Employment Relations Bill

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Anne Picking: Is it not the case that this is about balancing the process? It is normally stacked against the employee, because the employer has always had the support of a human resources or personnel department, with the relevant expertise, skills and training, to give them advice or to speak on their behalf. The employee, who does not have those skills, is totally on their own. I have a view that those employed in personnel departments should be there to represent all people in the work force, and not just be a management tool. However, that is what happens, so this provision is about stacking it right.

Mr. Sutcliffe: My hon. Friend is right. It is about getting the balance right in what is a difficult environment for both parties. The measure tries to give the worker the opportunity to maximise his or her position in that difficult hearing by taking a companion—whether a colleague, friend, or trade union official. It also aims to ensure that the employer has the right to ask questions of the worker. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and the hon. Member for Huntingdon are saying. I believe that there is an issue in terms of the employer—if one reads the new subsection that way—being able to stop the companion from answering a question. However, the companion can express a view about the questions asked.

I accept the spirit in which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk introduced his amendments, but we do not think that they are necessary. There is clarity in what we are trying to achieve. I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

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Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. Confusion is too strong a word, but there is obviously still a certain lack of clarity. To return to the key point, if the employer decides not to permit the companion to answer questions on behalf of the employee, it should not prevent the employer from putting the same questions to the employee. Perhaps we can come back to the matter at a later stage. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and other hon. Members have indicated, there is a possible pitfall here. I accept the Minister's view that amendment No. 53 is not strictly necessary. However, it would not detract in any way from what the clause sets out to do, and we feel that it would benefit the worker ultimately, and make the process smoother and more workable.

Mr. Sutcliffe: The other point that I did not stress as well as I should have done is that amendment No. 53 puts pressure, unintentionally, on the worker to answer a question. I do not think that that is the intention of the hon. Gentleman, so on that point alone, amendment No. 53 is not viable.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful to the Minister. Perhaps we can have a discussion about that before the Bill goes to Report. There is still, in my judgment, a need to look at the overall wording of the clause, if not to proceed with that particular amendment. In the spirit of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 28

Extension of jurisdiction of employment appeal tribunal

10 am

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister explain why the clause is necessary? It extends the jurisdiction of the Employment Appeal Tribunal and any extension is of interest. As I have pointed out before, there has been a large increase in the activity of employment tribunals and indeed the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The Minister will accept that people are now more conversation culture oriented and more litigious. They are being encouraged by law firms up and down the country to exercise their rights at every possible turn. I would be grateful if the Minister gave the Committee some extra background. We have the explanatory notes issued by the Department, which are excellent, and we are grateful for them, but when it comes to clause 28 it would be useful for some extra information.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue. I do not entirely agree with his outlook on why people are going to tribunals. I am sure that he will acknowledge the work

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the Government are carrying out on the dispute resolution regulations and others to try to keep matters in the workplace and to ensure that disputes are resolved where they should be resolved—in the workplace.

The clause provides for the right of appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal against employment tribunal decisions in respect of the right to be accompanied. It corrects an oversight in the Employment Relations Act 1999 by providing in law for such appeals to the EAT. The level of litigation on the right to be accompanied is low. However, it is fair to assume that some of the cases that have gone to employment tribunals could have raised issues on appeal. Under their individual rights, employees' have the right of appeal, and it is only proper that employment tribunal decisions on the right to be accompanied are accorded the same treatment.

All those who replied during consultation on the review of the 1999 Act were fully in support. Clause 28 also received endorsement on Second Reading, including from the Opposition. I am sure that Committee members will agree that it should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 29

Ways in which provision conferring rights on individuals may be made

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Bellingham: The clause is difficult to get one's grey matter around. It seems to make a technical amendment to section 23 of the 1999 Act. It gives the Secretary of State the power to confer employment rights contained in specified Acts and in subordinate legislation implementing EU legislation on individuals who do not have the rights. As section 23 stands, the order is allowed to achieve those results only by means of provisions that amend the legislation conferring the right, and not by means of a provision that states simply that the right applies to the individuals in question. That is why we have new subsections (5A) and (5B), under which an order will be able to extend employment rights either by the use of a free-standing provision or by amending the legislation conferring the right.

I am concerned that over the past few months there has been a great deal of controversy over the gangmastering operations in this country, which are unregulated and operate outside the formal economy. I hope that that you are not going to rule me out of order, Mr. Stevenson.

The Chairman: I am listening with great interest.

Mr. Bellingham: It is relevant, Mr. Stevenson, because it is about conferring rights on individuals who do not have rights at the moment. That sector of the economy is currently completely unregulated. The

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employment agencies—which is what they are—are supplying labour to businesses and industries that at any one time may need them on a temporary basis, or even in some cases on a long-term basis. If one considers East Anglia, in the summer there is a tremendous demand among farmers for pickers of hard and soft fruit. There is a demand in the food processing and packing industries and there is already an established pattern of gangmaster operations, many of which are highly reputable, serving a need of the agricultural economy.

Nevertheless, a number of gangmasters operate in a completely unscrupulous and inhumane way. I know that the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) is extremely concerned about the issue, as is the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Jim Sheridan). We have seen a series of examples where completely unscrupulous gangmasters have been employing people—

The Chairman: Order. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. Having looked at the words in the Bill and in the explanatory memorandum, I think that the rights referred to are those conferred as a result of an Act or European legislation. The problem that I have with his point about gangmasters is that I believe that there is no legislation for the Minister to enact on that. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind.

Mr. Bellingham: I will certainly bear it in mind, but I did hope that you would look sympathetically on what I was saying, Mr. Stevenson, because there is a private Member's Bill before Parliament. Although we are not allowed to anticipate legislation—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman and I are on common ground and I am trying to be as helpful as I can. However, he will appreciate the confines within which the debate must take place.

Mr. Bellingham: Indeed, Mr. Stevenson. In that case, I ask the Minister how he sees the clause interacting with the status of gangmasters. I think that that would be a legitimate question to ask because, as we know, there is no legislation that specifically regulates gangmasters. On the other hand, there is legislation providing rights to employees. I would like to ask the Minister if, in the absence of legislation regulating gangmasters, there is anything more that we can do to support and to uphold the rights of those employees.

Jim Sheridan: On a point of clarity, the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk mentioned that my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden has an interest in the gangmasters Bill. Perhaps he does, but my own interest is far more important as the Bill stands in my name. Legislation should go further than regulating gangmasters. It is important that poor and vulnerable people are protected.

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When we see the disastrous consequences of not having the legislation that I am proposing, such as the deaths of those unfortunate people in Morecambe, it concentrates the mind and demonstrates why we need legislation to protect not only vulnerable workers who work for gangmasters, but workers in all areas of the service sector.

When we discuss vulnerable workers, I am reminded of the situation in which I found myself when representing a security guard whose colleague had failed to turn up. He had already worked a 12-hour-shift and his employer told him to work another 12-hour-shift or face the sack. Lo and behold, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals turned up and took the dog away because they would not allow it to work another 12 hours.

 
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