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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Peter Atkinson
Battle, John (Leeds, West) (Lab)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Cruddas, Jon (Dagenham) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Gummer, Mr. John (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con)
Harris, Mr. Tom (Glasgow, South) (Lab)
Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
Mactaggart, Fiona (Slough) (Lab)
Rifkind, Sir Malcolm (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con)
Shepherd, Mr. Richard (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
Thurso, John (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
Ussher, Kitty (Burnley) (Lab)
Watson, Mr. Tom (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination)
Wright, Jeremy (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con)
Ben Williams, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 20 October 2009

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Draft ACAS Code of Practice: Time off for Trade Union Duties and Activities
4.30 pm
The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft ACAS Code of Practice: Time off for Trade Union Duties and Activities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. The draft code of practice has been produced by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service but it must be approved by both Houses before it can be brought into effect. It was debated and approved in the other place on 6 July.
The code of practice provides practical guidance on the application of statutory rights to time off for trade union representatives and other trade union members. Those entitlements apply where the trade union in question is recognised for collective bargaining purposes, and they cover various types of trade union representative, including shop stewards, union learning representatives and those union representatives who are consulted on a one-off basis when large-scale redundancies or business transfers take place.
The code of practice has been in place since 1978. It has been revised on various occasions since then, to keep up with changes to the law on time off. However, much of its guidance is unchanged and is now more than 30 years old. Obviously the world of work has changed a lot in that time. Working patterns are more diverse; new technology is widely available and has transformed communications; and the role of union representatives has also evolved. There is therefore a good case for a more thorough revision of the code of practice.
That, indeed, was the key finding of the large-scale review of the facilities and facility time of workplace representatives that we undertook in 2007. Consequently, the chair of ACAS was asked in November 2007 to consider redrafting the code. I am glad to say that the ACAS council readily agreed to the request, and my fellow Ministers and I appreciate the council’s efforts and the work of ACAS officials in providing the revised draft for us to consider.
As hon. Members will know, ACAS is independent of Government and the views of its council, made up of leading figures in the employment relations field, carry great weight among practitioners. ACAS produced an initial draft of the code in December 2008 and put it out to public consultation. The consultation ended in March this year and 48 responses were received. The code was then redrafted to reflect the comments.
The substance of the draft code is before us for consideration and my Department has circulated a version that identifies the new wording that it contains. Those passages are underlined. I hope that hon. Members have received that version directly, but copies have also been placed in the Libraries.
The revision has left in place the existing structure of the code and its description of the legal framework. However, in producing the new draft, ACAS has made some significant changes to its guidance, and I will focus on those. As I have already stated, one of the main purposes of the code is to update the guidance to reflect the modern world of work. The revised code provides more information about the provision of cover when employees take time off to undertake their trade union duties. The issue has increased in importance over the years, reflecting the increased pressures on individual employees to meet job and team targets. That can make it difficult for a significant minority of union representatives to find sufficient opportunities to take time away from their jobs to undertake their union activities.
The draft code contains much more guidance than before on accessing facilities in the workplace. By “facilities” I mean the provision of such workplace amenities as rooms, office machinery and stationery. The draft code also discusses the impact of computers and other IT equipment on the work of representatives. Such equipment has transformed the workplace. It also enables representatives to communicate quickly and cheaply with members and union head offices, and provides a major portal for representatives to research issues speedily via the internet.
There is considerably more guidance in the code on confidential and sensitive communications involving union representatives. While representatives need to feel assured that the employer does not monitor their communications, workplace security also needs to be guaranteed. There is, therefore, a delicate balance to be struck and the code’s advice will help parties to develop practical solutions to any problems that they may encounter.
The tasks of trade union representatives are often complex and require knowledge of the law and workplace practices. Statute has recognised that fact for many years and entitles representatives to time off to be trained in their duties. The provision of training has changed a lot in recent years, as the draft code recognises; no longer is it predominantly classroom-based. One of the major developments in today’s modern workplace is the ability of employees to take advantage of e-learning tools. That is now reflected in the draft code, where previously it was not. The draft code also offers more guidance to line managers, whose knowledge of the law and employment practices is, of course, less extensive than that of human resources specialists. That layer of management is key to the smooth organisation of time off for representatives. The code therefore discusses their situation and the support that they need in practice.
The code of practice has already been through extensive consultation. The other place and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments have approved it. ACAS has done a very good job updating its guidance for time off entitlements. Its revised code gives both employers and employees the sort of practical information that they need to manage their industrial relations efficiently and effectively. This is a very good new code of practice, which ACAS has spent some time drawing up, as right hon. and hon. Members know, with input from both employers and employee representatives. For those reasons, I strongly commend the code to the Committee for approval.
4.37 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The code presents no huge policy issues for us. I appreciate the Minister’s having circulated a copy of the marked-up version, which made it much easier to read the changes. With whom did the Government consult on the code? The Minister mentioned with whom ACAS consulted, but not the Government. It would be of help to know.
It would be helpful if we had a little more detail on why it was thought necessary to amend the code; the Minister said that it had been in place for many years. When one reads a lot of the changes, they seem somewhat confusing. It is not that the wording is complicated—it is pretty straightforward—but I would have thought that some of it was unnecessary. For instance, the word “reasonable” is stuck in a lot throughout the code; there is mention of “reasonable hours worked”, “reasonable time off” and so forth. Were there unreasonable events that caused ACAS to believe that the code needed to be changed?
We discussed the code with the Engineering Employers Federation and the Confederation of British Industry, who have not had a great amount to say on it. The EEF were concerned about whether it could be seen as a way of imposing further obligations on employers through “soft” legislation. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that concern. She referred to new technology, to which I have seen references. Paragraph 27 refers to e-learning tools, and the Minister explained that the code had to be changed to reflect an e-commerce world.
However, rather than saying that e-learning tools should be used as an alternative, it seems that paragraph 27 is saying that they are no replacement for trade union officials needing time off to go on normal courses. Perhaps the Minister will comment on whether she feels that e-learning tools could be used as an aid to introduction to the work of the union, so that union representatives can undertake more of their training courses at their place of work.
4.41 pm
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): We welcome the revision of the code in principle. ACAS does a fantastic job, and I am sure that Members from all parts of the House hope that it will sit down with the postal workers’ union later this week to try to resolve some of their difficulties so that we can avoid strike action.
The Minister said that the revisions in the draft code before us were underlined. However, I can only see one underlining on page 21. Will she tell us what the revisions were and whether the explanatory memorandum might have been able to outline the difference between the old and new code? The Minister looks as confused as me. I imagine that that is probably my fault. It is right that we allow trade union representatives to get properly trained in this increasingly complex world. It is right, too, that they get time off for their activities and for training. I commend some of the excellent work that is going on in the current economic environment. Trade unions are working with management to preserve jobs and ride the recession. Anything that can facilitate that has to be good. In my constituency, the work of the unions with Land Rover has resulted in a way to work to the future, which looks very bright indeed.
4.43 pm
Ms Winterton: I am a bit worried, because the document that I was looking at earlier this afternoon had many more underlinings than the document that appears to be before us, so I can understand the hon. Lady’s concern. On page 53 of the earlier document, whole sections on e-learning were underlined. If the document before the Committee has not got the underlining in, then perhaps we could send the earlier document to her later.
I will try to set out some of the changes that have been made. First, let me address the point made by the hon. Member for Huntingdon about who was consulted. It was ACAS, and not the Government, that consulted on the code. I understand that 43 people responded to the public consultation, 24 of whom were from trade unions. Nine were from employer bodies. As I said, the whole idea of the work done by ACAS is to try to find agreement between employers and trade unions so that they can set out the new forms of work. Perhaps an answer to the hon. Member for Solihull is that the underlined version was sent directly to Committee members through the internal system; that is why it looks slightly different from the one that is before us. None the less, I will try to set out some of the changes.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon asked about the EEF. I have to say that there are not any changes in legislation. In fact, we will find that the code of practice provides greater clarification about how important it was to update it because of changes in the workplace and in technology. However, it does not require new legislation; it is simply meant to be helpful.
Some of the key changes, such as that relating to the role of the line manager, perhaps reflect some of the differences in the way that work, or employees, are organised in the workplace. There is a lot of guidance in the document about how important it is that line managers should understand the issues surrounding having time off, and how that can in fact benefit the dialogue between employers and trade unions. In some instances where the workplace has changed—for example, where there are smaller work stations—it is important that cover is given if somebody has time off, so that there is not an effect on other people in the workplace. That is one of the points made. The idea is to encourage businesses to use line managers effectively when arranging time off and, if necessary, when arranging cover for time off, so that, as I have said, other employees are not affected.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for that. This might sound a dumb question, but what statutory implications does a code of practice have if, for example, an employer does not wish to give time off? What sanction is there in law in relation to a code of practice?
The hon. Member for Huntingdon raised the issue of e-training. It is important to recognise that many aspects of training can be carried out using new technology, but that there will also be courses that people need to leave the workplace to undertake. That can obviously be especially helpful if, for example, there are discussions about how best practice has operated in different companies. It is important to be able to use outside-of-work training, as well as e-training.
The hon. Member for Solihull asked where, in particular, change has taken place. The new code encourages employers to provide access to e-training. Sometimes that might mean adjusting technology, so that, for example, an employee can gain access to union sites offering e-training courses. On confidentiality, the code mentions the need for both employers and trade unions to be aware of the issue and, in some instances, perhaps to draw up a protocol, so that employee or trade union representatives know that their e-mails are not being monitored. However, at the same time, that may require a person to gain access to a company’s internet database—
Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Server.
Ms Winterton: Server, yes. General issues of confidentiality should, of course, be respected.
I have set out the major ways in which the code has been updated. I stress that the provision was, as I have said, drawn up jointly with trade unions and employers. The hon. Member for Huntingdon raised the issue of what is “reasonable”. Again, in the culture that we are trying to bring in, there would be a dialogue between the trade union and the employer about what was expected and what was reasonable. However, there may be circumstances in which that changes. In these difficult economic times, there have been instances where employers and trade unions have perhaps had more discussions than usual because of issues that are difficult to take forward and might require a longer time off. It is about a culture of negotiation and discussion.
I hope that all hon. Members agree that this is a good code of practice. It was arrived at after lengthy discussions and quite wide-ranging consultation. I therefore commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
4.51 pm
Committee rose.

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