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9.37 pm

Mr. Lloyd: There is not much time, so I shall try to be brief.

The Bill contains many good provisions. Unlike the Opposition, I believe that union learning representatives will be widely welcomed throughout industry, not only by employees, but by employers. The measures on paternity pay and leave and rights for adoptive parents are important steps forward. My hon. Friend the Minister's announcement tonight of the minimum income guarantee underwrites that. It is an important part of the process.

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to ask him to look hard at how we can improve the Bill before it passes to another place. I regret that we did not have time to reach the amendments that were tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends.

The Bill provides a new floor for dispute resolution, which is an important step. As the Minister knows, some of us took the view that it would have been better if the ACAS code had been adopted as the basis; we shall have to agree to differ about that. I hope that he will consider the right to be accompanied and the need for proper investigation to take place during the dispute process.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the continuing doubts about whether the concepts of hearing and meeting are really the same thing. I hope that he will reflect on that.

I turn briefly to tribunals. My hon. Friend knows that there is already concern about the loading on of different types of costs to the tribunal structure, as well as the new additions in the Bill. We have not had time to debate that tonight, but I want to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister the deterrent effects involved.

I shall quote briefly from a case that was brought to my attention. It involved an individual who claimed unfair dismissal and who initially acted for himself. His employer's representatives wrote to him, stating:

That individual finally sought help from his local law centre and was awarded £50,000 compensation, but his employer's representative had clearly tried to take him out of the game altogether.

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This is a serious issue which cuts through the question of costs and other forms of compensatory structure, and I hope that my hon. Friend will reflect on that. I do not know what he can say tonight to move the debate forward, but I should perhaps remind him that one or two of our noble Friends in the other place are already sitting there with bear traps waiting for the unwary.

I was intrigued by the gap between the performance of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) in Committee—the reasonable and, I think, the real hon. Member—and his performance tonight, for which he had been wound up by the Leader of the Opposition and forced to come along and make rather more divisive comments. Some of those comments were ludicrous, but they are all helpful in ensuring that we shall probably not see another Conservative Government in my lifetime.

9.41 pm

Mr. Prisk: I am aware that time is short, so I shall attempt to be brief. I congratulate the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on the professional and concise way in which they have led the debate. They have done so with style and often, dare I say, with aplomb, and one learns from this as a new Member of the House. This has meant that we have been able to have a predominantly constructive debate, which we all welcome.

On that note, it is good to see maternity leave being matched by paternity leave in the Bill. It is important that we try whenever possible to recognise the role of fathers in families today, although I am disappointed that low-paid, self-employed fathers seem to be excluded from that generosity. I hope that the Minister will rethink that point.

I shall return, as the Minister would expect, to the question of small businesses. I am still deeply concerned that the Government admit that the Bill will place a disproportionate burden on small firms. We make a fuss about small firms because they are the engine of the economy. They employ the most people and we rely on them for most of our services. The total cost of regulation to business will be in excess of £558 million every year from now on—never mind any costs arising out of the regulations to come—and a disproportionate part of that will fall on the small businesses on which we rely and on which the Chancellor relies for much of his income. The fact that that burden falls on them in that disproportionate way needs to be borne in mind, and I am sure that the Minister will do that.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of State is not here at the moment. She will be given reserve powers to implement various regulations under the Bill, and I ask the Minister to pass on to her a request that the use of those powers should be sparing, well thought through, and carried out in a thorough manner.

In the preamble to this debate, and during our discussions, much has been made by Ministers and their supporters of the fact that this is a family friendly Bill. That is an admirable quality, but there is a group comprising 4 million households that the Bill will not help. I am talking about self-employed people, who already spend 31 hours a month trying to deal with the existing bureaucracy, and who will now have to lose another weekend or evening that they could have spent

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with their families. Please let us not forget those families; they are important and we should not ignore them. I hope that the notion of this being a family friendly Bill will be extended to them as well.

9.44 pm

Ms Walley: I congratulate the Government on having listened to much of what has been said since the initial consultation. However, given that this evening's debate has been cut short and we were unable to consider two groups of amendments that I very much wanted to discuss, I shall use the couple of minutes available to implore the Minister to look again at the issues that they cover.

Last July, the Government introduced a new regulation in respect of employment tribunals which enables on-the-spot costs awards of between £500 and £10,000. It is already clear that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) said, employers are using the regulation to harass and intimidate, and as a disincentive to taking cases to employment tribunals. I do not want this splendid Bill to be spoiled by people being unable to take cases to employment tribunals because of the fear of incurring costs.

Before the Bill proceeds to the other place, I ask the Minister carefully to consider introducing a right to argue against costs and new regulations requiring employment tribunals to take into account people's ability to pay on-the-spot costs of £10,000. Such a requirement does not exist in case law. That is an important issue for smaller companies in particular, where there is often little trade union representation.

On amendments Nos. 12, 34 and 35, which we were unable to discuss, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. The newly modified statutory procedure does not take account of the basic rules of natural justice. I have discussed that issue with the Minister, and in my view we could introduce a procedure that is easier to follow.

I congratulate the Government on enabling far more people to be brought under the new regime, but we shall not make progress if our attempts to simplify undermine natural justice and give employment tribunals carte blanche to find against individuals. I implore the Minister to consider those important points of detail before the Bill progresses to the other place. The devil is always in the detail, and the rest of the Bill and the huge gains made on fixed-term contracts, maternity and paternity pay and adoption leave should not be spoiled by a failure to take account of those two small but none the less significant procedural issues.

9.48 pm

Norman Lamb: I begin by reiterating that there is considerable support on the Liberal Democrat Benches for the vast majority of the Bill. We strongly support the introduction of paternity leave, extended maternity leave and adoption leave, which are good and welcome reforms. The introduction, with a light touch, of flexible working is also extremely welcome and it builds sensibly on existing law on indirect discrimination. We are concerned, however, about the Bill's impact on small businesses, which is why we support regular monitoring not only of its benefits, but of its cost to that sector in particular.

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I want to focus on an issue raised by the hon. Member for Stoke–on–Trent, North (Ms Walley), which I regard as a matter of absolute principle. I have already crossed swords with the Minister, far too early on a Sunday morning, on BBC Radio 5 Live over the question of the modified dismissal and disciplinary procedure, but I will raise it again. In effect, the procedure removes a fundamental right to defend oneself before dismissal. That applies to all cases of gross misconduct which, obviously, are the most serious cases.

I do not understand the logic. Why are people's rights diminished when the allegations are of the most serious kind? The opposite obtains in criminal law: when serious allegations are made, people have a right to trial by jury. They have almost extended rights of protection. Under the Bill, those confronted by such allegations will not even have the right to a hearing before being dismissed. That is quite simply wrong. An entitlement that survived 18 years of Conservative government is now being removed by a Labour Government.

In cases involving gross misconduct, the facts are often complex. A mass of documentation is often involved, and often the original allegation can be disproved by the employee concerned.

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