Employment Relations Bill

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Mr. Sutcliffe: As I said at the outset, I believe this as an important clause—for the reasons that my hon. Friend has just outlined—in terms of how the bad news is delivered and how that is still a part of the way in which some companies or bodies operate.

I believe that the TUC-CBI framework document is important. The CBI, as an employers' organisation, and the TUC, as an employees' organisation, are key institutions in the framework of this country, in terms

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of our citizenship. Long may that be the case. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) might have difficulty. I do not doubt his sincerity about wanting to see better industrial relations. I noticed that he did not take up the point—and the cudgels—of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on Second Reading, about how we could go too far on consultation, and how it should be treated in the same way as communication. He went on quite a ramble in terms of the issues that he saw being related.

Mr. Bellingham: I went on a ramble or he went on a ramble?

Mr. Sutcliffe: We have a difference of opinion on who was rambling.

We did not get the hon. Gentleman's views about how to bring people together to create what we want to achieve; how to get people to change from an adversarial style to modern industrial relations because of the nature of European and global competition faced by the UK and in terms of and the things we hold dear. We are in a good position in the UK because of our high employment level. We want to maintain that and move to a higher level by making people more productive, allowing them to feel part of an organisation and understanding where it is going and what its requirements and staffing needs are. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Renfrewshire said in an earlier debate, many employees come up with good ideas as to how a company can progress. Information and consultation is not a one-way process; it can go the other way as well, with employees coming up with good information about a product or process that they may be involved with.

The clause 31 is designed to achieve a better understanding of relationships. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk accused us of trying to have a one-size-fits-all approach. That is not the case. Clearly, in the negotiations on the framework, and how we introduce the directive, we have sought a voluntary aspect—we would prefer that to statutory provision. We want to encourage people to do things now and to build on the success of the many companies that, in conjunction with their employees, have already done what we are asking.

The hon. Gentleman asked us why we were using primary legislation, why it was not possible to implement all the agreed CBI-TUC framework under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972. Clearly, the Bill gives us the opportunity to develop greater scope to make requirements relating to the framework document that has been agreed.

More than 100 companies and many unions responded to the documents that were produced in relation to high performance at workplaces. We had a number of roadshows. I attended five roadshows that brought together a variety of people, from many sectors, to look at the proposals in detail. We received broad support for the CBI-TUC framework document.

Others responded clearly in those round tables, including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the Engineering Employers Federation

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and a variety of individual unions—as well as the TUC itself. Many Ministers were involved in the consultation discussions. I extend my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions, and to my hon. Friends the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, and the Under-Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales—colleagues who hosted some of the roadshows on the issues surrounding information for consultation.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked me about the role of the employment tribunal and the number of cases going there. We do not have a lot of the information, and we want to see what happens. However, we believe that it is important to provide employees with protection if they choose to take part in information consultation procedures, so that if they have problems they can complain to the tribunal.

We do not agree that the number of tribunal cases has been rising. In fact, numbers are reducing, for reasons stated earlier. Amendments to the Employment Rights Act 1996 and to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 gave protections to employee representatives in cases of unfair dismissal and detriment. Clause 31 is an important part of the Bill, and I am pleased about the quality of this debate. I genuinely hope that we will see a sea change in the culture of employment relations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the bill.

Clause 32

Information supplied by worker and employer

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

Mr. Bellingham: This is an important clause, on which I have one or two questions for the Minister. As the relevant sections of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 stand, restrictions apply to the use and supply of information obtained by enforcement officers. We are talking about the Inland Revenue, which will be enforcing minimum wage legislation in all cases apart from in the farming and agricultural sector. I was not in the House at the time, and I am not clear why the original legislation was framed in a way whereby the employer cannot receive information that the employee has given to the enforcement agency or vice versa. May I ask the Minister why that mistake, as it seems to have been, was made? Perhaps it was not a mistake, and at the time the Government felt, and the legal advice was, that it would be inappropriate for such information to be made available either to the employer or the employee. I would have thought it perfectly obvious that if a case goes to a tribunal or county court—I understand that that is the choice—such information should as a matter of course be made available. I am pleased that the Bill corrects the situation. That makes a lot of sense.

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Yesterday, I looked up the Department of Trade and Industry website. The Minister will be delighted to learn that I follow his every move—that is what shadows are all about. At 15.45—perhaps the Minister was visiting some factory or involved in a high-powered meeting—he issued a press release saying ''Better pay for home workers''. I can see you are looking at me askance, Mr. Stevenson, but this is relevant because we are talking about the enforcement of the minimum wage. The press release was about enforcing the minimum wage for home workers. The Minister pointed out that 170,000 home workers will get more money under minimum wage regulations because the minimum wage will be brought in line to help them. I do not have any difficulty with that, because it is anomalous that they have been excluded.

The press release was excellent, as one would expect, but it did not focus on the way in which, although some companies—a lot of companies source work out to home workers—are reputable and doing a good job for their customers, others, which I would describe as the roguish element, advertise to potential home workers that they will get x amount per item, which attracts many people to the idea of working at home, but then start charging the home worker per item. The proposition may seem attractive, but the workers will be paid 40p per Christmas cracker or 4p per packet of greeting cards and so on, but they then have to pay the company for the raw materials, or other charges are made. Endless abuses take place. Bringing the minimum wage in to cover such people is a move in the right direction, but will the Minister focus on the attitude of such companies and some of the practices that are in place at present? Such matters are among the worst elements of those companies that source work out to home workers. Will he let me know why the 1998 Act, the original legislation, required the correction that is in the clause?

10.45 am

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to explain clause 32. I shall try to answer his questions. The basis of the Bill is about the performance of previous Acts, how they work in reality and the need to update them. I do not have to hand the historical facts, but I shall ensure that he receives a letter about them—unless the information arrives mysteriously today. I am not aware of a mistake. I think that the clause is an update based on previous experiences of enforcement officers.

Sections 15 and 16 of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 deal with the use and supply of information obtained by enforcement officers. No specific power permits officers to disclose information that they have obtained from an employer to his workers or information obtained from the workers to their employer. That means that officers cannot cross-check the different versions of events given by the worker and employer. It makes it more difficult for them to decide whether the employer is complying with the legislation.

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The clause amends those sections to make it clear that some disclosure is allowed. It allows information obtained from an employer relating to a particular worker to be shown to that worker and information obtained from a worker relating to an employer to be shown to that employer. It would be helpful, for example, to enable the enforcement officer to ask the employer about the existence of particular work patterns, working times and so on and ask the worker whether the employer's answers were correct and what that means for his case. I stress that the Inland Revenue will take great care not to pass information on to employers in a way that allows them to deduce the identity of the complainants unless they have given their consent for that to be done.

As for home workers, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman shadows me so closely and congratulates me when I get things right, although I am sure that he will hit me when I get things wrong. That is his role. I was pleased to announce yesterday fair rates for home workers. It has been a long-standing issue in connection with the national minimum wage. I am aware of some of the practices to which he referred, and I shall study them in more detail.

I am not making an attempt to lose home workers their jobs or affect their incomes. We want to achieve a level of fairness and regulations will come before the House for further discussion in due course. We will be in a position whereby employers agree with their employees rates on work study programmes, so people achieve the aims of the minimum wage. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman supports that process. Given his party's worries about the inception of the national minimum wage five years ago, it has come a long way since then and now supports it. We have worked closely with the National Group on Homeworking, which has been assisting us to reach our decision about home workers' rates. The original provisions were drafted too narrowly for the reasons that I have expressed. That is why we have drafted clause 32, which I commend to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 32 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

 
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