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8.33 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): I declare an interest as a member of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, which is soon to become Amicus. It supported me before the election.

I welcome the Bill, which marks a positive development for employees and employers. It is disappointing to hear Conservative Members speak only about the rights of employers. They seem to ignore those of employees. When they are challenged to specify the so-called red tape that they would remove, they fall silent and appear incapable of answering the question.

The provisions on union learning representatives are especially welcome and put that role on a formal footing. That will greatly enhance workplace learning and give learning representatives the status that health and safety representatives have enjoyed for some time. That should be warmly welcomed.

It is a pity, and a verdict on British industrial relations, that we need to enshrine these rights in law, but it is clearly necessary because many companies refuse to accept the positive role that union learning representatives have. Given the new protections, however, I am confident that we shall see a substantial increase in the number of union learning representatives, which will be good for the country as a whole. Perhaps more importantly, the individuals who perform this demanding role will be able to receive the necessary training and support that they may have been denied in the past.

I hope that, alongside these measures, the Government will publicise the value of learning representatives, because they provide an important service in the workplace. They are a vital part of the partnership process, and represent an approach that I am sure we all want to see promoted in British industry. Partnership needs to be fostered. It does not just happen by accident. In any partnership, all parties must play their part. Such partnerships need the unions and the employers, along with the Government, positively to embrace and endorse these proposals, rather than being reluctant partners in the process. The role of union learning representatives should, if properly encouraged and nurtured, assist businesses and industry to become more efficient and competitive. It is a positive role, not a negative one, as some Opposition Members have suggested.

The provisions relating to paternity leave also give real meaning to an otherwise toothless right. For the majority of working people, the right to unpaid leave is not a right at all, because they simply cannot afford to take it. Although the rate set out in the Bill is relatively low—a maximum of £100 or 90 per cent. of earnings, whichever is the lower—it is at least a start, and is heading in the right direction. I hope to see further improvement in that level in the years to come.

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The changes to maternity pay also provide important improvements to the current level. Improvements to maternity pay and to adoptive leave and pay are long overdue. They go some way towards addressing the pay gap that still remains between men and women in this country.

The proposals relating to dispute resolution are more difficult. The Government are right to tackle the issue, and to seek ways of encouraging conciliation and dispute resolution between employers and employees. As one who has always supported the partnership approach in industrial relations, I look forward to a time when all employers and employees share the same goals and aspirations. However, even in such an environment, we should not delude ourselves that disputes between employers and employees will not arise from time to time.

I am concerned that the impact of making it more difficult for employees to pursue tribunal applications could be to encourage employers to maintain a more confrontational approach, rather than to reach an agreement. In saying that, we must accept that tribunals are facing an increasing volume of cases. This is a result of their extended role and of their perceived role as the appropriate forum for dispute resolution.

In my previous incarnation as a trade union officer, I recall a number of cases in which employees ignored all the advice and recommendations of the union, the employer and everyone else, and regarded the tribunal as some kind of free chance to improve the offer on the table. Those are only a minority of cases, and ultimately it is the employees' right to do that. The result of such cases is that they do not get very far.

Mainly, resolutions are achieved because of the backstop of tribunals. Perhaps the uncertainty over the outcome aids the process. It is believed, wrongly in my view, that tribunal applications are spiralling out of control and that the system cannot deal with the increased work load—if it is accepted that there is an increased work load. Employees are far more aware of their individual rights, which is surely a positive development, and we must not put more obstacles in the way of individuals making cases. Indeed, we must assist conciliation and agreement.

In the first instance, therefore, we must provide much greater support and resources to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to help it with individual cases and collective problems. We must also properly fund the tribunal system to enable it to do the job that it is supposed to do. The simple fact is that the more we do to aid resolution rather than dispute, the less individuals will feel the need to resort to tribunals.

I fully support the proposals on vexatious cases, which for far too long have wasted everybody's time and resources. A few have made a mockery of the system. There has long been a need to tighten up here, but obviously we must not put unfair barriers in the way of good cases.

The statutory dismissal, disciplinary and grievance procedures should be broadly welcomed, although, as a number of hon. Members have said, much confusion would have been avoided by using the well-established ACAS code of practice, which has long been used by employers—even those who do not recognise trade unions. Employers are familiar with the code and it would have been a lot easier to adopt a process which everyone is aware and with which most people are happy.

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I welcome the proposals, but we need to address the position of employees who, for whatever reason—instant dismissal, perhaps—may have lost all confidence in a company's internal procedures. That is particularly the case when there is little realistic chance of a return to the workplace. Furthermore, although the proposals rightly oblige the employee to follow the correct procedures, they do not place the same weight of obligation on the employer to do likewise.

If an employee is to be denied the right to apply to a tribunal for resolution until the internal procedures are complete, surely the employer should be under the same obligation not to impose change on the employee. Overall, the Bill is a step in the right direction, but we must address those specific points.

8.44 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I declare an interest as I employ two people in my constituency office in Upminster. I am not sure whether that qualifies me as a small business.

As a mother and an employer, I have mixed feelings about the Bill, which is like the curate's egg—good in parts. It will be welcomed by new parents, but not necessarily by other employees, and I have reservations about the ability of businesses, especially very small ones, to cope with yet more regulations and duties.

For me, least contentious is clause 1, which provides for a new statutory right to two weeks' paternity leave that must be taken within 56 days of the child's birth, provided that the employee has completed a qualifying period of 26 continuous weeks' service. That is accompanied by the right to return to work. I welcome the flexibility provided by the 56-day period.

If the child is born in hospital, the mother may not return home during the first week—or until even later, if the birth was complicated. In the first few weeks other help is often at hand from grandparents, other family members or friends and neighbours. It is when the initial interest wanes that the father's ability to spend two weeks at home with his wife and child may be of greatest benefit. The mother may be recovering well, but the successive sleepless nights that occur so often in the early weeks can lead to exhaustion, and routine everyday tasks can seem a mountain to climb. Father and baby can also establish their own relationship during this time—something that has often been impossible in the past owing to lack of opportunity.

I am especially pleased that adoptive fathers have been included in the provisions. The application and approval process relating to adoption is long and stressful, and usually follows many years of disappointment. It is absolutely right that social services departments and adoption agencies take the greatest care in matching children to parents. The child concerned may have experienced more than one unsuccessful foster or pre-adoption placement, and the settling-in process is not always easy. The opportunity for the adoptive parents, and any siblings, to spend time with the new child as a family will be enormously helpful.

In most cases, 92 per cent. of the statutory paternity pay of £100—or 90 per cent. of the employee's average weekly earnings—will be recoverable by the employer. Small employers will be able to recover 100 per cent.

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Although the proposed arrangement will not impose a direct cost on employers, finding short-term cover for absentees is not easy. In practice, duties must often be covered by colleagues. A large helping of good will is needed, as employees without children, in particular, may resent having to perform extra duties and then not being eligible for benefits. They may also have caring responsibilities themselves, involving elderly parents or disabled family members.

Clause 17 increases maternity leave from 18 to 26 weeks, followed by 26 weeks of additional maternity leave. New and adoptive mothers will be given up to a year's leave. That will pose an important choice to new mothers during periods when most households require two incomes to meet all their outgoings, but it will enable mothers to spend more time with their children and to be more flexible in their plans for a return to work.

Having said that, I must add that small businesses will find it most difficult to accommodate employees by keeping jobs open—with no guarantee that those employees will return—while training temporary staff. A year's absence could present a small firm with considerable difficulties, especially when key staff are involved. That could, in the long term, deter employers from taking on female staff. The provision could therefore be a retrograde step for women of childbearing age, and for their employment opportunities. That is my main concern.

At a job interview during, I think, the 1960s, I was asked whether I planned to have any children. Implicit in the question was the knowledge that, if the answer was yes, my prospects of being appointed would be nil. Such questions are not permitted now, but I foresee other means of excluding women from the workplace, particularly women who are judged likely to be planning a family.

The duty to consider parents' requests for flexible working hours is not, I think, a suitable matter for legislation, as it could impose real management problems on a small organisation. Some employers already offer flexible working, and those that are family friendly will find it easier to acquire staff; but it should be remembered that the main function of an organisation is to produce goods or services. The job security of the whole work force, and the future viability of the firm, depend on its remaining in profit. I fear that an inevitable result of the Bill's enactment will be fewer job opportunities, especially for women; male employees will be seen as a more reliable and less complicated prospect.

There is no doubt that the number of industrial tribunals has increased sharply in the past 10 years, from 30,000 to 130,000. It has almost become an industry in itself. A lowering of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal cases from two years to one has contributed to the increase. The CBI reports that the result is an average cost of £633 million per year to United Kingdom industry.

The requirement for internal grievance procedures to be exhausted before an employment tribunal is permitted is a sensible step and should help to deter vexatious applications. I regret, however, that the proposal to charge applicants a modest amount for a tribunal claim has been dropped. It means that the claimant risks nothing, but a very small business could face a ruinous compensation claim.

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The Bill seems at first to be good news for women employees. However, if those perceived benefits are not good for employers, especially small businesses, the end result could be very different. The Bill increases a regulatory burden that has been accumulating over the past four and a half years. Businesses need to retain the flexibility and competitiveness that over-prescriptive legislation will damage. Parts of the Bill will, I think, upset the delicate balance between employees' and employers' rights and so be detrimental to the position of women in the workplace.

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