Clause 25 - Power to delegate prescription of forms etc.

Employment Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 11th December 2001.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 6:30 pm, 11th December 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 33, line 43, at end insert—

''(aa) authorise the Secretary of State to prescribe forms in electronic format for the purposes stated in paragraph (a) above.''.

We are making startling progress, as we hurtle towards the end of part 2. Amendment No. 39 simply seeks to include in the Bill a provision that the prescribed forms may be in electronic format if the Secretary of State so determines. It is part of a modernising agenda, and I hope that the Minister will have no difficulty in agreeing to it.

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

There is very little between the hon. Gentleman and me. The notice of appearance form will be sent to the respondent when he is notified of proceedings against him. It will be available in electronic form, as will the IT1. Existing powers in the Employment Tribunals Act 1996 allow electronic forms to be made available. Clause 25 also provides that the employment tribunal procedure regulations may

''make provision about the publication of anything prescribed''

as a result of the clause. I hope that, as a result of those comments, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment, which is superfluous to requirements.

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

I am not sure whether the Minister said that the regulations would provide for the use of forms in electronic format.

Alan Johnson indicated assent.

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

The Minister confirms that that is what he said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

Several organisations have raised the issue of formalisation of tribunal proceedings. There is tension between the natural tendency to define in legislation how procedures are to be carried out and the general thrust of the Leggatt review that we should try to resist the tendency of tribunals to become more like courts and, thus, a source of substantial income for lawyers and substantial costs for the rest of us. What does the Minister think about the charge that creating prescriptive formats for forms, as the Bill does, is part of the process, which he rightly seeks to resist, of making tribunals more formal, more like courts and more difficult to navigate for those who are not represented?

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

That is an important point, but I do not accept the argument. Leggatt did not comment on forms. He recommended efficient administrative processes, making full use of information technology. The standard IT1 and IT3 forms—we should call them ET1 and ET3—are used in the vast majority of cases. That is important for several reasons. First, people should not submit forms on the back of a fag packet, so to speak. Secondly, we are introducing elsewhere in the Bill the requirement to have a grievance and discipline procedure in the workplace, and it is important to know that those procedures have been used when an application is made.

Some concern was expressed, particularly by Labour Members, about people who might have problems with the language and feel uncomfortable about the issues. We are determined to design the form with those fears in mind and envisage a tick-box procedure. The new system will give us the opportunity to ensure that the employee's basic written statement is attached to the form. At the moment, it is difficult to get standard and basic information, such as the employee's terms and conditions, in the open. It can take a long time, as the employment tribunal must ask for forms that are crucial to the case. The clause allows us to have that information right from the start, as it provides for the Secretary of State to determine what attachments should be made to the forms. That change is not a retrograde move, but a step forward. In fact, I believe that it will meet the concerns that Leggatt expressed in entirely different respect and make the employment tribunal service run much more smoothly.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West 6:45 pm, 11th December 2001

I share some concerns about the clause and hope that the Minister can reassure me on the time limits that applicants face. That applies to respondents, but with less drastic results than those for an applicant who misses the three-month limit to submit an IT1 or, currently, to apply to the tribunal in another format. In trying to square that circle, or cut the Gordian knot, will the Minister assure me that regulations might be able to preserve the position of the applicant who does not initially use an IT form and puts in the application on the last day—as all too frequently happens? That applicant's position should not be prejudiced simply by having sent a letter to the tribunal on the last day and, under the regulations, the tribunal could ask the applicant to complete the tick-box IT1 form. Some applicants, particularly those who have difficulty with writing and legalese, might have trouble getting hold of the forms. If the Minister assured the Committee that the regulations could provide for such a two-stage process, it would be helpful and might address some of the concerns of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

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

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is obviously a transition period as we move from the old system to the new. We should be as user-friendly as possible, particularly for people who must get used to the changing arrangements. We will address that in the regulations. I should emphasise that we will make enormous efforts to ensure that the forms are as widely available as possible. They will be available from the employment tribunal service, job centres—or whatever their fancy new name is from April—and advice and law centres. They must be ubiquitous so that people have easy access to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West raised an important point, and we will address it when forming the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.