Mr. Tynan: The hon. Gentleman indicates that he believes that the proposed legislation on lock-outs is unjust. Would he support a situation in which a lock-out of workers was not accounted strike action?
It was no shock to hear union leaders say recently that the Bill does not go far enough. Labour Members have repeated that today, so let us see how well the Government deal with union pressure during the course of the Bill. We shall wait and watch.
Our jobs are leaving the country, yet we have more employment regulations to stifle business. Industry has had a tough time, yet we see more strikes. The Government get weaker, yet the unions get stronger. Welcome back, old Labour.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill. I welcome the Bill as a necessity; not only does it amend the Employment Relations Act 1999, it includes important clauses in its own right. The 1999 Act marked an epoch in employment and industrial relations law. It was a return to a more balanced and sensible position after two decades of ideological onslaught driven by the Thatcher Government. The 1999 Act and the Bill benefit employees, employers and the economy as a whole. Most importantly, the Bill attempts to marry social justice and economic stability.
The step-by-step approach adopted by the then Conservative Administration was a process that restricted the unions and removed basic protection in biennial Acts of Parliament that created a more divisive workplace. It created a them and us culture within the work force, pitting worker against worker, manager against worker and employee against employer.
It is a popular myth that the Thatcher Government sorted out the unions. It certainly did not assist them during that period, but there were other factors, as close analysis shows. It was not the hostile laws that caused the unions to lose their membership but the failure of the Conservative Administration to manage the economy properly. High unemployment reduced the unions' bargaining powers. The Tories thought high unemployment was a price worth paying. Workers in my constituency, and in the constituencies of other hon.
The Employment Act 1999 redressed the balance and restored dignity to workers. It did so by giving maternity and paternity rights, complementing the European social chapter; by giving basic rights to part-time workersan area often overlooked and for too long ignoredand by prohibiting discrimination against trade unionists and improving collective bargaining units. Importantly, it increased the maximum compensation for unfair dismissal from £12,000 to £50,000a level more in keeping with today's prices; I believe that the figure is now £55,000. The Bill will go a long way towards improving those measures, and the rights of workers, further, and providing protection, including access to union services, for members. It will also improve the consultation on key decisions that impact on the work lives of employees. That is not unnecessary red tape, as some hon. Members have suggested; it will give working people basic dignity.
As the Secretary of State hinted in her opening remarks, the Bill attempts to create a "no surprises" culture. Fellow Members have alerted us to announcements, which we have also seen on our TV screens, of huge job losses throughout the United Kingdom. The public relations managers of the companies have not had the decency to pass on that news to the work force, but have instead run to the TV cameras. We have even seen the obscene situation of employees being sacked by text message.
However, there is much good practice in recent years, with employers and employees engaging in collective bargaining units; I refer to unionised employees in particular. There is more available information, more consultation and more open and honest dialogue between the two parties. In my constituency, the Great Lakes chemical works is faced with possible closure. At least the unions and the works council have had the opportunity to list their concerns and negotiatebut outsourcing to the middle east will probably bring that closure about.
I visit many places where there are decent industrial relations, but history has taught us that the purely voluntary system of industrial relations is problematic. There was strife in the 1960s and 1970s, and chaos in the 1980s and 1990s. I call for a more mature framework for employment laws and a partnership approach, and I believe that, building on the 1999 Act, the Bill goes a long way towards providing that.
Recent history demonstrates that current laws have loopholes and allow unscrupulous employers to exploit them. In an intervention I mentioned Friction Dynamics, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) but also affects workers from my constituency; I co-sponsored an early-day motion with him. Clause 21 will help to redress the situation that was highlighted at that company by extending protective rights, but it does not go far enough. None the less, I welcome that positive move, and congratulate the Government on listening to hon. Members on both sides of the House who conveyed those concerns to them.
I have also been vocal to Ministers about the subsequent action of Friction Dynamics because of the impact that its behaviour has on other companies in the United Kingdom. The company abdicated its responsibility by going into liquidation and trading under another name. Let us not forget, as the Secretary of State pointed out in her opening remarks, that the workers, ably aided by the Transport and General Workers Union, actually won the employment tribunal. The company made a formal appeal but withdrew it and went into liquidation, and as a consequence it owes its workers compensation. It remained on the very same site, trading as another company in another name, yet it has had Government grants, albeit from the National Assembly. I should like to hear the Minister say in her winding-up speech whether, if such circumstances occurred again, and did not come under the umbrella of the National Assembly, the Government would legislate to prevent the payment, or recoup some of that grant money. It is important that taxpayers' money should not be used as it has been used.
The north-west Wales area, which I represent, witnessed at the beginning of the 20th century the great strikes in the quarry areas. I was amazed that at the beginning of the 21st century a similar lock-out took place. I urge the Government once again to introduce measures to stop companies going into liquidation and cynically abandoning their responsibilities. There is a need for social justice for workers such as those who worked for Friction Dynamics.
I will not discuss other clauses in detail because other hon. Members have touched on them, but I welcome the clause on flexible working and the clause on the need to comply with the European directive. As the clause has the word Europe in it, I believe that it is really a tidying-up exercise.
Part 4, on the minimum wage, would bring about an improvement, but I should like to place on record my support for extending the minimum wage to 16 and 17-year-olds and giving them the protection of the law.
I especially welcome part 5, on rights for the clergy. Again, I congratulate the Government on listening to the GMB's campaign on that point, which has been well aired in the House. That demonstrates that the Government are listening to hon. Members in drafting legislation.
I have one concern, however, and it relates to a section of the work force that is not addressed in the Billthose who are employed by agencies, which often hire foreign labour from countries in the EU. Those agents provide travel to this country and accommodation, and they deal with the deductions from the wages of those workers. This is anecdotalI will provide the Minister with this information at a later datebut the TGWU has brought it to my attention that in my constituency, people in those agencies have threatened workers and told them not to talk to the unions, or even union members. Those workers are often employed on low wages in the meat-packing industry. That exploitative labour undermines the collective bargaining units in those workplaces, as well as the whole ethos of the 1999 Actand, indeed, the measures in the Bill.
In conclusion, the Bill has many important aspects. Again, I emphasise the need to deal more firmly with situations such as those that arose during, and in particular after, the tribunal decision on Friction Dynamics. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the exploitation carried out by agencies. Will he meet a delegation from the TGWU, and myself, to consider that matter? I welcome the move towards a more balanced industrial relations package, which has been sadly missing in the past two decades, and to marry that social justice with economic stability. I look forward to supporting the Bill's Second Reading.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Earlier in the debate, in an intervention on my colleague the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) blamed the unemployment of the 19th century on the laissez-faire business practices that then prevailed, and compared it unfavourably with the low unemployment of the managed economy of Britain in the post-war period. Well, if the past is a foreign country, 19th century Britain is well and truly overseas, and for the purposes of the debate there is little use in visiting it for long. However, comparing the Government and their programme, of which the Bill is the latest manifestation, with the managed economy of the 1950s and 1960s serves a useful purpose.
In the '50s and '60s, Britain experienced remarkably low unemploymentalbeit with a much smaller proportion of the work force in work, as women had yet to enjoy the career opportunities that they do today, but nevertheless the comparison holds good. That managed low unemployment was bought at the price of lower productivity and, crucially, lower productivity growth, compared with major economies in Europe, the far east and north America.