Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My Lords, my noble friend raised some interesting questions, but they do not relate to what can fairly be described as a technical amendment. The amendment proposes that we leave out,

and insert,

which is a fairly technical point. The amendment relates to the terminology used in the pre-industrial action ballot notices to describe the workplaces of those involved. It has the effect of reversing one of the technical amendments that were tabled by the Government on Report.

At Report we stated that our purpose in referring to the,

was to ensure consistency and clarity across various provisions in trade union law. New subsection (2I) of Section 226A, which Clause 21 would insert, defines the meaning of "workplace" in this context and clarifies the position of a person who works from several premises.

Let me assure my noble friends that the amendments in this area that were accepted at Report were designed entirely to ensure the consistency and clarity mentioned. They were not intended to narrow the scope of the provisions, but to improve the way in which they deal with the position of workers working at or from more than one set of premises. I do not believe that they have any effects with which my noble friends would not agree. In our view, there would be potential for unnecessary confusion to arise if different constructions were used to describe "workplaces". The courts might be tempted to infer that some difference in meaning was intended between,


simply because those different formulations had been used.

My noble friend Lady Turner raised the question of peripatetic workers, or people who work in more than one place. The union would, as she said, normally need to indicate the premises with which the employer's employment had the closest connection. Of course, the information given by the union is required to be as accurate only as is reasonably practicable, in the light of the information available to it. It follows that if there was inadequate information available about the premises
8 Sept 2004 : Column 648
with which a peripatetic employee's employment had the closest connection, a failure to include information in the notice would not result in any breach of the clause's requirement. Clause 21 does not extend the information which the union should supply.

I hope those explanations satisfy my noble friends, and I urge my noble friend to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that explanation. I fully agree that we should perhaps have raised this matter on Report, when the whole issue of workplaces was before the House. As I explained, I did not do so until I looked at the Bill as amended on Report; then the problem arising from workplaces immediately became apparent to me. However, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for his assurance that the union must produce information only as reasonably accurately as it can be expected to do so. In other words, there is a certain cover for a union not being able to produce information because of the spread of the workplaces, and so on. Of course, we shall have to see how that works out in practice. I hope that our fears are not justified, and I am grateful for the assurances that have been given, which now appear on the record. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 [Dismissal where employees taking protected industrial action locked out]:

Lord McCarthy moved Amendment No. 13:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have a quite unique position here, which we are very pleased about. This is really an amalgamated amendment; those who saw the previous amendments will know that we tabled an amendment in precisely the same words, only to find when the list came out that the Government had tabled an amendment in precisely the same words as us. I have been in this House for almost 30 years, and I have never known the Government and Back Benchers to table identical amendments. At least it means that the amendment is likely to go through. We are very pleased about that.

The point is that we have tried to get this amendment into other Bills; we tried to get it into this Bill, and we tabled it in Committee and on Report. The Minister gave very good arguments for his point of view, which I shall not go through because it would not be fair. The fact is that the Government have agreed with us, but I cannot give them 10 out of 10.

What are we doing with this amendment? We are extending the period in which there is protected industrial action, in our sense. I say in our sense because one is not protected—one can be dismissed. If one was dismissed one might get compensation, but one will not get reinstatement. So it is not a proper right, but a right not to be dismissed without compensation. That is what it is.

The period is going to be extended from eight weeks to 12 weeks. Some people said, when we tabled the amendment before—I believe they were members of
8 Sept 2004 : Column 649
the Opposition, but perhaps it was in another place—that such a measure would foster a great deal of industrial action. The Government in reply said that it would not, because there were only three or four strikes that lasted eight weeks last year, and that there would not be a lot more that lasted 12 weeks. That is right: people go on strike, and in my experience as an arbitrator or mediator of 30 years or so, if they do not get something in the first fortnight, they had better go back to work, because they are not going to win. Nevertheless, some of them do; some of them feel that they have to protest; some of them feel that they are defending the position of people who have been dismissed. That is what they do.

I fully accept that this Government have done quite a lot to improve on that condition and make the eight weeks a real eight weeks; that has been their defence so far. Now they are making the period 12 weeks. However, there is something that they are not doing—and we must say this, because we say it every time, and all of a sudden the Government do something, so we must go back and say it again. What workers are entitled to, and what workers have in virtually every other European country, is an indefinite right to strike—because in that case, one does not break the contract, one suspends the contract. In virtually every other European country you suspend the contract. That constitutes a right to strike. That means that you cannot be dismissed and if you were dismissed you would be reinstated. That is a proper right to strike. However, we do not have that in this country. The measure does not result in a vast number of strikes in Switzerland, Germany or France because people go back to work. They go back to work because they are losing money. We are not suggesting that they should be paid. They go back to work because in most cases they know that if they cannot get somewhere in a short period of time, they had better go back to work. That is a right, or it should be a right, but it is not. Therefore, I am afraid that I cannot give the Government 10 out of 10.

When I was at school we were marked for effort and achievement. I give the Government two for effort but I cannot give them more than one for achievement. They have to do better. However, they have done well tonight and I am very pleased to move this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, I have never been a teacher. Therefore, I would not dream of giving the Government marks out of 10. However, in the meeting that we had with the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, he certainly satisfied me that the amendments were perfectly acceptable. We therefore obviously accept them.

Lord Triesman: My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment No. 13 and to Amendment No. 43 to the schedule. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for her kindness in responding to what we have attempted to do. I appreciate how hard it will have been for the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, to have waited 30 years
8 Sept 2004 : Column 650
for a first, but I would have hoped that, having achieved one, he might have accorded us more than one or two out of 10. I always thought in the days when I taught in universities that when you had exactly the same words as on the examiners' guide script, 10 out of 10 was about right. That was the basis on which I always worked.

As my noble friends have explained, the aim of this amendment is to extend the basic period of protection against unfair dismissal for employees taking lawfully organised official industrial action from eight to 12 weeks. The amendment itself increases the protected period accordingly.

We have debated the protections for those taking part in industrial action many times both during our consideration of this Bill and in the passage of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Trade unions have called for an indefinite protection for workers taking part in lawful action. My noble friends have pointed out that several European countries have laws which ensure workers cannot be sacked at all for taking industrial action. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, made the point that there is not an explicit right to strike in UK law. I do not think that there is a need for such an explicit right. Our law is very clear: it provides the necessary freedoms to take industrial action as it stands. In particular, Section 236 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 ensures that no court can compel a person to work. The Government take the position that it is necessary to put a time limit on the period during which it is automatically unfair to dismiss someone taking protected legal industrial action. We need to balance the legitimate interests of the employer with those of the union members.

However, we have taken note of the very strong views that have been expressed by trade unions and others on this point. On reflection, we consider that a modest extension of the protected period would address their concerns adequately. Of course, most industrial action is shortlived. The existing eight-week period covers the bulk of industrial action. Estimates by the Office for National Statistics indicate that 93 per cent of stoppages last fewer than eight weeks. The corresponding figure for industrial action lasting fewer than 12 weeks is 96.5 per cent. So we are really talking about a tiny number. Stoppages are themselves at an all time low since records started 84 years ago, in 1920. In 2003, there were just 133 stoppages.

Our review of the Employment Relations Act 1999 noted that industrial action remained relatively low in the UK since the eight-week period of protection was introduced. In fact, stoppages have been going down to an all time low. The extension to 12 weeks will not adversely affect the amount of strike activity. It may give valuable additional time on occasions for parties to resolve disputes amicably before the potential sanction of dismissal becomes available to the employer.

We have listened to the views on all sides, and believe that the Government should lend our support to the amendment and the amendment grouped with
8 Sept 2004 : Column 651
it. We do not believe that it will adversely affect employers or the climate of industrial relations, so I strongly commend it to the House. I thank the Opposition for their attitude to it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page