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Ms Hewitt: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I noted the observation in yesterday's debate that no member of the shadow Cabinet was present—even though the debate was on an Opposition motion.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ms Hewitt: No, I want to make some progress.

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The reality is that, since 1997, employment in small firms—the firms that Opposition Members are fond of saying have borne the brunt of employment regulation—has risen by more than half a million, and employment in the private sector, as well as in the public sector, is increasing. So, instead of having to choose between cutting the numbers of people out of work and raising standards for people in work, we have shown that, with the right policies and careful implementation—and, above all, by working in partnership with business and employees—we can have quantity and quality together. We can have the full employment that was thought to be impossible a decade ago—and it can be fulfilling employment, too.

Mr. Bercow: The national minimum wage was introduced at a modest level in a benign economic climate and has not done great damage; indeed, it has conferred a number of benefits. However, is the Secretary of State insensitive to the growing chorus of opinion in the business community, especially among small and medium-sized businesses, that they are increasingly expected to operate as unpaid tax collectors and benefit distributors? What will she do to address that concern and grievance?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): A very good point—against you.

Ms Hewitt: Unlike my hon. Friend, I think that the hon. Gentleman was apologising for his opposition to the national minimum wage, and I welcome his conversion to our cause on that point.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, we are of course concerned about levels of regulation and administration, particularly for small businesses. Having run small organisations for most of my working life, I know precisely what is involved. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have done so much to simplify VAT and payroll administration, and it is why we will ensure that the information that employers and small businesses need is available more simply both in print and on the website. Because of such steps, and much else besides, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says that

and notes that

We are proud of our record but are not complacent, and we will continue to improve it.

The Bill builds on the foundation of those achievements, and I want to outline five of its key features this afternoon. First and most importantly, it will promote partnership and co-operation in the workplace by creating the power to make regulations to implement the European directive on information and consultation. I am not prepared to have our workers hear on the radio that they will lose their jobs or find that they have already lost their jobs through a text message.

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We know that the most successful businesses already work with a partnership between management and the work force.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): Although workers will welcome the Secretary of State's comments, will she examine the activities of companies such as T-Mobile, which brings in union bashers from America to stop bona fide trade unions trying to increase trade union membership and protecting the workers whom she is discussing?

Ms Hewitt: I am aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend refers to and have discussed them with colleagues from trade unions. We are not prepared to see American-style union-busting practices growing up in our country. I must say that the proposal that we should import from north America laws to address unfair labour practices is not practical. Such laws have not worked in the United States and would not help here. Indeed, they would require massive rewriting of existing industrial relations laws, which have worked well in the vast majority of respects. I understand his concern and we will keep a close eye on the issue.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I welcome the Government's implementation of the EU consultation directive, but why have they resisted it for so long? Why are they further delaying full implementation for a few years, particularly for companies that employ between 50 and 150 employees? Now that the Government have converted to the concept, it would be a good idea to implement the directive in full rather than being the last country in Europe to do so.

Ms Hewitt: We have consulted widely, particularly with smaller firms. It makes sense to give smaller firms with between 50 and 150 employees a little bit longer to prepare for the introduction of the requirements under the new regulations. If they have not already done so, we would encourage them to anticipate the laws that they know are coming by adopting better practice, or indeed best practice, in consultation with their work forces.

The best businesses in Britain know that their success comes from their work force. They invest in making their employees feel valued, encourage them to make a contribution, seek their views, treat them fairly, train them properly and reward them well. That is, for instance, what happens at Tesco—one of the largest and most successful firms in Britain—which has a workplace partnership with the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.

It happens at Cowley, where the partnership between the Transport and General Workers Union and management ensures that the company produces new Minis at an extraordinary rate. It happens, too, in GMB's highly successful partnership with the Edrington group—the Scotch whisky producers. Such partnerships are happening in thousands of businesses, small as well as large, informal as well as formal.

As I have just indicated, the new minimum standards on information and consultation will apply initially only to our larger firms—those with more than 150 employees—but eventually to all firms with more than 50 employees. By taking that approach we shall ensure

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that three quarters of our employees are covered by the new rights but that only 3 per cent. of our businesses will be.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): How will the information and consultation process work in cases such as that of Biwater at Clay Cross in my constituency? Biwater was taken over by Saint-Gobain, a multinational, which within 45 minutes announced closure of the company to benefit its other operations in this country. Will the Bill ensure that if such a situation occurs in the future, proper and full consultation will be held prior to any announcement of that kind?

Ms Hewitt: I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend. The information and consultation standards will require that the work force are told about any issue material to the future of the company. There will be minimum standards for consultation, in addition, of course, to the current standards for consultation on large-scale redundancies.

The CBI director, Digby Jones, has welcomed our proposals. He said that they

and that our approach

The general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, described our proposals as

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to both of them and to thank them for working with us to agree on how we shall implement the new directive and on laws that will be good for our working people and good for British business.

The second key feature of the Bill is that it will improve the statutory procedure for trade union recognition. The recognition arrangements that we put in place in the Employment Relations Act 1999 have been a resounding success. We have not gone back to the legal wrangling and the inter-union disputes that dogged the recognition procedures in force during the 1970s. Far from promoting industrial strife, as our critics were so happy to predict, we have promoted partnership: we have the lowest number of stoppages since the 1920s, and days lost through strikes were below 500,000 in the first 11 months of last year, compared with an average of more than 7 million days lost every year through the 1980s.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly says that successful firms work in partnership with trade unions, so will she look once again at the rules on trade union recognition ballots, as, in effect, they count abstentions as no votes? How many Members would have been elected had such rules applied to us?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We looked at it during our review of the 1999 Act and we shall be tightening up that aspect of its operation

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under the current Bill, although, as she is aware, we do not propose to change the 40 per cent. threshold for participation in a ballot.

We wanted to promote voluntary agreements and we have done so. For every statutory declaration of recognition there have been 12 voluntary agreements; more than 1,000 voluntary deals were made during the last five years and at least 200,000 more workers are covered by a trade union recognition agreement.

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