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Judy Mallaber: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, as I recall, it took eight sittings to get through clause 1 of the National Minimum Wage Bill because of the opposition of Tory Members who had no interest in discussing its other clauses?
Malcolm Bruce: I am aware of that. As I have been accused of being sanctimoniousthe comment was made from a sedentary positionlet me say that I am perfectly happy to debate on their merits the arguments of the hon. Member for Eddisbury, many of which were fair and constructive. We are entitled to say, however,
I have already made it clear that my criticism of the Government is that they have delayed and stalled too long. They have been too dilatory. They are moving in the right direction, not far enough, and not fast enough, but they will have our wholehearted support.
Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central) (Lab): The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) asked Members to declare their interests. I am delighted to declare that I am a member of the GMB union, secretary of the GMB parliamentary group, and secretary of the trade union group of Labour MPs.
I welcome this Bill, because it is important. Despite the comments by Conservative Front-Bench Members, it is a necessary Bill. It is important to look at the context of any legislation. It is always instructive to listen to what Opposition Front Benchers say. Their approach was much gentler today, but their opposition is still clear. One of the difficulties that we have had with employment legislation over the decadesthe hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) raised the issue when he talked about the ebb and flowand part of the history of this legislation is that the previous Conservative Government legislated against the trade union movement virtually throughout their 18 years in office. The situation was so bad that they refused even to meet trade union movement representatives. When I spoke to the TUC general secretary in 1996, he told me that he was about to meet for the first time since his appointment the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was responsible for employment. That is a completely blinkered approach.
We suffered from the Conservatives' one-sided approach to industrial relations. As to the legislation passed by this Government, I am firmly of the view that the great majority of it was absolutely necessary, but most of it was simply best practiceit is what should happen in the workplace. Because of the previous Government's neglect and other factors, such as the attitude of employers, we have been forced to introduce good practice into the workplace.
It is important to mark the fact that that process resulted in substantial legislation, which I believe will stand the test of time. Its basic objective was twofold. First, it was to recognise that we wanted a flexible work force, but not flexibility in the sense that the management decide and the work force just accept those decisions. We wanted the work force to be fully taken into account, and we wanted flexibility to be coupled with minimum standards in the workplace. Secondly, it was to provide a process for dispute resolution. Rather than the old system in which either the balance was tipped so far in one direction that the other side felt weakened, or we were in and out of the courts, with industrial disputes and an appalling industrial relations record, we should have a mechanism that can deal sensibly with matters in an adult and mature way. That is what the 1999 Act did. The Government brought a partnership approach to the workplace. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say in her introductory remarks that the information and consultation aspects of the Bill resulted from such a partnership approach. My belief is that we should have that approach in every piece of legislation that affects the workplace. We have not been consistent in that respect, but it is important that we are.
As I said, the Bill is extremely important. It is a tidying-up measure in some respects and a process of learning the benefits of the experience of the 1999 legislation in the work force. However, a number of issues should be highlighted. I have mentioned the information and consultation legislation, and colleagues have mentioned the huge disparity between the rights of workers in this country and in the rest of the EU. It is important that that gap is closed.
I welcome the improvements to the position of trade union officials, who are entitled under the 1999 legislation to accompany a union member in certain circumstances to meetings with management. I am pleased that that will be extended in this legislation to give such officials the right to speak. I never fully appreciated that clear gap in the legislation, so I am pleased to see it addressed. The reversing of the Wilson and Palmer decision led to a situation in which it was open to employers simply to bribe their employees to leave their union and to undermine union work. If those sorts of employers were to spend half that time and half that money sitting down, talking things through, and working in partnership with trade unions, their businesses would be much more effective and better than they are.
I am a lawyer by background, and I have had a great deal of experience of industrial and appeals tribunals. I am conscious that previous legislation talked about "employees". The courts always applied a common law definition of "employee", which in essence meant that the employer had the right to hire and to fire. In many cases, the rights of the employee were undermined. Huge sums were spent on lawyers and accountants in order to find devices to undermine the legislation.
When we drafted the minimum wage and employment relations legislation in 1999, we wanted to close some of those loopholes. Clause 24(2) of the Bill will replace the definition of "a worker", as used in section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I shall be interested to learn what the impact of that change will be in practice. There are various definitions of "worker" in the minimum wage and employment relations legislation, but much of the old legislation still retains the old definition. We need some clarity and consistency. I know that the Government are undertaking an employment status review, and it would be helpful if the Minister could tell us where we stand. Indeed, I became even more confused when I read clause 24(5), which states:
My final point has nothing to do with the Bill. I know that the Government have been reviewing the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 for some time. I hope that, in the not too distant future, they will introduce draft legislation in that regard. The North sea oil and gas industry, which is the main employer in my constituency, has experienced major problems.