Employment Bill

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Mr. Hughes: I had the pleasure a couple of months back of meeting some learning reps from my own union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and AlliedWorkers, and I saw the delight on their faces when we talked about the people they have pointed in the right direction and helped to learn to read and write—the fundamentals—and others whom they had managed to upskill so that they could earn promotion in their business or industry. The joy on their faces when they told us these success stories was unbelievable. It would be sad if the Opposition continued to pursue the amendments and voted against the clause, and I think that they would rue it. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree?

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John Healey: I do. The evidence is that, in the short time that trade union learning representatives have been working, they have reached many of the people whom our established learning providers simply do not reach—shift workers, casual workers, older male workers and workers from ethnic minorities, including workers who may have serious basic literacy and numeracy difficulties. They may have got by with those difficulties for many years and may have been embarrassed by them or reluctant to concede them to their employer or a human resources manager. If they can talk to a colleague whom they know is on their side—the union learning representative—he can help to solve those problems, first by acknowledging them and then by tackling them. My hon. Friend has seen that in operation in some of the places he has been to. That is why the union learning fund, which in part supports the development of union learning representatives, has earmarked elements for projects designed to tackle the basic literacy and numeracy problems that bedevil our work force and our adult population and have been neglected and overlooked for far too long.

Mr. Hammond: I shall try once more to address this issue from another angle. If the Minister, in preparing for a debate in which he would tell us how good the system is and how important union learning reps are, did no homework, even on his own Department, what he says loses all credibility. He cannot tell us how many union learning reps are entitled to paid time off in his Department. Can he assure the Committee that at least one union learning representative is entitled to paid time off in his Department?

John Healey: No union learning representatives are entitled to paid time off at present, because the legislation is not in place. There are union learning representatives who operate in the Department for Education and Skills. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman precisely how many there are, and I will, as I think I have said at least twice, make sure that he has that information as soon as I can.

Mr. Hammond rose—

John Healey: Forgive me. The hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions that I am keen to return to now. He has come to me three times on this point and I want to move on.

Mr. Hammond: I want to know whether the Minister is an enlightened employer by his own definition.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister has the Floor.

John Healey: Underpinning the clause is the fact that at present no legislation specifically governs the activities of union learning representatives. Whether employers permit learning representatives to function at their workplace is entirely voluntary. Trade union members have no statutory entitlement to time off to undertake the duties of a union learning representative, to be trained as a learning representative or to access the services of a learning

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representative, and that has caused difficulties. About a third of union learning representatives do not receive paid time off for training in their role. About half do not receive paid time off to carry out their workplace duties. That has significantly hindered the contribution that union learning representativess can make. It has also constrained the expansion of the union learning network.

In contrast, other trade union representatives have those clear rights to time off. Those rights that have been in place since 1976, and have worked well. There have been no serious difficulties for employers in complying with the requirements of the law in that regard, so very few tribunal cases have arisen on the matter of rights to time off. It may interest the Committee to know that 18 applications were made in the past year to employment tribunals over problems relating to rights to time off. There were more than 130,000 applications to the tribunal system overall.

The clause corrects unequal treatment. It gives the union learning representatives rights broadly equivalent to those currently enjoyed by shop stewards and other lay representatives. It provides for rights to reasonable time off with pay for union learning representatives to train and perform their duties. It also gives a right to reasonable time off without pay for union members who wish to access the services of union learning representatives. The principal risk, as the regulatory impact assessment makes clear, is that without those rights the union learning representatives

    ''will fail to develop their full potential. This would weaken the Government's strategy for basic skills, and individuals, businesses and the economy would consequently lose.''

The world of work is changing. More than ever, business success depends on the skills, commitment and adaptability of the work force. We simply cannot afford to neglect the interests and skills of people at work. Trade unions, too, are changing. They are now more focused on servicing the individual needs of their members. They now want, workplace by workplace, to contribute fully to business success. The union learning representatives are one manifestation of that new approach by British trade unions. They show what unions can do when they work well in partnership with both individuals and business.

The clause puts union learning representatives on a clear statutory footing. It fulfils a manifesto commitment and will benefit thousands of individuals and the organisations that employ them. I want to make it clear to my hon. Friends at this point that when the clause stand part question is put, if the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge calls a division, I will ask my hon. Friends to ensure that they support the clause.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 13.

Division No. 3]

Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hendry, Mr. Charles
Osborne, Mr. George
Prisk, Mr. Mark
Simmonds, Mr. Mark

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Healey, John
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Johnson, Alan
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lloyd, Mr. Tony
Mallaber, Judy
Marris, Rob
Pearson,Mr. Ian
Tami, Mark
Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: Before I call the next amendment, may I remind the Committee that the announcement made this morning of the selection changes is available on the table? I am sure that most hon. Members have discovered that already, but in case anyone came in later, they are available in the usual places in the Committee Room.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 224, in page 45, line 12, after 'take', insert 'reasonable'.

The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 223, in page 46, line 19, at end insert

    'and shall not exceed fourteen working days per annum without the agreement in writing of the employer'.

No. 225, in page 46, line 41, after 'take', insert 'reasonable'.

Mr. Hammond: The amendment gives the Minister an opportunity to clarify what will be considered ''reasonable'' time off in respect of the duties of a trade union learning rep. I hope that the Minister will not say, ''Search me guv—different strokes for different folks.''

John Healey: Unlikely.

Mr. Hammond: I might have paraphrased slightly. I hope that the essence of his comments will not be that he cannot tell us what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. Some 14 days' time off a year per learning rep is anticipated, and I believe that the regulatory impact assessment is based on that number.

The amendment would insert the word ''reasonable'' where a right to take time off is granted, so that the text would read:

    ''to take reasonable time off''.

In the light of what the Minister has said, and of the provisions in subsection (8), I cannot see how any reasonable person would have a problem with that. Amendment No. 223 would go a little further by inserting a further definition at the end of subsection (8), which the Minister has quoted on several occasions, making it clear that the amount of time off taken will be reasonable in all circumstances, and will have regard to the code of practice of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, but that in any case it

    'shall not exceed fourteen working days per annum without the agreement in writing of the employer'.

That last point is crucial. In other words, I am explicitly recognising that in certain cases it will be appropriate for time off to exceed 14 days per annum. Indeed, one can envisage a successful collaboration in

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which, over time, an employer evolves a training strategy that is specifically predicated on the greater involvement of union learning reps.

I shall not enter now into the great training and qualification debate, but I take it that we are talking about only those cases where the appointed reps are properly qualified and have something genuine to contribute in promoting training and learning. In certain cases, employers will willingly agree that the amount of time off taken should be greater than 14 days because the activities of the learning rep form an integral and effective part of their own training programmes and procedures. However, in certain other cases the legislation will impose the right in respect of union learning reps in an environment that is not conducive to their proper and productive functioning, and the employer will be entitled to seek an assurance that there will be a limit to the burden placed upon him.

The Minister tells us, and the regulatory impact assessment invites us to believe, that it will be self-evident to the employer that he is making money out of that arrangement and gaining more than it is costing him. Unless the employer is a very strange animal indeed, he will ask for more of it, but I suspect that even the Minister would not argue that the arrangement will work productively and effectively in every case.

The amendment attempts to place a limit on the number of days of paid time off work to which the employer can be exposed, in circumstances in which the arrangement is not conducive to the effective promotion of trade. If, for example, Mr. Greg Tucker were appointed by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers as union learning representative at Waterloo station, in the present environment that would not be an appointment that would immediately lead to an obviously beneficial upsurge in interest in learning and training by employees of South West Trains, although some members of the Committee, and indeed some of my constituents who use South West Trains every day, might think that some of them could use it.

That is an example of a situation in which it is obvious that such an appointment would not be helpful, and employers would rightly want to ensure that if this burden is imposed on them by legislation, there should be a maximum limit to which they were exposed without having to run the risk of going through a tribunal procedure after refusing to allow time off.

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The Minister has told us only that that provisions in subsection (8) discuss reasonableness, the code of practice and circumstances, but they are not specific. Somebody said to me yesterday, and I found this informative, that we would not need the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council if it were obvious to all intelligent people what was reasonable and what was not, and what was right and what was wrong, in all circumstances in which the law allows discretion.

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There will be cases in which employers are at the margin and are unsure whether they are making the right call. If they face the prospect of a tribunal if they get it wrong, they will err on the side of caution, and they might err substantially on the side of caution. I do not suggest that it will happen every day, but there will be circumstances in which a person appointed as a learning rep is unable to be effective. That may be because of the relationships between the employer and the employees or the trade union. Since the paid time off that the learning reps will take is simply a burden that the employer must bear, there ought to be some floor, ceiling or limit to the deadweight cost.

I repeat that it looks to me, and nothing that the Minister has said has persuaded me otherwise, as if employers are being invited to pay the Labour party's election bills by making a straightforward concession to a piece of the TUC's political agenda that is written into the Bill and claimed as the TUC's own in its briefing to members of the Committee.

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