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2.43 pm

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): I shall be brief, but I want to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) said. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Lufthansa Skychefs dispute, and I abhor the fact that, despite the Government's efforts to foster partnership at work, the company has failed to act in that spirit and has refused to negotiate the reinstatement of the 273 workers sacked for holding a lawful one-day strike.

Lufthansa Skychefs is an American-owned company, employing 37,000 workers worldwide and controlling one third of all aircraft catering in the world. The company has shown clearly that it puts profits before people in the way that it has handled this dispute from the outset. A number of my constituents are among those who have suffered great hardship as a result of the strike, and I continue to wish them every success in their struggle against a clear injustice.

I shall outline what has happened in the dispute since November last year. Following the sackings, I was approached by some of my constituents and last December, I arranged a meeting at the House of Commons. A number of the sacked workers, along with their union representatives, came to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston.

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At the time, the union made it clear that there was no demand for a pay increase. The demand was for all those who were sacked to be reinstated, so that talks between management and union officials could resume. Following the meeting, two early-day motions were tabled. The fact that they received 200 signatures shows that hon. Members clearly supported the workers. In the meantime, I received two letters from the general manager of Lufthansa in December, asking for a meeting to discuss the dispute. In view of management's attitude towards the sacked workers, I declined to accept the offer.

Following the passage of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which states that the dismissal of strikers is unlawful during the first eight weeks of a strike and that thereafter the employer must demonstrate that the available conciliation procedures have been followed, I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and brought the dispute to his attention. However, he stated that because the new legislation is not retrospective, there is nothing that the Department can do to intervene.

The Transport and General Workers Union pressed for talks with management on 7 April. Lufthansa accepted moral responsibility for resolving the dispute. In May, after a meeting at the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, talks broke down. The following day, Lufthansa issued a statement clearly attempting to discredit the TGWU. In June, to add insult to injury, the London management of Lufthansa, through ACAS, offered six vacancies to the 273 sacked workers.

The TGWU demanded that talks be reconvened, but as no response was received, it proceeded with the launch of the "Don't Fly Lufthansa" campaign. In response to the campaign, the company was forced back to the negotiating table and three more meetings were held, which were concluded on 2 September.

On 8 September, the company submitted a final offer to the TGWU. It contained proposals on re-employment, which improved the number of jobs available immediately, but left the overwhelming majority of those in dispute waiting for an opportunity to apply at an unspecified future date. It also included proposals for severance compensation of £220 for each year of service, only to those who were dismissed. That falls far short of the agreements generally available to workers in the industry, and the offer was firmly rejected by TGWU members.

Last month, I visited the picket line with five other hon. Members. On the picket line I met a number of my constituents, and I am deeply concerned that something should be done for them. Among those workers, there are many women and the loss of jobs has brought great hardship to their families.

I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to condemn the actions of Lufthansa Skychefs, and I urge the Government to back the workers' "Don't Fly Lufthansa" campaign, which is supported by the TGWU and the TUC. The campaign calls on the travelling public not to fly Lufthansa until an agreement is reached to resolve the dispute. There is no doubt that a higher political profile for the dispute is required for it to get the attention that it deserves.

I hope that today's debate will receive substantial coverage so that the general public are made fully aware of the truth about the dispute. Unusually, the media's

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interest in the dispute has been totally lacking, and I wonder whether that is because the work force involved are all Asian.

2.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alan Johnson): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen) for his kind remarks, and for the fraternal greetings from my Communication Workers Union colleagues in his constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having obtained the debate on a matter which I know is of considerable interest to him, and to my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), who have been energetic and assiduous in bringing the dispute to the attention of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston explained, the debate is prompted by the first anniversary tomorrow of the dismissal of more than 270 workers at Lufthansa Skychefs, following a lawfully organised one-day strike.

Before I respond to my hon. Friend's speech, I thank him for his kind remarks about the Employment Relations Act and the other measures the Government have taken to bring partnership, fairness and decent minimum standards to the workplace. Millions of working people are benefiting, or will benefit, from the new rights that we have introduced through the Employment Relations Act, the national minimum wage, the working time regulations, the reduction in the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights to one year and the rest of our "Fairness at Work" agenda, which comprised 46 measures.

Let me give but three examples. Two and a half million workers will benefit from the introduction of a minimum period of paid annual leave under the working time regulations; up to 2 million workers are expected to benefit from the national minimum wage; and--in a measure that might be of interest to those at No. 10 Downing street--we are increasing statutory maternity leave for 85,000 mothers a year. This is a substantial achievement, of which Labour can be proud.

The main thrust of my hon. Friend's speech was the Skychefs dispute. He will understand why I have to stress that it is not the Government's policy to intervene in industrial disputes, or to be seen to take sides by commenting on the conduct of either side. That is perfectly fair in a free society that has free and independent trade unions. Disputes are a matter for the parties concerned to sort out themselves--with the assistance, if they both agree, of the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Therefore, it would not be right for me to comment specifically on the whys and wherefores of the Skychefs dispute.

That said, it is a cause of considerable anxiety when disputes drag on. I understand that, as ever, ACAS stands ready to assist. I welcome the efforts being made by my hon. Friend and by the Transport and General Workers Union to promote negotiations aimed at achieving a settlement. I hope that the parties--with or without outside help--manage to arrive at an amicable solution that means that tomorrow will be both the first anniversary and the last.

The Government favour a partnership and non-confrontational approach to employment relations. That approach was the inspiration for our Employment

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Relations Act, which received Royal Assent just before the summer recess. Among other things, the Act will provide new rights for workers dismissed for taking lawfully organised official strike action, such as occurred at Skychefs last year.

It is already possible for strikers who are selectively sacked to complain of unfair dismissal, but they cannot complain where all the strikers are dismissed. We believe that that is unacceptable. Such dismissals, whether selective or wholesale, are not conducive to good employment relations: they complicate disputes and usually make them much more difficult to resolve. It is no accident that disputes involving dismissals are among the most bitter and intractable. We want to place a greater onus on both sides to resolve disputes without escalating them.

That is why the Act will enable strikers who have been sacked within eight weeks of the start of industrial action to complain that they have been unfairly dismissed; and--if they are willing to return to work--to ask a tribunal to order their reinstatement. We think that eight weeks is the right period in that it allows a reasonable time for the parties to hold constructive negotiations and to explore thoroughly all the options for resolving their dispute--in effect, it provides a cooling-off period.

In addition, to deal with cases where employers simply sit on their hands for eight weeks and then start sacking, the same right to complain of unfair dismissal will apply after the eight weeks if the employer has not followed all reasonable procedural steps to try to resolve the dispute. The right will also apply if the action has ended within eight weeks and the employee is later sacked for taking part.

However, I must emphasise that that is not a one-sided test. All those protections apply only to industrial action that is both official and lawfully organised, as the Skychefs dispute was. Moreover, the Act specifically requires a tribunal, in considering whether a dismissal after eight weeks is fair, to take particular account of whether the employer or the union has complied with procedures established in any applicable agreement, collective or otherwise; whether the employer or the union has offered, or agreed to start or resume, negotiations after the industrial action started; and whether either party has unreasonably refused a request to involve ACAS or other third parties in helping to resolve the dispute through conciliation or mediation. In short, we expect both sides to act fairly and reasonably, and we designed the Act to ensure that it is in their interests to do so.

At the same time, we have been careful to prevent tribunals from becoming involved in the merits of disputes. That is why a tribunal's determination of the fairness or otherwise of dismissals after eight weeks is based solely on the procedural steps taken by the parties. If a tribunal finds that a worker was dismissed unfairly for going on strike, it will be able to make a compensatory award of up to £50,000, in addition to a basic award of up to £6,600, based on the employee's age, salary and length of service.

A tribunal will also be able to consider applications for reinstatement or re-engagement once the industrial action is over. If it decides to issue a reinstatement order and the employer refuses to comply, the employee will be entitled to an additional award of between £5,720 and £11,440 unless the employer can satisfy the tribunal that it was not practicable to comply with the order.

Before we can bring the new rights into force, we intend to revise the rules and procedures of employment tribunals

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to require tribunals to adjourn proceedings on applications in which the legitimacy of industrial action is being challenged in the courts, and to require pre-hearing interviews in all cases when one of the parties requests that. We aim to have the new rules--and rights--in place by Easter.

The new rights for striking workers are not the only measure in the Act intended to prevent or encourage the amicable resolution of disputes. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston will know that disputes can arise about the recognition of a union for collective bargaining purposes; such disputes can be very bitter. As my hon. Friend said, the TGWU has, in effect, been "de-recognised" by Skychefs following the decision to sack its members. The Act ensures that such disputes can be handled in a sensible and non-confrontational way in future, by means of the statutory recognition scheme. The scheme encourages the parties at every stage to resolve their differences voluntarily, and that is already happening, even before it has come into effect. My hon. Friend mentioned the case of Noons, in which harmonious relations have been established following the signing of a partnership agreement between the GMB and the company.

Of course, there will inevitably be cases in which the parties are unable to sort out their differences. When that occurs, the scheme provides for an expert and independent third party, the central arbitration committee, to resolve

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recognition disputes. The scheme will come into effect shortly after Easter next year and, by then, we shall have restructured and enlarged the CAC.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Hillingdon hospital strikers' dispute, and rightly said that the national minimum wage would help to remove the worst cases of exploitation through pay--and, indeed, would have prevented the dispute in the first place.

The progressive implementation of the Employment Relations Act is well under way. Like the national minimum wage, the working time regulations and the reduction of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights to one year, it is part of a wider agenda to promote competitiveness, partnership and family friendly employment policies, and to ensure that decent, civilised minimum standards operate in the workplace. The measures in the Act will underpin a new culture of partnership at work, and will relegate the outdated and confrontational industrial relations policies of the past to the dustbin where they belong.

Human nature being what it is, we will never succeed in eliminating acrimonious industrial disputes such as the Skychefs dispute, which prompted today's debate; but, through the Employment Relations Act and all the other measures that we have introduced and will introduce over the coming year or so, we have done and are doing much more to move British employment relations into the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

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