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John Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the success rate achieved by people attempting to secure fairness from firms that employ lawyers at great cost is very low? Only about 2 per cent. of industrial tribunals are successful, even though the workers involved have lost everything. The hon. Gentleman makes it sound as though every industrial tribunal case wins compensation. That is not true. What are people supposed to do to get representation against firms? The only organisations that can provide that in a collective way are trade unions. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that bad employers exist?

Derek Conway: I fully accept that bad employers exist, but some employees are pretty wicked as well. The world is not made of good guys and bad guys. Many people like to go for the 10-card trick. Everyone takes a stance on these matters.

The organisation that I took over had a tradition of settling every dispute. I decided that that would not happen any more. The personnel department—the title has now changed to human resources department—and the lawyers were responsible for getting matters right, but we were no longer going to send out the signal that we could always be rolled over.

Some cases are genuine, however, and hon. Members come across them all the time. I am involved in a case at the moment, in which I think that my constituent was given a very rough ride by the local authority—not my own authority—for which she works. It is not always a case of black and white, good or bad: that is not how things work.

Many employers are subject to vexatious employment tribunal cases. Giving evidence to such a tribunal is never a happy experience, but it is better than appearing before a proper court of law. Employment tribunal chairmen tend to help claimants as much as they possibly can, especially if the person defending the action is sitting with a battery of lawyers and advisers. I do not accept that the process is as one-sided now as it used to be.

Big organisations that can afford the support mechanism of personnel officers and lawyers consider employment tribunals an irritant. Tribunals are part of the budget process, and allowance is made for them. Managers try to avoid them, but they can handle them. For small companies, tribunals can be dynamite. Those hon. Members with extreme opinions on these matters sometimes lose sight of their effect on small employers and companies.

The Bill, in its entirety, is not a bad one. I do not think that any Opposition Member has claimed that it is, and the Government will no doubt succeed in getting it through the House, although it may be amended in Standing Committee.

Some of its provisions are good. For example, the provision for an accompanying person at a disciplinary hearing is welcome. Good employers allow that, because employees facing a hearing can be scared and emotional—although some are cocky—and it is not pleasant to have to conduct such occasions. Employers

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and managers do not like such hearings. Some perverse creatures may get a kick out of it, but most normal people do not find exercising such discipline enjoyable. It is not enjoyable for the victim, certainly, but nor is it any fun for the manager involved.

I am especially concerned about the provisions on the information and consultation process, which other hon. Members have mentioned in connection with the EU directive. The culture in continental Europe is very different, as hon. Members, whether Europhiles or Europhobes, will agree. One of the big changes in recent political history is the fact that the Labour party has embraced and understood the concept that we trade in a world environment, which means that a ring of steel around the UK—or around Europe, as the French would like—would not wash in the modern world. It is a welcome development for the health of the economy that the major political parties now recognise that.

Consulting and informing a work force is not always straightforward or easy. We have complicated guidelines on redundancy, and employers have to follow them or they will be in difficulty subsequently with employment tribunals. Most good employers get it right so as not to face those penalties, but the directive—when fully in force—will have an overriding impact on that.

The directive will be fully in force by 2008 for firms with as few as 20 employees and it will be a considerable burden for firms of that size. When one runs a business with 20 employees, and a concomitant budget, it is hard to throw around cash on lawyers and human resources officers. Such expenditure becomes very significant for small and growing companies. The 20-employee limit—even if it will not be introduced until 2008—is far too low.

The problem is the scale of the burden. Professor Sissons of Warwick university, whom the Library has helpfully quoted extensively, has estimated that 75 per cent. of the British work force will be covered by the provision, but that only a small minority of companies will be "evenly remotely" able to match the directive's requirements. This debate is not frivolous: it will have a real impact on businesses. They will have to make these provisions work or face substantial penalties. The Bill will have a resonance for the employment community, but it may not have the impact that the Government intend.

We need a balanced approach. Many Conservatives now realise that not all employers are angels and not all trade unions are devils. We will not return to the days of Charles Dickens for reasons of international competition, but also—I hope—for reasons of decency. We must accept that we have a more mobile work force and that some things need to change. I welcome the fact that the clergy will be brought within the scope of employment law. I do not know whether Members of Parliament and Ministers will ever be brought into its scope, so that after every reshuffle we could have a raft of employment tribunals to see whether the Prime Minister was right to wield the axe. I felt pretty sore after the 1997 election and I would not have minded taking my chance on a court deciding whether I had been an effective Member of Parliament before I was unceremoniously sacked without consultation and without representation—and with very little redundancy pay. Vicars will be welcomed warmly into

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the fold and there may still be room for Members of Parliament and Ministers, although I doubt that public demand for that would be very high.

The Bill will progress, although I suspect that my Front-Bench colleagues will give Ministers a run for their money in Committee as they hammer out the issues of concern. I urge the House to be mindful of the fact that not all employers are devils and not all employees are angels, and that the Bill's impact will unquestionably be a yet heavier burden, especially on small employers who are least able to cope and who do not have the support mechanisms that the big companies and the unions can deploy in their arguments.

On balance, although the Bill is not bad, it is not desperately needed. If it did not progress to Committee, that would not be the worse thing the House has ever done.

4.45 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): First, I declare my interests. I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, which gives money to my constituency Labour party and I am chair of the TGWU group of Labour MPs. My constituency party also receives money from Thompsons, the trade union solicitors. I hope that covers all the bases.

In some ways the Bill is boring, because it is so technical, but it is also important, like the speech of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who opened for the Opposition. My goodness, he was boring but his speech was quite important—as were the speeches of his hon. Friends. For example, the hon. Gentleman pointed out that the Institute of Directors had found that 85 per cent. of firms have already set up mechanisms for staff communication. Great. If that is true, they will not have a problem with the information and consultation directive.

The hon. Gentleman was strangely evasive about the figures on employment growth, which show that there are 1.7 million more jobs under the Labour Government. He said that he could not obtain the figures from the Government to disaggregate them, yet he asserted that there were thousands and thousands of non-productive, non-front-line public sector workers. He produced no actual figures—because he said he could not disaggregate them; that was a mere assertion that was not backed up at all.

The thrust of the hon. Gentleman's speech and some of those made by his hon. Friends was about the whole regulatory environment. That is why his speech and that of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) were important. The Conservative approach to regulation, whether on the labour force or on other aspects of our economy and our society, has clearly switched; the Conservatives have been caught too many times by people such as me, who ask them what they would get rid of, and they cannot tell us. We now hear—as we did clearly from the hon. Member for Huntingdon—that the process is cumulative. When my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) asked the hon. Gentleman what he would get rid of, he said, in effect, "Ah no, it's only cumulative". What an evasive reply.

That approach is typical of Conservative Members. The same thing happened on two separate occasions when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow,

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Cathcart (Mr. Harris) and I put questions on the subject to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was the shadow Chancellor. He was talking about red tape and regulations and kindly took interventions from my hon. Friend and me. We asked him to name three regulations that he would get rid of. He could not do so when I intervened, but he was a little wiser when my hon. Friend put his question and gave one example of regulation. However, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made her closing remarks in that debate, she pointed out that the regulation that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wanted to get rid of abolished seven regulations, so the Government were simplifying the situation. His response was evasive. That is making up policy on the hoof and it is not good enough.


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