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Alan Johnson: I am not interested in that sort of silly question. I am dealing with what I thought was an important debate on how employment relations are to go forward in this country. I was shunted into a siding for a second, but let me come back to new clause 5, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd).

The changes to the 1992 Act that came into effect on 24 April 2000—they have now been in place for about 22 months—were an important step forward. I am making that point—and I know that my hon. Friends agree with me—because some of the criticism that we have received implies that we did something terrible to undermine trade union rights and the rights of workers in dispute when we introduced those measures in the 1999 Act.

There is no evidence that employers are increasingly trying to sack strikers; they have not taken the advice of the Leader of the Opposition yet. In fact, sackings and threats of sackings are rare. However, I have listened to the debate and I recognise that the new clause has direct relevance to the dispute at Friction Dynamics in Caernarfon. That case has caused much distress to the workers concerned and to their local communities in north Wales. I am probably one of only three people in the Chamber who have met the striking workers at Friction Dynamics, and I have received many representations on their behalf. I know and understand their plight.

Some of the sacked workers have made applications to an employment tribunal claiming unfair dismissal. The first of those cases will probably be heard soon. The Friction Dynamics example is the first known to Government in which sacked strikers have invoked the new law and taken an employer to a tribunal. Obviously the outcome will be instructive, but we will not know the result for some time.

One of the questions asked by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) was whether the lock-out that has turned into an eight-week strike was allowable under the 1999 Act. In our view it probably is not—but I understand that that is exactly what the employment tribunal is considering.

Norman Lamb: Will the Minister give way?

Alan Johnson: In a little while.

I believe it would not be right to amend the legislation on the basis of one case, in advance of a considered approach to any changes after full consultation with all interested parties. The Government believe that it would be wrong to use the Bill to change the law in that area on the basis of one unresolved dispute. It would be much better to address the issue in the round in the forthcoming review of the Employment Relations Act.

Does the hon. Member for North Norfolk want to intervene now?

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way to me now, but I think that he has already answered my

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question. I wanted to ask him whether he would seriously examine the outcome of the tribunal case and consider a possible narrow amendment, if necessary, to address the mischief that appears to have arisen in this case.

Alan Johnson: The House will know that we are committed to reviewing the whole of the Employment Relations Act 1999, including the provision discussed in new clause 5.

8.45 pm

Mr. Lloyd: It is very important that my hon. Friend the Minister tell the House how the proposal will work in practice. I do not expect him to anticipate the results of the review, but he has made it clear that there is a commitment to making the eight-week rule workable and practical. Obviously, other matters—including the question concerning lock-out raised by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—will have to be considered in the review of the 1999 Act.

Alan Johnson: Yes, we are committed to reviewing the whole of that Act. The review will include an examination of the law on the dismissal of strikers. We are committed to introducing any resulting legislation within the lifetime of this Parliament.

I understand the concerns felt by hon. Members on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) has raised the matter with me several times, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. However, I think that it best to channel such concerns through the imminent review of the 1999 Act, not least because new clause 5, if it were agreed tonight, would do nothing to resolve the dispute at Friction Dynamics. No such provision could be applied retrospectively, as the members of the work force understood completely when I spoke to them a couple of months ago. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central to withdraw the amendment.

I turn now to new clause 8, which I believe would turn the clock back. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge was blatant about that. As with so many things, the new clause shows the inability of the Conservative Members to adapt to change. The world of industrial relations has moved on, and has apparently left them behind.

New clause 8 would repeal all the additional protections for those taking official, lawfully organised industrial action which were introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999. It would take us back to the law that preceded it, under which there were only modest protections against dismissal for strikers.

It is also important to recall that, under the previous law, tribunals could not hear complaints from workers dismissed during a strike if all of them were dismissed. They could hear complaints from strikers only if they were dismissed selectively, or were offered re-engagement selectively, within three months. Even then the strikers might not win their case. Such workers could not even take their case to an employment tribunal. That is the law that Conservative Members want to reintroduce.

The protections remain in place for those dismissed during action that is not lawfully organised, but we recognise that they were incongruous in relation to

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lawfully organised, balloted industrial action. They gave completely free rein to employers to sack everyone taking industrial action. So if 100 people were taking action, it was completely lawful for the employer to sack them, as long as he dismissed all 100.

We therefore changed the law with the 1999 Act to give important extra protections to everyone taking lawful industrial action—that is, official action that has been organised in full accordance with the law. Once unions have met the many demands of the law when organising action, we believe that their members should enjoy a measure of protection when they take such action.

The new law has been in place for a little under two years. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge wishes to imply that there has been a significant upturn in industrial action as a result. That is simply not the case. In fact, it is absolute nonsense. There is no evidence that the number of stoppages has increased since our legal changes took effect. The number of stoppages in the year to November 2001 was just 190—the lowest since records began in 1869. That total was 20 fewer than in the preceding year—

Mr. Hammond rose

Alan Johnson: I anticipate that the hon. Gentleman wants to ask what has happened since November, but I assure him that I shall get around to that in a second.

The number of stoppages in the year to November 2001 was 20 fewer than in the preceding year, and 40 fewer than the average annual figure for the 1990s, up to 1997.

Mr. Hammond: Like the members of his Whips' Office, the Minister has wrongly anticipated my intervention. I was going to ask him whether it had occurred to him that 2001 was a general election year. The trade unions financing the Labour party's campaign were hardly likely to pull the rug from under the party's feet by going in for a massive increase in industrial disputes in the run-up to the general election.

Alan Johnson: I feel the need to take the hon. Gentleman, whom I very much like, out for a gin and tonic, and sit him down and go through all of this. [Interruption.] Well, perhaps I will stretch to a half of lager. I have not heard this stuff about a huge conspiracy for some time. He should have talked to my mob half way through the election, because they were coming out quite merrily. The idea that industrial action just disappears when we snap our fingers and hold a general election has me holding my sides.

Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

Alan Johnson: I can take a bit more entertainment, so yes.

Mr. Hammond: Frankly, I find it astonishing that the Minister is suggesting that the trade union movement, which supports the Labour party financially and morally, would not attempt in the run-up to a general election to avoid any action or any questioning of Government policy, however violently it might disagree with it, until after the election was over. Is not that precisely what we

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have seen: utter silence in the run-up to the general election and then an immediate exercise of the unions' veto over public policy once Labour is in office?

Alan Johnson: I ought to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the majority of the unions affiliated to the TUC are not affiliated to the Labour party. In terms of the figures, he just cannot get away with it. In the last year to November, a year in which there was a general election, we had the lowest level of industrial action since records began. This year, even with the regrettable and high- profile disputes that we have seen—incidentally, they are high profile because there are no disputes anywhere else—we will have the second lowest level of industrial action since records began.

The number of days lost to industrial action is minuscule by historical standards. In the twelve months to November 2001, an estimated 473,000 days were lost due to industrial action. This compares with 1.3 million days lost in 1996; not the 1980s.

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