Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.13 pm

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): As a long-standing and proud member of the Transport and General Workers Union, I have a genuine interest in the debate. I place on the record my public recognition of the Government's progressive and pragmatic approach to employment legislation. I agree in principle with the Bill, although I have one or two minor concerns that I would be happy to take up at a later stage. A number of my Labour colleagues perhaps have some interest—genuine or otherwise—in the speed or direction of the Government's approach to employment legislation, but I am sure that having listened to the speeches of the official Opposition this afternoon, we now recognise what the alternative is. I hope that that concentrates the minds of those Labour Members who think that there is something better out there.

I place on the record my thanks to the many, if not thousands, of shop stewards throughout the UK who depend on legislation such as this to enable them to do the work that they need to do to represent their members. Without the tools, they cannot achieve that.

I want to place on record the fact that the trade unions have kept their integrity, even after the vicious attacks by the last Tory Government. I doubt whether any other organisation in the UK would have survived the attacks that the trade union movement suffered during that period.

The Minister will also be aware that I have been successfully selected to introduce a private Member's Bill: the Gangmasters (Licensing) Bill, which deals with agricultural workers. Although the Government have made good progress in introducing effective employment legislation, I hope that that vein will

14 Jan 2004 : Column 913

continue with that private Member's Bill. Gangmasters take the word "exploitation" to the extreme, as health and safety is ignored, there is a no national minimum wage, tax evasion is the norm and people can be evicted from their homes without any reason whatsoever. That applies not only to indigenous workers, but to migrant workers, who are absolutely exploited. I know from my own research that Opposition Members' constituents have contacted them about the role and concept of gangmasters. Although I seek the Government's support in that private Member's Bill, I sincerely hope that I will also secure the support of the Opposition parties.

I am conscious of the time, so I want to make two final points. First, I have already raised the question of agency workers with the Minister, so he knows my views on them. A large company in my constituency has merely transformed all its employees into agency workers. It did nothing wrong; it was simply following the competitive edge of the industry. In effect, that is like an irresponsible adult getting someone else to babysit for their children. That is wrong; it is a misuse of agency workers, and it should be legislated against.

I have some difficulties with the 40 per cent. rule in relation to recruitment. The TGWU has been active in recruitment, and I know how difficult it is to try to recruit workers, particularly with the existing barriers.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce)—unfortunately, he is not here now—spoke warmly about works councils in the workplace. I can tell him, quite categorically, that works councils are sometimes necessary, but they are absolutely no substitute for independent trade unions.

In conclusion, I welcome the Bill, although there are one or two jaggy bits, which I have difficulty with, but I am happy to discuss them at a later stage.

6.17 pm

Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this late stage.

I am pleased that this Labour Government are building on the Employment Relations Act 1999, after a wide-ranging review influenced by the unions and employers. That review took place against a background of the lowest unemployment figures since 1975. In my constituency, for example, the unemployment rate is now 1.5 per cent. That contrasts, nationally, with the 3 million people who were unemployed under the Conservatives. Now that we have got the highest ever number of people in work—some 28 million-plus—we need to look constructively at ways in which we can positively support them, and the Bill should be judged in that light.

The TUC has welcomed several changes to the 1999 Act, and many of my hon. Friends and I share its view. For example, on union recognition, it views positively the fact that the Central Arbitration Committee will be given more powers to speed up recognition claims and introduce more clarity on how that procedure operates.

As many hon. Members have said already, the Bill will change the law to reflect the ECHR's so-called Wilson and Palmer judgment, by establishing a positive

14 Jan 2004 : Column 914

right for union members to gain access to the services of their union and, while accepting that employers can offer individualised contracts with workers, they cannot require people to give up their union representation as a precondition to that offer—a very important point.

Another important issue is the right of workers to be accompanied. I know of the tremendous importance of that from dealing with many constituents over the past few years. Previously, an employee could ask a union representative to attend grievance or disciplinary proceedings, but that union rep had no legal right to speak.

The Bill will give, at long last, union reps the right to contribute fully to the process. The measure will be widely welcomed, as it was by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight).

I am pleased that the Bill will strengthen the enforcement of national minimum wage legislation. I have read that information picked up from employment tribunal hearings on other matters may be used by the Inland Revenue to prosecute employers for breaching such legislation. I put on record my support for widening minimum wage legislation so that it covers 16 and 17-year-olds.

Like the TUC, I welcome the fact that the Bill will give the Government powers to transpose the EU directive on information and consultation into regulations. Employees will at long last gain the right to be consulted on important decisions and to access information that could directly affect their working lives. It is good that the Minister for Employment Relations, Competition and Consumers has said that he wants a no-surprise culture to be introduced to industry, despite the fact that several Conservative Members derided him for that.

The Government's approach on the Bill could be summed up by a memorable quote from the former head of the TUC, Vic Feather—older hon. Members will remember him. He said that industrial relations are like sexual relations; they are better between two consenting parties—I always wondered why he had a twinkle in his eye. The Conservative party's stance is different from that of the Government because it clearly wishes to reverse trade union legislation and sees little value in partnerships in the work place. Conservative Members describe the Bill as nannying, interfering and meddling, so we have a strong indication of the way in which they are heading. After hearing the drift of those who have spoken, I have no doubt that if they were given the chance, they would undermine maternity and paternity rights, the minimum wage and paid holidays.

My reservations about the Bill are rooted on a totally different approach from that of the Conservative party. I join with several Labour Members in saying that a few key aspects of the Bill do not go far enough to help us to build better protection for working people. It is accepted by many of my colleagues that its chief omission is represented by the fact that it will deny recognition rights to the 6 million employees who work in companies that employ fewer than 20 people. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) made his case on that well.

The Government propose to stipulate that the core bargaining topics for the purpose of statutory recognition should not include pensions. They have rejected the option of including training and equality as

14 Jan 2004 : Column 915

topics. I agree with people such as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), who put his point strongly, who take the view that we are missing a golden opportunity to change attitudes on those three matters. Given working people's massive concern about pensions, I would be pleased if the Minister told us that there might be movement on that.

I share most of my colleagues' views that the 40 per cent. figure. for a recognition ballot is too high. We also need to consider the practice of importing US-style union-busting consultants and of using fair practice in labour law, so I was pleased by several of the Secretary of State's comments in her opening statement. On extreme right-wing infiltration of unions, many of us want amendments to be moved in Committee to provide that unions will be given the means not to recruit fascists and to expel them from membership. Fascist organisations, whatever name they go under, are dedicated to a world view that denigrates many ordinary trade union members. Their philosophy and practices are totally opposed to those of trade unions, which try to promote the interests of all their members regardless of race, creed or colour. Unions should thus be able to expel people who join merely to undermine their central tenets, so I hope that the Government will respond to that.

I am convinced that the Bill will not be the final word because the world of work is dynamic and changing conflicts are always present in it. We will therefore be returning to these matters in legislation, and certainly while we have a Labour Government, they will receive positive consideration.

I have been convinced, just by experiences with constituents over the past few months, that there is a great need to protect people at work. A high-tech firm in Leeds has weekly staff meetings at which anybody who has not met their target has to stand up on a table and explain themselves to the rest of the company—this is in 2004. Unfortunately, my local Co-op has sold the bakery part of its business without informing the workers, many of whom have given years of service to the firm. Many of my constituents work at the Norsk Hydro engineering plant in Leeds, which is partly owned by a Norwegian company. Those workers were left in the dark for months, demoralised by stories that the plant was to shut, and they had to look in local editions of the Yorkshire Evening Post for confirmation that their jobs had disappeared.

A local shop worker said that because her company views her as "staff" she is expected to work up to 10 hours a week without pay for those hours, which means that over the working week she is effectively paid less than £3 an hour. Workers have also, certainly in my constituency, faced the loss of call centre jobs to India. I welcome the recent ContactBabel report and its central finding that the cost savings from moving offshore can be outweighed by the loss of frustrated customers. That will make employers in call centres such as those in Leeds think again.

The Government want to ensure stability, security and dignity for people at work, which is what they should be all about, and if the Bill helps to deliver that, it will have the wholehearted support of Members, certainly on this side of the House.

14 Jan 2004 : Column 916

Next Section

IndexHome Page