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Mr. Bercow: I should like to clarify the Government's fixity of purpose in this matter. An employer may be forced against his will to engage in the collective negotiation provided for in the Bill. Is it the right hon. Gentleman's position that that negotiation should be obliged to take place even if an employer, as a conscientious objector, begins procedures to wind up his company?

Mr. Byers: If there is statutory recognition, an employer will be under an obligation to address only the matters of pay, hours and holiday. Employers do not have to embark on a discussion or negotiation to extend collective bargaining beyond those three discrete areas. Our concern about amendment No. 46 is that it would extend it beyond those three areas.

I hope that I have addressed the concerns of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West. In the light of the observations that I have made and the clarification of Government thinking that I have given, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, and to colleagues on both sides of the House who have contributed to a helpful debate. As I began by saying, this issue was not fully investigated in Committee, and it has been helpful to have on the record wider and fuller discussion on the points raised.

We had excellent contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst(Mr. Forth) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), as well as interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who was at one point uncharacteristically illiberal. He seemed to be seeking to constrain the rights of parties voluntarily to enter into agreements. I would certainly not follow him in that direction.

The Secretary of State, in an obviously jocular way, suggested that the Government's current overlarge majority might become larger. I can set his mind at rest on that. Yesterday, he invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) to stand against him in Tyneside, North. The Secretary of State is welcome to stand against me in Altrincham and Sale, West at the next general election. We would probably gain some support from the elements of his party who would vote for my amendment to achieve its ends.

The Secretary of State is right to say that the Government's amendment draws these matters tighter than amendment No. 46. The Government were right to

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do that. My purpose in tabling the amendment wasto explore some of the wider issues around the Government's amendments. We have had a useful debate, and we have had helpful reassurances from the Secretary of State. His style is always persuasive--even if the substance is not--and, in a spirit of generosity, I can say that I have been reassured and to some extent persuaded by him. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 66, in page 20, leave out lines 3 and 4 and insert--

'(3) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)(a), any worker employed by an associated company incorporated outside Great Britain must be ignored unless the day the request was made fell within a period during which he ordinarily worked in Great Britain.
(3A) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)(b), any worker employed by an associated company incorporated outside Great Britain must be ignored in relation to a week unless the whole or any part of that week fell within a period during which he ordinarily worked in Great Britain.
(3B) For the purposes of sub-paragraphs (3) and (3A), a worker who is employed on board a ship registered in the United Kingdom shall be treated as ordinarily working in Great Britain unless--
(a) the ship is registered at a port outside Great Britain,
(b) the employment is wholly outside Great Britain, or
(c) the worker is not ordinarily resident in Great Britain.'--[Mr. Wills.]

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 20, line 35, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 20, in page 22, line 43, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 21, in page 23, line 15, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 22, in page 33, line 2, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 23, in page 33, line 26, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 24, in page 35, line 3, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 25, in page 35, line 26, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 26, in page 36, line 19, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 27, in page 37, line 7, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 28, in page 42, line 22, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 29, in page 43, line 2, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 30, in page 43, line 34, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 31, in page 45, line 31, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 32, in page 50, line 16, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

No. 33, in page 51, line 47, leave out '10' and insert '15'.

Mr. Boswell: For those who were studying the progress of the amendment paper, I should point out that we tabled this amendment early on and had a brisk debate in Standing Committee on the morning of 16 March. The background to the amendments is concern about the reasonable period of notice for an employer to respond to the request of a union or unions for collective bargaining. During the debate in Committee, a number of hon. Members and I challenged the 20-day period which the Secretary of State had assigned. With no disrespect to the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), it is a pity that he is not present now. In Committee, he dealt with

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some of the briefing that had been received by members of the Committee from the Engineering Employers Federation. He said:

    "I have some sympathy for the case that the Engineering Employers Federation is making, particularly in relation to small businesses. I am not sure that I would want to go as far as it does and ask for 20 working days' notice. However, a response period of two working weeks could unnecessarily cause problems for some small employers".

He went on:

    "A compromise of three weeks would be more flexible."

He then, no doubt, alarmed some of the Government Whips by saying:

    "I am minded to support the amendments of the hon. Member for Daventry."--[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 16 March 1999; c. 373.]

It was kind of him to say that. We would not hold it against him. He was unable to sustain that in a Division, because we did not give him the opportunity to do so, but he would have that opportunity were we to press the amendment to a Division tonight.

Mr. Ian Stewart: The Minister convinced him.

Mr. Boswell: I am not wholly sure that he did, as he did not speak again, but we shall leave that as it is. It is for the hon. Gentleman to speak for himself.

We press amendments with different degrees of force and conviction, either in a probing way or, as in this case, with a rather strong feeling. The important thing is that Governments should legislate for an appropriate period.

One concern, which I think was in the hon. Gentleman's mind, and was certainly in my mind when I tabled the amendment suggesting a longer period of 20 days, rather than the 10 days that the Government have prescribed as the first period of response--forgive me if I read the signals wrongly a moment ago; there are rather a lot of figures in the schedule--was that that might not be a reasonable period in which a small employer could respond.

As small employers do not necessarily have elaborate support and administrative systems and legal and other advice on tap--circumstances that have been discussed elsewhere during our consideration of the Bill--if they received a letter out of the blue from a union requesting the initiation of recognition procedures, they might have some difficulty in responding within only 10 days. Therefore, they would be on the way to what, in shorthand, I will call delinquency, and a decision might be taken over their heads.

Some might receive a letter or a phone call and deal with it immediately--it is good business practice to get on with one's correspondence, as I hope all hon. Members would--but there are such things as pressures to getan order out, as the hon. Member for Dudley, South mentioned in his brief intervention, and people might go away on holiday or letters might be mislaid, although that might not be an easy matter with which to deal. There are many situations in which a response may not be immediate. I readily concede to the Secretary of State, before he bases his argument on it, that a mere failure to respond within 10 days does not automatically lead to the imposition of statutory collective bargaining. There are a variety of hoops through which to go.

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However, I think that the feeling in Committee was that the period has been drawn unreasonably tightly for the small employer. I mentioned the hon. Member for Dudley, South, but the general tone was that the Committee was not averse to the amendment. In order to pick up what I described in Committee as a growing consensus, I have tabled these amendments which prescribe not 20 working days or four working weeks, which we set out in Committee, but a more modest, compromise version, of 15 working days or three working weeks. I hope that that will commend itself to the Minister.

Another possible approach was adumbrated by the Under-Secretary in his response to the debate. He explained the Bill's various interlocking provisions and suggested that it was not necessary to extend the period in general terms. However, towards the conclusion of his remarks--perhaps as a debating point, but it was an interesting point--he said:

the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), who is temporarily out of the Chamber--

    "is suggesting that we take a general power to amend all aspects of the schedule, we shall consider that interesting suggestion."

Immediately before that, he said:

    "we shall consider a general evaluation of the law."--[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 16 March 1999; c. 376.]

I have detected no general amending power in the schedule, even in those many pages, and we have heard no further details of a general evaluation of the law. Events may show that 10 days is an adequate period for a first response, but I am inclined to think that it is not. In Committee, I tabled a proposal for a 20-day period. That may have been unduly generous because, again, I immediately concede to the Secretary of State, before he makes the argument, that we do not want to send a signal that people should put such a letter behind the clock and hope that it will go away; they need to respond.

The amendments therefore suggest that 15 working days is appropriate. There is no science in the precise number. We are trying to produce what the Secretary of State said that he intends to produce: a sensible working understanding of how the legislation might work. It is an attempt to maintain its credibility and coherence. The worst possible initiation for his legislation would be a technical slip by a comparatively innocent, well- intentioned employer who did not respond in the prescribed period and was caught in a process from which he could not readily escape. I fear that that will happen.

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