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Column 144Thorne, Neil
Twinn, Dr Ian
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. David Maclean and
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory.
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Kevin Barron and
Mr. Allan Rogers.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Nicholls : Amendments Nos. 30 to 34 are purely technical and in no way change the underlying purpose of the clause. That said, they fall into two distinct categories. Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 remedy a defect in the drafting of section 32 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. The need to put forward the amendments arises out of a recent Court of Appeal decision in the case of Adlington v. British Bakeries (Northern) Limited. The case was decided during the Committee stage and was referred to by the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise).
The purpose of clause 10 is to remove the anomoly in section 27 of the 1978 Act, which was revealed in the 1982 Court of Appeal case of Beal and Others v Beecham. The amendments seek not to change the purpose of the clause, but to amend the law to remove that anomaly. The clause does not alter the law in any other respect.
Mr. Strang : The Minister will recall our discussions in Committee on a clause to which we take great exception. I am not wholly convinced that the amendments are entirely technical and I wish to probe the matter a little further, especially on amendment No. 31. The issue has a long history going back to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, which was introduced by the Labour Government. Section 27 of that Act clearly laid down the circumstances under which an employee could have paid time off for legitimate trade union activities. There was some opposition to that legislation from the Conservative party. I say "some" because in those days the Tories' extreme attitude towards the trade union movement was not fully manifest.
During those debates a number of hon. Members sought to limit the circumstances under which people could have paid time off. The position is clear because an ACAS code of practice, which was envisaged in the Act, defines the duties for which trade union officials can have paid time off. They include :
(collective bargaining with the appropriate level of management ;)
Column 145(b) informing constituents about negotiations or consultations with management ;
(c) meetings with other lay officials or with full-time union officers on matters which are concerned with industrial relations between his or her employer and any associated employer and their employees ;
(d) interviews with and on behalf of constituents on grievance and discipline matters concerning them and their employer ;
(e) appearing on behalf of constituents before an outside official body, such as an industrial tribunal, which is dealing with an industrial relations matter concerning the employer ; and (
(f) explanations to new employees whom he or she will represent of the role of the union in the workplace industrial relations structure."
It is our view that the ACAS code of practice, amplified by various court cases, lays down a reasonable legislative framework determining when a trade unionist should be entitled to time off paid for by his employer. We take exception to the clause because it seeks to change all that. It seeks to remove the applicability of the ACAS code of practice and to insert a new definition of the circumstances in which a trade union official would be entitled to time off, namely, the definition in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. It is symptomatic of the Government's whole approach to these matters that the definition which is to be operative is the definition of a trade dispute. Time and time again we have to remind Government Members that, contrary to the impression that they and the organs of the press that support them give, full-time trade union officials spend 95 to 99 per cent. of their time not in seeking to encourage people to withdraw their labour but in seeking to avoid disputes and secure agreements. Often their intervention has the effect of preventing people from coming out on strike or taking industrial action.
The vast bulk of their time is spent on helping the process of industrial relations which means helping to avoid disputes and breakdowns in relations between management and workers. Generally it is only a small fraction of their time that is involved in strikes and other forms of industrial action. It is sad that the Government should seek to revert to the definition of a trade dispute to lay down the conditions that have to be fulfilled for a worker to have paid time off for trade union activities.
It was made clear in Committee how restrictive the provision will be. For example, under present legislation, if a national trade union such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union organised a conference on the car industry, provided the conference was about industrial relations and other aspects of the industry, it could reasonably expect that all its members who were active in the car industry, where there was an agreement between the AEU and the company, would be entitled to paid time off to attend the conference. So it would not matter whether the AEU convenor was based at the Rover Cowley plant or at the Nissan Washington plant ; the same criteria would apply. In the example that I have given the convenor would be entitled to paid time off.
What the legislation does is alter that position and it creates a situation where, whether the trade union convenor will have paid time off will depend on the actual collective agreement that is in force between the trade union and the employer at the particular plant or company in question. Therefore, I believe it to be the case that, if there is a rather restrictive agreement between Nissan and the AEU, one could find that a convenor at the Nissan
Column 146plant would not be entitled to paid time off, but a convenor at the Rover plant, where there is a more traditional type of agreement, would be. That was one of the points that came out in Committee. 12.45 am
One of the most incredible justifications for that change in the legislation was to give employers greater certainty. The implication was that there was a certain ambiguity in the current legislation as to when a trade unionist was entitled to paid time off. However, it does the very opposite, as my example illustrates. Instead of there being a uniformity across the board, as applies at present and is basically laid down by the ACAS code of practice to which I have referred, we shall be moving into a situation where the entitlement to paid time off will vary, not according to the nature of the event--for example, a conference or training school-- that the trade union official wants to attend, but according to the nature of the collective agreement between the employer and the trade unionist. It must be pointed out that the Government completely failed to sustain their case that that would lead to a position of greater clarity and predictability for employers in relation to paid time off for trade unionists. It must further be said that the first indication that we received of the Government's intention in that area goes way back to the White Paper, "Building Businesses. not Barriers". That sought to imply that that requirement, which goes back to the Employment Protection Act 1975, was something of a burden on employers. That being so, Ministers have still not made the slightest attempt to describe that burden on or cost to employers. There is no suggestion of any quantification of those.
No one has sought to indicate what the average financial cost or burden in any year is to any particular employer, whether large or small. Indeed, I do not believe that any hon. Member on either side of the House really believes that the entitlement to paid time off by trade union officials, as it operates in this country at present, is in any way a disadvantage or some sort of burden to employers, which makes our firms less competitive than those elsewhere.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the exact reverse would be the truth? If the arrangement for paid time off is left to individual collective agreements between a trade union branch and an employer, it will surely lead to accusations of disparities between agreements--as to employers giving time off or not, as the case may be, to go to the sort of conference mentioned by my hon. Friend--which will in turn lead to more pressure for negotiations to allow time off to reach parity with other sections of the industry. That in itself could lead to an industrial dispute about the very legislation that the Government are proposing to introduce. A national agreement laid down and applying, through statute and national convention, across the board is obviously a way of avoiding disputes between sections of an industry, whereas the Government's proposals are a recipe for conflict.
Mr. Strang : I do not have the slightest doubt that the situation will develop in that way. Codes of practice and case law make people's position clear. It is not clear in this measure. There will be opposition by employees when they find that they are no longer entitled to paid time off.
Column 147Paid time off will be determined by collective agreement, but there are collective agreements and collective agreements. Some, such as the one between the trade unions and the Ford Motor company, are almost comparable to legislation, so well-honed are they. They are clear-cut and precise. But many other collective agreements fall a long way short of that and whether there is time off to undertake a particular activity is open to interpretation.
Disagreement and disharmony will be promoted when a trade union has one interpretation of a collective agreement and the employer has another. We can rest assured that the employer will interpret it as meaning that the official is not entitled to paid time off while the trade union will take the opposite view. The union's rational response will be to bring pressure to bear on the employer to achieve that paid time off. Notwithstanding what is included in the collective agreement, it is always possible to negotiate a supplementary agreement providing specificaly for paid time off for a particular purpose. There will be a clear incentive for workers to bring pressure to bear on employers--perhaps even embarking upon industrial action--to negotiate a supplementary agreement to give paid time off to attend the kind of conference that I have mentioned. Surely most reasonable people recognise that it is in industry's interests that managers and trade union officials are well educated. Some trade union officials are involved in just certain matters--for example, national pay negotiations--but even people without experience in the workplace know that shop stewards play a pivotal role. Consequently, it must be in the interests of large, complex operations that those people have an opportunity to be as well-educated and well-informed as possible. Of course they should be well-informed about industrial relations and negotiating procedures, but they should also have the widest opportunity to educate themselves about their industry and to widen their horizons. In Committee, I asked whether a trade union convenor would be entitled to paid time off to attend a conference on the implications for his industry of the single European market in 1992. We did not get an answer. It is clear that often convenors will not be entitled to paid time off. Of course, it will be possible to negotiate an agreement to achieve that, but the Government are backward in the way in which they have enacted legislation to restrict the scope for working people to attend courses and broaden their education. No one seriously suggests that British industry gravely under-performs, that our output has been greatly reduced or that our productivity has been adversely affected because too many trade unionists have been getting paid time off to attend various courses--far from it. I suspect that not only Opposition Members but many managers and employers would argue that industry would operate more efficiently if more active trade unionists had more opportunities to participate in conferences on education and so on. That would broaden their understanding and enable them to become more knowledgeable not only about industrial relations and negotiating procedures but the nature of their industry's market.
The measure has not been justified by the Government. Certainly, as I have indicated, the two main arguments put
Column 148forward by the Government, have not been substantiated. They have not produced any evidence to show that the current requirement is a burden to industry. It is nonsense to argue, as they have done, that the changes will bring greater certainty.
We are talking about a large number of people and a range of courses. In 1989, 60,000 shop stewards and trade union
representatives will go on training courses arranged by their union or the Trades Union Congress. The trade unions and the TUC spend £6.5 million on training, of which 25 per cent. is grant-aided by the Government.
I am not suggesting that the new legislation will mean that participants on every course organised by the TUC or the unions will not be entitled to paid time off. That does not apply to health and safety representatives : they are governed by separate regulations and there is no restriction on their entitlement to paid time off for trade union activities.
A large number of courses are attended by thousands of trade unionists every year. In the main they are attended on the basis of paid time off. In those circumstances it is wholly reprehensible for the Government to enact a measure which will limit the opportunity for some, not all, trade unionists, to participate in the courses. The Minister argued that the amendments were technical. I would appreciate greater clarification of that argument. Amendment No. 31 deals with a paragraph that is to be substituted in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978. The words to be removed are : "any matters specified in section 29(1) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974"
and the words to be inserted are :
"negotiations with the employer that are related to or connected with any matters which fall within"
section 29(1) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act. That is not technical in the way that the word is normally used in the context of amendments. It changes the Bill so that the courts will interpret it differently from the way in which they would if it remained unamended.
I seek Government guidance on this matter because when I was studying it I was not sure whether the change would marginally improve the position for the trade unions and us. I thought that the phrase
"related to or connected with"
went wider than the wording
"any matter specified in section 29(1)".
If my view was correct, it would mean that that was not a major change but would slightly improve the position. I say "slightly" because such a change would be only marginal and would in no way mitigate the enormity of the amendment, which--as we explained at some length in Committee--we consider an absolute outrage. It cannot be justified on the ground that, as the Government claim, it will help business. It is clear from the inadequacy of the Government's attempts to justify the amendment that it is born out of their continuing vendetta against the trade union movement.
The amendment is intended to undermine and weaken the trade unions. It is the product of an era when the Government believed that there were votes to be had from portraying the unions as the opponents--the enemies--of real progress. I am not sure whether they still believe that votes can be won on that ticket ; I suspect that their own polls will tell them that such votes are becoming fewer and
Column 149fewer, and that the unions are more popular now than they have been for decades. The idea that they are somehow responsible for the major problems facing the nation--inflation, mass unemployment and a huge balance of payments gap--is nonsense.
I would like to think that, whatever the Government's political motivation, the extent to which they can be encouraged to implement vindictive legislation on the basis that it will win votes is being reduced. This, however, is another element in the saga of legislation aimed at attacking the legitimate trade union movement. We got another whiff of the Government's attitude at the weekend, when the Secretary of State made some reference to introducing future legislation to deal with unofficial action. That was bound to receive some coverage in the light of the unofficial action on the London Underground, but the idea that action can be taken to prevent people from striking unofficially is hardly sustainable.
Do the Government intend to introduce legislation to fine or otherwise penalise the unions? That is nonsense, because unofficial action, by definition, is action taken in defiance of trade union instructions. Will they seek to imprison the organisers of such action? In the case of the London Underground action, it is extremely unlikely that they would ever find the organisers. Even against the background of, for instance, the action that the Government took over GCHQ to undermine basic human liberties relating to the right to engage in trade union activity, it is hard to believe that they would legislate for people to be locked up simply because they sought to withdraw their labour. Whether or not the Secretary of State was serious, I suspect that, when they examine the proposal, the Government will find it impracticable.
What is disturbing, however, is that the Government still seem to be considering legislation to trammel and restrict trade union activities further. All the evidence--including much of the evidence obtained by the Government on the consultative documents issued in connection with the Bill --has asked them not to take such action. In respect of a Bill debated in the last Session, the extent to which representations were made by the Confederation of British Industry, the British Institute of Management and the Institute of Personnel Management, implying and sometimes explicitly arguing that the Government had gone more than far enough, was remarkable. That was the view even of organisations that supported the Government when they first enacted employment legislation on being returned to power.
The idea that the Government can further attack trade union rights is wholly indefensible. I do not believe that it has many supporters. It represents simply a continuation of the Government's policy of attacking and undermining trade union activity. That does not reduce union disputes. It must be clear even to the Government that the main reason for the reduction in industrial disputes is mass unemployment. Because of its scale, the average worker feels lucky to have a job and in those circumstances is not in a position to withdraw his labour. However, in some areas--and particularly London--there is not only full employment but employers are finding it hard to recruit. As a consequence, the unions' bargaining power is enhanced and there is a prospect of industrial action. The situation is exacerbated by the sharp rise in the cost of living.
Column 150We bitterly resent clause 10. I ask the Minister to answer my question relating to amendment No. 31, as I am genuinely uncertain as to its true effect. I cannot regard it as a technical amendment. The Minister referred to a recent case that was cited in the Standing Committee, and he may have been implying that the amendment would ensure the same outcome. If that is so, I regard the amendment as purely technical. Perhaps the Minister will explain precisely the implications of amendment No. 31.
Mr. Harry Barnes : We are debating important matters relating to time off for trade union duties and for involvement in training. I prefer to talk about the opportunities for education. Trade unionists do not have to be taught by rote, but need to understand difficult and complex situations in which different views, values and arguments must be taken into account.
The question must be asked whether we are here dealing with purely technical amendments or with something considerably more significant. The changes made in Committee and the defeats that Labour suffered there were certainly significant.
At least four pieces of legislation must be carefully examined. They are the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, the amendment in Committee which referred the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978, and the amendments now before the House, which can be interpreted in many different ways and certainly need clarifying. The original Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 stated that trade unionists should be allowed time off
"(a) to carry out those duties of his as such an official which are concerned with industrial relations between his employer and any associated employer, and their employees ; or
(b) to undergo training in aspects of industrial relations which is--
(i) relevant to the carrying out of those duties ; and (ii) approved by the Trades Union Congress or by the independent trade union of which he is an official."
That is being destroyed and specific measures were introduced in Committee stating that those provisions should be available only for matters involving trade disputes as defined in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. However, it was argued that other items could be involved in recognition agreements which might still be debated.
The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Lee), who answered the debate in Committee, was quite insistent that recognition agreements were of vast importance and significance. In a 22-minute speech, during which there were eight interventions, he managed to mention recognition agreements 11 times and said :
"We agree that, in principle, training of trade union officials is a good thing. In our view, trained shop stewards are better than untrained shop stewards".
He continued :
"Clause 10 is not inconsistent with that view in any way. All it states is that the employers' obligation to allow paid time off for training and other trade union duties must be governed by the terms of the recognition agreement with the trade union. What is unreasonable about that?"--[ Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 February 1989 ; c. 354.]
The amendments might destroy the possibility of the recognition agreement being taken into account. Our argument in Committee was that the recognition agreement would be undermined in regard to time off for trade union duties by clause 10 which would alter the legal
Column 151framework in which trade unions could negotiate. The Government did not take that view. They believe that negotiations have nothing to do with power relationships in industry and that two good-natured people chatting together can sort things out.
What does amendment No. 32 mean? It introduces a fresh provision about other training and educational duties that could be involved. It states :
(any other duties of his, as such an official, which are concerned with the performance, on behalf of employees of the employer, of any functions that are related to or connected with any matters falling within that provision and that the employer has agreed may be so performed by the trade union ;") The second part of the amendment seems to refer to recognition agreements. But to what does the first part refer? Why do we need fresh language now? Is there a legal possibility that the second part of the amendment would be tied in with the words "falling within that provision" to clause 10(a)(i), which refers to section 29 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act? Is it possible that, although a matter was included within a recognition agreement, the employer could disobey that recognition agreement because the agreement on time off for trade union studies exceeded the provisions of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act? If my interpretation is correct, if flies in the face of what we were told 11 times in Committee by the hon. Member for Pendle.
In Committee, the Minister said that health and safety provision would not be affected, but amendment No. 32 might affect it. It says :
"any other duties of his, as such an official, which are concerned with"
negotiations with an employer
"that are related to or connected with any matters falling within" section 29(1) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. The words
"that are related to connected or with any matters"
throw the matter wide open and make an improvement. Are negotiations with an employer possible negotiations under the appropriate section of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act or are they actual negotiations, which will depend on power relationships within an industry and may be highly restrictive, given the other trade union legislation that has been passed in recent years? Clause 10(a)(i) may be highly restrictive, and may add to the problem with clause 10(a)(ii) if it is interpreted in the way that I suggested earlier.
There is much need for time off for trade union duties and education. The Bill, which is of much interest to trade unionists, young people, women who may have to work in a pit and disabled people, may exclude from discussion matters such as time off for trade union duties, terms of employment, the allocation of work duties, matters of discipline, membership of a trade union, facilities for trade union officials and machinery for negotiation. A legal interpretation of the Bill might restrict such activity.
I should like more detail of the Bill's provisions and why the amendments are necessary. To argue that they are technical and that therefore we need not worry too much about them does not carry much weight because other
Column 152measures described in Committee as technical which were opposed by Labour Members produced serious problems for working people.
Mr. McCartney : I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your kind remarks about my recent illness. I hope to prove that I am back to full fitness as I catch your eye again and again. That is not a threat.