Employment Relations Bill

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Mr. Bellingham: The Minister is right in saying that my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon is not with us, so his waspish, hawkish views will be missed by the Committee. He has not been banished and he will, I hope, be back this afternoon.

The EU directive sets out minimum requirements for the right to information and consultation. Apparently, the powers under the European Communities Act 1972, which are normally used to implement directives, are not considered wide enough. Will the Minister tell us why that is?

The Minister touched, as did the hon. Member for Gordon, on the CBI-TUC agreed framework and the consultation document, ''High Performance Workplaces: Informing and Consulting Employees'', which was issued last summer to seek views from a wider audience on the proposed scheme. Will the Minister tell us—he may not be able to immediately—about the response to that document and how many different organisations and companies reported in? I have read both documents—the original one was issued in July 2002, and the second in July 2003.

On employment tribunals, subsection (4)(a) provides for the regulations for employment tribunals to have the jurisdiction to resolve disputes arising from the directive. Has the Minister's Department done any research on the number of tribunal cases that we are likely to see? Hopefully, there will not be many. He will be aware of concern throughout the House at the increase in the work load of employment tribunals. Will such disputes add to that work load?

In what circumstances would ballots be held? If one looks at the clause in the round, one sees that it is very wide-ranging. The explanatory notes make it clear that subsection (4)(c) provides, inter alia, that regulations may be laid that

    ''make amendments to or apply similar provisions to . . . those in . . . the Employment Rights Act 1996 . . . the Employment Tribunals Act 1996''

and the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It is very wide-ranging indeed. I wonder whether it might have been better if the Department had been clearer in its approach and told us exactly what procedures and frameworks were going to be in place, rather than relying on future regulations.

I do not want to talk too much about the clause generally. If the Conservatives had been in power, we would not have signed up to the EU directive. I am a

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lone voice in this Committee; I am the only person who would express that view. Obviously, there are strong arguments over the level of consultation and involvement. I agree with the hon. Member for Gordon that we have to move away from the them and us situation. He cited various cases, including BMW, Rover and Vauxhall.

Mr. Sutcliffe: Will the hon. Gentleman give an example of how he would get both sides together if information and consultation were not a vehicle?

Mr. Bellingham: I will come on to that. I believe—and the Minister made this clear—that we have moved on a long way from the them and us situation. We are now in a global, extremely competitive economy.

The companies in my constituency that have got good industrial relations are the ones that have moved away from them and us. For example, Master Foods—which is a subsidiary of Mars UK—Campbell Soup and Dow Chemical all have single status within the company: everyone who works there is an associate. Some of those companies have trade unions, but I visited Master Foods the other day and it has open plan offices. The management do not have their own parking slots. If one turns up at a certain time of the morning it does not matter whether one is on the shop floor, or one is a cleaner, a fitter or a senior marketing director, one parks where one can and one is an associate of the company.

It is interesting that since those American subsidiaries have pursued that modern approach to labour relations, employee status and trying to build trust, a number of other local firms have followed a similar example. Bespak plc and Porvair plc, which are quoted companies, have moved much more towards having single status members of the company and trying to get everybody to work together as a team. Such changes happen in thousands of small companies in this country, in many micro-businesses and increasingly in bigger companies.

We all agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Gordon about trying to improve industrial relations. I agree with what the Minister had to say, because he wants British business to succeed. However, I would ask him about the idea of one size fits all and whether having formal frameworks in place is the right way to proceed. I want to put on record that we would not have signed up to the directive, although on the other hand I congratulate the Government—not on signing up to it, but on how they have handled the fallout from it. Having accepted the social chapter they had to move forward with the directive. I congratulate them on the way in which they have implemented it, consulting both sides of industry and business and getting the TUC and the CBI working together; on the way in which they have put in place transitional arrangements and have allowed the exemptions to be included; and on the whole spirit in which they have moved forward.

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However, the jury is out. Will the measure save jobs? Will it make Britain more competitive? Will it move us more towards the European model of social and employment frameworks rather than the American model, which is more flexible and much more market-orientated? The jury is out at a time when offshoring is in the news. In Norfolk we have had some alarming cases: for example, Aviva and Norwich Union announcing that they were going to offshore a large number of jobs. It is not only manufacturing businesses that are looking to production capacity in the far east or the subcontinent; financial services and insurance companies and other companies with call centres are doing it.

This weekend, I had cause to ring up Russell and Bromley on behalf of my wife, to find out about her corporate card. I rang the number and I was put through to a call centre in India. The time in India was about 11 o'clock in the evening and I spoke to a man. There was a slight echo on the telephone, but that person was completely charming. He was delightful, and he even congratulated—

The Chairman: Order. I was listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's pertinent point about the competitiveness of British industry, rather than his experience of answering or using the telephone.

Mr. Bellingham: I will complete the point very quickly, because it is important.

The man could not have been more charming and that is in stark contrast to when I rang directory inquiries.

The Chairman: Order. I repeat the point that I made a few seconds ago. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to return to the main thrust of his argument about the competitiveness of British industry.

Mr. Bellingham: British industry has to take difficult decisions. There is no question about that. People criticise the level of service that one gets from people offshore, but often one gets very high standards. I rang directory inquiries and I had an extremely rude man on the telephone. I will leave it at that. He was working in Scotland.

The jury is out on that matter. I wish the Government well. They have done their level best to implement the directive in a way that is pragmatic and sensitive to both sides. We hope that it will succeed, and deliver what the Government want.

10.30 am

Jon Cruddas: I congratulate the Government on fostering a form of public policy making that is rational, pragmatic and delivers robust frameworks in complex, difficult territory in which there has been a long history of fraught, tense and politically volatile discussion in this country. The framework and the method of developing policy will pull the TUC and the CBI together and produce robust legislation. That is good economically, good for industrial relations and—in the way that policy is forged—good politically. However, it creates tension, because we have to accept deals or arrangements between the

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TUC and CBI, certain elements of which may cause us difficulties. The same considerations regarding information and consultation applied in trade union legislation. The issue covers all the legislation in the Bill, as it did the Employment Relations Act 1999.

Notwithstanding that, we now have a positive agenda that directly meets concerns of which many of us have concrete experience. I will put my cards on the table. Between 1997 and 2000 I worked in Downing street with the trade union movement on issues concerned with individual and collective rights at work and economic restructuring, including working time regulations, national minimum wage, the Employment Relations Act and so on. From 1999 to 2000, we worked in some difficult territory during major economic restructuring in the British automotive industry: BMW pulled the plug on Rover in the west midlands; there was the case of Ford Dagenham—which was not as difficult; and there were issues concerning General Motors and Vauxhall.

I will give an insight in to why the clause is so important. Three days before the BMW and Rover story broke, I was rung by a trade union colleague to ask whether we had heard anything about a proposed massive restructuring. We had not. Three days later, the matter became public.

The worst case concerned General Motors and the Luton car plant. I was rung the night before that story broke by a union organiser to ask whether I had heard anything about an imminent announcement on plant restructuring in Luton to be issued the next day. I said that I had not. The Government were told later that night that there was to be a great announcement.

Those two examples are testimony to the need for the sort of framework proposed, especially if it is created in a robust form with CBI and TUC agreement. I welcome it. There is a litany of cases in which such a framework will safeguard against the worst elements of such behaviour, with people and their extended family finding out that there are massive job threats from the radio. That was the case in Luton. People can be reassured, because there are frameworks in place that will not allow such events to happen again. They will not find out as they are driving to work in the morning about the imminent closure of their car plant and the loss of their jobs. That caused people great concern for their own and their families' financial commitments and their short and medium-term future.

I also welcome the manner in which the proposals have been developed by the Minister and his team—corralling, coercing, nudging and keeping the parties together to provide a framework that will last and create durable labour law in this country.

 
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