Employment Relations Bill

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Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Minister for that constructive response. Ministers—or more particularly their advisers—tend to say that amendments are unnecessary. However, he will appreciate that they are designed to add things to legislation. That is the purpose of this amendment. I do not have his advantage of drafting assistance. We were anxious not to impose works councils—the amendment makes it clear that there is no attempt to do that—but to identify them as an option that should be actively considered.

The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire and I probably do not see eye to eye, but I want to reassure him that this is not a Trojan horse. We do not see works councils as a way of undermining the role of trade unions. We think that they are different. Works

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councils deal with how a particular workplace operates. Workplaces are often unionised: where that is the case, the union will do what the union does but the works council will be slightly different. The amendment also gives some advantage to non-unionised companies by adding a statutory obligation for them to have a mechanism for consultation. We are keen to promote and develop that.

We will have to build our own mechanism—a British system that meets our cultural requirements—but we have a chequered history. I have looked at the continental examples, and some of them are good but others are bad. None of us would want to replicate what is happening in France, but countries such as Spain, Germany and the Benelux and Scandinavian nations have different but well-established mechanisms for works councils that offer lessons that if they are suitably adapted could benefit British business and industry. We have been missing that for a long time.

I am glad that the Government acknowledge that works councils may be one of the options to be developed and encouraged. The Minister's response to the amendment was predictable, but what we wanted most of all was to have a debate about this matter and to draw out the Government's attitude to it. What we have heard is welcome. We might wish to return to this, because we want to raise the profile of this approach. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Before I call the hon. Member for Gordon to move amendment No. 48, I remind the Committee that the amendment refers to possible mechanisms that may be required to implement the directive, and not to the directive itself.

Malcolm Bruce: I beg to move amendment No. 48, in

    clause 31, page 27, line 42, at end insert—

    '(aa) for the purpose of adopting the provisions necessary to comply with that Directive not later than 23rd March 2005 or ensuring that management and labour introduce by that date the required provisions and guarantee the results imposed by the Directive at all times;'.

The amendment was motivated only by a point of regret. The directive will be implemented in every country in the EU, with the exception of the UK and Ireland, on 23 March 2005. I am happy to acknowledge that the Government have been through a consultation process, have drawn employers and employees together, and have negotiated a delay in implementation, and that there is now an agreement. We will not press the amendment, as that would undermine the agreement, but that is no reason not to move or speak to it.

We want to put on record the regret that we should have to implement this form of consultation on the basis of a European directive that successive Governments have tried to resist—to the point where they could resist it no longer. My understanding is that the Government's argument is that we have a different

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culture and tradition and we ought to do things our own way. Our experience is that it has taken us an awfully long time to get to the point where industrial relations in the UK are no longer a liability or an embarrassment as they were 20 or 30 years ago. I accept that progress has been made, but resisting such a mechanism has been part of our problem.

We would like to have believed that we were fit, ready and able to embrace the directive on the due date to the full extent, so the second part is the numbers point. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and I have both put on record during debate on the Bill the understanding of the 20 or 21 employees point that the Government have sought to protect smaller companies from excessive and intrusive regulation. That is not to say that we do not think that smaller companies should adopt practices that are imposed on larger companies as a positive choice, but we do not want to add to their burdens.

In the context of the directive, we are talking about a derogation and a higher limit. We are taking several years longer, with a level of 150, whereas the whole of the rest of the EU will be talking about 50 employees on 23 March 2005—a year from now. I accept that, given the process that we have gone through, we could not expect British industry to be ready in a year's time, so I will not press the amendment.

Jon Cruddas: Some Labour Members might share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the speed and timing of the introduction. However, will he concede that the method developed by the Government in the framework discussions with the TUC and the CBI in terms of public policy making is a good way of consolidating and developing frameworks for British law, which are the product of negotiations and will create compromise? Even though individually we might have concerns—we have huge concerns about trade union recognition, small firms exemptions, the 40 per cent. threshold and the like—we should bear in mind the bigger picture of public policy making, and the importance of developments with the CBI and TUC.

Malcolm Bruce: I am happy to accept that. The reason why we as a party support the Bill is that we believe that the Government have gone about it in a way that has genuinely tried to bridge a gap that should not exist between the characteristic two sides of industry.

One of the most depressing things that I still find in my role as shadow spokesman for the Department of Trade Industry for the Liberal Democrats is that one can write the press releases from the TUC and CBI almost word for word before one sees them. They are predictable, and we should have got beyond that.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): You cannot write our press releases.

Malcolm Bruce: I do not wish to—I would not want responsibility for them. It would be refreshing if employers said one day, ''We welcome these proposals as constructive. We can take forward the best practice that already exists in British management and extend

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it.'' I look forward to the day when that can be done with good grace. The hon. Member for West Renfrewshire acknowledged the failings of trade unions, and no doubt we shall have a less across-Committee discussion on new clause 4, when we might take a more strident approach. Fundamentally, it is important that we seize the opportunity to do that.

10.15 am

I am happy to support the Government's constructive policy-making approach coupled with the adoption of a European directive, leaving aside the fact that we have resisted it for too long. If we are required to adopt the directive, let us find the best British way in which to import it and make it work for the good of industry in the United Kingdom. We must not adopt the continental style but adapt the directive to make it work here. The amendment would put down the marker that we should be able to adopt the proposals on time along with everyone else. A deal has been negotiated, so I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

The Chairman: Order. Moving and withdrawing the amendment in the same breath is a first for me. I assume, however, that the hon. Gentleman has finished moving it.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am all for high-performance workplaces and high productivity. I accept the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment. As he said, my brief tells me that it is unnecessary. The style of operation for Ministers is that all amendments tabled by the Government are good and all the rest need to be opposed and are unnecessary. The Government did not resist the directive. The Committee must remember that they signed up to the social chapter, unlike our predecessors who did not want such legislation to be introduced here. The hon. Gentleman is right: modern industrial employment relations are far better now than ever before. The figures in respect of days lost and other matters show that the situation has improved tremendously.

The Bill is about shared interest and ensuring that people are productive and maintain high performance. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire for his admission. It will be on the record and I am sure that his colleagues will look forward to reading it. The framework document is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas) explained our position clearly. Although some worries exist and a culture change should be made, we are making good progress. A time scale for negotiations is important to obtain such an outcome. The hon. Member for Gordon is right about having a UK solution and our learning from experiences. He moved the amendment and withdrew it at the same time, so I ask him to do so again.

Malcolm Bruce: I am up against the clock, which is my problem, not yours, Mr. Stevenson. I apologise for over-compressing the debate.

The Minister made a fair point about the time scale. I recollect that initially the Government resisted the proposal and sought derogation. Now we are in the

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second term of a Labour Government, they may have more confidence. They, and especially the Prime Minister, were more interested in ensuring that new Labour's friends in business were not upset. Old Labour's friends among the employees were not given the speed of implementation that they would have wished and I am sure that the hon. Member for Dagenham understands that. For the reasons that I stated earlier, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

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