Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 18 September 2003
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2003
Jane Kennedy: I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. The draft order was laid before the House on 8 September 2003. I was encouraged by the high level of support for the order expressed by the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in July this year. In view of the fact that we discussed the order at some length in that Committee, I will shorten my opening comments and respond in greater depth if hon. Members have specific queries that they wish to raise.
Hon. Members may be aware that the provisions of the order closely correspond to parts 2 and 3 of the Employment Act 2002. Further detail on the operational measures proposed in this draft order will be set out in regulations, on which there will be full consultation. I am aware that public consultation is ongoing on draft dispute resolution regulations for Great Britain. It would be my intention to carry out corresponding public consultation in Northern Ireland in due course.
I commend the order to hon. Members. It is an opportunity to change the way in which disputes in the workplace about employment rights are managed in Northern Ireland. The order should reduce the time and good will lost when cases, which could and perhaps should have been resolved earlier through dialogue, are taken to tribunals unnecessarily.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): It is a pleasant morning, especially as we all had last evening off and were able to spend plenty of time preparing for this Committee. Those who are regular members of these Northern Ireland Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation will know that I have evolved a doctrine called the Taylor tests. I apply these tests to Northern Ireland statutory instruments.
The first test is whether the order makes the law in Northern Ireland more or less convergent with the law in England and Wales. The Committee will probably know that I take the view that, in a country where the citizen is presumed to know the law, minimal regional variations are desirable. The order passes that test. It makes the law in Northern Ireland more convergent with the law in England and Wales, and that is welcome.
My second test is whether the order creates a new ombudsman or commission, because I am not in favour of the proliferation of ombudsmen or
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commissions. It passes that test. It does not create an ombudsman or a commission. Therefore, so far it is two green lights out of three.
My third test is whether the people of Northern Ireland and the interests in Northern Ireland have been consulted, and whether they desire to have this change in their law. The evidence so far is that that test is passed, although the Minister has been gracious enough to say that further consultation is anticipated. That is a good thing.
As far as I am concerned, the order passes muster, and my party supports it.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to learn that the Ulster Unionist party generally supports the provisions. As Unionists, we welcome the fact that the order moves us closer to parity with Great Britain, which led the way in this area of policy with the Employment Act 2002. We welcome the fact that the order will put in place dispute resolution procedures to be followed by employers and employees to enhance the possibility of resolving a dispute without resort to a tribunal. In doing so, that will help to address the burden and expense on the current tribunal system.
We are aware that fair and effective mechanisms must exist to deal with disputes in the workplace. It is often said that a happy workplace is a productive workplace. However, given the fact that the use of industrial tribunals has apparently tripled throughout the United Kingdom during the past five years, we must try to avoid getting into a situation in which every little disagreement or sense of paranoia concludes with a hearing in such a forum. When a dispute arises in the workplace, it is important that there are clear, fair and effective mechanisms for resolving it.
There is no doubt that disputes are bad for business. They can be time-consuming, and damaging to employment relations and morale. Disputes are in no one's interest. Equitable resolutions at an early stage are always desirable. The order aims to address concerns by seeking to assist employers and employees to resolve their differences as close as possible to their source. That approach is to be applauded, especially if it saves expense to the public purse and to business.
To that end, we welcome the use of pre-hearings as a means of weeding out trivial cases or instances in which there is no case to answer. We also commend the inclusion of the award of costs provision, which will continue to be the principal defence against vexatious claims.
We note the provision to allow reasonable time off for trade union learning representatives, and we believe that reasonable time off can provide benefits for individuals, their union colleagues and the workplace environment as a whole. However, who will decide what is reasonable and how? Does the Minister agree that good sense must prevail in such situations, particularly given the strains that the
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provision could put on the resources of small employers?
On the downside, we share the concerns of the Labour Relations Agency about the effect that the introduction of a fixed time limit will have on how the agency offers and resources its individual conciliation service. The agency foresees significant practical difficulties in providing an effective conciliation service within such a tight time scale, including the unavailability of relevant documentation and key representatives. We are also concerned about the costs to small business, particularly when other costs are being imposed on small business, such as increased insurance costs. I trust that the Minister will accept the agency's request for detailed consultation on issues such as the resourcing of the individual conciliation service, the duration of any fixed period, the advisability of different lengths of fixed period for different jurisdictions, the practicality of a fixed conciliation period in discrimination cases and the timing of the commencement of the fixed period. Will the Minister also clarify her reasoning for not, in the agency's view, taking fully into account the content of its code of practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures, which is universally accepted and acknowledged as representing good practice in the conduct of disciplinary and grievance procedures? Does she agree with the agency that the standards contained in its code of practice should be retained?
We are happy to support the order, and hope that the Government's objectives in introducing it will be achieved.
Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) for the constructive way in which he has brought these concerns before the House. I am aware that the Labour Relations Agency is worried about the impact of some of these proposals, which are broadly welcomed by the agency. It may be helpful if I meet the agency at an early opportunity to discuss its concerns in greater detail.
I see an important role for the agency's guidance. Its code of practice will need to be revised to reflect the statutory procedures that the order introduces. I envisage that the code will helpfully provide practical advice on at least three issues. First, it can give practical advice on how to follow the statutory procedures, such as by ensuring that meetings are reasonably conducted. Secondly, the LRA's guidance can identify where other procedural actions could be beneficial—for example, how informal discussions could be handled or how investigations could be instigated. Thirdly, it could give tailored advice to small organisations.
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The hon. Member for East Antrim raised concerns about setting a fixed period for certain aspects of these changes. I am aware of those concerns, but I do not believe that that will necessarily have the deleterious effect that people are worried about. I shall continue to consider all these issues as we draw up the regulations that will flow from this order.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that good, sound common sense should be applied when considering how ''reasonable'' time off is defined. Practical guidance on what constitutes ''reasonable'' will be provided by a code of practice. The Labour Relations Agency's code on time off for trade union duties and activities has worked well, and has reduced the scope for disagreement. It may require to be revised to reflect the new right to paid time off for union learning representatives.
Mr. Taylor: Will the Minister give way on that point?
Jane Kennedy: I will give way, but I was just about to finish.
Mr. Taylor: I realise that the Minister was about to finish, which is why I interrupted her, not discourteously I hope. She referred to the issuing of a code of practice in due course. Will the House or one of its Committees have the opportunity to examine that code of practice, or are we in effect giving the Minister carte blanche to write the code?
Jane Kennedy: I will ensure that there is thorough consultation on the code of practice. I will take account of the responses we receive when we publish the code. We will work with the partners who assist and advise us in drawing up such a code of practice. The code will be published in draft form, and we will consider any representations that are made.
Mr. Taylor: I wonder whether I, on behalf of my party, could be a consultee during that process.
Jane Kennedy: I undertake to ensure that the hon. Gentleman is consulted, as well as all the parties in the House.
I am grateful for the constructive way in which the order has been scrutinised. There have been two opportunities to study it in detail, and I am grateful for the constructive comments that have been made. I commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Employment (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
Committee rose at seven minutes past Nine o'clock.
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The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Harris, Mr. Tom
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Taylor, Mr. John