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Chris Grayling: Surely the Secretary of State is not saying that employers should no longer have the right to judge whether they need a post to be filled on a full-time or part-time basis. If the Government go down that road, they will do enormous damage to the competitiveness of small businesses.

Ms Hewitt: When the hon. Gentleman studies the report of the taskforce and reads the amendments that we will table, he will see that we are putting in place a very sensible set of provisions to ensure that, when an employee in a position such as Mr. Walkingshaw's asks for his working hours to be changed, his employer will be under a duty to consider the request seriously and to look at how it can be accommodated within the needs of the business. Of course there will be circumstances in which such a request cannot be accommodated, but it is clear from the practice in firms that have already taken the proposed route that it is possible in most cases to accommodate such requests to the benefit not only of the employee, but of the business.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Will the Secretary of State explain whether the benefit has to be extended not only to the employee in question and the employer, but to other employees of the business?

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For example, in a small care home, it will be difficult to rearrange the working hours of a single person without affecting those of other employees.

Ms Hewitt: That is one of the issues that we would expect the employee who is making the request and the employer who is considering it to take into account. Very often, once an organisation starts considering the possibility of flexible working for one individual, it will find that it can meet other employees' flexible working needs in a way that also makes it easier for the business to meet the needs of its customers. We will support both employees and employers in implementing the changes. We will also monitor their impact after three years of operation. Let me make it clear that if we still find that a large number of businesses are refusing to take the claims of children and their parents seriously, we will take action accordingly.

Minimum standards provide incentives for businesses to increase their productivity. That is exactly what we have seen in respect of the national minimum wage. We were told by Opposition Members that the national minimum wage would be a disaster, that it would cost a million jobs and that businesses would close as a result of its introduction. Of course, nothing of the kind has happened. The Low Pay Commission, which is also chaired by the excellent Professor Sir George Bain, found that the national minimum wage had helped many employers who pay it to perceive their work force as an asset in which to invest rather than a cost to be minimised. Consequently, they get better quality and results.

Parts 2 and 3 provide further incentives for businesses to raise productivity, and to follow best practice. The Bill gives incentives to employers and employees to resolve disputes in the workplace through dialogue rather than litigation. Most organisations already have proper procedures for dealing with disagreements between the management and an employee. However, half of all cases that end up before tribunals are from firms that have no proper internal grievance or disciplinary procedures. They waste taxpayers' money because they have not bothered to put proper procedures in place. The Bill provides for simple, three-step disciplinary or grievance procedures in workplaces where they do not already exist.

Rights and responsibilities go together in the Bill. For example, employers have a responsibility, if they are unhappy with an employee's performance, to tell that employee what is wrong and to deal with the problem. Employees have the right to fair procedures in the workplace; they also have a responsibility to use them.

One would imagine that it was pure common sense for managers and staff to talk to each other. Yet it does not always happen. Not only are there cases before tribunals in which an employer has no procedure or has failed to follow it; we also hear from some employers that receiving the copy of a tribunal application is the first they know about an individual's grievance. The Bill will ensure that the procedures are in place and that they are used in most cases.

Of course, some cases cannot be resolved in the workplace. Employers and employees must then be able to rely on an effective tribunal system to determine the issues. The Bill and the work of the employment tribunal system taskforce will help to provide a better tribunal service to employers and employees.

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As with the proposals on family-friendly working, those on better dispute resolution are based on extensive consultation and dialogue. I welcome the fact that the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce has said:

William Sargent, chairman of the Small Business Council, described the proposals as

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Although many of the provisions for dispute resolution are welcome, does my right hon. Friend agree that the extension of costs orders in employment tribunals is likely to deter many of the people who need them most? They will deter those who are in small, non-unionised firms without back-up who do not have legal training and to whom even the thought of such costs will be frightening. Such employees do not have the legal training to understand the cases in which those costs are imposed. Will my right hon. Friend consider the matter carefully when the measure is in Committee?

Ms Hewitt: Of course we will consider carefully the position of individuals who do not have legal knowledge or representation. I hope, however, that I can reassure my hon. Friend by stressing that, of 18,000 cases, only 252 resulted in a costs order. We must deal with employers who persist in defending a case although it is crystal clear on all the evidence that they are in breach of the law—for example, by refusing holiday or notice pay that is due to the employee. We must also tackle an employee or former employee who withdraws his application the night before a hearing, having led the employer to waste a substantial amount of time on preparing a case that is never heard. I have described a minority of cases, but we need to tackle the problem.

The Bill covers several other matters that contribute to the overall purpose of making the workplace function better. We are placing union learning representatives on a statutory footing because they are a key element in our drive to improve the quantity and quality of workplace development, especially for those who are most likely to miss out on training—for instance older workers, part-time employees and people from some of our minority ethnic communities.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): On union learning representatives, does my right hon. Friend agree that today's publication of the performance and innovation unit report on work force development means that the debate has perhaps moved ahead of the Bill? It provides opportunities only for workplaces that already have a trade union recognition agreement. The major problems to do with work force development and lack of skills in the work force are in places where trade unions are not recognised. Will my right hon. Friend consider extending the rights to workplaces that do not have trade union recognition agreements?

Ms Hewitt: We will consider the PIU report with interest. The Government's steps to promoting learning and training, especially among those who lack even the most

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basic skills, are not confined to the Bill. None the less, it will increase the availability of training and learning in organisations in which unions are recognised, but which continue to have the problem, especially at the bottom of the workplace, of people without adequate skills.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): The Secretary of State has cited business organisations that approved of specific provisions. Do any employers' organisations support the proposals for a statutory right for paid time off for trade union learning representatives?

Ms Hewitt: The Confederation of British Industry.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Hewitt: No, I have given way extensively and I want to conclude my remarks.

The Bill also tackles discrimination against employees on fixed-term contracts. We are introducing work-focused interviews for partners of working-age people who are on benefits—

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the right hon. Lady give way on that point?

Ms Hewitt: Let me finish the sentence. We are introducing such interviews so that we can help people to build on their skills and potential, and tackle any obstacles to work.

Mr. Heath: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Hewitt: I have already said that I have given way several times and that I would prefer to conclude.

We are introducing equal pay questionnaires to make it easier for people who believe that they may be suffering an injustice to request key information from the employer from the start, when they are deciding whether to bring such a case.

Good employers treat their employees with respect. They invest in people's skills, help people balance work and family and have sensible procedures for resolving disputes.

Millions of employees already enjoy good working conditions in the best organisations, whether large or small, in the public or the private sectors. However, too many employers do not follow that good practice. The provisions will help to raise standards in the workplace and will thus help to close the productivity gap between the United Kingdom and our competitors. That will help to provide higher standards and a better quality of life for us all.

The measure is supported by employers, unions and family groups. It will raise standards for employees and promote higher productivity. It could never have been introduced by a Conservative Government; the Labour Government proudly introduce it. I commend it to the House.

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