Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I do not question the definition of a minimum statutory procedure. However, several briefs supplied to Committee members raise the question of interaction between statutory procedures and the ACAS code. Before the Committee agrees that the clause stand part, the Minister should explain how the statutory procedure and ACAS code will interact.

11.15 am

The consensus is that the statutory procedure is weaker than the ACAS code, which is as it should be because that procedure provides a minimum acceptable baseline. The explanatory notes were particularly unhelpful on that. The parliamentary Labour party brief, which is occasionally illuminating, states explicitly that the ACAS code will have to be modified to include the statutory procedure. Will the Minister outline the modifications to the ACAS code? Will he also explain how the two systems will work in tandem, given that the statutory procedure relates to employees and the ACAS code relates to workers? How will those difficulties be resolved?

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I am unhappy with the Secretary of State's power in subsection (2)(a) to amend schedule 2 by order. I did not table an amendment because my unhappiness did not arise until after the rise of the House on Tuesday. That power makes a mockery of including the original procedure in the Bill, because the Secretary of State can delete and replace it. He could delete the contents of schedule 2 and replace it with the ACAS code. Some of his hon. Friends may urge him to do so. We must know whether the Minister has such radical intentions. We are considering the minimum statutory procedure in schedule 2, but lurking in clause 29(2)(a) is the power to amend by order the whole procedure. The Minister should be up front about his intentions. If he intends to bow to pressure placed on him and the Secretary of State to go further than schedule 2, or extend it in the direction that I suggested, the Committee must know. Schedule 2 is the procedure intended, which makes me nervous about the powers in subsection (2)(a).

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the risk of sclerosis in industrial relations and the economy. Schedule 2, when the Bill is enacted, will be implied in every contract of employment for every employee. If for reasons unenvisaged in the House or Committee it was found not to work, we would face sclerosis unless the Secretary of State had the power to amend it. It would be quicker for him to use such a power than to go through the procedures of the House.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The power to change things by diktat is always quicker than the power to change them by persuasion and democratic discussion. It is that balance that we must address. Some of us on the Opposition Benches feel that the tendency over the past four years to include provision for Secretaries of State to amend virtually everything in every Bill is quite dangerous. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If something is not working or circumstances have altered and it is agreed that a change is needed, powers for the Secretary of State are an efficient means to rectify that. Democracy is often the enemy of efficiency and we must ensure that we get the balance right.

The purpose of raising the issue, and it has not been raised as an amendment, even a probing one, is to invite the Secretary of State to make it clear that he has absolutely no intention of using subsection (2)(a) to make wholesale changes to schedule 2 and that it is a reserve power to deal with minor changes that might be required. Ideally. I should like to hear that the Secretary of State would regard it as morally wrong to use that power to come back with changes to schedule 2 that changed its effect, meaning or impact. It is right to use the powers to make marginal and technical changes, but it would be wrong to use them to change things in a way that is so fundamental that it renders our consideration of the Bill meaningless.

Rob Marris: When the hon. Gentleman responded to me earlier, he talked about the balance between democracy and efficiency. I do not accept that there is one, although there can be a difficulty striking a

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balance between democracy and speed. My understanding is that under the proposed subsection the Secretary of State would make any changes to schedule 2 by order. Perhaps the Committee will forgive me as I am a new Member, but I thought that that meant, since we are on part 3, that the affirmative procedure would have to be used.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman is right, technically. Changes would be subject to the affirmative procedure. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has attended any Standing Committees on a statutory instrument but once he has he will realise that it is not an effective scrutiny process in any meaningful sense. Taking 90 minutes in a Committee Room is not the way to scrutinise any substantive changes in legislation. That method is quick and effective for minor technical and tidying-up amendments or when a problem has arisen and there is a consensus about the solution.

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The Minister would help the Committee a great deal if he could confirm that he will rule out using the power under subsection (2)(a) to perform any dramatic transformation of schedule 2 that would upset outside bodies that have said that they are broadly happy with it. I do not want the Committee's unopposed approval of the clause to sanction a Bill that says on its face, ''We will do X but we reserve a power to change X into Y if the Minister has any intention of doing that.'' I know that the Minister has come under pressure to look at that point. Does he have any plans to use the power to amend schedule 2 to substitute parts of the ACAS code for the schedule?

Mr. Tony Lloyd: I am probably doing the Minister a favour by rising now. I doubt whether he will be able to answer those questions before we adjourn. The hon. Gentleman has raised a number of important issues—

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:

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Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Cotter, Brian
Hammond, Mr.
Hendry, Mr.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs.
Johnson, Alan
Jones, Helen
Laxton, Mr.
Lloyd, Mr. Tony

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Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Osborne, Mr. George
Pearson, Mr.
Prisk, Mr.
Simmonds, Mr.
Smith, Geraldine
Tami, Mark
Williams, Mrs. Betty

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Prepared 13 December 2001