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Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman makes some of my case for me. We now accept the fact that the vast majority of companies operate a satisfactory information and consultation process in some form or other. But many companies, particularly small ones, do not have the bureaucratic structure that he describes. I accept that large companies with human resource directors may well have such a structure, but the vast majority of new, smaller and growing businesses will not, so the regulation will constitute a particular burden for them. I know that the CBI and the Institute of Directors do not object to many parts of the Bill, but that reminds me of the person who expects a two-year prison sentence but is given a two-year conditional discharge. The regulations that will flow from the Bill will be particularly damaging to British industry.

It is disappointing that we did not have a debate on the clergy, given that the Bill contains an interesting provision in that respect. I do not know whether the Minister will have time to discuss that issue. I was rather hoping that the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) might have taken part in such a debate, given his former interest in the issue. I was fascinated to discover that the courts had ruled that clergymen serve God and their congregations but have no terrestrial employer.

If they are designated and given rights by the Government, perhaps what we mentioned earlier should apply to Members of Parliament, too. That would be interesting. The case of the Bishop of Reading who, as everyone knows, had to resign because of the fuss, is also interesting. Under the Bill, it could end up as an employment tribunal case. That would bring about a fascinating debate that would considerably exercise the Church of England.

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The Secretary of State referred to the infiltration of British National party activists into trade unions. I do not want to be misquoted. In common with every hon. Member, I object to that party, but I find some aspects of the issue baffling and hope that the Minister can explain them. The Secretary of State made a speech on that subject to the Labour party conference in September. Why, then, could we not have something in the Bill to deal with it, rather than a promise of amendments in Committee? I have some concerns about the issue, because it is difficult to draft legislation that defines someone as a racist, irrespective of whether it can be determined that they are a member of the BNP. How could such legislation work? Some people could be kept out of the unions for wrong and false reasons.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Briefly, the hon. Gentleman makes a point that it is vital to debate. The measure is not built into the Bill because we are still reflecting on how to get the detail right. It is not about political party membership, but the activities of an individual within a particular political party.

Mr. Atkinson: I appreciate that it must be difficult to draft the provision, but the concern remains that the legislation, though desirable, could be abused by people who wanted to keep someone out of the union because he did not agree with a particular part of union policy. We await the provisions in Committee.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate tonight. I shall willingly vote against the Bill, because it is substantially unnecessary and I fear that it will begin to destroy the competitiveness of British business and industry once again. As in the case of Coats Viyella, that will continue to cost jobs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Before I call the next hon. Member, I can tell the House that five hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. We do not have a great deal of time left, but if contributions can be reasonably brief, hon. Members who want to will have an opportunity to address the House. I call Jon Cruddas.

5.52 pm

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): I shall keep my comments as brief as possible so that other hon. Members can make a contribution.

I support the Bill and wish to raise some points that might be debated in more detail in Committee. As we know, the Government agreed to review any subsequent legislation when the "Fairness at Work" White Paper was first published in 1998. In February last year, the Government stated that the review would be for the purposes of making "operational" changes to some aspects of the Employment Relations Act 1999, but they were not persuaded of the need for major changes to it. Neither would the review cover areas of labour law over and above those contained in the 1999Act.

My first point—I hope that the Government will accept it—is that the review and Bill should not necessarily conclude the agenda of fairness at work for the Government. My second and related point is that there seems to remain intact an assumption that the framework established in the fairness at work

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discussions prior to publication of the White Paper should not change. Many in the labour movement will view that as a disappointing response from the Government in respect, for example, of the small firms' opt-out, the eight weeks issue and the 40 per cent. ballot thresholds for statutory recognition procedures.

On the substance of the Bill, several significant improvements are made over what was enacted in 1999, such as the tidying up of elements surrounding the statutory recognition procedure; the reduction of the 20-day period for negotiating the bargaining unit when there is failure to agree; and the top-up recognition procedure whereby the union should have access to the statutory procedure to cover the core topics of pay, hours and holidays in a voluntary agreement. Other improvements include the changes to the minimum wage enforcement procedures and to the law on industrial action to ensure that the courts can disregard accidental failure to meet legislative requirements. I welcome all those changes.

Furthermore, I welcome changes to the right to accompaniment, which other hon. Members have mentioned.

Clause 27 would improve the current provision by allowing the companion to contribute throughout the meeting. It addresses some of the slippage on this proposal between the publication of the "Fairness at Work" White Paper and the publication and passage of the 1999 Act. That limited the role of what was initially conceived as a representative function to that of a companion with limited advocacy powers. Again, I very much welcome the proposal in the Bill.

On the dismissal of striking workers, clause 21 would provide for "locked-out" days to be disregarded when determining the length of period. However, workers on legitimate industrial action will still not be protected after eight weeks. The eight-weeks rule was a compromise between those who argued for a suspension of the contract of employment during legitimate industrial action, and those who wanted there to be less protection. I have always argued that protection against unfair dismissal should be afforded to those on a legitimate trade dispute—for example, one involving the suspension of the contract of employment.

Proposed new section 145B would give a new right to a worker who is a member of an independent trade union that is recognised not to have an offer made to him whose objective is to ensure that his terms will no longer be determined by a collective agreement with the union. Again, that development is to be welcomed. It arises from the European Court of Human Rights judgment on the Wilson and Palmer cases.

The Government's response to the review states:


Clause 23 introduces a new set of provisions prohibiting inducements that have the sole or main purpose of persuading workers to relinquish union rights, or rights secured in collective agreements. Those rights not to be discriminated against are to be welcomed, but I do not understand why the spirit of the judgment in the Wilson and Palmer cases is not extended when considering trade union recognition.

Paragraph 48 of that judgment stated that, under UK law, it was

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Arguably, the judgment should also cover the process of trade union recognition.

Other hon. Members have referred to some of the issues at stake. I shall list some of the matters that have been reported to me and to others and presented to the Government in the review. They include placing workers under surveillance as they walk past organisers both in the workplace and outside it; using threats of closure or relocation as a consequence of recognition; dismissing union members or declaring their jobs redundant; intimidating workers on a one-to-one basis; threatening detrimental treatment, such as the withdrawal of benefits, or refusing to promote union members; offering wage increases outside the normal wage round during the recognition procedure; preventing union representatives from approaching or recruiting workers in rest breaks or off the premises; asking workers how they intend to vote; stating that the company will not deal with a union; visiting the homes of workers; and contacting them in relation to the union campaign.

The remedies available through employment tribunals are brought to bear too late, as the damage to the union's case has already been done during the recognition process. The code of practice does not specifically preclude the practices that I have listed.

Given those activities, and article 11 of the European convention on human rights, I do not understand why the Government do not seek to put into the code of practice an unfair labour practices clause. Why have we not stated that such tactics are deemed unfavourable because they restrain trade unions' ability to protect their members' interests in line with what we understand the convention to mean? The primary legislation could state that, once an application to the Central Arbitration Committee has been accepted, practices designated to be unfair, which would be set out in a revised code, would simply not be allowed. When the CAC found that the employer had engaged in a specified unfair labour practice, recognition could be granted automatically.

The Government response to the review, on page 30, states:


The evidence suggests that this problem will not go away, as companies import US-style union-busting consultancies to threaten and intimidate workers away from supporting union campaigns for recognition. I am surprised that such initiatives are not contained in the Bill.

Overall, the Bill is another building block in the bid to secure fairness at work. I commend the work of Ministers and the Government to date.


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