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Mr. Boswell: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 57.

Mr. Boswell: I declare an interest in respect of a number of amendments and new clauses that I have tabled. I do so as the employer of one full-time employee, and the occasional employer of others. I do so as a purely precautionary measure, because it is clear that almost any of the new clauses and amendments could bear on my position as an employer. I hasten to say that I have not been commissioned or encouraged by outside interests to table any amendments or initiate any debates. It is wise that everyone should know where we stand, and I may be able to draw briefly on my experience.

The new clause and Government amendment No. 57 clearly have a certain affinity, in that they relate to codes of practice for employment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has said that there were no extensive Government contributions to the Committee. That is true in relation to Government Back Benchers; although, to be fair, some--including some present in the Chamber--made interesting and constructive, albeit brief, contributions.

Some effort was made by Ministers to answer the points that we made, although that was a little uneven, depending on the complexity of the points. I am awaiting some answers, including a definitive answer to the 13 points that I raised on a Government amendment.

I feel myself to be in the position of the lamp to which the moth is attached. Every time I table an amendment or new clause, lo and behold, a Government amendment attaches itself by a process of osmosis or suggestion. I can see nothing difficult about Government amendment

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No. 57. Unless the Secretary of State succeeds in putting me off my stroke in his explanation of it, it seems to me that it has two great and welcome merits. First, it is shorter than the text that it proposes to replace. Secondly, it appears to introduce an affirmative rather than a negative procedure.

The idea in the code may have been instrumental to the idea that came to me in relation to the new clause. The code of practice that is set out in clause 19--with supplementary material in clause 20--concerns part-time work. This subject will repay further study before it comes into force, as I can see problems ahead. Just as in the debates on the minimum wage proposals on the subject of au pairs, we keep finding additional problems of one kind or another that must be resolved.

In terms of part-time work, a clear agenda is afoot. The TUC document on preparations for the euro states:

Clause 19 suggests that one of the materials to appear in the code should be

    "any matter dealt with in the framework agreement on part-time work".

What might be termed the euro-industrial relations agenda is buzzing away merrily.

Such documents are not my usual nightly reading, but the other day I was reading representations from the Fire Brigades Union which analysed the position of retained firepersons. They are treated differently in a number of ways--in Committee, we referred to the training requirements of part-time work as additional costs of recruitment or retention--but they are paid a great deal less. If the Secretary of State persists with his equalisation in relation to part-time work, he may find that his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary comes back to him to ask what he is doing to fire service finances.

New clause 3 is complementary to the approach set out with such eloquence by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, and other hon. Friends, in the previous debate. It rehearses some of the problems that affect real-world employers, such as me. New Labour might take comfort from the fact that the new clause is grounded in the drive towards the statement that all parties are in favour of consensus and partnership. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham rather brilliantly exposed some of the equivocations in that statement.

I do not find it easy to understand the concept of compulsory partnership. I believe that a partnership is one freely made by persons for their mutual advantage, rather than one imposed by an external force--the Government, or regulation--which seems to make people, as my late father always used to say, "good by Act of Parliament". It is much better, where possible, to seek agreement. In fairness, some Government Back Benchers have made those points also.

As a result of the progressive changes in trade union legislation and the change in culture effected by my noble Friend Baroness Thatcher and my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), there has been a significant shift in attitude or, more fairly, a confirmation of the more positive attitudes in the trade union side of industry. There are many on all sides who want partnership, consensus and constructive working together.

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I am prepared to concede, as I have readily done in Committee, that there are from time to time bad employers and bad employment practices, which I would not condone. In all such matters, the issue is how much legislative intervention is appropriate to deal with the ills from which we may or may not suffer--and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham eloquently said, whether the cure is worse than the perceived disease.

7.30 pm

It is no good our seeking to iron out every last infelicity in industrial relations by imposing yet another tissue of regulation, which increases businesses' costs and destroys their ability to run themselves effectively and to employ labour.

In his telling interventions at the beginning of the Bill's Committee stage, before he was taken ill, the Ministerof State, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), agreed with me when I made the fairly blunt point that if there is no job there will be no employment rights either. One comes logically before the other.

It is in that context that we offer the idea of codesof good employment practice. The suggestion--the Secretary of State may take this either as a compliment or as an attempt to wheedle--is grounded in what the right hon. Gentleman proposes in clause 19 in connectionwith part-time work. After consultation with the representatives of employers and employees, a code or codes of practice should be prepared with the assistance of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which I hold in considerable regard.

The code or codes should embrace matters of good employment practice. They could be freestanding; there may be no need to legislate for them or to tie them to other legislative requirements. We had constructive debates in Committee about the fact that ACAS and both sides of industry, through the TUC, the CBI and others, such as the Engineering Employers Federation, can seek to achieve good standards of employment practice, and to improve those standards where possible. I hope that that is not an issue between the parties.

The distinctive feature of the codes that I propose is the way in which they may bite in connection with other employment rights, or with the way in which matters are dispatched at an employment tribunal.

We had a dry run for this debate in the exchanges at the beginning of our debate on new clause 11, relating to the removal of the limit on special damages. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the Secretary of State rightly said that an employment tribunal would be able to take into account many circumstances.

By definition--I am sure that if I did not say this, the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) would remind me of it--a tribunal seeks to deal with matters involving failure or delinquency. If an employer behaves reasonably and in accordance with agreements he is not, in principle, likely to end up before a tribunal.

I understand that, and it is a fair point to make, but there are still some concerns, which can be illustratedin several ways and which underlay many of the contributions made by my hon. Friends in the debate on clause 1. Their experience, which I share, enables them to see the practical problems that small employers face.

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In the nature of things--at least until the Bill takes effect--small employers are unlikely to be able to employ human relations specialists, or specialists of any kind. Small employers are multi-functional. They may be sole proprietors with one or two employees, but they still have to understand the law. There can be few people who are such paragons that they combine the ability to run a farm or small engineering or service business properly with the ability to be fully conversant with the provisions of the working time directive, the minimum wage regulations and the new regulations that will follow when the Bill becomes an Act.

The Secretary of State may rightly say that small businesses have access to employers' organisations and trade associations that may be able to steer them through. In my experience, for example, the National Farmers Union issues guidance to its members. I see the Secretary of State nodding; no doubt that response was in his mind.

The question is whether that guidance is sufficient to enable employers to comply with the regulations. In principle, they should be able to comply, but concerns arise in two respects. The first affects "genuine" employers. The House will know what I mean when I use that term--people who try to behave respectably and treat their employees decently, and to comply with the law as precisely as they can.

Even with such people, difficulties can occur. The Government's track record of having to amend their legislation, and their advice on the working time directive and the minimum wage regulations, as they go along, shows us that it would be a paragon indeed who did not occasionally slip up.

The general conduct of a business, and the bona fides with which it is carried on, must be--at least, should be--a relevant factor in any deliberations that take place before a tribunal hearing a claim for, say, unfair dismissal. In principle, a tribunal ought already to be able to take that into account. However, the fear remains in employers' minds that they may slip up on a technicality--that something may go slightly wrong and trigger a course of action leading to undesirable and expensive consequences.

The second concern is connected with the first. Even if a business is conducted to the highest possible standards, it may from time to time have a difficult employee who does not always behave reasonably--although I am not saying that simply because someone is unreasonable he has no employment rights. Even an employer who wishes to conduct his business to the highest possible standards may fall foul of a tribunal--not necessarily in substance, because he may win his case eventually, but because of the sheer hassle of having to engage lawyers and explain actions that were probably not written down formally, because they never had been before. For small businesses that may have a seasonal turnover or other complications, life is too short for all that.

The employer may lose or win, but whatever happens, the costs will have been incurred and the hassle endured. Those considerations operate as a considerable disincentive to people in small businesses who are considering whether to make the "step change" decision to move from self-employment to taking on one or two people and becoming an employer. That is a shame,

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because so many small businesses have been fruitful in creating employment when larger businesses have been shedding labour.

Small business people may say, "It isn't worth the candle; I'm not going to become an employer and risk all that." That is the context in which we propose our new clause, the operative part of which is subsection (2):

We do not expect to impose significant changes of practice on Sainsbury's, ICI or other major household names, yet those businesses may not be creating the employment opportunities that they created in the past when they grew from small to very large businesses. However, the codes are primarily related to new businesses, or those struggling to keep going which have one or two employees. There is no reason why good practice should not be codified for all businesses, but there may be cases in which an employer can say, "I did my best under the circumstances. You can look back at my track record to see that I tried to do a good and honest job, which I hoped conformed to the code."

Clearly, a lot of flesh remains to be put on the bones, but the Secretary of State laid down the skeleton with his code of good practice for part-time employment, and he would do well to consider our idea. We all want good practice and good relations in the workplace, but they may be better secured by our approach than by a narrow, regulation-driven philosophy. Essentially, good industrial relations should be forged in the workplace, not brought out by contentious litigation.

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