Employment Bill

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Mr. Osborne: Might one such circumstance be where an individual who seeks to be a learning representative already has many trade union functions, such as being a shop steward, which already take him away from his job for a certain amount of time during the year and the company reasonably feels that it would be better to share the burden with another member of the work force so that he is not away from his job even longer?

Mr. Hammond: My hon. Friend tempts me to speculate on individual cases. I do not claim to be intimately familiar with the code of practice, which I suspect may address at least part of the issue that he raises. It is almost a question of negative principle. Given that we are talking about a co-operative situation here, why would the employer not have the ability to approve the learning rep's appointment? We do not, as I understand it, see a learning rep as an adversarial representative of the work force; we see him as part of the team that the employer has in place to deliver and promote learning and training in the workplace, so the employer must have a voice in the matter. If I was saying that the employer should be given an absolute veto, I could understand the instinctive hackles that it would raise, but I am not—I am saying that a reasonableness test should be applied.

Mr. Lloyd: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting concept. To follow his argument to its logical conclusion, would he accept an equivalent provision whereby unions could, not unreasonably, veto the appointment of a personnel manager, company chairman or managing director?

Mr. Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman is describing a situation in which the union has to pay the personnel manager, certainly it should have a reasonable voice in who is appointed to that function, but in all the companies that I have ever come across, it does not do so.

Mr. Lloyd: That is an interesting answer, but it does not address his point about the spirit of co-operation. Surely in the spirit of co-operation and partnership, irrespective of who pays the personnel manager, the union should have the right of veto over senior managers, who, do not forget, affect their members' livelihoods. That would be an interesting step forwards.

Mr. Hammond: I cannot agree that we can discuss this in the context of it being irrespective of who pays. That is precisely the point. The employer is being asked to provide paid time off for a person and the Minister is advancing the argument that it will not be on behalf of, say, a shop steward, whom employees in the union need to fight their corner, but to the benefit

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of both sides—employer and employee. It is intended to be a neutral appointment, in the sense that it is not adversarial.

Good management practice suggests that the appointment of personnel managers and directors is made with regard to the views of the people that they will be interfacing with and managing. I would take a pretty dim view of a board of directors that appointed a senior personnel manager to whom they knew their work force to be hostile. If I were an investor in that company, I would be alarmed by such a process. The hon. Gentleman may be able to pluck an example from his long and detailed knowledge, but I suspect that examples of personnel managers being appointed in a way that is likely to be antagonistic to the work force happen more often in the public sector than in the private sector. In the private sector, the foremost consideration of the board of directors is to ensure that the business continues to function smoothly, which requires good relationships with the people working in the business.

Mr. Lloyd: I therefore assume that the hon. Gentleman dissociates himself from Mrs. Thatcher's appointment of McGregor at the National Coal Board, who was put there deliberately to smash up the work force.

Mr. Hammond: The National Coal Board was a public sector entity.

The Minister may think that I was unfair to press him on learning reps in the public sector in his Department. However, it is an important point. We talk in Committees about good employers, bad employers, enlightened employers, unenlightened employers and even stone-age employers. From my own observations around the country, I find that much of the bad practice is by managements in the public sector, not the private sector. That is not because managements in the private sector are wonderful, altruistic people, but because they are focused on delivering results and generating profits for their shareholders. Generally speaking, thank goodness, sound and prosperous businesses and profits for shareholders depend on good and constructive relationships with people working in those businesses. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that across the piece, industrial relations in the UK are better in the private sector than they are in the public sector.

Mr. Hughes: I find the principle behind what the hon. Gentleman is saying bizarre in the extreme. We are talking about an organisation—in this case a trade union, but it could be any other organisation—to which members pay subscriptions, for which there are agreed rules and an agreed process, and which has all the other characteristics associated with a legitimate trade union. Yet the hon. Gentleman is arguing that someone who is not a member of such an organisation, and who pays no subscription to it, should have a say in deciding who represents it. Where does that stop? Why not allow the employer or the manager to pick the shop steward or the general secretary? It is bizarre to

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argue that someone who is not a member of a trade union should have a say in who represents it, be they a learning rep or any other rep.

Mr. Hammond: I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman thinks it bizarre that anyone else should have a say in who should be a union learning rep but perfectly normal that someone else should pay them. I do not accept the analogy with a shop steward. Part of a shop steward's function is to represent his members—not necessarily formally, but on a daily basis—in a negotiating situation. I do not want the hon. Member for Manchester, Central to jump up and say that a shop steward's function is not always adversarial; of course it is not, but in essence it is about representing the sectional interest of the work force. That is the shop steward's job.

Of course, I acknowledge that it would be wrong for the employer to be able to pick someone whom he thought a poodle. We could have all manner of arguments about in-house staff associations, and so on, but I shall not be tempted to do so. It seems, however, that the Government are inviting us to view learning representatives as something quite different: not as representatives of a sectional interest, but as part of a broad equation that promotes learning and upskilling in the workplace. Such representatives will work not in isolation, but in good companies with established training programmes, managers and personnel. They will be a small part of a much bigger machine, working together to deliver the end product of better training and better skills in our work force. That is a role quite different from that of shop steward.

Mr. Hughes indicated dissent.

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman may disagree; perhaps we will have to agree to differ.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman seems to accept that learning representatives are a good thing—he will doubtless correct me if I am wrong—but that the employer should have a say in the appointment of a union learning rep because he must contribute to the cost. He also seemed to say—again, he will correct me if I am wrong—that he thinks paternity leave and paternity pay good things. Given that an employer must contribute to paternity pay, would the hon. Gentleman also argue that an employer should have a right to a say in fatherhood?

Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has not helped the discussion much with that intervention, and I shall not bother to reply to it. Perhaps it was in the same spirit as my earlier exchange with the hon. Member for North Norfolk.

The point is perfectly clear, and I was hoping that the phrase

    ''approval not to be unreasonably withheld or delayed''

would tempt Government Members to think seriously about the matter. The issue is one of concern to employers. It may be that there is no mischief to be addressed in the vast majority of cases and that unions always appoint the best person for the job. However, what happens where there is internal friction in a union

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branch, and the person who is obviously best qualified to act as the learning representative—who obviously has the skills and ability—is not appointed and someone clearly unsuitable is appointed in their stead? It is such cases that we are inviting the Under-Secretary to consider.

5 pm

John Healey: In effect, the amendment would give a veto to employers in respect of union learning representatives' right to time off. We gave the issue a considerable airing in relation to the Confederation of British Industry's stance on it. The amendment would mean that if employers do not like the idea that union learning representatives should operate, they can simply withhold their consent. I am afraid that that would leave us where we are today, with union learning representatives' right to time off dependent entirely on the employer's say-so. That, as I made clear earlier, is unacceptable to the Government.

Mr. Hammond: With the greatest respect to the Minister, that is not the purpose of the amendment. It is not intended to allow an employer to object to a union learning rep per se; it is to allow an employer to register an objection only where it is reasonable to do so to an individual being appointed as a union learning rep.

John Healey: I was moving on the point about reasonableness before the hon. Gentleman intervened.

In some ways the hon. Gentleman's amendment tries to obscure the underlying purpose, by stating that such consent could not be unreasonably withheld. However, that does not give us any clue about the circumstances that would be defined as unreasonable. Would it be unreasonable to deny the entitlement simply because it involved some costs to the employer? Would it be unreasonable if the employer thought that he had a difficult relationship with an appointed representative or with the union? Would it be unreasonable if the employer thought that his company already had a good training record? All that is left in the air. In no other part of the legal system are a union representative's rights vetoed on appointment by the employer. That would block the rights that the Bill aims to establish.

The amendment goes to the heart of our proposals. We want a larger and more effective network of learning representatives; we want them to have clear entitlements. The amendment would defeat both objectives. The Government cannot accept it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to withdraw it.

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Prepared 17 January 2002