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Rob Marris: I shall give no such assurance until I have extended my hon. Friend the Minister the courtesy of listening to the Government's response. It would be foolish to do otherwise.

Norman Lamb: If the Minister does not accept the proposals in the new clause, will the hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members press it to a vote? He asserts that the protection ends when the eight weeks have elapsed. Does not he accept that section 238A(5) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 provides continued protection when the employer has not gone through proper procedures to resolve the dispute? Protection therefore does not exist simply for eight weeks. Will he comment on that?

Rob Marris: I shall gladly comment on both points. I did not mention proposals; I said that I would listen to

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the Minister's response. Section 238A(5) simply provides people such as Craig Smith with a fig leaf. It allows them to display a veneer—a noun that was used earlier—of negotiating and going through the motions with no intention of settling a dispute. They then fire people after eight weeks. The eight-week rule tends to prolong disputes, and I do not believe that that is hon. Members' intention. Most of us want shorter disputes that are resolved justly and fairly. Clearly, that has not happened for the 87 workers from Friction Dynamics and their community.

Does the Minister believe that the eight-week rule accords with the United Kingdom's duties under the International Labour Organisation conventions that we have signed? If it complies with their wording, does it accord with their spirit?

Mr. George Osborne: As hon. Members would expect, I oppose new clause 5 and support new clause 8. I enjoyed serving in Committee with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who often makes a good deal of sense. However, I was not familiar with the case to which he drew our attention, and I am not convinced that it shows the need for a change in the law that would affect all companies throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) will speak on anything anywhere, but I hope that other signatories to the new clause will speak in the debate. It is interesting to learn Labour Back-Bench Members' true feelings and moods. Students of new Labour will realise that the Minister is in the ideal new Labour position of being between new clause 8, tabled by Conservative Members, and new clause 5, tabled by old Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) probably dreams of being in such a position when he is not dreaming about the Cabinet. As the Prime Minister would put it, the Minister is between Conservative wreckers and old Labour wreckers.

Rob Marris: That puts the Minister in the position of fluid dynamics rather than Friction Dynamics.

Mr. Osborne: The hon. Gentleman has redeemed himself by making a good point. When the Minister rejects the new clauses and says that the principle of fairness, not favours means that the Government have to be somewhere in the middle, he will adopt the ideal third-way position, although Ministers no longer use the term, which has been dropped from the lexicon. Anyone who examines the Government's record will realise that they have handed over a stream of new powers to trade unions, including statutory recognition, protection for strikers, which new clause 5 would extend, and easing rules on strike ballots. Trade union recognition agreements have increased from a little over 100 a year under the Conservative Government to 450 last year. A huge expansion in trade union power therefore took place even before the Bill was introduced.

The Bill grants further powers to trade unions. We have discussed the explosion in the number of union learning representatives and the example of union pressure paying off when the Government dropped the modest charging regime that they planned to introduce for employment tribunals. That miraculously happened a few days before

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the Prime Minister was due to speak to the Trades Union Congress. The fixed-term European directive has been gold-plated and Conservative Members are left wondering why all that has happened. We therefore delve into the Labour party's accounts and its constitution. People who listened to our proceedings today would have been struck by the fact that almost every Labour Member who spoke voluntarily declared trade union involvement.

The Labour party's accounts show that trade unions gave them £9.5 million in the election year. Anyone who has been involved in politics knows the indirect help that trade unions provide through advertising, manpower and so on. One does not have to be a cynic to perceive a connection between the enormous extension of trade union power under this Government and the great provision of trade union money and manpower to the Labour party.

Mr. Weir: I have no connection with a trade union, but I am prepared to support the new clause. The hon. Gentleman's speech is interesting, but new clause 8 would remove any protection from workers who are on strike. They could be sacked the day after a strike began.

Mr. Osborne: New clause 8 would simply mean reverting to the position under the Conservative Government. Most people who consider that Government's history will probably regard their greatest achievement as curbing trade union power.

Norman Lamb: New clause 8 proposes that:

of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992—

That seems to go back beyond the position that existed through the last years of the Conservative Government, and to provide less protection than there was pre-1999. Will the hon. Gentleman explain whether that is the case?

Mr. Hammond: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hate to say this to the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot intervene on an intervention.

Mr. Osborne: I shall be happy to take my hon. Friend's intervention.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hesitate to say this, because I know that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) is an employment lawyer, but if my memory serves me correctly, the Employment Relations Act 1999 inserted subsection (2B) into the 1992 Act to which he referred.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend anticipated what I was about to say. Perhaps I should quit while I am ahead by saying that the result of the Government's actions has not been fairness, not favours, but favours, not fairness. There has been a string of new trade union powers, and we all know the reason for that. As I said earlier, the Minister is

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in an ideal position to do the new Labour trick of saying that he is neither one thing nor the other and that he is in the middle, but we should not be deceived.

Norman Lamb: I shall deal first with the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who spoke of his concerns about a very real case. That highlights a potential loophole, and I invite the Minister to comment on the possibility of considering a narrower amendment to the Bill to close that loophole. It seems extraordinary that workers can go on strike for one week, which is followed by a seven week lock-out, and then be fairly dismissed because of the original one-week strike. That is unacceptable, and there is certainly unanimity among the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Back Benchers tabling that new clause. I invite the Minister to respond specifically to that point.

The new clause goes far beyond addressing that particular mischief, however; and to destroy the delicate balance created in the Employment Relations Act 1999 would be a retrograde step. Subject to this loophole being closed, it makes sense to have a protected period in which the right to strike exists, and to have a period after that date in which that right continues to exist if the employer does not go through the proper procedures. Throwing all that out would be throwing the baby out with the bath water and going way beyond addressing the mischief to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Central referred.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) in relation to urging the Government to consider the position of public services and to examine the possibility of introducing arbitration as an alternative to the right to strike which exists outside the core public services.

New clause 8 seems to go back in the wrong direction and to be extreme on the other side. The delicate balance that was created by the 1999 Act appears to have worked reasonably successfully, notwithstanding unusual cases such as that of Friction Dynamics. It has not lead to an enormous growth of strikes. Strikes have increased of late, but there is no suggestion that that is because of the reasonable and limited protection that the 1999 Act provided in terms of the protected period. There is not a case for going back to the pre-1999 period; there is simply a case for addressing the mischief that has been highlighted by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central.

8.15 pm

Mr. Hammond: This has been an interesting debate. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is to be congratulated on having introduced his theme oozing reasonableness under the smokescreen of a specific case, the details of which I confess I do not have. Other hon. Members have also alluded to that case. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) have made the point that we cannot base such far-reaching legislative proposals on a single case. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central will just have to accept that we will never be able to deal with every situation in society that might give rise to a potential injustice.

We must consider the background to the two new clauses. Legislation has followed legislation—including the Employment Relations Act 1999—since the Government came to power in 1997. Further employment

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legislation is in the pipeline that will tilt the playing field still further in favour of the trade unions. The result of all this is an upsurge in trade union activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton quoted figures for the dramatic increase in recognition agreements. Mr. John Monks is on record as saying that the trade unions were back in business. Who would expect them to be anywhere else, when they have just paid the party that now forms the Government £9 million to fight their last general election campaign?

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