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Ms Johnson: That may well be true. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) mentioned advice and assistance deserts. One of the good things that the Legal Services Commission has done is provide a framework for community legal services within local authority areas. Bodies that provide advice and assistance can come together and pool their resources to ensure that local communities are aware of what is available in terms of advice and representation.
Ms Johnson: I commend the work that Citizens Advice does. The problem in my constituency, Hull, North, is that often at 8 o'clock in the morning the citizens advice bureau has a queue of people wanting to get in to obtain advice. There is still a great deal of unmet need. The CABs and law centres have an important role to play. I hope that in future debates I may be able to put the case for more funding being made available to them. At present, as other hon. Members said, funding may depend on the political complexion of the local authorities in the area.
In Hull we had a very good law centre that was funded not only by Hull city council, but by some of the surrounding local authorities. Hull city council recognised the important role that Humberside law centre played. The other local authorities around Hull, which were Tory-controlled, unfortunately decided not to continue to contribute to the work of the law centre, so they withdrew their funding. That resource for local people in east Yorkshire has disappeared. From looking back at cases, we know that Humberside law centre led the way in a number of disability discrimination cases, and in compensation cases involving trawlermen in Hull who had missed out on compensation that they were due when the fishing industry
Huw Irranca-Davies: On that point, does my hon. Friend recognise that ifI am not making any assumptionsthe Bill were not to proceed, we would need to consider how to ensure that the diverse providers of advice, legal assistance, mediation and arbitration continued to operate effectively? We have made great progress, but I am not yet convinced that the situation is completely coherent across the whole UK.
Mark Tami: Is there not a problem with somenot allof the no win, no fee organisations that seem to get hold of people before they have received proper advice? Often they lead people up the garden path or get them to sign up to pay for an insurance policy to fund the case. People who have come to see me have been asked to pay £150 up front. They think the case is proceeding, but they are asked for another £250, and before they know it, a large sum of money has been expended, often to no good end.
That raises an important issue. Some time ago I practised immigration law. There were many
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rogue immigration advisers about. The Government have introduced accreditation for immigration advisers so we know who is giving advice and we can make sure that they are giving good advice. There is a case to be made for the accreditation of employment advisers as well.
In conclusion, although I support the principle of legal representation in employment tribunals, I do not agree with the various clauses relating to the setting up of a board separately to deal with that. There are issues for the Legal Services Commission to examine. The clause dealing with the budget is not a sensible approach. We must be realistic and set store by value for money. It is not sensible to let bodies determine the level of funding that they want. I have problems with that clause.
Of course there must be a merits test for any case that is to be taken forward. As I started by saying, most good representatives, whether legally qualified or not, will make sure that they properly advise their clients about the case before the tribunal takes place, so that they know whether they have a good chance of success or not. I should be interested to hear about the example in Scotland. We must have regard to article 6(1) of the European convention on human rights and the opportunity for people to have a fair hearing, but the Bill is not the best way forward for employment law or employment relations in this country.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to make a few introductory points before discussing the Bill itself. The Bill's purpose is to make provision about representing and assisting complainants, and it highlightsas some of today's contributions have also donethe increasing complexity of employment tribunals. One root cause of the need felt by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) to introduce this Bill is the fact that employment tribunals can be very complex. Indeed, some 32 different Acts of Parliament can give rise to claims that go before employment tribunals, which is perhaps why a number of parties on both sides feel the need to be represented.
As several Members have noted, there are already many places where those wishing to bring claims to employment tribunals can seek advice. The Employment Tribunals Service website lists a number of sources of free advice, several of which have been mentioned. They include ACASI shall come on to trade unions shortlycitizens advice bureaux and community law centres. As the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson) said, solicitors and other professional advisers sometimes give their services free on pro bono work. In most constituencies, a range of organisations already exists from which people can seek advice, so setting up a new quango and a new form of provision seems unnecessary.
The hon. Lady also said she would like to see an increase in representation. However, the flaw in the Bill as draftedif it is to achieve the objectives that the hon. Member for Bradford, West seeksis that it provides no new funding; rather, it simply cannibalises funding for existing bodies. The money for the new board would come straight out of the budgets of the Equal
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Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality. As a result, they would have to cut their funding for the many valuable groups working on the ground that provide such services in our communities. Taking the money away and giving it to another organisation would damage many of these existing organisations, of which Members have had experience.
In trying to justify the need for this Bill, the hon. Member for Bradford, West failed to make a clear case for the argument that valid discrimination claims are not finding their way to employment tribunals. He mentioned some individual cases, but in passing legislation that would affect all the various commissions, and businesses and individuals throughout our country, we need to be sure that there is a clear need for it. He failed to establish that such a need exists. He said that he has consulted the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission, and that they oppose the Bill. I shall deal with the impact of such opposition a little later, when I consider some of the clauses.
The role of the trade unions has also been discussed. One Labour Member pointed out that in the private sector, just one fifth of employees are in a trade union. Trade unions should focus on providing excellent representation in the workplace. If they spent more time on that aspect of their role, and less on the party political aspect, they might find it easier to recruit members in the private sector workplace.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I genuinely welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments, and if for no reason other than the issue that we are discussing today, will he join me in proactively encouraging every employer not only to recognise unions in the workplace, but to support their active participation in it? Does he further accept that some employers are a little recalcitrant in their approach to unions?
Mr. Harper: No, and I disagree with that approach. It is the role of the unions to explain cogently to potential members the services that they provide. It is their job, not the employers', to recruit members. If unions are so weak that they need employers to do their recruiting for them, it is perhaps no surprise that they are in such a state.
I agree, but the employee must be able to be approached by the union without being threatened with the sack, demotion or exclusion, as people sometimes are as a result of talking to someone in the union or becoming active in it. My hon. Friends and I know many cases where unions have tried to recruit in the workplace, but employers have adopted all sorts of tactics to obstruct them. The same applies to recognition, even at the stage where cases go to the Central Arbitration Committee. For example, employers may move employees out of certain groups of workers in order to make the union membership lower. There are all sorts of tricks and tactics going on out there. Yes, let us have a level playing field, but the employer must accept it as well.
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