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Mark Tami: As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is important that people have access to trade union membership and I certainly want them to join, as there are many benefits. People often appear in droves wanting to join a union after something happens—for example, if an employee has been sacked, has problems at work, has assaulted a colleague at work or something similar. I notice that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has left the Chamber—perhaps he has gone to join a trade union. People need to have access to a trade union, and although good legislation is in place, in some cases employers are still putting pressure on employees not to join and certainly not to become active in the trade union.

Mr. Heald rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) that interventions should be short, especially when they are frequent.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Violence in the workplace is a terrible thing.

I certainly am not suggesting that employers should actively manoeuvre to prevent employees from joining a trade union, but it is a choice. If unions want people to join and to know about the services they offer, which in the case of tribunal representation are good, they should get out there and sell themselves. Many forward-thinking trade union leaders share that view and it is time they did more.

To return to my comments about the rate of success of claims, I have looked at the effect on applicants and I want to consider the situation for employers. Where
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most cases fail, because they are either withdrawn or dismissed, we must not simply consider the effects on applicants. No company that is accused of discrimination can take it lightly, and much as I like the informal atmosphere of the tribunal, if a company is accused of discrimination, particularly if it has other workers from an ethnic minority or workers who might be in the same category of employee as those who have made the accusation, it cannot ignore it; it must take legal advice, in my view. So probably almost all the companies that are subject to claims that eventually fail or are withdrawn have employed a lawyer, and have gone to a great deal of trouble to investigate the case, to be ready for a hearing. These are amazing burdens on business.

Obviously, if we can have more cases that are accurately targeted and fewer that are not, it would be a good thing, but we must think carefully about the likely impact of setting up a board to hand out legal aid without any merit test, particularly as it would, I believe, have the effect of creating a surge of claims. I also think that it would be bad to undermine the existing arrangements, with that tracery of small bodies across the country that are providing advice services already. Every penny that is spent on the new quango and its work, including the salary of the chairman and other appointments, will be taken out of the budgets of the organisations that are already doing the job.

So there is no doubt in my mind that this is not the way forward. The way forward is to review the law of discrimination to see whether we can make it simpler, which would help businesses and individuals, and to look at how we can provide these free services across the country, in a better network with proper referrals.

The point that was made about accreditation and clause 4 is important. It is pointless to accredit organisations as suitable to do advice work if one does not then stipulate that only accredited bodies may provide the service. It cannot be right to state, as the Bill does, that any body may be appointed, and that even if accredited bodies apply they can be ignored—as is stated in clause 5(5)(b). If we are saying that accredited bodies will be an important part of the new set-up, they should be doing the work.

I consider that the whole exercise of accreditation and of setting up a bureaucracy and, in effect, licensing these organisations will be bureaucratic and costly, not just for the board but for all these organisations—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). I would not adopt that bureaucratic approach.

It would also be a pity if the effect of the Bill was to make the tribunals a more formal battleground. If more and more organisations were to be funded and were taking cases to the tribunal, which I think would be the consequence of the Bill, employers would have to respond, so we would end up with a much more formal type of proceeding.

The solution is therefore something of a Band-Aid solution and not one that I would choose, but I do think that this area needs looking into. Article 6(1) of the European convention on human rights has been mentioned, which of course requires a fair trial, but I would contend that the balance that we currently have, of dealing with the cases that really break new legal
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ground through the commission approach or the exceptional case approach, allied with the tracery of small bodies around the country—the FRU, the citizens advice bureaux and so on—means that most people should be able to get access to the help that they need, although we should build on the referral process and improve it.

Organisations that represent employers are concerned about the Bill. The CBI has said that it would be a further avenue to bring claims, and is worried about the effect on small business. The Institute of Directors has talked about a surge in cases, entailing further costs on business.

The Bill would give a blank cheque to the board to pursue cases in whatever way it wants, with the Lord Chancellor having to give the new body whatever money it asked for. I cannot think that that would be welcomed by the Paymaster General—[Interruption]—who is sitting on the Front Bench with her Treasury hat almost on. I am interested in the fact that the right hon. Lady is here. She must be worried about the proposal that the Lord Chancellor must spend whatever the new board wants on such work. Rather than creating a new quango and a lot more opportunities for lawyers, let us reform the law, build on the current system and retain the concept of an informal, accessible tribunal system.

1.30 pm

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Like many hon. Members, I fully accept the principles behind the Bill. There is absolutely no place in today's society, which wants to call itself decent, for allowing discrimination of any kind to continue unchallenged. The promotion of equal opportunities at work and in the community and the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, sexuality, disability, age or creed should be two of our core aims—the core aims of government and all those who are party to it. There is considerable evidence from all quarters—the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission, academics, the trade union movement, and the Government's own research—to show there is still an awful lot to do to overcome discrimination.

Evidence shows the slow progress that we have managed to achieve so far, with the gap between white and non-white participation in employment and with higher unemployment rates and associated links to deprivation. Indeed, my constituency has the lowest employment rate in the country. Even some 30 years after the Equal Pay Act 1970, the pay gap between men and women still stands at 18 per cent. and even more for those who are part-time and undertaking a caring responsibility. Of course that is why the Prime Minister recognised the need to establish the women and work commission, which is examining the barriers that women face at work, in training opportunities and because of their often less-than-equal pay compared with male comrades. The fact that disabled people have for so long faced not just physical but social and cultural barriers has been recognised in legislation, which now needs the teeth to make it work. Age discrimination continues, whether against the young or the more
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mature. All such discrimination affects people not just at the personal level, but also in their contribution to the economy and in their interaction with society at large.

It is shameful that, in the 21st century, we still have discrimination in the workplace—whether unconscious or blatant—from colleagues and employers, or caused by how the organisational structures operate, but those problems are known and action is being taken. Progress may be slow, but it is definitely speeding up now. Many employers are exemplary and ensure that their structures, policies and procedures support equality at work and leave little or no room for discrimination. When discrimination is found, they often have good processes to deal with it. But there are also many employers who, left to themselves, would do little or nothing to ensure that discrimination does not occur. In fact, some of them do not even understand, or make an effort to understand, that discrimination even exists in their workplaces or that they have a responsibility to eradicate it.

There is no doubt that current discrimination legislation is complex, potentially costly and time-consuming. It is confusing and inconsistent, and it relies on those suffering discrimination to take the responsibility for tackling that discrimination after the event, rather than encouraging organisations to prevent the possibility of discrimination in the first place. The only exception is the duty on public sector bodies to promote race equality, which I hope will soon be joined by a duty to promote sexual and disability equality. But let us be clear that any burdens are not just on employers but on workers, who have often felt strongly enough, or been forced by financial difficulties, to overcome the barriers that they face to seek some form of redress, who have often overcome stressful processes before they get to tribunal in taking their concerns through internal grievance procedures, and who almost definitely did not set out to bring themselves to what, in effect, is a courtroom to be quizzed in what is becoming an increasingly difficult and litigious way, and who still face a comparatively low success rate at tribunals.

Yes, there are increases in the number of discrimination cases being registered, but mainly in the areas of sex discrimination and equal pay. There is a reason for that. Women are becoming increasingly aware that unequal pay for equal value is against the law, so they are rightly claiming their due. It is not easy for others who face discrimination. They still face low success rates, because it is difficult to prove not only that a worker has suffered detriment, but that the detriment was because of the discrimination. We should also realise that the rising number of cases still reflects only a fraction of those employed and those who experience difficulties at work, but do not take a case to a tribunal.

I can see why colleagues are drawn to the Bill. The system is not easy to understand and some people have to contend with it on their own. With the diminishment of collective rights over the 1980s and 1990s, 70 per cent. of today's employees do not have the support of a trade union, which means that the employees who are most likely to be dismissed or suffer unfairness at work are least likely to have the support at an employment tribunal. Therefore bringing forward proposals that appear to support individuals in their claims at tribunals seems just and fair.
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I do not support our hon. Friends who suggest that we will be encouraging a compensation culture. After all, if no wrongs have been wrought, there will be nothing to be compensated for. There may be fears that increasing numbers of cases are being brought by employees wishing to make money from the system, but these fears are hardly borne out by the amounts generally awarded in costs. Employers should look to themselves to institute good practices and to avoid the process itself.

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