Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 216, in page 45, line 8, leave out—
'permit an employee of his'—
', in respect of each establishment or bargaining unit (whichever is the smaller) in which he has employees, permit one employee'.—[Mr. Hammond.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
I am grateful for your remarks, Mr. Conway. We have indeed had a wide-ranging debate on the two amendments, which I rise to oppose. The Committee may recall that in the sittings since Christmas, up until this morning, we have heard little from the Opposition Back Benchers. They have been a bit dumb and have had very little to say on important issues—
Let me get started. I did not say that the Committee had heard nothing from the Conservative Back Benchers; I said that we had heard very little. However, a scent of the old class war has brought them out in force. We have seen this morning the last remnants of the stone age-type management that was prevalent in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. That thinking was characterised by a determination to keep the working classes under-educated and under-skilled. That is the type of attitude that we have heard from Conservative Members. It is a pity that we did not hear more from them when we were debating new rights, but that was a 21st century debate and I suppose that it was a bit too modern for them.
If the hon. Gentleman reads the Official Report for previous sittings, he will find that I actually rescued the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). That hon. Gentleman has made sterling efforts. I admire the way in which he has conducted himself during the Committee's proceedings. He has been a one-man show, because he has had no support from his colleagues. He has had some on this set of amendments, but not on the others. At least the amendments that I tabled earlier gave him a bit of a breather.
The amendment needs defeating, and the spirit of the clause needs to be supported. It represents the type of forward thinking that we need. New businesses with forward-thinking and innovative management will welcome this type of initiative.
Will the hon. Gentleman create for the Committee a logical scenario in which a forward-thinking, innovative employer would welcome something imposed by statute, and which such an employer could easily make available to his employees and the trade unions that represented them if he believed that it would work? That is precisely the question that my hon. Friends and I have asked. We have nothing against learning representatives and strongly support training, but no provisions should be imposed on the unwilling by statute.
Unfortunately, that was not the impression that I was given this morning. Forward-thinking, innovative management that operates in this century will want to improve its business, and it will welcome the provisions as an opportunity to do so. It will recognise that they will lead to a highly skilled and educated work force across industry as a whole.
Trade union representatives have always believed in education and training. I dare say that if it were not for such thinking in the trade union movement years ago, I
would not be in Committee. I was encouraged by trade union representatives to gain education and training in skills further afield than those required in my industry.
Of course, yes, but I worked for a state industry, the National Coal Board, which was pretty forward thinking in such matters. It had agreed with the National Union of Mineworkers—at the time it was a great union—that between them they would organise day-release courses at Sheffield and Leeds universities for people who were interested in management and trade union activities. The result was that many students from those courses went into what is now called human resources, but in those days was called personnel management. Others got involved further in the trade union movement and politics, as I did. Some went into higher education and took degrees, and others left the industry. People's skills and education were upgraded, and the benefits were felt around British industry.
It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman has said that that measure was an excellent example of the type of agreement that all members of the Committee would support. However, we should consider compulsion and how best to encourage such agreements. Does he agree with the Industrial Society's presentation to the Committee about how the promotion of voluntary agreements is often the best way forward, rather than heavy-handed legislation?
No. Some companies are always more forward thinking and innovative, and will become involved in such schemes anyway. Companies with stone-age management, for want of better terminology, may need a little more encouragement. That is why I believe that the provisions will be useful.
I want to pick up on the hon. Gentleman's point about stone-age management. Does he acknowledge that trade unions can differ from one to another? Some have shown themselves forward thinking and innovative, and employers generally are happy and find it relatively easy to collaborate with them. Others are not so forward thinking, and they typically operate in state-controlled or state-dominated industries. It is with those that we have grave doubts about whether the provisions will deliver the goods.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman too much, but the Bill will bring both employers and trade unions into the modern world of management. I have always believed that the more educated and skilled trade union negotiators are, the better will be the relationships and deals that they make for their members and businesses. That is why the role that we are discussing will be especially useful. I see it as that of a facilitator. This morning, some
Opposition Members gave the impression that the people who undertook further education and training would get time off work, but it is the facilitator who will do so, unless the employees train for their specific companies or industries.
If I were an employer, I would want to encourage people whom I was paying to train to do so in subjects specific to my business. I would have no objections to extra education and training, and might encourage people to take part in it in their own time. I might help to facilitate it.
We are concerned about the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the number of trade union learning representatives who will be allowed at any one time. The point is dealt with in one of the amendments. Before we adjourned, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West used an example that I had given. I prefixed it with ''hypothetical''. It is not unfair to use extreme examples to make a point, although they have not been used regularly in Committee and I accept that the situation is unlikely.
I would like the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) to defend the Minister's lack of willingness to allow a per capita ceiling to be placed on the number of trade union learning representatives in a business unit. I was not satisfied with the Minister's answer.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As I listened to Opposition Members this morning, I became a little concerned about how many learning reps there might be in a work force. I was trying to think about why there should be more than one or two in any workplace. Where I came from, we had one branch secretary, one branch delegate and one branch chairman, and I was trying to think why more than one learning rep would be needed.
Then my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills made a good case as to why more than one learning rep might be needed in a business facility. I chatted to colleagues over lunch who have experience of where there has been more than one, and was told that the reps tend to specialise in specific forms of training and education.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. My previous job was in the Post Office. I worked in a large unit with trade union representatives for administrative workers, postal workers—delivery postmen—and drivers. Those workers all came from very different sections and had very different jobs and roles. I would never have been in a position to identify the training needs of post office drivers. I dealt with administration workers, which was very different. All the different posts were part of one unit, so there would have been a need for more than one learning representative in that unit.
The debate this morning was good, and it is continuing along those lines. Having discussed the matter with colleagues and having listened to the Minister, I can now see their point of view.
However, perhaps the Minister should listen to what has been said about the numbers of reps in a particular workplace. It could get out of hand. I doubt whether many employers would allow it to get out of hand, but some trade union representatives, who are probably not as enlightened as others, may well create some difficulty around that issue. Perhaps the Minister should think about it. As I said, I was concerned about the matter this morning, but I have now heard some encouraging remarks from him and from other hon. Friends.
The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense. Basically, he is inviting the Committee to start with the thought process that I used to frame the amendment and then take it further to find out whether there really is a problem. The Minister invited us to think that there would not be a problem because subsection (8) would stipulate a reasonableness test at a tribunal. However, employers do not want to have to make judgments about whether to recognise union reps on a daily basis, thinking that if they get it wrong, they will end up in a tribunal.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the amendment, as drafted, may not be effective, because it calls for one employee per bargaining unit. However, I call on the Minister to consider the more general issue of whether a ceiling should be put on the number of union reps. If the hon. Gentleman is endorsing that call, I welcome his remarks. I would be very happy if the Minister were to reject my amendment but say that he would be able to deal with the concern that lies behind it through regulations or guidance.
That was another helpful intervention. I have already said that the Minister should take some time to examine the issue. Do we want people to go to industrial tribunals to argue about the number of learning reps in a given business? I do not think so. That is not desirable, but I think that most trade unions and employers would be sensible about the matter.
In conclusion, the proposal is, by and large, a good thing, and it is encouraging that the Government have made such a proposal. I know that modern management will welcome the measure, because it will encourage more education and training among their work force, which can only be good for British business.
I should say at the start that I am not a union member, but I have been a member of Undeb Cenedlaethol yr Athrawon Cymru—the National Union of Teachers in Wales. My membership was a matter of solidarity rather than of any benefit that I might have gained.
This morning, Conservative Members posited situations in which trade unions might wish to appoint an unlimited number of union learning representatives
for dubious reasons. Let me posit a similar situation, which might emerge if the amendment were to be accepted, in which a bad employer might restrict the number of union learning representatives to one. The positive intentions behind the appointment of ULRs would then be thwarted. Such a scenario would point to a deeper malaise, which had nothing to do with ULRs, in the business. I would worry about such a business.
I am dismayed by the view taken by Conservative Members. Essentially, they have been implying that training is about producing more widgets per hour. That is not my experience of training. Without being too pious about it, fulfilled workers lead to benefits for employers.
Providing for the possible appointment of more than one union learning representative would allow for flexibility, given that the designated representative might be tied up with essential work for the employer. For those reasons I cannot support the amendments.
In the light of the guidance that you gave the Committee earlier, Mr. Conway, I propose briefly to sum up the conclusions that I have drawn from the debate in relation to the amendment. Then, if I may, I should like to address some of the wider issues on which the Minister has responded, which would otherwise have formed the core of a clause stand part debate.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes), because he obviously has direct experience of the union side—if I may use the old-fashioned terminology of industry. Frankly, I do not have such experience. It is interesting that when people set their minds to a problem, they can find that the amount of ground that separates them is not as great as they thought. I can readily concede that perhaps my amendment limiting the appointment of union learning reps to one per bargaining unit or establishment is too severe and too restrictive and would not be appropriate in all situations.
It is very reassuring that the hon. Gentleman can, at the other end of the debate, recognise that there are or could be situations in which some less enlightened trade unions—it is possible to imagine a situation in which an unenlightened trade union would face an unenlightened employer—might seek to abuse the provisions. In such circumstances, it is common sense to have some kind of limit, but to say, as the Minister did, that the imposition of any limit would undermine the purpose of the clause and effectively wreck it, is simply untrue. That is obviously not the case.
My expectation in tabling the amendment was that the Minister would tell me that he understood perfectly the concern, but that the amendment was superfluous and there was no need to worry because the perceived threat could be dealt with by regulations or some other means. I expected him to give me a categorical assurance that disproportionately large numbers of union learning reps could not be appointed in a given workplace, but he has not supplied one. All that I have heard is a blanket assertion that to limit in
any way the number of union learning reps would undermine the whole purpose of the legislation. That position is unsustainable.
Unless the Minister is able to tell us that there will be some kind of common-sense limit, however flexible, to prevent an abuse of the procedure, I urge my hon. Friends and other members of the Committee who are concerned about the problem to vote for the amendment, merely to emphasise to the Minister that the issue must be dealt with. If the Minister tells me that the amendment is not the way to do it, I am more than willing to take that on board. If he has a better idea or a more flexible way forward, with which he can come back on Report, that would be excellent news.
The Opposition's principled objection to the clause has often been referred to today, as have the responses of employers' organisations. We and they make exactly the same response to the provision. The response of the Confederation of British Industry to the consultation was fairly representative of the responses of employer organisations. It clearly supports the principle of paid time off for trade union learning reps. However, it does not support the idea that, independently and without discussion and agreement with the employer, trade unions should be able to impose trade union learning reps. It is disingenuous of the Minister to claim that the CBI supports the legislation simply because it supports the principle of paid time off for union learning, when its submission makes it absolutely clear that it rejects the notion that that should be imposed by statute.
That is not a philosophical objection to things being imposed by statute. It is the observation that what works well when people get together and fettle it out for themselves, as they say in Nottinghamshire, will not necessarily work well if it is imposed by statute. That is the essential point of principle. If it will reassure the hon. Member for Doncaster, North, I am happy to put it on record that I believe that an enlightened employer who enjoyed a good relationship with a sensible trade union would want to have trade union learning reps in the workplace.
There are some other technical issues—hon. Members will be aware of them from the amendments that we have tabled—that we shall want to deal with later, but that is our general position. We cannot legislate for good relationships between employers and trade unions; they have to grow. We need to educate, not legislate. I urge Labour Members to reflect on that.
Perhaps the divergence between the two sides in this debate is caused partly by the fact that the hon. Gentleman seems to think that there is a rather higher number of enlightened employers—I use his phrase—than we do. Because there is no statutory obligation at the moment, there are only about 3,000 union learning reps, which is not a high number.
Yes, but we cannot have it both ways. The Minister has told us this morning that there are only 3,000 because it is a relatively new concept.
He suggested that the growth pattern to reach 22,000 during the next eight years was not particularly alarming, given their short life so far and the present pattern of growth. I make a prediction for the hon. Gentleman: if they are doing the good work that I understand they are doing now and if there are sufficient workplaces where relationships are conducive to the appointment of union learning reps, we shall see an expansion in the number of union learning reps even without legislation.
I have talked with employers who have union learning reps in their workplaces and—let us be blunt about it—opinion ranges from highly positive to not particularly damning. That may be reasonably good news, but all those employers have appropriate relationships with their trade unions and work forces, and union learning reps have been negotiated, agreed and put in place. If we impose this regime on all unionised workplaces, it will not work anything like as well. In fact, we are in danger of bringing a good initiative into disrepute, causing damage to structures that are beginning to work well and which, in the normal course of events, I predict will expand beyond the present 3,000.
I have listened carefully to what has been said today. There are echoes here of arguments that we heard from Opposition Members when we debated the national minimum wage legislation. There was no statutory obligation on employers regarding payment of the national minimum wage to employees, and the echoes that I hear are ''a rift between employers and employees'' and ''the nation would suffer if that policy went through''. Can the hon. Gentleman see a parallel between what he is saying today and what his party said then?
I served, as did the Minister, on the Standing Committee that considered—at some length, as I recall—the Bill that became the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. I do not see a parallel. I cannot recall anyone suggesting a voluntary national minimum wage; there would not be much point in such a suggestion. When the Government seek better pay and conditions, it is best not to reach for the legislative sledgehammer but to make sure that the economy is functioning in such a way that labour market conditions deliver good wages, good conditions and attention by employers to the needs and concerns of their employees. That is what employers do in a tight labour market in order to hang on to the people who are their most valuable commodity. I give way to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who was also a member of the National Minimum Wage Bill Standing Committee.
When we discussed the national minimum wage, we referred to the fact that we were told that if the Equal Pay Act 1970 were introduced, it would be the end of civilisation as we knew it. That did not turn out to be the case. We are now told that we should not use a legislative
sledgehammer to crack this nut. At that time, I recall there being disputes over equal pay. There was a longstanding one at Trico's. Once the legislation was in place—although we are still a long way from having equal pay for a number of structural reasons—a number of employers, because it was in the law, entered into voluntary discussions about implementing equal pay legislation. Doe the hon. Gentleman accept that legislation can encourage employers to enter into something that benefits their workers and their business?
Clearly, legislation that says that one has to do something will encourage employers to do it. By and large, they are a law-abiding bunch.
We operate in an extraordinarily complex economy, which is embedded in a worldwide free market of even more extraordinary complexity. It would be disingenuous to think that we could isolate the impact of any single piece of legislation in that massive equation. The economy grows, and the shape and direction of the economy are determined by the business climate. It could be that there are subtle and unintended consequences from all sorts of legislation.
I do not want—and you would not encourage me, Mr. Conway—to repeat the arguments of the National Minimum Wage Bill Standing Committee all those years ago. However, I have no doubt that some jobs that existed before that legislation was enacted do not exist now. The hon. Lady might say, ''Good riddance, they are not jobs that we want,'' and I would tend to agree with her; in a relatively buoyant economy, better-paid work is good news. However, when there is a downturn in the economy, when there is no work available, people might ponder on whether it is such a good idea that the shoe factory that I remember in Blackburn, which imported 90 per cent. of its goods and manufactured 10 per cent. now imports 100 per cent.
The chickens come home to roost in bad economic times. Of course, in good economic times, a lot can be absorbed in a growing and relatively strong economy.
Rob Marris rose—
I fear that it is slightly. I understood the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to say that a national voluntary code for a minimum wage would not make sense. He appears to suggest that a national voluntary code for union learning reps would make sense. That appears to be contradictory.
No, I am not saying that. If union reps are going to work and training and learning are to be delivered and promoted in the workplace in such a way, the right environment must exist. I do not believe that one can create a fertile environment by legislation. We may have a perfectly reasonable discussion, such as the hon. Member for Doncaster, North is engaged in—and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is capable of engaging in, although he does not
always choose to do so—but simply differ in our views about the ability of legislation to create that fertile environment. I do not believe that one can create an environment conducive to good relationships through legislation, and I do not believe that my hon. Friends believe it.
I hesitate to digress, but I am sceptical about legislating for race relations, or relations between people of different gender. I am certainly sceptical about whether it is possible to legislate for relations between employees and employers. We can educate people to work well with other people, but we cannot legislate to force them to do so.
I suspect that there is a limit to the logic of the hon. Gentleman's point. The Thatcher Government passed an enormous amount of employment legislation, which the hon. Gentleman would presumably see as creating an environment in which both sides of industry could work together without enormous industrial relations problems. He seems to be arguing the opposite now.
I am bound to respond to that by saying that, at the beginning of the period to which he refers, we re-levelled the playing field to create an environment in which relationships between employer and employee might stand a chance of flourishing, by restoring some semblance of a balance of power. However, I suspect that we could discuss that in depth without helping this debate along.
I thought that the hon. Gentleman, who was not here this morning, would take the opportunity to clarify whether his party agreed with our contention that union learning reps were a good idea only in an environment where there is agreement and consensus about their employment. It is not entirely clear whether he agrees with that or not.
I hesitated to interrupt the point being made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, as I was late coming back into Committee. Under what circumstances would he accept it as legitimate for the law to intervene? I assume that he would go along with me in saying that we need a statutory framework for health and safety, or would he insist that statutory frameworks are irrelevant in all areas of labour law, and that things can be done only through co-operation? If not, what does he think is so special about training? We do not train enough in this country—we do not have the training culture. If we do not take the route offered by the Bill, what alternative does he suggest to galvanise employers and unions to get together and train?
That is an interesting question. I agree that we do not train enough, although I suspect that we are doing better than in the past and that the trend is in the right direction.
Of course, I do not take the view that there are no areas in which legislation should intervene. Health and safety is a good example of one in which it should, but training is an area that has been a success story. It is clear that union learning reps work in an environment in which employers and unions have agreed to them. Our position is that it is fallacious to take a situation that has prospered in a consensual climate and translate it with similar good effect into infertile ground by legislation. Equally, there will be trade union branches that have never raised the issue with employers because it never crossed their minds. Of course, some people at the margin will be able to say two years down the line, ''Thank goodness the issue was raised, because it's worked out rather well,'' but that is not our concern. The same goal could be achieved through a process of education, and the Minister's comments about the rate of roll-out for union learning reps in a voluntary environment suggest that that is happening. The arrangements will work only where the relationship between the work force and the union is conducive.
It is not appropriate to impose on all environments a structure that depends for its success on co-operation. The Minister accuses me of taking up the one-size-fits-all fallacy by suggesting that one rep per bargaining unit was the appropriate number, although I readily conceded that I could be wrong about the specifics of that. However, he proposes a one-size-fits-all regime for union learning reps in every workplace where a union is recognised. The same provisions would apply in all environments: in the most high-tech company, where there were excellent relationships between a forward-thinking union and a forward-thinking employer; in the most antediluvian public service industry, although I shall not mention the one that I had in mind out of respect for the Minister for Employment and the Regions, who has just come back into the Room; and in every railway company where disputes were rumbling. However, those provisions would not be right in all circumstances.
We do not believe that the Government's agenda is driven by a real belief that the provision will make a big difference to the number of effective union learning reps or to the amount of training. It is about delivering to the trade union movement the prize of being able to appoint a large number of additional officials who will be able to deliver something to members, but not to others in the work force. In other words, they will be able to create something at the employer's expense that will make trade union membership a more attractive proposition in the minds of the trade unions. Effective training and learning arrangements are in place, but they will be put in danger if we impose a statutory regime.
We think that the clause is cynically political. The Trades Union Congress brief on the Bill clearly says that the clause is about the TUC's proposal to put union learning representatives on a statutory footing.
The proposal came from the TUC, and the Government are paying debts with other people's money—not public money, but employers' money. They are in danger of bringing into disrepute a very valuable learning regime. Union learning reps have been appointed by consensus between employers and employees, but that regime will be replaced by one that is likely to be adversarial in many cases because of the infertile ground in which the Bill will plant it. To the extent that the new regime renders workplaces less efficient and less effective, it will have a negative impact on everyone who works in them and on the economy as a whole. Nothing that I have heard from the Minister has been remotely persuasive. There is no argument for imposing something by statute when its nature is such that it will not prosper unless it is planted in the fertile environment of co-operation and collaboration. That is why training is different from issues such as health and safety.
In light of the fact that we are not to have a clause stand part debate, I urge my hon. Friends now to vote against the clause when the question is put later on, while making it clear to the Committee that, like the CBI and other employers' organisations that have commented, I strongly support the idea of paid time off for union learning reps where those are in place as a result of proper agreement between employers and employees in situations in which the environment is such that they can play a valuable role in the training and learning equation.
I can state that I shall not vote against the clause as a whole. Nevertheless, I agree with a lot of the logic of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.
I am at something of a disadvantage in that I did not hear the start of this morning's discussion, and I apologise for that. However, I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for the Minister to recognise that an issue stands to be dealt with. There is clearly concern on both sides—given the contribution from the hon. Member for Doncaster, North—that there is a risk of exploitation in some circumstances. Therefore, particularly at the start, there should be limitations on the right to appoint reps, and on the numbers of those reps.
However, the logic of what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says about legislation not being capable of creating an environment is flawed. There is a massive body of legislation in the employment field, much of which dates back to the Conservative Government, and a large part of which is now widely accepted as being helpful in creating a good environment. One thinks of the unfair dismissal provisions, which originated during the government of Sir Edward Heath. We are creating a framework within which the two sides of the employment relationship work together in a reasonably—[Interruption.] I guess that Conservative Members are saying that they do not agree with anything that Edward Heath came up with.
I have the benefit of being able to confirm that. If one pushes that logic to its conclusion, one is left with, simply, a legislative framework on health and safety, and nothing else to regulate the relationship.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman takes his view, but he misses the heart of the argument put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, which is that Conservatives feel strongly that there is a need for learning in the workplace, but passionately support organisations such as the Industrial Society, which see the benefits of encouraging the promotion of best practice. Legislation can be—particularly if it is drafted like this Bill—a clumsy tool in that environment.
I am grateful for that. That is why I think that the Minister needs to look further at the detailed framework and to recognise the concerns on both sides of this debate. As it stands, the legislation might well be subject to exploitation and could go beyond what is reasonable in any particular workplace.
On a point of detail, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West sought to allay concerns in that only a limited number of reps exist. With respect, that is a non-point. Enshrining the need for reps in legislation will inevitably create a different environment and will, self-evidently, lead to a significant increase in the number of reps.
In view of your judgment about the clause stand part debate, Mr. Conway, I will sweep up the points about the amendments and give one or two wider responses to the broader questions that have been raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North made a series of powerful points, certainly in the first part of his speech, in his special south Yorkshire style. I welcome his strong support for the clause and the new rights that it creates for union learning representatives. As he said, trade unions have always been interested in the training, education and prospects of their members. Indeed, the TUC was founded more than 100 years ago with a call for more technical education. In a small way, the clause reinforces the role that trade unions can play in the modern day to boost levels of training, investment and opportunities through better skills for their members.
I apologise for not posing the question to the Minister earlier, but will he remind the Committee what percentage of union members are in the public or quasi-public sector? In respect of that large percentage of union members, the solution lies in the hands of the Government. It would be interesting to know whether there was universal recognition of union learning reps in all areas of the economy that are within the Government's control as the ultimate employer.
Opposition Members contend that the clause is a sop to the trade unions and the TUC. Does my hon. Friend agree that, far from that, we are considering the long-standing development of an education process under which people who have not had access to education have been offered it through the trade union and labour movement, the Workers Educational Association and colleges and courses set up in relation to it? The clause is a logical development of a positive process that the trade union movement has undertaken over the years, not a sop to the TUC.
My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North raised a concern that the number of trade union learning representatives might get out of hand if we did not seriously consider the amendments, which were tabled by members of both Opposition parties. Unions do not appoint too many stewards and health and safety representatives in workplaces, so there is no reason to believe that we should have problems with unions appointing too many learning representatives to workplaces. The clause provides rights that are broadly equivalent to those enjoyed by shop stewards and other similar lay officials.
There are no upper limits to the number of shop stewards that unions can appoint. It is correctly left for unions to decide, and that has created no significant problems for employers. There is no reason to believe that such problems might specifically arise in the case of union learning representatives when they have not done for other union lay officials.
I cannot see a scale of concern among Opposition Members that would lead me to accept their arguments in support of the amendments. If the amendments are pressed to a vote, I shall urge my hon. Friends to support me in rejecting them.
Will the Minister explain the logic behind the distinction between the Bill and section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 on representatives who are elected in a redundancy situation? In the Act, the employer determines the appropriate number of representatives to represent the employees. Why is there a difference between the provision in the Act and that in the Bill? The Act relates to the non-trade union workplace, while the Bill relates to a workplace where the union has been recognised, but is there any other distinction?
The model on which our proposals are based is drawn not from the Act but from legislation that is in place and that has worked well for many years. In the clause, we seek to create rights for trade union learning representatives that are broadly equivalent to those for stewards and similar lay officials. That is the model and the comparator that we used when developing our policy.
I do not want the Minister to be under the impression that I support the Opposition amendments, because I do not. If the Opposition press them to a Division, he can rely on me to vote against them. However, I said in my earlier contribution that the principle behind the amendments was worthy of the Minister's consideration. Not all shop stewards get paid time off work. I can envisage a workplace with a reasonable number of employees and one or two paid stewards and safety reps who get paid time off work. If the unions asked to have six or seven learning reps with paid time off to do a useful job—we must admit that some people in the trade unions can be difficult, although by and large they are not—the employer would say, ''You're having a laugh.'' That is why I said only that the principle behind the amendments was worthy of the Minister's consideration.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clarification of his overall view and of how he would vote if the Opposition pressed the amendments. I take his points, which he made earlier.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) recognises that there is a case for flexibility, and the application of the clause will suit local circumstances workplace by workplace. However, the limits that the amendments would introduce in the Bill would lead to inflexibilities that, as I explained earlier, are unnecessary and undesirable. I welcome the fact that he does not plan to support the amendment.
The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) talked about the clause introducing legal compulsion into the system. The clause creates no rights for unions to bargain. It creates no right to
training for union members. It is a specific, limited right intended to support the work of trade union learning representatives. To be most effective, even when the clause is in place, the representatives will still need to be persuasive and to work in partnership with the employers. Both sides of the Committee have paid tribute to the work of union learning representatives, but the evidence of the four or five years since union learning representatives were established and started to develop their role suggests that the lack of formal recognition puts them at a disadvantage over their colleagues and inhibits their effectiveness and credibility with employers and colleagues.
I am starting to see some clarity. The Minister has told us that it is about the status of individuals and trade union officials. He made it clear this morning and again just now that no additional right to bargain is being introduced. However, he is not naive. Does he agree that in a situation where no upper limit is placed on the number of reps that can be appointed, a trade union could behave unreasonably—or, being more realistic, threaten to behave unreasonably—as part of a wider bargaining programme? It is disingenuous to suggest that it will not become part of the wider bargaining process.
I think that I have dealt with the constraints that cover the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman suggests could be deemed unreasonable. As I made clear this morning, the working definition of ''unreasonable'' includes establishing reference to a code of practice, and it takes account of all the circumstances—in other words, the employee, the employer and the needs of the business. To that extent and for that reason, as I argued this morning, the point being made again by the hon. Gentleman as justification for his amendments is unnecessary.
I do not know whether the Minister shares my view that this is an ''Alice in Wonderland'' debate, but what we are discussing seems to have been given a philosophical label when the reality is very different. My hon. Friend has made the point; perhaps he can tell me this. The provisions in the Bill give a remedy to the employer who is faced with extraordinary demands, and those remedies are exactly parallel to those that exist in other legislation that give reasonable time off for various union duties—and also, of course, for service on local authorities or the magistrates bench. Is my hon. Friend aware of any industrial dispute anywhere that was based on an abuse of those powers? I wracked my brain while listening to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but in my experience of industrial relations I cannot think of any such example.
My hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Wolverhampton, South-West cannot think of an example, and I cannot, but perhaps the brains on the Conservative Benches can.
It is an interesting line of argument, but if the Minister read the reports of this Committee and of many others, he will find that his ministerial colleagues have frequently said that although they cannot quote a single example of a mischief that they wish to take powers to deal with, they believe that it is wise to have those powers in reserve in case that situation turns up. It seems extraordinary that he is now saying that he does not want to have the power to deal with an issue simply because he cannot recollect a parallel situation having arisen in the past.
I was asked a question and I responded.
I shall respond to some earlier points raised by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. The first concerned union membership and density in different parts of the economy. I do not have such a precise breakdown to hand, but I can easily locate it and will get back to him. The point for the Committee is to understand the limitation of the clause. It will operate only where unions are recognised. Clearly more union learning representatives may be able to take advantage of the rights in the public sector than in the private sector, and more union learning representatives and members are likely to take advantage of the new rights in large companies than in small ones, because that is the general patterning of trade union membership.
The union learning representatives, and the rights that the clause gives, will operate only where recognition agreements with trade unions exist, where the role of the union is established and accepted, and where similar rights are already exercised by other union representatives and procedures in place for the practical application of those rights. I contend that the degree of disruption that has been suggested would be unlikely to happen in the case of union learning representatives, were we to extend rights to the new category of lay union official.
I understand that the Minister does not have the figures to hand, although I should have thought that some kind of approximate percentage might have been lodged in his mind. However, he has not answered the other part of my intervention. Where the Government, in one of their many guises, are the employer—for example in the national health service—have they practised what they preach to the rest of industry by voluntarily agreeing to union learning reps? Is that universal practice in the NHS, the education service, the civil service and the devolved agencies and, if so, what has been the experience?
Perhaps I could remind the hon. Gentleman that union learning representatives have been in existence for about four years. There are 3,250 across the country. In no sector, region or individual company are they universal. They are new and
becoming established. However, as the basis for the Bill, we are examining the problems that are beginning to emerge. The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that there are union learning representatives in the public sector, and there are union learning representatives employed by the state. However, as elsewhere, they are not universal at present.
This is an important point. The Government are in no position to lecture the world about what they are going to impose on it by statute when they have had readily within their grasp, without the need for any legislation, the ability to insist on what they are calling best practice in their own backyard. If they have not done so, we are entitled to ask why.
What percentage of the 3,000 union learning reps who are in place are in public sector entities where the Government have some measure of control over their appointment?
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with those figures alongside the others. The Government are not lecturing, but legislating.
Let me turn to some of the hon. Gentleman's other comments. Perhaps he used the break in our proceedings to re-read the CBI's evidence in the consultation process.
Well, the hon. Gentleman helped the Committee with a degree more clarity than he displayed this morning.
The CBI endorses the role of union learning representatives. It supports the right to paid time off for learning representatives. It supports the right to unpaid time off for union members to take advantage of the services and to consult learning representatives. It supports the right to protection from detriment, as with other trade union lay officials. I welcome that support for those fundamental new rights.
However, the CBI wants employers to have a unilateral veto over who may be appointed as a union learning representatives. We considered, but rejected, its and other representations on that. We cannot accept that proposition, because such a provision does not apply to other union lay officials. When we reach clause stand part, I urge my hon. Friends not to allow the Committee to apply restrictions to union learning representatives that do not apply to other union lay officials.
As hon. Friends who have served on other Standing Committees that considered industrial relations workplace legislation observed, we heard earlier what we have heard before—overstated arguments about the potential impact of the modest measures in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman said that the clause threatens to bring a promising system into disrepute. In fact, we are bringing the position of union learning representatives broadly in line with that of shop stewards and similar lay officials.
Union learning representatives are a new phenomenon in our workplaces. In the short time that they have been working, evaluation demonstrates that
they have been able to increase enthusiasm and take-up, both from employers and employees, for training and development in the workplace. In many ways, they reflect the new agenda of most unions. It may interest members of the Committee to know that 66 different unions have successfully bid for funds from the union learning fund, which supports the projects that advance our ambition for greater investment and activity in training and skills in Britain's work forces.
Learning representatives reflect the new services and support that trade unions are developing for their members. In doing so, they are responding to demands—the demands of employers for assistance in increasing training and interest in skills, the demands of businesses that increasingly rely on better and continually upskilled workers, and the demands of employees and their own union members, who increasingly see skills as the key to job security and to getting on in their careers.
Five years ago, there were few learning representatives. Today, there are just 3,250. I am glad to say that their numbers are increasing, but only gradually.
I am going to press the Minister on this. It is absurd that he is talking about union learning reps and telling us how good they are, given that he represents the largest employer in the country and has been unable to tell us how many learning reps, or roughly what percentage of the total number of learning reps, exist within that work force. If he cannot answer the wider question, can he tell the Committee how many learning reps there are in his own Department and in the agencies that answer to it?
I prefer not to give the hon. Gentleman loose answers now that may not be accurate. I will respond to his points in writing and I shall ensure that other members of the Committee also receive the information.
I had the pleasure a couple of months back of meeting some learning reps from my own union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and AlliedWorkers, and I saw the delight on their faces when we talked about the people they have pointed in the right direction and helped to learn to read and write—the fundamentals—and others whom they had managed to upskill so that they could earn promotion in their business or industry. The joy on their faces when they told us these success stories was unbelievable. It would be sad if the Opposition continued to pursue the amendments and voted against the clause, and I think that they would rue it. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree?
I do. The evidence is that, in the short time that trade union learning representatives have been working, they have reached many of the people whom our established learning providers simply do not reach—shift workers, casual workers, older male workers and workers from ethnic minorities, including workers who may have serious basic literacy and numeracy difficulties. They may have got by with those difficulties for many years and may have been embarrassed by them or reluctant to concede them to their employer or a human resources manager. If they can talk to a colleague whom they know is on their side—the union learning representative—he can help to solve those problems, first by acknowledging them and then by tackling them. My hon. Friend has seen that in operation in some of the places he has been to. That is why the union learning fund, which in part supports the development of union learning representatives, has earmarked elements for projects designed to tackle the basic literacy and numeracy problems that bedevil our work force and our adult population and have been neglected and overlooked for far too long.
I shall try once more to address this issue from another angle. If the Minister, in preparing for a debate in which he would tell us how good the system is and how important union learning reps are, did no homework, even on his own Department, what he says loses all credibility. He cannot tell us how many union learning reps are entitled to paid time off in his Department. Can he assure the Committee that at least one union learning representative is entitled to paid time off in his Department?
No union learning representatives are entitled to paid time off at present, because the legislation is not in place. There are union learning representatives who operate in the Department for Education and Skills. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman precisely how many there are, and I will, as I think I have said at least twice, make sure that he has that information as soon as I can.
Mr. Hammond rose—
Forgive me. The hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions that I am keen to return to now. He has come to me three times on this point and I want to move on.
Underpinning the clause is the fact that at present no legislation specifically governs the activities of union learning representatives. Whether employers permit learning representatives to function at their workplace is entirely voluntary. Trade union members have no statutory entitlement to time off to undertake the duties of a union learning representative, to be trained as a learning representative or to access the services of a learning
representative, and that has caused difficulties. About a third of union learning representatives do not receive paid time off for training in their role. About half do not receive paid time off to carry out their workplace duties. That has significantly hindered the contribution that union learning representativess can make. It has also constrained the expansion of the union learning network.
In contrast, other trade union representatives have those clear rights to time off. Those rights that have been in place since 1976, and have worked well. There have been no serious difficulties for employers in complying with the requirements of the law in that regard, so very few tribunal cases have arisen on the matter of rights to time off. It may interest the Committee to know that 18 applications were made in the past year to employment tribunals over problems relating to rights to time off. There were more than 130,000 applications to the tribunal system overall.
The clause corrects unequal treatment. It gives the union learning representatives rights broadly equivalent to those currently enjoyed by shop stewards and other lay representatives. It provides for rights to reasonable time off with pay for union learning representatives to train and perform their duties. It also gives a right to reasonable time off without pay for union members who wish to access the services of union learning representatives. The principal risk, as the regulatory impact assessment makes clear, is that without those rights the union learning representatives
''will fail to develop their full potential. This would weaken the Government's strategy for basic skills, and individuals, businesses and the economy would consequently lose.''
The world of work is changing. More than ever, business success depends on the skills, commitment and adaptability of the work force. We simply cannot afford to neglect the interests and skills of people at work. Trade unions, too, are changing. They are now more focused on servicing the individual needs of their members. They now want, workplace by workplace, to contribute fully to business success. The union learning representatives are one manifestation of that new approach by British trade unions. They show what unions can do when they work well in partnership with both individuals and business.
The clause puts union learning representatives on a clear statutory footing. It fulfils a manifesto commitment and will benefit thousands of individuals and the organisations that employ them. I want to make it clear to my hon. Friends at this point that when the clause stand part question is put, if the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge calls a division, I will ask my hon. Friends to ensure that they support the clause.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 13.
Before I call the next amendment, may I remind the Committee that the announcement made this morning of the selection changes is available on the table? I am sure that most hon. Members have discovered that already, but in case anyone came in later, they are available in the usual places in the Committee Room.
With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 223, in page 46, line 19, at end insert
'and shall not exceed fourteen working days per annum without the agreement in writing of the employer'.
No. 225, in page 46, line 41, after 'take', insert 'reasonable'.
I might have paraphrased slightly. I hope that the essence of his comments will not be that he cannot tell us what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. Some 14 days' time off a year per learning rep is anticipated, and I believe that the regulatory impact assessment is based on that number.
The amendment would insert the word ''reasonable'' where a right to take time off is granted, so that the text would read:
''to take reasonable time off''.
In the light of what the Minister has said, and of the provisions in subsection (8), I cannot see how any reasonable person would have a problem with that. Amendment No. 223 would go a little further by inserting a further definition at the end of subsection (8), which the Minister has quoted on several occasions, making it clear that the amount of time off taken will be reasonable in all circumstances, and will have regard to the code of practice of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, but that in any case it
'shall not exceed fourteen working days per annum without the agreement in writing of the employer'.
That last point is crucial. In other words, I am explicitly recognising that in certain cases it will be appropriate for time off to exceed 14 days per annum. Indeed, one can envisage a successful collaboration in
which, over time, an employer evolves a training strategy that is specifically predicated on the greater involvement of union learning reps.
I shall not enter now into the great training and qualification debate, but I take it that we are talking about only those cases where the appointed reps are properly qualified and have something genuine to contribute in promoting training and learning. In certain cases, employers will willingly agree that the amount of time off taken should be greater than 14 days because the activities of the learning rep form an integral and effective part of their own training programmes and procedures. However, in certain other cases the legislation will impose the right in respect of union learning reps in an environment that is not conducive to their proper and productive functioning, and the employer will be entitled to seek an assurance that there will be a limit to the burden placed upon him.
The Minister tells us, and the regulatory impact assessment invites us to believe, that it will be self-evident to the employer that he is making money out of that arrangement and gaining more than it is costing him. Unless the employer is a very strange animal indeed, he will ask for more of it, but I suspect that even the Minister would not argue that the arrangement will work productively and effectively in every case.
The amendment attempts to place a limit on the number of days of paid time off work to which the employer can be exposed, in circumstances in which the arrangement is not conducive to the effective promotion of trade. If, for example, Mr. Greg Tucker were appointed by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers as union learning representative at Waterloo station, in the present environment that would not be an appointment that would immediately lead to an obviously beneficial upsurge in interest in learning and training by employees of South West Trains, although some members of the Committee, and indeed some of my constituents who use South West Trains every day, might think that some of them could use it.
That is an example of a situation in which it is obvious that such an appointment would not be helpful, and employers would rightly want to ensure that if this burden is imposed on them by legislation, there should be a maximum limit to which they were exposed without having to run the risk of going through a tribunal procedure after refusing to allow time off.
The Minister has told us only that that provisions in subsection (8) discuss reasonableness, the code of practice and circumstances, but they are not specific. Somebody said to me yesterday, and I found this informative, that we would not need the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council if it were obvious to all intelligent people what was reasonable and what was not, and what was right and what was wrong, in all circumstances in which the law allows discretion.
There will be cases in which employers are at the margin and are unsure whether they are making the right call. If they face the prospect of a tribunal if they get it wrong, they will err on the side of caution, and they might err substantially on the side of caution. I do not suggest that it will happen every day, but there will be circumstances in which a person appointed as a learning rep is unable to be effective. That may be because of the relationships between the employer and the employees or the trade union. Since the paid time off that the learning reps will take is simply a burden that the employer must bear, there ought to be some floor, ceiling or limit to the deadweight cost.
I repeat that it looks to me, and nothing that the Minister has said has persuaded me otherwise, as if employers are being invited to pay the Labour party's election bills by making a straightforward concession to a piece of the TUC's political agenda that is written into the Bill and claimed as the TUC's own in its briefing to members of the Committee.
I shall not address the hon. Gentleman's recent remarks. That was not why I wanted to intervene, and I am sure that the Minister can deal with them. Does the hon. Gentleman think that putting a 14 working days provision into the Bill would not, from a trade union learning rep's point of view, become the longstop the other way? Representatives would argue to their employers that they were entitled to at least 14 days, and would be off to the tribunal if they did not get it, which is what the hon. Gentleman fears.
The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, and I would have thought that he would be able, if he exercised his mind for a moment, to think of many examples in our legal code where matters are dealt with by this type of structure. One example might be an amount that is reasonable in all the circumstances that cannot exceed £10,000. Another would be a number of days that are reasonable but do not exceed 20 days. A third would be responding to something within a period of time that is reasonable in all circumstances, but in any case is not longer than six months. There is no difficulty with the architecture if the principle is agreed.
I am with the hon. Gentleman in terms of the principle behind the amendment because it would impose a limit on the exercise of those rights. I want better to understand the distinction between the concept of reasonableness contained in subsection (8) to which the Minister alluded, and that contained in the amendments. The hon. Gentleman suggested earlier that clause 8 would be interpreted only in circumstances in which the right was challenged in a tribunal. Surely it is the case with the amendments that the right would become relevant only if it were challenged in a tribunal?
I do find this rather tedious. In the discussion on the previous amendment, the hon. Gentleman made it clear that he had recognised as a result of the debate that the amendment that he had tabled should not necessarily be inserted in the Bill because he recognised that Government Members had points about its limiting the Bill to one representative for each establishment. I accepted the logic of his remarks, and therefore did not vote for an amendment—
The hon. Gentleman cannot be too precious about this. I am sure that he will have an opportunity to make a contribution in which he can defend how he intends to vote or has voted. He must address the point in his intervention, and we are drifting far from that.
I have lost my train of thought, but I think that I am responding to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. He is, of course, right, and I hope that he will not mind that we occasionally have a joke at the expense of his party. It is a tradition in Standing Committee, and I am sure that he will get used to it. By alternating their attendance in Committee, he and his hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) are providing us with plenty of opportunities.
The hon. Gentleman is right that inserting the backstop of 14 days into subsection (8) could be tested or enforced only by application to a tribunal. It is probably common ground that where a specific provision limits the time to 14 days, it is likely that most reasonable people will not insist on testing it at tribunal. The problem with the tribunal test comes where the definitions are so loose that they are open to wide interpretation.
I accept that the ACAS code will help to limit the scope for interpretation, but I suggest two things to the Minister. First, having a backstop behind the definition in the Bill, which is what is reasonable in all the circumstances having regard to the code, is good in itself. Secondly, regardless of what is reasonable in all the circumstances, and having regard to the code, there ought to be a maximum vulnerability to paid time off for a learning rep if there is no agreement by the employer. I do not understand what the Minister has to fear if learning reps will be as self-evidently beneficial to the employer as he is telling us.
Because of the nature of the animals that we are, it is easy to become adversarial. We would not be here if we were not, although the hon. Member for North Norfolk does not like it. Nevertheless we are talking about cases at the margin. I am prepared to concede that in many cases, hopefully most cases, employers, even those who are sceptical, will be pleasantly surprised by the effect of having union learning reps in their workplace. Equally, we must be realistic and acknowledge that there will certainly be some cases in which the appointment of union learning reps, perhaps through no fault of their own, contributes nothing because of the environment in which they operate. I seek to limit the exposure of employers in those circumstances.
The amendments were tabled to probe the Minister and to find out whether he can tell watching employer representative bodies how he will ensure that there is a proper limit on the amount of time off and that it is not abused, even in the sort of extreme cases that I have used as illustrations.
I am frustrated that this is only a probing amendment because it will deny me the opportunity of abstaining.
I support the principle behind the amendments. I cannot see a distinction between introducing reasonableness as the amendments would do, and the concept of reasonableness in subsection (8). At the end of the day, only the tribunal will determine whether the amount of time taken off in a specific case was reasonable. The amendments have merit, because they would reinforce the provision and make it clear to anyone wanting to read them--employers and employees--that the time off is limited in terms of reasonableness with a longstop of 14 days.
I did not listen carefully to every word uttered by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but it is worth noting that one of the amendments would limit time off for an employee who seeks the services of the union learning representative under subsection (4)(2B). Again, it seems sensible to introduce the concept of reasonableness there. I agree with the principle of the amendments, even though I cannot abstain on them.
I support the amendments. The underlying principle that is important to all employers, particularly in business, is certainty. That is what my hon. Friend is trying to bring to the process.
The Minister commended the principle of reasonableness elsewhere in the Bill. We all support the idea of learning in the workplace, but when an open-ended time span is created, there is a danger of undermining support for the principle from a wide variety of employers, large and small. That is why the amendments are right in trying to introduce a degree of certainty at different points in the clause. The danger is that an open-ended commitment, or open cheque book, may be counter-productive in promoting best practice and I ask the Minister to bear that in mind. We are more likely to see the promotion of learning in the workplace if we introduce some certainty instead of the open-ended commitment in the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 223, 224 and 225 relate to time off for union learning representatives to undertake their duties and to time off that an employee may take to access their services.
Amendment No. 223 seeks to restrict to 14 the number of working days that union learning representatives may take off each year to undertake their duties. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made it clear, that figure was taken from the regulatory impact assessment, which accompanies the Bill. In that, we estimate that union learning representatives would need five days for initial training and nine days after that each year to carry out their duties and undertake any further training.
The figures in those calculations are averages, and in some instances union learning representatives will need to take less, or more, time off. For example, if an employer has undertaken a major restructuring exercise or is seeking Investors in People status, a learning representativesmay need to spend more time than average advising union members on their likely training needs.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman has attempted to cater for occasions where more than 14 days are required by including the provision that it can be exceeded if the employer gives written consent to that over-run of the time. In effect, that would be an extra stage, and an extra bit of paperwork, in the process, and the clause was deliberately drafted to minimise the burdens placed on employers. I am reluctant to take a step that goes further than the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friends would not wish me to do so.
The Minister says that the clause was drafted deliberately to minimise burdens and suggests that writing a letter is an onerous burden. However, it should be compared with an extra day, two days or three days of paid time off, which, from memory, the regulatory impact assessment costs at £12.67 an hour. That would be a pretty expensive letter. If I were an employer I would rather write the letter than pay for another seven hours at £12.67.
The process in the clause is intended to strike a balance between being effective and not being too burdensome on business. The hon. Gentleman rightly recognised the role of the ACAS code of practice, which has worked well. Why invent a new approach when we have an established approach that has worked well, has not been abused—one of the hon. Gentleman's concerns—and has acted as a limit to demands on time off for other types of lay officials? That has been demonstrated by the limited number of applications that are made to employment tribunals as a result of disputes and problems over the operation of the time off provisions for other lay representatives.
In response to the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford, it simply is not true that the clause proposes an open-ended time span. The time off must be reasonable in all circumstances and, therefore, in relation to the employee, the employer and the needs and demands of the business. The fact that the arrangements must be reasonable provides safeguards against union learning representatives taking excessive time off. They draw on the established model, which has served us well through ACAS.
Amendment No. 224—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way regardless.
New subsection (8) refers to
The Minister mentioned the existing ACAS code of practice. Can he confirm that that is the code of practice that he expects to apply henceforth and that there is no intention to revise it in the light of the Bill or for the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice?
The current ACAS code of practice on time off would need to be revised to accommodate union learning representatives. That is the most likely route that we will take. Ultimately, it will be for ACAS to decide whether to do so. We could, via the Secretary of State, produce a code of practice. That would not be my preferred option.
Amendment No. 224 is unnecessary. As I said when resisting the earlier set of amendments to subsection (8) of the new section 168A, union learning representatives are entitled only to reasonable time off. This is detailed in subsection (8), to which the hon. Gentleman has just drawn our attention, and codified in the practice guide that ACAS has produced. It places restrictions on union representatives seeking unlimited time off or time off that would disrupt or damage the employer's business. Therefore, the Bill already provides that any time off taken by a union learning representativesduring working hours must be reasonable, so there is no need to repeat the point, as the amendment does.
For the same reason, I cannot accept amendment No. 225, which specifies that the time off that a qualifying employee is entitled to take to access the services of his union learning representativesmust also be reasonable.Subsections (4) and (5) provide for certain employees to have time off without pay to access the services of their learning rep. That is achieved by amending section 170 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. However, section 170(3) already specifies that such time off must be reasonable. It does so in the terms that we use in subsection (8) of the proposed new section. Therefore, again there is no need to repeat the point in what would be section 170 of the 1992 Act.
In conclusion, amendments Nos. 224 and 225 are unnecessary, as the restrictions that they are intended to introduce are already in place, and amendment No. 223 would undermine the effectiveness of the advice that a union learning representativesmay provide in some circumstances. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment. If he does so, I must ask my hon. Friends to resist it.
There are two separate issues here. First, I accept that in relation to amendment No. 224 the word ''reasonable'' in the expression
''to take time off during his working hours'' is redundant in a technical sense. It does nothing other than underline the intention. However, if we went through the Bill and filleted out everything that was redundant in literal terms, not much of it would be left, because most of the Bill consists of a general power to
the Secretary of State to make regulations, followed by great lists of things that the regulations might cover. There is no clarification that they will cover them or will not cover them, but simply an assertion that they might cover them. Therefore, plenty could come out of the Bill if the Minister's environmental instincts suggested to him that too much paper was wasted in this place as well as too much hot air. I thought that it would be useful to include the word in the Bill as a forceful reassertion of the reasonableness criterion in new section 168A (1), which refers to the concept of paid time off. I was not suggesting that it had any new practical effect.
Subsection (2B) inserted into section 170 is largely intended to mirror the language of amendment No. 224, but there is a slightly wider sense here, which the Minister's remarks tend to confirm. It would be good if he could confirm that explicitly for the record. The time off unpaid that an employee is entitled to take during his working hours—unlimited if the amendment is accepted, subject to the reasonableness criterion—is time off for talking to a union learning rep about training, not time off for doing training. Can the Minister confirm that that is the correct interpretation? The phrase ''talking to'' is too narrow. It is time off for discussing training, exploring training opportunities or perhaps looking at literature, but not time off for training itself.
I am happy to do that. The clause creates for a union member the right to consult and to take advantage of the services that their union learning representatives can provide. It creates no right to unpaid time off to take advantage of training.
I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for clarifying that point. I thought that that was so, but it is useful to have it put explicitly on the record.
On amendment No. 223—the 14 days provision—the Under-Secretary made it clear that the regulatory impact assessment established 14 days as an average figure. That is fine for Government statisticians or those who have to write regulatory impact assessments, but for an individual employer, particularly a small employer, what is interesting is not the average figure but the figure that he will have to bear. I should have preferred some form of backstop.
It would have been helpful if the Under-Secretary had outlined those cases where time off will significantly exceed 14 days. Perhaps he could have offered an example of a circumstance in which it would not be appropriate to ask for the employer's agreement in writing, but where a period of more than 14 days would be appropriate. As the Minister for Employment and the Regions, who has led for the Government during most of our deliberations, will confirm, I am an entirely reasonable person, and I would have been very flexible on that point, but if we do not establish a backstop, we are missing something.
The Under-Secretary said that similar arrangements operate in relation to other union officials, and that, in practice, there has never been a problem. That is almost literally what he said: that there is no recorded case that any of his hon. Friends can call to mind in
which there has been a problem. I readily confess that I am not an expert in this area, so I shall look at the records myself. If I find that he is right, I shall be obliged to accept what he says, although I would still prefer that some constraints be included. For the time being, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move amendment No. 218, in page 45, line 22, leave out paragraph (b).
The amendment, which is a probing one, would delete subsection 2(b) of proposed new section 168A. Its purpose—we have already touched on this issue—is to give the Under-Secretary the opportunity, at the right point, as it were, to clarify that no additional right to bargain will be created in respect of training. In fact, he has already confirmed that, so I shall not waste the Committee's time on the issue, but I want to ask him exactly what he means when he says that there will be no additional right to bargain. Is he saying that the inclusion of training and training rights will never form part of the equation in a negotiation between employer and employee? Is he saying that the union learning representative will never be part of a delegation or group in a negotiation involving a trade union and an employer?
I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend is not saying that, because that would roll back existing workplace rights. We are talking here about recognised trade unions, and a situation in which there is already a bargaining relationship between employer and employee through the trade unions. Unions already have a right, and exercise it, to negotiate on training. The hon. Gentleman is asking the Minister to confirm that we will roll back existing practice.
Many of this country's industries, such as engineering and printing, have a recognisable training backlog, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to demand of national trade unions that they get stuck in and bargain on training, because we have to improve that backlog.
The hon. Gentleman's contribution is very interesting, and perhaps he will expand on it in a moment in a speech of his own. Then the Minister will be able to deal with the issue. I am being studiously neutral in the way in which I am presenting the matter. It is a probing amendment only, and the Minister has explicitly said that there will be no additional right to bargain. The question that I am posing is whether that means that the trade union learning rep, who might be expected to be the union side expert on training matters within a workplace, will not be able to have paid time off work as a union learning rep to take part in negotiations. That would be the common-sense interpretation of what the Minister has said, and I invite him to clarify that.
I shall try to clarify the situation. I should not say that training will never be part of the negotiation in the workplace, because it is already.
Some union representatives are part of those negotiations, but where that takes place, it is by agreement. There is no legal right for unions to bargain on training, and the clause does not change that position.
The specific question is whether a union learning rep, granted the right to paid time off from work to carry out his duties as a union learning rep, could lawfully require his employer to allow him to form part of a bargaining or negotiating delegation for the purpose of him negotiating training matters among other issues being negotiated between employer and employee. That is all that I am asking the Minister. Having seen the rights included in the Bill and heard the Minister's categorical assurance that it will create no new right to bargain, it is not clear to me what the status of the appointed union learning rep will be in relation to bargaining generally, where training is an issue within the overall bargaining arrangements.
I am not suggesting that training should not be an issue about which people negotiate, but it is important to understand when the trade union learning rep will be able to use his paid time off to sit and talk to the employer, which he obviously must do, and when he will not. I take it, from what the Minister has said, that he will not be able to do so when he is bargaining over training rather than discussing training with the employer in a context other than a bargaining one.
There is, in law, a clear distinction between the concept of consultation, the word used in the provision, and that of collective bargaining or negotiation. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central suggested that there is an existing right to bargain collectively on training, but there is not. My understanding of the legislation on the right to recognition for trade unions is that it specifically left training out of the issues over which there could be collective bargaining. It introduced the right to consult on that issue. This provision follows the same legislative framework as the law on the right to recognition for trade unions. It seems that there is a clear distinction and that no further definition is required.
If that is the case, I will be very pleased if the Minister can clarify it. All that he needs to tell the Committee is that a person appointed as a union learning rep, that is, an official entitled to paid time off for certain duties, will not be able, within the definition of those duties, to take part in a bargaining session.
One concern expressed by employers is that bargaining rights might be extended—there might be creep—as a result of the legislation. Another concern is that, in some circumstances, people appointed as learning reps might be trade union activists to whom the trade union wishes to give formalised recognition,
and for whom they wish to secure paid time off, as part of a wider process. I am not suggesting that that will be widespread or universal, but since the Minister has clearly ruled out this area becoming subject to bargaining, I think it wholly appropriate to ask him how he can be sure that that will be the case. I give way to the Minister, and he can clarify the matter.
I hope and think that I can. The hon. Gentleman has made clear the additional point that he is pursuing. In the context of the legislation that we are examining, the issue is not whether the representatives take part in bargaining, but whether in order to do that they take advantage of the clause's provision for a new right to time off. The purposes for which a trade union representative can claim a right to time off under the clause are specified in new section 168A(2). They do not include bargaining on training.
There are two circumstances in which a union representative may take part in bargaining over training and may get time off to do so. The first is where there is an agreement with the employer to do that. The second is where the union learning representative is also a shop steward. If that individual is engaged in bargaining, their position as a shop steward may give them a right to time off under existing section 168. That would, however, be a right to time off as a shop steward, not as a union learning representative.
The Minister's remarks are helpful, and I suspect that little light bulbs have illuminated on this side of the Committee. They certainly have in my mind. It had not occurred to me that the union learning rep could be the shop steward.
It had not occurred to me. Hon. Members opposite look shocked. I think that the whole tenor of the debate has been that the learning rep will be someone with a specialist skill targeted on a wholly different agenda. I take it that the learning agenda is different from the role of shop steward in the workplace.
The real problem here is that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have not learned a lot during the last 20 years. There is still this image coming through from the Conservative Opposition that the shop steward is a horned beast, a wicked creature designed to do damage to the fabric of our society. The reality of industrial relations is that the shop steward is often the first point of call for personnel management or whatever, because the system is helpful. It would be consistent for a skilled shop steward, used to representing his or her members, also to be the person who upskills him or herself to perform the role of union learning representative. I just do not see wherein lies the problem.
I find it very interesting that trade union membership is at the level that it is, if it offers all those advantages and has transformed and modernised itself as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is remarkable that at the beginning of the 21st century,
when the majority of the work force is not trade unionised, we are discussing a measure that will apply to a small minority of the work force outside the public sector. We are making primary legislation to deliver a benefit to some employees and not others in a tiny community within the work force.
Forgetting the last part of the Under-Secretary's comments and the subsequent exchange, his clarification was helpful. I said at the outset that this was a probing amendment. I am struggling, Mr. Conway, because I cannot remember whether the Minister replied or merely intervened in my opening comments.
Union learning representatives do not operate in a vacuum. Employers have their own expertise and knowledge of training and learning matters. Good employers will be active in promoting training for and upskilling their work force, which is one of the functions of the union learning rep specified in the clause. Paragraph (b), which the amendment would remove, recognises that union learning representatives should communicate regularly with employers and discuss their work programmes with them. Such dialogue benefits both parties. Initiatives can be dovetailed and, as the hon. Member for Doncaster, North made it clear, employees will often talk to a union learning rep in terms that they would not use to a human resources officer or manager, so training needs can be established by union learning representatives and should be communicated to the company.
The amendment suggests that a belief in such discussion and consultation with the employer is not an essential role of the union learning rep.
I have provided that statement several times today, not least during the recent exchange. If the hon. Gentleman consults Hansard, he will see all the assurance and clarification he requires several times.
Subsection (2)(b) provides a sensible entitlement for union learning representatives to have time off to consult their employer on such matters. It is explicitly restricted to consultations on the performance of union learning representatives' duties as specified in the Bill. It is not a general entitlement to time off to consult the employer on other issues.
The Under-Secretary said that the union learning representative may be the same individual as the shop steward. Would the time off to which he would be entitled in his role as union learning representative be in addition to the time off to which he would be entitled as shop steward? Would the two be bolted together?
The union learning representative would have the right to time off to perform the duties of union learning representative. The right to that time off is established in the clause and is to enable him to perform the duties specified in the clause.
To return to the amendment, subsection (2)(b) is vital to the working of the union learning rep and in the light of our discussion and the points that we have exchanged, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.
I beg to move amendment No. 219, in page 45, line 29, at end insert—
'(aa) the employer has given his approval in writing to the appointment (such approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed)'.
The amendment addresses the question of employer approval for the appointment of a learning rep. I know that Labour Members' initial reaction will be ''This has nothing to do with the employer. He should not have any power to influence the appointment of the union learning rep.'' That argument sits uncomfortably with what we have all said about learning reps being able to flourish and prosper only in a collaborative environment. It seems not unreasonable to say that an employer cannot have a veto over the appointment of a shop steward, but also reasonable to say that an employer must have some involvement in the appointment of a learning rep, if it is to be anything more than a bauble to be offered as an inducement to a trade union official—more paid time off for the shop steward. That is not what any of us seeks.
Knowing what the instinctive reaction of Labour Members would be, I have inserted into the amendment the words
''such approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed'', a phrase familiar to lawyers. The concept of reasonableness is one that we debated a few minutes ago in relation to another matter and one with which the law is used to dealing. In most cases it would be impossible for an employer to withhold his approval of a proposed learning representative where all the other criteria were met, one of those criteria being appropriate qualifications or competence. We shall come to that issue and I do not intend to address it now.
The amendment would simply include a provision that the employer has a voice in this process that could be exercised where the proposed appointment is unreasonable, having regard to all the facts, where the reasonableness or otherwise would ultimately be determined by a tribunal. I suspect that most employers in most cases would be reluctant to risk exercising the power that I propose to give them here
to withhold approval in any but the most extreme cases, but it is essential that we recognise the collaborative nature of the process that union learning reps will be engaged on by involving the employer in the appointment process.
Might one such circumstance be where an individual who seeks to be a learning representative already has many trade union functions, such as being a shop steward, which already take him away from his job for a certain amount of time during the year and the company reasonably feels that it would be better to share the burden with another member of the work force so that he is not away from his job even longer?
My hon. Friend tempts me to speculate on individual cases. I do not claim to be intimately familiar with the code of practice, which I suspect may address at least part of the issue that he raises. It is almost a question of negative principle. Given that we are talking about a co-operative situation here, why would the employer not have the ability to approve the learning rep's appointment? We do not, as I understand it, see a learning rep as an adversarial representative of the work force; we see him as part of the team that the employer has in place to deliver and promote learning and training in the workplace, so the employer must have a voice in the matter. If I was saying that the employer should be given an absolute veto, I could understand the instinctive hackles that it would raise, but I am not—I am saying that a reasonableness test should be applied.
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting concept. To follow his argument to its logical conclusion, would he accept an equivalent provision whereby unions could, not unreasonably, veto the appointment of a personnel manager, company chairman or managing director?
If the hon. Gentleman is describing a situation in which the union has to pay the personnel manager, certainly it should have a reasonable voice in who is appointed to that function, but in all the companies that I have ever come across, it does not do so.
That is an interesting answer, but it does not address his point about the spirit of co-operation. Surely in the spirit of co-operation and partnership, irrespective of who pays the personnel manager, the union should have the right of veto over senior managers, who, do not forget, affect their members' livelihoods. That would be an interesting step forwards.
I cannot agree that we can discuss this in the context of it being irrespective of who pays. That is precisely the point. The employer is being asked to provide paid time off for a person and the Minister is advancing the argument that it will not be on behalf of, say, a shop steward, whom employees in the union need to fight their corner, but to the benefit
of both sides—employer and employee. It is intended to be a neutral appointment, in the sense that it is not adversarial.
Good management practice suggests that the appointment of personnel managers and directors is made with regard to the views of the people that they will be interfacing with and managing. I would take a pretty dim view of a board of directors that appointed a senior personnel manager to whom they knew their work force to be hostile. If I were an investor in that company, I would be alarmed by such a process. The hon. Gentleman may be able to pluck an example from his long and detailed knowledge, but I suspect that examples of personnel managers being appointed in a way that is likely to be antagonistic to the work force happen more often in the public sector than in the private sector. In the private sector, the foremost consideration of the board of directors is to ensure that the business continues to function smoothly, which requires good relationships with the people working in the business.
The National Coal Board was a public sector entity.
The Minister may think that I was unfair to press him on learning reps in the public sector in his Department. However, it is an important point. We talk in Committees about good employers, bad employers, enlightened employers, unenlightened employers and even stone-age employers. From my own observations around the country, I find that much of the bad practice is by managements in the public sector, not the private sector. That is not because managements in the private sector are wonderful, altruistic people, but because they are focused on delivering results and generating profits for their shareholders. Generally speaking, thank goodness, sound and prosperous businesses and profits for shareholders depend on good and constructive relationships with people working in those businesses. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that across the piece, industrial relations in the UK are better in the private sector than they are in the public sector.
I find the principle behind what the hon. Gentleman is saying bizarre in the extreme. We are talking about an organisation—in this case a trade union, but it could be any other organisation—to which members pay subscriptions, for which there are agreed rules and an agreed process, and which has all the other characteristics associated with a legitimate trade union. Yet the hon. Gentleman is arguing that someone who is not a member of such an organisation, and who pays no subscription to it, should have a say in deciding who represents it. Where does that stop? Why not allow the employer or the manager to pick the shop steward or the general secretary? It is bizarre to
argue that someone who is not a member of a trade union should have a say in who represents it, be they a learning rep or any other rep.
I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman thinks it bizarre that anyone else should have a say in who should be a union learning rep but perfectly normal that someone else should pay them. I do not accept the analogy with a shop steward. Part of a shop steward's function is to represent his members—not necessarily formally, but on a daily basis—in a negotiating situation. I do not want the hon. Member for Manchester, Central to jump up and say that a shop steward's function is not always adversarial; of course it is not, but in essence it is about representing the sectional interest of the work force. That is the shop steward's job.
Of course, I acknowledge that it would be wrong for the employer to be able to pick someone whom he thought a poodle. We could have all manner of arguments about in-house staff associations, and so on, but I shall not be tempted to do so. It seems, however, that the Government are inviting us to view learning representatives as something quite different: not as representatives of a sectional interest, but as part of a broad equation that promotes learning and upskilling in the workplace. Such representatives will work not in isolation, but in good companies with established training programmes, managers and personnel. They will be a small part of a much bigger machine, working together to deliver the end product of better training and better skills in our work force. That is a role quite different from that of shop steward.
Mr. Hughes indicated dissent.
The hon. Gentleman seems to accept that learning representatives are a good thing—he will doubtless correct me if I am wrong—but that the employer should have a say in the appointment of a union learning rep because he must contribute to the cost. He also seemed to say—again, he will correct me if I am wrong—that he thinks paternity leave and paternity pay good things. Given that an employer must contribute to paternity pay, would the hon. Gentleman also argue that an employer should have a right to a say in fatherhood?
The hon. Gentleman has not helped the discussion much with that intervention, and I shall not bother to reply to it. Perhaps it was in the same spirit as my earlier exchange with the hon. Member for North Norfolk.
The point is perfectly clear, and I was hoping that the phrase
''approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed'' would tempt Government Members to think seriously about the matter. The issue is one of concern to employers. It may be that there is no mischief to be addressed in the vast majority of cases and that unions always appoint the best person for the job. However, what happens where there is internal friction in a union
branch, and the person who is obviously best qualified to act as the learning representative—who obviously has the skills and ability—is not appointed and someone clearly unsuitable is appointed in their stead? It is such cases that we are inviting the Under-Secretary to consider.
In effect, the amendment would give a veto to employers in respect of union learning representatives' right to time off. We gave the issue a considerable airing in relation to the Confederation of British Industry's stance on it. The amendment would mean that if employers do not like the idea that union learning representatives should operate, they can simply withhold their consent. I am afraid that that would leave us where we are today, with union learning representatives' right to time off dependent entirely on the employer's say-so. That, as I made clear earlier, is unacceptable to the Government.
With the greatest respect to the Minister, that is not the purpose of the amendment. It is not intended to allow an employer to object to a union learning rep per se; it is to allow an employer to register an objection only where it is reasonable to do so to an individual being appointed as a union learning rep.
I was moving on the point about reasonableness before the hon. Gentleman intervened.
In some ways the hon. Gentleman's amendment tries to obscure the underlying purpose, by stating that such consent could not be unreasonably withheld. However, that does not give us any clue about the circumstances that would be defined as unreasonable. Would it be unreasonable to deny the entitlement simply because it involved some costs to the employer? Would it be unreasonable if the employer thought that he had a difficult relationship with an appointed representative or with the union? Would it be unreasonable if the employer thought that his company already had a good training record? All that is left in the air. In no other part of the legal system are a union representative's rights vetoed on appointment by the employer. That would block the rights that the Bill aims to establish.
The amendment goes to the heart of our proposals. We want a larger and more effective network of learning representatives; we want them to have clear entitlements. The amendment would defeat both objectives. The Government cannot accept it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw it.
The Minister has not made a case against the amendment. It is not correct to say that a provision that says that approval is required but may not be unreasonably withheld or delayed is an effective veto. It is not an effective veto. If the Minister talks to any of his hon. Friends who are lawyers and used to working with the phrase
''not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed'', he will discover that it is a fairly high hurdle.
We do not think that it is unreasonable if the purpose of the Bill is as the Government have set it out—to give the employer a small voice in the identity of the learning rep who is being appointed. He is not a negotiator like a shop steward, in the case of whom the employer would have a clear interest in selecting someone who might be inappropriate—a poodle—to negotiate with. The employer would have no interest in selecting someone who would not be a good promoter of training and upskilling. There is no danger from accepting the amendment.
The Minister, who has been answering the Committee's questions for a relatively short time but who seems to be a reasonable sort of person, does not sound as if he even wants to listen to the arguments and the reasoning behind the amendments. I have to conclude that that is because he is not in control of this agenda. This agenda has been dictated to the Government by those who paid for their election campaign last year. This is pay-back time. I am speaking to the Minister, but I am hearing his prepared brief. I have no perception that he is addressing, absorbing or dealing with the points that underlie our amendments. Therefore, I shall have to urge my hon. Friends to support the amendment in a Division.
I felt emboldened to rise briefly. I simply want to place on the record my appreciation of the Minister's robust response, but I also appreciated this
return to the ranting days of the Tory party. This Tory party is so out of touch with modern Britain, having lost two elections, that everything with the word ''union'' in it is anathema. It seeks so to bedevil industrial relations that it wants to drive a wedge between good employer and good trade union. It is the language of the past. For those reasons I can only applaud my hon. Friend the Minister for his response.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 12.