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Mr. Stephen O'Brien: As someone who has actually sat on a supervisory board and management committee of a German company turning over 1 billion Deutschmarks a year, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the co-determination structures were not precisely those that were bequeathed post-war but were, on the contrary, developed by the enterprising German people themselves through the hard years of the late 1940s and 1950s as they rebuilt their country. The real issue is the ability to have good communication flowing up and down, which is different, as I said earlier, from
Malcolm Bruce: I am happy for that to have been corrected on the record, and I take no issue with the hon. Gentleman. I still maintain that some people try to attribute the current continental difficulties to what they call European practices, which I think is an unfair misrepresentation of the reasons for the sluggishness of the economyand there are those who follow the Conservative line of thinking and argue precisely that. They argue that the European way is dragging down the continental economies, and that if we follow suit we will be similarly dragged down.
All I am saying is that I, along with my party, reject that. We should do things in our own way, yes, but a single market cannot be built without commonality, and commonality is not possible without regulation. The real argument is about what constitutes the appropriate level of regulation and how it should be applied. It would help if the Conservative party engaged in that debate constructively rather than giving the impression that they want nothing to do with the European Unionwithout having the guts to go out and campaign for Britain's removal from that club, and explain the consequences. Theirs is a duplicitous and dishonourable argument, and my party wants nothing to do with it.
Malcolm Bruce: He certainly is a Liberal Democrat. Indeed, every week he attends meetings of the Liberal Democrat trade and industry team, where he makes valid and constructive contributions. This very morning he told us that he was a member of the boards of a British and a Dutch company. The experience was instructive, he said. He gave two specific examples. First, he said that the British company's annual general meeting took an average of 40 minutes, and that virtually no questions were asked. The Dutch company's AGM took four to five hours, and he was vigorously questioned on all aspects of his responsibility. Secondly, he said that Dutch works councils were an important avenue for communication both upwards and downwards. Interestingly, he said that works councils there were not creatures of the trade unions, although most companies were unionised and the unions were certainly involved. They were very much creatures of the employees, and trade union officials would participate in whatever capacity their fellow employees had intended. That is a healthy development that could teach us something here.
What I regret is that the Bill does not deliver all that. All it really does is acknowledge the directive and give powers to the Secretary of State. It leaves open what will actually be done, apart from the establishment of a consultation process at a later date. I welcome that information, but I wish we were further down the track.
We look forward to the legislation. I think that the Government can assume that we shall not just encourage them, but pressurise them. However, I want to mention one more omission. My colleagues and I are concerned about the growth of unofficial action in certain areas, which has proved both frustrating and damaging. We see a danger of legislative lacunae. I do not claim to have a definitive or prescriptive answer, but I can give an example which, I freely admit, triggered my thinking on this.
Several things concerned me about the Post Office workers' dispute in London, Oxford and one or two other places before Christmas. For instance, the union had conducted a ballot for strike action and had lost. It was therefore not authorised to promote the strike, and could not be exempt from its responsibilities if it did so. Strikes then took place. The evidence is anecdotal and subjective, but it seems ironic that the final settlement was negotiated in the wee small hours between union and management, while the unofficial strikers had no representation.
The union might argue that it was so appalled by the taking of unofficial action against its wishes that it wanted to help the management resolve the matter. It might equally be argued that there are occasions on which militant unions can exploit the lacunae in the law and effectively allowor discreetly encourage, or certainly not discourageunofficial action to strengthen their bargaining position, while disowning the strike and as a consequence disowning their own liability.
I appreciate that there are legal difficulties in tying the two elements together. However, it seems to me that requiring those who are on strike to go to arbitration will put them in a difficult position if they have no representationthey will have to organise it themselves,
I am merely saying that there is a danger that such practices could develop as a way of getting round existing legislation, and the Government will surely accept that if that happened we would have to deal with it. I am registering my concern that some union leaders operate in that way. I think that what I have said demonstrates that my party will approach industrial-relations issues in an objective and balanced manner. When we believe that union power is being abused, we will stand up for either the consumers of the services involved or the employers of whom advantage is being taken. Likewise, when workers' rights are trampled on by arrogant managements who do not wish to consult or participate, we will stand up for the unions' rights.
We do not agree with the Conservatives. We do not consider the Bill contentious, and we think it provides a useful framework for discussion. We will support not just the Bill but the programme motionalthough, as I have told the Government Whip, with the one proviso that we would like to discuss unofficial strikes at an appropriate time.
The Conservatives should consider the position that they have taken. I, certainly, feel able to characterise them not only as anti-EU but as old-fashioned union bashers. I trust that if they take part in the Committee stagewhich presumably they will, if the Bill is given a Second Readingthey will do so in a way that ensures that all parts of the Bill are discussed fully and fairly. That is one reason why I will support the programme motion: an agreed programme ensures that every section of a Bill is debated adequately.
I have been in the House long enough to know what Bills without a programme can suffer from. My argument against guillotines has been against guillotines introduced during a Bill's passage, after a long delay, as a result of which major sections of the Bill go undebated. I need no lectures on opposition from the Conservatives, who are only just coming to terms with it. Once they have been in opposition for 20 years, they will understand the difficulties associated with it.