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Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): I am somewhat confused by the hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he want to give trade unionists throughout Britain the message that the Conservative party is anti-trade union? If the party is not anti-trade union, why is he adopting such a stance?
Mr. O'Brien: I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to intervene, but I thought that he had been listening to my argument. I was not expressing any anti-trade union message, but saying how much I welcome the fact that several measures are not in the Bill. We do not need a Bill for what is not in the Bill. I hope that he understands that we are using precious parliamentary time to debate matters that are not under consideration, although he will try to use minor issues as hooks to allow him to discuss his favoured options.
Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because he made a key point toward the end of it. The introduction of any number of regulations does not create or preserve jobs because regulations add costs. The key to creating, preserving and sustaining competitive jobs has always been, and always will be, confidenceconfidence in our economy, management and products, and in our ability to sustain a low cost base.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman might remember that I introduced a private Member's Bill after the Vauxhall closure due to which 5,000 people lost their jobs. Those jobs would not have been lost if British workers had had the same protection as those on the continent of Europe.
Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman perhaps lives in hope rather than with experience. I say that because the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) intervened on the Secretary of State to point out the actions of the French nationalised industry Saint-Gobain, which I know well because I had many relations with it during my earlier business life. The idea that other countries' practices offer greater protection than those that exist here is sometimes not as real as it seems. Countries have different ways of doing things, so the hon. Gentleman needs to be careful not to make an unfair comparison by considering the protection of rights rather than the over-arching need to ensure that ultimate flexibility exists in the economic and commercial workplace for the sustainability of jobs over time.
I referred to the Engineering Employers Federation's views on the Bill, so the fact that the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government expect to add measures to it is important. She mentioned provisions on the exclusion and expulsion of racist activists. If the Bill receives its Second Reading, such provisions will be introduced in Committee, but given that they have been flagged for some time, it might have been helpful if they were included in the Billperhaps there was a timing issue. We shall examine the provisions extraordinarily carefully and constructively with the Government.
There has also been an indication, although I did not hear the Secretary of State refer to it, that Government amendments will be tabled on protection for strikers against dismissal that will define more closely the actions that employers and unions should undertake when taking reasonable procedural steps to resolve industrial disputes. We shall have to examine those measures carefully, but it would be wholly inappropriate to prejudge the Government's proposals until we know the detail.
Mr. O'Brien: I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises that it would be grossly irresponsible for any hon. Member to give a cast-iron assurance on any measure without knowing its detail or wording. In terms of the sentiment[Interruption.] When dealing with such a deeply important and sensitive topic, it is important not to try to pick holes in what was the most appropriate Front-Bench response that anyone could expect from Her Majesty's Opposition in advance of knowing any detail or words of a proposed Government amendment. The hon. Gentleman described the sentiment and mindset that will govern our approach when considering the measure in Committee, so we should be as one in our approach. It will be an important part of the parliamentary process to examine carefully the actual proposal to ensure, above all, that if the intentions behind it are good, it has every hope of being effective. That is our role, and his role, too.
It has been suggested that the TUC will try to secure amendments to the Bill as it progresses through Parliament. We shall have to wait to find out what it will propose, although no doubt several Labour Members will be keen to advance such amendments. Among the key union objectives that have not been included in the Bill are extending the recognition legislation to companies employing fewer than 21 workers, modifying the voting rules so that abstentions do not count as votes against recognitionthat point was raised earlierand abolishing the eight-week time limit on protection against dismissal for workers taking part in a lawful strike.
The Bill is like a Christmas tree. It is amendable, so it could grow upwards and outwards rapidly. At this time of year, we have all just thrown out our Christmas trees, and the House needs cast-iron assurances that the Government will resist point-blank all additional burdens such as those that I have mentioned. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that additional measures will not introduced by Government amendment, or conceded by them, with the exception of those that she has already flagged and on which we have had a constructive exchange.
Mr. Bercow: Given that several important clauses in the Bill provide for order-making powers, and that secondary legislation can significantly add to the level of burden on business, will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will keep a beady eye on the Bill and seek an undertaking from the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State that all secondary legislation throughout the Bill will be subject to the affirmative procedure of the House and not its negative counterpart?
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have seen a statement by the Government that they intend to introduce any further orders under the Bill, if it is enacted, by way of affirmative resolution. I
My hon. Friend will not be at all surprised to find that I am obsessed by the question of regulation on business. All Governments are very relaxed about the amount of regulation that they expect business to be able to bear. Regulations are increasingly damaging British competitiveness in such a way that, if we do not make it a priority for Government to avoid imposing more of them and expecting business to pick up the cost, we will hardly be able to complain if we find that the jobs that are important to us and to each and every one of our constituents are not as sustainable as we thought.
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central) (Lab): I suppose that it was only a matter of time before the issue of regulation and red tape crept into the Opposition's argument. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, just this month, the Forum of Private Business published its annual survey of its members, and that red tape is not even among the first three issues of concern to them?
Mr. O'Brien: I have of course had many meetings with the Forum of Private Business, and I think that regulation of business, especially small businesses, is so much of a priority that it comes above the first three categories in a particular survey asking particular questions. In any event, I am in no doubt as to its importance.
The other provisions that we continue to support, and on which I seek similar assurances, are the three-year moratorium following a ballot and the rule stipulating that at least 40 per cent. of those eligible are required to vote and that there must be majority support if a ballot is ordered, as well as the initial requirement for 10 per cent. union membership for a claim to be valid and evidence of majority support, although we note that the Institute of Directors believes that 20 per cent. is a more reasonable figure.
Actually, we do not need a Bill for any of that either. There are both elements in the Bill and omissions from it that I can welcome, but it would be perfectly possible to introduce those elements by means other than primary legislation, so why do we need the Bill? Well, anyone who passionately wanted to regulate, prescribe, nanny, meddle, intervene, preach, hector or just make work for the Secretary of State and her Department would want the Bill. Those motives characterise the Government and this Secretary of State, and the Bill supinely meets the demand from Brussels that we implement a directive for which even one of the right hon. Lady's Ministers has said there is "no need".
I have to ask the Secretary of State: how many businesses has she run? In how many businesses has she been responsible for taking the risks, rewarding the risk-takers, delivering the returns on capital invested, managing the human, technological and physical resources, and surviving and succeeding? How many of her Cabinet colleagues have that experience? How many Commons Ministers in her Department, or indeed across the whole Government, have that experience? How many civil servants in her Department, or indeed throughout Whitehall, have that experience? How many of those people with that experience had a hand in drafting and introducing the Bill? If any of those people had remotely had that experience, and if they had truly inhabited the risk-taking, competitive business world before they came to the House, would they honestly have thought it appropriate, timely or worth while to introduce the Bill, which will hinder entrepreneurs, diminish the competitiveness of UK business and raise its costs in an even more competitive global marketplace? I think not, but sadly and unnecessarily here it is. I will now give way to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris).