Employment Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Hammond: I hope that the hon. Gentleman's propensity to intervene will not be entirely proportionate to the quality of the Opposition's representations. I expected that the hon. Gentleman might want to discuss matters that I particularly wanted to raise, and I hope that he represents a legitimate body of interest in the Bill and will make his points independently. I think that he was referring to the order of consideration rather than the timetable; my remarks are directed at fixing a timetable, and intermediate mileposts, for the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the Opposition were content with the Minister's proposal to consider parts 2 and 3 of the Bill first, followed by part 1 and then part 4. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who raised the Leggatt review, that it would make sense to consider any substantial outside work after we had seen the Government's response to it, but it appears that there will not be time for the work to be completed and for the Government to respond within the timetable proposed for the Committee's proceedings.

9.45 am

Why have the Government introduced an Employment Bill that is largely an empty box, a framework on which regulations will be hung later, when substantive work that could inform those regulations is still under way? How effectively will the Minister be able to deal with questions from both sides of the Committee about the precise nature of the regulations to be introduced, and to respond to Opposition Members' concerns about preserving the balance that the Secretary of State said was an important feature of the Bill?

There is some logic in considering tribunal reform and dispute resolution procedure at the beginning of the Bill; there are no issues of principle between the two sides of industry—if I dare to use the phrase. It is generally recognised that tribunal procedures need to be streamlined and reformed, although differences about precisely how that should be done may be aired in the Committee. There are no concerns in principle about the need to improve and streamline tribunal procedures. In the run-up to Christmas, it is a good idea to try to deal with the least controversial parts of the Bill when we can set a constructive tone for the Committee. I suspect that hon. Members on both sides will want to probe in detail how the measure will work, without having to discuss issues of principle. I hope that the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) will agree with my analysis; he might like to address his question to the Minister, who is happy to consider the Bill in the order suggested.

Another factor that persuaded me against the idea of fixed timetables was the tendency in every Standing Committee on which I served in the last Parliament for many substantive amendments and new clauses to be introduced in Committee, which makes it difficult to assess the time required for different parts of the Bill. The Government have already said that they intend to use the Bill as a vehicle to introduce a separate item: the right to ask for serious consideration of part-time working arrangements following a period of maternity leave. That is a new matter, which we shall want to discuss, but until we know what proposals the Government will table, it is not clear how much time that will require. That is another worry about fixed timetables.

As the Government are committed to the principle of fixed timetables and intermediate staging posts, the proposed timetable is a reasonable starting point. I hope that the Government will take a flexible approach to the timetable and that, if we are having a serious debate that needs more time than was first envisaged or if we make speedy progress on one part of the Bill and need more time on another, they will be prepared to reconvene the Programming Sub-Committee. If it turns out that the proposals that the Government intend to table in new clauses are particularly controversial or raise many issues, I hope that they will be willing to make available an additional sitting or two if proper scrutiny requires it.

I hope that the Minister will reassure the Committee on those points, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The Chairman: Before I call the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Brian Cotter), I will draw attention to a couple of points. First, I remind Members that we can debate the programme motion for only 30 minutes. Secondly, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) mentioned the declaration of interests. I cannot rule on that, but I remind Committee members that it is up to them to declare their interests. Guidance is available from the registrar.

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): I shall be brief in order to give the Minister a chance to respond.

I would hesitate to talk about the crème de la crème because, since my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has been delayed, I would be talking about only myself. That is for others to judge, and I shall not be drawn. I do not wish to up the ante, but the Minister referred to your four daughters, Mr. Benton, and trying to reconcile views. I have three children and seven grandchildren, and it might surprise people that a young chap such as me would have seven grandchildren.

More seriously, like my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, I should declare an interest, which is that I am managing director of a small manufacturing company. It has been declared in the Register of Members' Interests and on many other relevant occasions.

As the research paper introduction says, the Bill has received a mixed reaction, but employer and employee representatives have generally welcomed it. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has talked about balance, and all Committee members have that concern. I agree with the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that we must ensure that the regulations are reasonable and fair. That involves introducing a package of measures to address working practices and conditions, but ensuring that the package is balanced and that we do not introduce excessive red tape, which frequently happens.

I visited the European Community on Monday to discuss that balance with Commission officials, and it was obvious that, like hon. Members and the Government, they are aware that regulations must be clear. Having a small business, I know how difficult it can be to find enough time to take on board what regulations mean. I am sure that the Government would agree, although they may not wish to say so, that on some occasions in this Parliament, and perhaps more often in the previous Parliament, regulations were introduced with little notice or time to debate them. As a consequence, firms of all sizes had difficulties in addressing them.

Overall, Opposition Members accept the timetable, which I am sure should prove reasonable. Sometimes in the House we need to have the discipline to say that we must get on with the job and not endlessly and needlessly talk for hours, as happened with the National Minimum Wage Bill.

Mr. Hammond: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem in debating that Bill in Committee was that we had no indication of what the minimum wage would be? For that reason, members of the Committee had to explore endlessly the possibilities of various levels. Is not that precisely the problem that we shall have with this Bill, because no draft regulations are available?

Brian Cotter: No. Having heard Conservative Members waste time on the National Minimum Wage Bill by making endless and totally unnecessary speeches about Greek fables and people having their heads and legs cut off, I do not accept that at all. We had no difficulty in addressing the measure, because there was a clear line that the Low Pay Commission—[Interruption.] I must not verge on that, Mr. Benton, because you will rule me out of order. I am sure that you will give us wise counsel on the flexibility that we need to address certain parts of the Bill.

My main point is the need to ensure that regulation introduced under the Bill is clear and to the point.

Alan Johnson: On the question of our declaring interests as employers, I go along with Mr. Speaker's statement on Second Reading. I guess that most hon. Members are employers of research assistants and so on. I am happy to say that I am a member of the Communication Workers Union. Indeed, I am happy to say that on every occasion. As I said on Second Reading, it is a one-way process: I give the union money and it gives me nothing but the joy and pleasure of being a member of it.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge made an important point about regulation, but he will not be surprised if I say that there is nothing new about Bills to which, to a great degree, regulation is attached. A mix of primary and secondary legislation is needed. It would not be right to deal with certain matters in the Bill; it is proper to deal with them in regulations. Certain Bills that went through the House in the 1980s and 1990s under the previous Government were littered with regulation-making powers, so there is nothing unusual in that.

That said, I take the hon. Gentleman's point that, as we are reliant on regulation in this respect, amendments will be tabled to tease out the Government's position. I accept that fully, as I hope he will accept that most of the elements in the Bill have been the subject of exhaustive consultation. The provisions relating to working parents had probably the most exhaustive consultation that I can recall for any Bill. The Government have made our position clear on almost every aspect.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman talk about a balance of interests, but he said that it was between employers and trade unions. I think that the balance is between rights and responsibilities, and the balance of interests is between employers and employees. Apart from the important element about union learning representatives, the measures apply to people at work, whether or not they are members of trade unions. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that we have struck a fair balance.

The Leggatt review is of the whole tribunal system. It would not have been right to put a blight on these proposals while we awaited its outcome, but the Department of Trade and Industry and the Lord Chancellor's Department agreed to set up the employment tribunal system taskforce. It will not consider legislation but will consider how the employment tribunal system can run far more effectively.

We were happy to discuss the Bill in the order in which it was published, moving from part 1 to part 4. Following discussions through the usual channels, we are equally happy to change the order of discussion so that we can take employment tribunals first. I am happy with the motion that has been proposed.

Finally, I do not believe that the right to request is a separate policy. That is part of the modernisation of the workplace and workplace relations, and I think that it sits happily in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22

Employment tribunals

10 am

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 6 December 2001