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Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) for introducing the Bill. It has created a tremendous opportunity for the House to discuss a fundamental issue, and there have been some good comments from both sides of the Housealthough one Conservative Member made some rather concerning remarks. No doubt they will come back to haunt him.
Although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the Bill, I have some concerns about it. It covers free legal advice and representation, assistance, leaflets and whatever other help people may need for tribunals dealing with race, sex or disability discrimination. However, there are an awful lot of other issues out there, such as bullying in the workplace. That is a huge issue, and I am told by colleagues who deal with employment matters that it is difficult to take such cases forward, and to achieve recognition for themalthough there are now some initiatives on that subject, such as the dignity at work partnership, which is part-funded by the Department of Trade and Industry.
One of the criticisms of the Bill is that it is too narrow, and could have had a wider scope. I am grateful to hon. Members who have talked about sending out a message about joining trade unions. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) for repeating that message, and, if I understood him correctly, endorsing the idea that people should join trade unions. It is incumbent on hon. Members and the trade union movement to present the importance of the movement and what membership can do for people in such circumstances.
Equally, comments were made about the business community and its difficulties in dealing with employment-related matters. The partnership in Yorkshire and Humber is informing and educating small businesses and medium-sized firms, and is an example of good practice. As I said, it harms everyonethe employees and the good employers who take their responsibilities seriouslywhen a bad employer is involved in sharp practice. It is incumbent on employees and the business community to ensure that bad practice is dealt with appropriately and stamped out.
The debate has been impressive. As hon. Members said, there is much duplication in the Bill in terms of both material and organisations. The hon. Member for
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Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made some good comments on schedule 1. The tribunal representation and assistance board would not be a Government body, but a separate stand-alone organisation, and the powers awarded to it are of concern.
That does not go far enough. Why only one member? Why not extend that condition? Why not prescribe other groups? The Bill is not designed to be just about people with disability. It should be more wide ranging. It says:
In terms of disqualification, the Bill says much about people who are subject to bankruptcy orders, but what about someone who has been barred from being a director? What about someone whose background suggests that their character is such that they do not agree with employment law? Would that be a good or bad thing? Should we specifically require someone to be on the board who has a contrary view about employment legislation so that the opposing argument is put?
If someone with a contrary view were on the board, appropriate checks and balances would need to be in place to ensure that his views were listened to and that he did not have undue influence on something that is designed to benefit those who are most in need of it.
On schedule 1, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) referred in an intervention to remunerations and pensions being of a figure that the "Lord Chancellor may determine". What if the Lord Chancellor thinks that the entire proposal is far too costly and determines that the remuneration of the board members shall be nothing? The chairperson and the various board members may decide that they no longer wish to serve on such a board. Is there scope for a tribunal then to examine the terms and conditions of the board? There is much concern about the schedule.
in various circumstances. There is the possibility that duties that are already being carried out efficiently may be duplicated. An employee may have far too many avenues available to him. Confusion could arise and the employee may be done an injustice in that he does not realise that the avenue that he should be taking is the one that he has chosen not to take.
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Clause 4 deals with the "Accreditation and monitoring" of bodies and the "provision of assistance". I understand that a quality mark applies to about 11,000 organisations, including solicitors. As has been said, there is an issue whether there is a need for yet another separate exercise of accreditation when organisations already bear the relevant quality mark and can already be picked up on it.
Some hon. Members have voiced concerns about the terms of the financing and funding of the board and its activities and I share those expressed about the blank-cheque approach. I would prefer that the money that is sought through the Bill was obtained through existing funding structures and directed into legal aid and the excellent northern complainants aid fund. Those aid arrangements should be funded as an alternative to the Bill.
Much has been made about the possibility of a lawyers' banquet. I think that it was reported a short while ago outside this place that a legal aid barrister had managed to rack up the first £1 million in funding through the legal aid system. Are we to transfer vast sums that are used to good effect now by other organisations that are funded through the Lord Chancellor's Department into a system that funds lawyers?
It has been said that companies that go before employment tribunals automatically take with them a lawyera solicitor or a barrister, whoever they feel is appropriate. It was almost suggestedI would not want to put words into the mouth of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshirethat it is all right for companies to do that but not, in some circumstances, for an employee. In moving along the lines of giving employees equal representation, companies will bring out a larger battalion to sit alongside the representative or representatives of the employee. That risk or danger is not necessarily addressed by the Bill and could perhaps better be addressed outwith it.
Mr. Heald: In a discrimination case there is a reputational risk for employers. It is likely that they will employ lawyers whether they need them or not. I am all in favour, as I think I indicated, of employees or applicants who need good representation getting it. I am saying that there are existing bodies that are capable of providing that.
Mr. Flello: I am grateful for that intervention. I do, dare I say it, agree that there are bodies capable of providing that representation. I was concerned by the suggestion that there would one-upmanship throughout the process, and that could be better addressed by other means.
I took the liberty of speaking to colleagues and friends from the trade union movement who represent employees at employment tribunals. They harked back to the days when, I think someone said, their mum could have gone along to a tribunal and effectively stated her case, represented herself and been heard, helped and encouraged by the tribunal to give evidence and get to the bottom of the case. It was in some ways better to be unrepresented and unassisted. People had a better hearing and better consideration of their case if they went along without a solicitor in tow.
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Moving through the Bill, I turn to clause 4, on accreditation and monitoring. There is, again, duplication about the quality mark and the work of the community legal service. When Government policy seems to be about minimising the numbers of those who are not at the coalface, the point of delivery of the service, and trying to move more funding into service delivery, we are at risk of creating a body that does exactly the opposite and draws resources away from the point of delivery, albeit for the best of reasons.
Let us consider what information is readily available. I spent a few moments last night looking at what information is available from the community legal service; I mentioned some of that in an intervention. Its direct information leaflet No. 18, "Rights for Disabled People", helpfully explains what employees should do about discrimination at work and what routes are available to them, including employment tribunals. It also answers questions such as "Who will pay for my case?" Other hon. Members have made the point that there are already mechanisms in place to ensure that test cases, which may push the boundaries of the law, are properly heard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West is right to bring the Bill before the House, and I am grateful to him for doing so because I have learned an awful lot today. I hope and expect that the Government will accept the spirit and intention of the Bill. We should all, after this debate, be pressing the issues that have been raised.
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