Employment Relations Bill

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The Chairman: Order. We are a great partnership in this Committee and I am thoroughly enjoying myself, but I need to remind the Committee that we are discussing conferring rights after an Act or European legislation. We cannot discuss legislation that we would like the Government to introduce, we cannot anticipate private Member's Bills and, as much as we would like to, we cannot have a debate on that basis. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would bear that advice in mind.

Jim Sheridan: I apologise, Mr. Stevenson, if I strayed. I stand secure under your chairmanship.

I welcome the clause, which enables the Secretary of State to extend employment rights to those who desperately need them. We call on the Government to implement as swiftly as possible legislation that provides protection for the vulnerable, regardless of their status. I ask the Minister to take my remarks seriously.

Jon Cruddas: The clause gives the Secretary of State powers to extend the coverage of existing employment rights to categories of workers currently unprotected. Department of Trade and Industry research suggests that up to a third of the UK work force have ambiguous employment status under current law. The Government have instigated a review of employment status, but we have not seen publication of the conclusions. If the Minister can tell us where they are, that will inform all participants in the discussion.

Mr. Djanogly: Having heard the interesting debate, I am slightly confused about what the clause applies to. I hope that the Minister will say the sorts of individual to whom it refers and the rights that they could receive.

My concern is that the clause will remove the necessity for orders to be brought in by statute and will enable them to be shuffled in through the back door via the Secretary of State. For instance, clause 30 deals with flexible workers. That is fine—the order is to come in by statute. We may or may not agree with it, but it is being introduced in the proper way. My concern is that the clause would enable important issues relating to workers' rights to be changed without full consultation or debate.

Column Number: 141

Mr. Sutcliffe: I recognise your difficulty, Mr. Stevenson, and that of the Committee in getting to grips with this issue because the conclusions from the employment status review are still outstanding. I acknowledge that that has caused hon. Members difficulty in speaking to the clause. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for saying that it is a technical measure. However, issues flow from it and I shall try to address those within the confines of the clause.

The clause makes a technical amendment to section 23 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 to improve and to simplify the way in which employment rights may be conferred on individuals. I stress that the clause itself does not confer any rights on individuals, nor can new rights be created via section 23. The clause enables us only to confer rights contained in specified legislation on individuals who do not have such rights.

The clause enables the Government to confer rights on a given group of individuals by means of an order that does not amend the legislation that originally conferred the rights. It will be a better method where the group is only small. Amendments to the legislation to confer the right may be complicated. In that case, conferring the right in a separate order will be helpful to both employers and workers, who will be able to check the additional coverage of the right and see how it works simply by looking at the section 23 order. The Government would not use the power in section 23 to confer rights on a group of workers without full prior consultation, the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon. He is right about the provision not coming back to the House, but not about consultation on the proposal.

Mr. Djanogly: Can the Minister give an example of a small group of workers who would have benefited from being included in such a way, but who will presumably benefit later from full legislation?

10.15 am

Mr. Sutcliffe: Agency workers would benefit from that right, and perhaps a group of workers that I shall come to later.

The employment status review has taken some time, because there were over 400 responses to it from many diverse groups with many diverse views about employment status. I hope that, by the summer, we will be able to make the findings public. However, as there has recently been discussion about the role of the clergy in the context of section 23 and the Bill, it may be helpful if I go into greater detail.

As the Committee will be aware, the Government have been considering the position of the clergy for some time. Given the many diverse traditions, it is clearly a complex issue. Those whom we may, for simplicity, term ''the clergy'' exist in different faiths and organisations and have different concerns. The frameworks of employment protection and employment relationships between clergy and different faith organisations vary considerably. Not surprisingly, therefore, we have received

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representations arguing, with some vehemence, both for and against the introduction of legislation to extend employment rights to the clergy.

The Government respect the diversity of religious traditions and practices in the UK today. We are anxious to ensure that any action that we take takes account of the complexity and sensitivity of some of the issues that respondents to our consultation have raised. That said, we also want to ensure that that complexity and sensitivity do not result in no action being taken.

I have been encouraged in recent weeks by indications that the Churches take this issue seriously. The Church of England's own internal review is a positive development. It recommends that the clergy has rights accorded by the Church that would be enforceable at employment tribunals. I hope that the spotlight placed on these issues by the consultation and by the interventions of many hon. Members will encourage many Churches to give the issues the attention that they deserve.

In the hope that we can make further progress along those lines and encourage the Churches to take action themselves, I am pleased to announce today that I intend to launch a working group to facilitate and to encourage action in relation to employment protections for the clergy. We will seek to involve not just the Church of England, which has set such an encouraging example, but other Christian denominations and faiths. We are in the process of issuing invitations to a wide range of interested parties, and I look forward to engaging in positive discussions that will lead to members of the clergy feeling more secure and enjoying greater employment protection. If any hon. Members wish to participate or know of any groups that could helpfully contribute to the discussions, our invitation to participate is open to all.

My main concern in taking that step is that the working group should result in progress. That is the Government's main priority. We have powers to extend employment rights to the clergy by law but I hope that, through dialogue with the Churches, we can achieve real progress, despite the sensitivities. I hope for a win-win outcome that respects individual religious traditions and individual clergy's legitimate concerns.

On the question of gangmasters, there is an important distinction between their activities and agency workers and the agency workers inspectorate, and I hope that the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire will clarify that relationship. Clearly, the Government support the objectives of that Bill, not least because of the weekend's tragic circumstances. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has been heavily involved in his constituency and area with issues relating to gangmasters. Legitimate concerns exist about those who do not operate in the right environment and who act in a criminal way.

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We have included this technical clause in the Bill to have a power. I hope that, when the employment status review is published, we can go into greater detail about the groups of workers that will be covered. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister clarify a couple of points? Who will be on the working group looking into the clergy? Will it be an interdepartmental group? Will senior members of the clergy be involved in it or, for example, any bishops from the other place? As the Minister says, the aim is to seek greater security and protection, and he wants as many hon. Members to participate as possible. How will he advise hon. Members to go about that participation? I should be grateful if he could add some details to what he has said.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I shall be happy to do that. Clearly, there are well held views on all sides of the argument. The Bill gives the Government the power to put their view into law. I think that that would be wrong; I want to get the maximum number of people involved. The invitation is open to as wide a range and as many Churches as possible. It will be for those Churches and faiths to determine which individuals will represent them on the working group. I will not limit the number of members. The issue has been raised with me at Question Time on numerous occasions by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and has been discussed in the other place.

However, the working group will not be open-ended. We have to come to a conclusion. There are many issues, and there is much suffering when it comes to the way in which some of the faiths treat individuals. Those individuals need to have protection and rights. The Church of England has taken a positive step with its report, and I am pleased about that.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that it will be up to the faiths and the Churches to determine who the individuals are. The Government will consider who has an interest in the matter, and I am sure that if he wants to be involved in the working group, he can be.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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