Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Union learning representatives

Lords amendment No. 58

Alan Johnson: I beg to move that this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 59 and 60.

Alan Johnson: Amendments Nos. 58 and 59 deal with the order-making power under subsection (6). They make that order-making power subject to the affirmative procedure. That should ensure adequate scrutiny.

8 Jul 2002 : Column 654

Amendment No. 60 has a similar effect. It ensures that the issuing of a code of practice under the clause is always subject to affirmative procedure. We think that both Houses should have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the codes. Amendment No. 60 therefore ensures that if ACAS produces one or both of the codes, their issuing would always be subject to the affirmative procedure.

These are largely technical amendments, and I commend them to the House.

Mr. Hammond: Once again, the Minister tells us that the amendments are largely technical, but if I understand it correctly—I stand to be corrected by the Minister—the effect of the principal amendment in the group is far from technical. It means that the procedure by which orders made by statutory instrument giving effect to the proposed rights for union learning representatives will be made under the affirmative rather than the negative procedure.

All Ministers and Under-Secretaries who have to deal with the Opposition's persistent attempts to amend legislation in Committee will know that one of the routine amendments tabled by Opposition Members is to invoke the affirmative procedure, in order to ensure that proper scrutiny of the measures introduced by statutory instrument is available to Members of both Houses of Parliament. We believe that that is extremely important. So, for the Minister simply to suggest that moving from the negative to the affirmative procedure is a technical matter is slightly disingenuous.

If the Minister had been able to concede a change from the negative to the affirmative procedure in other parts of the Bill, and indeed if Ministers in general had been able to do so for parts of other Bills, their opposite numbers on the Opposition Benches would have acknowledged that their concession was far from technical and in fact significant.

This is not an uncontentious area of policy. By means of statutory instrument, orders will be made to give effect to the proposed new rights for union learning representatives. I know that the House would not wish me to rehearse in their entirety the arguments in Committee about the wisdom or otherwise of imposing union learning representatives by statute. We acknowledge that in some workplaces they provide a constructive addition to the machinery of employee-management co-operation, and often play an important role in ensuring that skills and learning in the workplace are properly attended to. However, we and many outside organisations have expressed serious reservations about whether the same beneficial effects can be achieved when their role is imposed by statute as opposed to being negotiated between the parties in the workplace. So there is a great deal of attention focused on this clause.

6.45 pm

Mr. George Osborne: Does my hon. Friend remember from our Standing Committee debates that, according to the Government, the clause will lead to a massive expansion in the number of union learning representatives from just 3,000 now to 22,300 in eight years' time? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] The cheers from Labour

8 Jul 2002 : Column 655

Members confirm that when their campaigns are funded by the trade unions, they pay back the favour when they are elected.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is right; the proposal represents a massive expansion of trade union power. No one would argue with the introduction of learning representatives by consensus, where they will be able to deliver genuine benefit to workers and employers alike, as they have in many workplaces. The Government tell us that such representatives have had a positive effect in workplaces—ergo, if they are imposed by statute in all workplaces where unions are recognised, they will have a positive effect. I must tell the Minister that that is a serious non sequitur. We have severe doubts about the overall impact that the legislation will have if learning representatives are imposed in workplaces where industrial relations are not mature enough for them to prosper and serve the intended purpose.

The Economic Secretary countered the argument by telling the Committee how good the imposition of learning representatives would be for businesses and how all sensible, forward-looking employers would welcome their imposition by statute. I should make it clear that it was not the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions who dealt with this clause in Committee.

When the Economic Secretary was challenged to say how many union learning representatives there were in his Department, as an enlightened employer, the answer turned out to be zero. One is bound to ask why, if it is so self-evident that introducing union learning representatives into a workplace is of huge benefit to the employer, Government Departments have not done so and, it appears, will do so only when required by statute. Perhaps these representatives are of such huge benefit to the employer that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, should consider whether Departments are passing up an opportunity to make themselves more efficient and effective.

Mr. Prisk: The Minister said that the proposals have been warmly welcomed, yet we have learned of opposition on a number of occasions. For example, the Engineering Employers Federation said:

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way forward, as the federation suggests, is to act co-operatively? Is it not time that the Minister was honest and admitted that there has been clear opposition from many employers' groups?

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend is right—there has been clear opposition from many employer groups, and it is pretty obvious that union learning reps can play a useful role in the workplace when they are introduced by consensus. They cannot deliver the same beneficial effect if they are imposed by statute. The Government's agenda in introducing statutory union learning reps is about repaying debts to their trade union paymasters. British business will pay the Labour party's election debts.

Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hammond: No, because I think that the hon. Gentleman will want to catch your eye in a moment,

8 Jul 2002 : Column 656

Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] He has indicated that he intends to do so, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The issues to be dealt with by statutory instrument are significant for employers, so it is very important indeed to ensure that the Government are not pushed by trade union pressure beyond the point that they have agreed on. I therefore very much welcome the decision to make the measures subject to the affirmative procedure.

Rob Marris: All I wanted to ask the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was where does the Bill say that union learning reps are being imposed? It simply talks about time off for union learning reps—it does not talk about their imposition, which the hon. Gentleman fears may damage industrial relations. Surely, the provision is about time off, not the fact that they exist, which may be one reason why, in a country with independent trade unions, the Minister could not say how many union learning reps there are in his Department?

Alan Johnson: I am pleased that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) supports the amendment which, I am afraid, is definitely technical. I did not say that it was a small or insubstantial technical amendment; I merely said that it was technical.

This general issue has been debated many times, and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury did a tremendous job of dealing with it in Committee. I shall be as gentle as possible to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, as my criticism is not about him personally but about his party. The Opposition will have returned from the planet Zog when they no longer describe a modest proposal such as this amendment as a massive extension of trade union power. They should go and lie in a dark room, take a couple of tablets, and take another look at our proposal.

Mr. Prisk: The Minister knows perfectly well, from Committee and Second Reading, that all the employers' organisations have said that this measure is of grave concern for large businesses and particularly for small ones. To sweep that concern aside, as the hon. Gentleman has tried to do, is not representative of his contribution to the Bill. It is a shame that he has adopted that attitude today.

Alan Johnson: Yes, I know of employers' concerns. However, I merely make the point that the proposal is not about a massive extension of trade union power.

Judy Mallaber: Does my hon. Friend agree that the amazing fuss about this in Committee seemed to demonstrate that the Opposition think that 20,000 trade union members are desperate to spend all their time organising all that learning? Of course, it is valuable to have union learning reps to assist and encourage trade unionists and workers in the workplace to take up learning opportunities, but it is often difficult to get people to take on that responsibility, even though they may wish to do so, because they can feel that they will be under even

8 Jul 2002 : Column 657

more pressure at work as they will not be given any assistance at all by their employers. In fact, if they knew—

Next Section

IndexHome Page