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Mrs. Betty Williams: At the start of my intervention, I declare that I am a full paid-up member of the TGWU. I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Friction Dynamics, from which 87 workers were deplorably dismissed during the events he describes. Many are constituents of mine, and they have assured me that they give new clause 5 their wholehearted support. I am sure that my hon. Friends are aware that they brought their case here to Westminster; they lobbied us hard, seeking support for their cause. The 1999 Act gave protection to my constituents for eight weeks
Andrew Mackinlay: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If it is to be the habit that everyone declares what they are, I should make it clear that I belong to the TGWU, I am closely associated with the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, and I formerly worked with the National and Local Government Officers Association, now part of Unison. In fact, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you cut me in half, you will find that I am like a stick of rock, with trade unions running all the way through me.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I am not aware of the case of Friction Dynamics, but it seems to be an appalling one. Is it not the case that if the employer had refused to negotiate, to seek conciliation and to engage in arbitration, the dismissals that he pushed through would have been unfair, and the unions would have been able to have the employees reinstated through the tribunal process?
Mr. Lloyd: They would not have been able to have the employees reinstated because the tribunal would not have that capacity. It is a romantic view to bring back reinstatement. There are many examples of employees who have gone to tribunals following dismissal. The idea of going back to the same workplace would be ridiculous. I do not say that unkindly, but there would not be that possibility.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) seemed to imply that there is virtually no difference between a strike and a lock-out in the context of Friction Dynamics. I was staggered. The Friction Dynamics' work force are defending their conditions and health and safety standards. Is it surprising that they would want to do so? Surely going on strike in those circumstances is different from a lock-out, where conditions are removed from the work force.
Almost certainly the employer's ambition from the beginning was to engineer an industrial dispute. It is up to the employer now to demonstrate that that was not the case and that he did not sack the members of his work force with a view to eroding the terms and working conditions of those at Friction Dynamics.
As a trade unionist, I would not be prepared to defend that form of industrial relations. I am the chairman of a company limited by guarantee. It does not make profits and I receive no personal remuneration. However, I must take serious responsibility as an employer, and the company's employers are the people. Come the day when I could be accused of abusing other people's employment rights in the way that is alleged of Friction Dynamics, I would be ashamed even as a Conservative Member, let alone a Labour Member.
The case to which the hon. Gentleman has referred highlights what I would regard as a loophole in the provision that provides for an eight-week protected period. I agree that it is ludicrous that locking out the work force for seven weeks after an initial one week on strike enables the employer to take advantage of the provision.
What is the right that Conservative Members will be seeking to erode even within the eight-week period? It is not only the right to maintain employment, although the employer will not be stopped from sacking people; we are talking about the right to go before an industrial tribunal for assessment. I accept that that is much better than nothing, and that in some instances there can be exemplary payments. However, I think that the maximum award that a tribunal can make is £50,000. Someone who loses his job, especially in an area of relatively high unemployment, can lose much more than £50,000, through loss of income and loss of pension entitlement for example. The House should reflect on that. This is not a trivial point.
Mr. Hammond: I am not familiar with the Friction Dynamics case, but I understand that the hon. Gentleman is making an impassioned plea on behalf of the work force. Will he tell the House something about the economic fundamentals of the business? Is it a hugely profitable business with an avaricious owner who is seeking to make yet larger profits, or is it, as I suspect, a marginal business that is placed under threat of its very existence by competition from abroad? What are the circumstances?
Mr. Lloyd: I am not in a position to reveal the company's balance sheet. It has not been shown to me. I can tell the House that Mr. Craig Smith was engaged in a lawsuit in the United States before he bought the company. It is alleged that moneys that he used to fund the purchase of the company were in fact compensation payments to the victims of contact with asbestos. Mr. Smith might want to tell a different story, but not all of Mr. Smith's actions are those of a reputable employer.
If the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is saying that a company in financial and commercial difficulties may arbitrarily erode working conditions, refuse properly to negotiate and then sack its work force, he has a different view of the rights and responsibilities of employers. That is not merely my belief, but the view of the overwhelming majority in this country.
Mr. Lloyd: The information given to the House is fairly comprehensive. The actions of an employer who engineers a dispute by imposing swingeing cuts in pay rates and eroding the fabric of the health and safety regime are not those of a high-quality employer who is determined to build a modern Britain.
There is a little more information, that may be merely colour or emotion on my sad part. The company is the subject of an improvement order that was issued by the Health and Safety Executive because its health and safety standards are not up to scratch. That is the sort of employer about which we are talking. Conservative Members may be delighted to defend such companies, and that is fine. At least we know clearly where the tents begin and end. However, I do not want to be in a tent that defends such companies. I want to be in a world that says that the summary dismissal of employees in industrial disputes is not the way, even after eight weeks, to resolve industrial disputes. We should be moving forward by using mechanisms of arbitration.