Employment Bill

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Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I have listened carefully to what has been said today. There are echoes here of arguments that we heard from Opposition Members when we debated the national minimum wage legislation. There was no statutory obligation on employers regarding payment of the national minimum wage to employees, and the echoes that I hear are ''a rift between employers and employees'' and ''the nation would suffer if that policy went through''. Can the hon. Gentleman see a parallel between what he is saying today and what his party said then?

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Mr. Hammond: I served, as did the Minister, on the Standing Committee that considered—at some length, as I recall—the Bill that became the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. I do not see a parallel. I cannot recall anyone suggesting a voluntary national minimum wage; there would not be much point in such a suggestion. When the Government seek better pay and conditions, it is best not to reach for the legislative sledgehammer but to make sure that the economy is functioning in such a way that labour market conditions deliver good wages, good conditions and attention by employers to the needs and concerns of their employees. That is what employers do in a tight labour market in order to hang on to the people who are their most valuable commodity. I give way to the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who was also a member of the National Minimum Wage Bill Standing Committee.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): When we discussed the national minimum wage, we referred to the fact that we were told that if the Equal Pay Act 1970 were introduced, it would be the end of civilisation as we knew it. That did not turn out to be the case. We are now told that we should not use a legislative

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sledgehammer to crack this nut. At that time, I recall there being disputes over equal pay. There was a longstanding one at Trico's. Once the legislation was in place—although we are still a long way from having equal pay for a number of structural reasons—a number of employers, because it was in the law, entered into voluntary discussions about implementing equal pay legislation. Doe the hon. Gentleman accept that legislation can encourage employers to enter into something that benefits their workers and their business?

Mr. Hammond: Clearly, legislation that says that one has to do something will encourage employers to do it. By and large, they are a law-abiding bunch.

We operate in an extraordinarily complex economy, which is embedded in a worldwide free market of even more extraordinary complexity. It would be disingenuous to think that we could isolate the impact of any single piece of legislation in that massive equation. The economy grows, and the shape and direction of the economy are determined by the business climate. It could be that there are subtle and unintended consequences from all sorts of legislation.

I do not want—and you would not encourage me, Mr. Conway—to repeat the arguments of the National Minimum Wage Bill Standing Committee all those years ago. However, I have no doubt that some jobs that existed before that legislation was enacted do not exist now. The hon. Lady might say, ''Good riddance, they are not jobs that we want,'' and I would tend to agree with her; in a relatively buoyant economy, better-paid work is good news. However, when there is a downturn in the economy, when there is no work available, people might ponder on whether it is such a good idea that the shoe factory that I remember in Blackburn, which imported 90 per cent. of its goods and manufactured 10 per cent. now imports 100 per cent.

The chickens come home to roost in bad economic times. Of course, in good economic times, a lot can be absorbed in a growing and relatively strong economy.

Rob Marris rose—

Mr. Hammond: I give way.

The Chairman: It is not on the national minimum wage, I hope.

Rob Marris: I fear that it is slightly. I understood the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to say that a national voluntary code for a minimum wage would not make sense. He appears to suggest that a national voluntary code for union learning reps would make sense. That appears to be contradictory.

Mr. Hammond: No, I am not saying that. If union reps are going to work and training and learning are to be delivered and promoted in the workplace in such a way, the right environment must exist. I do not believe that one can create a fertile environment by legislation. We may have a perfectly reasonable discussion, such as the hon. Member for Doncaster, North is engaged in—and the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West is capable of engaging in, although he does not

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always choose to do so—but simply differ in our views about the ability of legislation to create that fertile environment. I do not believe that one can create an environment conducive to good relationships through legislation, and I do not believe that my hon. Friends believe it.

I hesitate to digress, but I am sceptical about legislating for race relations, or relations between people of different gender. I am certainly sceptical about whether it is possible to legislate for relations between employees and employers. We can educate people to work well with other people, but we cannot legislate to force them to do so.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): I suspect that there is a limit to the logic of the hon. Gentleman's point. The Thatcher Government passed an enormous amount of employment legislation, which the hon. Gentleman would presumably see as creating an environment in which both sides of industry could work together without enormous industrial relations problems. He seems to be arguing the opposite now.

Mr. Hammond: I am bound to respond to that by saying that, at the beginning of the period to which he refers, we re-levelled the playing field to create an environment in which relationships between employer and employee might stand a chance of flourishing, by restoring some semblance of a balance of power. However, I suspect that we could discuss that in depth without helping this debate along.

I thought that the hon. Gentleman, who was not here this morning, would take the opportunity to clarify whether his party agreed with our contention that union learning reps were a good idea only in an environment where there is agreement and consensus about their employment. It is not entirely clear whether he agrees with that or not.

The Chairman: Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? It appeared so.

Norman Lamb: I would like to make a contribution after the hon. Gentleman has finished.

Mr. Hammond: We shall look forward to that with bated breath.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): I hesitated to interrupt the point being made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, as I was late coming back into Committee. Under what circumstances would he accept it as legitimate for the law to intervene? I assume that he would go along with me in saying that we need a statutory framework for health and safety, or would he insist that statutory frameworks are irrelevant in all areas of labour law, and that things can be done only through co-operation? If not, what does he think is so special about training? We do not train enough in this country—we do not have the training culture. If we do not take the route offered by the Bill, what alternative does he suggest to galvanise employers and unions to get together and train?

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Mr. Hammond: That is an interesting question. I agree that we do not train enough, although I suspect that we are doing better than in the past and that the trend is in the right direction.

Of course, I do not take the view that there are no areas in which legislation should intervene. Health and safety is a good example of one in which it should, but training is an area that has been a success story. It is clear that union learning reps work in an environment in which employers and unions have agreed to them. Our position is that it is fallacious to take a situation that has prospered in a consensual climate and translate it with similar good effect into infertile ground by legislation. Equally, there will be trade union branches that have never raised the issue with employers because it never crossed their minds. Of course, some people at the margin will be able to say two years down the line, ''Thank goodness the issue was raised, because it's worked out rather well,'' but that is not our concern. The same goal could be achieved through a process of education, and the Minister's comments about the rate of roll-out for union learning reps in a voluntary environment suggest that that is happening. The arrangements will work only where the relationship between the work force and the union is conducive.

It is not appropriate to impose on all environments a structure that depends for its success on co-operation. The Minister accuses me of taking up the one-size-fits-all fallacy by suggesting that one rep per bargaining unit was the appropriate number, although I readily conceded that I could be wrong about the specifics of that. However, he proposes a one-size-fits-all regime for union learning reps in every workplace where a union is recognised. The same provisions would apply in all environments: in the most high-tech company, where there were excellent relationships between a forward-thinking union and a forward-thinking employer; in the most antediluvian public service industry, although I shall not mention the one that I had in mind out of respect for the Minister for Employment and the Regions, who has just come back into the Room; and in every railway company where disputes were rumbling. However, those provisions would not be right in all circumstances.

We do not believe that the Government's agenda is driven by a real belief that the provision will make a big difference to the number of effective union learning reps or to the amount of training. It is about delivering to the trade union movement the prize of being able to appoint a large number of additional officials who will be able to deliver something to members, but not to others in the work force. In other words, they will be able to create something at the employer's expense that will make trade union membership a more attractive proposition in the minds of the trade unions. Effective training and learning arrangements are in place, but they will be put in danger if we impose a statutory regime.

We think that the clause is cynically political. The Trades Union Congress brief on the Bill clearly says that the clause is about the TUC's proposal to put union learning representatives on a statutory footing.

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The proposal came from the TUC, and the Government are paying debts with other people's money—not public money, but employers' money. They are in danger of bringing into disrepute a very valuable learning regime. Union learning reps have been appointed by consensus between employers and employees, but that regime will be replaced by one that is likely to be adversarial in many cases because of the infertile ground in which the Bill will plant it. To the extent that the new regime renders workplaces less efficient and less effective, it will have a negative impact on everyone who works in them and on the economy as a whole. Nothing that I have heard from the Minister has been remotely persuasive. There is no argument for imposing something by statute when its nature is such that it will not prosper unless it is planted in the fertile environment of co-operation and collaboration. That is why training is different from issues such as health and safety.

In light of the fact that we are not to have a clause stand part debate, I urge my hon. Friends now to vote against the clause when the question is put later on, while making it clear to the Committee that, like the CBI and other employers' organisations that have commented, I strongly support the idea of paid time off for union learning reps where those are in place as a result of proper agreement between employers and employees in situations in which the environment is such that they can play a valuable role in the training and learning equation.

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