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Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend moves off the subject of the minimum wage, may I raise the issue of who supported the National Minimum Wage Bill in 1997? That was before my time
Mr. Connarty: I am replying to one intervention; I shall take another in a minute. Clearly, SNP Members could not be bothered to get up out of their beds, or stay out of their beds, to come here and vote for the legislation. That will be held against them by every worker in this country.
Mr. Weir: I am sad that the hon. Gentleman brings up that hoary old story again. It is simply not the case. If he looks back, he will find that the Scottish National party supported the National Minimum Wage Bill on Second Reading, and that we served on the Committee. If he wants to look back at who voted on Third Reading, would he like to tell us how the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), who now runs the remains of the Scotland Office, voted? If memory serves, she did not vote on Third Reading either.
On the question of recognition, we heard a speech from one Opposition Member who bemoaned the fact that there had been more than 400 voluntary agreements since the Labour Government came to power. Even with thatand particularly with thatwe have the lowest stoppage level since the 1920s in terms of industrial disputes. I think that there is a correlation there, and it should enthuse people about the idea of voluntary agreements.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) illustrated in his contribution, the exemption of companies with fewer than 20 employees is not tenable, and the Government should examine that. Many small companies welcome trade union membership and use trade unions properly, in terms of co-operation and building a better work force and workplace.
We want a level playing field in respect of recognition. The Government should look seriously at the example of T-Mobile, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson). It is a direct subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which is a totally unionised company. It spent £2 million on bringing in a gang of union-busters from FloridaBurkes, which is also known as the TBG Group.
John Robertson: Does my hon. Friend agree that we should ask why a company such as T-Mobile, in the form of Deutsche Telekom, has union representation in that country but not in this country? Should the Government not look at that issue, so that our workers can get the same rate of pay as those in another country?
Mr. Connarty: I agree. My hon. Friend is a member of Connect, which is not affiliated to any political party. It had a recognition ballot, and was opposed by a company that has total union recognition in its home country of Germany. The Communication Workers UnionI am not a member of it, but my predecessor was, which is why I have a connection with ithas taken a very positive approach to the industry. It ran a "demand broadband" campaign to expand broadband uptake for the good not just of its members, but of the economy. It also ran a "banking on you" campaign to get people to open accounts at the post office, because it recognised the threat that will otherwise exist to the post office network. Yet it was regarded by T-Mobile as a negative influence, even though 70 per cent. of employees had inquired about, or taken up, trade union membership.
The Government also need to look at the issue of pensions. I totally agree that pensions constitute deferred pay. I used to be president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, a regional teachers union. I was disappointed to hear the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) say that he used to be a member of a teachers trade union[Interruption.] He seems not to be listening; perhaps he no longer listens to his union. On entering the House, maintaining a connection with the EIS is easy: one keeps paying the subscription, and it continues to recognise that one is a union member who is interested in the profession.
I am deeply concerned that BP, in contradiction of the recognition agreement, has said that it is about to wind up the pensions consultation councils, from which members of the Transport and General and other unions normally receive information about the pension funds at the centre in London. I have written to BP and I hope that Lord Brown will write back positively and recognise that, in the light of recent scandals, trade unions must be involved and must know through information and consultation what is happening to the pension funds.
We do not want a repetition of circumstances where a company has a problem with a pension fund, but lets the senior executives get redundancy and run off with the pensions. When the firm goes down the tubes, the ordinary workers find that there is no money left in the pension fund to pay their pensions. Under clause 31, information, consultation and accountability should be as strong as possible and stronger than it is in the Bill as drafted. A new directive has been on the statute book for some time and should be implemented.
The Bill should also deal with the exploitation of workers from overseas. My hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan) has been campaigning about gang workers, but not only low-paid work such as agriculture is affected. As its number96/71/ECshows, the posting of workers directive was passed in 1996. It was designed to stop people who came from companies in one EU country into another EU country receiving worse wages and conditions than other employees in the company.
There was a recent scandal, well illustrated by an excellent pamphlet put together by the unions involved and the National Engineering Construction Committee. In "Social-dumping: a crisis in the UK Engineering Construction industry" of November 2003, the TGWU, the GMB and Amicus pointed out that highly skilled and highly qualified workers from Portugal were not receiving the same money or conditions when they come here to work on power stations, for example. Those people are skilled at building power stations for us, but are getting ripped off because the posting of workers directive is not being properly implemented. It is important that we respond to that.
TUPE in private finance initiatives or public-private partnerships was mentioned earlier. Those contracts can greatly benefit local authorities and public services by bringing private finance into them, but we must ensure that levering in such investment does not mean levering out the rights of workers on pay, benefits and pensions. I commend the Government for introducing the Bill, but I urge them to consider such matters further in Committee.
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the Second Reading debate. As the debate has developed, I have noticed that both sides of the House have slipped into almost pre-cold war rhetoric, where anyone on the Labour Benches is a champion of the sons of horny hands and those on the Tory Benches are wicked mill owners wanting to grind the faces of the poor. The position has generally become more diluted these days.
However, part of my dark and distant history was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Forsyth[Interruption.]when he was an employment Minister. That was a time of interesting battles. Listening earlier to some of the north of the border fratricide between the Labour party and the Scottish National party took me back to the Committee stages, during which what Scottish Members wanted to do to my friend, Michael Forsyth, did not bear consideration. He survived, however, and prospers in the other place.
Does the Bill have a particular point? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the clauses that are of concern, the provisions that they would like to make tougher, and what they would like not to be in the Bill at all.
It will make the Committee stage interesting. In my experience, the Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers is not an unreasonable man. His personal demeanour and the expertise of my colleagues on the Front Bench will make it an enlightening Standing Committee. However, I hope that all members of the Committee will bear in mind the Bill's impact on employees as well as on work forces. That matter deserves a little more consideration.
The House will recall that I took an enforced sabbatical from this Chamber, courtesy of the 1997 general election. In that period, I became the chief executive of an organisation with 300 employees. When one is responsible for such a large work force, one is inevitably involved in some pretty serious and unpleasant disciplinary actions. There was partial union representation in that organisation, but it was not 100 per cent. The popular image is that all shop stewards resemble Peter Sellers, but time has moved on. In my experience, people are much more responsible than was the case in the bad old days.
There has been a perceptible shift in the legislation on employee rights. It is sometimes difficult for hon. Members to understand the impact in the workplace of the turgid clauses and black-and-white paragraphs that we pore over, or to realise their effect on people's ability to run organisations and companies effectively.
Reference has been made to the change in compensation levels. At one stage, the usual amount was about £10,000, rising to some £50,000. In the case of some maternity provisions, compensation can continue until the child is 23 years old. Compensation levels could therefore be extremely heavy. That was good news for the people who benefited, but the matter became a festival for lawyers.