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9.12 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): I declare an interest as a member of the GMB trade union and also as one of its senior officers for 12 years.

I, too, welcome the Bill. It builds on some of the basic rights at work that were introduced post-1997, many of which were opposed by the Conservative party. Those rights have been popular with the public since their introduction. The contributions of Conservative Members show their dilemma: such measures are popular with the public, but Conservative Members are stuck in an ideological straitjacket and have to oppose them.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), I welcomed the contribution of the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who is no

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longer in the Chamber. The hon. Lady made a passionate and good speech in which she recognised the pressures on working parents. Unfortunately, her colleagues continue to hide behind the old language—that the measure will not provide basic human rights at work, but will result in red tape on business. They are falling back on the old mantra of the effects on small business.

I do not accept that. The measure will provide basic human rights that people should have at work. People throughout Europe and the rest of the world have enjoyed such rights for many years and now, thanks to a Labour Government, people in this country can also enjoy them.

I welcome the provision for paid paternity leave. As a trade union officer for 12 years, I know of the difficulties experienced by many fathers in getting time off work during the traumatic stage just after childbirth. In some cases, people were actually dismissed for taking time off. In 2001, that cannot be acceptable in a decent society.

Statutory paid adoption leave is also very welcome. Hon. Members have already mentioned the long process that adoptive parents have to undertake. The extension of statutory maternity leave will also be very welcome to many working mothers in North Durham. Maternity leave, too, is a basic human right, not a privilege.

My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) mentioned that learning representatives will be put on a statutory basis. I totally agree with him that they can be beneficial to good industrial relations in the workplace. That is the approach that we should adopt—they will be good for business; they will not hamper it if they are introduced properly.

I have some concerns about the Bill. The number of industrial tribunals has grown, as has been mentioned. During my time as a trade union officer, I regularly appeared at tribunals in Newcastle. I have a lot of experience of representing union members at tribunals. The problem is that some of the clauses are intended to try to reduce the number of industrial tribunal applications. That is the wrong approach. The best approach would be to consider the Leggatt report fully and ensure that we introduce some changes. One of Leggatt's key proposals—I totally agree with him—is that tribunals should not be turned into courts of law, but that is already happening.

In my experience, taking the lawyers out of the process would make resolving employers' and employees' problems much simpler and quicker. I have some fond memories of representing a union member who worked for the Federation Brewery, but the case took 10 days to resolve. Frankly, it could have been resolved at an early stage, but the barrister was clearly not going to let it go once he had got his teeth into it. Clearly, that did not result in a better form of justice for the member or the company; it led to a lot of very expensive legal bills for the employer.

I shall refer next to some of the clauses that I am concerned about, some of which have already mentioned. Clause 22(2) deals with compensation for preparation time, and here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). I am not sure how the time that the management spend preparing cases will be calculated. Clearly, that clause will not apply to trade unions. Trade union officers, who are often not legally qualified, are involved in a lot of work for industrial tribunals, but there is no clause stating that they

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can claim money for their preparation time. That is a way to discourage people from making applications, which is very sad and will cause more problems than it will solve.

In my experience of industrial tribunals, pre-hearing assessments, which anyone can request, represent a way to sort out frivolous and vexatious cases. Those assessments can take place now, and there is no need to create further hurdles to stop people using their right to a judgment at an industrial tribunal.

Similarly, under clause 25, the use of the IT1 form will be mandatory, but that is a mistake. Many people do not have access to those forms. In my experience, those who are not represented by trade unions find it difficult to get hold of them. I do not understand what is wrong with allowing employees who feel that their cases should go to industrial tribunals to put them in writing—obviously within the permitted time limits. Again, that proposal is being wrongly used as a hurdle to try to stop people gaining access to industrial tribunals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South–West also referred to clause 29, which deals with the minimum disciplinary and grievance standards, which fall well below those of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. I would argue that the ACAS code is better and that the clause might cause confusion. I was always amazed by the number of employers, including many small businesses, who did not give contracts of employment to their employees. Insisting that people had contracts of employment would represent a better way forward.

Clause 34 relates to the Polkey case, which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) mentioned. The clause will create a legal minefield and it will give a lot of work to lawyers. The Polkey case was resolved after long and expensive litigation, and this clause is likely to produce something similar.

Efforts need to be made to ensure that the Leggatt report and the lessons learned from it are fully implemented. Training for employees and working for compromise are the way forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, we should also strengthen the role of ACAS by providing it with financial support and further statutory powers.

I support the Bill. It builds on the basic human rights of people at work that the Government have introduced since 1997, always in the face of the Conservative party's opposition.

9.21 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I draw the House's attention to my registered interests: I am the director of two companies, both of which fortunately employ people and hope to go on doing so in greater numbers in the future.

I can probably safely say that this has been a fairly predictable debate. The Secretary of State opened it with a rather patronising tone towards business, and I am sure that employers will have picked up on that. Labour Members have sought to persuade the Government to tilt the playing field further in the direction of employees and trade unions, while Conservative Members have focused on the costs, both direct and indirect, that the Bill will impose and the consequences of them.

This is a hotch-potch of a Bill with a number of different themes woven together. Some of those themes we can accept and we support what the Government are

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trying to do, but we have reservations about others. Time permitting, I shall say something about the specific merits and demerits of the proposals in each area.

Before that, I wish to make two general points. The first is that the Bill follows what has recently become a familiar pattern. It is largely an empty box—a skeleton of primary legislation—the full impact and effect of which we shall not be able to judge until we see the regulations that should accompany it.

Anyone reading the Bill without its explanatory notes will have little idea of the Government's intentions. The explanatory notes are exemplary in their clarity, but they are not part of the Bill; they have no legal or legislative force. Almost all the substantive comments made in the debate have related to the regime which the explanatory notes predict the regulations will put in force. If that is not an abuse of Parliament, it is certainly a poor use of Parliament's time. We will spend many hours in Committee scrutinising the primary legislation—the framework Bill—but if we are lucky, we shall have a maximum of only 90 minutes in a delegated legislation Committee for each set of regulations. That is not conducive to good scrutiny of a complex matter in which the detail in the regulations might critically affect the livelihoods and well-being of individuals and firms throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is not in his place, rightly concluded that the Bill was balanced between the interests that employers regard as important and those that trade unions regard as important. Labour Members have made a concerted effort to persuade the Government to go further in the direction that the trade union movement would like to go. However, it is important, when we consider the Bill in Committee, that we understand precisely how the Government intend to regulate so that we see what the Bill's effects will be. I therefore ask the Minister to assure us that he will make the draft regulations available to the Standing Committee so that we can consider the substance and not just the skeletal form of the proposals.

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