Employment Bill

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Mr. Lloyd: I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is able to say that he recognises the thrust of the argument, even if he is not happy with the amendments as drafted. A reasonable case has been made. The Minister would help Labour Members if he were to tell us, even in rejecting the amendments at this stage—and I support him in that, if he thinks it right—that he will, nevertheless, accept the spirit of what is proposed? Will he think hard about what is, on the face of it, a reasonable argument from both sides of the Committee?

4.45 pm

Alan Johnson: I appreciate that a reasonable argument has been put forward. When the hon. Member for North Norfolk has served on Standing Committees for a while, he will appreciate that what we do here is not for the sake of our health. I engaged in debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West on this matter. Whether to accept amendments is a matter of judgment. I assure the Committee that I shall consider the matter further and dwell on the points that have been made.

Opposition Members should be wary. We have been very concerned about what bureaucratic burdens we place on micro-businesses in particular, given that we want disputes to be resolved in the workplace. That was our starting point, and we consulted widely on the three-step procedure. The response was not that more of it should be in writing. The Small Business Council responded:

    ''I am very pleased that our ongoing pressure on this issue has led to these very clear measures, which are fair both to small businesses and their employees.''

The Confederation of British Industry stated:

    ''We are encouraged by the draft procedures laid down in the consultation document which are very straightforward in their approach and would urge the Government not to go beyond them.''

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development welcomed the proposals, and the Federation of Small Businesses said that they were clear.

I urge Opposition Members not to upset the fine balance of the three-step procedure. That will be a major concern for hon. Members on both sides, but the Opposition regularly raise such considerations. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West said that he preferred nothing in writing to a mish-mash. It is crucial that the first stage should be dealt with in writing. I am repeating myself, but this has been a long debate and the issue is important.

The first step must be dealt with in writing because an employer needs to know the grievance; alternatively, the employee needs to know the accusation. Should every stage after that be in writing? That would apply to employees as well. The employee who might struggle to put a case in writing would have to struggle again to put the decision to appeal in writing. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge says that only two lines would be needed. It should be remembered that when people are trying to resolve a dispute in the workplace, every time someone must sit down and write out the grievances, it spurs matters on—[Interruption.] These are important points that came up in consultation.

It is crucial to establish the first point in writing. Whether that approach is used in further stages of the procedure is a question of judgment.

Mr. Hammond: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. He suggested that the requirement to inform the employer in writing of a wish to appeal would require the employee to restate the grievance. That is nonsense. If the process is already under way, all that the employee would have to do would be to write a letter stating, ''I have received your letter of the 10th; I wish to appeal.''

Alan Johnson: I did not say it was required. I was commenting on the nature of the sort of events that we are considering and what would happen if, while an attempt was being made to solve a dispute in a workplace with one or two employees, the person concerned said, ''I am still unhappy with your decision'', before the appeal. After the first formal stage, that person would once again have to put something in writing.

We are considering what would be statutory requirements. Not adhering to them could, under the Bill, result in one's case being mitigated by 10 to 50 per cent. It is a matter of judgment whether it would be necessary to proceed in writing at later stages. ACAS advises that people should put such matters in writing, but as we have said before, there is a difference between what is necessary and what is sufficient.

We are trying to set down what is necessary and to frame the measure in such a way as to encourage the resolution of disputes in the workplace. I do not want hon. Members to think that I am being perverse. I would be delighted to accept some amendments—it would give me an easy life—but we have a duty, having consulted, to point out why it is important not simply to have a quick debate and move on. Having given that assurance, I shall reflect further. I hope that the Committee will reject the amendment.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I speak for the first time in this Committee. I believe that the Minister misunderstands the interests of small business. I record my interest as an employer, albeit on a scale rather smaller than Johnson Motors of Hull. The Minister said that he seeks to help small business, but the people most protected by this measure will be small businesses.

I have worked for companies large and small, and I have had my own small business. I do not know whether the Minister has ever worked for a small business—although, the way it is going, the Post Office will soon become one. However, the Minister will understand that the facilities available in different sorts of organisation can vary enormously. Such an issue in a large company would be handled by the personnel department, and everything would undoubtedly be committed to paper. Such a professional organisation would be capable of handling that, but small companies do not necessarily have such facilities.

One would hope that such disputes happen only once in an employer's career—it will not happen year after year—and both sides will certainly find it distinctly traumatic. The most traumatic part of all will be the first letter—for instance, to the person in Hull who services the Deputy Prime Minister's Jaguar—that says, ''Something has gone wrong, and you're not doing what we expected you to do. I am sorry to say it, but this is the end of our relationship. It is a matter for dismissal.'' That would fundamentally change the relationship between two people working in a small business.

Thereafter, the trauma will drive friendships apart, and it will sometimes be impossible for two such people to work together again. It is in the interests of both parties that everything thereafter that is crucial should be put in writing. Human nature dictates that if we have something deeply painful to say, we try not to say it face to face. It could be that the end of such a meeting, the employer may say, ''Let me think about this a bit more, and I'll see if we can find a way through it.'' A little while later, he may telephone his employee at home and say, ''I am sorry; I have thought about it more and the answer is no, we cannot resolve this.'' Or, worse, he may leave a message with that person's partner or on the answer phone, which the employee may say he never received, or he may leave a message with someone who works at the employee's home who does not have a good command of English. We are not told how the employee should be informed, but it is not adequate to leave it like that. The only way to protect both sides when a key decision is made is to commit it to paper.

The Minister says that he seeks to protect small businesses, but he is wrong. The people who stand to be most damaged are small business people; they may go through this only once but, if it goes to a tribunal, they will want to be able to show that they have done everything properly and that they have taken every possible precaution. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister to think again.

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend has made his case admirably. What the Minister proposes will leave uncertainty. There is good reason for doing things in writing, especially if proceedings are likely to be controversial or if anything needs to be referred to again. That practice is well established, and the Minister has not made a case for departing from it.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central suggested that he would be satisfied if the Minister indicated a willingness to reject the amendment but to return to the principle later. That is a common device, which I accept, for dealing with amendments on a complex subject or amendments that are poorly drafted that need to be abandoned and dealt with by the parliamentary draftsman. In the present case, the amendments would insert the words ''in writing'' into each provision. There is no scope for the parliamentary draftsman to improve the wording. It would be disingenuous of the Minister to say that he was sympathetic to the idea but not the phrasing of the amendments—[Interruption.] I accept that he has not said that.

In this case, I would withdraw the amendment only if I were persuaded that it required redrafting. I have not been persuaded, so I must press the amendment to a Division.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I urge the Minister to consider throwing a life belt to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West. He is a new Member who has given a gift to the Opposition. As soon as he agreed with the amendment, the Conservative Whip, the hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), scurried to Members of other parties to stack up enough for a Division. That put my hon. Friend in a bit of a predicament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central counselled the Minister well: the Minister should consider the amendment seriously before Report. If he does not, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West will be in a dilemma, because Opposition Members have set a trap for him. Will the Minister consider the amendment seriously? That would allow us to discover whether the Opposition are serious about it.

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Prepared 13 December 2001