Employment Bill

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Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): The hon. Gentleman does not mean deliberately to mislead the Committee, but he is suggesting that union members who take training will be given paid time off work to do it. That is not how I read the Bill. It suggests that a union representative whose responsibility is learning and training will be given time off work to encourage his colleagues to take further training and education. What frightens the hon. Gentleman about ordinary workers having more training and further education?

Mr. Hammond: Nothing at all. I am all in favour of training and education, but if it is to be workplace-focused, with employers footing the bill for the learning reps to go about their specified business, it should be relevant to that workplace.

Mr. Hughes: Why does it have to be focused on a particular workplace? The trade union rep with the responsibility will be given the time off, not the worker who engages in further training or education. That training might well be done outside working hours. Surely, it can only be for the long-term good of the British economy if anyone engages in further training and education. What is the problem?

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman makes the point that education and training, in general, are a public as well as a private good. It is for the good of society that people are educated as far as is practical. I do not disagree, but that takes us back to the debate about who should foot the bill for things that are a general, rather than a specific, good?

The briefing from the Department of Trade and Industry and the explanatory notes to the Bill say that the Government's support for the clause is based on the claim that it will be good for employers. That implies that employers should be happy about it, because it will be positive for them. The regulatory impact assessment suggests that employers will achieve a monetary benefit that exceeds the monetary cost. If the Government want to take that line, they must acknowledge that the training that union learning reps will encourage must be focused on improving the skills of employees for the business in which they are engaged.

Mr. Kevin Hughes: Not necessarily.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but I ask him to consider the matter from the point of view of an employer who must pay a union learning rep to tell his employees, during the time for which he is paying, ''This place stinks; the best thing you can do is to go to evening classes, learn a skill and

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go and work down the road.'' I suggest that that is not in the employer's interest. A responsible employer will try to provide opportunities and a clear path of training and skill enhancement to enable people to see a route for themselves in the organisation.

10.15 am

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): The hon. Gentleman talks about responsible employers and he talked earlier about employers who have facilities available to deliver training and support for their staff. Many small employers do not have such facilities, however, and they value the expertise of trade union representatives in their organisations, especially concerning matters such as health and safety, because they do not always have time to keep up with legislation. They work in partnership with those trade union representatives. Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the Bill provides an opportunity for employer and employee to work in partnership to enhance the product that the business delivers?

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I know someone who runs a small business and has a friend who is a Transport and General Workers Union official. That employer does not bother to subscribe to any of the expensive books about employment law because he meets the union guy down at the pub and receives better advice on how to manage that aspect of his business than he would from reading expensive subscription publications. None the less, the point that underpins our position with the clause is that that relationship cannot be imposed constructively by statute.

Mrs. Humble: Why not?

Mr. Hammond: Good relationships cannot be imposed by statute. When a working relationship is good and unions and employers are working well together, union learning reps will make a valuable contribution to the overall training and skilling effort. However, in some businesses management and unions are in an adversarial relationship—the Minister for Employment and the Regions has left the Committee, so I can risk using the Post Office as an example. I have grave doubts about whether the positive benefits of good employer-union relationships can be achieved by imposition by statute in, since we are discussing environments in which there is already union recognition—unionised environments.

The numbers are interesting. Some 3,000 union learning reps are in place. It is estimated that there will be 22,000 in eight years time if the Bill is enacted. That is a substantial increase and suggests, not surprisingly, that paid time off work will be taken in most cases in which it is available. That does not suggest, at least to me, that we shall automatically achieve in those additional 19,000 workplaces the benefits that have been achieved in the 3,000 workplaces where union learning reps have been recognised by free agreement between employer and employee.

I must move on to the specific details of the amendment, Mr. Amess, or I shall try your patience too far.

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We have a principled objection to the imposition by statute of trade union learning reps without the agreement of the employer. One of our concerns is that we may damage some of the existing good relationships and such imposition by statute is in no-one's interest. Employers will voluntarily agree to the appointment of union learning reps if they believe it will work, if the environment is sufficiently positive that a rep's contribution is likely to be positive, and if the reps will deliver the kind of benefits and gain to employers that the Government's explanation suggests. If, as the Government suggest, it will all be to their benefit, why would they not do so? The only people who have an interest in imposing union learning reps by statute are those in trade unions who seek to build empires comprised of many officials whose time off work is paid for by employers.

The amendment seeks to limit the number of union learning reps that can be appointed. As I said earlier, we are in the curious position of objecting to the principle, and I shall object to it again in the clause stand part debate.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): You have done that.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) says that I have objected already, but I shall do it again in the clause stand part debate.

Mr. Pearson: You shouldn't need one.

The Chairman: Order. I shall decide whether there will be a clause stand part debate.

Mr. Hammond: Thank you, Mr. Amess. I should not second-guess whether there will be a clause stand part debate, but the sentiments that I have expressed will inform any such debate, and they will inform my hon. Friends in deciding how to vote on the clause when the question is put.

I assume that the Government going to be intransigent—Back Benchers have their orders and are unlikely to have much flexibility in how they proceed—but we have tabled a series of pragmatic amendments that would clarify the scope of the measure and deal with the more obvious dangers that employer organisations have identified.

The first danger is addressed in amendment No. 216, which relates to the number of learning representatives. It simply suggests that there will be one learning representative

    ''in respect of each establishment or bargaining unit (whichever is the smaller)''.

That is not a perfect definition, but it is an attempt to elicit some reassurance from the Minister.

It may be that the limit would be better expressed in terms of one union learning rep for so many hundred employees. I do not know, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments. It cannot be that an employee appointed as a union learning rep will have his time off work for those activities paid for by the employer. The ACAS non-statutory guidance code will be relevant in determining how much time off work is appropriate in the circumstances, and it is accepted that that may work, but it is unclear whether

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there will be binding guidance or regulations to specify the maximum number of learning reps.

I assume that the Minister does not contemplate that 35 learning reps would be appointed in a workplace of 55 people, but it is unclear how he intends to address that.

Mr. Simmonds: Has my hon. Friend thought through another issue that may arise in a small business with a small number of employees who may all belong to different trade unions? In theory, if five employees were represented by five different trade unions, they could all be trade union learning representatives.

Mr. Hammond: My understanding is that that would be the case. If five trade unions were recognised in a workplace, all five would have the right to appoint learning reps because there is no numerical limit in the Bill. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I should conclude and allow the Minister to speak. I am sure that other members of the Committee will also want to address the problem. However, it would help if we heard first how the Minister intends to deal with the mischief that I suggest will arise.

Brian Cotter: I wish to speak to amendment No. 198, which is very much in line with amendment No. 216. Unquestionably, trade is vital for firms, industries and the country as a whole.

Tourism is relevant to my constituency. More and more people are saying that we must raise the quality of tourist facilities and staff. Incidentally, the minimum wage, which was mentioned previously, is relevant, because it makes employees feel that their job is worth while. Many people, particularly in tourism, have not been paid a high rate, but now that rates of pay are generally higher, training is seen to be part and parcel of the job.

That is why I want to correct what I am sure was a misapprehension on the Minister's part when he seemed to imply at an earlier sitting that Liberal Democrat Members were not behind the minimum wage. I slaved for many hours on the Committee that considered the Bill that became the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. We simply proposed a different way to tackle it, which was to have a regional minimum wage, but we accepted the principle and led the way, when the Government dragged their feet in saying that the Low Pay Commission's recommendations should be adopted. However, that slight departure from the matter before us is not a departure, in the sense that if employees are paid a reasonable rate, they see the merits of training, as do employers.

It is important to establish, as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, that things should be done in partnership as much as possible. Only in partnership does one achieve the best results. Hon. Members have discussed whether training should be relevant to a business and acceptable to both sides of industry. I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said about people being trained, then rushing off down the road to work elsewhere. Of course that is a

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concern, but we must deal with it. The fact that people will have training and then rush down the road to another job is not a reason discourage training.

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