HC Deb 01 May 1963 vol 676 cc1187-95

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Whitelaw

I beg to move, in page 8, line 6, at the end to insert: and the periods of two and five years mentioned in section 1 of this Act shall be taken as 104 and 260 weeks respectively". The Amendment fulfils an undertaking which my right hon. Friend gave in Committee to remove a possible source of misunderstanding in the Bill as now drafted, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) had drawn attention.

In the first place, since in Clause 1 the qualifying periods of employment for two weeks' and four weeks' notice are reckoned in years, whereas under Schedule 1 periods of employment are calculated in weeks, one is left with the problem of deciding how to treat fractions of weeks. Moreover, under the rules some weeks may not count towards the qualifying period of employment, so that two calendar years after he is engaged an employee may still not have qualified under the Bill for two weeks' notice. The Amendment will expand paragraph 1(1) so as to make it quite clear how many weeks of employment which count under the rules have to elapse before the employee has qualified.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury said that many workers will never read the Bill, but will assume that they are getting rights after two or five calender years—or, as a result of an Amendment accepted today, six months; he suggested that they might not realise that they may not get these rights so soon if there are some weeks which do not count. In the great majority of cases this will not matter, because it will not become of practical importance. What is essential is that if it does become of practical importance, and uncertainty arises, it should be possible to decide whether a certain employee has qualified or not by reference to the Bill. The Amendment ensures this.

I should also point out that the Ministry of Labour will have to prepare a leaflet explaining in simple terms how the Bill works. The opportunity could be taken to explain the position fully, and so ensure that it is generally understood. With this explanation, I hope that the House will be willing to accept the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 8, line 27, leave out "working" and insert "employment".

In page 10, line 45, leave out "worked by" and insert "of employment of".

In page 11, line 1, leave out Schedule 2.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

9.6 p.m.

Mr. Whitelaw

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill marks a departure from our traditional approach to industrial relations whereby terms and conditions are settled voluntarily by industry itself. When a Bill is breaking new ground, there is obviously going to be room for improvement in the light of discussion and debate. Against this background I think that it can be said that this Bill has been much improved during its passage through the House. I make no apology for that, for surely it is one of the purposes of Parliament. Rather, I wish to thank, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, all hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee for their helpful and constructive contributions. I should also like to add my personal thanks to hon. Members for their kindness to me, perhaps particularly today during my right hon. Friend's unfortunate absence.

It is true that this Bill has the limited purpose of giving greater security through longer notice, and a written statement to each employee of his terms and conditions of service. Nevertheless, it does thereby benefit many millions of workers. Its value has been widely recognised. A remark by the hon. and learned Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) during the Committee stage discussions leads me to embark on a quotation—something unusual for me. And even the ranks of Tuscany Could scarce forbear to cheer For did not the hon. and learned Member himself say on 5th March: In the Bill we see the germ of something which may be good arid useful in our law"?—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 5th March, 1963; c. 8.] But this Bill cannot be considered on its own. It takes its place alongside our plans for industrial training and the proposals that we shall make regarding redundancy as part of the Government's policies to enable men and women to face industrial change with confidence and achieve our aims of economic growth. It provides yet further evidence of the positive approach to better industrial relations which is being increasingly recognised as the outstanding contribution of my right hon. Friend as Minister of Labour. My only regret today is that he is not here personally to complete this further stage of his planned advance.

9.10 p.m.

Mr. Gunter

I want, in the first place, to say on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends how much we regret the absence of the Minister today and that we hope he will soon be fully recovered. I also congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on his performance today. I stood in some awe of his containing capacity, which seemed unlimited. We were grateful when the Divisions came to help him out.

The Committee stage of this Bill was a very happy experience. Not for the first time Her Majesty's Opposition rescued the Government from their own back benchers on occasion. Nevertheless, I thought it a very fruitful Committee. I am happy to join with the Parliamentary Secretary in saying that this is a somewhat different Bill now before us from what it was before. I find it more cuddly than the skinny little thing with which we started. In Committee we managed to put some cover on the dry bones, not a lot, but nevertheless we covered the dry bones with something.

I am afraid that I cannot share the Parliamentary Secretary's great enthusiasm because, frankly, even now I do not think that it is of the major importance that the Government have attached to it. I think the Parliamentary Secretary and all hon. Members who were on, the Committee would agree that legislation dealing with industrial relations is very complex and complicated. The legislation has to be well thought out before we enter this field where the old Adam is still very much uppermost in men. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, often we cannot legislate against the tempers and sometimes irrationality of men. Nevertheless, this has been a first exercise. I am still persuaded, as I said on Second Reading, that the better course in the long run is for industry to come to terms with itself rather than to have legislation even of what to my mind is—I do not say this unkindly—of a somewhat trivial character.

In our discussions this afternoon we have excluded from the "little bit of paper" to which I referred the casual workers, and on the whole the vast majority of workers in Britain, even after this Bill becomes law, will have nothing more than a slip of paper giving the date on which their employment started. They will be directed to an accessible document.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

And a longer period of notice.

Mr. Gunter

That is not in itself entirely true. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) knows as well as I do that the most advanced employers are today doing this very thing. Anyway, in this period of courtesies, do not let us start that argument.

I still feel that it is in the field of radical alteration of the structure of the unions and their methods and outlook and of the methods and outlook of the employers in their federations that the final answer will be found. I hope that the efforts which the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary are making—I pay this tribute to them—in industry outside of legislation will bring a greater harvest than will this Bill. Nevertheless, on behalf of the Opposition I say that we enjoyed the exercise upstairs in Committee. For the good humour, the tolerance and the kindliness shown all round, we were grateful. We may still have another go in another place on some points, but, nevertheless, I say "Thank you" to the Parliamentary Secretary.

9.14 p.m.

Mr. Renton

I wish to endorse the tribute paid to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. He has excelled himself on this Bill. From the drafting point of view it was not an easy Bill. He had to display great clarity of mind as well as great patience. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that he has done his work excellently well.

I, too, wish to say how sorry I am that the Minister is not with us because his is the inspiration behind the Bill. I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) describe this as a trivial matter. Surely it cannot be a trivial matter when a Bill is designed to impose upon everybody the standards of the best. That is what the Bill does.

I understand that some small employers are worried—not greatly worried, but worried to some extent—about the further obligations of administration which the Bill imposes upon them. They should recognise that as our society develops everybody should be prepared to accept higher standards of administration and higher standards—ever higher standards year by year—in labour relations. I hope that on reflection those small employers, as they call themselves, who have had doubts about the Bill will feel that in the long run it is not only right but may well be in their own interests. I regard the Bill as a symptom of the further development of our civilised society. I will leave it at that.

I want to mention one point of detail. On Second Reading I was one of several hon. Members on his side of the House who felt that Clause 4, as it then stood, was not well applicable to casual temporary and part-time workers. The Government have given great thought to this matter. My feeling is that the Amendments which have been made today have made the position far more satisfactory, and we should acknowledge that in relation to those workers the Bill is now a workable and practicable Measure. For that I am very grateful to the Government.

9.16 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

Following the courtesies of the occasion, perhaps I should say a kindly word to the Parliamentary Secretary. The trouble is that he may be receiving too much praise. Like a good Scotsman, he becomes a little cautious when people praise him overmuch and he begins to wonder what is behind it. However, I admired the way that he handled the Committee proceedings from time to time in the absence of the senior Minister. I congratulate him on doing so much to put the Bill through its Committee stage.

The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Renton) somewhat misrepresented my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) when he quoted him as saying that this was a trival matter. I do not think that those were my hon. Friend's exact words. Although we on this side welcome the Bill, we regard it as a sort of trivial Bill. That is a somewhat different matter. It is trivial in the respect that the Bill gives legislative sanction to something that is already being done. There is nothing new from that point of view. It brings in more people than were covered before. As the Parliamentary Secretary said, many millions are within the scope of the Bill who were not covered before. The weakness of this Measure is that many millions who should be covered by it are still without any protection. Far too many people are outside the Bill.

I noted that when the Parliamentary Secretary moved the Motion he said that another step lies before us and that in due course we should have proposals for redundancy from the Government. This matter of redundancy and severance pay was frequently aired in Committee. I take it that what we have had tonight is a solemn and official promise from the Government that proposals for severance pay are now under consideration and will in due course be presented as a Government Measure covering this very important and vast topic.

Mr. Whitelaw

I must point out that nothing I say in any way detracts from, adds to or does anything else in regard to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this subject. He said that legislation would be introduced in the autumn if necessary. That is what he said and the hon. Member must not put words into my mouth and expand his speech on them.

Mr. Rankin

Already we have qualifications. The Chancellor of the Exchequer used the phrase "if necessary", and that in a qualification. When speaking tonight the Parliamentary Secretary did not use that phase, but said that proposals would be made for redundancy. That statement was quite unqualified and I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going back on his words, because my hon. Friends and I are expecting that in due course the Government will face this big issue of severance pay.

That was the important problem on my mind, but knowing that hon. Members would rather I did not delay the House for too long I will say no more on that subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] If there is to be implied encouragement for me to continue I am perfectly willing to accept it, although I know that, at any rate my hon. Friends are anxious to get on to another Measure—the Local Employment Bill. As, it would seem, my hon. Friends are cheering me, apparently urging me to continue—although the cheers from hon. Members opposite are, I think, for another purpose—I am rather between the devil and the deep blue sea, so I think that I had better resume my seat; but not before again congratulating the Parliamentary Secretary and assuring him that I have noted with great approval the statement he made about severance pay.

9.27 p.m.

Mr. Shepherd

I intend to be brief and not to detain the House for even as long as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin).

Mr. Rankin

I did not detain the House for long.

Mr. Shepherd

True, and the hon. Member's brevity was certainly unusual.

It is probably true that in some particular this is a trivial Bill, although its significance is, nevertheless, considerable. It is trivial because it is very difficult to get agreement from large organisations, whether confederations of employers or trade unions, on what would be the most progressive attitude displayed by individual members of those organisations. It is probably just as difficult for Governments to get some of their back benchers to agree on some of the more progressive ideas they have in their minds.

Despite this, it is a Bill of significance in that it shows that we are attempting to give some sort of security to men in their jobs. Security to people in their jobs, including the dignity which goes with it in their employment, is a vital factor. Bad behaviour in human life springs more from insecurity than from any other single factor; and, if the Bill does even a small part in giving some idea of security to the majority of workers, it will have served a worth while purpose.

The hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) was absolutely right when he said that the real task lies outside that of legislation. To get all the recalcitrant elements in the trade unions and employers' organisations together in policy that is progressive is an almost impossible task. Nevertheless, we are doing it slowly and tomorrow a bad employer can turn himself into a good one. He can become the leader in his field. He can do his job in terms of management and human relations tomorrow much better than he might be doing it today; and if tomorrow, as a result of the Bill in part and the efforts of people inside and outside Parliament, we get a new spirit among employers, with them giving a lead, then we shall be seeing in the next year or so some substantial results. If the hon. Member for Southwark and his hon. Friends can get some of their colleagues in the trade union movement to come along in this direction, too, we will be well on the way to achieving something much better.

9.25 p.m.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

It is not my desire to strike a discordant note in this harmonious atmosphere, but I was struck by the Parliamentary Secretary's remark, when moving the Third Reading of this Bill, that it would be the duty of his right hon. Friend to prepare a leaflet explaining to the unemployed person how the Measure worked. I have made the plea before, and I make it again with the same seriousness as hitherto, that the leaflet should be worded as simply as possible so that the person reading it can understand it.

The unemployed person pays his contribution to be given some security when he is unemployed but, when he is presented with regulations, he very often cannot understand them and has to seek the assistance of his trade union secretary. For many years it was my job, on behalf of the National Union of Mineworkers, to interpret the regulations. The Minister has in his Department trained men who can so simplify the regulations as to make them easily understood. I hope that some attention will be given to what I call the simplicity of the regulations which govern the payment of the unfortunate unemployed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.