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Mrs. Wise : I want to reinforce the remarks that have already been made. I am curious to know why a three-month time scale has been chosen. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) said, it seems to be a random choice and it does not link with the timing of other things at work. For example, it is far longer than the notice that most people have to give if they want to leave a job. Most people have to give no more than one month's notice if they want to leave. Opting out of Sunday work is a much less dramatic change and it would be wrong to have that long period for no apparent reason.
Workers are in jeopardy. We have already heard about the first sacking--or what is believed to be the first--of a shopworker for refusing to work on Sundays. I entirely agree that three months allows too much time for pressure to be exerted on a worker. The worker who has already been sacked is Mrs. Freda Love from the Gloucester area. It is instructive that her employer--unfortunately, the Co-op, which I deeply regret--has resolutely denied that she has been dismissed for refusing to work on Sundays. Her employer says that she has been dismissed for refusing to move to another store.
Column 331However, the proposed move would involve a journey of 20 miles for a lady who would have to use public transport, and we all know what that is like now.
I am reluctant to give employers more time in which to devise ways of increasing coercion. It seems to me that the period of three months has no validity whatsoever and that hon. Members should vote for the amendment if the Minister does not accept it. Like other hon. Members, I hope that he will.
Mr. Peter Lloyd : Despite the remarkably unpacked Chamber, the amendments arouse particularly strong interest here, as elsewhere. I have listened carefully to the three speeches about them. It is plain to me that, despite the way in which this issue has been talked about elsewhere, it is a matter not of principle but of practicality. The principle is whether, in the special circumstances of Sunday shop work, the universal rule that a contract willingly entered into by both sides must be observed until both agree to change it. That issue was decided before publication of the Bill, which gives shopworkers the right to choose at any point in the future whether to opt in or to opt out.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) invited me to reveal the Government's thinking on the practical question of the length of notice, and the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) was curious about how the Government justified the period of three months. As I said during the discussion on earlier amendments, it was plain that there was a strong desire on both sides of the Committee and among the supporters of all the options--those who want shops largely to remain shut and those who want them to be entirely free to open--that shopworkers should have a continuing choice that they do not have in respect of weekday work. There is clearly a desire that, in the case of shopworkers, Sunday should be regarded as special and that normal contract rules should not apply.
The Government responded with schedule 4, which gives all shopworkers, present and future, the right to opt out of Sunday work at three months' notice without a detrimental effect on their weekday work. During the period of notice, no employer may pile on extra Sunday work unless the employee previously agreed to Sunday work and that is what he is resigning from. There is no way in which an employer can change previously agreed arrangements for Sunday working. Of course, an existing shopworker is able to opt out--that is not the technically correct expression--from day one.
Mr. Lloyd : An existing shopworker will be entirely at liberty to continue to work on any Sundays that fall into the previous pattern, if he finds that acceptable. However, if he does not want to do any Sunday work at all, or if he wants to change the existing pattern, he may make the change straight away. A new employee agreeing to do some Sunday working opts in. The opting-in process involves his saying that he has no objection to Sunday work--following the debate on an earlier amendment, I intend to make the provision more positive--but that does not mean that he agrees to work on a particular Sunday or a particular series of Sundays. There must be a second agreement specifying the working Sundays or how the pattern will be
Column 332established. That is what becomes enforceable until the employee decides to opt out. However, he must work as agreed for up to three months.
Mr. Boateng : Does the Minister envisage that it will be possible for an employer to insert a contract clause stating that an employee must work on Sunday at the discretion of management ? If so, will there be any means of preventing the management from requiring the employee to work every Sunday ?
Mr. Lloyd : That is an interesting point. If an agreement contained such a provision in the case of an opted-in worker, it might well be enforceable for at least the three months. The hon. Gentleman smiles as if to show that he has achieved an enormously effective breakthrough in argument. In the case of an existing shopworker, anything signed before the entry into force of these provisions would not be enforceable by the employer. However, the provision is much narrower than is implied by the hon. Gentleman's question and by his smile.
Ms Eagle : I should like to raise a slightly different point. It concerns future employees, who, under this legislation, will have the right to give notice of their intention to opt out of Sunday work. My concern--I should appreciate guidance on whether my interpretation of the law is correct--is that, although, in theory, a worker could give his employer notice of his intention to opt out of Sunday work and would therefore be an opted-out worker, a relatively new employee, under current legislation, has no employment rights or protection against unfair dismissal unless he has worked for two years or five years, depending on whether he is full time or part time. What worries me is that it might be possible for an employer to dismiss a worker during the three-month period and claim that there were redundancies or fail to give a reason at all.
Mr. Lloyd : I understand the hon. Lady's point, on which some amendments will be discussed later tonight. The protections apply from day one. They are not like the other employment legislation, under which there must be a two-year qualifying period. Here, protection starts on the first day of employment. Of course, the notice period of three months applies. However, unfair dismissal arising from refusal to do Sunday work or from notice of intention to opt out is covered.
Rev. Martin Smyth : Many weekend jobs are done by casual workers, although some are permanent. Several of us are old enough to remember the bad old days when people could be dismissed at a moment's notice. Is the Minister satisfied that an employer could not find reasons other than unwillingness to work on Sundays for discharging a person? If an ordinary worker is required to give one month's notice, why is it necessary to introduce a period of three months for Sunday work? I find it strange that an employer can get away with one month's notice from an employee to terminate employment but the employee is required to give three months' notice to stop working on Sundays.
Mr. Lloyd : That is part of the argument through which I am moving logically. I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's second point when I come to it. On his first point, I am certain that protections exist for employees who have been dismissed or otherwise detrimentally affected in
Column 333their work because of their refusal to work on Sundays and the dismissal has been dressed up as being for some other reason. If such a case is taken to a tribunal, it can uncover whether that has happened. It is for the employee not to prove why he was proceeded against unfairly but only to show the tribunal that he was dismissed. It is then up to the employer to show the reasons for the dismissal and prove that those were appropriate to his decision to dismiss. That is how it works.
I realise that some cases are difficult for tribunals to determine and that some employees will not always want to go to a tribunal, but I am confident that the machinery is in place to resolve those matters in that way.
What has not been said in the debate so far, and has been largely omitted from the critical amendments that we have been discussing, is that the rights and protections in schedule 4 are radical, special and sweeping. The House should acknowledge that. The rights and protections provided by the schedule mean that shopworkers will have a continuing choice as to whether to make themselves available for Sunday work. It will be entirely up to them, so long as they give reasonable notice to their employers that, having been available, they no longer wish to be so. The matter of principle is therefore settled and is wholly in favour of employees.
This debate is about practicalities and the schedule sets three months' notice. I now come to the point in which the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) was interested. Amendment No. 9 suggests that one month's notice would be sufficient. The effect of amendment No. 51 would be to require no notice at all. I am not sure whether that was its intention, but that is what it would achieve, so amendment No. 51 would not be reasonable. It would clearly be impossible for an employer to operate if he had no advance knowledge of which of his staff would turn up when he opened his shop on a Sunday. I hope that the Committee will reject that amendment, as it is not a seriously arguable proposition.
I can see, however, the force of amendment No. 9 and the arguments used to promote it. They were buttressed in each of the speeches by Opposition Members by undertakings and quotations from major retailers in the Shopping Hours Reform Council who said that they would have no problem with one month's notice. I hope that my comments do not raise false expectations that I can accept amendment No. 9. I must make it clear that I cannot. But I accept the fact that many large shops with a lot of staff and a well- understood product range will be able to manage perfectly well with one month's notice. I suspect that some could manage with only a week's notice, but plenty of other shops, particularly small ones and those with specialised product ranges, are convinced that they could not. If a shop has a staff of 30 or 40 people, it can manage if four or five of them give a month's notice that they will no longer come in on a Sunday in four or five weeks' time. But if a shop employs only one or two people who need considerable experience or training, it will sometimes be impossible to make adequate replacement arrangements in a month and induct new staff properly and fully into the business.
Opposition Members have waxed fairly eloquent on behalf of employees and, by extension, of large shops, but
Column 334they have forgotten the small specialist shops, which also have a right to have their interests taken into account. Customers of hi-fi shops expect knowledgeable advice from shop staff, as do customers buying carpets from specialist carpet shops. By contrast, customers buying groceries at a supermarket seldom need to know the answers to questions of greater technical profundity than on which shelf the baked beans are stacked.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I have tried to follow the Minister's argument. How much easier is it for small shopkeepers to replace staff who give one month's notice? It sometimes means that they are finished. If they can cope with that, why does the Minister say that they will have extreme difficulty coping with one month's notice to replace somebody for casual Sunday work?
Mr. Lloyd : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on a good intervention. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill gave the answer when he described why people may want to change their arrangements for Sunday working. It must be remembered that, if they work during the week, their livelihood does not depend on Sunday working ; some of their income depends on it, but they can manage perfectly well without it. The hon. Gentleman explained that they might want to join a sports club that operates on Sundays or change their pattern of activity. We all know that there are many reasons why Sunday working may become unattractive.
When employees leave employment altogether, they are making a big decision to vacate a job that provides their livelihood. If they cease to work on one or two Sundays in a month, having worked on Sundays for the past two or three years because it suited them as they were saving for a mortgage or for some other purpose, and they now join a rugby club or some other organisation that operates on a Sunday, that is a small decision for them. The inevitable and perfectly acceptable outcome of the changes which the schedule makes is that people will make such choices at different times in their lives because of different pressures. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has given one of the major reasons why the notice period must be three months. It will be a right of which employees can take advantage when circumstances in their lives change.
Mr. Alton : I am dumbfounded by the Minister's argument. The point that I was making was that, for all the reasons that he has adumbrated, three months is too long. One month's notice is all that is needed to achieve all the objectives that he has described. How can the Minister deduce as a logical argument the concept of hanging on for a further two months after an employee has given notice to his employer that he wants to change his working practices?
Mr. Lloyd : There are problems for employers when employees give one month's notice, but it happens a little less often and a little less unexpectedly because an employee is making a large decision which is taken carefully. To opt in or out of Sunday working is a much smaller decision that could be taken much more frequently and possibly by many employees in a particular store at the same time. Small shops especially need the extra protection, as do specialist shops where a newcomer to the staff needs to be trained. It does not eliminate the problem for small shops, but it certainly reduces it.
Mr. Lloyd : No, I have not said that. As the hon. Lady knows, if employees want to exercise choice, they must give three months' notice. There is no question but that choice exists. At issue is the practical question of how much notice it is reasonable to give. I am sure that large shops and chains that say that one month is enough will want to be as good as their word and still seek only one month's notice from their employees. But the law must be a universal minimum with as many of those who are covered being able to manage under it. Good employers will always want to improve on that minimum. I hope that the leading employers of the SHRC who say that they can manage with less will do so. There is no compulsion for them to take three months, but if we are making a law that should suit everybody, three months is probably the most sensible and fair balance.
Ms Glenda Jackson : The Minister was speaking about specialist shops that require specific training. If I remember correctly, he spoke of shops that sold carpets. In many of those specialist shops, as well as a basic wage there is also a commission on sales achieved. The Minister is suggesting that someone must give three months' notice. When an employee is leaving, it is human nature that it will be in the shop owner's best interest to revert to the staff who are remaining or to those who are being trained possible sales that will produce a sizeable amount of commission. The Minister is advocating that, for three months, a shopworker will see his or her income reduced. A month is manageable, three months is not.
Mr. Lloyd : Of course, it is perfectly manageable for the employee in that situation. Different shops, stores and relationships between the employer and employee may make different agreements between the employer and employee desirable or possible. We are talking about the minimum requirement of the law. The minimum requirement should have a universal validity and practicality. I do not think that one month will be sufficient for all retail outlets. As I have said, many will do better than that if better is to accept a shorter notice. That is wholly admirable. It is wholly admirable that the retail trade is thinking in terms of good practice guidelines. We are talking about the minimum. The minimum is three months, otherwise some retailers could find particular difficulties. I have already mentioned the types that could.
I do not think that three months is a great hardship on most employees, because if they had entered a job after the changes in the law, when it was clear that there would be Sunday working, they would have known full well that it was expected of them. If they were existing workers, they would have agreed to do such time anyway ; they would have agreed with the specification of how much they were to work on Sunday.
When an employee wants to opt out, he or she often has good reasons for so doing. Those reasons are usually predictable. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, when those reasons are, for example, a sick relative or a crisis in the family, one month is far too long. What one needs is a reasonable employer, with a
Column 336reasonable agreement. I would expect all employers, particularly those with valued employees who have given them good service, to show such flexibility, which they do now and would still have to do when the notice is only one month. For the reasons that I have given, it is clear that we are not asking for the period of notice always to be three months. The law should specify that that should be the minimum demanded. If an employer and employee can arrange something less, particularly in a time of crisis, I applaud them in so doing.
Mr. Barron : The Minister is quite right to say that existing workers will have already agreed to three months. That is because it is in the Bill. If one month were in the Bill, they would have agreed to that.
Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. They do not have to agree to three months. After the measure comes into force, there is no agreement. They may stop at any time they like. It is only three months if they formally enter into an arrangement with their employer.
Mr. Barron : The Minister started by saying in effect that a contract is usually drawn up willingly between an employer and employee, although he did not say it in exactly that way. He has spent the past five minutes reminding the Committee how the contract of employment is usually loaded against the employee, as is the Bill. I am not talking about rugby clubs in particular. I said that somebody might change to the Christian religion and suddenly want to get out of having to commit himself to continuing to work on Sunday for three months. Given that the lobbyists, who have been lobbying to change the present legislation over many years, would agree to one month, I see no justification for leaving the schedule as it stands. On that basis, the Opposition do not agree with the Minister. Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The Committee divided : Ayes 280, Noes 298.
Division No. 114] [7.06 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.
Berry, Dr. Roger
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (South Shields)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Corston, Ms Jean