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Mr. Harper: That raises an interesting point, but if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall focus my remarks on the Bill that we are debating. We could have a much wider discussion on the role of trade unions in employment, but we are talking now about the advice and representation that unions can provide in respect of employment tribunals. One important point that emerges from our discussion is that if unions improved their provision of such advice, they might be able to recruit more members. However, the unions have been singularly unsuccessful at doing that, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman should talk to some of his colleagues in the trade union movement.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am half tempted to warm to the hon. Gentleman for his words on the unions. He seems to recognise the quality and depth of knowledge that a union can offer, but I wonder whether he would go one step further. If the Bill were to fall today, who else, in the absence of a union in the workplace, could an individual at risk of discrimination turn to for the requisite expert advice? That is my question to the hon. Gentleman. He is half way there already.
Mr. Vara: On the question of the role of trade unions, I would have thought that, in the present circumstances where much advice and information is available to the individual that was previously provided by the unions, it is better to advise employees of other options rather than simply encourage them to join a trade union. That is only one option, but I am mindful that I may be straying from the main subject of today's debate.
Mr. Harper: To answer the question put by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) about the avenues open to those who do not have the services of a trade union, I have already provided, as have others, a comprehensive list of the help available. I mentioned ACAS, citizens advice bureaux, community law centres, solicitors and other professional advisers who give their services free under pro bono work. If the services of a union are unavailable, people can turn to a range of other organisations.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am sorry to labour the point, but in the absence of a union, does the hon. Gentleman believecontrary to the view expressed a few moments ago by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara)that it is incumbent on the employer to set out the grievance policies and procedures clearly to anyone who thinks that they are suffering from discrimination and to affirm that the company actively encourages employees to come forward with their grievances about discrimination in the workplace?
Of courseany good employer will have a comprehensive set of policies and grievance procedures. I used to work for a large company that had a comprehensive set of procedures and made every effort to deal with cases within the company. Frankly, that is
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usually the best policy for all concerned. Employment tribunals are usually set up only after a failure in that respect.
Before referring specifically to the Bill, I want to say a few words about employers and the way in which employment tribunals have developed. If I understand it correctly, when tribunals were first introduced the laudable idea was that their hearings would be relatively straightforward and able to deal with most cases. It was thought that neither side would need to be legally represented, which would keep the costs down. However, because things have become much more complicated, that is often not the case. Hon. Members have referred to employers using legal representatives. The last thing that small employers want to do is hire an expensive lawyer, who will send a bill every time the client talks to them, writes to them or coughs in their presence. Employers hire lawyers when they read about the more extreme examples that come before employment tribunals.
Mark Tami: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. There is a problem for smaller employers who often panic when faced with such situations and rather than try to resolve the problem with the employee, they bring in expensive lawyers, which they do not need to do. Employing a barrister or taking cases further is a massive cost to an employer, whether big or small, and it certainly does not help the employer-employee relationship.
Mr. Harper: That is a good point, but employers would not take that course if they felt that there were other options. There is no level playing field for employment tribunals, in the sense that if employers have to use representation, they must pay for it, whether they win or lose. Even if they win the case they are still saddled with a large bill, while many of those who represent employees are not paid by the employee.
Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but a person does not need a lawyer to go before an industrial tribunal. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), I know of cases where employers have hired lawyers for no apparent reason.
I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) to the Employment Act 2002, which gave ACAS far more powers and provides for free advice so that fewer cases come before tribunals. The measure tries to ensure that small employers adopt basic grievance procedures. If they follow those procedures they should never need to go before a tribunal.
That is a good point and one of the things it highlights is the divide between larger and smaller employers. Large companies are able to employ specialists, they have human resources departments with specialists in all types of law. Smaller companies often have no full-time member of staff who is familiar with all the legislationas I said earlier, I think there are 32 Acts relating to such matters. It is extremely difficult for a small company, even one that is desperately trying to do the right thing and provide an excellent workplace,
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to be sure that it is complying with all those pieces of legislation. That is one of the reasons why, when they are hit with an employment claim, they panic, as the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, and reach for a lawyer.
Mr. Heald: It is not simply a question of the strict legality of the matter. For a company to be accused of an act of discrimination is a reputational issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that although well over half such cases fail, the employer has to take each one seriously?
Mr. Harper: That is the case. That is one of the reasons why employers are concerned and feel that, because of the threat to their businessfor example, from damaging press reportsthey have to be legally represented.
I have concluded my preamble and I now turn to the Bill. I note that 11 Members supported the hon. Member for Bradford, West, but I have seen only one of them in the Chamber this morningthe hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), although he is not in his place at the moment. I hope that we shall hear from as many of the Bill's supporters as possible during our proceedings. I look forward to that.
When I was considering the purposes of the Bill, I wondered why, as discrimination cases account for only a proportion of those that go before an employment tribunal, the hon. Member for Bradford, West felt that the extra quango should be set up only for discrimination cases. He seems to be saying that such cases are more important or more worthy of assistance than others that go before employment tribunals.
Mr. Singh: My concern, which caused me to introduce the Bill, is the fact that the equal opportunities bodies responsible for tackling discrimination are not doing so at the individual's level. Last year, those organisations supported 250 cases of strategic significance out of more than 20,000 that were lodged. My concern is that those 250 people got the support that they needed and deserved but thousands of people did not, and did not have access to justice in terms of their claims.
Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but earlier some of his hon. Friends pointed out that the commissions to which he has referred do a great deal of work through funding organisations on the ground. They might not themselves represent very many claimants, but, because of the funding that they provide to grass-roots organisationsI see that many hon. Members agreethey offer indirect support to those cases. With respect, I think that his argument may be flawed.
Accreditation is one of the functions of the board set out in clause 2(2). It strikes me that requiring the tribunal board to go through a process of accrediting organisations to say that they are appropriate to provide representation, will not only be a cost for the new quango but will impose a whole set of costs, red tape and burdens on all the organisations that we have mentioned that provide assistance to people going before employment tribunals. No doubt such organisations will have to fill in long, complicated application forms, explaining how their organisation works and making
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the case for it to be accredited. It will place a cost burden on all those very worthy organisations that provide support to those going to employment tribunals, and will reduce the amount of effort and work that they can put into representing people, which will have the opposite effect to the one that the hon. Member for Bradford, West is seeking.
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