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

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Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Minister tell us his view of ''reasonable''? Throughout the document we see the word ''reasonable'' and also that ''reasonable'' has to be related to the circumstances of the company. For a larger company, what would be

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deemed by him and by the courts to be reasonable, so that employers have some idea of the commitment involved?

Mr. Lewis: The right hon. Gentleman is always keen for the Government not to impose undue regulation and dictat from the centre, especially on employers. The order is an example of where we should allow common sense to prevail. In most workplaces at the beginning of the 21st century, employers and trade unions have a sufficiently positive relationship to be able to work out for themselves the definition of ''reasonable''. The code underlines the importance of that activity, to ensure that the work of the employer and the ULRs are complementary and that effort is not duplicated. I especially commend that part of the code to employers and trade unions. It stresses the extra gains that can result when parties work in partnership in the area—a point that I have made several times this afternoon.

I now turn to the guidance on the application of the training condition. The Employment Act 2002 requires ULRs to be sufficiently trained to carry out their duties, either at the time that they begin to function as a ULR or within six months of that date. The latter time limit provides for employees to receive paid time off to receive the initial necessary training. The code of practice gives guidance at paragraphs 22 to 26 on what may constitute sufficient training in practice. They provide useful examples of the competences involved in carrying out the various types of ULR activity.

The code also states that the competences should be acquired through relevant experience or attending a formal course approved by the TUC or another trade union. It also mentions that the attainment of a recognised qualification could be an advantage, although not necessarily essential in that context. The code therefore provides examples of the way in which individuals can demonstrate that they meet the training condition. It recognises that individuals differ and that the route to fulfilling the condition can vary accordingly.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments made a number of observations about the code. The observations relate to section 199(3) of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which provides that the code must contain guidance on time off for trade union activities connected with industrial action. The guidance is mainly in section 6 of the code. In addition, paragraphs 30 and 32 of section 3 of the code provide advice that is relevant. The code makes it clear that, whereas time off should not be granted to take part in industrial action, time off may be permitted to allow union members to use agreed disputes procedures to settle problems and to avoid industrial action. Those parts of the code have been in place since 1991. The current draft does not change the wording. The guidance in that area, as with other parts of the code, has so far worked extremely well.

The Committee has concluded that the code's wording is sufficient to meet the requirements of section 199(3). However, the Committee reported that

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the code did not specifically refer to those parts of the text that will fulfil the requirement under that section. The Committee considers that an explicit cross-reference to section 199(3) would make matters clearer.

We are grateful to the Committee for pointing that out. However, we believe that the code is designed to provide practical guidance to trade unionists, employers and individuals. In other words, it provides advice to practitioners who have to apply those entitlements in the workplace. It is therefore written in a style that is accessible and as free as possible of formal legal wording. I do not think that the absence of a cross-reference will weaken the intended purpose of the code to a significant extent. However, we will draw the Committee's observations to the attention of ACAS and invite it to give these observations due consideration when the code is next revised.

Finally, I should like to say something about the precise roles and responsibilities of union learning representatives. We know that some employers, especially those with no previous involvement with ULRs, are uncertain about their functions. That is not really an issue for the code, which focuses on the subjects of time off and training—I can assure you, Mr. Olner, that I am not about to build the foundations of a cul-de-sac—but my Department is preparing an ''Employer's Guide to ULRs'' which will use case studies to illustrate their roles and responsibilities.

Responding positively to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), I can tell him that the guide is being drawn up with the input of a number of employers, and in consultation with the CBI. It will give practical, real-life examples of the work of ULRs and the positive benefits to employers. A first draft will be available early next week, which will be sent to the CBI and others for comment. Shaped by their input, a final version should be available later this spring. That will be then placed on the DFES, DTI and ACAS websites. I am also pleased that the CBI has agreed to help disseminate the guidance to its members.

As I have mentioned, many existing ULRs are already doing valuable work. When we table the statutory instrument to commence the new rights, we will introduce transitional arrangements so that existing ULRs who have carried out any or all the activities of a learning representative in relation to qualifying members of the union for a continuous period of six months or more at the date of commencement will be regarded as being sufficiently trained. Such ULRs will have to have been appointed or elected in accordance with the rules of the relevant trade union.

With its wealth of expertise in employment relations, ACAS has produced a revised code that I believe to be well balanced and which provides practical guidance from which both employers and unions will benefit. It stresses the need for parties to approach the work of ULRs through agreement and in a spirit of partnership. Evidence supports the contention that the previous version of the code

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worked well. I am confident that the revised version will be equally successful in helping parties apply the law in practice.

Union learning representatives are a major step forward. They provide a new and exciting way to tackle the general lack of skills across the economy, especially among those lacking the most basic of skills. Their place in our modernised system of employment relations has been cemented by the Employment Act 2002 and by the code. I strongly commend the code to the Committee.

3.3 pm

Mr. Boswell: I echo the words of the Minister welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I made the entirely happy discovery this afternoon that you and I share an allegiance to the same football team. I shall not trade on that fact by suggesting that I might wish to paper over a cul-de-sac, or knowingly to do anything else out of order. However, our common interest, like the purpose of this afternoon's debate, should be geared towards ensuring that it—for us, the performance of the football team, and for nation, the nation—raises its game and gets itself up the table.

The Minister introduced the code with his characteristic degree of modesty and moderation, which I do not want to disrupt, nor do I wish to challenge the fundamental principle. It is right, however, that we pause and step aside slightly from the mood of bonhomie to ask at least some questions. That is the spirit in which we approach the debate.

I shall begin with what I believe is the smallest substantial point—one on which I thought the Minister was not going to touch, but to which he owned up towards the end of his remarks. It relates to the apparently minor reservations stated by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in its 15th report, which seeks to elucidate in the code the legal basis for a right to take time off for matters connected with union activities. I think that there should be a slightly more explicit reference to that; perhaps it could be done via a footnote. The Minister says that he has remitted the matter to ACAS to consider. I appreciate that there might be an anomaly in having a footnote here but not one elsewhere, so ACAS might have to look at the matter systematically.

That is a minor issue—although it is an index of the attention that the Joint Committee gives to such matters—but it shows the need for greater precision of thinking. The Minister, perhaps rightly, has stressed the wider consensual aspects of the matter but there has to be a precise legal underpinning, and the two should happen in parallel.

The Minister could have mentioned that the measure relates to 1992 consolidating legislation. I think that some of the old stuff in it goes back to the Employment Protection Act 1975. There has been much custom, practice and acceptance of that by successive Governments, and we do not want anything untidy to develop.

I have some prior experience of speaking on employment relations on behalf of my party and I am enjoying being back in that field this afternoon.

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The problem in this field is that although matters normally proceed well—we hope that they will do so under good practice, which we will encourage—difficulty arises when they start to go wrong. Sometimes the barrack-room lawyers—I am not paid by them and do not wish to be sued by them—get into gear and start picking over the details, and if the details are not precise, that can add to any potential dispute. Where there are bad industrial relations, concerns about the meaning of particular words are often prayed in aid as part of, or as a pretext for, a dispute.

 
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