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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

The ACAS Draft Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities

Sixth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 2 April 2003

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

ACAS Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I beg to move

    That the Committee has considered the ACAS draft Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities.

I am delighted to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Olner. I hope that you will not have to chide a member of the Committee like you did the last time we met for—I shall never forget this memorable phrase—building the foundations of a cul-de-sac. The hon. Member protested that he was simply building the foundations of his argument, even though he was not talking about the subject under discussion.

Derek Twigg (Halton): It was my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins).

Mr. Lewis: I believe that it was.

I have pleasure in introducing the ACAS draft code of practice. It is important to reflect on why we are discussing it this afternoon. Section 43 of the Employment Act 2002 gave union learning representatives rights to reasonable time off with pay to carry out their functions and undergo training. Those rights are similar to those currently enjoyed by shop stewards. The 2002 Act also gives a right to reasonable time off without pay for union members wishing to access the services of ULRs.

Union learning representatives are lay union representatives whose main function is to advise union members about their training, educational and developmental needs. Their advice is usually provided direct to union members at their place of work, sometimes in face-to-face meetings with individuals. There were relatively few ULRs six years ago, but I am pleased to say that there are now 4,500 and the numbers are increasing every day. We believe that with the new statutory rights there could be more than 22,000 ULRs in place by 2010 supporting as many as 250,000 workers by providing for their training and development needs.

Both employers and workers stand to benefit from ULRs. They are an inexpensive source of expert advice for employers. They are particularly effective in reaching workers with basic skill needs—people who may be reluctant to take advantage of training opportunities. It is also worth mentioning in such debates that 7 million adults in this country lack the literacy and numeracy skills of the average 11-year-old. It is important that we find increasingly imaginative ways of giving people who lack those skills the opportunity to gain them. The CBI and the TUC are entirely united in giving the same message to

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employers and others about the importance of investing in basic skills.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I do not seek to derail the Minister's important point—this is largely a matter on which both sides of industry agree—but does he accept that, while there is a serious problem with the basic skills of 7 million adults, the remit of this particular provision is not confined to those skills? It would be patronising and inappropriate not to suggest that much higher levels of workplace developmental skills may be appropriate for the remit we are debating.

Mr. Lewis: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that ULRs support individuals in the workplace and help them to develop a range of skills relevant to their needs. For some individuals, that will be basic skills, but for others it will be higher level skills.

It is worth mentioning that when one speaks to those involved in teaching adult basic skills they say that one of the difficulties in persuading employees to engage in that agenda is that staff are worried about stigmatisation and the effect on their employment status. Therefore, it is often more effective if trade unions encourage the participation of learners who are harder to reach. Hard research demonstrates that unions have a significant impact on increasing enthusiasm for learning among workers and employers.

It is worth focusing on some specific examples of where union learning representatives are contributing towards developing training initiatives. Littlewoods, Nestlé, Ethel Austin, Pittards, Birds Eye-Walls, Rolls-Royce, Toyota, British Bakeries and HSBC are just some examples of well-established and successful companies in which union learning representatives are making a difference. At HSBC, for example, union learning representatives from UNIFI, the specialist finance union, are helping 4,000 call centre staff back into learning, initially through IT upskilling, and then into a wider range of learning opportunities. HSBC management are positive about the project, as they foresee a range of business benefits, as well as softer benefits, emerging from it.

At Birds Eye-Walls sites in Hull and Grimsby, ULRs from the GMB union are working closely with the company's human resources department to increase the basic work skills of the work force. They have collaborated to open two new learning centres to help address the training needs of staff, their families and other local people.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): The record of what has been achieved under the voluntary system is impressive. Why do the Government think that it is necessary to go down a statutory route when the voluntary code seems to have worked very well? That is not a criticism; it is just a question.

Mr. Lewis: That is a valid point. There is significant evidence that, although there are some examples of good practice in employer commitment to investing in skills, such investment is far too patchy in relation to the productivity and competitiveness needs of the economy. In my experience, in practically all cases in

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which ULRs are active, employers see them in a positive light. The relationship is one of partnership, and often union learning representatives bring employers to the table to engage in the skills agenda in a way that employers have not done historically.

On the whole, employers do not feel threatened by URLs, or think that they are unreasonable or a burden. They think of them as a useful way of building a partnership that should be a symbol of a modern approach to the work force. We want to move away from the old-style confrontation between employer and trade union, and one of the most tangible ways of doing that, where there is a common interest and agenda, is by investing in skills and training. That benefits individuals and demonstrates the value of being a member of a trade union. From an employer's point of view, it directly benefits the bottom-line competitiveness and profitability of the company or, in the case of the public sector, the dynamism of the front-line service to the user or client.

Employers in companies where union learning representatives are active and the union learning fund has been successful do not think of the requirements as an unreasonable imposition. Often, the way in which one implements or delivers them is the basis of the relationship, but in all the workplaces in which the system is being used, it is being operated as a partnership. We want to support and encourage that.

We have to find a variety of ways of stimulating investment in skills. We do not want to introduce heavy regulatory burdens. On the other hand, we cannot have a laissez-faire approach to investing in skills, because if we consider the economic strength of the country, which few people dispute, it can be seen that competitiveness and productivity are still pretty weak, relatively speaking. A central driver of competitiveness and productivity—but not the only one—is the ability to tackle skills gaps and shortages.

The Employment Act 2002 specifies that either ACAS or the Secretary of State may produce a code containing practical guidance on two subjects: first, the time off provisions for union learning representatives; and, secondly, what training should be sufficient for union learning representatives to begin carrying out their functions. I have received a request from my predecessor, now the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey). I am delighted to see him here, but I am not sure whether I am allowed to refer to hon. Members sitting in the Gallery.

2.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.52 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Lewis: I shall not be referring to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He has left the Room—only temporarily, I hasten to add.

It is important to say that the code is not new. It has not been written from scratch. It is a revised version of the existing ACAS code on time off for trade union duties and activities. That code already provides

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guidance on time off for shop stewards and equivalent union officials. The rights to time off for union learning representatives are similar to those for shop stewards. It therefore seemed sensible to revise what is there already and produce a streamlined single code that covered rights to time off for both shop stewards and union learning representatives. I am sure that members of the Committee will agree that that is a sensible way to proceed. To have two ACAS codes covering closely related topics would be confusing to all concerned. It is better for employers, unions and workers for there to be one publication.

ACAS produced an initial draft of the code last year, which was put out to public consultation. The consultations ended in November. About 50 responses were received from various quarters, including trade unions and employer organisations. The majority were generally supportive. The code was then redrafted to reflect the comments received as part of the consultation process.

I shall now focus on the substance of the code. Much of it incorporates the guidance contained in the existing version, so it might be best if I refer to those parts in which changes have been made. The revisions fall into three broad categories. First, a small number of changes have been made to the existing advice on time off for union members and their representatives. They are designed mainly to update the text to increase its relevance to today's working life. For example, at paragraph 11, the code refers to the possibility that unions and employers might wish to negotiate about family-friendly policies or the operation of digital equipment. The text has also been changed at paragraphs 15 and 28 to reflect the outcome of an important case considered by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in 1999. The case was Davies v. Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, which clarified the entitlement of part-timers to time off for trade union duties and activities. The various changes are welcome and ensure that the code's guidance reflects contemporary circumstances and recent case law.

Secondly, the code refers to the entitlement of lay representatives to time off to accompany workers to disciplinary and grievance hearings. That entitlement was introduced in the Employment Relations Act 1999 and came into effect in September 2000. The code refers to it mostly at paragraph 16. Again, the changes are minor. They update the text to ensure that the advice is comprehensive and fully covers the current law.

Thirdly, the code has been revised to incorporate guidance about union learning representatives. As I mentioned earlier, the additions are the most significant changes to the code. The guidance on time off for ULRs is given at paragraphs 13 and 14. The section refers to the type of activity for which time off should be granted. It mentions that, by statute, ULRs should be given reasonable time off to consult the employer about the carrying out of their activities.

 
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