Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: I am starting to see some clarity. The Minister has told us that it is about the status of individuals and trade union officials. He made it clear this morning and again just now that no additional right to bargain is being introduced. However, he is not naive. Does he agree that in a situation where no upper limit is placed on the number of reps that can be appointed, a trade union could behave unreasonably—or, being more realistic, threaten to behave unreasonably—as part of a wider bargaining programme? It is disingenuous to suggest that it will not become part of the wider bargaining process.

John Healey: I think that I have dealt with the constraints that cover the sort of situation that the hon. Gentleman suggests could be deemed unreasonable. As I made clear this morning, the working definition of ''unreasonable'' includes establishing reference to a code of practice, and it takes account of all the circumstances—in other words, the employee, the employer and the needs of the business. To that extent and for that reason, as I argued this morning, the point being made again by the hon. Gentleman as justification for his amendments is unnecessary.

Mr. Lloyd: I do not know whether the Minister shares my view that this is an ''Alice in Wonderland'' debate, but what we are discussing seems to have been given a philosophical label when the reality is very different. My hon. Friend has made the point; perhaps he can tell me this. The provisions in the Bill give a remedy to the employer who is faced with extraordinary demands, and those remedies are exactly parallel to those that exist in other legislation that give reasonable time off for various union duties—and also, of course, for service on local authorities or the magistrates bench. Is my hon. Friend aware of any industrial dispute anywhere that was based on an abuse of those powers? I wracked my brain while listening to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but in my experience of industrial relations I cannot think of any such example.

John Healey: Neither can I.

Mr. Hughes: Neither can I.

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John Healey: My hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster, North for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and for Wolverhampton, South-West cannot think of an example, and I cannot, but perhaps the brains on the Conservative Benches can.

Mr. Hammond: It is an interesting line of argument, but if the Minister read the reports of this Committee and of many others, he will find that his ministerial colleagues have frequently said that although they cannot quote a single example of a mischief that they wish to take powers to deal with, they believe that it is wise to have those powers in reserve in case that situation turns up. It seems extraordinary that he is now saying that he does not want to have the power to deal with an issue simply because he cannot recollect a parallel situation having arisen in the past.

John Healey: I was asked a question and I responded.

I shall respond to some earlier points raised by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. The first concerned union membership and density in different parts of the economy. I do not have such a precise breakdown to hand, but I can easily locate it and will get back to him. The point for the Committee is to understand the limitation of the clause. It will operate only where unions are recognised. Clearly more union learning representatives may be able to take advantage of the rights in the public sector than in the private sector, and more union learning representatives and members are likely to take advantage of the new rights in large companies than in small ones, because that is the general patterning of trade union membership.

The union learning representatives, and the rights that the clause gives, will operate only where recognition agreements with trade unions exist, where the role of the union is established and accepted, and where similar rights are already exercised by other union representatives and procedures in place for the practical application of those rights. I contend that the degree of disruption that has been suggested would be unlikely to happen in the case of union learning representatives, were we to extend rights to the new category of lay union official.

Mr. Hammond: I understand that the Minister does not have the figures to hand, although I should have thought that some kind of approximate percentage might have been lodged in his mind. However, he has not answered the other part of my intervention. Where the Government, in one of their many guises, are the employer—for example in the national health service—have they practised what they preach to the rest of industry by voluntarily agreeing to union learning reps? Is that universal practice in the NHS, the education service, the civil service and the devolved agencies and, if so, what has been the experience?

John Healey: Perhaps I could remind the hon. Gentleman that union learning representatives have been in existence for about four years. There are 3,250 across the country. In no sector, region or individual company are they universal. They are new and

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becoming established. However, as the basis for the Bill, we are examining the problems that are beginning to emerge. The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that there are union learning representatives in the public sector, and there are union learning representatives employed by the state. However, as elsewhere, they are not universal at present.

Mr. Hammond: This is an important point. The Government are in no position to lecture the world about what they are going to impose on it by statute when they have had readily within their grasp, without the need for any legislation, the ability to insist on what they are calling best practice in their own backyard. If they have not done so, we are entitled to ask why.

What percentage of the 3,000 union learning reps who are in place are in public sector entities where the Government have some measure of control over their appointment?

John Healey: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with those figures alongside the others. The Government are not lecturing, but legislating.

Let me turn to some of the hon. Gentleman's other comments. Perhaps he used the break in our proceedings to re-read the CBI's evidence in the consultation process.

Mr. Hammond: I had better things to do.

John Healey: Well, the hon. Gentleman helped the Committee with a degree more clarity than he displayed this morning.

The CBI endorses the role of union learning representatives. It supports the right to paid time off for learning representatives. It supports the right to unpaid time off for union members to take advantage of the services and to consult learning representatives. It supports the right to protection from detriment, as with other trade union lay officials. I welcome that support for those fundamental new rights.

However, the CBI wants employers to have a unilateral veto over who may be appointed as a union learning representatives. We considered, but rejected, its and other representations on that. We cannot accept that proposition, because such a provision does not apply to other union lay officials. When we reach clause stand part, I urge my hon. Friends not to allow the Committee to apply restrictions to union learning representatives that do not apply to other union lay officials.

As hon. Friends who have served on other Standing Committees that considered industrial relations workplace legislation observed, we heard earlier what we have heard before—overstated arguments about the potential impact of the modest measures in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman said that the clause threatens to bring a promising system into disrepute. In fact, we are bringing the position of union learning representatives broadly in line with that of shop stewards and similar lay officials.

Union learning representatives are a new phenomenon in our workplaces. In the short time that they have been working, evaluation demonstrates that

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they have been able to increase enthusiasm and take-up, both from employers and employees, for training and development in the workplace. In many ways, they reflect the new agenda of most unions. It may interest members of the Committee to know that 66 different unions have successfully bid for funds from the union learning fund, which supports the projects that advance our ambition for greater investment and activity in training and skills in Britain's work forces.

Learning representatives reflect the new services and support that trade unions are developing for their members. In doing so, they are responding to demands—the demands of employers for assistance in increasing training and interest in skills, the demands of businesses that increasingly rely on better and continually upskilled workers, and the demands of employees and their own union members, who increasingly see skills as the key to job security and to getting on in their careers.

Five years ago, there were few learning representatives. Today, there are just 3,250. I am glad to say that their numbers are increasing, but only gradually.

Mr. Hammond: I am going to press the Minister on this. It is absurd that he is talking about union learning reps and telling us how good they are, given that he represents the largest employer in the country and has been unable to tell us how many learning reps, or roughly what percentage of the total number of learning reps, exist within that work force. If he cannot answer the wider question, can he tell the Committee how many learning reps there are in his own Department and in the agencies that answer to it?

John Healey: I have explained to the hon. Gentleman that I will write to him with a detailed breakdown.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister does not know.

John Healey: I prefer not to give the hon. Gentleman loose answers now that may not be accurate. I will respond to his points in writing and I shall ensure that other members of the Committee also receive the information.

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