Schedule 6 — Minor and consequential amendments

Orders of the Day — Employment Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:01 pm on 12th February 2002.

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Amendment made: No. 29, in page 76, line 2, at end insert—

'29A In section 98 (fairness of dismissal: general), in subsection (6)—

(a) for "are" there is substituted "is", and

(b) in paragraph (a), for "99" there is substituted "98A".'.—[Mr. Sutcliffe.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Employment Relations, Industry & the Regions) 9:16 pm, 12th February 2002

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank hon. Members for their important contributions to debate on the Bill, not only on Report, but on Second Reading and in Committee. Those who have participated have done so constructively and with great good humour, and they have provided thorough and helpful scrutiny of the Bill's provisions.

The Bill is an important one, touching on many aspects of people's work and family lives. It represents a balanced package, providing new rights and responsibilities for employers and employees alike. The Bill introduces new rights that will ensure that parents are able to spend time with their children when it is most valuable, while they are young—the children, that is, not the parents. We are for the first time introducing statutory paternity and adoption leave, and a requirement that businesses seriously consider requests for flexible working.

Photo of Mr Kevin Hughes Mr Kevin Hughes Labour, Doncaster North

On the issue of paternity and adoption leave, my hon. Friend will recall that in Committee I tabled probing amendments in respect of those who would not be eligible because their earnings were below the lower limit. He informed the Committee that the Department for Work and Pensions was thinking of redressing that problem to coincide with other provisions, and in correspondence the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has informed me that the Department intends to make regulations to deal with that.

None the less, I should like to ask my hon. Friend to ensure, with his colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, that when those regulations are introduced there is no gap. Normally, benefits are paid after the event, because one has to claim them when one is in the given situation. We need to be sure that people are able to get the top-up income support at the time that they need it, not a couple of weeks after.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Employment Relations, Industry & the Regions)

My hon. Friend raised that issue in Committee. There was general consensus on the need to do something about it, and I have been considering it in some detail with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions. I am delighted to say that we have now agreed that the income support regulations will be amended to enable fathers who are entitled to paternity leave but who do not receive statutory paternity pay to claim income support. In addition, parents who receive paternity pay but who are normally low paid will also be able to top up their income with income support.

Those changes will ensure that household income does not fall below a certain guaranteed minimum, currently about £130 a week for a couple with one child where the father takes paternity leave. That will provide a degree of financial security sufficient to ensure that all low-paid employees have the opportunity to take up their statutory right to paternity leave. Regulations will be made later in the year, to coincide with the introduction of the new paternity rights. I thought it would be helpful, in response to the intervention by my hon. Friend Mr. Hughes, to confirm that to the House today.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

As we did not reach amendment No. 6, will the Minister confirm also that self-employed people on low pay would be included within the arrangements that he has outlined to the House?

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Employment Relations, Industry & the Regions)

I cannot confirm that. That is a completely different problem. As I explained in Committee, that point applies to a group of people whom we would have to place in an expensive and bureaucratic new system. That would be necessary to meet the same provisions. However, we undertook to consider that as part of the employee-worker review, which I confirmed earlier will be taking place in late spring.

The Government are extending maternity leave and simplifying the rules governing maternity leave and pay. Following extensive consultation with a wide range of interest groups, we have designed the new paternity and adoption rights to mirror the simplified maternity provisions. Business representatives asked for that in their responses to our consultation, and we listened to them. These are changes that benefit society as a whole. The new and improved rights will make it easier for parents to make choices about how they balance their work and family lives.

Removing pressures will encourage employee commitment, motivation and productivity. Many companies already recognise this and use such benefits to employees as an essential part of running a successful and productive business. These measures have been welcomed by business and employees' representatives alike.

Equally, the involvement of partners of people receiving working-age benefits in work-focused interviews will increase participation in the work force and bring other benefits to society and, therefore, ultimately to the economy.

The second substantial area covered by the Bill is dispute resolution. A wide range of provisions will introduce new ways of handling disputes in the workplace, and will help deliver modern, competitive workplaces in Britain through better awareness of rights and more and better communication within organisations.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

Given that we did not reach the amendments that relate to the statutory modified disciplinary procedure, will my hon. Friend give an assurance that he will give further consideration to the amendments which were tabled but not called before they go to another place? There are now only two steps in dismissal cases, and there has not been the opportunity for anyone to conduct a proper investigation. Will my hon. Friend give further consideration to those matters?

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Employment Relations, Industry & the Regions)

As always, we shall keep those issues under review, especially as the Bill goes to the other place. We think that there are clear reasons why the modified two-step procedure is necessary, not least to ensure that those who have been involved in violence and serious cases where there has been discrimination and harassment do not have to discuss the issue. There is the right of appeal. That is why the modified procedure is in place for gross misconduct.

As I have said, the second substantial area is dispute resolution. The Bill represents a real opportunity to change the way in which workplace disputes are managed by putting communication before litigation. It will ensure a modern user-focused tribunal system that will provide swift and efficient justice. The idea that grievance and discipline procedures should be used in the workplace is neither new nor innovative. The introduction of statutory minimum standards will mean that about 3 million employees who do not currently have any procedures available to them in their workplace, and a further 3 million who have substandard procedures, will in future have a right to a basic but crucial first course of action should a problem arise.

There are many other provisions in the Bill. The introduction of an equal pay questionnaire will enable the facts of a case to be established early. It will encourage the collection of evidence and the settlement of cases before they proceed to tribunal. The absence of transparency on pay information contributes to and perpetuates the gender pay gap. The Government are determined to eliminate pay discrimination, and the questionnaire provision is one step towards that goal.

Another long-standing problem in the workplace is the provision of training at all levels. The Bill introduces the right to time off for union learning representatives. This will ensure that vulnerable groups of workers, such as older men, people from ethnic minorities and part-timers, who currently all too often miss out on training and development opportunities, will be given support and encouragement from their representatives, who are adept at reaching precisely those groups.

The provisions on fixed-term employees are equally important. We are ensuring that people on fixed-term contracts cannot be treated less favourably than their colleagues on permanent contracts. We are outlawing the abusive use of consecutive fixed-term contracts. All those measures contribute to the new framework of basic minimum employment rights in a flexible labour market, which the Government are committed to establishing.

Let us not lose sight of the bigger picture. The Bill is well rounded and balanced, and has been introduced after extensive, in-depth consultation with all the stakeholders. It will allow employees some control over their working lives when they have small children, and will lead to better dialogue in the workplace over working patterns when disputes arise. Such dialogue and an increased use of an open partnership-based approach at work will make employees more motivated and businesses more productive. An increase in productivity is the way to make this country more competitive, which is why the Bill is important and why I commend it to the House.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 9:25 pm, 12th February 2002

I, too, congratulate all hon. Members who spoke on Second Reading and subsequently served on what was a constructive Committee.

This is a Bill of parts, which do not always hang together. It is therefore convenient to deal with them separately in the order in which the Committee considered them. Parts 2 and 3 deal with procedures for grievances and discipline. We generally welcome the Government's attempt to reduce the burden on tribunals caused by cases that should be dealt with in the workplace. We welcome measures aimed at encouraging and increasing the use of workplace dispute resolution measures. We regret the fact that some of the Government's earlier ideas have been watered down along the way, and it remains to be seen whether the Bill will deliver effectively the Government's stated objective of resolving a significantly greater proportion of disputes in the workplace and imposing a significantly reduced work load on tribunals.

Two issues remain unresolved: the resourcing of the tribunal system, which we touched on earlier, and the rather difficult relationship between the Government and the president of employment tribunals. Members of the Committee have seen the robust correspondence between the president and the Minister, which hardly bodes well for the future of employment tribunals. Generally, however, we welcome the Government's approach, although we regret the fact that they have backed down on a number of issues. We shall watch carefully to see whether their intended results are delivered.

Part 1 introduces a raft of new rights, to which the Minister referred. The Minister described them as new individual rights given to workers. However, throughout proceedings on the Bill, I have thought of them not so much as individual rights granted for the benefit of individual workers but as rights granted for the better functioning of society, which will support families and ensure that children are brought up properly. In that context, I can certainly relate to the Bill, which will have tangible benefits for society. However, it is important to realise—the Minister will agree that this has been the theme throughout proceedings on the Bill—that we are not giving people time off for their own benefit; we are doing so for the benefit of their families. We are not giving adopters time off for their benefit; we are doing so in order that they can bond with the children they are adopting.

That is a sensible approach, and deserves great support. However, we are concerned, both about the burden of costs and the incidence of costs in connection with the benefits resulting from provisions in part 1. The simple fact is that business, particularly manufacturing, is groaning under the weight of regulations, taxes, new legislation, an overvalued exchange rate and foreign competition. This is not the right time to impose further burdens on business; they will damage competitiveness, reduce flexibility and ultimately affect the ability to invest and deliver jobs.

Our plea throughout, and the purpose of our new clauses on the subject today, was to ensure that there was a mature debate about the costs and the benefits that will arise from part 1—there are certainly benefits, as well as costs—the incidence of those benefits and costs, and who, in fairness, should meet those costs. Unfortunately, we have not persuaded the Government to move very far. Although there will undoubtedly be benefits for society and probably for some individual employees, there will be disbenefits for others, and the cost will, by and large, be borne by business. We very much regret that during consideration of the Bill we have not persuaded the Government to move much on that issue.

I was disappointed by the Minister's response to my earlier intervention. I had hoped that he would find a way to include low paid self-employed people in the arrangements for statutory paternity pay, so that they too could benefit from the good that we are delivering, in the same way as low-paid mothers benefit from statutory maternity allowance.

Part 4 is the ragbag that collects all the other bits and pieces. In this part of the Bill especially, we see the agenda of the trade unions. Clause 43 introduces on a statutory basis union learning representatives, with a right to paid time off for union activities. We are the first to recognise that union learning reps have played and do play a significant and constructive role in some workplaces, though apparently not in the Department for Education and Skills, where there is none.

Ministers have been at great pains to tell us throughout the Bill that the introduction of learning reps on a statutory basis will be to the benefit of employers, but the statistics suggest that the largest employer in the country—the Government—has not taken heed of its own advice to any significant extent. One cannot take best practice where it is working well and impose it across the board by legislation.

In a workplace where industrial relations are not harmonious and functioning properly, one cannot introduce by legislation the role of trade union learning reps in the way that that works in the best workplaces, where unions and employers are both committed. It is a matter for education, not for legislation. We believe that by introducing union learning reps as a statutory right, the Government have gone down the wrong route in seeking to impose across the board a practice that will not work in many cases, and in other cases will damage the good work that is going on between employers and their workers.

Clause 45, which deals with fixed-term working, gold-plates the EU directive, as unions have urged the Government to do and Conservative Members have urged them not to do. We are concerned that there is still a residual hostility to non-conventional work patterns. I emphasise our support for measures that eliminate abusive practice. The Minister mentioned artificial sequential fixed-term contracts. We entirely support the Government's intention to remove that abusive practice.

Our new clause, which unfortunately we did not reach in the timetabled debate, would have exempted from the provisions of clause 45 cases where the employer had offered the worker a permanent employment contract on the same terms as other people in that workplace doing similar work, but the employee had rejected the offer. The purpose of the new clause was to draw the Government's attention to the fact that, although there may be abuses at the bottom end of the employment curve, at the top end there are many people working on fixed-term contracts whose employers would love to get them on permanent long-term contracts, but are unable to do so. It is their choice to work on fixed-term contracts. The Bill does not recognise that.

Clause 47 on flexible working was a late addition to the Bill. When it was introduced, I said that it was appallingly drafted, and I still believe that it is. A great chunk of it was lifted from the Bain report. The Minister has ignored the criticisms and questions that we raised about the wording in clause 47. It introduces terminology such as "staff", which is unknown to the Employment Rights Act 1996 into which it is inserted. Our noble Friends in the other place will want to give those matters further close attention.

The flexible working provisions will impose a new and further burden on business that is not justified by any benefit that will be delivered. I emphasise that we support flexible working, but it cannot be effectively imposed by statute. The issues that we raised have not been dealt with.

There are many other rather more minor matters that we have not had time to discuss tonight. Our noble Friends will want to take those up when the Bill reaches another place.

We are considering the Bill in an environment of increased union militancy in which trade unions are asserting a veto over public policy—even public policy that the Government were clearly mandated to implement in the general election of 2001. Business has suffered a barrage of legislation, regulations, directives and taxes, some of which are specifically designed to hit the manufacturing sector, which is the worst affected. Business faces one of the toughest environments for a decade. Britain is slipping down the competitiveness league. The productivity gap between the United States and the United Kingdom is widening. The Government respond by piling more cost burdens on business, which will damage our competitiveness still further.

There are many good ideas in the Bill. There are also some very bad ones, and I am sorry that during its passage we have not persuaded the Government to modify or drop the worst of them. Even for many of the good ideas that we support and endorse, the time is simply not right. Business, especially small business, is reeling under a torrent of Government legislation, regulation and taxation burdens. It needs a breather and space to recoup, to recover and to regain its profitability. This is not the right time for the Bill and I must urge my hon. Friends to vote against Third Reading.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central 9:37 pm, 12th February 2002

There is not much time, so I shall try to be brief.

The Bill contains many good provisions. Unlike the Opposition, I believe that union learning representatives will be widely welcomed throughout industry, not only by employees, but by employers. The measures on paternity pay and leave and rights for adoptive parents are important steps forward. My hon. Friend the Minister's announcement tonight of the minimum income guarantee underwrites that. It is an important part of the process.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to ask him to look hard at how we can improve the Bill before it passes to another place. I regret that we did not have time to reach the amendments that were tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

The Bill provides a new floor for dispute resolution, which is an important step. As the Minister knows, some of us took the view that it would have been better if the ACAS code had been adopted as the basis; we shall have to agree to differ about that. I hope that he will consider the right to be accompanied and the need for proper investigation to take place during the dispute process.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the continuing doubts about whether the concepts of hearing and meeting are really the same thing. I hope that he will reflect on that.

I turn briefly to tribunals. My hon. Friend knows that there is already concern about the loading on of different types of costs to the tribunal structure, as well as the new additions in the Bill. We have not had time to debate that tonight, but I want to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister the deterrent effects involved.

I shall quote briefly from a case that was brought to my attention. It involved an individual who claimed unfair dismissal and who initially acted for himself. His employer's representatives wrote to him, stating:

"It is clear from the facts that your claim is wholly without merit and is bound to fail. Therefore, we hereby place you upon notice of costs as we are of the view that this claim is frivolous and vexatious and is bound to fail. For the avoidance of doubt, if you withdraw your claim, we shall not pursue you for costs."

That individual finally sought help from his local law centre and was awarded £50,000 compensation, but his employer's representative had clearly tried to take him out of the game altogether.

This is a serious issue which cuts through the question of costs and other forms of compensatory structure, and I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect on that. I do not know what he can say tonight to move the debate forward, but I should perhaps remind him that one or two of our noble Friends in the other place are already sitting there with bear traps waiting for the unwary.

I was intrigued by the gap between the performance of Mr. Hammond in Committee—the reasonable and, I think, the real hon. Member—and his performance tonight, for which he had been wound up by the Leader of the Opposition and forced to come along and make rather more divisive comments. Some of those comments were ludicrous, but they are all helpful in ensuring that we shall probably not see another Conservative Government in my lifetime.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 9:41 pm, 12th February 2002

I am aware that time is short, so I shall attempt to be brief. I congratulate the Minister and my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond on the professional and concise way in which they have led the debate. They have done so with style and often, dare I say, with aplomb, and one learns from this as a new Member of the House. This has meant that we have been able to have a predominantly constructive debate, which we all welcome.

On that note, it is good to see maternity leave being matched by paternity leave in the Bill. It is important that we try whenever possible to recognise the role of fathers in families today, although I am disappointed that low-paid, self-employed fathers seem to be excluded from that generosity. I hope that the Minister will rethink that point.

I shall return, as the Minister would expect, to the question of small businesses. I am still deeply concerned that the Government admit that the Bill will place a disproportionate burden on small firms. We make a fuss about small firms because they are the engine of the economy. They employ the most people and we rely on them for most of our services. The total cost of regulation to business will be in excess of £558 million every year from now on—never mind any costs arising out of the regulations to come—and a disproportionate part of that will fall on the small businesses on which we rely and on which the Chancellor relies for much of his income. The fact that that burden falls on them in that disproportionate way needs to be borne in mind, and I am sure that the Minister will do that.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State is not here at the moment. She will be given reserve powers to implement various regulations under the Bill, and I ask the Minister to pass on to her a request that the use of those powers should be sparing, well thought through, and carried out in a thorough manner.

In the preamble to this debate, and during our discussions, much has been made by Ministers and their supporters of the fact that this is a family friendly Bill. That is an admirable quality, but there is a group comprising 4 million households that the Bill will not help. I am talking about self-employed people, who already spend 31 hours a month trying to deal with the existing bureaucracy, and who will now have to lose another weekend or evening that they could have spent with their families. Please let us not forget those families; they are important and we should not ignore them. I hope that the notion of this being a family friendly Bill will be extended to them as well.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 9:44 pm, 12th February 2002

I congratulate the Government on having listened to much of what has been said since the initial consultation. However, given that this evening's debate has been cut short and we were unable to consider two groups of amendments that I very much wanted to discuss, I shall use the couple of minutes available to implore the Minister to look again at the issues that they cover.

Last July, the Government introduced a new regulation in respect of employment tribunals which enables on-the-spot costs awards of between £500 and £10,000. It is already clear that, as my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd said, employers are using the regulation to harass and intimidate, and as a disincentive to taking cases to employment tribunals. I do not want this splendid Bill to be spoiled by people being unable to take cases to employment tribunals because of the fear of incurring costs.

Before the Bill proceeds to the other place, I ask the Minister carefully to consider introducing a right to argue against costs and new regulations requiring employment tribunals to take into account people's ability to pay on-the-spot costs of £10,000. Such a requirement does not exist in case law. That is an important issue for smaller companies in particular, where there is often little trade union representation.

On amendments Nos. 12, 34 and 35, which we were unable to discuss, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. The newly modified statutory procedure does not take account of the basic rules of natural justice. I have discussed that issue with the Minister, and in my view we could introduce a procedure that is easier to follow.

I congratulate the Government on enabling far more people to be brought under the new regime, but we shall not make progress if our attempts to simplify undermine natural justice and give employment tribunals carte blanche to find against individuals. I implore the Minister to consider those important points of detail before the Bill progresses to the other place. The devil is always in the detail, and the rest of the Bill and the huge gains made on fixed-term contracts, maternity and paternity pay and adoption leave should not be spoiled by a failure to take account of those two small but none the less significant procedural issues.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development) 9:48 pm, 12th February 2002

I begin by reiterating that there is considerable support on the Liberal Democrat Benches for the vast majority of the Bill. We strongly support the introduction of paternity leave, extended maternity leave and adoption leave, which are good and welcome reforms. The introduction, with a light touch, of flexible working is also extremely welcome and it builds sensibly on existing law on indirect discrimination. We are concerned, however, about the Bill's impact on small businesses, which is why we support regular monitoring not only of its benefits, but of its cost to that sector in particular.

I want to focus on an issue raised by Ms Walley, which I regard as a matter of absolute principle. I have already crossed swords with the Minister, far too early on a Sunday morning, on BBC Radio 5 Live over the question of the modified dismissal and disciplinary procedure, but I will raise it again. In effect, the procedure removes a fundamental right to defend oneself before dismissal. That applies to all cases of gross misconduct which, obviously, are the most serious cases.

I do not understand the logic. Why are people's rights diminished when the allegations are of the most serious kind? The opposite obtains in criminal law: when serious allegations are made, people have a right to trial by jury. They have almost extended rights of protection. Under the Bill, those confronted by such allegations will not even have the right to a hearing before being dismissed. That is quite simply wrong. An entitlement that survived 18 years of Conservative government is now being removed by a Labour Government.

In cases involving gross misconduct, the facts are often complex. A mass of documentation is often involved, and often the original allegation can be disproved by the employee concerned.

Photo of Alan Johnson Alan Johnson Minister of State (Employment Relations, Industry & the Regions)

The hon. Gentleman should understand that in all cases, including those of gross misconduct, there is a right to appeal.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development)

I do understand that, but I know from considerable experience as an employment lawyer—indeed, we all know—that once an employee is out of the door, the right of appeal will rarely lead to reinstatement. The chance to have a say must come before the decision is made.

In Committee and on other occasions, the Minister has said that the Bill provides, in a sense, a bottom line and that many companies have more detailed procedures. He must accept, however, that part of the Bill constitutes an effective reversal of the Polkey principle. That means, in layman's terms, that if an employer can convince a tribunal that going through the more extended procedures would have made no difference, the dismissal is fair. Inevitably, employers will go to tribunals and argue that case. They will say that they have ignored the more extended procedures because they would have made no difference, and that the dismissal should therefore be found to be fair. The result will be less protection for employees.

Moreover, as time goes by employers are bound to amend their disciplinary procedures to bring them more into line with the basic provisions of the Bill. In cases of gross misconduct, employees, according to companies' own disciplinary procedures, will have no right to a hearing before being dismissed. All they will have is a rather hopeless right of appeal after the event.

We hear from the Minister that the ACAS code provides additional guidance and protection, but we are told that ACAS will amend the code in the light of the Bill. Who knows what will result from that? I think it almost inevitable that ACAS will reduce the protection in line with the reduced protection provided by the Bill.

There is no doubt that existing case law provides the right to a hearing before dismissal. That case law, however, is flexible enough to recognise the existence of exceptional cases. The Minister gave the example of a "one-man band", when an employee thumps his employer in the face. A disciplinary hearing would be of little value in such circumstances; under existing law, a tribunal would find a dismissal without a hearing to be fair. Existing law also enables an employer to remove an employee from the premises by way of suspension, in order to remove a difficult problem pending a hearing. The hearing, however, must still take place.

I urge the Minister to listen both to Labour Members and to us, and to seriously consider whether, in cases of gross misconduct, he really wants to remove the right to the fundamental protection provided by a hearing before dismissal. As Ms Walley said, it would be a shame to damage a Bill that has so much merit by removing a protection that survived 18 years of Conservative government.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley 9:54 pm, 12th February 2002

May I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take account of the points that have been raised by my right hon. and hon. Friends? I will not rehearse the arguments which have been put by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). We have concerns about issues such as preparation costs and whether they will act as a disincentive to people taking cases forward.

I should like to highlight the very positive items in the Bill, especially the paternity and adoption leave provisions. I could give numerous examples of how flexible working will benefit employers and employees. I know of nurses who are unable to return to work, although we want them to do so, because local management is not prepared to be flexible about adjusting their rota to enable those nurses to deal with their child care provision.

I am intrigued by the attitude of Conservative Members. Mr. Hammond was almost cuddly and positively friendly in Committee, yet tonight he tells us that the Bill is all about burdens on business. There is a considerable contradiction in Conservative Members' attitude. My hon. Friend the Minister pointed out the benefits and savings available to employers in operating flexible working conditions. The proposals have been put forward in consultation with employers, unions and representatives.

I was astonished to find that as soon as we discussed union learning representatives—promoting education in the workplace and using that huge trade union experience and history to promote education in basic skills and other areas for people at work—Conservative Members suddenly went completely doolally and decided that this was the end of civilisation as we know it. We spent nearly a whole day debating it—it was simply amazing. Conservative Members have displayed considerable contradiction in their attitude to the Bill's very positive proposals. We should be using people's skills and encouraging them; it is difficult to get people at work to acknowledge that they have a skills gap and that they need training and education. The more help there is to achieve that the better.

I applaud the Bill's positive proposals. We have seen the clear division between Labour Members who want a positive attitude towards relations in the work force and Conservative Members who, even when they are trying to be good and nice on various issues, end up reverting to type in wanting to create conflict rather than co-operation.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Conservative, Boston and Skegness 9:58 pm, 12th February 2002

There is much in the Bill that I welcome, such as new rights for parents, flexible working, maternity and paternity pay and leave and, in particular, the reform of the tribunal system. However, we should be under no illusion: the Bill is driven by the Government's desire to acquiesce to the trade unions. In effect, it is payback time. The Bill redresses the balance and moves the fulcrum from the position that it has occupied, correctly, for so many years.

There are serious issues in the Bill with which I disagree, such as the allowance of trade union learning representatives—time off in which to continue to ply their trade—and fixed-term contracts. Many complicated issues to do with pensions, of tremendous concern to employer organisations, have not been debated properly. Burdens on businesses, particularly small businesses, will continue to lead to the further erosion of competitiveness. Apparently, we have dropped from ninth to 19th in the table.

I urge the Minister and future Secretaries of State to use the regulations provided for in the Bill with consideration and thought, and to bear in mind the continued burden and cost to businesses.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 358, Noes 132.

Division number 167 Orders of the Day — Employment Bill — Schedule 6 — Minor and consequential amendments

Aye: 358 MPs

No: 132 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.