Amendment to the Motion

Part of Code of Practice on Dismissal and Re-Engagement - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 25 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business) 5:15, 25 March 2024

My Lords, I regret that I did not have the pleasure of being present when the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, received its Second Reading a month or so ago. I clearly understand that the nature of that debate reflects very clearly on what we are debating today.

The Minister was not in your Lordships’ House when we debated the P&O issue. Had he been, he would have experienced outrage and hand-wringing, not just from these Benches but from the Benches behind him and indeed from the Dispatch Box itself. That outrage was felt across the whole of your Lordships’ House. As we have heard, this code was supposed to help embrace that issue and try to make sure that such outrages are not repeated. As we have heard in three well-made speeches from the Opposition Benches, we do not believe that this code comes close to doing that.

The code takes a very optimistic view of human nature: it infers that there are two willing parties with reasonable actions and beliefs. That is not the case that a code of conduct needs to deal with. When reasonable people negotiate with reasonable people, we do not need this code. This code is, essentially, how normal, reasonable people would act, and, as the Minister said, most companies are reasonable companies, and most employees operate with reason. That is why this code, in a sense, merely codifies what normal, civilised behaviour should be.

That is not what a code is for. A code is to deal with the people trying to operate outside normal, reasonable behaviour. On several occasions, the Minister used the word “ensure”. This does not ensure anything, and noble Lords do not have to take my word for it. Paragraph 12 says:

“A failure to follow the code does not, in itself, make a person or organisation liable to proceedings”.

In other words, any teeth it might have had in the first place have been removed by paragraph 12. I share the belief it really had no teeth.

Many other provisions in the code—for example, paragraphs 21 and 22—use the term “reasonable”. How would we test “reasonable” in this circumstance? In Section C, around information, I would be interested to know: what is reasonable? We then move to paragraph 27, which is about commercial sensitivity and confidentiality. In every case of fire and rehire, there will be commercial sensitivity. Therefore, it makes sure that no information ever gets put forward. I am old enough to remember when the United Kingdom was part of the European Union, and we were part of the European Works Council system. That excuse is not allowable within the European Works Council. There is a system within that whereby the works councils are brought into the confidence of the management about their intentions in such circumstances. This does not allow such reasonable behaviour to occur.

Given the genuine and heartfelt comments made opposite during the P&O issue, I am disappointed that this is the result. It is toothless, as the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, said on several occasions; it does not ensure that something such as P&O could never happen again. As the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, put it, the 25% uplift is not worth a hill of beans when you look at the financial gain it has made by the actions it has taken.