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Baroness Turner of Camden: I hope that the Minister will not feel tempted to accept this amendment. The noble Baroness herself said that "commercially confidential" probably did not apply to all the information contained in sub-paragraph 2. The amendment's wording gives the employer the absolute right to withhold any such information.
It seems to me that the way in which these amendments are phrased gives an employer the opportunity to delay the recognition procedures. It is a loophole in the procedures which I do not think is a very good idea. The noble Baroness says that she is not against unions campaigning, and I am glad that she is not. However, it seems to me that if this proposal is accepted, it will have an inhibiting effect on campaigning by the unions. I am therefore not in favour of accepting this wording.
Lord Triesman: As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has explained, these amendments all relate to a concern about requirements in a number of the Bill's
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clauses for the disclosure of information, a matter which the Government, like the noble Baroness, take very seriously.
Clauses 3, 5, 15 and 18 all require the disclosure of information. The purpose of every one of them is not to allow unions privileged access to otherwise secret information. Their purpose is to ensure the sharing of information to enable better informed decision-making by the parties, the CAC and the workers. I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that sharing information can help lead to agreement and to sensible bargaining positions, which can only be beneficial, in order to ensure that there is a smooth procedure and a positive dialogue between the parties. Conflict so often seems to result from the fact that people have not shared information adequately; they have misapprehensions and misunderstandings about each other's position and driftsometimes by accidentinto dispute.
A number of general principles have underpinned the Government's thinking in constructing these provisions. First, in accordance with data protection rules, under none of the affected clauses would the identity or home addresses of individuals be disclosed to the union. Clause 18 additionally ensures that evidence supplied by the union containing the names of individual union members is not disclosed to the employer.
Clauses 5 and 15 are therefore constructed so that the names and addresses of workers are provided only to the CAC, which passes them to an appointed independent person. The independent person will send out communications on the union's behalf. The union will not, therefore, gain direct access to the workers or their details under these provisions. Those details will be safeguarded by an independent and respected organisation in accordance with the data protection legislation.
We have provided for direct disclosure to the union in Clause 3. The information to be disclosed is general information about numbers of workers, their categories and locations and nothing else. The Government do not believe that such information is ever likely to threaten either the commercial interests of the employer or the security of the business or of its workforce.
Furthermore, a number of the noble Baroness's amendments seek to introduce a procedure whereby the employers may apply to the CAC to withhold sensitive information. As I have said, the Government do not believe that the information required is likely to be sensitive in that sense. Putting in place an additional procedure and decision point for the CAC would therefore be unnecessary and simply create greater scope for mischievous employers to seek to delay the process.
Therefore, I can understand and sympathise with the spirit in which these amendments were tabled, but I do not believe that they are necessary. The
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Government have already taken steps to ensure that privileged or sensitive information is not placed in the public domain.
What I have said applies to all the amendments in this group. With the Committee's permission, however, I shall touch on some key aspects of individual amendments, which I think are most important in the general case for transparency.
Amendment No. 1 concerns the duty on the employer, which is introduced in Clause 3, to provide basic information to the union about the characteristics of the workforce in the union's proposed bargaining unit. The amendment seems to deal with the practical difficulties which the employer may possibly encounter when fulfilling this duty.
The duty introduced by Clause 3 applies only after the union's application to the CAC has been accepted as admissible by the CAC. A great deal of water will have flowed under the bridge before we reach that point. The union must have made a direct request to the employer for recognition, which might have been followed by a period of ACAS conciliation. Some dialogue between the union and the employer will have taken place in many cases, as well as written communication.
Only if that process fails to resolve the issue is the union entitled to make a formal application to the CAC for recognition. I should add that, under paragraph 34 of the statutory procedure, the union is already obliged to send the application to the employer as well. So, the second part of the noble Baroness's amendment which refers to this process is not needed because it is already there.
The CAC process of assessing the admissibility of a union's application involves various steps, and often includes an oral hearing and checks of union membership. The employer and the union frequently assemble and present additional information for the CAC to enable it to make this key decision. The process often teases out any definitional issues about the union's proposed bargaining unit. Greater clarity is achieved as a consequence of going through the process.
All that shows that the employer will normally have all the information that he needs to meet the duty imposed by Clause 3 by the time a union's application reaches this point in the procedure. I do not think it could be said that it would create an extra burden on employers. They are not suddenly confronted with the matter for the first time and they are usually very well versed in the case at that stage. In addition, the clause already provides safeguards for the employer in so far as the information he provides must be as accurate,
The amendment seeks to place a further limitation on the accuracy of the information that the employer must supply by referring back to the union's original application to the CAC. It is hard to see the practical advantage of doing that. The only piece of information in the application that is relevant to the employer's
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duty is the definition of the proposed bargaining unit. It could be that the noble Baroness is concerned about the clarity of the union's proposed bargaining unit.
I made the point earlier that if there were any doubt about the issues that were involved, it should have been explored in detail by the parties and the CAC before the admissibility decision was taken. The CAC would already have taken a view on the definition of the proposed bargaining unit. The obligation on the employer is therefore to provide the data relating to the unit so defined.
I turn now to Amendment No. 2, which would also amend Clause 3. As your Lordships will no doubt be aware, a similar amendment was tabled by the Opposition in the other place, as the noble Baroness said. She made the point, with which I completely agree, that this is technically a more proficient version of the amendment, indicating where responsibility for deciding the issue and the burden of proof should lie.
In the other place there was a lengthy discussion of the case of Huntingdon Life Sciences where, regrettably, the workforce has been subject to the worst sorts of threats and abuse from militant animal rights activists and great public disquiet was caused as a result. If I might echo sentiments expressed during that debate, I suggest to your Lordships that the information which must be shared with the union would not, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, help similar groups to take this sort of action against employees. The information will not contain the names or home addresses of any workers. Moreover, the union will have just as strong an interest as the employer in ensuring that the security of its members is not put at risk.
Having represented people working in life sciences and in some of the most controversial areas such as primate research in the university world, I know from personal experience that we went to the greatest possible lengths to protect members in that union context. Indeed, we held regular discussions with the Home Office and others to ensure that the members were protected. We would most certainly never, casually or in any other way, have placed any of our members at risk in any sense. I am afraid that knowledge about the whereabouts of people involved in this research arises elsewhere.
In practice, during negotiations over the bargaining unit this information is usually revealed by the employer in any case. The purpose of Clause 3 is merely to ensure that information is shared in a more systematic way and at the earliest possible moment.
I turn now to Amendment No. 32. This goes to the heart of Clause 15 and the new paragraph 166A it would insert into the statutory procedure. Its effect is
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more or less to wreck the clause and to ensure that the Secretary of State would not be in a position to use the power contained in new paragraph 166A.
The purpose of the power is in the future to enable QIPs to send union material to workers in the balloting unit by non-postal means. The amendment would make that impossible because it restricts the information which the employer must supply to the CACand thereby the QIPto data which is relevant to postal communication only.
Clause 15 looks to the future. Its purpose is to enable communication to take place using new technologies. The clause gives a power to the Secretary of State to amend the duty of the employer so that he must provide a different sort of address to the CAC in addition to the worker's home address. This will enable the QIP to send communications by new means; for example, by e-mail.
New technologies are developing rapidly. We have seen the rise in the use of mobile phones, text messaging and even video phones. That is why it makes sense to take a power now to provide for e-enabled communications in the future at a time when such communications will be accessible to all and will have proved their suitability for this sensitive purpose. This will allow us to give careful consideration to the appropriateness for this purpose of new technologies as they develop.
We recognise that employers might have some concerns about disclosure of e-mail addresses to the CAC. In deciding when and how to exercise that power, the Government will have regard to those concerns. For example, we recognise that, as a matter of course, employers do not currently hold workers' personal e-mail addresses; indeed, it may be unusual for employers to hold them at all. However, the situation is changing and that is why we are taking the power to be exercised only when we are satisfied that the duty to supply e-mail or other addresses will not place an undue burden on employers.
It is as well to be cautious about such matters. I would not have predicted the extent to which new technologies are now in use had I been asked questions on the subject 10 or 15 years ago. However, because of the rapid development of technologies, we have all learned how quickly new technologies become commonplace in our working lives. Rather than being backward-looking, I hope that the explanation that I have given, although cautious, shows that we are trying to be forward-looking in a way that I believe we can all live with.
I apologise for replying at length, but the noble Baroness has rightly been concerned with the necessity to protect the parties and the workers from disclosure of sensitive information without their consent. I hope that I have reassured her that the Government have given careful consideration to the matter. We have taken every care to ensure that no genuinely sensitive information must be disclosed by one party to the other. Where such information must be disclosed, it must be disclosed only to trusted independent bodies
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in accordance with data protection rules. In that light, I respectfully ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
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