|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. It is obviously sensible to bring together a mass of legislative provisions. I am not sure that I can entirely agree with the Minister's concluding description of a simple code, bearing in mind that its volume will provide happy employment for lawyers at least for many years to come. I particularly welcome the explanation for Article 14 because it gives additional and justified protection to those who work in the National Health Service.
I have one or two questions. Is there any present thought being given to altering the Sunday trading laws in Northern Ireland, bearing in mind a rather different religious culture, in that perhaps more people go more readily to places of religion in Northern Ireland than they do in England and Wales? Similarly, is there any question of introducing the opening of betting offices in Northern Ireland? Is that under contemplation?
The Minister was good enough to say that she had instigated in 1995 a review of the situation with regard to employment appeal tribunals and the lack of availability in Northern Ireland. The year 1997 is not far from us, so the EAT is rapidly going to become the brother of the CICB, I believe, in that the Government constantly cogitate but do not decide. The EAT is a very important part of the mechanism in England and Wales because it offers the opportunity of not simply a presiding judge but also of representatives of people who know industry. Subject to one blemish, it has generally worked well in this country.
The blemish is delay. I wish to focus on that briefly as regards the industrial tribunal in Northern Ireland. What is the average length of time that it takes to have a case determined from the point of first application? Certainly in south-east England delays are up to two years. That is wholly unacceptable for someone whose only means of income has been taken away, whose only capital is his labour and who is not helped in any way, unless he happens to be in a union, by legal assistance and advice. Have the Government any proposals or thoughts about the introduction of legal aid to assist people in industrial tribunals? If the answer is no, is it contemplated that legal assistance will be available on a law shop basis, for instance? After all, the industrial tribunal was introduced--a hollow laugh is called for here--to be speedy and informal. It is very slow and it has the most convoluted legislation which an ordinary
Generally, this is a sensible, somewhat overdue mechanism for drawing together a mass of disparate provisions into two self-contained codes and on that basis I welcome it. But I believe that the industrial tribunals system still lacks resources to give what people really need, which is the speedy determination of what is at the centre of their lives; namely, loss of a job.
I have two questions. The first relates to the industrial tribunals order at page 7 in Article 6(3)(b) which introduces the unusual concept that if at any time the parties give their written consent for the tribunal to hear solely through the chair, they are not allowed subsequently to withdraw that consent and insist that two other members of the tribunal are present.
That raises two worries. The first is that people will be reluctant to give their consent to having the case heard solely by the chair because they know that they will be unable to withdraw their consent and insist on having other members of the tribunal there at a later stage if they are unsatisfied with the chair at the beginning. For that reason, the provision will presumably lead to more three-member tribunals, rather than fewer, as is presumably intended.
Secondly, it is an uncomfortable departure from normal practice. In criminal and civil proceedings most written statements can be withdrawn. Why is the case of industrial tribunals peculiar enough to warrant peculiar treatment? I realise that this is not specific to Northern Ireland. It is true in England. But I do not believe that it is a very good thing, and it needs to be justified.
I wish to ask a question about the employment rights order and Article 238 on page 217. The employment rights set out in this order do not apply to a significant number of people in Northern Ireland, including those who are in Crown employment. The public sector in Northern Ireland employs a far higher proportion of people than in the rest of the United Kingdom. The article is carefully worded so that it applies only to some people in Crown employment. Do these provisions remove the right for members of various security institutions to join a trade union, as in GCHQ? In that case, I believe that this is not to be welcomed. Approximately how many people are exempted from these employment rights by Article 238? I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to answer those questions. But in general we give these orders a hearty welcome.
Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the general welcome for these orders. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that perhaps a simpler code is the correct description. I also thank noble Lords for their courtesy in notifying me of their concerns.
As regards Sunday trading, that has been at consultation in Northern Ireland. The responses are being considered at the moment. My honourable friend will be bringing forward the results. However, a decision has been made in that there is a very strong groundswell in Northern Ireland against Sunday betting and there are no plans to proceed in that area at the moment. Should Sunday trading come forward, the protection of employees will be exactly the same as in Great Britain.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also asked whether we plan to proceed speedily with the employment appeal tribunal review. I disagree with the noble Lord. There are, I hope, still five months left in 1996--and 1997 seems a long enough period to give us time to look at the aspects which are being reviewed. This matter must be looked at in considerable depth because the aim was to have a simple and straightforward way in which people could examine such questions.
In addition, a report is due from SACHR on the operation of the fair employment legislation in Northern Ireland. We look forward to that. We imagine that the report will have ramifications for the fair employment tribunals which operate alongside the industrial tribunals. A lot of information is now coming towards us on which a decision can be made. I hope to give some comfort to the noble Lord when I say that we have not felt any great dissatisfaction with the current modus operandi.
I believe that we are all concerned about delays in relation to industrial tribunals. With a routine inquiry, the average length of time from registration of an industrial tribunal complaint to an offer of a first listing date for a hearing is between 15 and 20 weeks. I stress that that is the period for a straightforward matter and when it comes to sex discrimination and equal pay cases, the delay is somewhat longer. There is a backlog of 8,631 cases if one includes those categories with industrial tribunal cases. I hasten to assure your Lordships that that figure is inflated by the fact that about 80 per cent. are representative cases--that is, the outcome of several cases depends on the result of one. However, it is recognised that the industrial tribunal system is under pressure. That is why there is at present a review of industrial tribunals and that is why various steps are being considered to speed up the resolution of cases and to streamline procedures. It is intended that the present backlog of cases, which concerns us all, will be addressed as part of that review.
Legal aid is not available for legal representation at industrial tribunals. That is the same as the position in Great Britain. If the position in Great Britain were to be reviewed, we would take that into account in Northern Ireland. I stress again that the two orders that we are considering consolidate the present legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred to Article 6(3)(d) which again is a re-enactment. It is not a new provision. It is equivalent to Section 4 of the Industrial Tribunals Act, but that, too, will be considered in the review of industrial tribunals. I am sure that that will be the case here in Great Britain as well as in Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord rightly said, that is a matter of concern in both areas of legislation.
These provisions do not deal with the right of employees to join a trades union. That is dealt with in the Trades Unions and Labour Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The numbers affected are therefore not relevant to this legislation.