Employment Relations Bill

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Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): This part of the Bill is welcome, because it seeks to clarify the companion's role. However, ambiguity still surrounds that role, because he or she can still not answer specific questions on behalf of the employee. That is a waste of time for the employee, his or her companion and indeed the employer.

I have anecdotal evidence of trying to represent an employee at such a hearing. The experience was somewhat frustrating, because every time the employee was asked a specific question, I on his behalf was unable to answer it and a number of adjournments

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had to be called. That was a ridiculous situation, and not one that any decent, progressive employer would want. Therefore, the role of companion should be further clarified. Indeed, I ask the Government to give workers full rights to representation.

I have some concerns about new subsection (2C), as it is somewhat contradictory. It would help if the Minister could explain the rationale behind it, because I believe that it is superfluous and should be deleted.

9.45 am

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare) (LD): I do not see anything negative in the clause—it makes a positive addition to the Bill. If this debate helps the Minister to clarify the issue of views as against questions, all well and good. I disagree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) that the measure will be anything other than helpful in reaching a resolution. Perhaps the worker will feel that they are not on trial if they have support of that nature. It would be helpful to have clarification of those questions in the Minister's response.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, I just point out to the Committee that the amendments are quite specific. I shall call the question on clause stand part later. I am sure that the Minister will understand that.

Mr. Sutcliffe: May I start by apologising for my discourtesy earlier in not welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson, and wishing you good morning? I do that now.

It has been helpful to hear the comments of all the hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. The views of the hon. Member for Huntingdon are, if nothing else, consistent, but I refer him to the Second Reading debate, when the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) expressed his view on the issue and welcomed what the Government are trying to achieve. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked some specific questions. In the spirit of what you said, Mr. Stevenson, I shall try to deal with each of the amendments and explain the motivation for the clause.

Let me begin with the Brethren. I have met them on two occasions to discuss the issue. There is no attempt by the Government to change the fundamental relationship between the employer and the employee. In the spirit of the Bill, the clause is about making things better and more easily understandable.

The amendments concern the role that the companion plays at hearings. The underlying objective of clause 27 is to clarify the entitlement of companions to contribute to hearings and to ensure that they can play a more active role at such key meetings. That will benefit everyone. The worker will gain because companions may be better able to put the case. They are less emotionally involved than the worker. Many trade union officials say that companions may be more practised at expressing themselves clearly. They may bring to the hearing expertise drawn from similar experiences in other cases. As a result, the worker's case will be put more dispassionately and succinctly.

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The employer stands to benefit as well. The main purpose of hearings is to find a practical resolution to a problem. Sometimes, those who are close to an issue cannot see all the solutions. Companions can help by suggesting alternatives drawn from other experiences. In other words, their general experience of problem solving can help both parties sort out their immediate difficulties.

I believe that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk, who was charming, as usual, understands and sympathises with the approach. His amendments seek to probe the extent of the entitlement of companions to speak. He is concerned about excessively widening their role, thereby making matters worse.

Let me start with amendment No. 51, which would prevent the companion from speaking at hearings until he has been invited to do so by the worker. Companions would not be entitled to interject on their own initiative. On each occasion when they might wish to speak—there could be many such occasions in complicated cases—they would need to ensure that the worker first invited them to do so. That sounds rather clumsy and inflexible and might well delay the proceedings.

New subsection (2C) already achieves much the same effect but does so in a more user-friendly way. It ensures in paragraph (b) that the companion cannot address the hearing if the worker does not wish them to do so. That gives the worker the necessary authority to control the companion's contributions.

Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab): Might not the worker feel intimidated about instigating interjections if there were not an automatic right for the companion to speak at any point, whereas, if there is an automatic right, they can sit back and feel relaxed about the fairness of the hearing?

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is the basis for trying to improve the difficult circumstances, as far as the worker is concerned, of a disciplinary or other significant hearing.

The worker has the necessary authority to control the contributions made by the companion. The worker may feel that the companion is talking too much or not making the correct points and can silence them if they so wish.

Amendment No. 52, which I hope is a probing amendment, would remove the entitlement from the companion to

    ''respond on the worker's behalf to any view expressed at the hearing''.

Our idea is to ensure that the companion can contribute throughout the hearing. We do not want to limit their contribution to an opening statement putting the worker's case, or to one summarising the case, which is what the amendment would do, because the companion may be able to make helpful contributions in-between, which may take the form of questioning the parties about their problem. The companion may thereby help to define the issue more clearly and comment on the arguments and supporting evidence that the employer or the worker put forward.

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If done well, that should help to clarify the issue. Importantly, the companion may also wish to suggest solutions which neither party has yet uncovered, drawing on his or her wider experience.

We must, of course, guard against a garrulous companion dominating the hearing. We believe that there are controls on such behaviour and I direct the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk to new subsection 2C(c), which specifies that the companion is not entitled to address the hearing if such interventions prevent the employer or any witness from contributing to the hearing.

Amendment No. 53 deals with the direct dialogue between the employer and the worker at the disciplinary or grievance hearings where the right to be accompanied applies. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the companion has no entitlement to jump in and answer questions on behalf of the worker. There may be common ground between me and the hon. Gentleman on that. We agree that there should indeed be scope for direct dialogue between the two principal parties. The companion is not there to act as the only spokesperson for the worker. The worker, too, should contribute to the extent that he or she feels able to do so. Indeed, the companion may have insufficient information to answer questions put to the worker about, for example, the worker's experiences. It is the relationship between the worker and the employer which is at issue. Direct communication between those two parties is, therefore, usually necessary for them fully to understand the problems.

Mr. Djanogly: If the worker refuses to answer questions and the employer is able, in effect, only to state views, is the employer allowed to draw inferences from that? Clearly, the Minister's intention is to ensure that there is dialogue and that the employer is able to ask questions. What happens if the employer does not ask questions?

Mr. Sutcliffe: The employer will draw conclusions from that and will decide what further steps to take. The worker will always have the right not to answer a question, but that may damage their case and the companion may have a view on that. We do not want to break the relationship, but we believe that the companion can bring active support to the whole process.

Jon Cruddas (Dagenham) (Lab): On the same point, but from a slightly different angle, will new subsection (2C) in lines 17 and 18 allow the employer to refuse to permit the companion to answer questions on behalf of the worker?

Mr. Sutcliffe: No, the companion can answer questions on behalf of the worker and advise the worker. We want fairness in the direct relationship, so that the employer can see the eyes of the worker and how he or she feels about the issue before them. We are trying to protect the employer's ability to ask

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questions, but during the questioning the companion can use their outside experience to advise and to support the worker.

Mr. Djanogly: The point to which the hon. Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) referred is exactly what amendment No. 53 is getting at because there is ambiguity. My reading of new subsection (2C)(a), contrary to what the Minister said, is that the employer could indeed stop the worker's companion from answering questions on behalf of the worker. We may disagree on whether that is right, but that is how I read it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I do not read it that way, but I shall take a look at the wording. I am trying to explain the principle and the spirit behind what we are trying to achieve. We may need to tidy up the wording on Report. I want to be clear that it is not about disturbing the relationship; it is about what the companion supporting the worker can and cannot do. The companion can be anyone of the worker's choosing—a colleague or a trade union official—to give the best chance of his or her case being put. The point was made on Second Reading that one may be an excellent worker at one's job, but be unable to put across a case. The intense nature of the hearing may affect the worker. We feel that it is appropriate to ensure that the role of the companion is made clear.

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