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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Radical reform of employment tribunals is long overdue. Talking to the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the CBI, I have learned that there has been an extraordinary increase in the number of cases taken to employment tribunals. In just 10 years, the figure has risen by 300 per cent., which cannot be good for industrial relations or the economy as a whole.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell the House about the decline in the number of days lost through strikes in the same 10-year period?

Mr. Prisk: I am not in a position to deal with that claim. I am concerned with the way in which industrial relations will work from now on. As an MP with a legal background, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman may like to add to his point later.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend and, through him, the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). In the financial year 1997–98, 254,000 days were lost as a result of strike action. In the first 10 months of last year, 325,000 days were lost, which is a significant increase since the Labour party came to power.

Mr. Prisk: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least in helping me to channel that information to the House. The fact that 130,000 cases were taken to employment tribunals in 2000 clearly needs to be addressed; that is the principle on which I welcome the Bill's aspirations. It is clear from the CBI and the Institute of Directors that the cost to business of those cases is now about £633 million. Beyond the cost alone, it cannot be right that cases are immediately brought to court; they should be dealt with in the workplace.

New clause 6 tries to rebalance the responsibilities in the workplace, and for that reason it is welcome, in principle. The Bill sets out clear and, in some cases, quite prescriptive requirements on employers for dealing with complaints, grievances and so on, as the Minister described at length on Second Reading and in Committee. It seems only right, therefore, that we should require employees equally to accept responsibility to begin a complaint or a grievance in the workplace, and not immediately to run to the courts.

I welcome the requirement that the employee should first write a letter—that seems common sense—and that there should be 28-day waiting period, which also makes

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sense. Before the Minister thinks that I am going too soft, however, I shall raise one or two concerns. My first relates to new clause 6 because the Secretary of State still has reserved powers to exclude certain individuals. I reiterate the concern expressed by the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors that that power should not be overused. I hope that the Minister will reassure me and those employers representatives that the power will not be overexercised.

My second concern is that although responsibilities are being introduced for employees in an attempt to balance the responsibilities already sought for employers, those seem a little inadequate. There is merely a requirement that the employee should write a letter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) rightly pointed out. It is not a requirement to meet, to sit down and to have an intelligent and reasonable dialogue to sort out the differences. The Bill is prescriptive in the requirements that it places on employers to act, yet the Government seem reluctant to introduce similarly prescriptive measures for employees. It is that slight imbalance which worries me.

If it is right to set out three steps for employers, surely it is right to set out at least two steps—to write and to meet—for employees. Although I understand the argument of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter) that in extreme cases individual members of an organisation might not want a face-to-face meeting, that is a rare example. Wherever possible, we should encourage employees to write, to meet and to have a dialogue.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): As a full-time trade union official until last June, it is clear to me that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the process. If the employee wrote a letter and was then invited to a disciplinary hearing, and did not attend, and if the case reached an industrial tribunal, it would be deemed unfair anyway, so I do not understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from.

Mr. Prisk: The purpose of the new clause is to encourage employees to take responsibility. I do not claim to be a lawyer, but I do claim to have worked in small businesses.

Mr. Hammond: Perhaps my hon. Friend should point out that it is the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) who does not understand what we are talking about. We are dealing with grievances, not discipline.

Mr. Prisk: I was too polite to do that, and I shall try to maintain that air of civility. My hon. Friend is right. Perhaps the hon. Member for North Durham will bear my hon. Friend's comments in mind.

There seems to be a strange omission from the Bill. It is fine to introduce a clearly defined and prescriptive set of proposals for employers, but there is a hesitancy to do the same with regard to employees. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain to the House why that omission exists. In conclusion, I welcome the purpose behind the new clause. What concerns me is that it seems, unusually for the Minister, to lack the confidence to see that through.

Mr. Simmonds: I, too, begin by declaring an interest: I am an employer in and outside the House.

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I hope that the Government share my view that the main purpose of new clause 6 is to reduce the number of cases that go to a tribunal. I welcome more detailed provision for that in the Bill rather than through regulations. I should like the Minister to offer a cast-iron guarantee or to express belief that the new clause will reduce the number of applications that go to tribunals.

4.15 pm

Many employer organisations share my deep concern that the new clause will not have the impact that I described, and that an increasing number of cases will continue to go to appeals tribunals. The figures are staggering. In 1988–89, just over 29,000 tribunal applications were submitted; in 1997–98, the figure exceeded 80,000; in 2000–01, it was comfortably over 130,000. Clearly, the number of applications to tribunals has increased dramatically. I believe that that is a direct result of many policies that the Government have introduced since they came to power in 1997.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the number of new rights for employees expanded considerably when the Conservative Government were in power? That led to increases in the number of claims that were taken to tribunals.

Mr. Simmonds: I am not arguing against employees' rights. There is a balance to be struck between employees' rights and employers' responsibilities. However, since 1997, matters have accelerated and employment relations have been damaged. Personnel Today stated that

Nothing in the new clause will stop that acceleration.

I generally support the clause, but I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) about the open-ended list of exceptions. I should like the Minister to show us that our anxieties are not well founded.

I would go slightly further than my hon. Friend on subsection (6)(a). I cannot foresee any circumstances in connection with bringing proceedings in which an employee would inform a tribunal that he or she had not complied with the procedure, thereby barring themselves from obtaining a tribunal application. The provision is therefore superfluous.

The Minister did not enjoy receiving the letter from Judge Prophet; indeed, he provided a robust and speedy response, which he copied to us all for which I am grateful. He made a pertinent point about an employee who is dismissed and therefore entitled to redundancy payment. If the employer refuses to pay, how does the internal grievance procedure apply to someone who is no longer an employee? Is such a case one of the exceptions that the Minister proposes to make through regulations under the new clause, or will the employee have to write to the employer to express his grievance after he has been made redundant?

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I shall speak briefly. I declare that I am a member of Unison and declare my constituency arrangements: my constituency Labour party has an agreement with the Union of Construction Allied Trades and Technicians.

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I want to give credit to the Minister for having taken account of the representations made to him not only in Committee but on behalf of people in constituencies such as mine, who had a great fear that, if clause 33 as originally drafted had stood part of the legislation, people would not have been able to take their case straight to a tribunal, and would have been excluded. I wanted a great deal of consultation about the regulations that would have come into force if the original clause 33 had remained part of the Bill.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the attention that he has paid to those of us who had concerns about this aspect of admissibility in respect of clause 33. He has been kind enough to listen to me, and said that this provision will now mean that people will not be excluded. I have listened to some of the comments made by Conservative Members, particularly in relation to people who have lost their jobs. The new clause, assuming that it will stand part of the Bill without being altered to a significant extent elsewhere—

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