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Rob Marris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham: I shall not because we want the Minister to answer many points when he winds up.

Surely the Minister can perceive the link between the figures and the extra burdens that the Government continue to impose on business. Our competitive advantage is constantly eroded. Is it surprising that our productivity growth has halved under the Government? One has to ask why. The answer is that increasing burdens and regulations are placed on business. The tidal wave of regulation must be stopped.

The current balance of power between business and the trade unions is about right. It is not the right time to put further burdens on business. Now is not the time to increase the likelihood of days being lost through strike action. In 1997, 235,000 working days were lost in stoppages. By 1999, that figure had increased to 499,000. Last year, 1.3 million working days were lost through stoppages and industrial action.

Of course, some tidying up of legislation was necessary. That would have been justifiable in the light of the two court cases. Surely the Government should have taken on board the warning of Lord Sainsbury of Turville. When he considered the information and consultation directive, he made it clear that:

We strongly believe that the Government have failed to grasp the concept that the best way in which to achieve best practice is through working with business rather than imposing further burdens. I repeat the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury that we need to build on the trust and respect between employees and employers that is created through communication, leadership and the right climate at work. It is more in sorrow than in anger that I urge my

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hon. Friends to vote against the Bill. It represents yet another measure—albeit not hugely significant—that will destroy wealth and jobs rather than create them.

6.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): We have had an interesting debate on an important subject. My trade union history and life is well known and registered with the appropriate bodies. I am proud of my background.

I am grateful for the contributions and I shall do my best in the time available to answer many of the points. If I cannot do that now, I shall write to hon. Members about the detail because some technical points have been raised. However, I shall endeavour to deal with some matters in the short time that we have left. The debate has set clear political dividing lines between a party that remains in the past and tries to fight the battles of the past and a Government who look to the country's future. We recognise where we are and how we must operate in the country's interests.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined the Bill's principles. We believe that successful, high-performing workplaces are founded on partnerships between employers, workers and their representatives. The way in which companies deal with their workers is fundamental to their success. The close engagement of the work force in running the business and a no-surprises culture at work translates into a more motivated and productive workplace.

Involvement at work helps to make staff feel valued and encourages commitment. That is why, so far as I am concerned, the key element of the Bill is the power to make regulations on information and consultation, implementing a framework agreement concluded by the CBI and the TUC. That was a landmark agreement which I hope will change the culture of industrial relations in this country.

We know that we must take employers, workers and trade unions with us if we are to realise our vision of employment relations for the future. Our policies must strike a balance between legitimate competing interests if they are to work. We have therefore been at pains to consult on these measures in advance. We do not want to impose burdensome or unworkable solutions, and we believe that we have got the balance right. The Bill will build on our achievements by making improvements to existing rights and protections for workers while respecting the necessary flexibilities. I am not in favour of tick-box legislation. We cannot just tick boxes and say, "That's it." These things have to work.

The Employment Relations Act 1999 was a milestone of our first term in office. In it, we created a new framework of individual and collective employment rights. The Act also combined a new set of family-friendly measures, which we have built on subsequently, and we have made the business and employment rights case for implementing those measures. With such a key piece of legislation, it made sense to review its operation at an early stage. When we launched the review of the Act in July 2002, we said that we would implement its recommendations in the lifetime of this Parliament.

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That is what we are now doing; the Bill delivers on that promise. We used the review to assemble all the available evidence on the Act's effects.

Gregory Barker: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. When the Government were looking at the Act and considering what measures they should take, what account did they take of the high rate of unemployment that predominates in the eurozone and of the dramatic fall in productivity growth over the last five years?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I shall come to the Conservatives' Europhobia a little later, if the hon. Gentleman can wait.

The Bill delivers on our promise, as I was saying. We considered all the available evidence on the effect of the Act, and consulted widely from the very start. Many meetings with interested parties were convened by DTI officials and Ministers. We also published a detailed consultation document which set out our initial findings. The review found that the Act was working well. The dire predictions of the Conservatives have not come true. The Act has not led to industrial strife; we continue to enjoy low levels of strike activity. It has not destroyed jobs; employment has in fact grown. About 1.7 million new jobs have been created in the economy. The Act has not impeded business performance. Our labour market flexibility is the envy of other industrialised countries.

Members have raised a number of specific issues on the Bill which I would now like to address. The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) took 51 minutes to say absolutely nothing. He said that there was no point to the Bill. He was very generous in giving way, because he had nothing to say. I think that that set the tone. When he was asked by several of my hon. Friends what he would do about the many terrible abuses of employees by what I can only call the rogue employers that we have heard about, he had nothing to say. He wrung his hands and said that it was terrible, and that he was not here to stand up for rogue employers, yet he would do nothing whatever about those abuses.

We then had a long discussion on the meaning of consultation, and I was quite perplexed by the route that the hon. Gentleman took us down. I know, however, that consultation is about ensuring that employees are involved and valued by the companies in which they work. He quoted selectively from the Federation of Small Businesses and other bodies, but the CBI and the TUC broadly welcome the Bill. They have concerns about the particular issues that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned, and we shall look at those either this evening or in Committee. However, in the framework document on information and consultation, the CBI and the TUC have recognised the need for a culture change in our industrial relations, and I am convinced that we need to move forward together. As the Minister with responsibility for employment relations, I do not want to be the referee between the CBI and the TUC. I want to ensure that we set minimum standards through legislation, while encouraging the good practice that exists in many of our companies and trade unions to develop into a common approach to industrial matters.

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The hon. Gentleman trivialised the issue of consultation. He failed to recognise the need to create a climate of trust in that way. He was also clearly at odds with others on Europe, and what we need to do in that context. The Conservatives must be clear: they must tell the country honestly what they believe. If they want to leave Europe, why do they not stand up and say so? In the European context, we simply want to ensure that Britain leads the way in negotiating and ensuring that the employment rights that come from the European Union are appropriate to British needs—indeed, to United Kingdom needs. We have stood up for employment rights for British workers in that context.

If, as he says, the hon. Gentleman talks to business leaders and others across the range, he must know that they are keen for the UK's position to be enhanced and maintained in the European context. That is why, when I attend EU Council meetings, it is clear to me that employment Ministers from other member states consider the UK model to be the most appropriate. If the Conservatives want to opt out of Europe, they really must stand up and say so.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: We do not want to.

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