Employment Bill

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Mr. Hammond: Will the Minister give way?

John Healey: On amendment No. 224?

Mr. Hammond: No, on what he has been talking about.

John Healey: I have finished talking about that.

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Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way regardless.

New subsection (8) refers to

    ''all the circumstances having regard to any relevant provision of a Code of Practice issued by ACAS or the Secretary of State.''

The Minister mentioned the existing ACAS code of practice. Can he confirm that that is the code of practice that he expects to apply henceforth and that there is no intention to revise it in the light of the Bill or for the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice?

John Healey: The current ACAS code of practice on time off would need to be revised to accommodate union learning representatives. That is the most likely route that we will take. Ultimately, it will be for ACAS to decide whether to do so. We could, via the Secretary of State, produce a code of practice. That would not be my preferred option.

Amendment No. 224 is unnecessary. As I said when resisting the earlier set of amendments to subsection (8) of the new section 168A, union learning representatives are entitled only to reasonable time off. This is detailed in subsection (8), to which the hon. Gentleman has just drawn our attention, and codified in the practice guide that ACAS has produced. It places restrictions on union representatives seeking unlimited time off or time off that would disrupt or damage the employer's business. Therefore, the Bill already provides that any time off taken by a union learning representativesduring working hours must be reasonable, so there is no need to repeat the point, as the amendment does.

For the same reason, I cannot accept amendment No. 225, which specifies that the time off that a qualifying employee is entitled to take to access the services of his union learning representativesmust also be reasonable.Subsections (4) and (5) provide for certain employees to have time off without pay to access the services of their learning rep. That is achieved by amending section 170 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. However, section 170(3) already specifies that such time off must be reasonable. It does so in the terms that we use in subsection (8) of the proposed new section. Therefore, again there is no need to repeat the point in what would be section 170 of the 1992 Act.

In conclusion, amendments Nos. 224 and 225 are unnecessary, as the restrictions that they are intended to introduce are already in place, and amendment No. 223 would undermine the effectiveness of the advice that a union learning representativesmay provide in some circumstances. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment. If he does so, I must ask my hon. Friends to resist it.

Mr. Hammond: There are two separate issues here. First, I accept that in relation to amendment No. 224 the word ''reasonable'' in the expression

    ''to take time off during his working hours''

is redundant in a technical sense. It does nothing other than underline the intention. However, if we went through the Bill and filleted out everything that was redundant in literal terms, not much of it would be left, because most of the Bill consists of a general power to

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the Secretary of State to make regulations, followed by great lists of things that the regulations might cover. There is no clarification that they will cover them or will not cover them, but simply an assertion that they might cover them. Therefore, plenty could come out of the Bill if the Minister's environmental instincts suggested to him that too much paper was wasted in this place as well as too much hot air. I thought that it would be useful to include the word in the Bill as a forceful reassertion of the reasonableness criterion in new section 168A (1), which refers to the concept of paid time off. I was not suggesting that it had any new practical effect.

Subsection (2B) inserted into section 170 is largely intended to mirror the language of amendment No. 224, but there is a slightly wider sense here, which the Minister's remarks tend to confirm. It would be good if he could confirm that explicitly for the record. The time off unpaid that an employee is entitled to take during his working hours—unlimited if the amendment is accepted, subject to the reasonableness criterion—is time off for talking to a union learning rep about training, not time off for doing training. Can the Minister confirm that that is the correct interpretation? The phrase ''talking to'' is too narrow. It is time off for discussing training, exploring training opportunities or perhaps looking at literature, but not time off for training itself.

John Healey: I am happy to do that. The clause creates for a union member the right to consult and to take advantage of the services that their union learning representatives can provide. It creates no right to unpaid time off to take advantage of training.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for clarifying that point. I thought that that was so, but it is useful to have it put explicitly on the record.

On amendment No. 223—the 14 days provision—the Under-Secretary made it clear that the regulatory impact assessment established 14 days as an average figure. That is fine for Government statisticians or those who have to write regulatory impact assessments, but for an individual employer, particularly a small employer, what is interesting is not the average figure but the figure that he will have to bear. I should have preferred some form of backstop.

It would have been helpful if the Under-Secretary had outlined those cases where time off will significantly exceed 14 days. Perhaps he could have offered an example of a circumstance in which it would not be appropriate to ask for the employer's agreement in writing, but where a period of more than 14 days would be appropriate. As the Minister for Employment and the Regions, who has led for the Government during most of our deliberations, will confirm, I am an entirely reasonable person, and I would have been very flexible on that point, but if we do not establish a backstop, we are missing something.

The Under-Secretary said that similar arrangements operate in relation to other union officials, and that, in practice, there has never been a problem. That is almost literally what he said: that there is no recorded case that any of his hon. Friends can call to mind in

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which there has been a problem. I readily confess that I am not an expert in this area, so I shall look at the records myself. If I find that he is right, I shall be obliged to accept what he says, although I would still prefer that some constraints be included. For the time being, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 218, in page 45, line 22, leave out paragraph (b).

The amendment, which is a probing one, would delete subsection 2(b) of proposed new section 168A. Its purpose—we have already touched on this issue—is to give the Under-Secretary the opportunity, at the right point, as it were, to clarify that no additional right to bargain will be created in respect of training. In fact, he has already confirmed that, so I shall not waste the Committee's time on the issue, but I want to ask him exactly what he means when he says that there will be no additional right to bargain. Is he saying that the inclusion of training and training rights will never form part of the equation in a negotiation between employer and employee? Is he saying that the union learning representative will never be part of a delegation or group in a negotiation involving a trade union and an employer?

Mr. Lloyd: I sincerely hope that my hon. Friend is not saying that, because that would roll back existing workplace rights. We are talking here about recognised trade unions, and a situation in which there is already a bargaining relationship between employer and employee through the trade unions. Unions already have a right, and exercise it, to negotiate on training. The hon. Gentleman is asking the Minister to confirm that we will roll back existing practice.

Many of this country's industries, such as engineering and printing, have a recognisable training backlog, and I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to demand of national trade unions that they get stuck in and bargain on training, because we have to improve that backlog.

4.30 pm

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman's contribution is very interesting, and perhaps he will expand on it in a moment in a speech of his own. Then the Minister will be able to deal with the issue. I am being studiously neutral in the way in which I am presenting the matter. It is a probing amendment only, and the Minister has explicitly said that there will be no additional right to bargain. The question that I am posing is whether that means that the trade union learning rep, who might be expected to be the union side expert on training matters within a workplace, will not be able to have paid time off work as a union learning rep to take part in negotiations. That would be the common-sense interpretation of what the Minister has said, and I invite him to clarify that.

John Healey: I shall try to clarify the situation. I should not say that training will never be part of the negotiation in the workplace, because it is already.

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Some union representatives are part of those negotiations, but where that takes place, it is by agreement. There is no legal right for unions to bargain on training, and the clause does not change that position.

Mr. Hammond: The specific question is whether a union learning rep, granted the right to paid time off from work to carry out his duties as a union learning rep, could lawfully require his employer to allow him to form part of a bargaining or negotiating delegation for the purpose of him negotiating training matters among other issues being negotiated between employer and employee. That is all that I am asking the Minister. Having seen the rights included in the Bill and heard the Minister's categorical assurance that it will create no new right to bargain, it is not clear to me what the status of the appointed union learning rep will be in relation to bargaining generally, where training is an issue within the overall bargaining arrangements.

I am not suggesting that training should not be an issue about which people negotiate, but it is important to understand when the trade union learning rep will be able to use his paid time off to sit and talk to the employer, which he obviously must do, and when he will not. I take it, from what the Minister has said, that he will not be able to do so when he is bargaining over training rather than discussing training with the employer in a context other than a bargaining one.

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