Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.59 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Before an Opposition Member jumps up to intervene, may I say that I am proud to be a member of Amicus, which provides financial support to my local party but not to

14 Jan 2004 : Column 909

me? Some allegation was made that unions provide financial support to Members, but that is clearly not the case.

The Government have demonstrated beyond question that decent employment laws and standards can and do go arm in arm with strong and sustainable levels of economic growth. However, we need to do more if we are to build on our success. We need to promote partnership in the workplace and encourage employers and employees to recognise that they share common goals and common aspirations. The biggest challenge facing British industry today is the productivity gap, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out. It is not a new problem, but industry and successive Governments have failed to tackle it effectively. Productivity will be improved only if we dramatically increase the level of training in the workplace. Members of Parliament have spent hours, days and weeks discussing the pros and cons of tuition fees and the future of higher education, but how long have we spent discussing the need for more education and training in the workplace and in industry? Not long.

Most major employers tell a good story about training, but in reality they have done little to improve the level and quality of training in the workplace. Employers would still rather poach skilled and valued employees from other companies than train their own. Why waste one's money training staff when someone else will train them? Unfortunately, an increasing number of employers take that approach and as a result skilled employees are lacking in our work force today. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider what steps can be taken to tackle that serious problem.

I recognise that the option of a training levy, under which all employers of a certain size would be required to train a certain number of people, has gone out of vogue, but it is the only option that would deliver significant change. In saying that, I welcome the Government's recognition of the positive role of trade union learning representatives in the last Employment Bill, because they are making a major contribution to encouraging employees to gain new skills and convincing employers to invest in training for the future success of the company.

The Government have taken a "steady as you go" attitude to employment law reform. Many unions would have liked the Government to move more quickly, but no one can deny that major changes and improvements have been made. Statutory trade union recognition and the minimum wage are achievements to be proud of. I also welcome the inclusion in the Bill of regulations to give the Government power to introduce the EU directive on information and consultation. That change is long overdue.

The fact that Britain has not been covered by the directive has led many to believe—rightly or wrongly—that multinational companies have been encouraged to close their factories and other operations in Britain because doing so is easier, quicker and cheaper than it is on the European mainland. Many of the changes in the Bill modify previous reforms. In a previous life, I worked for the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union—now Amicus—and had the pleasure of dealing with the Central Arbitration Committee

14 Jan 2004 : Column 910

when it was first set up. I doubted whether it would be a successful way to deal with questions of recognition, but in my limited experience—I have talked to colleagues who still deal with that body and to representatives from both sides of industry—it has generally worked well.

Many in the trade union movement—and many hon. Members in the debate—have shared my concern about the 40 per cent. threshold for a yes vote. That hurdle is unfair and one would be hard pressed—as some of my hon. Friends have pointed out—to think of another election in this country that requires such a level for a positive result. People who do not vote are assumed to be against the proposition. As has been said, few Governments or councils would remain in post under such rules. The threshold also encourages some employers to avoid a voluntary or negotiated route to union recognition because they think that the union is unlikely to achieve the threshold. That is not a positive approach.

I am still unclear about the impact of the changes introduced in the eight-week rule. Several Members have mentioned the scandalous treatment of workers at Friction Dynamics and the behaviour of the owner of the company, who went out of his way to circumvent the law when he sacked the work force and reconstituted the company. I am thankful that such examples are rare, but they show the need for legislation that allows for the worst in employment practice while encouraging the best. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider some changes to the eight-week protection period to help workers who face a situation similar to that of the workers at Friction Dynamics?

Since 1997, we have seen an overall increase in the number of recognition agreements in the workplace. The majority of employers have dealt with unions reasonably, although a minority still try to derail recognition by using union-busting firms to provide either incentives or threats to the work force to prevent unions from achieving the necessary level of membership. From my own experience, I know that employees have been encouraged to write letters saying that they do not want a union, and I have heard of threats being issued that a company would be closed if the majority of workers dared to join a union. Although such threats and innuendoes are, by their very nature, rarely detailed in correspondence and are thus difficult to prove, they are clearly contrary to the meaning and intent of the legislation. Will my hon. Friend consider how we can achieve meaningful protection against those employment practices?

My final point is on political fund ballots. We all know why that legislation was introduced: it was nothing but a cynical attempt by the Conservatives to starve the Labour party of support. The legislation backfired badly for them, as, in fact, more funds were set up, but the process remains cumbersome. Indeed, it is a perfect example of the red tape and over-regulation that the Conservatives harp on about. It is high time that that unnecessary bureaucratic process was removed.

6.7 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in support of the Bill. I speak both as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union and as an employer in a small enterprise in the service industry for 10 years before my election in 2001, so I think I speak with experience of both sides.

14 Jan 2004 : Column 911

I welcome the Bill. It is not merely a tidying-up exercise after the review of the Employment Relations Act 1999; it is most important because it implements the information and consultation directive, which will go a long way towards improving working relationships in this country. The Bill contains many other provisions that are sensible, fair and balanced, and will be valuable in helping to encourage a progressive and productive workplace.

That is the core difference between our Government, who believe in a fair and balanced approach to employment relations and workplace rights, and the previous Conservative Government, who introduced successive legislation motivated not by a desire for good employment relations, but in an ideologically driven campaign to undermine trade unions and collective representation at work.

I was dismayed that the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) spent so much time demonising the role of trade unions in our society. Throughout the world, independent and free trade unions are the cornerstone of modern democracy. I welcomed especially the thoughtful comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris). We should not forget that even today people across the world suffer oppression, imprisonment and death for exercising their rights as trade unionists.

Only last year, a close friend who campaigns for Banana Link visited Ecuador with several trade unionists. Just before their arrival at a banana plantation, a gang of thugs employed by the company that owned it had harassed the workers, shooting one of them so badly in the leg that it had to be amputated. The chap was only in his 20s. We should not forget that people are still dying in the fight for trade union rights in the world today.

We should be pleased that we live in a society that recognises the role of trade unions and the very constructive role that they can play in our democracy.

I have a number of concerns regarding practical aspects of the Bill. I would ask the Government, as a number of my colleagues have, to think again, when presenting the regulations, about the effect that the phasing in of the regulations on information and consultation, based on the size of the enterprise, would have particularly on women, ethnic minorities and lower-paid workers. Many people from those categories are employed in small and medium-sized enterprises and, accordingly, the effect of phasing in the regulations could be to leave those already disadvantaged groups less protected than other workers. I seek some reassurance.

That concern has been expressed to me by the Scottish Trades Union Congress, which, although it warmly welcomes the Bill, has asked for a level playing field providing equal recognition rights in small businesses, and the TUC, which has expressed concern about the 6 million workers in companies and firms that employ fewer than 20 people, who will miss out on union recognition rights. It really would be a missed opportunity if the Bill, with all that it has to commend it, were to increase the relative disadvantage of workers who are already the lowest paid or least effectively represented.

14 Jan 2004 : Column 912

The national minimum wage is one of the proudest achievements of this Labour Government. I welcome the measures included in clauses 32 to 34 to improve the operation of the national minimum wage. It delivers more money into the wage packets of our lowest-paid workers, especially among women and ethnic minorities. Last year I was pleased to take part, as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, in an inquiry regarding home workers and the effect of the national minimum wage. This group of people, more than any other in the work force, deserve to be made aware of their rights to qualify and deserve public protection. The inquiry showed clearly that many of these people rarely benefit from union recognition and are particularly vulnerable to the practices of unscrupulous employers. The national minimum wage has helped many low-paid workers, and with further enforcement measures I am sure we can help even more of them. I hope that the Government will continue to strengthen their efforts to protect home workers, and I seek the Minister's assurance that his Department will investigate any further abuses of the home workers industry to ensure that it can benefit from minimum rights.

I am aware of the time, so I shall conclude by saying that the Bill offers a fair and balanced approach. I believe it will assist in creating good relationships between employers and employees, and allow us to work towards a sustainable, more productive economy. I am pleased to support the Bill.

Next Section

IndexHome Page