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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

4.58 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): This Second Reading debate has been interesting in defining not just attitudes to the Bill, but the wider attitudes of different parties to progressive legislation generally.

I wish to commemorate the fact that Norberto Bobbio died this week. People will know him as one of the most significant political philosophers in Europe of the past 50 years. In reaction to the development of fascism in Italy and Stalinism in Russia, he raised the importance of building civil society and the institutions of civil society—pluralist institutions based on rights in law.

He identified a key element by defining trade unions as the bastions of civil liberties. Interestingly enough, he defined the difference between right and left. He said that the right always wanted to increase inequality, while the left always wanted to increase equality. He also said that the left always defined its freedom by way of rights, while the right always defined its freedom by way of the market. That definition is interesting because it describes our debate. When the Government published their White Paper on fairness in work in 1998, they clearly put themselves on the path that Bobbio identified for the left: defining freedom by way of rights by re-establishing trade union rights.

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I shall briefly talk about five rights. Although I welcome the Government's Bill, White Paper and approach on defining the strength of civil society through creating trade unions on the basis of legal rights, I am anxious about the timidity of their approach because it does not go far or fast enough in several areas.

The first right that I shall discuss is the right to strike. I repeat that our greatest failure is not embodying the right to strike in legislation. We are one of the few European countries with no legal right to strike. All that we provide is a form of legal protection against breach of contract, but that is provided for only eight weeks. The decision to provide that protection for only a limited eight-week period was bizarre and arbitrary.

Hon. Members and trade unionists are not the only people who have drawn attention to those problems because this country is condemned for them fairly consistently. In June 2003, we were condemned by the supervisory body of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for not embodying in law the right to withdraw labour, which the International Labour Organisation always defined as a basic human right. The Council of Europe's European Committee of Social Rights again condemned us for providing inadequate protection against dismissal because of the eight-week rule. We need a debate on how we go forward to embody the right to withdraw labour basically and fundamentally in British law; otherwise we will return to the matter time and again. The time period could be eight or 10 weeks without the lock-out, but we must reflect the reality of what goes on in the world: people demand rights that are firm and clear.

When we considered the Bill that became the Fire Services Act 2003, we pointed out that by not embodying the right to strike in legislation, we made workers vulnerable to legal action against them and their trade unions if they took industrial action that had an impact on the performance of a statutory duty. The Bill does not clarify the situation, although I am sure that Baroness Turner, Lord Wedderburn and other Members of the other place will try to amend the Bill to enable that to happen.

The Bill attempts to address how we seek to frustrate the implementation of the way in which people may withdraw their labour. In the past, that has been brought about through a bizarre and cumulatively awkward process of holding ballots and giving detailed information to employers. The problem is not the principle of ballots, but the nature of the hurdles that must be overcome that exist to frustrate the will of people who wish to withdraw their labour. Many unions have expressed the view that although the Bill is an attempt to improve the situation, it might well make it worse, especially with regard to the categories of information that will still have to be provided to employers. I hope that hon. Members will examine that matter in Committee.

The second right that I shall mention is the right to recognition. I support hon. Members who said that the arbitrary decision to define a firm to which the right will apply as one with 21 or more employees—given the

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processes in existing legislation—is extraordinary. In my area, as in most areas, the worst firms can often be the smaller firms.

It is in those firms that the black economy is thriving and illegal workers are exploited and mistreated, and fail to gain recognition rights. I hope that we can consider a solution to that problem. If the measure would be a burden on the employer, let us look at how we can overcome that burden by granting tax concessions or linking some of the cost elements to the individual company's profit rate so that the burden is fairly shared.

The third right is the right to be treated fairly and not be discriminated against just because one is a member of a trade union. The Employment Rights Act 1999 made a breakthrough when it outlawed the blacklisting of trade unionists. However, the regulations on blacklisting have not yet been published, and I would welcome an indication of the timetable not only for publication, discussion and debate but for implementation. Blacklisting still happens, not often I hope, and it can destroy not only people's livelihoods but their whole lives. It is a form of discrimination that we should outlaw.

I am pleased that we are addressing the issues raised by the Ullswater amendment and the Wilson and Palmer cases, but I am extremely concerned that no matter how we seek to protect the individual worker against discrimination based on membership of a trade union, the phrase "sole or main purpose" in clause 23 sets too high a test for us to enforce the rights of trade union membership in law, and I urge those Members who will be on the Standing Committee to consider whether those words could be deleted.

Much has been said about including pensions in the core bargaining remit, and I fully support that. However, I suggest that if we are to end discrimination and ensure that people are treated fairly, we should also include equality issues, particularly as they relate to access to training, improvement in one's working conditions and access to promotion, which has impacted on women in particular.

The fourth right is one that has been raised in the past, and that is the right of protection in pursuit of employment. This applies to specific areas, one of which is journalism. A number of journalists, in undertaking their professional work, now run the risk of legal action that could impose heavy financial and other punishments on them because they refuse to name their sources. I would welcome consideration of that matter with a view to tackling it in the Bill, because it is an issue of employment rights.

Finally, the fifth right is the right to consultation. This strikes at the timidity of our approach: I do not want the right to consultation; I want the right to have a say. I want workers to have the right to influence the direction of their company. I regret that we have stepped back from the discussion of industrial democracy that went on for so long in the history of the Labour party and trade union movement. I welcome the European directive on consultation, although I regret that it has taken us so long to implement it. The Bill does not set up workers councils, and I would like it to do so. Those workers councils should have the right not only to be consulted but to express a view that is taken into

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account in planning the direction of the company, particularly in those public sectors that have been privatised and turned into agencies. I want the Government to go further.

I welcome this rights-based approach. I urge the Government to consider the work done by the Institute of Employment Rights for the charter of workers rights and by the TUC for its document, "Modern Rights for Modern Workplaces". That is the approach that we now need to take; those are the next steps. I would welcome a consolidated employment rights Act. The charter of workers rights calls for rights embodied in law that ensure, first, dignity and fair terms in employment. Secondly, there should be a more comprehensive health and safety commitment. Thirdly, every worker should have the right not to be discriminated against and to be treated with equality in equivalent circumstances.

The fourth right is job security. We need to go much further in ensuring that every worker has the right to security of employment, whether in relation to closures, redundancies, transfers or otherwise. Workers have a right to security in their long-term future and, as we have said before, in respect of the deferred wages that they have invested in pensions. The fifth right in a charter of workers rights is the right to income security. Every worker should have the right to a fair income and security in retirement, sickness and unemployment. That requires a dramatic improvement in the minimum wage and its extension to younger workers.

Further rights include the right to union membership and the right to union autonomy. Some of that will hopefully be enacted through the Bill, which removes some interference by the state in union operation, but we need to go further. Other rights are the right to industrial action, the right to full union representation and the right to effective remedies. Too many of us are still dealing with cases through industrial tribunals, where the rights of those who have been aggrieved are frustrated by delays and compensated inadequately. We have not yet provided effective remedies in all cases.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. It is the next step but I look forward to a more courageous approach.

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