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4.7 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): As the fashion in today's debate dictates, I declare that I am not a union member, although I have been a member of the National and Local Government Officers Association, a shop steward for the National Union of Public Employees and, most recently, a member of Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru, the Welsh teachers' and lecturers' union.

My party welcomes the proposals, as far as they go, with some reservations. Plaid Cymru has campaigned at all levels of government for the introduction of many of the clauses. We have campaigned in the House of Commons, in Europe and on the picket line, shoulder to shoulder with the Dynamex Friction workers. That dispute has already been mentioned this afternoon. We supported Corus workers who were sacked overnight.

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The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), who is no longer in his place, was not especially familiar with that situation. We also supported workers at Allied Steel and Wire when their pensions were so cruelly taken away.

We are glad that the Government are finally willing to act on concerns that we, hon. Members of other parties and trade unionists have voiced time and again. We have argued that employment relations legislation that is weaker than in the rest of the European Union has meant that it is generally easier and cheaper to close a plant in Wales and the UK than in the rest of Europe. Corus is a case in point when one compares what happened to the steelworkers in Wales and the UK with events in the Netherlands. Recent closures at Corus and ASW should have been covered by European legislation, had the Government acted sooner. The long overdue changes that the Bill introduces mean that such overnight redundancies should not be possible. We are glad about that and workers in Wales and throughout the UK will also be glad about it.

The Bill will prevent lock-outs from counting towards the protected eight-week period during which workers cannot be dismissed—at least, not fairly—simply for going on strike. I want to devote some of my remarks to Dynamex Friction in my constituency.

That change is a testament to the heroic—I use that word advisedly—struggle of the Dynamex Friction workers and their trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union, supported by the people of Caernarfon and people throughout Wales and the UK, as well as trade unionists and others throughout the world who are simply interested in securing justice.

This year, significantly, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Penrhyn quarry strike. For three years, the Bethesda quarrymen were locked out by Lord Penrhyn for refusing to accept poorer working conditions that were to be imposed without negotiation. That resulted in the longest industrial dispute in British industrial history, lasting for more than three years. They were three years of suffering that dispersed families as men left to seek work elsewhere, often going to the pits in south Wales. They were three years that tried the people of Bethesda sorely. That lock-out was an assault on the community, and those workers had to fight for their rights and dignity. They lost that battle and had to return to work with poorer conditions—that is, those who were allowed to return to work. The best and the boldest of them were victimised. Who in this place today would defend Lord Penrhyn's tactics? However, at the time, the course that he took was supported by the law, by the state and by, as we would say, all right-thinking people.

The Dynamex Friction workers have faced the same situation as the quarrymen of the Penrhyn quarry 100 years ago. They were locked out and were on the picket line, come rain, come shine, for 965 days—almost three years, almost as long as in the Penrhyn strike. They were locked out after an imposed settlement from their employer because he, as unprincipled as Lord Penrhyn, tried to violate their rights. He tried to treat them as a thing, an asset to be stripped of value. He thought that he could get away with that with the support of the law, the state and right-thinking people, but he was wrong.

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The Dynamex Friction workers were very reluctant strikers. Most had given decades of service to the previous company. They were striking not for more pay or better conditions, but merely to protect the pay and conditions that they had won over many years and that they deserved for their contribution to the previous company's profitability. They wanted to negotiate with the TGWU, but the employer did not. They went on strike legally for just one week; then he locked them out. Eventually, after two years of waiting, the workers won their industrial tribunal and the employer was proved to have acted unfairly. He appealed but withdrew his appeal on the penultimate day before the hearing was to take place.

In the meantime, the employer reorganised his business and, to no one's surprise, suddenly found that Dynamex Friction was to be put into the hands of the administrators, with more than £8 million of debt. The circumstances surrounding that are the subject of DTI inquiries, and we await an explanation of how one company suddenly became three, two of them being prosperous and having holdings of land and buildings, the other going bust. The one that went bust is, unsurprisingly, the one that owes £2.5 million in compensation to the workers.

No one can be satisfied with the outcome of the dispute. The workers are still waiting for their compensation. Their jobs have gone; they will not be able to return. The best and the boldest workers will not return to the Dynamex Friction plants. The law that allowed that to happen is clearly wrong and must be amended.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for intervening on him, but there might not be time when winding up to give this topic as much attention as it needs. On Dynamex Friction, there are issues other than those covered in the Bill that need to be looked at. He can rest assured that the Secretary of State and I are looking at all of those and that I have reported that to the TGWU and to the Dynamex Friction workers.

Hywel Williams: I am heartened by that information. I have discussed the matter with the DTI myself, but a great many more nefarious activities on the part of that particular employer need proper investigation.

As we have established, the Bill will stop lock-outs counting towards the eight-week period during which staff can be fairly dismissed for striking. Any time after that will constitute an extension. As things stand, any period during which workers are locked out counts as an extension period, day for day, and will be disregarded in the determination of the length of the protected period. That presumably means that the protection could be extended indefinitely if the lock-out were extended indefinitely.

Perhaps the Minister will confirm to me in a letter that when lock-outs occur within the eight-week period the protection will be extended for as long as the lock-outs continue. If a lock-out ends and the strike continues, might the usual period apply? In the case of Dynamex Friction, had the lock-out stopped at week eight would the seven weeks of lock-out have been added, so that at week 15 we would have been back at square one? I see

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the Minister indicating that he will write to me. The danger in this case, of course, is that the employer would have been able to sack the workers not at week eight but, say, at week 15.

The Bill fails to address another issue arising from the Dynamex Friction case, which has already been mentioned. There will still be no protection from unfair dismissal after the workers have been on strike for eight weeks—however reasonable their cause, however dignified their behaviour and however much support they receive from the community. As long as the employer continues to negotiate for the eight-week period, he can sack the workers on the 57th day whatever the nature of their cause.

We in Plaid Cymru have consistently made common cause with the workers of Dynamex Friction and their union, and with members of other political parties who have shown a great willingness to work with us. We are very grateful for that. We have called for the abolition of the eight-week rule, and I now ask the Minister again how a strike can be lawful for 56 days and suddenly become a sackable offence on the 57th. Nothing changed overnight in Caernarfon—apart, that is, from the power granted by legislation to a bad employer who took full advantage of it and sacked workers wrongly. That is the second lesson of the Dynamex Friction dispute, and one that the Government have apparently not yet learnt.

We in Plaid Cymru will support the Bill tonight, but we retain our determination to end the unjust eight-week rule, and our right to table amendments to that end. The workers at Dynamex Friction want that, and their sacrifice demands it.

4.17 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): I expected to hear more union-bashing from the Opposition. What I heard in the very windy speech of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), however, was what we should really have come to expect—an antipathy to the rights and conditions of working people, whom the Opposition still regard as beneath recognition in terms of the structure of society. In fact, I was surprised at that.

I was shocked by what I considered to be outrageous union-bashing on the part of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who attacked members of the Communication Workers Union who went on strike. Those were unofficial strikes. If the hon. Gentleman had taken the trouble to look into the behaviour of management in some parts of the UK where the strikes took place after the ballot—as I did in my capacity as secretary of the parliamentary panel—he would know that the ballot was not on ending negotiations on the pay deal; it was just on refraining from industrial action. The managers took unilateral action, and deeply offended union members by trying to reorganise their workplace as though they had lost all rights.

The hon. Gentleman and I will have to have a talk later. I am sure he will withdraw what he said when he is aware of all the facts. It did sound like union-bashing, though, which is not what I expected from a Liberal Democrat.

This is an excellent day on which to be debating employment issues, because figures have been published showing that 1.7 million more people are employed than

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when we came to office in 1997. As my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) pointed out, most of them are in the private sector. Unemployment is down again: in my constituency, it is below 4 per cent. I do not believe that that has been the case for 25 or 30 years. I am aware of the difference in my constituency. Young men and women in their twenties are no longer hanging around on street corners, because they are in employment.

I was amazed by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who I am sorry to say is not present now, who said that we had a benign economy. We are in the middle of a world recession, and are being attacked on all sides by the cost-cutting that is happening around the world; yet our economy has low unemployment and high employment.

That has not been achieved with the wave of a magic wand, as Gandalf would do in "The Lord of the Rings", although I know that Opposition Members regard the Chancellor as something of a dark lord. In fact, it has been achieved by positive policies: the new deal, which was opposed by the Opposition; low interest rates and low inflation, which were in part brought about by the independence of the Bank of England that was opposed by the Opposition; multiple business incentives, which were welcomed by my small and medium-sized enterprises but opposed by the Opposition; and, of course, the minimum wage, which was opposed by the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) was good enough to mention that I raised the issue of tips and the minimum wage in an early-day motion. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) with members of the Low Pay Commission and enforcement unit staff. Their arguments against immediate introduction of the amendment were so weak that I thought that by now it would be in this Bill. They argued that if we had changed regulation 31(1)(e) to say that tips paid through wages would be excluded from consideration in relation to the minimum wage, someone who received a wage of £5 could write to them saying, "I think I got £1 in tips rather than 40p." That is nonsense.

My proposal, which I hope the Minister will include in the Bill, would remove the enforcement police from the situation. People would know that their wage was £4.60 and that their tips were on top of that. That is important, because 1.8 million workers suffer from that regulation, and it should be changed. It would be a win-win-win situation: a win for the Government; a win for the workers; and a win for the customers, who think that they are giving their tips to the people who serve them, not to the establishment that employs those people. I warn everyone throughout the country not to put their tip on their credit card or on their cheque, as it is put automatically on the wages and is counted towards the minimum wage of the worker.

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