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Employment Relations Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

– in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 25th March 2004.

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Votes in this debate

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs) 1:22 pm, 25th March 2004

I beg to move,

That the Programme Order of 14th January 2004 in relation to the Employment Relations Bill (as amended by the Order of 9th February 2004 (Employment Relations Bill (Programme) (No. 2)) be varied as follows—

Consideration and Third Reading

1. Paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Order of 14th January 2004 shall be omitted.

2. Proceedings on consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after those proceedings are commenced.

3. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration.

The motion will allow full debate on the Government new clauses on intimidation during statutory recognition ballots and remaining important topics such as workplace bullying, information and consultation, and the union modernisation fund. The Bill has made good progress and I hope that this will be a short debate.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister 1:23 pm, 25th March 2004

I listened carefully to what the Minister said. I gather that we will have three hours on Report and one hour on Third Reading. In normal circumstances, that might well have been perfectly adequate. Now, though, the Bill is substantially longer than it was when it went into Committee—it now runs to 49 pages, 50 clauses and two schedules. The Government have already added two important new clauses in Committee: new clause 28 on exclusion and expulsion from trade unions, and new clause 46, the union modernisation clause—the bung or bribe to trade unions, which we debated at some length. The problem is that when new clauses are tabled in Committee, we can debate them but not amend them. That is why we will need some time to discuss them on Report.

The Bill is the product of an exercise involving discussions with several parties, including the TUC, the CBI, the Engineering Employers Federation, the Institute of Directors and British Chambers of Commerce. There was widespread consensus. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien said on Second Reading that he feared that the Bill would be used by the Government as a sort of Christmas tree on which to hang other clauses, or so-called baubles. As I said, we have already debated two new clauses in Committee, including that on the modernisation fund for trade unions—an unlimited amount of money that is to be made available to trade unions for modernisation, which as we have said on several occasions, is simply a bung to the trade unions.

When we complained on Second Reading that the Bill might be used as a Christmas tree for further new clauses, the Minister said, "You're scaremongering", "Calm down", "Relax", "Take it easy", "Don't get carried away." He said, "This Bill is the product of a consensus-building exercise and we're going to stick very much to the original format." Imagine my amazement and disbelief when I heard yesterday that the Government have tabled not one new clause, but four, in addition to the one that they had already tabled. We have new clause 5,

"Additional duties on employers informed of ballots"; new clause 6,

"Unfair practices in relation to recognition ballots"; new clause 7,

"Unfair practices in relation to derecognition ballots"; and new clause 8,

"Unfair practices: power to make provision about periods before notice of ballot".

Those may be excellent new clauses—I am sure that they are—but they were tabled only yesterday. We have two working days when the House is sitting to digest, analyse and try to understand them, yet they are highly complicated, and I put it to the Minister that each will require a great deal of time for discussion. For example, new clause 5 runs to nearly four pages and contains a lot of highly technical material. The Minister will have to explain to the House exactly what the "additional duties on employers" will be; what employers can and cannot do; what "inducing" means; and what "relevant meetings" are. Surely, he will require at least 10 minutes on each new clause, while Opposition Front Benchers will require five or six minutes, and many other hon. Members will have a few words to say.

The Government are trying to rush through the Report stage. I am disappointed about that, because it will be difficult for us to get our heads around all the new clauses and other amendments in such a limited time. My hon. Friends and I have tabled two fairly simple new clauses on intimidation and on appeals, as well as an amendment on the information and consultation directive; and the Liberal Democrats have tabled a couple of amendments and a new clause.

The key factor is that the Government have said all along that the Bill was the product of a consensus-building exercise involving the main employer and employee organisations, but they have departed from that script by using it to add to the Christmas tree a number of new clauses and additional measures. They have departed from the spirit that was the background to the Bill. I do not know how much time the Minister has spent talking to the trade unions, but has he spoken to the CBI, the Institute of Directors or the Engineering Employers Federation about the four new clauses? We have been given two working days to deal with them; how will they have a chance to analyse them, report back and explain the situation to interested members?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Has the Minister sought to reach an agreement with my hon. Friend on the extra time that might be necessary to discuss the Government new clauses? If the Minister is really interested in consensus, one would have thought that he would start out by trying to achieve it on this business matter.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend. The Minister and I have got on very well recently. He has taken me to one side to discuss the matter on several occasions. I have made it quite clear to him that, although we appreciate that type of discussion and liaison, we need more time. He has invited me and some other colleagues to the Department of Trade and Industry for a drink next week, but by then it will be far too late.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

What explanation has been forthcoming from the Government about why so many new clauses are necessary at this late stage? If the Bill is well thought out, why were those new clauses not tabled some time ago, to enable consultation with the Opposition and employer organisations? It is not acceptable to table a huge chunk of new clauses without having time to consult the various interested bodies that will have to implement the regulations.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

I am grateful for that intervention, because on Second Reading the Secretary of State made great play of the fact that she had gone out of her way to talk to everyone and had achieved broad agreement on the Bill. She made it clear that the Bill was based on the information and consultation directive, which is an EU directive that we would normally expect to be introduced as a statutory instrument. In fact, it has come before us as a clause in primary legislation.

The Secretary of State also made it clear that the Government had to respond to the Wilson and Palmer case and the Friction Dynamics case, and she said that she had had far-reaching discussions with all the organisations, particularly the employer organisations. She mentioned a close relationship with the IOD, the CBI, the EEF, the BCC and other organisations. I should think that they are staggered, flabbergasted and dismayed at this raft of new clauses, which are complicated and highly technical. How on earth can those organisations go through the new clauses, and provide proper briefings for their members and for Members of Parliament in such a limited amount of time?

My party is very disappointed at the way in which the Government have behaved. I pay tribute to the Minister for keeping me in the loop, keeping me informed and being open, but we cannot get away from the fact that the Government have departed from their agreement with all parties in business and industry, and with the House, not to add a whole lot of highly technical, complicated new clauses to the Bill. They should have introduced the clauses well in advance, because the Bill has been around for a long time. The Conservatives are not happy campers, which is why we will ask the House—

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I have to say that the more I listen to what my hon. Friend has to say, the more I feel that this whole situation is highly unsatisfactory. Has he suggested to the Minister that he consider withdrawing the motion and perhaps inviting us all round for a drink, to see whether that might produce an acceptable way forward?

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The Minister has invited us—one or two select colleagues—to the DTI for a drink, although perhaps I should not mention that in public because I might destroy his reputation. It is possibly a little premature to go to the DTI to celebrate the completion of consideration of the Bill when we have not even agreed the programme motion. The motion will curtail debate, which is why we are very unhappy with it. I urge the House to vote against it.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry 1:33 pm, 25th March 2004

For personal reasons, I have not been able to be in the House this week until today, which might be why I have not received any notice of or been consulted on the programme motion—or received an invitation to a drink. The serious point is that although we support the Bill, as the Minister well knows, and have not moved from that principle, I concur with Mr. Bellingham that it is not entirely adequate to allow what is in effect a half day to complete consideration of the Bill, given that it has been changed and there are various Opposition issues to be debated. It is not a question of wanting x or y hours, but we want enough time to ensure that the Government new clauses and amendments are properly discussed, and that Opposition concerns are properly addressed. For example, we had a heated debate on the money resolution for additional union funding, about which both main Opposition parties expressed concern. The House might want a fuller debate on that, on the basis of what we have heard.

As the Government have said, the anti-discrimination clauses were difficult to draft. There is more or less universal support for them in principle, but some examination of how they will work in practice will clearly be relevant. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk pointed out, my hon. Friends and I have tabled amendments on issues that we continue to regard as important. I do not wish to detain the House by arguing in detail now which issues we think need to be expanded on, but I am a little surprised, given that the Bill has changed and there are important issues to resolve, that the Government feel justified in imposing such a tight timetable. On that basis, I concur with the hon. Gentleman in opposing the programme motion.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs) 1:35 pm, 25th March 2004

I am shocked, saddened and surprised by this afternoon's events, although we know that Opposition Members often oppose programme motions. To answer the points made by Mr. Bellingham, the Government have not deviated in any way from their consultation process, which is why we are in this situation. There is a full consultation process, which involves talking to the employer organisations and trade unions, and we have not deviated from that. The Bill's progress has been excellent, and there have been good, meaningful debates on many issues. I am sure that we can have more of those debates on Monday within the time allotted.

This afternoon's debate has been about the Opposition's problems with programme motions. We have heard about bungs and baubles, and about shock and amazement. There are serious issues to discuss, but there is adequate time for that. I hope that the House supports the work that has been going on through the usual channels, and that hon. Members will support the programme motion.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 234, Noes 128.

Division number 110 Employment Relations Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Aye: 234 MPs

No: 128 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.