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7.37 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): In the light of earlier comments, I should declare my interests. I am a member of the GMB union and the chairman of the trade union group of Labour MPs. I say that with considerable pride, because trade unionism is a staple feature of modern Britain. It is widely accepted that the trade unions play an invaluable role in the social partnership that the Government have sought to build.

The debate so far has been marked by the views of Conservative Members, who have relapsed into an oldspeak that describes a world that does not exist. We heard enough of that when they were in government. However, ramblings such as those of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) are now confined to the hypothetical. They will not be in government for a considerable time.

The high noon of the speech of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford occurred when he began to whip up an anti-parent rhetoric. Perhaps the Tories see their future as an anti-parent party representing those workers without children who deeply resent the rights given to those with children. That would be dangerous if it were not so silly.

The Bill will extend welcome rights to people with families and will give people in the workplace the opportunity to consider more flexible working arrangements. Working relationships that are in the interests of employees and their families are probably in the interests of employers as well as society more generally.

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Mr. Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this Bill, which will greatly improve the position of fathers and mothers in the workplace, involves the making of choices? Other employees in the same workplace will also be carers—although not of children—and they will not be advantaged in the same way.

Mr. Lloyd: If that is the general thrust of the Opposition's argument, it might find some sympathy on the Labour Benches, but there is a world of difference between that and trying to whip up anti-parent rhetoric, which seemed to be the intent of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford.

We are extending legitimate rights based on what we now accept as understandable demands. They are not necessarily requested by people who will benefit from them now. Those who did not have the facilities available when they were parents are also interested in providing them. The Government will receive a strong welcome for the proposals from Labour Members, the country as a whole and, perhaps, some Members on the Opposition Front Bench.

We heard, grudging comments about red tape from Opposition Members who suggested that the Government are imposing a burden on business, but it is nothing of the kind. People will welcome the extension of maternity pay and maternity leave, and they will strongly welcome the introduction of proper paternity pay and paternity leave. In fairness, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) said that he welcomed the extension of leave for adoptive parents. The Government are making strong and sensible moves.

Mr. Prisk: What would the hon. Gentleman say to a newsagent in my constituency, Mrs. Moy, who suddenly found that the costs of her part-time staff doubled? She has no means of recouping the costs of enforcing employment regulations, because all her prices are fixed. How is she meant to run a business when the regulations add to her burdens? She does not have a legal department or the relevant expertise. She has to deal with the regulations day in, day out.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that interventions must be brief.

Mr. Lloyd: Unfortunately, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think you interrupted the hon. Gentleman before he made his real point. I cannot say why Mrs. Moy is experiencing those problems, although I advise her to get another MP who would be more succinct in putting her case.

As well as the provisions for the different types of parental leave, I also strongly welcome the introduction of union learning representatives. That is an important step forward. We know that we do not train enough, or train properly, in the world of work. That has been a feature for many years in Britain and we have to address that fundamental problem. The right of trade unionists to have learning representatives is widely welcomed throughout the world of work, both by employees and by those employers who are rational about the problem, although there are strong arguments on the need for more affirmative action in training.

The wonderful concept of the gold plating of the fixed-term contract directive is only in the minds of Conservative Members. Most people would accept that it

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is common justice for people who have different types of employment contracts to be offered equivalent pay and pensions. It is also a sensible thing to do in terms of an efficiently labour market. It prevents the bad employer from using a legal device to undercut the better employer. That has been an issue for a long time, ever since the debate on the wages councils, which Winston Churchill introduced many years ago. We should take the argument seriously. I am pleased with and proud of the Government for recognising that concern in the progress that they have made on the fixed-term contract directive.

There are, however, some things that I hope we will consider in Committee and during the Bill's proceedings in general, in order to improve it. My hon. Friend the hon. Member for Aberdeen, Central (Mr. Doran) talked at length about the employee/worker split. It is an important consideration that permeates industrial legislation and will exercise the mind of anyone who examines the issues. It was not ignored when the minimum wage was introduced, because we used a wider definition of worker. It is understood that problems emerge if we stick with the narrow definition of employee.

Three aspects of the Bill use the more restrictive employee definition instead of the worker definition, which I regret. In terms of the implementation of the fixed-term directive, the various types of parental pay and the disciplinary procedures, some rights will not be extended to a significant number of people who are de facto employees even if they are not so defined by the letter of the law. I hope that we will debate those matters in Committee and consider extending employment protection to everyone engaged in productive employment.

I also hope that we will examine aspects of employment tribunal legislation in Committee. My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) and for Aberdeen, Central made some telling points about the ways in which we can improve the Bill. In particular, I draw the Minister's attention to charges and costs. I strongly welcome the Government's decision not to proceed with charges, because they would be a disincentive for people to go before the tribunals. It was interesting that the Opposition saw that as a major issue and urged that charges be reconsidered. I hope that they will not pursue that, because we know that charges have a deterrent effect.

My hon. Friend knows that I did not have the highest opinion of the increased costs that were introduced earlier this year. As the Government managed to slide them through somewhere before the end of the previous Parliament and the beginning of the new Parliament, they were not perhaps properly examined by us. I hope that we will not fall into that trap, with the possibility of adding on costs for employers' time. It is important that we recognise that costs can have a deterrent effect.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to a case that I think I have mentioned to him before. Two women, Ms C and Ms D, work together in a company and were both sexually harassed by the managing director. I am sure that the House accepts that workers should be given proper protection against sexual predation by senior staff. They both rejected the managing director's propositions and eventually complained about his behaviour. One of them was sacked for gross misconduct after she arrived late at

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work one day and the second was also sacked, although it was termed as redundancy. They made claims for sex discrimination with the help of the local law centre.

The employer's solicitor sent a letter to the law centre threatening costs, explaining that it was likely that substantial sums will be awarded

The solicitor acting for the employer is wrong about the amount of the cost. However, the same letter threatened to sue the two women for libel and perjury, and they were anxious as a result, which is not an unnatural reaction to intimidation by a solicitor. Indeed, there are questions about the probity of the solicitor's actions. The women's representative at the law centre took the letter up with the employer's solicitor, who said that it was standard practice to nip such cases in the bud. The last I knew, that case was ongoing.

My point is that there was a clear attempt by a solicitor to intimidate and put people off gaining access to a tribunal. We should deplore that and recognise that costs can and are being used to prevent access. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the strong feelings on the Labour Benches about the possible deterrent effect of costs.

Mr. Hammond: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and no one would support such conduct by a solicitor. However, will he recognise that many employers face vexatious and trivial claims, which is exactly what the changes in the Bill are intended to tackle? Employers will incur substantial management time costs in dealing with them and it is only reasonable that they should have an opportunity to recover costs if claims are found to be vexatious or trivial.

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