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8.45 pm

Mr. Stewart: In 20 years, I have not come across an experienced full-time officer who would act in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. That is because such officers immediately seek to form good relationships with employers. It would not be to a trade union's advantage to press the issue in the way that he described, unless the employer was antagonistic in the first place.

Mr. Boswell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He made many constructive comments from his deep industrial experience in Committee. I understand what he is driving at. I am sure that he describes the typical situation. If a union decided, in normal circumstances, that the moment had come to go for collective bargaining under the new rules, it would ring

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up the employer to say so and ask him to negotiate. It would send a formal letter confirming that as evidence to establish its position vis-a-vis any subsequent statutory proceedings. That is not an issue between us, but, with respect, he describes the situation that has existed for most of his experience, when there has not been a statutory collective bargaining procedure; it has been an option. We may debate more widely elsewhere whether that is a good idea. Unions have had to be conciliatory to elicit positive responses from employers.

I am worried about where industrial relations between union members, a union representative and employers are comparatively poor, which neither the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) nor I want, and where there is no statutory recognition. Someone might think that the right way to get such recognition would be to bang in a formal application and dare the employer to resist it. In those circumstances, the union might think that it would help its case if the employer failed to respond in the statutory first period. If it sent a letter in a buff envelope requesting collective bargaining, unheralded by a warning telephone call, it would add to the file, if nothing else, if it were able to say that the employer took no notice of it.

Mr. Stewart: That situation would not arise because it would not be to the trade union's advantage to go for a legally imposed agreement. As the hon. Gentleman said, the scope of voluntary agreements is much wider and more attractive than that of legally enforced ones.

Mr. Boswell: I readily agree with the hon. Gentleman in respect of what I hope is the normal case. We will consider later whether we should beef up the context in which the Central Arbitration Committee will work. We have tabled an amendment on the promotion of good industrial relations in the procedure, which we will debate in the proper place. Despite his positive experience and, I am sure, his positive practice when he represented a union in such matters, there will be cases where people try it on, whether out of malice or for another reason.

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does my hon. Friend agree that a longer period would be to the advantage of the unions in such cases, because an employer who was presented with almost a fait accompli would be far more likely to say no and go for the extended 28-day secondary period than the one who had the extra time to give the proposal the proper consideration that it deserved?

Mr. Boswell: Indeed. I commented in a rather more vernacular way in Committee on that precise point, when I said that the employer might respond to such an approach by saying:

That is perhaps the point that my hon. Friend has in mind.

I say to the hon. Member for Eccles that there are cases in which relations are rather poor, and we do not believe that the statutory procedure will deal with them. We wish it well in the sense that we hope that it will, but it is precisely in such circumstances that the various provisions of the law will be required to work. Therefore, we think that a more reasonable period for the first response would be appropriate.

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I want to draw my remarks to a close, but there is one other aspect of the matter to which I wish to draw attention. We laboured long and hard and, the Under-Secretary will concede, not unconstructively for many hours in Committee. We had a good, balanced debate on the issue. The Opposition made some compelling points. There was a degree of what might loosely be termed "emerging consensus" in favour of 15 days. It would not subvert the Government's intentions to accept the amendment, and I rather hope that they will.

Mr. Fabricant: I think that I will take issue with my hon. Friend for the first time this evening. He normally has an analytical mind, but he said that there was no science in the proposal that he was making today. I suggest that there is a little science in it. As we know, the Bill does not apply to small businesses. The definition of a small business under the terms of the Bill is any business with 20 employees or fewer. I would say that, in practice, firms of 50, some would say 100, employees or fewer were still small businesses. Small businesses operate under difficult conditions. It is only too apparent that a letter can be received from a union requesting collective bargaining at a time when people are away on maternity or paternity leave or on holiday, and it can be difficult for the employers to respond within two weeks.

We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) about the importance of the temporary labour market. We all accepted in the Chamber a few hours ago that that is important for the mobility of labour and to enable people such as married women to enter and leave jobs flexibly. However, it is a fallacy to assume that key people who are away on holiday or maternity leave can be easily replaced. They cannot. I can well envisage a smaller company that comes within the ambit of the Bill in which some key person is away when the request from a union is received, so that the two-week limit is exceeded.

The hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart), who has temporarily left the Chamber, has said that it is unlikely that a trade union will wish to cause difficulty in relations with the company by taking action that would precipitate a court appearance, but, if that is the case, one can argue that the provisions in the Bill are not necessary. The fact that the provisions are there demonstrates that it could happen. Although I have not tabled an amendment, given our debate last night about the size of companies, the Secretary of State might consider the following alternative. If he were to be rigid and say that, for large companies, two weeks--10 working days--are long enough, he might consider those companies that fall within the ambit of the Bill, but have fewer than 50, or fewer than 100, employees. Why could they not be allowed a full month--20 working days?

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend will recall that there is already a break in the seamless uniformity of the Bill, because a different regime for the initiation of collective bargaining procedure is allowed for small firms with 20 or fewer employees. It would be easy to extend that exemption to small firms with a rather higher number of employees so as to include those time limits.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes a most helpful suggestion. Indeed, there is nothing seamless about

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the legislation; it is digital in its step functions from one area to another. It would be consistent with the shape of the Bill if another such step function were introduced. It would at least be an acknowledgement by the Secretary of State that a small company can be one that has more than 20 employees.

Mr. Boswell: I am sorry to trouble my hon. Friend again. His use of the word "digital" prompts me to ask whether he has any information about the Government's appointment of their digital e-envoy. That was scheduled for 31 March, so they have three hours and four minutes to make an announcement.

Mr. Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but I see that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are looking at me as if to say that this is not an area into which I should move. I shall not do so, but would add that I was expecting a statement yesterday about the Freedom of Information Bill. That did not occur either, but I shall say no more on that matter.

If the Secretary of State were to acknowledge tonight that a large company is not one with 21 or more employees, that would show that he understands the pressures under which companies work. Of course many small companies--many large companies--allow people to take two-week holidays. I ask the Secretary of State to imagine that the accounts director or the bookkeeper of a small company has gone away on holiday not expecting any important communications to arrive, but that something important does arrive and by the time thatthe bookkeeper--I use that word advisedly--returns, the two-week period for dealing with that communication has expired.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks and noted his concentration on the number of workers for the purpose of defining a small business. Does he think that the Government would find it more acceptable if large, medium and small businesses were defined according to turnover?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That has nothing to do with the amendment.

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