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Mr. Forth: It is of course with enormous trepidation that I enter the debate, surrounded as I am by those who spent many hours discussing the Bill in Committee, but I wanted to take the opportunity to raise a couple of questions with the Secretary of State.

I am intrigued by the fact that the amendment would remove the reference to sub-paragraph (7). I want to ask two questions about that. First, does that weaken the link that currently exists, as I read it, between sub-paragraphs (6) and (7)? I want some reassurance on that. At least, I thought that I wanted some reassurance until I started to consider the implications of sub-paragraph (7) itself.

I read sub-paragraph with extreme difficulty. It says:


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    It does not say how they will agree those matters. The term "agree" always raises more questions than it answers. We are left wondering--unless it is spelt out somewhere else that I have not found yet--exactly what mechanism there is to give effect to that agreement.

It is simply assumed that agreement will be reached. As we all know, that is easy enough to say. It is much more difficult to achieve, particularly in what are sometimes tense or confrontational environments.

Therefore, even though sub-paragraph says:


that is not the end of the matter. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to satisfy me as to how he envisages that agreement will be reached in the different contextsin which discussions take place in the workplace environment.

Mr. Ian Stewart: The right hon. Gentleman willbe aware that collective bargaining agreements and recognition of procedural agreements are arrived at by negotiation between the economic partners. It is right that those agreements will be completely reviewed only from time to time. In the in-between time, some agreements may be reached. That is normally done by exchange of letters between the parties. When the whole agreement is reviewed at a future date, earlier agreements are incorporated.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's explanation. I am interested that he believes that that answers all the possible questions that might arise from the words that I have read out. That may be the case, but I need the Secretary of State's confirmation of that. I want to hear him say that that, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, concludes the matter. It does not necessarily conclude the matter, however, because the schedule continues to say that


That seems to take us into deeper waters. The paragraph in question brings in the CAC, and refers to its specifying


    "to the parties the method by which they are to conduct collective bargaining."

According to my reading of the provisions, there is a danger that we shall get into a vicious circle, going round and round and round. I am sure that that was not intended by those who drafted the Bill, and I hope that the Secretary of State will assure me that is not the Bill's effect. However, I am worried that my hon. Friend's amendment appears to remove the consequential link between paragraph 2(6) and paragraph 2(7), and that point must be explored.

The lack of a satisfactory definition of "agree" may also give rise to problems, unless the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) was right. The reference to paragraph 27(3) may in addition be inconclusive when it comes to closing the loop that I have identified. Indeed, it may perpetuate that loop.

The amendment, well intentioned as it is, could complicate matters and weaken this part of the schedule. A cursory reading implies those consequential effects of the amendment, and I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State set these matters straight so that we may make ready progress.

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Mr. Fabricant: One of my greatest fears is that when I drop dead, my tombstone will read, "He meant well." That phrase also sums up the Bill. It means well, but what will be its effect? More to the point, what will be the effect of its definition of collective bargaining?

I did not serve on the Bill's Standing Committee. However, I have had experience of running a company, a point that I mentioned at some length last night. One thing that I have learned is that collective bargaining is dynamic, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) would agree. If it is to be dynamic, it cannot be constrained by a narrow definition of what can be discussed, particularly if it is not entered into freely, as may be the case under the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has identified, with his customary incisiveness and perception, two tensions in the Bill. If collective bargaining is imposed, there must be freedom to scale many heights and to discuss matters that develop one into another. To reach a voluntary agreement between the two parties, as the hon. Gentleman whose constituency I do not know has said--

Mr. Ian Stewart: Eccles.

Mr. Fabricant: I am sorry.

Mr. Forth: Go on, give us your Eccles impression.

Mr. Fabricant: To continue, there are two economic forces--labour and capital, in the shape of the employer. If they are to reach agreement, it cannot be imposed. An imposed agreement is a frail agreement which will not stand the test of time.

Mr. Bercow: I understand my hon. Friend's point that agreement cannot be imposed. However, on reflection, would he not accept that the prospect, which it seems to me his argument conjures up, of substantial numbers of employers across the country manning the barricades, in support of the extension of the range of matters over which collective bargaining can and should take place, is remote in the extreme? I accept that my hon. Friend has a fertile imagination, but it is difficult to envisage such a circumstance.

8.15 pm

Mr. Fabricant: I do not like to argue with my hon. Friend, but that question was rather circuitous, with at least three double negatives in it. If he would like to repeat it more simply so that I can understand what information it is that he wants of me, I shall happily give way again.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend to whom I apologise if, inadvertently, I have, at a not particularly late hour, led him astray. The purport of my inquiry was simple. Does he believe, on reflection, that many employers will want, and argue for, an extension of the range of matters subject to collective bargaining beyond those set out by the Government?

Mr. Fabricant: I truly believe that if collective bargaining, by which I mean bargaining of any kind, is voluntarily entered into by both parties, each should be free to discuss whatever it wishes. As we debate the Bill,

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similar bargaining is going on in Belfast, and we all hope that it will succeed. If it is to be successful, however, it is impossible to set constraints, saying, "We will discuss these issues, but under no circumstances will we discuss those ones." That is no way for bargaining to work.

If two parties are forced to discuss matters, forcing them to debate two or three issues to the exclusion of others will doom the bargaining to failure. I find it strange that the Government, who rightly identify the importance of training, have chosen to exclude it from collective bargaining. What is the motivation for that? Is there something cynical behind it, or something subtle? Is there some sub-plot that we do not understand? Or, as I suspect, are the Government simply naive? The Secretary of State, nice as he is, does not come from a management background, although the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry comes from both a management and a broadcasting background, which is as fine as a background can be.

There are tensions in the Bill, then. If we make a change in statutory provisions, it will, if my brief reading of the Committee Hansard is correct, be made with very little discussion. Will the Secretary of State tell us the philosophy behind the changes and the basis on which he will make changes to statutory provisions in place since 1992?

Finally, some costs must arise from the matters raised in this debate and the debate on Government amendment No. 59. I asked early last night what the costs of balloting would be, and I have heard no reply. I am suspicious that the Government have not done their sums, as they have failed to do on many other occasions. They have nottaken into account the costs for corporations large--a corporation employing more than 20 people--or small.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry to trouble my hon. Friend once again, but I am concerned about the potential opening of the floodgates if his argument in favour of extending the range of matters that may be subject to collective bargaining is adopted. Does he agree that, if his idea is followed--employers do not want the range of matters to be extended beyond what the Government envisage, but some organised employees do--the only way in which the matter may be resolved is by a determination by the Central Arbitration Committee? Is he not concerned that, if the Central Arbitration Committee is in future composed of--from our point of view--undesirable or unreliable persons, the consequences could be hazardous for firms in the British economy?


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