Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 3 February 2000
[Mrs. Marion Roe in the Chair]
Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 1999
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Transnational Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 1999 (S.l. 1999, No 3323).
The debate is indicative of new Labour-it is unnecessary and old-fashioned, and it shows no working knowledge of the way in which businesses have progressed since the 1970s. The measure has its genesis in the social chapter, from which the Conservative party negotiated an opt-out in the interest of all British businesses. That occurred when my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) negotiated and signed the Maastricht treaty.
Under the Conservatives' stewardship in the previous Parliament, businesses were protected from outmoded, socialist and very European measures, and from Governments who think that they know better than businesses what should happen in a business. I worked for a British manufacturer in the 1970s. I ran my own business for 10 years during the 1980s and spent time with thousands of companies in this country and elsewhere, especially with manufacturers, which had traditionally often had a unionised work force.
The Committee will recall the culture in British manufacturers and in other companies during the 1970s. Our record included one of the highest rates of industrial strife measured in days lost. That was because of the way in which the unions and management failed to work together in the workplace.
That was the 1970s. The measure is old-fashioned because things have moved on for many reasons. In the 1980s, the Conservative party's Acts of Parliament reformed trade unions and gave control of them to the membership by taking it away from those who ran them and held power in them. Communication in the workplace between the management and the work force changed.
Companies are in a new millennium. There is a unionised work force in my constituency. When I go as a Member of Parliament to talk to a company, I expect the shop stewards to be sitting at the table with management. They have not needed an Act of Parliament or an interfering, busybody Government to tell them that that is the way to run their company. The approach has changed over the past 20 years.
We have not seen such an environment in all European countries. We recognise that France, for example, has been slow to put in place such trade union reforms as those from which we have benefited for 15 years. We still see there the power of the trade unions and the way in which strike action is still often a primary measure rather than a last resort.
That culture does not apply here, but the Government have decided not to build on what has been a sea change, not only in workplace trade union relations but, I hope, in the management of British businesses since the early 1980s. The combination of those and other factors has meant that there is a difference in the way in which work force and management communicate and combine when there is union recognition in a workplace.
Labour Members commonly throw across the Chamber the accusation that Conservative Members are anti-union. I shall put my credentials clearly on the table. I am not anti-union; I am ``anti'' the implication that provisions should be mandatory in the workplace. Union recognition should be voluntary. As a Member of Parliament, I frequently suggest that constituents with a difficult dispute in the workplace take advice from their union.
That is the difference. We have moved on, not because of Labour Members, who would still have us in the 1970s taking confrontational stances when issues are to be discussed, but because of the Conservative party, which liberated paid-up trade union members. [Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but they know that that is true.
We should consider some of the other factors that have made a difference to the way in which management and unions communicate in the workplace. There are two matters to consider regarding the works councils. The first is recognition in the workplace, and the way in which the measure introduces the role of the unions. The second is that commonsense businesses and managers would do, are doing and have done for many years such things for themselves. That is why the measure is so old-fashioned and so 1970s. I am surprised that Government Members-
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Some of us do not remember the 1970s.
Mrs. Browning: I am sure that younger hon. Members will wish to learn from us older MPs who have years of experience of working in British businesses such as manufacturers. I am happy to share my experiences with the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle); I hope that he will sit up and pay proper attention.
I want to give an example. In the 1980s, I fought the seat held by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for whom I have great respect. There were then two main employers in Crewe-Rolls-Royce plc's motor car division, which was doing well, and British Rail Engineering Ltd, which was publicly owned. I used to go around canvassing. I am interested in what people do at work, and so would ask on the doorstep how people were getting on.
At Rolls-Royce, even trainees would say, for instance, that there had been an order from the United States during the previous week. No matter what job a member of the big work force did, they would know such things. They worked for a company with such a line of communication. Management believed it essential that news was communicated, that people were motivated by it, that people understood the purpose of their job in the plant and that they contributed to the overall success of the company. When people from BREL were asked, they would shrug their shoulders and say that they did not know.
The contrast between the approaches of two different companies in the same town was stark. The difference was not only to do with unions and the work force, but to do with management styles. The contrast was between a privately owned company and one still in the public sector. The privatisation of so many big companies in the 1970s and 1980s by the Conservative party changed their workplace culture.
Many other factors were introduced. When I used to be in business on my own, back in the real world, I would talk to American or Japanese businesses. Both would claim credit for introducing just-in-time systems into the workplace. But in the early 1980s, just-in-time systems represented a change in culture for purchasers and suppliers. The very nature of the changes, especially in the manufacturing sector, meant that management had to communicate more with their work force. Quality-related issues became important. There were one or two unsuccessful experiments, but the general principles of improving quality and performance related to the output of goods and involved every person at every level in the workplace, both on the shop floor and in management.
The Government want to impose works councils on a work force simply because they exist in a company's European operation That reflects the European Union's employment policies, under the aegis of the social chapter. The Government think that works councils are right for the United Kingdom, but they are not. Their attitude displays a lack of understanding of the way in which British companies have developed. The Government have not acknowledged how management and work forces work together. They do communicate. Representations are officially placed on the table when there is a matter for negotiation or discussion.
One of the Government's first acts was to sign up to the social chapter as part of the Amsterdam treaty. We are not discussing a new measure. It has already been imposed by Europe. The Government signed up not just for legislation that is yet to come-I am sure that there are more horrors in store-but for retrospective legislation. The size of the fines is outrageous. The Central Arbitration Committee can set up employment appeals and civil fines of up to £75,000 can be imposed. Since the Government came to power, we have known that although they talk the language of business, they do not understand how to run one. I hope that for once the Minister will give an accurate figure of the on-costs to business of imposing the regulations on their affairs. Up to now, British businesses with overseas interests have not needed Ministers to tell them how to communicate. Will there be a mini-Alastair Campbell session for businesses so that the Government can teach them how to communicate better?
According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the recurring cost to business will be £14.5 million. If the Government were consultants setting up a system in a business, they would jolly well have to justify the benefits to charge a fee like that. I would have been glad to receive that fee to encourage businesses to improve their communications-an area in which I specialised. I was never under-employed and was reasonably well remunerated. But the Government are imposing more costs. They have created another regulation task force in the Cabinet Office to remove the very regulations that they are imposing day after day, and which add to overall business costs. That money has to come off the bottom line.
More importantly, the Government have the arrogance to tell business that when it comes to communication, they know best. They think that they know how to create the structures in a workplace that allow management and work force to work together for mutual benefit. But that is another sop to keep their European partners happy. The Government owe them a few favours because they are dragging their feet on joining the euro and abandoning the pound. Somewhere along the line, they have to throw them the odd titbit to show that they are good Europeans and that they are on board. I understand the motivation, but the regulations are bad for British business and old-fashioned; they have a place in the 1970s, but not in the new millennium. When I speak to representatives of businesses-this applies more to big businesses than to small businesses-I get one message, which is that they want the Government off their backs. This measure does nothing to encourage businesses to believe that the Government are serious about business and understand it or, for that matter, that they should be taken seriously when they talk about lifting burdens, deregulation and the rest. It is all a load of tosh.