on the notion of conflict between employers and employees, with measures for partnership based on rights matched by responsibilities.
The legislation will contribute to economic prosperity by reducing staff turnover, increasing morale in the workplace and raising productivity. It will address the fundamental imbalance in the workplace that we inherited from the Conservative party after its 19 years in office.
Of course, some steps were needed to curb the worst of trade union excesses, and those measures will be retained. But the Tory Governments went too far, fostering a divisive culture of mistrust and conflict, fear and low productivity, with workers being discriminated against because they worked part-time or chose to belong to a trade union.
The Government are clear that our future economic success cannot be based on insecurity, exploitation and discrimination, and the Bill will tackle those difficulties. Now, more than ever, we need to foster a new culture in the workplace. The world is changing and the world of work has altered dramatically over recent years.
More people are working part-time, or on temporary contracts—29 per cent. of the work force are part-time, roughly double the figure 25 years ago.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the way in which the Opposition are treating the Bill. I hope that they will reveal the extent to which they plan to oppose certain key measures. I had expected more Opposition Members to support the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"]—The Bill addresses the issue of insecurity at work and the right hon. Gentleman must have deep concerns about his own position, given the comments that have been attributed to the Leader of the Opposition. I have read the Bill in great detail and I regret that the provisions on job security do not cover the shadow Cabinet. I am sorry about that, but if amendments are tabled in Committee, perhaps the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), will give them consideration—or perhaps not.
To return to the changed nature of the work force, more women than ever are working and more families depend on two earners. More than 50 per cent. of married women with children under five work—again more than double the figure a generation ago.
My right hon. Friend is referring to various categories of worker. There has also been an increase in the number of agency workers. Will he emphasise that the Bill will provide better protection to those employed in such work?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Some 1 million people now work through employment agencies. A Bill that addresses the modern labour market must contain provisions that apply to employment agencies. I am pleased to say that the Bill includes specific measures to tackle abuses involving employment agencies, and I shall refer to them later in my speech.
In a changed labour market, it is important that the Bill addresses the different nature of the work force. Increasing numbers of workers need to balance work with other commitments, such as caring for children or elderly relatives. New working patterns put new responsibilities on the Government, businesses and employees. They place a responsibility on the Government to ensure minimum standards of fairness and treatment for all in society and they place a responsibility on business to ensure that the task of making a reality of the flexible labour market does not fall solely on working people.
The legislation is most welcome. May I make a plea to my right hon. Friend on behalf of a very small work force? I refer to the few hundred men employed as fishermen by a small number of trawler companies. Down the years, they have been treated as casual workers in every sense of the word. I hope that the Bill will enable them to be treated differently by their employers, some of whom have been among the worst in Britain.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although their numbers may be small, their needs must be addressed. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield has already had discussions with his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We are giving very serious consideration to the particular circumstances applying to that section of the work force.
I welcome the main thrust of the Government's legislation. However, as my right hon. Friend is talking about protection of the work force, will he perhaps help the House to understand better why employees working in companies with fewer than 21 employees will be excluded from the provisions on trade union recognition?
I shall explain, if my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will give me a chance to do so.
I have listened to the arguments that the collective rights provisions should apply to all businesses. Such decisions are always a matter of balance. Our view was that undue burdens should not be placed on businesses in circumstances in which it would not be appropriate to do so, and that, in such circumstances, we should not be prepared to extend the trade union recognition provisions. Although I understand the strong views that have been expressed, we believe that the package is reasonable and balanced. As it is balanced, we have not been prepared to accept the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) and some of his colleagues. Although I know that they will be disappointed, we think that, on balance, the package is the right way to move forward.
If the Secretary of State genuinely believes what his Department is saying—that, in the next 10 years, most new jobs will be created in companies with fewer than 21 persons—surely there is absolutely no logic in withholding the rights of those individuals to be members of a trade union, or in companies not recognising the collective might of those employees? Surely his point falls foul of the fact that the overwhelming majority of new jobs will be created in the sector of small businesses with few employees.
I should put the record straight. The Bill contains provisions that will ensure that any individual—regardless of the size of organisation for which he or she works—will be entitled to belong to a trade union and not to be discriminated against because of trade union membership. All individuals-regardless of the size of organisation for which they work-will be able to have someone of their choice represent them at a grievance or disciplinary hearing. If a company or business employing fewer than 21 people decides voluntarily to recognise a trade union, it will be perfectly entitled to do so. However, on balance, the Government have taken the view that it is reasonable to have a cut-off.
It is worth bearing it in mind that, in the past decade or so, many large employers have gone for derecognition. Now, because of the Bill's provisions, there will be automatic recognition of a trade union of which a majority of the work force are members. The provision will be welcomed by many thousands of people who are trade union members but have been denied recognition of their union.
The Government believe that the Bill strikes the right balance and will be an important step forward. I should hope that most people, on examining the provisions, will agree that they provide a structure that will serve in the years ahead.
I shall give way in a minute or two, but should first make some progress in my speech.
The final point on responsibility is employees' responsibility to demonstrate loyalty and commitment to their employer. However, flexibility does not have to entail—it must not entail—insecurity and poor treatment, which lead only to additional stress for many whose lives are already too stressful, to low morale and to poor productivity. We must help people to adapt to the new world of fast-changing markets and shifting work patterns without sacrificing their quality of life.
The measures proposed in the Bill are already applied widely in many of our top-performing companies, which are reaping the benefits of greater employee commitment and co-operation, reduced staff turnover and absenteeism and increased productivity. The proposals, by underpinning modern employment policies in law, will help to spread just that type of best practice to all parts of the economy. We believe that, if employers treat their work force sensibly, employees will respond with loyalty and commitment.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that having a cut-off point can create problems, whether it is 20, 15 or any other number? Is he aware that a large number of firms throughout the country with work forces of fewer than 20 have granted recognition rights to trade unions? One possible danger—I hope that it does not arise—is that some firms with a work force of, say, 18 might decide to abandon trade union recognition because the new law says that they do not have to recognise unions if they employ fewer than 20 people. What safeguards will be available to trade unionists who have an agreement, but might lose that recognition because of the cut-off?
As I said earlier, there is nothing in the Bill to stop voluntary agreements that have already been entered into. I hope that employers will recognise the benefits of trade union recognition. Many companies do. I shall give examples later of companies that have a positive partnership with their trade unions. They are successful, prosperous companies that are growing and are able to employ more people. Nothing in the Bill should act as a disincentive to employers on trade union recognition. The trade union movement needs to demonstrate to people in the work force the benefits of union membership. It is worth reflecting on the fact that 4 million people in many of the categories of organisation mentioned by some of my hon. Friends are not in union membership. The challenge to the trade union movement, in the light of the Bill in particular, is to recruit people. Unions now have a reason to do so, because if more than half the workers in a work place are in union membership there will be automatic recognition.
Just a second; I want to answer my hon. Friend's point first. I understand the concerns about the cut-off, but we believe that the Bill is a balanced package.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware that the accident rate in a workplace that has unionised workplace representatives is half that of non-unionised workplaces? Does he agree that the Bill will improve health and safety at work, even though it has no specific provisions on that?
I have no doubt about that. Health and safety representatives are important, and there are measures in the Bill to help those who carry out that important responsibility. There is no doubt that businesses that have union recognition are far safer places to work than those with no such provision.
I want to make progress, but I shall give way in a minute.
There are three fundamental strands running through the Bill. The first is to promote family-friendly policies. The second is to promote a new culture of partnership in the workplace. The third is to ensure equal and fair treatment for all in the workplace. There will not be a continuous drip, drip of employment legislation throughout this Parliament. We have no plans to bring forward further measures. We intend this industrial relations settlement to last for the remainder of this Parliament.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I should like to pursue the point raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about small firms with perhaps 18 employees. Does the Secretary of State accept that there might be one or two unscrupulous employers—to use the words of the hon. Member for Bolsover—who might be disinclined to employ 20 or 21 people for fear of compulsory union recognition? What assessment has he made of that?
The hon. Gentleman always makes interesting interventions. If a business needs to employ 21 people to be prosperous and to make a profit, I am sure that it will do so. I do not believe that the measures in the Bill will act as a disincentive in that respect.
I wish to refer to one of the most important aspects of the Bill—the package to promote family-friendly policies. The Bill's provisions form a major part of the Government's agenda for supporting families. Many businesses, large and small, have adopted practices in support of the family, to the mutual benefit of the organisation and the employee.
Let us consider some illustrations of those companies and individuals who have benefited from flexible, family-friendly arrangements. One example is one of our leading supermarket chains, which has seen the benefits of being family friendly. The company wants staff to be flexible but, in return, is prepared to recognise individual needs. The supermarket chain has introduced maternity leave, study leave, paternity leave, child-care leave, adoption leave, shift-swap and bereavement leave. [HON. MEMBERS: "Which chain is it?"]
Tory Members would have us believe that the company would be headed for bankruptcy as a result of all those changes. However, absence is down, saving the company £3 million. Labour turnover is down by 4 per cent., saving the company £2.4 million. In addition, 95 per cent. of female staff who go on maternity leave are now returning to work in the company's stores. Customer numbers are up by 35 per cent. and the company has 8.9 per cent. growth. That is clear evidence of how these policies work. [HON. MEMBERS: "Is it Asda?"] Tory Members have identified the supermarket chain—it is Asda, where the shadow Chancellor has one of his many directorships. In addition, the deputy chairman of the Conservative party is, I think, now the chairman of Asda.
The secret is that Conservative Members know that these policies work, and are prepared to have them in companies where they are directors. However, they seek to deny the policies to organisations elsewhere. When Tory Members, as they have done in the amendment, seek to make the point that family-friendly policies are a burden and affect the profitability of organisations, they are talking nonsense. They work in practice and give security to the individual who, in return, provides loyalty and commitment to the employer. That works well, and the Bill will ensure that those good practices apply to all organisations and businesses.
The Secretary of State says that good practice is the key. However, is he not a little concerned that the many regulations proposed by the Bill demonstrate that the Government have, so far, failed to convince the rest of the world of the benefits of good practice? Does he not find it rather odd that, a couple of weeks ago in Bristol, the Prime Minister was telling business men that many of the regulations coming from European directives were out of date and should be reviewed, and yet the Bill is proposing extra regulations, over and above the European directives? Is he concerned that the Government have failed to get the message across and have to bring in the measures through regulation?
It seems that the Liberal Democrats are opposing the family-friendly measures in the Bill. If that is the case, that is news. I have given up trying to convince Conservative Members of the merits of our proposals, for the simple reason that they will always allow prejudice to dominate over fact. They will always ignore the facts—that is what they do. Any regulations arising from the Bill will be introduced sensitively and there will be full consultation about the detail of the regulations. During that debate, we may be able to convince even some Opposition Members of the merits of the provisions.
Does my right hon. Friend endorse the findings of the recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, declaring that Britain's hire-and-fire labour market had trapped people in low-paid jobs, entrenched insecurity at work and had no beneficial effect on economic performance? Does he agree that the reduction in the qualifying period for protection against unfair dismissal, the right to individual representation and the other measures in the Bill will begin to strike a better balance between employer and employee in the workplace?
There are 400,000 more people in work than when we took office in May 1997. We can marry the need for prosperity and profitable companies with giving individual rights in the workplace; that is what the Bill is designed to do.
There are clear examples from organisations of the benefits of family-friendly policies, but those policies also benefit the individual. For example, a mother of two summed up the position well when she said:
My company has allowed me time off when my children have been ill. It makes such a difference. If I have a crisis at home, I don't have to worry about my job because my company is so flexible. I have been very fortunate, but it works both ways. I am treated well by my company, so I try to put as much back in as I can.
That is the approach that we favour.
Contrast that with the case of a woman in Nottingham—the sort of woman who would get nothing if Conservative Members' approach was adopted. She was disciplined for taking time off work when one of her children had flu. Her daughter, frightened that her mother would be sacked if she stayed at home to look after her, hid the fact that she had a throat infection. Another woman, from Chesterfield, wanted to reduce her hours when her son was diagnosed with a disability. Her employer refused. Conservative Members think that that is fine, and they will do nothing to protect such parents with their family responsibilities. We reject that approach. We will stand by those parents, and the Bill will ensure that we can do precisely that.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the overwhelming evidence shows that, over the past 25 years, the American record of job creation is massively superior to that of the member states of the European Union? Is that not substantially due to the American emphasis on flexible labour markets and deregulation?
I agree that the American employment record is commendable, but it is underpinned by minimum standards in the workplace, a national minimum wage, statutory trade union recognition and, indeed, a parental leave directive, which gives effect to family-friendly policies such as those in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman should carefully consider the American experience of implementing policies that are reflected in the Bill.
My right hon. Friend is being very co-operative in giving way to all those who want to intervene. Does he share my incredulity at the Conservative party, which claims to be the party of the family, but which, after 20 years of trade union legislation, has successfully undermined everything that was solid about the family? I welcome the fact that families can now plan and have some stability under the family-friendly aspects of our legislation.
I agree. Conservative Members are condemned by the fact that they like to portray themselves as family friendly, when they are in fact prepared to accept the situation in which people risk losing their job if they want to care for a sick child or an ailing relative.
Not for the moment, as I want to make some progress.
The Bill will increase maternity leave for all to 18 weeks, giving women a right to 40 weeks, maternity absence after one year of employment—not two years, as at present. We will create a right to three months, unpaid parental leave for all employees with a young child. I am pleased to tell the House that we also plan to extend that right to parents who adopt a child. We will tackle discrimination against part-time workers, and we will give people the right to take time off for domestic emergencies. We believe that these are sensible, practical steps to help parents combine home and work responsibilities.
Does the Secretary of State accept that many businesses would feel less worried about the proposals if he were prepared to be more specific about them? He referred to right to time off for domestic emergencies, but will he define what he means by the term "domestic emergencies"? Which people or members of the family does that right cover? He will know that the Irish Government, when legislating on the matter, were specific about which members of the family were covered. Will he give the same information to this House?
We intend to consult on the detail, and that consultation will lead to conclusions. Conservative Members would criticise me if I were to describe in detail today how the regulations will apply. We shall consult business, both large and small, about the details of the regulations. In that way, we can ensure that we can work together in partnership to implement our family-friendly policies. We want to create the right environment and climate to guarantee that people can work together, in a spirit of partnership, to achieve the growth and prosperity for which we are aiming.
The hon. Gentleman is stuck in a time warp. He wants to turn the clock back. These measures are forward looking and reflect the need for employment policies that recognise the responsibilities of parents. The Bill will achieve that, as will the regulations.
In light of his response to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), does my right hon. Friend agree with the response to the proposals from the Confederation of British Industry? It stated:
The CBI will work closely with relevant bodies to ensure that this proposed legislation delivers balanced and achievable rights and responsibilities for all concerned.
I do agree, and it has been noticeable that the CBI has also said that our proposals on collective rights—about which I shall speak in a moment—form a workable package. In addition, the TUC has given the proposals a broad welcome.
The Bill sets out a statutory procedure for union recognition for that small minority of cases in which the employees demonstrate that they want to be recognised, but the employer refuses. It also provides that a union can be derecognised if that is what the majority of workers want.
The Bill makes it unfair to discriminate against employees for campaigning for or against recognition. Employees will continue to have the right to sign individual contracts, but will be protected against pressure from the employer to do so.
At present, the law requires an industrial action ballot to be acted on within four weeks or it will cease to be effective. That provision works against good industrial relations. The Bill will allow an employer and a union to agree to extend the deadline for up to four weeks if, for example, they wish to continue negotiations. That will mean that more disputes are settled by negotiation, without resort to industrial action.
At long last, in 1999, the Bill will ensure that people cannot be blacklisted simply because they belong to a trade union or are prepared to defend and represent the interests of their colleagues at work.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way yet again. Has he seen the recent industrial output figures, which show a continuing collapse in British manufacturing? Has he seen the tidal wave of redundancies sweeping through the industrial heartlands? Has he seen the consistent advice from all business groups that this measure will make matters worse, not better? Why does he disagree with that advice—but, given that he does, what is he going to do about the manufacturing meltdown over which he now presides?
I have two things to say in response to that intervention. First, it was a shame that the right hon. Gentleman did not come with me to British Aerospace in north Wales yesterday to celebrate the 2,000th set of wings being put on an airbus. British Aerospace recognises trade unions, involves them in decision making and ensures that they are given the same information as corporate investors. As a result of that partnership, British Aerospace has gone from strength to strength. The share price has gone up 19-fold since 1992, and there have been profits in recent years. That has happened because the company worked in partnership with its trade unions. That is the reality of a manufacturing industry that has been a British success story.
Secondly, the message I receive from manufacturers is that they do not want short-term decisions now, that will create problems later. They offer me the example of what happened under the Conservative Government: in the late 1980s, short-term decisions were taken for politically expedient reasons, but—as the right hon. Gentleman knows—they led in the early 1990s to interest rates at 15 per cent., inflation at 10 per cent. and the loss of more than 1 million manufacturing jobs. We are not going back to those days when there was a real meltdown in the manufacturing sector.
Many manufacturing industries are currently doing well, working in partnership with their trade unions. The right hon. Gentleman may wish to talk down the economy, and we know that that is part of the Conservative party's wider policy, but the people in the country will not accept it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman examine the facts, the figures and the surveys of business opinion? Does he realise that yesterday's industrial output figures were the worst for 18 years? Does he realise that the surveys show that things are not getting any better? Does he know that there will be a great deal of trouble and further redundancies in the textile, steel and engineering industries? Why does he not care about that? Why does he not listen to the good business advice that is telling him to postpone the Bill and to do something to help business?
Of course I care about the short-term difficulties faced by certain industries in the United Kingdom. That is one reason why I went to Longbridge yesterday to talk to the management and the work force about the difficulties that they face. The Government will not walk away from our responsibilities, but we believe that no short-term decision should be taken that could lead to worse effects later. We are confident that that is the right approach for manufacturing and for other sectors of industry.
No provision in the Bill will have the sort of damaging effects referred to by the right hon. Gentleman. Many parts of manufacturing industry have adopted the policies in the Bill and are doing well.
I want to make some progress and to wind up as soon as possible.
The third element of the Bill is the establishment of fair, minimum standards for all workers in the UK. The idea that only those in secure, full-time, permanent employment are entitled to employment rights and fair treatment is outdated, short-sighted and bad for business. The Bill will ensure that part-time workers are protected against discrimination, comparable to full-time workers.
The Bill will also ensure it is no longer possible for workers on fixed-term contracts to sign away their right to claim unfair dismissal. Workers will have the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary or grievance hearing by a colleague or by a union official of their choice. That provision will apply to all employers, whatever their size.
The Bill will give us the necessary powers to bring legislation relating to employment agencies—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike)—up to date. The rules have not changed for 22 years, despite an enormous rise in the number of people working for agencies. The industry has more than tripled in size since 1992 and it covers more than 1 million people. My Department sees many agency contracts that are simply unacceptable. For example, I have seen one contract that stated:
The agency accepts no responsibility for the health, safety and protection from injury to the temporary worker.
That is unacceptable.
Another agency in Sussex advertised for agricultural workers at £3 an hour, but then fined them £20 if they were late and £10 if they failed to hand in their time sheet on time. Workers ended up owing the agency money as a result of those policies—that will not happen under the Bill.
I want to draw my remarks to a close.
We will consult in detail on employment agencies, setting out our proposals in considerable detail. In doing so, we will want to consult all interested parties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) has great involvement with employment agencies, I feel that I should give way to him on that point.
In my constituency, people who have worked, say, four days of a five-day contract and have been unable to work on the fifth day have received £1 an hour for the 35 hours that they have worked in the week. That is complete and utter exploitation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we require legislation and regulations that mean that temporary workers can get the same basic rights to which all workers should be entitled?
My hon. Friend makes an important point from personal experience in his constituency. Our provisions and approach to employment agencies will ensure that such exploitation simply will not be able to occur in future.
No. I want to draw my remarks to an end.
The Bill is a package of measures that will create a new culture of partnership in the workplace, which is essential to Britain's future. There will be no turning the clock back; it is a forward-looking approach. No major burden will be placed on business. Rather, it is a balanced package with a clear emphasis on partnership, not confrontation; fairness and trust, not insecurity and maltreatment; and rights coupled with responsibilities.
Literally millions of people will benefit from the Bill: 135,000 mothers each year will benefit from our improved maternity provisions; 1 million people who work through employment agencies will no longer be exploited; 2.2 million people stand to benefit from the right to time off for domestic emergencies; more than 3 million people are potential beneficiaries from our parental leave proposals; and more than 6.5 million part-timers will be protected from discrimination.
Those are the proposals of a Government acting for the many, not the few. The Bill will play a crucial part in building a modern Britain and a decent society. I commend it to the House.
Before I call the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), may I announce that Madam Speaker has ruled that there will be a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches?
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Employment Relations Bill because it will jeopardise employment, endanger the successful legacy of good industrial relations left by the last Government, impose further damaging costs on British business and risk industrial strikes and disruption, rather than leaving employers and employees free to settle relationships for themselves without outside interference.
I would be happy to accept the intervention, but, for the benefit of those who missed it, let me repeat that last point. Employers and employees should be left free to settle relationships for themselves without outside interference. That, of course, is our policy.
Would the right hon. Gentleman be interested to know that, in Germany, parental leave is three years, strike rates are a sixth of the level of the past 10 years in Britain and productivity levels are 20 per cent. higher? Does he agree that the reason for introducing the measure is that the historically hire-fire attitude of British employers means that they do not invest in human capital and productivity, but—
I am all for companies doing the right thing by their employees, whether in Germany or Britain. What I would not want our country to do is to copy all the German laws and regulations, which have led to its having twice the level of unemployment that Britain has. That is exactly our case: we want to maximise employment opportunities for people, not to deny those least able to compete in the marketplace the opportunity of getting work.
I was touched by the Secretary of State's concern for my political future. His mock concern was delightful, but I remind him that we have so far had three Labour Secretaries of State and only one shadow Secretary of State. I hope that we shall see the end of his secretaryship before I move on. I was interested that he was so worried about people working on part-time or temporary contracts. I thought that he must be describing Department of Trade and Industry Ministers, given how some have behaved in recent months. We trust that there will soon be something in place of strife there, but I do not think that this Bill will be the answer to all their prayers.
The Secretary of State had one principal argument. Unfortunately, it is deeply flawed. He argues that, because British Aerospace and Asda afford high standards to their employees, so can everyone else. All we have to do is legislate and everyone will be as good an employer as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the chairman of Asda. I do not think that all employers will rise to such standards without some of them shedding jobs and getting into grave financial difficulties.
The Secretary of State's argument is like saying that, because one Labour Member can afford to lend £373,000 to the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), there should be legislation to make them all lend money to someone they like. Labour Members do not seem to be warming to that argument. It is simply not practical politics to legislate for every company to achieve the standards of the very best. If it only were, we would have done it long ago, and if it had succeeded, it would have been popular. If we force the pace too much and ask people to make commitments that they cannot afford, rather than helping employees, we shall hinder them. Instead of getting better opportunities and standards at work, we shall deny many people jobs at all.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that in respect of technology and science-based companies—whether involved with chemicals, electronics or pharmaceuticals—north America, Europe and Japan share one prevailing feature: a personnel policy that respects people, gives them security and promotes welfare, rather than giving it grudgingly? If ours is to be a high-technology, high-added value, high-wage country, it is vital that such a climate of employment should prevail. That is what the Bill seeks to achieve.
All hon. Members would like to live in a world where everyone had high-paid jobs, was treated with respect and had all the perquisites and advantages that the few currently enjoy. The issue is how to get there. We contend that, if we legislate for too high a standard too quickly, we shall destroy the jobs of those who do not enjoy those standards while offering nothing to the people who have the good jobs. We cannot immediately clean out all the low-paid or bad jobs and replace them with high-tech jobs of the sort that I and the hon. Gentleman would like. In the meantime, we must think carefully about how we effect the transition to minimise the damage to families in such occupations.
We could not possibly say what we will repeal before the Government have worked out what the legislation will include. As the Government wish to change things, they are beholden to produce a better set of detailed proposals before we can give the detailed response that the hon. Gentleman would like.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and sorry that the Secretary of State ran out of time before giving way to me, although I appreciate that he gave way many times during his speech. Clause 28, which deals with employment agencies, appears to give the Government the power that they used to want when they were in opposition: to be able to abolish employment agencies in any field they choose and to set conditions. Is that not the most pernicious part of the Bill in terms of attacking the flexibility of the British labour market?
My hon. Friend is right to say that the clause will be extremely damaging if it is passed in its current form and construed in that way by the courts. I hope that my hon. Friend will speak on that subject, either today, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or as a member of the Standing Committee, if he is invited and prepared to serve on that important Committee.
I am delighted that the Secretary of State chose Asda as one of his two prime examples of companies offering good practice. Our case is that the way to achieve better employment standards is through the promotion and encouragement of successful businesses, rather than by means of blanket legislation, which industrial advice urges us not to pass at this juncture. The Government promise fairness at work, yet they deliver industrial collapse. Yesterday, we saw the worst output figures in manufacturing in 18 years—Labour Members try to look shocked at that news, but it is true. I do not know whether they read the newspapers or visit their constituencies: the factory closures and redundancies occur more often in Labour constituencies than in Conservative ones, because Labour Members still represent the industrial heartlands of this country.
Day by day, we see job loss after job loss, factory closure after factory closure; we see Rover in crisis, the north-east in meltdown, and the textile industry suffering from retrenchment. We believe that having a job is more important than giving new rights to trade unions. All the Government do, as they watch manufacturing retreat, is make it dearer and dearer to make things in Britain.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned Rover, so will he take this opportunity to compliment the partnership at work there, especially the partnership displayed in Germany and the role played by the head of the works council at Rover—a trade unionist—in helping to ensure not only ground-breaking agreements on working practices, but the preservation of jobs here in the United Kingdom? Is that not an example of partnership at work and the sort of thing that the Opposition simply do not understand?
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I welcome any successful partnership. What the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) describes is a fine testimony to the success of the labour relations legislation introduced by the Conservative Government. By developing such legislation during our period in office, we created industrial harmony in this country after years of strife during the 1970s. We urge the House not to disrupt that settlement or jeopardise such voluntary partnerships with the sort of intervention that the Bill would allow.
British Steel recently warned:
The rate of job losses will accelerate given the extremely difficult trading situation.… it is imperative that the Government should do nothing to add to our costs and to undermine our competitiveness.
That is exactly the point. A company selling expensive items, such as aeroplanes, in a market without much competition will find it far easier to generate the cash needed to make such payments to its work force than a company operating in a cut-throat business such as basic steel production. I ask the Secretary of State to accept not my urgings, but those of the leadership of British Steel, who are telling the Government not to legislate for higher costs at this juncture, because the company is fighting for survival in a highly competitive market.
Will the right hon. Gentleman quote the figure for job losses at British Steel under the Conservative Government, compared with the likely outcome now? I am worried about what is likely to happen now. I ask my question with feeling, because I was one of the 14,000-plus people in my area who were made redundant during the 1980s—thanks to the previous Tory Government. What is the difference between the figures and why has he suddenly become concerned?
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what the difference will be, because we do not yet know how many jobs will be lost at British Steel. We know that the management have already had to shed a lot of labour and that they are saying that they will have to shed a lot more. I shall not defend the loss of jobs during the 1980s: it was a tragedy then and it would be a tragedy today. However, the fact that jobs were lost during the 1980s does not make it right for the Labour party to enter office and say, "Good news—a lot more jobs will be lost. We have forgotten all the rhetoric we used in opposition, when we were angry about the jobs being lost under the Conservative Administration."
The hon. Gentleman dares to say that I am trying to talk down industry. The British steel industry is a great and world-beating industry, but it needs a break from the Government, who have made it very difficult to make things in Britain successfully and sell them at a profit.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, as a member of the Government at the time, he did not disagree with the then Chancellor, who said that such high levels of unemployment were a price worth paying? Will he reflect on the costs that will be incurred as a result of the Bill? Will he confirm that the increase in the total wage bill as a result of these measures will amount to 0.01 per cent? I understand the difficulties that British Steel may be facing, but an increase of 0.01 per cent. of the total wage bill will not make the difference that the right hon. Gentleman seems to envisage.
The Secretary of State finally produced a compliance cost assessment—a report on costs—on Friday, giving us little time to study it. I believe that it came up with total costs of £59.7 million, which would be a small proportion of the wage bill. I assume that he has just calculated that as a percentage. Industry and the Opposition do not believe those figures for one moment. The Confederation of British Industry has costed just one item in the Bill at £200 million, and regards other items as likely to be much more costly than the forecast in the Secretary of State's favour.
The Secretary of State does not know which item. It is of course the costing for parental leave, which the CBI has already disputed and thinks is out by a very big margin. Every independent expert to whom I have put this in the two days following receipt of the Secretary of State's paper has told me the same thing: the numbers are a gross underestimate, and in sectors where margins have already been cut to the bone or where companies are in loss, the measure could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
If the hon. Gentleman came to debates more regularly, he would know that the Opposition will set out in their manifesto which items they will repeal. We are expecting so many more bad bits of legislation that we are not going to draw up a shopping list yet. For the time being, we are opposing this measure because we believe that it is ill-conceived, and could damage the interests of those who want industry to succeed and jobs to be protected.
The right hon. Gentleman says that the Opposition will not draw up a shopping list until they have produced a manifesto, but they have already said on the record that they will abolish the working families tax credit, that they will scrap the new deal for the young and long-term unemployed, that they will repeal the working time directive and that they will not accept the social chapter. Is he not prepared to say yes or no to this measure because he is not prepared to come clean with the House and the British people? Is it because he is aware that the measures are popular and he will not accept the responsibility of being in opposition?
I fully accept the responsibility of being in opposition. I am opposing this measure and, with my colleagues, I have opposed all the other measures that the Secretary of State has mentioned. I and all my colleagues have said exactly the same throughout, as a responsible Opposition planning for government must. We will let the public know exactly what we think we can repeal in the next Parliament nearer the time, when we produce our manifesto. I am sure that, on reflection, the Secretary of State would agree that that is a perfectly sensible approach. We are not prevaricating; we have told the House and the public what we do not like, and have opposed those measures vigorously. In response to those that we accept, we have either allowed them to go through or allowed ourselves a little faint praise of them.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I was afraid to point out the Secretary of State's embarrassment on that issue. When we debated the working time regulations, the Opposition made it clear that we had to meet our legal requirements from Brussels, but that we had a better way of implementing the measures which would have been less burdensome on British business.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman listen to my speech, with which I should now like to make progress. I was explaining why we oppose the Bill, and as it develops in Committee—if we are lucky enough to be told in Committee what is planned—my hon. Friends will make clear our position on all the detailed measures.
The Government have put industry into a vice and tightened the jaws until it starts to break. They have pushed up sterling, making our goods dearer abroad and imports cheaper. They have done so to such an extent that even Marks and Spencer, famed for buying British products, has now been forced to buy more from overseas sources. That means that many more textile factories will close in the months ahead.
The Government and the Bank of England pushed up interest rates, making it dearer to borrow money to expand and develop a business. We warned them that those interest rate rises were undesirable and would do damage. Even after the recent cuts in interest rates, our rates remain higher than those of our continental competitors. It is no good the Government saying that rates are low compared to those in the past. What matters is how our rates compare with those of our rivals in the present. Rates are low around the world; our rates are high relative to those of other countries.
The Government have pushed up the costs of employing people. The working time regulations, the minimum wage and the Bill all make it dearer and more difficult to employ people. That means that fewer people will be employed than if the Government had left well alone. They are burying British industry under an avalanche of forms and good intentions. They are forcing many an entrepreneur to conclude that it is too difficult to employ an extra person or anyone at all. Their policies sound the death knell of smaller manufacturing businesses that have been squeezed too far, too fast by the Government.
The Opposition want people to have good jobs which provide decent conditions of employment and pay good money. No sensible politician wants people to be poorly paid or badly treated. The Opposition have always accepted that some standards should be laid down in law, but those should be minimum standards providing basic protection. The best protection and opportunity that one can have is working for a decent employer. The best way of being able to work for a good employer is to have plenty of choice and freedom in the marketplace. Freedom, competition and policies that generate prosperity are the ways to higher standards. Too much law, too much regulation and too much Government interference are the best ways yet devised of sending business abroad and destroying jobs at home.
Recently, Sony announced that it was transferring work from Germany to south Wales. That was good news for south Wales. I just hope that the Government read Sony's statement carefully and understood its impact. Sony is coming to Wales because it finds Germany's labour laws too restrictive and expensive. It would be a cruel irony if, having arrived, it found that the UK was about to match all those German laws and was worried about the cost.
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that an international corporation such as Sony would make an important investment decision of a politically controversial nature without considering what the climate in the United Kingdom was likely to be? If Sony did consider that, surely its action is an endorsement of the policies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
No, that is not at all true. Of course a company has to consider the facts and figures on offer, but our worry is that the Government will continue to tighten the vice until more good companies decide that somewhere else is better than the United Kingdom.
Have the Government finally understood how expensive and damaging to British business some European legislation will be? Do they now regret giving up the veto that entitled us to have lower unemployment than countries on the continent?
Is my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I nearly got into hot water then. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the current exploitation, misery and blight on family life are a price worth paying?
I am saying the opposite. I am saying that I do not like the situation any more than the hon. Lady or her party—but we are debating how to get rid of it, and to ensure that, during the transitional period, jobs are not lost and then replaced with nothing. That would not help the people who have the jobs that the hon. Lady and I would rather not have to do ourselves.
Let us suppose that someone who works for a bad employer says to that employer, "Please do something about my working conditions. I cannot stand them." If the employer says, "I am not interested. I will do nothing about it," what should that worker do? Should he just accept the situation?
If there is choice in the marketplace, the best answer is for him to go and work for a better employer. That is what we would like to happen.
No, it is not. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will restrain himself, I shall answer his point, and then take a second intervention from him. My generosity in that regard is well known.
The hon. Gentleman should recognise that putting a stronger law into the hands of the employee does not always protect him against the really bad employer. That is the problem. The employee must still have recourse to unions, lawyers and the rest. He may not win; he may be victimised. He may end up in deeper trouble because he has tried to use the very protections that have been enshrined in legislation. That is one of my worries.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have considerable sympathy for the employee, but I do not think that the Bill would necessarily help him. If he really has such a bad employer, and there is no choice in the area—[Interruption.]
Order. If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) wants a reply from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), he must hear that reply.
Thank you for protecting my right of reply, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
My fear is that, even with this legislation, the employee of the bad employer would not be able to win in the circumstances described by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I do not have an answer to all those problems; nor does the hon. Gentleman. I am trying to demonstrate that the Bill will not banish all bad employers—if only it would. That is a promise that the Secretary of State would not dare to make at the Dispatch Box. He is not going to stand up and say that his Bill will banish all bad employers, because he knows that he cannot make such a claim. That is exactly our case: the law is a clumsy instrument, and not an easy instrument for those with little money who are being exploited by bad employers.
How dare Labour Members say that I do not understand. I understand the plight of such people perfectly well, and I care about it every bit as much as Labour Members. It is about time that they recognised that.
Has the right hon. Gentleman ever stood in front of an employer and asked for time off to deal with an important family problem, and then been told "No"? Does he understand the alienation and helplessness experienced by an employee in that position? Has he ever understood it?
I quite understand how such things can happen—and yes, on occasions in the past I have wanted time off and an employer has been less than keen to grant it. Let me ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the plight of the middle manager. Money is not a huge problem for him, as he has a reasonable salary. He would like a bit of time off to help with the baby; but his employer lets it be known, unofficially and subtly, that if he takes time off, his chances of promotion and a decent salary increase will be wrecked. Nothing can be proved. The employee would be very unwise to go to law, because that would wreck his relationship with his senior manager.
What kind of right is the hon. Gentleman offering that middle manager when he says that he can take unpaid parental leave at such a crucial time? He has no real choice. All that the Bill will do is tear him apart: his wife will be saying, "Please come home and help me," while his employer, in subtle, legally protected language, will be saying, "Just you dare." What does the middle manager do? He undergoes a great deal of mental strife in working out whether he should be loyal to his employer and his job, or loyal to his wife.
I am all for people belonging to trade unions if they wish, but I am not in favour of forcing them to become members, or making them use the trade union to represent them when they wish to represent themselves. Some people prefer to negotiate for themselves, and some people make a good job of negotiating for themselves.
The case of Rover has been mentioned in the debate. Unfortunately, the measures in the Bill will make the position worse. Three or four years ago, BMW thought Rover a good investment and Britain the best place to make cars in the whole of Europe. Now it is all red ink, and BMW is thinking of pulling out or winding down its operations. It is finding that it is not easy now to compete from a British base. BMW finds that the present combination of exchange rates, interest rates and industrial costs prices it out of the market and plummets it into losses.
As a result of the Government's policy, we do not know whether there will be a Rover 35 to replace the 200 and 400 and, if so, whether it will be built in Britain. The Secretary of State will have to agree that nothing in the Bill will make it easier to persuade BMW-Rover to stay in Britain and expand.
There is nothing in the Bill that BMW is asking for as it bargains over the future of Longbridge and all those British jobs. The Government take pleasure—
The Government take pleasure in first blaming the management when they meet the employees, then blaming the workers when they meet the management. It never seems to occur to them that they must take some of the blame.
A few moments ago, the right hon. Gentleman appeared to be arguing against any rights for employees at work, on the basis that they were bad for employees. I presume that he is in favour of the right of a woman to have time off when her child is born. Is he not in favour of the right of the father to have time off when the child is born? Increasingly, fathers want to recognise their parental responsibility, and the Bill gives them, for the first time, a right in law to time off. Is the right hon. Gentleman against fathers having a right in law to time off when their new baby is born?
The right hon. Lady obviously did not listen to my remarks. I said that the Opposition accept basic standards at work in legislation. We left many of those standards in place when we were removed from office. I would be delighted if rights such as she describes could be negotiated. My worry is that, if we legislate too far, too fast, we will create more stresses for people in the workplace and give a real right only to those with money, who have the freedom that money can buy, rather than to those who genuinely need the salary and the job, which are at risk in the negotiation.
Labour Members have suggested several worthy cases in which employees might seek time off for domestic incidents. One of the main concerns is the gold-plating of the directive in the Bill. As it is presently drafted, it is not clear whether an employee could seek time off because his cat was poorly or because the washing machine was leaking. That is not in the Bill. How are businesses to know what costs they will face?
Echoing my hon. Friend, the CBI is extremely worried about the phrase "domestic incidents". What does that mean? It is rather different from a family emergency, and it is in the Bill. That is exactly the sort of issue that will have to be probed in Committee before we can say whether it is a good idea or a reasonable idea. The vagueness of the provisions is alerting industry to the potential damage that they can do. That naturally makes us reluctant to give a clear answer on the detail, as the Government themselves are so befuddled about the detail.
We hear a lot from the Government about the rights of employees. Small and medium-sized businesses will have the greatest difficulty. How is a firm expected to operate if its one representative wants to go off on a three-month trek with his six-year-old child? Is the firm expected to make no sales for three months?
A lot of businesses have written to or e-mailed me on that very point, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing it at this juncture.
What is there in the Bill to reassure the cashmere workers of Scotland, who face the sack thanks to the Government's mishandling of trade relations with the United States through their friends in Brussels?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. He made some comments about the position at Longbridge and Rover which need to be clarified. I am very concerned that BMW, on reading his comments, will look critically at the position at Longbridge, and I am sure that that was not his intention. The Government are doing all they can to secure employment at Longbridge. We are making the strongest possible representations to BMW to secure that.
There is nothing in the Bill that weakens the Longbridge case and I hope that, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw those comments, which will be misinterpreted, which will put 14,000 jobs at Longbridge at risk and which run the risk of creating the meltdown in manufacturing in the west midlands about which he pleads such concern.
I will accept that as an offer from the Secretary of State that he will ensure that the Bill is amended so that nothing in it causes extra costs to BMW and Longbridge. On that basis, I happily consent to say that the Bill must not cause any damage, and I accept his word that he will make sure that it will not. If he checks my remarks in Hansard tomorrow, he will see that my main worries about the current trading position of BMW-Rover are based on exchange rates, interest rates and general costs imposed by the Government.
I urge the Secretary of State to look again at those issues. If he could offer more hope on them to BMW-Rover, that would greatly strengthen the case that he and I both want to put to the management because we want that car production in this country—we want that commitment—and we respect what the management and the work force have been doing in Britain. However, I hope that he will not ignore the plight of the cashmere workers, which I shall go on to discuss.
It takes a special kind of talent to end up with jobs in the cashmere industry at risk because of a dispute about bananas. Why have the Government not made Brussels see sense on that? How have they got themselves into such a damaging row with friends and trading partners across the Atlantic, who are so important to many jobs here at home? How much fairness at work will there be for workers in that industry if they lose their jobs as a result of that trade dispute?
Perhaps the new Secretary of State believes, along with the right hon. Member for Hartlepool, that basic industry is doomed. They clearly believe that old industry has no place in new Labour's Britain. They want us all toiling by the intemet and pager, rather than in the foundry and on the assembly line. They seem to think that the media business is the highest calling and politics the second highest. They advise the aspiring to become apprentice spin doctors, and they counsel against the mills and foundries. They cannot even create fairness at work in the new industries.
There are about 500 cashmere workers in my constituency, who spin the yarn at Todd and Duncan in Kinross. The work force are predominantly female. The workers have trade union rights and a number of the measures enshrined in the Bill apply, and they certainly do not want the choice of abuse of Brussels or decent working conditions. They want a decent settlement and good working conditions, and they do not want the Opposition dividing the Government on their intention to achieve both.
I trust that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the Secretary of State should get on and solve that trade dispute before it spirals out of control. The Secretary of State must know that a lot of jobs are at risk in that industry because of the retaliatory action taken by the United States of America in response to the attitude of the Government and the Brussels government towards these trading matters.
I am not expressing a view on that dispute; I am saying that it should not have got out of control in this way. It reflects badly on the Government's influence in Brussels, and on the diplomacy of the Government and the European government, that those jobs in Scotland, which should not be at risk and are totally unrelated to the issue of bananas, are at risk.
We are threatened in the case—[Interruption.] Labour Members should not laugh about that matter. The possible job losses are serious and, for those in the banana trade, the issue of bananas is serious as well.
The Government are now threatening to damage electronic commerce. Having decided to highlight the industry's success, they cannot resist the urge to meddle. They are consulting businesses to see what they should put in their legislation. It is another Labour example of a Bill in search of a policy. The Secretary of State is a trumpet player in search of some sheet music to play. It never occurs to him that electronic commerce may be growing so quickly because Governments have not yet logged on hundreds of new regulations for that industry.
Have the Government appointed either the digital envoy or the e-envoy that we were promised by the Secretary of State's predecessor? What mischief do they have in mind, or will the Secretary of State cancel two jobs that I should like to see cancelled? I would congratulate him if he were to announce that the digital envoy and the e-envoy are no more.
At least the new Secretary of State has been forced to remove the words "fairness at work" from his legislation. He would have broken trade description law if he had been allowed to retain that phrase. How much fairness is there in the proposal that a father should be allowed unpaid paternity leave? I dare say that a Labour millionaire with an offshore trust would welcome that measure, but if a father is struggling to pay a mortgage on £300 or £400 a week and faces the many bills that a new baby undoubtedly brings, the last thing he can afford is a period of unpaid leave. How can he buy the pushchair and the other items that are needed when the baby arrives?
That is a conundrum for the Government. I am sure that providing paid leave would be a popular measure among Labour Members. The Opposition have no such proposals, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it can be afforded, I am sure many fathers would be eternally grateful. Have the Government thought about the extra pressure that this measure will place on better-paid managers, as I described in answer to an earlier intervention?
The worst part of the legislation is the section on trade union recognition. The Opposition and business groups have fought against the proposals. We pointed out that a minority could hold a ballot that attracted a minority of the votes and then insist on recognition for all. Together with the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and other business groups, we have forced the Government at least to make the concession that 40 per cent. of the work force will be required to vote for such a proposal.
Meanwhile, Labour's policies are already promoting strikes. On Sunday night, another 48-hour tube strike begins. That is a sign of things to come under this legislation. We still want to know why it does not require a majority of the work force to seek recognition of a union.
What view does the right hon. Gentleman take of the survey produced by the Institute of Management last autumn, which showed that 54 per cent. of British managers agreed that, if a majority of employees wanted union recognition, that should be allowed and the employer should be obliged by law to negotiate with the union? Before the right hon. Gentleman dismisses that survey, does he agree that his party would kill for that level of support?
The business community strongly supports the line that we are taking on this legislation, as my hon. Friends and I will show in this debate. I have been passed a report of an interesting survey, which shows that 89 per cent. of all employers surveyed believe that this new law will lead to abuse of rights and difficulties for their firms. That is a convincing poll.
We strongly object to the idea that a minority can insist on the majority of the work force, regardless of their views, being represented by a union. We are worried that that will send us back to the bad old days and the bad old ways of the '60s and '70s. This is a '60s and '70s sort of Government. The Prime Minister and his cronies seem to think that rock groups, Carnaby street and flower power are new and cool. They look like a bunch of middle-aged trendies trying to ignore their receding hairlines and bulging waistlines, forcing the whole country into their nostalgia for lost moments, misspent youths or youths that were not misspent enough. That is exactly what their trade union reforms look like. They want to go back to the mistakes of the '70s rather than forward to a freer and more flexible world of the next century.
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State may wish to defy the logic chips of the electronic age. They may want to stand Canute-like against the tides of global capital and new technology, defying the elements, but they must learn that modern business is all about individual contracts, freedom of expression and flexible working practices. It is far too fast moving and diverse to be captured in legislation with one size to fit all.
The Government say that they want partnership in the workplace, yet they are legislating to set employees and employers against each other. Only the lawyers will win. Time off for a family emergency is a good idea, and most employers offer it already. Once it is enshrined in law, however, we shall have to ask what is a family emergency or a domestic incident. No reasonable employer will quibble over time off when a loved one dies or a child is seriously ill, but is a blocked drain or a broken window a domestic incident, and what if England are playing at home that day? Will an employer then have to sue if an employee digs in for his rights? Is that the way to promote partnership and harmony in the workplace? Surely it is better to leave the law out of it, and to hope that common sense and good negotiations between employers and employees will win through, as they do in so many companies and, as the Secretary of State has conceded, as they do in companies led by Conservative Members.
It is especially rich of the Government to preach about fairness at work when they live under the shadow of Maxwell. How much fairness at work was there for Maxwell's less well-paid employees? How much fairness was there for the Mirror Group workers whose pension funds were pillaged? When will the Secretary of State finish the investigation, publish the report and do something about it? Is he the cover-up kid or will he tell us how he will judge the unfairness at work perpetrated by the Maxwell companies?
What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say about the case of LSG Skychefs? After a one-day strike by the work force, the management have locked them out and sacked them, and refuse to go to ACAS, although the union acted totally within the existing Conservative legislation. What does the right hon. Gentleman have to say about the gross unfairness to those employees?
I would need to hear both sides of the case and I should be happy to do so if the hon. Lady thought that I could help her with her problem. Of course I would want to reach a fair and sensible judgment based on hearing both sides of the case. I know from my experience of industrial relations that it is necessary to hear both sides before reaching a judgment.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, particularly in relation to pension schemes. Given what he has just said about Maxwell, will he apologise for the fact that the Tory Administration raided the Bus Employees Superannuation Trust?
I want answers on the Maxwell issues, which relate to the present Government and to Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is doing a very bad cover-up job when he tries to protect—
Order. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not using this opportunity to debate a different matter. We are discussing the Second Reading of a Bill.
I thought that we were debating fairness at work, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I accept your judgment that I was beginning to stray off the exact subject of the Bill.
About 95 per cent. of British businesses are relatively small and the Government are damaging them day by day, week by week and month by month. They are burying them under European red tape, new Labour red tape and old Labour red tape. They want to be seen as business friendly, but they do not understand business at all.
I hope that the Secretary of State will listen to the voices of business, even if he does not listen to the Opposition. The British Chambers of Commerce says:
We fear it is becoming prohibitively expensive and …difficult for smaller firms to employ more staff.
The Federation of Small Businesses tells us:
It is too costly and too risky to employ staff'.
The Forum of Private Business says that the measures will
be disastrous for the nation's 98 per cent. of small firms".
The Engineering Employers Federation says that the legislation
may make industrial action more common".
The Chemical Industries Association says:
This is not a Bill which is welcomed by the industry".
Individual companies have even worse fears. One employer wrote:
I will be reluctant to employ female secretaries who will require maternity leave …short term contracts will be the norm".
I also worry that creeping unionisation will return us to the miserable era of industrial strife".
A third company e-mailed us to say:
It is no coincidence that France finds it difficult to attract new businesses from abroad because of her ludicrous employment costs. The Government is in danger of removing our competitive advantage.
A fourth tells us:
Our accounts department has spent nearly a full week with seven people analysing the Working Time Directive information. More time, more costs
will result from the legislation.
The Government have been misleading us by saying that the proposals will cost only £59.7 million a year and that no jobs will be at risk. They should listen to the voices of British industry and British business before it is too late. They are presiding over an industrial collapse. The legislation certainly will not help and may hinder. I urge the Government to think again before many more factories close and many more of their constituents are made redundant.
I support the Bill. Today—for the first time in almost 20 years as an hon. Member—I am able to say that I support a Government's employment legislation. The previous Conservative Government introduced and passed a succession of Bills and measures that have done great harm to British industrial relations and contributed to the continual and persistent erosion of workers' rights.
I should first pay credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry—which I do without any disrespect to the Secretary of State—who has lived for many months with the issue of employment relations. We should pay tribute to his Herculean efforts in securing a genuine consensus for the Bill. I realise that there are fringe organizations—such as the Institute of Directors and the official Opposition—that would like to halt the Bill's progress. Nevertheless, on a raft of issues, we can see in the United Kingdom the emergence of a genuine social partnership.
Longer maternity leave will be introduced in what has come to be known as the "family-friendly" sphere. One of the ironies in the debate is that the "new" Conservative party does not support improved maternity leave—such as was introduced, in 1953, by a Conservative Government, who were building on the foundations of the Attlee Government's first provisions.
The official Opposition—that mean-minded lot—cannot appreciate why there is a case for improving women workers' rights. They say that improving those rights either would cost too much or is being proposed at the wrong time. Exactly the same arguments were advanced 25 years ago, when Barbara Castle piloted through equal pay legislation. We were told that that legislation could not be afforded and would cause the end of western civilisation as we know it. It is now part of the system.
No; my speech must be very brief. I have only 12 minutes to speak, and should deal also with other subjects.
There is certainly a case for longer maternity leave and for wider entitlement to it. There is a case also for parental leave. At a time of stress in a family, when a father or mother has to leave work to look after a child, the last thing that he or she wants is a confrontation with an employer. Preventing the need for such confrontation is precisely why we have to enshrine provisions in a legislative framework.
We should certainly extend the provisions to cover part-time workers. In dealing with family stresses, because of the changing employment patterns in our labour market, part-time workers are increasingly the most vulnerable. It is right that we should recognise those changes and deal with them, as that would end much of the heat and anxiety felt by that section of the labour force—who, we have to admit, are predominantly female—who are most affected by the changes.
Quite understandably, when Labour Members are talking about employment rights, they tend to mean trade unions. Significantly, the Bill recognises that many workers in our labour market are not currently in trade unions and may long be outwith the scope of unions. It is therefore essential that those who are vulnerable should have the right to be accompanied by a nominated person in hearings. The provision will give those individuals confidence and much-needed assistance.
Raising the compensation limit is another of the Bill's important provisions. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry held hearings on fairness at work, in which it became quite clear from the most authoritative source—the employment law Bar—that, in about 80 per cent. of cases, the sums involved did not exceed £50,000, which is the sum envisaged by the Government. I am not unduly concerned about that sum. If City fat-cats can negotiate higher severance payments, it will be up to them to do so. For disadvantaged people and those on low wages, £50,000 is probably more than two years' pay. That provision and the index linking are very sound and will benefit everyone.
For many Labour Members, the significance of trade union membership—
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has any experience of business, but I have a lot of experience of running small businesses. Does he accept that many small firms are on a knife edge and could be put out of business if they were faced with an award of £50,000? That would cause others to lose their jobs.
That could happen. That is why it would be sensible to give due thought to the consequences before dismissing someone unfairly. The possibility of a fine of £50,000 should make any sensible employer stop and reflect. The measure will not just compensate workers; it will deter employers from irresponsible and unfair behaviour.
If work forces are to have the protection of trade unions, proper recognition procedures are essential. I welcome the automatic 50 per cent. Rule—route 1. That is a major step forward, which will become one of the most important parts of the Bill. I have some misgivings about the requirement for 40 per cent. of the total work force to support recognition in a ballot. However, a ballot can be triggered if 10 per cent. of a work force are union members. That may well give the work force and the unions the opportunity to organise themselves and secure a level of membership that is sufficient to provide a credible negotiated arrangement.
We shall have to wait and see what the full role of the Central Arbitration Committee will be. The Government have said that they will review how it works. That pragmatic approach to some of the concerns that have been expressed on that aspect of recognition and the role of the CAC is welcome.
I am not sure that I am quite as enthusiastic about the review of operations on the exclusion of firms with fewer than 21 employees. I have been associated with the print industry unions since I came to the House in 1979. Up to 90 per cent. of workers in the print industry work for small employers. I should hate to think that a system of industrial relations would be destroyed as a consequence of a decision of a Labour Government. I am cautious in welcoming what should not be required. If there is to be a limit of 21, due attention will have to be given to special circumstances.
I thank my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. I should like to put his mind at rest. The recognition agreement covering small companies in the print industry is negotiated on a national basis, not by individual companies. I recently attended a conference in Solihull of print industry employers with joint sponsorship by the trade unions which considered how to move forward in improving partnership in the industry, based on the Government's proposals for fairness at work.
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I am aware of those issues. However, there are still misgivings and concerns in the print industry that not all the employers will sign up to such agreements. We shall have to see. I take some comfort—but not a great deal—from my hon. Friend's assurance that the issue will be subject to a review.
Non-unionised work places are less safe, less happy and more dangerous than unionised workplaces. We want to ensure that a positive case for trade unionism is put across. The proposals in the Bill represent a major shift to restore the balance between employers and employees. It provides the first opportunity in nearly a generation to end the sullen resentment and fear that scarred industrial relations in the Tory years. In this settlement, the trade union movement has not got everything that it wants, and the CBI's welcome is cautious—so Ministers must have got it about right. They have not made everybody unhappy, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, this will not be the first in a series of Bills—it is a genuine once-and-for-all attempt.
The courageous and bold nature of the move indicates what the Government believe to be necessary and that they are being up-front and frank. They have made it clear that there will not be another slice of salami every two years, and that there will not be periods of industrial uncertainty and difficulty as we had under the Tory Government, who brought out different legislation every two years.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee for giving way. Will he concede that, although Ministers' assurances about no new legislation may be true, the follow-up in terms of regulations and the clarification of the all-important details will take a good deal of time, and may well occupy our attention right through the Parliament?
It is essential that measures on a complex issue such as industrial relations are put in a regulatory form. That enables the House to look at the matter issue by issue, and it can provide a proper degree of consensus. Such an approach can enable the House to change the proposals—or enable the Government to table amendments—if it is clear that it is not right.
The House will have an opportunity in Standing Committee to explore every conceivable form of regulation proposed by the Bill. [Interruption.] Because of his lack of experience in opposition, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) has not tackled the job of being on a Standing Committee and tabling the probing amendments that lie at the heart of the role of a sensible Opposition. If the Opposition cannot do that, they should not hide behind complaints. I may be stoking the fires for my hon. Friend the Minister of State, but, if the Opposition have concerns, they should express them not in this debate, but in Standing Committee. That is where sensible consideration should be given.
This bold and courageous Bill has within it the means of securing a consensus across industry and society. We must recognise that the Bill is based on a premise that the Labour party wants to see people employed in decent work and with good wages on the basis of fairness for all. I welcome the Bill on that basis.
In response to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), let me state for the record that the Liberal Democrats have long argued for best practice in the workplace, including family-friendly policies. We do not oppose those concepts and principles. If we criticise the Bill tonight and in Committee, it is not because we are against the principles or the policies; it is because we see shortcomings and concerns, and we have the right and the duty as Opposition Members to raise them. Let it not be said that the Liberal Democrats are against fair and modern practices in the workplace.
There are three main strands to the Bill, which I suggest are the individual rights of the worker, the collective rights of the worker and the family-friendly practices which will soon become law. I shall deal with each in turn. However, there is a fourth strand which, in spite of their claims to the contrary, the Government appear to have overlooked; the Bill is somewhat one-eyed in this respect. The fourth strand concerns the rights, or expectations, of the employer. If the Government believe in partnership in the workplace, they must consider that aspect. Without that fourth strand being as strong, sinuous and flexible as the others, the cord supporting employment opportunity will be prone to snap. Governments cannot legislate to make firms stay in business, but they can create legislation that drives firms out of business, and the Bill is in some danger of doing that.
There is no question but that the most important assets in the workplace are the skill and application of the work force. Employers who underestimate the value of their human capital do so at their cost. A healthy, committed and loyal work force is absolutely essential. There are plenty of examples of best practice—the Secretary of State cited a few—in which firms make an extra investment to provide good working conditions and gain a return through the greater commitment of their workers.
The Bill has good intentions, but, instead of embedding best practice in the workplace, it drifts off into a maze of unspecified regulations which may be introduced as the Secretary of State decides. Those regulations seem to be supposed to cover all the facets of human nature and all the best and—dare I say it?—the worst attributes of the human condition. As if to add insult to the injury to the House, the regulations will be put on the statute book through secondary legislation, at the whim of the Secretary of State.
The hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) went on at some length about the opportunity for us to debate the regulations, but there will be no such opportunity. Statutory instruments will come along well after the Bill has gone through the due process.
I had rather hoped that, at this stage in the Parliament, the Minister would have enough confidence in the House to allow us to debate the issues here, rather than pushing us to one side.
Let me put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. When the Government introduce regulatory proposals, we do so by debate in the House and by resolution, with a vote.
I am afraid that we will have to disagree, because only the other week the working time regulations arrived on my desk, and I do not recall any debate on the detail. That is the problem. The Minister looks puzzled. I hope that he will allow us to consider the proposed regulations in detail in Committee. If that is his commitment, I am reassured, but the point still has to be made.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the Minister was especially vague when he talked about the protection that people who are working on contracts through agencies will get. He did not spell out to those 1 million people what the changes would be, how they would be implemented and what benefits they would get. Surely the Minister should come clean and give them at least some indication of what they can expect.
The Bill is in danger of becoming a bureaucrat's charter, starting an avalanche of legislation which will make a lot of work for civil servants and a lot of money for lawyers. I am also worried that it could create mischief in the workplace, which is the last thing that such legislation should do.
The Government claim that they support business and believe in partnership in the workplace—I know that the Minister sincerely believes in that—but the Secretary of State is on record as saying that he believes that wealth creation is more important than wealth distribution, which I do not go along with.
Only last week, the Prime Minister told business leaders in Bristol:
There has been a shift in the debate in Europe. Things like the working time directive are things that were agreed a long way before.
Mark the Prime Minister's words. He went on:
We can either say that the best way of job protection is more and more regulation to prevent people losing their jobs. But the danger is"—
his grammar, not mine—
that you end up just clogging up the system so it cannot work properly.
If the intentions of the Bill were clear, I could say where I disagree with it. I have already said very clearly that we wholeheartedly endorse the principle behind it, but we cannot fathom how it will work, and we have a duty in Parliament to do that.
There is an urgent need to put the Bill's aspirations into perspective and concentrate on the worthy, even essential, goal of shifting employment culture to embrace best practice, with the emphasis on example backed up by clear, straightforward, transparent regulations. I agree with the Secretary of State's examples of best practice, and I could cite many other instances of multinational firms recognising the worth of their staff and of good employment practices. They know that employees' working environment, participation in decision making, access to training, and opportunities to balance work, leisure and community activities are more important, in the mechanics of the workplace, than many of the elements set out in the Bill.
The Bill, with its good intentions, sets a context, but it cannot create a future. It is better in rhetoric than in reality, especially in the way in which it encourages women and parents in employment. It is fussy, nannyish and over-prescriptive, but it is not the calamity that Conservative Members claim. There will be no huge leap in overall employment costs. Best practice shows that the rewards for the employer of maintaining good employment conditions far outstrip any costs. The competitiveness of our industry and commerce in Europe will not plummet overnight.
If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I hope that I will get to that before too long.
A cursory examination of employment regulations throughout Europe makes the point clear. For example, if employers in Belgium want to make someone redundant, they have to pay one to three months' salary per year for the first five years of service, and one month per year after that. The maximum works out at about four years' salary. In Germany, workers who have served 15 years and are over 50 are entitled to a minimum of 15 months' gross salary. In Italy, managers with more than 10 years' service are entitled to a year's salary.
The costs of redundancy and dismissal in the UK are only a fraction of those in continental Europe, and the same goes for employment costs in general, so I do not want to hear any nonsense about the Bill driving firms out of business. That is not the issue.
It has long been our view that individuals should have the right to join or not to join a trade union and that no one should be discriminated against for being in or for not being in a union. The Bill introduces those individual rights, which we welcome. It also introduces measures to protect workers against discrimination by omission, but it fails—a major omission in itself—to deal with the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of age or sexual orientation.
Recent surveys show that a third of men over 50 are unemployed and that one in two of those are expected never to be in full-time employment again. There can be no doubt that those shocking figures are strongly linked to the culture of agism. There cannot be a Member of Parliament who has not been contacted by constituents who are bitterly frustrated at their failure to get employment because of their age. Highly qualified teachers in my constituency, with years of experience, cannot find work because they are passed over in favour of younger, cheaper graduates.
The Bill also fails to address discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation. Many hon. Members will recall the rather famous example of a lesbian couple in Eastleigh who were denied the same benefits from their employer that other employees received. South West Trains gives travel passes to employees and their partners, regardless of whether they are married, provided that the relationship is heterosexual. If the relationship is homosexual, no matter how long established, travel benefits are denied. The Bill gives the Government the opportunity to tackle discrimination on grounds of age and sexual orientation. So far, they have failed to grasp that opportunity. I hope that they will rectify that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) pointed out, the Bill also fails to make clear the degree to which the Government intend to extend employment rights to part-time and contract workers. We have long argued that part-time workers should enjoy the same rights as full-time workers, on a pro rata basis. That should be clearly stated in the Bill, which provides instead that the matter will be addressed only if and when the Secretary of State decides to make regulations.
I am pleased that the Bill deals with updating compensation rates for unfair dismissal and that it removes that anomaly once and for all. However, I should still like to see the details of the likely costs of that provision, as they would go a long way towards reassuring business. Figures from the Library show that, under the existing regime, the median settlement for unfair dismissal is just over £3,000. I assume that the Government have assessed the rise in settlements under the Bill, and I have asked the Minister for an estimate. So far, however, he has not replied.
I turn now to the question of collective rights in the workplace, which centres around trade union recognition. As the hon. Member for Ochil mentioned, the Government's protracted negotiations with the TUC and the CBI have been well trailed. Both organisations are still grumbling, so it is likely that a reasonable balance has been struck; more often than not, if both parties in contract negotiations end up slightly unhappy, it suggests that the deal is a good one.
However, there are dangers in relying too much on a rigid formula. The Government should heed the advice of ACAS. After its work some years ago on trade union recognition claims, ACAS came to the view that, although a ballot of worker preferences is a significant indicator, it cannot provide the overall verdict.
The Bill provides for extending the powers of ACAS, but the Government should take note of that organisation's concerns. ACAS is rightly anxious to preserve its role as an independent, tripartite body, made up of the CBI, the TUC and independent members. The Bill must not weaken that position.
The Bill will make it illegal to sack a worker for going on strike, and that is welcome. Any individual should have the right to withdraw labour as part of the due process in industrial action. Yet again, however, the Government have failed to provide any information on the impact of the provision.
I have asked the Minister many questions about the impact of the Bill, and I am conscious of the fact that other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate. However, the Minister knows that I am still waiting for the answers. I hope that, in due course, I will find out why the Government decided that eight weeks should be the cut-off point before an industrial action causes dismissal to be triggered. However, I shall conclude by dealing with the issues of maternity leave and parental leave.
No one should question the right to take maternity leave. I certainly do not, but I wonder why the Government have not taken the opportunity to simplify the rules and unify the provisions that appear in several Acts of Parliament in one simple, straightforward Act. That would make personnel officers' jobs one heck of a lot easier.
The Bill introduces the right to parental leave, which again is to be welcomed. Good employers know that, if they recognise the demands of family life, their employees will suffer less stress and are less likely to take sick leave. Good working conditions bring greater commitment, greater loyalty and lower staff turnover.
The principle is fine, but what about the practice? What degree of flexibility will be permitted? How much notice will be required? The Bill does not answer those questions. Such details are essential, but they are to be introduced by the Minister at a later date through regulation.
The Government claim that they are business friendly and eager to support small firms, and so they should be; small firms are the engines of our economy. Yet in small firms the absence of just one individual can be critical to success. Employers need rights too: they need to be able to discuss and agree when maternity leave or paternal leave is taken.
The impact of parental leave will be different in different firms. Sometimes, it will be better to take three months' leave all at once, with an agency worker in to cover. That will not be possible in other firms: a drip-by-drip approach may be better, with the employee taking off one day a week. For example, taking off every Friday for two years would be roughly equivalent to taking three months off as a bloc. That would be less disruptive, to the firm and to the workers. However, any variation between those two extremes would be acceptable, as long as the agreement recognises the legitimate concerns and rights of both employer and worker.
Again, the Government have failed to reassure business. A year or so ago, the cost of the parental leave directive was estimated at about £35 million. The Bill imposes additional regulations, and it is reasonable for business to ask how much they will cost. So far, answer comes there none.
Finally, we come to the new idea, the gold plating on the European directive—the concept of emergency leave. I agree that decent employers will recognise the legitimacy of workers being able to take emergency leave. I also understand that some employers are not so open-minded, and that the provision has to be underpinned by regulation. However, I want those regulations to be simple and straightforward. I do not want the matter to be left for completion at the Minister's discretion, some time in the future. At present, we do not know where we stand, or how the provision will work.
It is possible that each type of emergency will qualify for a different leave tariff. An employee could be entitled to a certain amount of leave if the central heating breaks down, another amount if a child breaks a leg, yet another for a granny's funeral. Will there be a points system, as with driving licences? Will employees be disqualified if they acquire too many emergency leave points over a period? A personnel manager might call an employee into his office and say, "Well, Mr. Smith, in the last 12 months you have accumulated emergency leave points for a broken leg at school and a broken central heating system, and now you've just taken extra leave for a second granny's funeral. I'm afraid your points are over the limit and we have to take your licence away. You're fired." [Interruption.] The answers to my questions are not in the Bill, and we need to know how the measure will work.
What about employees who have the good fortune not to need sick leave or emergency leave? Will they get a reward, or a no claims bonus? Will they get extra days' leave? Where are the answers to those questions in the Bill?
We support the aims of the Bill, as I have made clear. However, we do not accept that the Government are right to introduce half-baked legislative proposals, without detail or debate in Parliament. As I said at the outset, that will make work for civil servants, money for employers, and mischief between employees and employers. I want the Bill to go into Committee with a large dollop of common sense.
Listening to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), I was reminded that, more than 100 years ago, Keir Hardie got fed up with the endless shilly-shallying and ambivalence of the Liberal party, to which he belonged. As a result, he founded the Labour party—and how right he was to do so. Judging from the hon. Gentleman's contribution, not a lot has changed among Liberal Democrat Members. The speech was pointless, and I have never heard so much waffle. The Bill offers an opportunity to improve industrial relations legislation after what the Conservative Government did in their long period in office.
I welcome the Bill's general tenor and content, but I want to concentrate on a few points. In particular, I very much welcome clause 3, which will put an end to blacklisting. Some hon. Members who have been here a while will remember when an anti-blacklisting campaign was mounted in the House. The campaign had a large, cross-party membership. Members of all parties but one were involved—and there are no prizes for guessing which party could not provide a single member of that campaign.
I want to raise a serious issue. Clause 3 refers to blacklisting being prohibited on grounds of trade union activity, and that is an excellent provision. However, I remember an organisation called the Economic League, which was once a force in the land, with hundreds, if not thousands, of firms contributing to its funds, and, therefore, to the existence of a blacklist. People were blacklisted on grounds that had nothing to do with trade union activity. A constituent of mine was blacklisted for being a member of Anti-Apartheid, for example. The well-known Scottish folk singer, Hamish Imlach, was blacklisted on the grounds that he sang songs against Mrs. Thatcher, grounds that would have had most of Scotland blacklisted.
I shall not embarrass the firms that once supported the Economic League by naming them. Those firms gave up their membership following excellent work by "World in Action" and the investigative reporters of The Guardian. The organisation was embarrassed out of existence, but that does not mean to say that blacklisting may not still happen. That organisation could have been resurrected under another name, and there is nothing to stop firms conducting informal blacklisting within their trades. I have no reason to believe that blacklisting no longer occurs.
At the time of the campaign against the Economic League, the Daily Mirror—as it then was—did an excellent job. Into my hands came the entire list of those blacklisted, including several prominent members of the present Government. The Daily Mirror challenged the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—the then Prime Minister—to condemn the Economic League, but he refused to do so.
The newspaper rightly said that the organisation was conducting kangaroo courts and allowed no one to challenge their listing, which was in any event secret. People could have been kept out of employment throughout their working lives because of allegations that they could not challenge. Clause 3 is particularly welcome, and I look forward to seeing it in action.
I want to draw attention to some other aspects of the Bill. Recently, an American organisation that prides itself on union busting said that it would come to Britain to offer employers advice on how to subvert the intentions of the Bill. I am sure that the Minister and his colleagues will not put up with that. If any such action takes place, I hope that he will quickly review the Bill to ensure that no one gets away with it.
I intervened earlier on the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), to ask about people who work for LSG Skychefs. Were I not a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, I should not have known about the dispute involving those people, as it has had little coverage in the newspapers—at least where I live. I gather that the workers have jumped through all the hoops of Tory legislation. They have not acted unlawfully in any way. They are engaged in a legal strike. However, when they took one day's action at the end of last year, their employer retaliated by locking them out and dismissing them all. Every effort by their union and by others to take the dispute to ACAS has failed.
When I raised that point with the right hon. Member for Wokingham, he said that he knew nothing about it and would want to hear both sides of the story. I was surprised that the shadow Secretary of State knew nothing about the dispute—surely it is his job to be aware of such matters. There is currently no one on the Conservative Front Bench to answer for the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) returning to his seat. Let me put this challenge to him: will he look into the matter, and if the facts are as I have stated—I have no doubt that they are—will he take it up?
The Conservatives live in a dream world, in which all employers would be good if only they could. They do not live in the real world in which some employers do not know that the world has changed, and that employees expect better rights.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to emerge from the ethereal darkness behind the Speaker's Chair. I shall study her speech, and if she would care to give me further details of the case, I undertake to look into it objectively and without preconception in favour of either party.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that assurance and I shall place the information in his hands. I hope that, if he has any critical comment to make about the action of the firm involved, he will do so in public rather than simply in a letter to me.
My final point relates to the size of companies covered by the Bill. It may seem reasonable to argue that, if a firm thinks it needs 21 employees, 21 is the number it should have. Firms will not employ more or fewer employees than they need to deal with their work load. However, it does not take much ingenuity to think of certain types of firm—for example, a small firm in the rag trade—which do not need huge workplaces or elaborate equipment, and which could get round the Bill by creating several small groups of workers under different company names. I hope that the Bill can be framed to prevent any such action to get round its intentions. Those who work in the rag trade have been among the most ill-treated employees.
Years ago, before I came to the House, I taught trade union studies to people sent by the TUC to learn about industrial relations and about how to advance their interests and to negotiate with employers. The rag trade workers tended to be those who had the greatest number of problems and who faced the most outrageously unfair employer practices. Problems are greatest not among the largest firms, but among the type of employers who run small, fly-by-night operations that can easily close down and start up again elsewhere.
I welcome the Bill's family-friendly aspects. It is nonsense to argue that firms may faces losses simply because they treat their employees decently. Ever since the industrial revolution, it has been clear that, the better employees are treated, the more likely they are to treat the employer well and to be committed people whom employers are pleased to employ. Decent relations between one side and the other are more likely to result in a profitable enterprise than are attempts to get away with treating people as foully as possible.
The Bill is welcome, and I look forward to seeing it further improved in Committee.
The Bill is ill-judged and its main effects will flatly contradict earlier statements by Ministers. In April 1997, in the foreword to Labour's business manifesto, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—then shadow Chancellor—stated:
We will not impose burdensome regulations upon business because we understand that successful businesses must keep costs down.
Nineteen months later, the immediate predecessor of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—declared:
we have no intention of introducing any legislation that will present a burden on business and reduce the competitiveness of British firms."—[Official Report, 25 November 1998; Vol. 321, c. 214.]
The tragedy is that the Bill does both: it will raise costs, and it will reduce competitiveness. We have suffered the misfortune of having the Second Reading debate introduced by a Secretary of State—no longer in his place—who showed no evidence of ever having owned, run or even worked in a business of any kind, least of all a small business.
Time is limited. I may take the hon. Gentleman's intervention later if time allows.
Why should Ministers care? Through the normal methods of advance briefing and anonymous leaks to the media, we got an indication of their thinking on the matter. The other day, a senior Minister—one of those who wanders in the dark—told a newspaper that, as long as both the CBI and the TUC were brassed off,
we won't have a problem.
One might ask—although it will not take long to provide an answer—what the said senior Minister meant by the use of the term "we". What he meant, of course, was that the Government would not have a problem; Ministers would not have a problem. The tragedy is that business will still have a problem, the economy will still have a problem and the country will still have a problem—at a time when company failures are rising for the first time since 1992; when small business start-ups are declining; when we are under increasing pressure; when profit forecasts are being revised downwards; when short-time working is on the increase; when downsizing is commonplace; and, when, at 6.2 per cent., on the Government's preferred measure, unemployment is substantially higher than in the United States. That is the reality of what the Government are doing.
I want to focus on two particular aspects of the Bill. The first is the provision relating to trade union recognition. The Secretary of State did not even attempt to gainsay the overwhelming evidence that most businesses implacably oppose the provisions for trade union recognition. He could not deny that that is true. Those businesses are against the provisions for trade union recognition because they believe that they will have a corrosive effect on company performance and industrial relations.
Specifically, the fear of senior business men, large and small, is that the Bill will stop or weaken labour market flexibility and will militate against multi-skilling. Both of those are crucial preconditions of commercial advantage in a highly competitive world.
Ministers could have done us a favour by at least allowing exemption from the provisions on trade union recognition for firms of fewer than 50 employees. A number of right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Back Benches complain about the Secretary of State for excluding very small firms—micro-businesses and other small businesses—from the legislation. The Minister will attempt to defend the Government's position, no doubt with great eloquence, in his winding-up speech.
My complaint is that businesses of between 21 and 49 employees have not been excluded from the provisions. They will suffer as a result. That is unfortunate because, if the Government had made that concession in accordance with their definition of a small business in different legislation—the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998—that would have freed between 200,000 and 300,000 businesses in the UK from the clutches of this damaging impost. It is a disaster. The Minister should account for the differential treatment by the Government of different sectors in different legislation. Ministers have not explained why that is so.
Secondly, I turn to the Government's so-called family-friendly policies, to which there are two main parts. We understand that parental leave is to be for three months per person, and that that leave is to be unpaid. The Government have made an extremely cautious estimate of the likely cost of the provision. They say in the regulatory impact assessment that they expect it to be about £28.8 million a year, although they concede, for those who bother to study the text, that that is based on what may prove to be a dramatic underestimate of the number of people who are likely, especially in the first year, to claim that entitlement.
The Government reckon that only 0.5 per cent. of those eligible to claim the benefit will do so. The figures could, of course, be much larger than that, but I turn the mind of the House to the proceedings of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry—on which I am privileged to serve under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill)—last November.
On 4 November, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who showed that he was not even aware that his Department had conducted an assessment of the likely costs of the directive, nevertheless brazenly declared that, whatever the cost of the parental leave directive—he was referring to a CBI estimate of the cost—it would be "a tiny fractional amount" of the total employment costs that are borne by business.
With that observation, the former Secretary of State, who, again, has never run or worked in a business, still less owned a business, sought to dismiss the concerns of those who are worried about the Government's intentions.
The problem with his position and that of the new Secretary of State and Minister is twofold. First, although in isolation, any particular measure is of course likely to account for only a tiny fractional amount of the total costs that are borne by business, that does not mean that it is of no significance. It is the cumulative impact of a torrent of regulations and additional taxation from the Government that causes legitimate concern in the business community—£40 billion additional tax and regulatory burden in the course of this Parliament.
My second point is, if anything, even more revealing for what it tells us about the naivety and ignorance of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool. In dismissing the cost as a tiny fractional amount and, to use another word, "marginal", he did not realise that, often, a marginal impact can make a decisive difference—between a business surviving and going under; being able to keep its existing employees and having to get rid of an employee or more than one employee; and staying at its present size and being able to take on more employees.
The Government should not have signed up to the cack-handed folly of the European social chapter, which obliges this country to adopt the parental leave directive. If they had had any foresight, they should have looked across the Atlantic and seen what happens.
In fairness, the Secretary of State conceded to me earlier that the American record on job creation was good. In the United States—I do not know whether the Minister, who is not an obvious fan of the United States economy, has looked at the example—there is provision for unpaid parental leave for three months. It is provided under the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act 1993, but, in a country with 23 million small businesses, that legislation wisely excludes from its ambit firms of fewer than 50 employees. The British Government should have had the sense and judgment to do the same.
What of time off for domestic incidents? The Government say that time off should be reasonable. I agree. The question is, are there to be limits or no limits? If there are no limits, the measure is open ended and could, potentially, be seriously abused. If there are limits, there is a danger—I do not say that it is an inevitability—that such time off will come to be regarded as a natural part of the holiday entitlement of an existing employee.
What we need is careful consideration by Ministers, and no repetition of the outrageous parliamentary abuse that accompanied the introduction of the working time regulations. We need from the Minister a guarantee that there will a minimum three-month consultation period on the regulations; a guarantee that there will be a parliamentary debate on the regulations before they take effect; and a commitment that companies that will have to implement the regulations and bear the costs will receive at least three months' notice of having to do so, rather than the paltry and insulting six weeks with which they were fobbed off in the context of the working time regulations.
The shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), rightly highlighted the serious opposition of business to the proposals. The Institute of Directors has said that they would sap the competitiveness of British firms. We know that British Chambers of Commerce thinks that they could slow or stop growth in the small business sector. The Forum of Private Business has talked about the possibility that the moves could be disastrous for small firms. The Federation of Small Businesses said that the Bill could make it too costly and risky to employ staff. Our reliable old friends, the lawyers, predict an exponential increase in litigation and a massive increase in legal costs. Is a bonanza for lawyers what the Minister wants?
I cavil not only at what the Government are trying to do—partly to buy off the trade unions for the £110 million in today's prices that they contributed to the Labour party's coffers in its 18 years in opposition; partly to assuage the European Union; and partly, I concede, out of a fair-minded concern to develop good employment relations. There is an alternative. If Ministers want to create better employment relations, they should start by fostering a climate that is conducive to the creation of more employment. That would entail a speedy reconsideration of their massive tax and regulatory imposts on British industry and commerce.
On regulation, the compliance cost assessment should not be a casual afterthought trundled out at the last minute with scant regard for what people think; still less should it be a post hoc rationalisation of what Ministers have already determined to do. It should be part of the process of discussion, debate and consideration—part of the cost benefit calculus in deciding whether a measure should be introduced at all.
I counsel the Minister to add to his reading list two important pieces of American legislation that are advantageous to the small business sector: the Regulatory Flexibility Act 1980 and the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act 1996. That might sound a mouthful, but the taste of it to most American business men is rather better than the menu dished up by our thoughtless Labour Administration. The Government's proposals are bad for business, are unwise and have been introduced at the wrong time. The consequences will be damaging to the British commercial environment. The Government should think again, even now. The Opposition do not believe that the Bill deserves a Second Reading and we shall vote against it. I ask the Minister to consider carefully the legitimate criticisms and real anxieties that people across the country feel.
It gives me great pleasure, in my first contribution this year, to speak on this Bill. I have been waiting 20 years, almost a generation, for legislation that considers the common man and woman at the bottom of the pile—the real wealth creators—rather than being for the benefit of companies, employers and their balance sheets, and, perhaps more importantly, their power.
I am particularly pleased to follow last year's Back Bencher of the year. In many ways, his speech encourages me in mine. If one peels away the nice presentation and great eloquence, his party wants the employer to dominate and the employee to have the right to do as he or she is told. It is important to step back and see where we are before the Bill goes through.
Legislation for trade unions and their members is now worse than it was 100 years ago. If anyone doubts that, I recommend, particularly to Conservative Members, that they read a book by the recently deceased Henry Pelling—most of them have probably never heard of it—called "A History of British Trade Unionism". It shows how things have fluctuated over the years.
Although I am implacably opposed to everything that the previous Government did from 1979 onwards, I am generous enough to admit that, unbelievable though it may seem, there have been times in history when the Tory party has introduced legislation beneficial to workers and trade unions that might have had a slight deleterious effect on employers and companies. What particularly pleases me about the Bill is that it begins to recognise that people have more responsibilities than just being at the beck and call of an employer.
We need to look at the vast array of legislation introduced by the previous Administration. In case Conservative Members have forgotten, when people legitimately fought for their rights, they were classed by Mrs. Thatcher as the enemy within. That is dressed up now. I was amazed to hear the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) sound sympathetic. If I picked him up right, he said that they did not make legislation to stop people who were having difficulty with their employers joining a trade union. That is tremendous progress for the Opposition.
I have an interest to declare, though not a financial one. I was formerly employed by the National Union of Mineworkers, the only decent employer that I have worked for since I left school. Perhaps I have been unfortunate, because we have heard about all these good employers. When I speak to colleagues about good employers, they say, "You know, Bill, that is a peculiar term. Are you talking about good employers or some who are better than others?" In many ways, that sums up the situation.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the National Union of Mineworkers. Was he one of its London employees who was sacked almost without notice when it decided to move its headquarters back to Sheffield? I remember them going on strike. That is not like a good employer.
The hon. Gentleman need not worry, because I have never been a London employee; being here is the nearest that I have come to it. I was not sacked by the NUM. I am not sure whether I was promoted or demoted when I came here; I am still trying to work that out.
Every piece of legislation that the Tories introduced was anti-trade union. It had the gloss of improving the rights of trade union members within their union, but did nothing to improve their rights in their relationship with their employers. That is why we have ended up with so many people working longer hours under worse conditions, often for worse wages. The Tories left a wonderful heritage to workers, and they will never be forgotten or forgiven for it.
I have one or two criticisms of the Bill, but they are comradely. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his elevation to the Cabinet under difficult circumstances. If today is anything to go by, he is making a good job of it. That does not surprise me, because he comes from the same part of the world as I do and represents a similar constituency. Unlike Conservative Members, he probably has a fair grip of what it is like to be at the bottom of the employment pile.
The problem affects not middle management but people at the bottom of the pile. There is no need to mess about with any other form of words. That is what the Bill seeks to put right. I have heard all sorts of stories this afternoon about how it is easy for people to get time off and how this does not need legislation. If it were easy to get time off, there would be no need for legislation. That is the simple answer.
It must also be said that we start from a bad position. British workers, trade unionists and trade unions have the least rights of any European Union country. That will improve as times goes on and the Bill is a good start.
Does my hon. Friend remember in 1992 when dockers were discriminated against for belonging to a trade union? They had fewer rights and less pay. The Conservative party did nothing to protect them. They were left to lose their jobs. They went to the other place under the law, but lost their money and their jobs.
I totally agree. I am willing to give way to any Conservative Member who can give an example of a Conservative Member, regardless of the consequences and no matter how bad the situation, standing up to support workers in dispute with an employer when that employer has reneged on an agreement or acted in a totally abysmal manner.
I intervened in an employment dispute in a former company of mine on behalf of an employee who shamefully was denied a bonus that she had long been owed, but that she was scared to claim. I was absolutely determined that she should get the bonus and I am pleased to say that, through her efforts and those of others including me, she eventually did so.
I am pleased to hear that, but it does not answer the question I posed, which was whether any Conservative Member had ever intervened in the House on such an issue, because I have never heard of that happening. I have made that offer before, but it has never been taken up and the hon. Gentleman' s intervention takes us no further forward.
I have one or two problems with the Bill. Quite a lot has been said, mostly in interventions, about the waiver for small employers. I am concerned about that, albeit not for the same reasons that Conservative Members are concerned: they do not want any rights for anybody, no matter how big the firm, so I totally dissociate myself from any of their comments on the subject. My concern is based on human rights and civil rights. I cannot come to terms with the fact that, if one firm has 20 employees, all 20 of whom want recognition for negotiation purposes and so on, and the firm next door has 22 employees, 12 of whom want recognition, it will be the employees of the larger firm who are entitled by law to recognition, not the employees of the smaller firm. That cannot be right.
I have heard the explanation given here and elsewhere by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I am still not satisfied. If the argument is that small businesses are special and different, I cannot go along with it. I do not want to put any additional burdens on small businesses, but the fundamental principles that should be paramount are equality of treatment, justice and civil rights. People working in small companies—about 25 per cent. of all employees—are the ones who most need the full protection and assistance of a trade union. Although I welcome the Bill, I am unhappy about that part of it.
I am very unhappy about the clause whereby employers, if they have gone through the necessary—I nearly said charade, but that is unfair—system of negotiating meaningfully with employees, will be entitled to sack strikers after eight weeks. I perceive big dangers in that, the biggest of which is that—as the courts have proved on many occasions, sometimes on technicalities—there is already a considerable hurdle in terms of legal challenge to get over before employees are able to mount a strike without the threat of the law being hung over them. If it is considered right that employees on strike should have protection, there should be no time limit.
I am very unhappy about that, but I think that the rest of the Bill represents a tremendous step forward. I am sorry to hear that it is to be the last such legislation in this Parliament, because I believe that legislation, as well as having a salutary day-to-day effect on miscreants, is a vessel for changing the attitude of society. Above all, I believe that the Bill will begin to change society's attitude.
I hope that our manifesto for the next election, after which we shall be returned to government again, will contain a promise that we shall go a little further. No matter how good a piece of legislation is, it is always found that some aspects do not quite work the way they were intended to. I am reassured by the Secretary of State's saying that, if things do not work out in quite the way they were intended to, the Government will make amendments at a later stage, not by introducing wholly new legislation, but simply to address any problems that might arise from the Bill.
I have waited a long time for this opportunity, but it has been worth the wait. I am a little happier that we have reached this stage and I shall be extremely happy when the legislation comes into force, because, unlike the Conservative party, I believe that the trade union movement has done more good in British society than any other organisation. Over the years, it has been constructive, it has looked after people, it has been willing to take on difficult causes and, unlike the Conservative party, it has acted as a moderating influence on society, not by looking after only a small number of people—the very well-off—but by showing its concern that there should be a better society for all.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) in this important debate. It is evident that he speaks from the heart, which is good to hear in the House of Commons, and I congratulate him on his speech.
There are deeply felt differences of opinion on the Bill. Its subject matter has been debated in the House of Commons and British politics for many years and it will, no doubt, continue to be a source of contention. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to identify today as being a good day for old Labour and for the trade union movement, for, contrary to the Secretary of State's remarks in his opening speech, the Bill is but the first of a series of steps.
The most damaging feature of the Bill is that it gives no details of the Government's intentions—it is an enabling Bill that sets out broad powers in a wide range of matters, with the detail left to be supplied in regulations. There is so little detail in the Bill that, for all the Secretary of State's saying that the Government are taking but a single step and that the Bill lays down the industrial relations framework for the rest of the Parliament, he is in fact establishing a legislative framework that will give Ministers considerably greater powers to increase the power of the trade unions, decrease the power and freedom of business, and increase the costs that apply to business.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raises that point, because in so doing he makes my case for me—that issue is not covered in the Bill. Now that the Bill has been published, temporary workers have no more idea whether they will have such security than they had a week, six months or two years ago. That is entirely illustrative of the approach taken in the Bill: it is not made clear at any point in the Bill who is covered, or what detailed provisions will be made for those who are covered. I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman reading the Bill, perhaps for the first time. He might find it instructive.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should read the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill, for they make it absolutely clear which rights every worker will be entitled to. I repeat my question: do the Opposition support temporary workers having the rights that other workers already enjoy?
Again, that makes my point. The hon. Gentleman would be wise to look more closely at the Bill and to consider why the Government are intent on avoiding putting detail in the Bill. I contend that the reason is that there is a balancing act to be gone through before the whole Bill represents a final settlement. The question is one of striking a balance, not between trade unions and business, or between the rights of employees and employers, but between the different parts of the Labour party. That balancing act has not yet been resolved. It is clear that the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have not yet decided where they want to end up.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) referred to a speech made by the Prime Minister in Bristol a couple of weeks ago. The spin coming off that speech was astonishing, with the suggestion that European directives would be repealed because they were no longer in tune with the current vogue for greater competitiveness and less regulation. The Prime Minister is happy to talk about such matters, whether in this country or in Europe, yet what little detail we can glean from the Bill suggests an entirely opposite approach. The Prime Minister—and the Secretary of State—is saying one thing to a public audience, one thing to a business audience, and another thing to a trade union audience and to the Labour party, but he is not prepared to nail his colours to the mast and say what rights he would be prepared to accept in the Bill.
My hon. Friend is making a good point, as did the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope). The Bill gives the same rights to temporary employees as it does to full-time employees, but agencies can find the same way round them as they do in France. In France, an employee cannot be temporary for more than three months. That is exactly what is likely to happen as a result of the Bill. Temporary employees will be sacked after three months, and they will not be entitled to holiday pay because of it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
The Secretary of State suggested that he is seeking to end the divisive culture of conflict, fear and mistrust in the workplace, yet that seems to ignore the fact that, over the past 20 years, there has been less industrial action and fewer days lost through strike action. There has been a much better record in industrial relations than ever before. Now, the Labour party, with enthusiastic backing from its Back Benchers at least, is seeking to turn the clock back and roll back the important reforms that have made the United Kingdom one of the most competitive countries in the world.
No, I need to make some progress.
The crucial test of the Bill—and of the Government's supposed new framework of industrial relations—will be whether it increases or decreases the likelihood of industrial action. Will it increase or decrease the likelihood of a return to industrial strife? I suggest that it is very likely to increase industrial disharmony and strike action, and that it will be a retrograde step for that reason. There will be more opportunity for dispute and more conflict over recognition.
There will be trade union representation even in the very small businesses to which reference has been made because an employee will have the right to have a trade union representative with him in any grievance procedure. That point needs further attention because, although the Government have sought to spin the issue, suggesting that they have done everything that they can to please business and have excluded small businesses from the provisions, there is in fact a way in.
At what point does a personal grievance become a collective grievance? Will it be possible for an employee to seek trade union support to complain about a grievance over pay? Will it be possible to take that action over the quality of food in the staff canteen or staff parking? That is not clear. The Bill clearly allows a way in which to circumvent in very small companies the exemption that it appears to provide for the benefit of small businesses.
There is procedure for a ballot on trade union recognition, but no counter-balancing limit on the right of strike action in support of recognition.
No, I said that I wanted to make progress.
Such a lack of a limit makes one wonder whether the Bill is a genuine attempt to find a fair settlement. Given the supposedly fair balloting procedure to allow trade union recognition, why should it still be necessary to take industrial action either to speed up that process or in response to results that are not as some people might wish? The Bill, and the regulations that flow from it, will affect small businesses even though, on the face of it, they are exempt from some of the provisions.
Reference has been made to the upper limit of unfair dismissal payments. A £50,000 payment may not be imposed often, but it does not need to be in order to put a small business out of operation. Labour Members have suggested that the higher limit will make businesses more careful and that unfair dismissal cases will not occur so often as a result. Making very small businesses over-concentrate on and be over-aware of legal procedure and regulation in every aspect of their daily activities could constitute a major cost. Some very small companies do not have recourse to proper advice on personnel matters.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, in the cut and thrust of the daily lives of small businesses, the point is not whether the best advice is available should they seek it, but whether they have time to seek it or are aware of where it can be sought. By increasing pressure and potential costs on business, that could cause serious problems.
The parental leave elements of the Bill will of course add costs. Again, there is no detail—not even on whether the provisions will be paid or unpaid. Ministers have suggested their preferences, but they are not in the Bill. Reference has also been made to the clause on domestic incidents. That is a classic case of gold-plating the European directive, adding unnecessarily to costs.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gallantry. Is he aware of the direct correlation between the greatest incidence of time off and stress created by bad employment circumstances? As numerous employment studies have shown, good employment relations mean a healthy and loyal work force, greater productivity and less time off.
That is precisely why I think that most employers seek to accommodate their employees where they can, and why it is inappropriate to legislate to require businesses, which may not be able to face the cost and may make redundancies as a result, to do things that may not be in their interests.
In implementing the European directive, the Government of the Republic of Ireland specified urgent family reasons for time off: owing to injury or illness of a child, an adopted child, a spouse or person with whom somebody is living as a husband or wife, a person to whom an employee is in loco parentis, a brother, sister, parent or grandparent. As a result, it is clear which circumstances businesses must face, and what the Republic of Ireland Government intend to happen as a result of the European directive.
In this Bill, there is no such clarity. It has been left deliberately vague. It is not clear precisely which incidents in the home affecting a member of a family or somebody who depends on the employee may apply under the Bill. The provisions could apply to a neighbour. The cost of events surrounding anybody who is in the habit of depending on the employee, such as an elderly person whose neighbour does their shopping, should not be borne by the business. It is not sustainable to add such social costs to the daily operating costs of a business. If Ministers do so, they will put companies out of business.
Small businesses will be affected, discipline and grievance procedures will provide a way of circumventing rights and exemptions that are supposedly being accorded to small businesses, and the Bill's lack of clarity and certainty will give many businesses cause for concern.
The Government's performance over the implementation of the working time directive, the amount of time that they have taken considering its regulations and the fact that they were not prepared to debate them in the House give us no confidence in Ministers' ability to propose regulations that will do what they wish them to do, give us no confidence that the regulations will be brought forward in good time, give us no confidence that businesses will have adequate warning of what they will face, and certainly give us no confidence that there will be opportunities to express concerns about the regulations.
This is a classic new Labour Bill, which none the less gives great hope to old Labour and the trade union movement. It is a classic new Labour Bill because it has no detail, does not nail its colours to the mast and is all spin. Recently, one newspaper sketch writer referred to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry as the "self-wipe Minister", because he could say something one minute, but it had disappeared the next. This is a self-wipe Bill. Although it has no content, it allows Ministers massive new powers to implement, at will, new regulations, which will have a devastating effect on British business.
I welcome the Bill as the first legislation for 20 years that is not anti-employee and anti-trade union, and many Labour Members welcome it for precisely those reasons.
The Bill's name has changed. A much better change would have been to name it the McCartney Bill, after the Minister of State who has been involved in piloting it through such choppy and difficult waters. The fact that we are debating it is a tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Minister, who has pursued the legislation with skill, perseverance and, allegedly, not a little cunning—[Interruption.] My pronunciation may have misled the House, but I did say "cunning". My hon. Friend's achievement is all the greater when we consider the sources of the spin and disinformation that have accompanied the Bill through its formative stages.
I welcome the concept of partnership incorporated in the Bill. The idea of involving and negotiating with the CBI and the TUC is greatly to be welcomed. I recognise the need to make allowances for the legitimate concerns that have been expressed, but we have to question the extent to which the partners, especially the CBI, have bought into the process. If the Tories are representing the CBI's views, as they claim to do, I wonder what evidence there is that the CBI has bought into the process, and if it has not, why have we bothered to make any concessions to the organisation at all?
If there are negotiations and an agreement is reached, those involved must support it. If the CBI does not support the Bill, despite its having been involved in the negotiations, perhaps some of the terms in the Bill with which some of us are not entirely happy should be reconsidered.
Redistribution of wealth has recently been discussed in some circles. I am all in favour of wealth creation—as we all are—but wealth distribution in its various forms makes up much of the substance of politics. The Bill gives us the opportunity to realise a much fairer distribution of wealth and power in our society. The strengthening of trade unions will result in a substantial shift of wealth and power in favour of working people and their families. That is what Labour Members should support.
It is possible that the change in the distribution of wealth and power resulting from the Bill will be as great as or greater than any measure introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Bill's impact, which will be more wages and more influence for working people, will dwarf much of what Governments do directly. We ought to consider renaming the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the Secretary of State for redistribution of wealth.
The hon. Gentleman almost answered my question with his previous comment. Does he make a distinction between the distribution of wealth and the redistribution of wealth, which I understand was very much old Labour's policy?
I shall come to that point in a moment—it is included in my notes.
Trade unions will obtain higher wages and better conditions for their members, but I do not believe, as the Opposition seem to do, that our society is a zero-sum game. While workers in unionised firms are likely to be better paid, they are also likely to be better motivated. Just as they are likely to have more say, so they make a greater contribution. Just as they are in less fear, so they are less distracted from the work in hand and more able to concentrate on the job that they are trying to do.
We must get away from the idea that, if one side wins, the other side automatically loses. That is why we should welcome the partnership concept and the positive recognition that workers are not simply units of production, but people with feelings who want to make a genuine contribution to the environment in which they spend so much of their lives. We ought to be clear that involving the unions helps growth and creates the wealth that we can then discuss how better to distribute. Many Labour Members should stop apologising for being pro-union and should stop being defensive because, although criticisms can be made, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) that the unions are overwhelmingly a force for good and for progress in our society.
Although I support the broad thrust of the Bill, it is not perfect. In particular, the 40 per cent. rule leaves a great deal to be desired. I wonder how many hon. Members would pass the 40 per cent. test.—achieving 40 per cent. of the eligible votes, not of the votes cast—which is applied in this case. Local authorities would be decimated and the London referendum result would not have been carried if the 40 per cent. rule had been applied.
As far as I am aware, that rule has been applied only once—in Scotland at the time of the first referendum on devolution. There is a lesson to be learned from those events because, not having achieved 40 per cent. of the eligible votes, people felt cheated. The matter did not go away; it returned and in the next referendum the vote was much larger. Those who introduced the 40 per cent. rule as a blocking mechanism ended up worse off because the devolution proposals that were eventually passed were tougher and more devolutionary than the original ones, so the rule was counter-productive.
We should also consider whether the rule about 20 employees being the cut-off point for union recognition is helpful, productive and deserves support. Should employees' rights depend on the size of the firm in which they work? Should not the individual right to be represented by a trade union apply to the individual, rather than depending on the environment in which the individual is employed?
I was disappointed to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say, in response to a question on that matter, that the issue is one of not placing burdens on business. Unionism—or perhaps I should say unionisation, given that a Unionist Member has just left the Chamber—should not be viewed as a burden. My hon. Friend the Minister should be more modern and recognise that unions are a bonus, not a burden. We should make it quite clear that we want to extend individual rights to everyone, irrespective of the size of the firm in which they work.
The Bill is less than perfect on the issue of dismissal after eight weeks. We should not leave the lack of guarantees or defence for workers in its present form. Similarly, in the proposals under which action can be taken if someone is dismissed after less than eight weeks, the concentration is on the procedure that will be followed, but no comment is made about the good faith of those who will follow it. There will still be an opportunity for employers to make unfair dismissals in situations where there are insufficient grounds for response. Much of that will depend on interpretation.
A number of areas are unclear. I hope that they will be thoroughly explored in Committee. They include questions about the Central Arbitration Committee, individual contracts, the definition of matters that are serious for union representation and issues surrounding agency employment.
This should not be the Government's final say. The situation must be monitored in practice. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) that attempts will be made to find ways around the legislation. People will search for loopholes. Union-busters will be brought in and, if they are creative, they may act in ways that we will not have considered during our debates on the Bill. It has already occurred to me, for instance, that a firm employing 38 people could easily redefine itself as two firms, each employing 19, in an attempt to get around the problem of recognition. The Government must make it clear that they are prepared to plug such loopholes and to deal with operations that are contrary to the spirit of the legislation that is eventually agreed by the House. I am not asking them to present entirely new employment legislation.
Let me say a little about what has been said by members of the opposition parties. I am still not sure of the Liberal Democrat view on the 40 per cent. requirement. On three occasions, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) went round and round the houses. I hoped that he would state unequivocally that the Liberals were against 40 per cent., and in favour of the extension of rights to firms employing fewer than 20. Had he done so, I would have asked him to prevail on his leader to prevail on our leader to reconsider, in the fraternal spirit in which such matters are handled by our two great parties. Perhaps we shall discover later whether that is indeed the Liberals Democrat position.
Finally, I shall address myself to the second or third Bench from the back on the Opposition side of the House. I see that the Scottish Nationalists are entirely absent, as they have been virtually throughout the debate. I dare say that, during the forthcoming election campaign, they will take the opportunity to seek to cause mischief on whatever grounds are available, but their interest in the matters that we are discussing can be measured by their absence. I do not think that there can be a role for those who wish to intervene in industrial relations simply to create political mischief—if they have a contribution to make, they should be here to make it.
I support the Bill. I hope that it is enacted in an improved form, and I hope that the Government will give an undertaking to be prepared to plug loopholes if and when they are discovered.
This has been a good-natured debate, and it has been interesting to hear the views of, in particular, Labour Members. I hope to be a member of the Standing Committee, but, given the honesty and straightforwardness of Labour Members today, I suspect that I shall not have an opportunity to hear their views then, because the Whips are putting black marks on the register even now.
It will be a blacklist! The Minister suggests that it will be, but I am sure that he is jesting.
I must declare some interests at the outset, because clause 28 concerns matters in which I have had a professional interest. For some 12 years, I ran an employment agency in Yorkshire. I have not actively traded in employment agencies for 10 years, but until the last general election I was an adviser to the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services. I am currently an adviser to Trevor Gilbert and Associates, which is an expert witness practice, but which also owns a business employment agency.
I do not speak on behalf of those organisations. I have received no briefing. I speak from the heart about what I consider to be the basis of the Bill, and about what I consider to be the Government's aim. I assure the House that I have no blind trust and that no funds have been paid to me, even by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson). I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) for suggesting that we should all receive £370,000-odd from the hon. Gentleman. However, I want to concentrate on clause 28. I took the Bill home at the weekend, thinking that I was going to make a speech about the employment relations issues that we all thought would be in it. I was astounded when I read clause 28.
Some time ago, when writing an article to be published by one of the employment agency magazines—I do not remember which one—I took advice from the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher). Subsequently, because the right hon. Gentleman was replaced almost immediately—not because of anything that he had done—I took advice from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). Previous Labour party manifestos had made it clear that Labour was opposed to employment agencies: it wanted them to be abolished, and it wanted employment businesses to be abolished. That was the Labour party's settled policy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Hon. Members on the Front Bench below the Gangway agree.
I took advice—and, of course, a Conservative must take some note of advice given by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield, who is now the Prime Minister. The advice was that the Labour party did not see the matter as a priority. Indeed, I think that Labour entirely abandoned the idea of abolishing employment agencies. I have heard Labour Front Benchers, both as Opposition spokesmen and as Ministers, express the view that the flexibility of the United Kingdom market, with employment agencies and employment businesses, is one of the things that make our labour force and our labour market work so well. That is why I was so astounded to read what the Government propose. They propose to restrict the services that may be provided by employment agencies and businesses, to regulate the way in which those services are provided and to restrict or regulate the charging of fees. That may not mean a great deal to those listening to me, so let me give an example.
Let us suppose that the Government announced that they would take powers enabling them to decide where British Airways could fly, how many staff would be allowed, how much should be charged for tickets and how much commission should be paid. Let us suppose that the Government said that was the law of the land. Surely, with new Labour, the House of Commons would not lie down and say, "That is fine. Let the Government, by regulation, do what they like with the industry."
Labour Members tend to say that employment agencies are not regulated. In fact, they are the most regulated businesses that we have. No other type of business allows the Department for Education and Employment to send an inspector to go through every bit of paperwork. That is intended to protect the workers.
The hon. Gentleman—to whom I shall give way in a moment—will probably say, "£1 an hour. It is the same story that he tells us all the time." Of course that is not acceptable. The Federation of Recruitment and Employment Services would be entirely against it. It would probably drum out—probably has drummed out—the organisation about which the hon. Gentleman is going to complain. This part of our labour market is already highly regulated.
I am still not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is speaking on behalf of his South Dorset constituents, or on behalf of the network of employment agencies that recruits him as an adviser for between £5,000 and £10,000 a year. Does he believe that a supposedly highly regulated employment agency market should allow agencies in my constituency—I am talking about working time directive specifications on holiday pay—to deduct 35p an hour from existing hourly wage rates in order to—
Order. If the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) gives way to another hon. Member, it is for me to judge whether the hon. Member to whom he has given way has exceeded his position. I cannot have two hon. Members on their feet at the same time.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I rather suspected that the hon. Gentleman would speak on issues other than those relevant to the Bill. Of course I accept that, whatever the Government decide are the rights of employees, that must apply to all employees. I am against the possibility that, as a result of special regulations being introduced, employees who currently work for employment agencies might be disadvantaged, might lose their jobs or might be changed around more regularly than the employment agency would want.
Will the Minister tell us the Government's intention towards employment agencies? Is it to go back to old Labour's decision to get rid of them, or at least to restrict them to such an extent that they would not even be allowed to have long-term workers working under a temporary contract?
I shall deal in my winding-up speech with the general issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. Let us have clarification. Is he supporting the minority of agency employers who are illegally deducting pay earned by a worker, for the purpose of getting around the legal commitment to pay workers holiday pay? Is that what the hon. Gentleman supports?
The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. There is to be a legal requirement to pay holiday pay to employees who work for an employer for longer than three months. That will be a legal requirement. In France, an employer is not allowed to keep an employee on a temporary contract for more than three months. As a result, such employees are let go after three months and another temporary employee is taken on. Under the Government's proposals, that will be the legal position for an employment agency. Provided that a person is not employed by the same organisation for more than three months, the employer will not have to pay holiday pay. The hon. Gentleman should know what his own regulations require.
No, I shall not give way again to the hon. Gentleman. I am running out of time, so I shall make my own speech in my own way.
I am grateful to the Minister for informing us that he will deal with the Government's intentions towards employment agencies. More than 1 million people use such agencies to get a job. I can assure the House that the vast majority of them want to be on temporary contracts, or use a temporary contract as a means of getting a permanent job in the same company. That is how employment businesses make their money—they get a fee for placing people in permanent employment. That is what happens, whether or not the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Hope) believes it to be the case.
No, I am sorry, I cannot give way because of the time already taken up on interventions.
I shall touch briefly on other issues in the Bill. Of course it is right to say that the Government have decided to force people into negotiations. The Bill contains a raft of regulations telling companies how to do so, even if they are unwilling to negotiate. Our Government have helped NATO to force Kosovars and Serbs into negotiations, but we all know what happens when employers are forced to recognise a trade union and forced to negotiate with a group of people with whom they do not want to negotiate.
Of course, the two sides can keep to all the rules and regulations, but the situation of employees will not be improved unless the employers are a willing party to the negotiations. The Labour party is trying to pay back its trade unions—a labour of love, or the love of Labour—I am not sure which. Frankly, that will not work.
On maternity leave, we heard that 97 per cent. of Asda employees, when given maternity leave on a voluntary basis, return to their jobs. That is not the figure for statutory maternity pay. Almost all women who leave to have a baby use the system of statutory maternity pay and the employer's obligation to keep their job open. They know that it is a right, so they ask their employer to keep their job open, whether or not they intend to return to work. That stops a permanent employee being taken on, which is great for employment agencies, I can assure the House. The employer takes a temporary worker from an employment agency for that period.
A week before they are due to return to work, women tell their employer, "I have had the baby and everything is fine. I never planned to go back to work. I am quite happy staying at home with my child," and they give their notice to—
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful for your guidance, as I am not sure of the rules of the House. If an hon. Member is currently in receipt of financial remuneration from a recruitment agency, is he entitled to speak in the House, even though he has declared that?
We had quite a lengthy declaration from the hon. Member for South Dorset. He placed his position before the House and therefore, I believe, conformed with the rules that the House applies in such a situation.
I should be very pleased to sue the hon. Member for Corby if he wants to make that allegation outside the House. He does not like what I am saying because I am getting to the nub of the matter.
When a woman is told that she can have three months' statutory maternity leave, unpaid, at the end of her paid maternity leave, the sensible woman—especially if she is having her first child and is not sure whether she wants to stay at home with the child—will say to her employer, "Yes, I want to take up my right to three months' leave." The employer will be told only a week before the end of that three months, "Sorry, I am not coming back. I never intended to come back, but I made sure that you kept my job open." The cost of that in teaching, for example, is that supply teachers and specialised teachers must be brought in to cover an employee's absence on maternity leave.
I am sorry that I gave way to hon. Members, as I wanted to make several other points. The practical way to deal with matters in the workplace is by agreement. I entirely concur with any hon. Member who says that the right way for an employer to proceed is by giving employees the rights that we all think good employers should give. It is in the employers' interests to do so. However, the more the Government try to force employers to do so, the more the Government will find that the regulations are forcing employers to do things that a decent employer would not want to do.
I shall begin by declaring an interest. I am a trade unionist at present; I have been a trade unionist since I started work. For 17 years before entering the House, I was a regional, then a national, officer of the National Union of Mineworkers.
We are getting off course. It is not usual to have such challenges across the House. If there is any serious cause in the mind of any hon. Member for complaint about advocacy rules, that is a matter to be taken up with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, not thrown across the Floor of the House.
I agree with the point made eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) when he said that trade unions are a force for good, and that trade unions are perhaps the best organisation devised by man to look after the welfare of his fellow man—
Indeed. Within the term "men", I was referring to women as well.
Trade unions are a force for good. I noted that, in the speech of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), there was an anti-trade union slant throughout. The speeches from Opposition Back Benchers have generally been anti-trade union. That does not serve the purpose of the debate.
May I confirm my belief that the trade unions, over the years, have often done much good? I support the good that they have done, and I believe that no one did them more good in terms of the legal framework within which they have come to operate than my noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford.
The framework to which the hon. Gentleman refers—that set up from 1980 and during 1982, 1984, 1987 and onwards—restricted trade unions and has caused much of the problem that we have to deal with. If he looks at research on trade unions that has been done in this country and in America, he will see that companies that consult trade unions and work closely with them have higher productivity. The framework that was set up during the 1980s militated against that, and much of what we have to deal with has come about because of that framework.
My hon. Friend the Minister has worked hard to ensure that the Bill has come before the House today. It will redress many imbalances, for example those of inequality and injustice in the current industrial relations framework. That will happen because of the recognition that trade unions are a force for good. If the hon. Member for Buckingham would care to look at some of the work that trade unions have done, and are doing, he would realise that.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to some of that work. For example, trade unions ensure a framework of security for the member and his family by providing the opportunity for him to be able to sue a negligent employer. That creates a situation in which the employee feels secure. Trade unions provide a service on the shop floor through their work in health and safety. That has created a much safer workplace. I believe that the work that has been done since 1974, when health and safety representatives were established, has made the shop floor a much safer place.
Trade unions have also done much to ensure standards of pay and best practice. Most of all, they have added to competitiveness. They have done that because of the work that they do with employers in supporting progressive technology. If the hon. Member for Buckingham looks at the—
No, I will not give way again. The hon. Gentleman has had his chance.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the research, he will see that companies where trade unions are active generally invest in new technology. Overall, trade unions are a force for good.
There is perhaps a greater need for trade unions today than at any time. I refer hon. Members to Sunday's report in The Observer on the new Treasury paper. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister of State will have read part of that paper, which pointed out that the class barriers in the United Kingdom are more entrenched than at any time since the beginning of this century. That is the result of 18 years of Toryism and the kind of legislative framework that the hon. Member for Buckingham referred to. That framework put a straitjacket on industry and prevented trade unions from being able to work constructively with employers.
No, I am not giving way.
The Treasury paper suggests that, at the same time, there are 1.3 million more children living in poverty than there were in 1979 and that, overall, 4.3 million children live in households with an income below the poverty line. Those households make up 13 million people living on an income below the poverty line.
I point out to the hon. Member for Buckingham that a survey carried out recently in my constituency, and across the Barnsley borough, showed that the average income on the council estates was between £5,000 and £6,000 per annum. The average income across the borough was £11,000 per annum, compared with an average income in Yorkshire and Humberside of £318,500 per annum.
From that comparison of the figures, the hon. Gentleman can see the deprived state that part of my constituency and the Barnsley borough are in. They are in that state because of the previous Administration, who closed down the collieries without any thought for the communities and without giving any help to regenerate those communities. Those communities now live in a deprived state.
This Government, through the coalfields task force, are setting out to regenerate those communities. That is the legacy that we were left by the previous Government. The Bill will help to redress some of that, because it helpfully gives trade unions opportunities to work with employers. Trade unions are, by their nature, redistributive and that will add to the regeneration. The Bill is enormously important.
We know that the nature of a class society is such that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham shakes his head, but we know that the nature of a class society is such that it breeds inequality because it feeds off inequality. What happened over the period that the hon. Gentleman talked about—trade union legislation was introduced by the previous Administration from 1980 onwards—militated against trade unions being able to work with employers to ensure that wealth was created and that that wealth could be equally shared within society. Consequently, we are experiencing the kinds of inequality to which the Treasury paper referred. The Bill will help to remedy that situation.
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) referred to employment agencies and their work. No doubt he will have seen references in this week's press to agency workers employed on North sea rigs being paid 81p an hour for working long hours—illegal hours. Those people were employed via an agency. The Bill—and clause 23, to which he referred—has been introduced to control that sort of exploitative practice.
I am not giving way, so the hon. Gentleman may as well take his seat.
Conservative Members seem to think that previous legislation resulted in good employment practices. They ought to consider lorry drivers. If they went through the archives in the Library, they would see last week's report by the BBC in Yorkshire on lorry drivers' hours. It found that lorry drivers worked more hours than at any time in the past—in excess of 84 hours a week—and slept in bunks at the back of their cabs. One lorry driver likened that to office workers—or Members of Parliament—being chained to their desks and, after a day's work, being forced to sleep under them. Employment practices in some industries are abysmal. The Bill will help to address those injustices.
I am critical of some key planks of the legislation, although in a comradely way, because I know that the Minister of State has done a hell of a lot of work to bring the Bill before the House. One of my main criticisms is of clause 15, which deals with the dismissal of people who have been on strike for eight weeks. The clause enables employers to get rid of their striking work force after eight weeks.
The Bill requires the employer to take procedural steps to resolve the dispute. There is a difference between procedural steps and substantive proposals to resolve a dispute. In my estimation, substantive proposals are required, so I ask my hon. Friend to reconsider that clause with a view to requiring that, after the ninth week of dispute, if no substantive proposals have been made, the matter should be referred to the Central Arbitration Committee as though it had been referred by the employer and the trade unions. The CAC should be directed to reach a fair settlement of the dispute. That would be a much better procedure than dismissing striking employees after eight weeks.
That is my major criticism, but, overall, I welcome the Bill as a step forward. It will ensure that best practice is used throughout industry, which will help Britain's competitiveness.
Order. If I may say so, some comradely spirit will be required if a great many of the hon. Members on the list are to catch my eye. I hope that, if possible, hon. Members will show some restraint within the time limit.
I oppose the Bill, but I assure the hon. Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) that I do so neither because of an inveterate hatred of trade unionism nor to support the class system, which I do not think exists in this day and age.
In a comradely way, I am sure that my hon. Friend would allow me to mention that people who work for an employment agency must have a contract of employment within 24 hours, whereas other people have to have a contract within three months. That shows that employment agencies are regulated.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that important point on the record.
It is clear to me that there would never have been the improvements in employee conditions and welfare that have occurred without the growth of the trade union movement at the turn of the century. It is also clear that the shift away from worker exploitation to caring capitalism has come about mainly because of the work of the trade union movement at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
The problem with the Bill is that it reflects the nature of the House of Commons. The House is increasingly made up of individuals who, before coming here, were never involved in wealth creation. Being a student of the economy is no substitute for working in the economy. As an economics graduate, I can certainly attest to that. I have to tell those hon. Members who were first politics graduates then worked for a think tank—an increasing number, I am sad to say—that they are even further removed from the real world.
I wanted to take part in this debate because I started an electronics manufacturing company 12 years before I came to the House. By the time I left that company—[Interruption.] I do not know why the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) is laughing, because I am talking about keeping people employed in jobs. Her constituents will not find it amusing when unemployment increases in her area. I am participating in the debate because I want people to stay employed.
By the time I left that company, we had customers in 48 countries around the globe. That involved motivating and caring for our staff and, from time to time, negotiating with trade unions. I speak not from a brief prepared by others, but from experience.
To my mind, the Bill is well-intentioned, like so many Labour Members. However, like so many Labour Members, it is also hopelessly naive. Far from protecting employees, it will destroy their job prospects. It will work against those seeking jobs in the future—new deal or no new deal. Like much of the Government's legislation, it will take time for its ill-effects to be experienced. That is why it is so dangerous. That was recognised by the Prime Minister, who said as much to the party faithful in Manchester a few days ago when he warned them of a tough time ahead.
The House of Commons Library has calculated that the Government have already added £40,200 million to the social and tax bill over the life of this Parliament. Often, that has been at the expense of small businesses. The latest such move has been the introduction of a tax to pay for the new Food Standards Agency. Lord Sainsbury will have to pay the same flat-rate food poll tax for the shops he owns as little corner shops in villages in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne will have to pay. The same applies to the legislation before us. The Bill will hit small firms with as few as 21 employees, and it will hit the unemployed.
At a time when the Government, quite rightly, want to get the long-term unemployed back to work, why are they reducing the qualifying period for unfair dismissal from two years to one year? They compound the mistake by increasing the maximum limit on awards for unfair dismissal from £12,000 to £50,000. I realise that, to the Secretary of State, those figures are but a drop in the ocean, but let me tell him and the Minister that a £50,000 fine creates a major dent in the cash flow of a small company. It is even more likely to force the company into liquidation. What price jobs then?
Do the Government not realise that this measure will present a major disincentive to employing new people? Do they not realise that no employer will want to recruit the long-term unemployed if he faces a potential £50,000 fine if he gets it wrong? If he employs someone who makes a mistake, is it not more likely that he will sack the employee before the 12 months are up rather than give him a second chance? This measure, further compounded by the effects of clause 3(1)(b), will result in few employers taking on long-term unemployed people unless they come with the highest of references, which is unlikely under the circumstances.
The chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses has said:
Small firms are now being over-regulated to such a degree that it is too costly and too risky to employ staff. The provisions of the Employment Relations Bill will place them under further pressure.
The Government have yet to learn the lesson preached by Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot make a poor man rich by making a rich man poor." This legislation will merely succeed in keeping the poor man poor.
What about enforced trade union recognition? I believe that there are many advantages in negotiating with a single, responsible trade union rather than with individual groups of employees. That is true partnership. Partnership, like marriage, cannot be imposed on an unwilling partner: both must willingly consent. That is probably why I never got married. The Bill is not about partnership: it is not a basis for trust or for any working relationship.
Even the new Labour convert, Adair Turner, Director General of the CBI, wrote in the Financial Times:
Good employee relations should be built on trust and this is not best fostered if collective bargaining has been imposed on an employer by a trade union. Collective bargaining can work where it has two willing partners, but not where there is only one. No real improvements in industrial relations occurred the last time we had compulsion in the 1970s and indeed the legislation proved to be unworkable.
Those are his words, not mine.
The new Labour Government and the current Secretary of State in particular believe in wealth creation. They do not want to return to the bad old days of the 1970s and before, yet the Bill creates the climate for just that. Far from heralding a new epoch, it merely turns the clock back. I hope that Rupert Murdoch, who bought The Times when it was bankrupt, moved it from Fleet street, broke the luddite print unions and created a new era of newspaper production at Wapping, is aware of what the Government are doing. Had the Bill been an Act back in the 1980s, The Times would still be bankrupt and Wapping would remain an area of dereliction.
The Secretary of State rightly believes that wealth creation is more important than wealth redistribution. Unfortunately, he does not know how to create wealth and refuses to take advice from those who do. If the Secretary of State had run a company, large or small, instead of lecturing in law at Newcastle poly for 15 years before coming here, he would not be introducing the Bill.
Everywhere one looks in the Bill, there is a further burden of paperwork. Records must be kept on training, on leave, on ballots and so forth, and just to twist the knife still further, when trade union ballots are held, 50 per cent. of the cost must be borne by the employer.
Those measures are damaging enough for large companies, but why cripple small firms at birth—why not exempt small companies employing fewer than 50 employees? The Confederation of British Industry, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors have all asked the Secretary of State to raise the threshold. Why will he not listen? What analysis has his Department made on the percentage on-costs of the measure on an average business employing 20 people? Has such an impact analysis been prepared?
The other worrying aspect of the Bill is its dependence on future regulation and, as my hon. Friends have said, omission of detail. The Bill is equivalent to a blank cheque. No finance director in his right mind would issue a blank cheque to a supplier, yet the Secretary of State is asking the House of Commons to give him just that.
Clause 22 provides no details as to how the Central Arbitration Committee will work. Who will be its members exactly? What will be its relationship with ACAS? Proposed new section 263A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 says that the chairman of the committee shall appoint a panel or panels. How many panels will there be? Is this just another employment scheme for Tony's cronies? If so, it will be little compensation for those who do not find jobs or lose jobs as a result of the legislation.
Even the provisions for parental leave are left to regulations, so Parliament will not have the opportunity to scrutinise or amend an important part of the Bill. There are many unanswered questions. How old will a child be when parental leave is available? Will evidential proof be required, involving more paperwork? Will notice be required?
All that uncertainty creates instability in an industrial climate that is already volatile and weak. When the Secretary of State meets BMW's new chairman, Joachim Milberg, to discuss Government aid to help modernise Longbridge, will he tell him of the legislation now going through Parliament? Does he think that Mr. Milberg will be impressed? One of the reasons why BMW bought into Britain was to avoid the draconian employment legislation that has already brought stagnation to the German car industry. Will the Secretary of State tell Mr. Milberg that the Government have compromised their commitment to full employment in Britain for the sake of Labour's commitment to Europe?
So, there we have it—a Bill with sufficient detail to frighten all the employer organisations. What frightens me, however, is what the Bill does not say. Without Margaret Thatcher's reforms in the 1980s, I would not have been able to build up my company which, directly and indirectly, employed more than 1,000 British people who might otherwise have been on the dole. The Bill does not build on that; it turns the clock back. It makes nonsense of the new deal. Yet the plodding herd opposite will be expected to drift into the Aye Lobby tonight like so many cows being called to the milking parlour—and with about as much thought.
No doubt when the Minister is questioned about the Bill in future, he will get a pager message and say in defence, as others have done in defence of other Bills: "This Bill had the overwhelming support of Parliament." God help this Parliament and God help those in future who will seek fulfilment through being employed.
I certainly will not drift into the Lobby tonight. I shall support the Bill with great enthusiasm, as I welcome its provisions. Having heard the speeches of Opposition Members, I am also looking forward to the next election, as I shall have a great time explaining why my Conservative opponent seems to want to get rid of paternity rights, maternity rights and rights for part-time workers, trade unionists and individual workers in the work force—at least that seems to be the pattern of Opposition speeches.
I shall focus on family-friendly policies and flexible working. I welcome the Bill's commitment to women's rights—a matter that has concerned me for many years. Flexible working patterns must be backed by the security of individual rights, and trade union organisation in the workplace can help to negotiate sensible arrangements for the benefit of employees and employers. The Bill provides a sensible framework for employment that will take us into the next century.
I took a note of the opening speech by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He said that we needed to move to the free and flexible arrangements of the next century. The Opposition have not caught up with this century. The right hon. Gentleman said that we must not legislate too far too fast. He was talking about a legal right for men to take leave when their children are born. If he thinks that there should be no such legal right in the next century, I should like to know which century he lives in.
At last we have a Government who have caught up with the reality of people's lives. They realise that family life no longer means a man in one employment for 40 years and a woman at home with children. We need a modern employment system and a modern welfare system that match the reality of men and women changing jobs throughout their lifetime, sharing work and home responsibilities and working different hours at different times of their lives. Achieving that will be a complex process, of which the Bill is a part.
It is a long time since women were forced to give up work when they married. It is a long time since 1945, when nurseries were closed down when the war ended because women were expected to give up paid employment and go back home. Hon. Members will know from their personal lives and those of their families how long it is since things changed and how slow Governments have been to catch up. Many employers have introduced flexible working patterns, but others have not. The Bill seeks to accommodate them with sensible measures and additional encouragement.
Women have always juggled different parts of their lives—their home and work responsibilities—but many men would also like the opportunity to see their children grow up. That is why the working time directive is so important in moving against the long hours-short hours culture that bedevils Britain and is unique to it.
The Bill is a modernising measure. As someone who worked for the National Union of Public Employees for many years, representing low-paid women workers, I am delighted that the issues that I raised when they were regarded as unfashionable—a minimum wage, full-time rights for part-time workers, child care and family-friendly policies—are now part of our strategy and that they are seen not as being nice to employees, but as central to economic policy.
No; I do not have very much time, as many other hon. Members wish to speak.
Earlier in the debate, hon. Members—particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) and for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson)—stated clearly why family-friendly policies are necessary if we are to have a modern economy, modern businesses and modern employment conditions. The fact is that employers require a highly motivated, flexible and well-trained work force. Moreover, businesses pay a cost if they lose employees because they have not been sufficiently flexible in allowing employees to stay in employment.
I have run an organisation, on a tight budget, of 20 employees. I did what I could to be flexible in assisting employees when they had a domestic crisis. If their request was daft, I told them so, and that they could not have the time off. I should say that, as the Bill does not contain any daft provisions, passing the Bill will not encourage problems. The point is that I did not want to lose staff members who were trained and good employees because I could not provide them with a flexible employment relationship.
No. I have been asked by other hon. Members to leave sufficient time for them to speak. The hon. Gentleman will know that I allowed him to intervene in my speeches in Committee in the past, and that I am, therefore, perfectly happy to debate with him. However, I must make some progress in my speech.
I have worked on employment issues longer than most hon. Members in this Parliament, including some of our Front Benchers and many of my fellow Back Benchers. I am also a member of the Employment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Education and Employment, which is examining in detail the Bill's provisions on part-time workers. The House may even be interested to know that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and I are engaged in a debate on how both our views can be accommodated in the report on part-time workers, which will soon be published and deal with many of the points that Conservative Members raised on the details that should be included in the regulations. I am therefore speaking not as a Stepford wife, but as someone with many years of practical experience on the issue.
As a matter of social justice and fairness, there can be no justification for treating part-time workers worse than other workers, simply because they work fewer hours. Since 1989, the percentage of part-time jobs has increased from 24 to 29 per cent. of all jobs. People in part-time jobs comprise a major part of our work force, and I welcome any proposals to prevent discrimination against them.
I should like to comment on provisions in the Bill that have not been mentioned so far in the debate. They provide for codes of practice and guidance on facilitating flexible organisation of working time taking into account the needs of both employers and employees. It is beneficial to employers if they develop flexible working arrangements. The health service provides a topical example—which applies to both the private sector and the public sector—of the benefits of flexible working arrangements.
I should say that positive working arrangements have already been developed in the health service, in other public services and in the private sector. Parts of both sectors have also developed arrangements that are not so flexible. The Employment Sub-Committee has taken evidence on examples of both good and bad practices in both sectors.
The nurses issue is particularly topical. We know that we have a nurse shortage, and have consequently started a nurse recruitment campaign. We know also that nurses' pay and conditions are part of the problem. In a parliamentary question, which was answered on Monday, I asked what evidence the Department for Health has obtained
concerning the extent to which inflexibility in working hours deters nurses from taking up employment".—[Official Report, 8 February 1999; Vol. 325, c. 121.]
I am pleased to note that the Department has conducted a survey on the matter, and that reports on it will soon be issued.
I should like to cite an example of the importance of flexible working arrangements in my own area—not from my constituency, but in Derbyshire—although I cannot provide the details, as they are in dispute. The case involves an E-grade nurse who is seeking to return to work after maternity leave. She cannot afford a full-time nursery place, so she will have to rely on a mix of nursery care, child minders and other family arrangements. She will also have to place her child in a nursery for two days a week if her overall plans are to work, enabling her to return to work. She is quite happy to work a shift pattern or to work varied shifts. However, she will have to tell the nursery on which two days of the week she will require nursery provision. One would think that—with 24-hour working and rotating shifts—it would be perfectly easy to tell her on which two days she will have to work.
The nurse has come up against comments such as, "We all managed. We all had to put up with it. You can't expect the ward to meet your personal needs. You're a nurse; you put up with it." She said:
I want to return to work and given the current shortage of nurses I felt the trust would welcome me. All I am asking is for a little flexibility in order that I can combine motherhood and a full time post.
We have a nurse shortage, but that nurse cannot return to work because of a simple refusal to consider flexibility.
Last week, I spoke to the chairwoman of the nurses and midwives Whitley council staff side, who told me of her general practitioner—a trained surgeon who cannot find a part-time job as a surgeon. Although she could accept a junior grade, she cannot find a position at her level that would utilise her skills. She is now working as a GP, rather than using the training for which we have paid. The situation is ridiculous; it is absurd.
There are many other positive examples, both in the public services and in my area, of attempts to provide child care and flexible working arrangements. The private sector also provides many positive examples of such provision and arrangements—some of which were mentioned by the Secretary of State in his opening speech, and others of which have been cited to the Select Committee.
Family-friendly policies assist employers and employees. No one is pretending that we can make arrangements that will always suit everyone, as everyone's needs cannot always be met. We want to ensure that it is possible to find practices that suit both employers and employees.
Recently, The Independent on Sunday examined the matter of how to enable flexible working and how to meet the needs of both employers and employees—as the Bill will help us to do. The article stated that the president of the Association of Management Consultancies and group MD of Hay Management Consultants believed that child-friendly hours need not be a problem in many businesses. She said that some jobs would be more appropriate for such practices than others. We all know that. I do not know whether we could job share, for example, the Prime Minister's job or the Secretary of State's job. The association's president continued:
The challenge for companies is that a lot of people haven't even thought about it … Some companies just have not got the creative mindset to make it work.
The health trust that I mentioned did not have a creative mindset.
In the Bill, we are seeking to provide some legislative rights. However, in other spheres, we are encouraging employers and employees to have a creative mindset, which is what we will need if we are to deal with modern conditions, modem family patterns and modem working patterns, so that we can go forward into the next century, to the benefit of everyone.
For too long, the central fact of British economic life has been job insecurity. The legal obstacles to treating workers as disposable items was entirely swept away by the previous Administration. For many people, work has become nasty, brutish and overwhelmingly short. In such an industrial environment, there is little incentive to invest in employees' skills. United Kingdom industry invests much less per person than does much of European industry. Our investment per employee is less than half that in Germany and two fifths less than in France. Labour Members recognise that there is no future in a low-skill, low-wage economy. It just creates a downward spiral, with industry having to cut pay and conditions ever more to operate profitably as the supplier of low-value-added goods and services.
British productivity is 40 per cent. lower than in Germany and 20 per cent. behind France and Italy. Do Conservative Members believe that that shows the success of their policies to create more competitive industry?
Before the hon. Lady continues, may I encourage the colloquium below the gangway to cease? There is a disturbance going on that is preventing proper debate.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again, but hon. Members who have been here for a while must remember the correct forms of address.
The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) has spoken eloquently about the importance of competitiveness, but the figures show that Conservative policies on the issue have not succeeded in increasing industrial productivity. If we are to break out of this spiral of decline, we must create partnerships at work, giving every individual rights to decent minimum standards and fairness at work that are enforceable by law. It is clear that the voluntary way has not succeeded.
That makes economic as well as moral sense. How can commitment and flexibility be encouraged when employers ignore the views of their employees on such a fundamental issue as establishing a collective voice at work? A huge gulf exists between the best employers and the rest. The Bill will help to promote good practice and narrow that gap. The voluntary route is not a way forward.
Would my hon. Friend care to refer to the situation at the Stoke potteries, where 250 people were locked out in early December? They have not been paid a penny since and have now been arbitrarily sacked by the employers. That is the Conservative way.
I am well aware of the situation. My hon. Friend and I have discussed the issue many times. I am outraged by such behaviour, but unfortunately it is often typical.
The majority of the most successful companies tend to be unionised. Some 88 per cent. of the top companies recognise unions. In my constituency, Blue Circle negotiated a ground-breaking agreement called the "Way Ahead", covering 2,000 employees in 10 plants. It provides for a pay increase of 0.25 per cent. above inflation over three years, and gives job security with no compulsory redundancies. There is proper training to increase the skill base and retraining when necessary. There is also real job enrichment, enabling employees to reach their full potential. Four members of staff are being sponsored to do degrees at Stafford university and the Open university. That commitment has been created by both sides in forming a partnership.
Job security is central to improved productivity. Shop floor employees are far more willing to suggest ways to cut repetitive tasks or to identify wasted time if they know that the resulting improvement will not mean that they lose their jobs. Alan Hardy, Blue Circle's business process review manager, says:
You don't build a partnership based on trust if you don't recognise the trade unions. We want to work with the unions to improve the business. That's the way to provide real job security.
The "Way Ahead" deal is more than just a long-term pay deal; it is a change of thinking away from the traditional adversarial approach. That is the spirit of the Bill.
These issues are not just for big employers. Marling Ltd. is a medium-sized firm in Leek producing webbing products, such as car seat belts and safety harnesses. It is also happy to be unionised. Its partnership with its employees has led to innovative ideas coming from the shop floor to improve productivity. When ideas are put into practice, the employee who thought up the idea is rewarded. Everyone in the firm benefits, as the future competitiveness of the company is vital for job security in an industry that, sadly, has already lost many jobs in Leek. Such partnership is important in large and small companies.
The family-friendly policies in the Bill will build on the excellent work already achieved by the Government, including the working families tax credit, the national child care strategy, increased child benefit, help for disabled people and support for carers. That should be welcomed, because the Government recognise that there is more to life than just work.
The hon. Lady has mentioned family-friendly policies. Detail is clearly important. What is her interpretation of new section 81, described in paragraph 140 on page 35 of the explanatory notes to the Bill? It talks about the circumstances in which collective and work force agreements can take precedence over the regulations to be issued.
If I am fortunate enough to be selected for the Standing Committee, I shall be happy to explore that matter with the hon. Gentleman. It is sad that Conservative Members tend to sneer at family-friendly policies. That is surprising, given how many of them have decided to resign and spend more time with their families. I hope that they will take the issues seriously. Families will produce the young skilled men and women whom we need to be competitive in the next century.
We have seen the welcome impact of good family-friendly policies in many areas. I hope that we shall be able to give a boost to such policies by ensuring that the Bill is passed and promotes beneficial arrangements in companies, large and small.
Over 18 years, the Tory Government stripped workers of employment rights and created an unequal balance of power in law between employer and employee. The Bill takes significant steps to redress that imbalance and promote co-operation and genuine partnership at work.
Of course, most of Britain's top companies recognise unions. Of the top 50 FTSE companies, 46 do. The Bill will have to drag some firms into the 21st century, but for many the transition will be smooth, building on the consultation and bargaining procedures already in place.
The Bill covers individual, collective and family-friendly policies. I shall talk about the first two categories. Because of time constraints, I shall be disciplined and leave other colleagues with particular expertise and interests to comment on the family-friendly policies, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I wish that such policies had been in place when my family were young. I am delighted that they may be of benefit to my adult children.
I welcome the reduction from two years to one in the qualifying period after which a dismissal can be ruled unfair. It is estimated that between 135,000 and 270,000 employees a year who are dismissed after one to two years' service could benefit from the Bill. A number of current provisions allow employers to dismiss workers fairly on grounds of capability, including sickness, misconduct and, redundancy or for other substantial reasons. Even if the qualifying period for unfair dismissal were reduced to six months—that is, restored to the 1979 position under the last Labour Government—employers with good reason who had gone through a proper procedure would not be prevented from fairly dismissing employees. The fallacy that poor workers cannot be sacked is promoted by poor managers. The change will still leave us with the highest qualifying threshold in the EU, together with Ireland. Nevertheless, the new measure, which will give an extra 250,000 million workers an opportunity to lodge an unfair dismissal claim, if appropriate, is significant.
I congratulate the Government on the substantial increase in the amount that can be awarded in cases where employees have been found to have been unfairly dismissed. The cap on compensatory awards is to be increased from £12,000 to £50,000. I am happy to admit that I lobbied the previous Secretary of State to keep the original White Paper proposal to abolish the cap. That was in the full knowledge that the median award for unfair dismissal in 1996–97 was £2,575—way below the existing cap of £12,000.
I did not put forward the argument for no cap just because I wanted to protect high earners who were dismissed; I did it for another reason. I found that, when I presented cases at tribunals—in my former life as a Transport and General Workers Union official—one element of compensation that was rarely considered during remedy discussions and calculations was loss of pension rights. Few people—including, in some notable cases, chairs of industrial tribunals—were aware of that, or of the fact that the sums involved could be substantial. I hope that awareness can be raised, and that fuller consideration will be given to it in future. I am pleased that the cap will be uprated regularly and I hope that the need for it will be kept under review.
A second area of calculation that would be more significant for lower earners is the current cap of £220 on the calculation of a "week's pay". I hope that the Government will be able to look again at the restrictive nature of the current limit. I would like Ministers to consider the method of calculating an individual's "week's pay", basing it on the last 12 weeks of salary, including any regular overtime payments.
Employees of firms of all sizes will have the right to be accompanied by a fellow employee or a trade union official in disciplinary hearings or grievance hearings about serious issues, and I particularly welcome that measure. Many workers will, for the first time, have the opportunity to call in experienced and professional trade union officials to argue their case. I understand that 740,000 employees will benefit from the measure. It will help not just vulnerable employees, but those who lack confidence. I am conscious of the fact that some employees may find a workmate reluctant to act as an advocate in their case for fear of victimisation.
I have heard employers argue that their enlightened procedures for dealing with such matters should not be disrupted. "We handle grievances fairly," they say. If that is true, employees will probably not need to request trade union representation—but they should still have the right to do so. This is an issue of fairness, freedom of individual choice and basic human rights. Whether people work full-time or part-time, it is important that they have some meaningful voice in decisions about their working environment and their personal interests. If they do, they will be better motivated and more productive, which is in the best interests of their employer and the country.
I warmly welcome the introduction of the partnership fund, as I have a long-standing interest in education and training. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the university for industry and the lifelong learning initiative championed by the Government. Trade unions have comprehensive training programmes for officials and members, and they have long advocated the importance of extended training opportunities for employees as part of the collective bargaining process. I believe that Government funds for the training of employees and managers to assist and develop partnerships at work are vital. I welcome the £2 million committed to the fund, and I hope that the Government will quickly see the need to increase that progressive provision.
I wish to refer also to employment agencies, which have long been of interest to me. I am pleased that the Government are looking to improve the enforcement of employment law in that field, as it has been unchanged for 20 years. However, we have yet to have a coherent definition of who is the employer and who shoulders what responsibilities regarding employees placed with client companies by employment agencies. I accept that the issue may be outside the scope of the Bill, but I hope that it will be tackled in the not-too-distant future, and I hope that the Government recognise the prime role of agencies in this matter.
I welcome the Bill. I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that fairness at work is vital to the quality of our everyday lives. I have long believed in the need for a UK definition of social partnership that recognises and respects the differing interests of workers and employers, but also identifies the areas of agreement and trust and seeks to tackle the differences in a civilised way. As a Chinese proverb says, one hand has difficulty washing itself. Fairness at work is crucial to the development of productive individuals, productive companies and a productive economy.
Hon. Members could be forgiven for thinking that my speech is a bid for a place on the Committee to consider the Bill, and I confess that it is. However, my welcome for the Bill is sincere, and well-deserved by the Government. The Bill is an arrow pointing in the direction of a more civilised and modern approach to our industrial relations, and I believe that it is warmly welcomed by the House.
I declare an interest as a member of the Communication Workers Union and as someone who was happily employed by the union for 10 years. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington), I have spent many years at the sharp end of trade unionism.
Labour Members have been frustrated—although the debate has not been acrimonious—by the lack of any understanding by the Conservative party of what we mean when we talk about the commitment of trade unionists. Trade unions have been a force for good—not because of union leaders or people who sit on executives, but because of the thousands of men and women who spend their own time trying to help others at the workplace.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no point in trying to strike a chord with Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) suggested that hon. Members should not speak in this debate unless they had an economics degree or had started their own business. That reinforced me in my suspicion that discussing the principles behind trade unionism with the Conservative party is like trying to explain origami to a penguin. There is a complete absence of understanding.
The argument has been that the Conservative party was on some noble quest during the 1980s. I do not doubt the honour and integrity of those Tories who say that they personally believe in trade unionism and the rights of trade unions. They have said that we are not taking employers' views into account. Let me remind them that, throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, when they imposed legislation that grew progressively worse, they were opposed by 100 per cent. of the trade union movement. There was no attempt to find consensus: we were locked out.
If Conservative Members seek to tell us that they were on a noble quest, let us remember that they were attacking not trade unions but trade unionists and the rights of ordinary people at work.
My hon. Friend is right: it is a human rights issue.
Let us remind ourselves of some of the noble deeds of the Conservatives in government. They increased the length of service before workers could claim unfair dismissal, from six months to a year, and then from one year to two. They took away the right of youngsters under 21 to be covered by a wages council, and then they disbanded wages councils altogether. When they got to the nitty-gritty of their noble quest and the principled nub of their argument, they increased from six months to two years the qualifying period of continuous employment after which employees are entitled to be given, on request, a written statement of the reasons for their dismissal.
The reasoned amendment says that we should leave
employers and employees free to settle relationships for themselves without outside interference.
Two of the primary measures in the Bill are about union recognition and the right to take strike action without being dismissed. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), whose integrity I do not doubt, said that he wanted to hear details of the dispute in Scotland mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe). I can tell him about a dispute that started when I was still general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. It started on 6 February 1997 and has just passed its second anniversary. It is exactly about the way in which workers cannot deal with these issues with employers by themselves.
The dispute, of which my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, is at Critchley Labels in south Wales. The workers were 96 per cent. unionised and the employers took full advantage of another tranche of Tory legislation—allowing the redundancy of fewer than 20 workers to go ahead without consultation—and made 10 workers redundant. Without consultation, the employers sacked a disabled employee who had worked for the company for 17 years, along with the branch chairman and the branch secretary.
The work force objected, took a ballot on industrial action and implemented an overtime ban to try to get the company not to reverse the redundancies but merely to have consultations on that possibility. The employers tore up the union recognition agreement. In the ballot, 88 per cent. of the work force voted for strike action. They took strike action. They were all dismissed. Two years later, in an area of high unemployment—my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) is still trying to resolve the issues—they are still out of work.
That is the nonsense of suggesting that, without the minimum standards that we are seeking to implement, workers can fight against an employer. Critchley Labels could not happen under the Bill. We cannot make the legislation retrospective, but I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to state clearly that we are making working conditions more civilised and that the very worst of British employers, such as the management of Critchley Labels, will have to comply, perhaps belatedly, with the spirit of the Bill.
I am extremely pleased to support the Bill. I argued for this approach before I was a Member of Parliament, when I was a trade union leader. We seek partnership and consensus, but there must be basic civil rights for people at work. My hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North and for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) were absolutely right when they said that the issue was about improving the quality of our democracy.
The Bill challenges the concept, championed by Conservative Members, that in this country one leaves a democracy and enters an oligarchy when one puts on one's coat to go to work. That concept would be foreign practically anywhere else in Europe, and in most civilised countries, but it has underpinned industrial relations here for far too long.
I fully accept that the workplace is changing—of course we need different skills for the employment that is available today—but I do not believe, as some human resource managers are trying to convince us, that the desire of the work force for fair treatment, basic job security and minimum standards has changed. The idea that workers are desperate to spend every hour that they can in the workplace, in slavery to the employer, is ludicrous. People want jobs and understand that job security cannot be guaranteed, but they want a job as part of a life that is fulfilled away from the workplace. That is why I think that the Government have struck the right balance with the Bill.
I also believe that the Bill is a victory for those people on both sides of industry—I have worked with them over the years—who rejected the polarised positions of right and left. This is an opportune moment for an overview of the history of the past 25 years, when the approaches of the Labour party, and of the trade union movement under the enlightened leadership of the general secretary of the TUC, have changed so much.
In the past, those on the right parroted the mantra, "management's right to manage". However, those on the left were equally wrong to say that workers achieved civil rights in the workplace only when they got their union cards. The trade union movement was badly misrepresented in the 1970s because we did not move away from that polarised position. I was there: I wore those flares and that tank top. At that time, both sides of the argument rejected the minimum wage, and believed that industrial democracy and employee participation were funny things that they had on the continent but were not for British workers. Both sides chanted the mantras "free collective bargaining" and "no legally binding agreements".
We must remember that, at the end of a period that was supposed to have been the trade union movement's glam rock decade, the United States Department of Labour reported that British wage rates were 18 per cent. below the rates in France, 40 per cent. below those in Germany and 35 per cent. below those in Holland. We were the only country in Europe that had no basic, minimum standards. Pensions, redundancy and sickness—
Order. I am not giving way to anyone, and nor am I not giving way. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will use the correct parliamentary form of address.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
We in Britain worked longer hours than any other workers in Europe. That was not a successful period for looking after the basic civil rights of people at work.
The Bill adopts the right approach. We should consult the employer as far as we possibly can—although I have to note that employers grew increasingly embarrassed about the legislation introduced by the previous Conservative Government. In the end, the embarrassment was huge on all sides. The Bill is the way forward because it charts a course for basic human rights at work and for dignity. It turns the issue of trade union rights into one of civil rights, and I support it.
I, too, shall begin by declaring an interest. I have been involved in small companies, and have been an active trade unionist all my life. I have also been involved on the employer's side in local government, in various roles. I believe that my experience gives me a balanced view of many of the issues relevant to discussion of the Bill.
I welcome the Bill, which will put in place provisions for employment legislation that will reflect the requirements of the most modern and efficient companies, both in this country and in Europe. Conservative Members have tended to overlook that aspect of the Bill.
I listened—at times with some incredulity—to the speeches of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and of certain other Conservative Members. They seem almost to hark back to times of yore. Certainly, 20 years ago, the issues that they raised would have had some credibility in some cases. They seem to hark back, however, almost to Dickensian times, an era in which some of them might have felt more comfortable and at ease with themselves.
In the '60s—the 1960s, not the 1860s—some areas of trade union activity sometimes left more than a little to be desired. However, the pendulum has swung excessively in the opposite direction. Until recently, poverty pay in some parts of industry was as low as £1 or £1.50 an hour. Employers were also able to exploit employees, being able to demand excessive hours and, in some cases, dangerously long hours. Zero-hour contracts remain, there is no job security and employee rights are limited.
Fortunately, all that applies to only a minority of employers. When it comes to the most efficient and effective companies in the United Kingdom, the facts speak for themselves. Some 46 of the top 50 FTSE companies recognise trade unions in their workplaces. Companies such as Tesco—Britain's biggest employer—are also heavily unionised. That has not inhibited Tesco in overtaking Sainsbury to become the UK's top supermarket. Such companies well understand the process of partnership.
Times are changing. The working time directive limits the hours that employees can be asked to work. We should all appreciate that, for the first time in British history, employees have a guaranteed legal right to at least three weeks' paid holiday every year. Measures such as those have started to change industrial relations in the UK.
The Bill provides for individual rights, collective rights and family-friendly policies, many of which will apply for the first time in UK history. Individual employees will be given better, more effective rights and protections against unfair dismissal, and, when unfair dismissal does occur, the compensation ceiling will rise more than four times higher than it is at present. That will ensure that employers who decide, quite wrongly, to dismiss employees will think two, three or four times before doing so. They will begin to think seriously about the punitive financial consequences of going down that road. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) stated that, despite the current £12,000 ceiling, payments from industrial tribunals average something like £2,500, but employers will have to think carefully about how they act in future.
For employers who wish to dismiss an employee, there will be no problem if proper, professional employment practices are applied, and if the dismissal is clearly fair. Employers have nothing to fear from such a practice because justice will be on their side, as it has to be on the side of the employee.
Much has been said already about the family-friendly aspects of the Bill. Those aspects will improve maternity rights for parents and rights in relation to domestic emergencies. Despite criticism about the lack of detail on those matters, the provisions will be welcomed by employees throughout the country.
I have said how much I welcome the Bill and its raft of provisions. It is all about partnership at work, something that I regret Conservative Members do not quite understand or, in some cases, do not seem capable of getting their head round. Partnership at work works in the best UK companies—the most efficient and most effective. As a Government, we seek to introduce it and to encourage it. The Bill will drive that policy further forward, and the sooner the better.
Even before it reaches the statute book, the Bill has started to have an impact on industrial relations. There has already been a boost to partnership in the workplace. Many companies have started to grant recognition to their work force and to trade unions. Again, that is long overdue.
I shall allude to some personal experiences that I have had. As I have said, for many years, I worked in a large company—and a high-technology company to boot. I spent some dispirited and unhappy mornings outside company sites leafleting employees, who I know desperately wanted to have the protection and benefits that becoming trade union members would give them. I shall talk specifically about those companies that operate in the cable business.
All the companies that I had dealings with—including Nynex, now Cable and Wireless Communications—implacably opposed any trade union activity in the workplace. I never managed to understand where they were coming from. Such industries had a particularly skilled work force, with high intellectual and technological skills. Many companies would have benefited from the partnership arrangements that could have applied. However, in my experience, employees in those companies were not involved in partnership. It seemed that they turned up to earn their money, to do not the minimum, but to work hard. However, they were not particularly interested in giving the companies the benefit of their experience and technological skills.
If those companies embraced their work force and allowed them to have a representative role in the workplace, they would draw real benefits. Regrettably, they still hold out and seek not to recognise trade unions. I cannot for the life of me understand why they do not move forward. The only thing that I can say is that many of those companies were perhaps unduly influenced by the American experience, Nynex being basically an American company and Cable and Wireless Communications operating originally out of Hong Kong, yet being anti-union.
The Bill will assist employees in such industries and the companies themselves. I have said before that they need to embrace their work forces and draw on the skills and talents of the people whom they employ. I believe that the Bill will do much for the mutual benefit of both sides of industry.
I apologise if I seem to be losing my voice, but I am prompted to intervene briefly by the comments of the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Mr. Johnson) on the inability of Conservative Members to comprehend the arguments of Labour Members. To a great extent, I fully understand his arguments. Having spent some of my time in recent years doing employment law and representing both trade unions and employers, I can easily see that Labour Members made legitimate points in respect of many areas of industrial relations during the part of the debate that I heard.
As always in human relations, the problem is how to translate the desire to ensure good employer-employee relationships into statutory format. The problem with the Bill is that it is difficult not to regard it as a return, albeit in attenuated form, to an extraordinarily complex set of rules whereby the state intervenes to govern employer-employee relationships. Not only that, it seeks to govern them in a way quite different from the recent general thrust of employment law, which has been about individual rights. The Bill is about not individual rights but collective rights. It is that difference that Labour Members do not seem to understand, and that is why the Bill causes me so much anxiety.
The hon. Gentleman says, "Good." Labour Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that it is all about partnership one moment and say, "Good," when people on the other side of the partnership say that they are anxious. That aptly represents the return to confrontational tactics fomented by the Government. I suspect that they will come to regret it.
I shall consider some specific proposals. The question of union recognition has a long history, but I am blowed if I can see any advantage to altering the current position. The proposal is a form of collective blackmail of one set of individuals, the employers, by another. In a free society, people should be allowed to make their own arrangements. Once again, instead of considering the rights of individual employees, a set of nanny state rules to govern employer-employee relations is being foisted on us. That is a retrograde step.
The second issue is the unfair dismissal of striking workers. If there is any proposal in the Bill to which I object, it is this. Employers and employees make contracts, which are now tightly defined. As I found when I represented employees, breaches of, or failure to adhere to, contracts by the employer usually led to fully justified awards of damages. Through industrial tribunals, employees can get good redress on such issues. However, with the dismissal of striking workers, who is breaking the contract?
If the contract is being broken by the employees, who are taking action outside the contract and, as a result, bringing work to a halt, that is their right. That they should then be protected for eight weeks from the consequences of their actions is a return to all the worst features of 1960s industrial relations.
I find it difficult to understand how the human rights of an employer are enhanced when he, finding that his work force have, without any justification, withdrawn their labour, cannot take the action which, to my mind, he is fully entitled to take and say, "All right, that's your choice, but I reserve my choice to go off and hire other workers who want to work under the terms of the contract." Such a form of interference returns us to neanderthal industrial relations. It will do this country absolutely no good.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the proposals suggest only that it would be for the tribunal to decide whether to dismiss was fair or unfair? The Bill does not suggest that dismissal is always automatically unfair, but simply leaves it open to the tribunal to decide whether a dismissal was unfair in the circumstances. It might well be that, in certain circumstances, it would be unfair.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but that is a subtle variation of a simple position. Fairness or unfairness in employment, according to the terms, is governed by the terms of one's contract; however, as I believe he will agree, the provision goes quite outside the terms of the contract and goes to the justification, social or otherwise, for the action taken by employees. The state is ill-placed to start that sort of regulation, and starting down that road will not contribute to good industrial relations or to economic prosperity, on which everyone—employer and employee—is ultimately dependent.
In the same vein, I am especially troubled by that part of the Bill that deals with what are described as family-friendly policies. In fairness to the Government, and as one whose background is partly French and draws on a long history of holiday periods being set by statute, the three-week minimum holiday is not a subject on which I shall trouble myself greatly. However, I confess to having grave reservations about the three-month period set for paternity or maternity leave.
Direct experience suggests that, in small businesses, the sudden departure of an employee creates enormous problems, and I simply do not understand why the employer should have to shoulder the burden of finding and training the replacement and dealing with the attendant difficulties. The same thing happens when an employee is off sick, but that at least is human and understandable. That it should happen simply because the state has decreed that, in the event of the arrival of a child, not only the mother but both parents may have three months off, is objectionable. One of the reasons I find it objectionable is that I come from a self-employed background where such little perks and delights were not open to me—but then, I would not have expected them.
The measure is a retrograde step and is another means by which burdens are imposed on small employers that they cannot meet. The history of the past century has been of the transfer of burdens on to employers. Some of those were justified, which is why I said at the start of my speech that I accept that Labour Members have argued some perfectly legitimate themes. Every Member of Parliament should be committed to good industrial relations.
Conservative Members have been enjoying my hon. Friend's speech. Would he care to comment on an opinion from the Law Society that suggests that the roles and functions of the Central Arbitration Committee are so badly defined in the Bill that a spate of judicial review challenges in the courts is inevitable?
My hon. Friend is quite right, but this will not be the first time that badly drafted legislation passes through Parliament. On issues of "social justice", the tendency towards the opaque makes life for the judiciary extremely difficult, but it makes life for lawyers, such as me and my colleagues, extremely enjoyable, as it provides a fertile field for making money. On the whole, I am not a believer in involving lawyers in people's problems and I keep telling them that, if at all possible, lawyers should be kept out. One of the ways to keep lawyers out of people's difficulties and problems is to ensure that everybody understands his or her rights. If legislation is badly drafted, that does not happen.
Some Labour Members have said that they wish for partnership and that the issue is not one of "them and us". I, too, want partnership between employer and employee—it is the foundation of a happy country—but it will not be achieved by putting social regulation, through the nanny state, on one party.
I am grateful to be able to contribute to the debate. I shall keep my comments short, as I know that several of my hon. Friends want to speak.
I also congratulate the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), on his work to get the Bill before the House. In combining it with the minimum wage legislation, he has made a huge contribution to our party in government.
Work is the fundamental basis on which our society functions. It is a basic human right to be treated fairly in the workplace and to be represented, if one so wishes. Increasingly in recent years, however, that has not happened. Ordinary, decent, hard-working people have seen their rights swept away and replaced, in some extreme examples, with a climate of fear and intimidation. There is no better example of that in Kent than at Co-Steel in Sheerness. It derecognised unions and set about a systematic policy of intimidating and bullying union stewards. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) has campaigned hard for those workers and spoken up in the House on the matter on several occasions.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) said that our legislation will be a return to the bad old days, the bad old ways, yet existing employment legislation is in the dark ages. Parts of my constituency could be described as middle England. During the election campaign, I spoke on the doorstep to many ordinary people who were concerned about the lack of protection, representation and fairness at work. The hire today, fire tomorrow mentality does not sit comfortably with the public. It is not, as some might say, the British way.
People said to me time and again that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said, the pendulum has swung too far in favour of unscrupulous employers. The vast majority of British people believe that employees should be entitled to some holiday, have a minimum wage, be able to look after their sick children and take time off. The Bill, combined with our other policies, will redress the imbalance and, most importantly, be very popular.
All hon. Members, if not the vast majority, will have heard in their surgeries constituents' tales of appalling treatment by employers. I heard one of the worst examples in my surgery last year. An ordinary man, who had served his country with distinction as an officer in the Royal Air Force, was working for a college of further education. He had worked there for 11 years, and been promoted throughout. He had secured tens of thousands of pounds of funding from the European social fund, improved the courses and increased the number of people attending the college.
In 1995, the college, like many further education colleges, organised its pay structure locally. My constituent's colleagues asked him to become their union steward. All deliberations and negotiations went successfully, but, shortly afterwards, the principal falsely accused my constituent of a variety of indiscretions that brought the college into disrepute. Regrettably, particularly for my constituent, the only way in which the dispute could be resolved was through an industrial tribunal.
Following the industrial tribunal's decision, the principal instigated disciplinary proceedings against my constituent. Both disciplinary hearings started at 6 o'clock in the evening. One finished at 1 o'clock in the morning, and the other at 2 o'clock in the morning. Despite the requests of my constituent and his union representative for an adjournment, it was refused. My constituent was told that the hearing would continue regardless of his presence.
It was no great surprise to my constituent that he was sacked and has to take his case to another industrial tribunal. Having earned a reasonable salary, he can expect only a maximum pay-out of £12,000. That is unlikely, given that the average pay-out is about £2,500. He may lose his home, and the strain on his family's health has been unbearable. The new cap of £50,000 may have prevented the college from taking action. I also welcome the fact that the cap will be index-linked.
The Bill causes the Tories many difficulties because it not only goes against their natural sense of injustice, but will add to their unpopularity. There is a generation—Thatcher' s children—who, come the next general election, will see huge differences between our policies on representation, fairness at work and the minimum wage and the bad old ways under the Tories. They will easily make a decision.
Before I came to the House, I worked with young people. Shortly before the election, a young lad told me that he had just been fired from a job packing oranges. He had worked for the company for six months and there had never been any concern about his work. I asked him why he was sacked and he replied, "I was talking to the person who was standing next to me. That's the way that we are treated." He had no expectation of being treated any other way, but he did not have any commitment to the company.
That young lad will have his first vote at the next election, as will millions of other young people, and what a stark contrast he will find between our policies and the bad old ways under the Tories. I, along with my hon. Friends, will certainly be reminding him of that—but, having listened to many speeches in the debate, I do not think that he will take too much reminding.
It is a privilege to take part in this debate. The key test of the Bill should be whether or not it improves industrial relations. One of the reasons that this country's economy has been so successful since 1979 is that we have had an increasingly liberal employment regime. One has only to consider countries with successful economies, such as the United States with its mobile and flexible labour laws, to understand the damage that the Bill could do.
If we look back to the circumstances that we inherited in 1979, we remember the bad old days of secondary picketing, flying pickets and the intimidation and even violence that went on during strikes. We can remember the results of those strikes, such as the closed-shop dispute at Grunwick and the dreadful pay disputes in 1975, when Ford workers went on strike for a 50 per cent. pay rise and were awarded a 30 per cent. rise. That is the regime that we took over in 1979. A staggering 29 million working days were lost to strikes in that year. By 1997, only 235,000 days were lost to strikes. That was a result of the regime that we put in place during the 1980s and 1990s.
It is not difficult to guess that figure, because I doubt whether any Labour Member supported the Thatcher reforms.
My remarks are not political—I genuinely want there to be good industrial relations in this country. I totally oppose, as every hon. Member should be elected to this place to oppose, unnecessary burdens on employers, because only through entrepreneurship and success, especially of small businesses, will this country ultimately be successful as an economic power.
One of the great achievements of the Thatcher years was that we created 1 million extra small businesses employing 1 million extra people. I want there to be full employment, a labour force richly rewarded for their work and people with mobility who have proper skills and training. That is the economy that I want this country to have.
My fear is that we shall have an economy that is increasingly dirigiste, increasingly regulated and, increasingly taxed and that imposes increasing burdens on small businesses. Why, for example, does the Bill use the arbitrary figure of 20 workers above which the provisions will apply, ignoring all the pleas and representations made by the CBI that a more realistic level for small businesses would be 50 employees?
I sincerely hope, in a non-partisan way, that the Minister will consider that factor. I think that a business employing only 20 people will be saddled with a huge burden if it is forced to recognise the trade union membership of its entire work force, given the costs associated with employment law and other aspects of such recognition. Given that we want to encourage seedcorn businesses, surely it would be sensible to increase the number to a more realistic 50.