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It has been repeatedly demonstrated in studies from a range of countries that worker activity, with union support behind it, is a major factor in increasing the opportunity for equality at work. Statistics show that better standards of equality of opportunity are achieved in unionised workplaces than in similar non-unionised ones. As a former equal opportunities commissioner, I obviously welcome this. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that I hope I was a progressive commissioner.
Equality representatives are at the core of the amendment. There are hundreds of thousands of equality representatives appointed and supported by trade unions and their members in the United Kingdom. They are important people in industrial relations. It has been estimated that they save society between approximately £200 million and £600 million each year. This results from a reduction in lost time. It involves race, gender and disability equality issues, as well as age and sexual orientation matters.
The amount of time equality representatives spend on their activities varies considerably. In a 2009 survey by the TUC, 88 per cent of equality representatives had spent time on providing information on equality issues to members, 77 per cent on promoting good equality practice and 61 per cent on assisting employees with investigations for discrimination and harassment complaints. Sixty per cent had been involved with flexible-working requests, 59 per cent with discriminatory practices and 41 per cent with requests for parental leave. That is just a flavour of what equality representatives do.
This all sounds very good, so why this amendment? A recent TUC survey found that only 36 per cent of equality representatives had an employer who automatically consulted with them frequently, only 26 per cent actually negotiated with union representatives and 22 per cent of employers never involved their union reps. A failure to consult with the workforce, or even to respond to points raised, can have devastating consequences. On the other hand, equality representatives working with the employer can intervene very positively towards the well-being of employees. This amendment shows the kind of legislation which would be of great help to both sides of industry.
The TUC, which I thank for this briefing, believes that equality representation should not be an add-on to the overall well-being of employees. Consultation with the workforce should be an automatic action for any good employer and any Government claiming to care for the well-being of the country's workforce should provide legislation to assist it. I know that the Government are unlikely to accept this amendment and I have no intention of pushing it to a vote, but it is an important issue, especially to individual trade unions and their members and to the TUC, so I hope that a way forward can be found for a constructive debate on the question of legislation to support equality representatives. I beg to move.
Lord Hunt of Wirral: I share the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen. I should declare an interest, having once been a solicitor for the Transport and General Workers' Union. An awful lot of people do not realise the extent of advice and support that goes on within a trade union. So much focus is put on the political side-particularly by the militants-that people forget the enormous amount of work involved. Mr Blyton of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who I used to work for, was an example to everyone of how to ensure that people got the best advice.
Have the Government done any assessment of the additional amount of work that is going to be necessary? The noble Baroness made the point in her Second Reading speech that she felt that the work would dramatically increase. I am worried about that. Do the Government envisage that the impact of this Bill would be so great as to put an enormous amount of additional work on the shoulders of trade union equality representatives, and have they done any work in this respect? What discussions have taken place with businesses and what consultation has occurred on how best to deal with this? How much time do they envisage should be permissible or allowable, for instance, under
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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I agree with the speech we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral. In the old days trade unions were very often on the wrong side in discrimination cases and then it began to change. The Transport and General Workers' Union under Jack Jones was conspicuous, as were the white collar unions, eventually overcoming prejudice in the craft unions, for example, on the basis of race.
We are dealing with highly vulnerable groups. Trade unions are indispensable in standing up for the underdog and trying to redress some of the balance. Part 1 of the Bill refers to socioeconomic disadvantage; the trade union movement stands for removing it. Time off to allow trade union representatives to tackle inequality is extremely important. Although I agree that specific questions need to be dealt with, I totally support the objective of the amendment.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am pleased to speak on Amendment 97, tabled by my noble friend Lady Gibson. We had a flurry of anxiety earlier because we were not quite sure that she was here, but she was of course in her office watching us on the television. I am very pleased that she is here to speak to this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, reminded me that one trade union fiercely resisted the introduction of women into one of our major emergency services in the early 1980s. I remember that quite clearly; I was cutting my teeth in the London Labour Party at the time.
The intention of the amendment is to give trade union equality representatives a statutory right to reasonable paid time off to perform their functions and for training. It is commonly referred to as "facility time". Currently, only trade union officials, union learning representatives and safety representatives have a statutory right to facility time. There is agreement across the Chamber that equality representatives do a brilliant job, and the Government very much support their work.
Following a recommendation by the Women and Work Commission, the Government have spent just over £1.5 million from the union modernisation fund and the Government Equalities Office on building capacity and supporting the evaluation of the effectiveness of this relatively new type of trade union representative.
This funding came to an end in December, and we have now received and are carefully considering a report of the evaluation, which will be published shortly by the TUC. I am pleased to say this report is very positive about the impact that equality reps are having in the workplace.
The report acknowledges that statutory time off would enable equality reps to increase the amount of time they spend on the role and help attract new equality reps. This does not, however, represent a compelling case in itself. My noble friend would surely acknowledge that to make real progress in this area of employment relations there has to be greater consensus between trade unions and business, although I think that there is great hope for the future.
In September and October last year, the Government Equalities Office conducted a round of discussions with employers and other key stakeholders on the right to facility time for equality representatives. Opinions received were fairly equally divided along predictable lines.
There is not yet sufficient empirical evidence that time off should come through the law. However, in addition to statutory time off, the evaluation report points to other, non-statutory ways of developing the role through guidance. We are committed to working with the TUC and business to consider what else we can do to foster a consensus on the way forward. We will not forget the legislative option, but we do not believe that the time is right now.
Given what I have said, I hope that my noble friend knows that we are committed to and will continue to support the development of equality reps as part of our wider equality agenda. I ask her to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Lester, for their positive contributions to this debate, which I very much appreciated. I also thank my noble friend the Minister for her positive response regarding future working with the TUC. That is all that I was trying to achieve with the amendment. On that positive note, I beg leave to withdraw it.
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