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Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I too thank the Minister for explaining this new code of practice. As he said, it puts into effect the proposals in relation to statutory trade union learning representatives, which were incorporated, with support from these Benches, into last summer's Employment Act.
The purpose of the trade union learning representatives is to facilitate access to learning in the workplace. At present, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made clear, the emphasis is on basic skills. There are some 7 million adult employees in this countryapproximately 25 per cent of the workforcewithout a level 2 qualification, which means that they do not have a qualification equivalent to five A to C grade GCSEs. Many of them have no qualifications at all. Many of those people have problems with basic literacy and numeracy, which, in turn, has knock-on effects on their ability to cope with more complex job responsibilities; for example, reading health and safety requirements on new machinery. That inhibits their performance in the workplace. A perennial problem of British industry is its low productivity performance.
Pilot studies found that trade union learning representatives were an effective way of encouraging people with low skills levels to upgrade their skills. Often such people did not wish to reveal their lack of competence to their fellow workers, let alone to management, but many of them have been willing to talk to their trade union colleagues about those issues, seeing them as neutrals in whom they can confide. The success of the pilots encouraged the Government to incorporate the trade union learning representatives into the 2002 legislation.
On these Benches we back the proposals 100 per cent. We share the Government's concern with the lack of basic skills in the workforce and we are pleased to see the success of the pilots. Building on them, the whole learndirect initiative plays an important part in the basic skills agenda. These initiatives are, as I understand them, complementary to the trade union learning representatives rather than being competitive with them. Many basic skills initiatives work with the trade union learning representatives.
We welcome therefore the extension of the role of trade unions into the training function and the prospect that every unionised workplace will have such learning representatives. We are not worried about these issues because we think thatand many empirical studies have shown thisincreased skills increase productivity. That is very much to the advantage of particularly small and medium-sized firms where the big problem of upgrading of, so to speak, hi-tech in low-tech industry really lies. One
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she not agree that some companies in the first place cannot even afford the time off for their employees? It is a vicious circle. If they cannot afford the time off, then the choice for them is to go out of business or to be taken to court.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I point out that these apply only to places that are unionised. Many very small industries are not unionised at the moment. That is perhaps one of their problems.
We think that ACAS has struck the right balance in these proposals. It is obviously sensible to make sure that such people are properly trained before putting them into a position where they are advising others. We endorse these proposals.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Baronesses who have contributed to the debate. I shall try to answer as accurately as I can the specific questions which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, introduced into it. On the issue of consultation, representatives of smaller businesses did reply to it. ACAS certainly sent out its document for the widest possible consultation. The Institute of Directors, for instance, responded to it, as did the British Metals Recycling Association. That association contains many small companies. I recogniseI think we always feel this with any form of consultationthat if we have less than a 100 per cent response then we have not consulted everyone. It would always be advisable and best if we could. It is in the nature of these documents. It is a free country. People make up their own minds whether or not they respond. What we do have is an overwhelmingly positive response.
The noble Baroness contends that that is principally because the larger companies would respond, but it is also the case that the larger companies are rather more involved in this work than the very smallest. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, indicated, the very small companies are less likely to have trade union representatives and therefore less likely to come within the scope of this measure. I accept the point that we would always want to get a 100 per cent response to consultation if that were ever possible.
On the issue of basic skills, the noble Baroness referred to young people. I reassure her and confirm her in her own knowledge that we are not talking just about young people. The idea that the literacy and low skill levels of this country are attributable only to the 20 years in which the Conservative Government were in control of education would not be a fair charge to make. The story goes a long way back in terms of low level of skills in this country. What is different is that we now have an administration that is setting out to address it at the very highest level.
I am grateful for the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, in which she established the context for this code and the work to be done. It is in the context which the Chancellor put in his speech this afternoon on the Budget of how much we need to increase productivity. That does of course require the necessary investment and support to our industry in all kinds of ways. However, it also needs a significant level of skills in industry, as we know that by every international measure Britain compares very poorly in that respect. It is a key aspect in our relatively low level of productivity.
That is whyalthough, as the noble Baroness rightly said, other agencies such as the Basic Skills Agency are involved in that work and doing an excellent jobthere cannot be too much provision of opportunity to enhance skills among people. They must, by definition, have had a poor educational experience of some kind in the past and a dearth of opportunities, otherwise they would enjoy the skills that they require but clearly do not have. That is robbing them of their opportunities and, what is more, is robbing us in the wider society of the ability to benefit from their enhanced skills.
That is why we consider that feature as important in contributing to the training opportunities of the country. Why is it compulsory? If all employers took such a keen interest in the development of their workforce, their training, education and opportunities for enhancement, they would have responded positively, in the way pleaded by the noble Baroness, to the measure and considered it as an opportunity to enhance their productivity and therefore their potential profit.
In fact, of course, the charge that the noble Baroness laid at our doorthe limited responseis part and parcel of what we know to be a generation-long problem, if not longer, of the relatively little attention paid to training and skills opportunities in this country. Employers must take their share of responsibility for that.
The noble Baroness asked about the definition of "reasonableness". She no doubt knows that there is no statutory definition of "reasonableness" as, on the whole, the law is not constructed by theoretical philosophers and the definition of reasonableness is often contested by competing interests. However, within the framework of employment law and the relationship between employers and trade union representatives, we all know what we mean by reasonableness. We mean where a bargain can reasonably be struck.
The noble Baroness is right to say that that will vary between a large company, which can allocate more time to a larger number of employees to engage in such activity, and a smaller company that needs the activity and energy of the people who work for it devoted overwhelmingly to the work that ensures that the company continues in business. But that is why the concept of reasonableness is there: because the bargain needs to be struck. I am happy to say that, on the
The law is necessary to ensure that trade unionists have rights and that employers have obligations to respond to them. Nevertheless, what must be achieved in the relationship between them must be reasonable. That is why that term appears in the code.
On the question of how many ULRs will appear, I am tempted to say, in the vernacular, "The more, the merrier", but that might be too jocular. Let me state the obvious point. There are 100,000 full-time trade union representatives in this country. The figure cited of 22,000 by 2010 would mean that the number involved in that essential work would be only one-fifth of the total present number of full-time trade union representatives doing union work. I said full-time; I meant full-time and lay people who perform trade union work and are defined as trade union representatives.
So we do not seek an expansion above and beyond what obtains at present. Those people will be far in excess of the number of ULRs. Far from being excessiveI think that the noble Baroness cited the figure of one in 11 workers
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