HC Deb 21 July 1965 vol 716 cc1748-54
Mr. Thornton

I beg to move Amendment No. 51, Clause 27, in page 21, line 23, to leave out from "made" to the end of line 25 and to insert: at or before a time prescribed by the regulations". I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that it would be for the convenience of the House if we took at the same time Government Amendments Nos. 52, 54, 55, 61 and 62, and also, if that would be in order, the Opposition Amendment No. 53, in page 21, line 26, to leave out paragraph (b). All these Amendments are related.

Mr. Speaker

As regards the Government Amendments, the Chair has no objection, if the House so pleases. But I think it essential, in that context, to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 53 in the name of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) and his hon. Friends. If that pleases the House, so be it.

Mr. Thornton

Clause 27(4), to which all these Amendments relate, except for the small consequential Amendments to subsection (6) and Clause 31, deals with the Minister's power to make regulations governing the making of claims by employers for rebates from the fund.

Paragraph (b) enables the Minister to require notice of intention to claim before the redundancies in question actually occur. The main change made by the Government Amendments is to insert a limit on the extent of advance notice which the regulations may require. This meets a point raised by some hon. Members opposite in Committee. The proposed new paragraph (b) provides that regulations may not require advance notice of claims more than four weeks before the date on which the contract of the worker concerned is terminated. This does not mean that it is our intention to require as much as four weeks' notice in all cases. As we indicated in Standing Committee, we propose to require less notice than this where relatively small numbers are involved. But the detailed provisions are best left to the regulations, if only because it may well prove desirable, in this new field, to modify them in the light of experience of administration of the scheme.

The four weeks limit applies only to claims relating to dismissals, though these will constitute the overwhelming majority of claims. The reason for this is that, where claims relate to payments in respect of lay-off or short time, the situation is much more complex and it would require some complicated provisions to define, in the various circumstances, the point in time from which any time limit on advance notice should run. Claims of this kind will, in our view, be comparatively rare, and I suggest that the requirements in these cases can best be dealt with in the regulations.

The rest of the Government Amendments deal with comparatively minor matters. Further study of the way in which we shall administer the scheme has satisfied us that it will be unnecessary to prescribed the precise form in which an employer must make his claim for a rebate. It will be enough if we can require certain essential particulars. The power to prescribe forms is, therefore, deleted from subsection (4,a) and a power to prescribe particulars inserted in subsection (4,b). The Amendments also contain the small drafting change that we now speak of prior notice that a claim may arise where previously the wording was notice of intention to make a claim". We are advised that this looser wording is more appropriate since, at the time advance notice is required, it is possible in some cases that the employer's intention to claim would be contingent on some other event happening. For instance, if the claim related to a payment in respect of lay-off or short time, the employer's intention to claim might be contingent on the worker leaving his employment within the time limit laid down.

11.45 p.m.

I come now to Amendment No. 53, put down by hon. Members opposite. I cannot advise the House to accept it. It would remove altogether the Minister's power to require employers to give advance notice of claims for rebate. Some hon. Members opposite who served on the Standing Committee urged us to do this at the time, though it was not a matter on which they all spoke with one voice. Others recognised the need for some advance notice, but argued that we should put a limit on the notice we would require. On that, as I have explained, we have met them.

We are quite sure that we must require advance notice of claims. It is of great importance that an employer should be able to know before he makes his payment to the worker that he will get a rebate, and one of the objects of having advance notice is in order to give him this information. The Ministry of Labour will be using the time which elapses between the giving of advance notice of claims and the actual redundancy to carry out necessary checks and inquiries. Queries which arise will, so far as possible, be cleared with the employer before he is due to make the redundancy payment. We shall also be able to begin our efforts to find new work for the redundant workers that much earlier. We look upon this as a valuable result of the provision, and I remind the House that advance notice of redundancy is already required in several countries of Western Europe, including France, Sweden and Western Germany. I must ask the House to reject Amendment No. 53.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

I should like to say a few words in support of the Amendment which is in my name and those of three of my hon. Friends, which would remove paragraph (b) altogether.

I should explain that I was not a member of the Committee, although I have read its deliberations with some interest, and I have studied with as much care as I can the discussion on this matter. While saying that, I think it is also fair to comment that when I signed our Amendment, I was not aware of the Government's Amendment. It certainly removes some of the objections which seemed obvious even to me, a person who had not served on the Committee. It is a step forward, but, even tonight, I feel that there has been no possible argument put forward to justify a period of notice of four weeks.

As the Clause stood, there was no limit to the advance notice which could be demanded from the employer. That was putting a statutory obligation on the employer which could be unreasonable for all practical purposes, because it would give the Minister powers to make regulations which could put an obligation like this on him. In Committee, the Minister was arguing that there was not a statutory obligation and that all that would happen was that the employer could lose some element in the rebate. If we are doing something like that, we are putting the employer in the position of having to abide by this regulation or suffer what amounts to a fine. There is very little difference between placing a statutory obligation on the employer and saying that he will suffer a fine.

In spite of the Government's Amendment, they have not justified fully the reason for the employer having to give four weeks' advance notice. They have made it quite clear that it would be convenient for administrative purposes to have advance notice of this nature, but I do not think they have justified the period of four weeks.

As far as I can see, in Committee two arguments were advanced in support of the measures that the Government have put forward. First, they said that this would help to give speedy payment to the workpeople concerned and would have the effect that an early attempt could be made to place people in other jobs. This would be an advantage if it were the only consequence, but surely the Department's administrative machine should be such that these arrangements could be made irrespective of whether advance notice of this sort was required.

The second reason was that in other countries with similar schemes they had provisions of this sort. I was interested that both in Committee and tonight the Minister made special reference to the position in Sweden. I have tried to make some study of the position abroad, and I hope that the Minister will read the article in the magazine which was issued today, "Moorgate and Old Street Review", in which there is a comprehensive review of the redundancy payments procedure and reference is made to the position in Sweden. If the Minister reads this article and makes a further study, particularly of the position in Sweden, he will see that the scheme there is much different from his scheme, appears to have different aims and appears to be quite different in detailed administrative arrangements.

One point which concerns me is the minimum and maximum number of employees concerned in any such redundancy. Mention was made in Committee of what were the Government's general intentions, and we had another general indication of them from the Minister tonight, but we are giving the Government power to make regulations when we have not a general indication, adequate for the purposes of most employers, of what are the Government's intentions. It worries me to see the amount of delegated legislation which is produced, and it is particularly worrying to see delegated legislation permitted in such a case as this when we cannot see from the Clause as originally drafted, or even the Clause as the Government would amend it, an indication of the lines along which the Government intend to work in making regulations. We appreciate that regulations are necessary for the detailed arrangements of any scheme such as this, but it is dangerous for us to pass a Bill which gives regulation-making powers before we have had a general indication of what is involved.

That is why we put forward the Amendment. If we had passed the Clause without Amendment it would have given the Minister power to require advance notice to any length of time that he desired, irrespective of the difficulties in which this would involve the employer and irrespective of the financial hardship which might be caused to him if he were unable to comply with the requirement. This is a dangerous kind of delegated legislation, and we see far too much of it. Unless the Minister can give a clearer indication why the four-week period is required and what benefits can accrue from it, it will be difficult for us to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Stainton

There is one aspect of the Amendment which was touched on in Committee and which has not been referred to by the Parliamentary Secretary tonight. In defending the general situation in Committee the Parliamentary Secretary adduced two reasons for this procedure of notice. One was that it would allow the Ministry to investigate and arrange the payment of the rebate and the second was to give the employer the all-clear that he would get the rebate.

I am disturbed about the all-clear to the employer that he will get the rebate. The converse is "Thumbs down", telling the employer that he is not likely to get the rebate. I have become particularly concerned on this point because it could well be that the Ministry's administrative machine in giving or not giving the all-clear could be usurping the authority and jurisdiction of the tribunal which is the real authority which has to decide whether the payment is to be made. I hope that if he resists the Amendment the Parliamentary Secretary will at least clarify the point as to how far the Ministry's machine will go in giving what in Committee the Parliamentary Secretary chose to call the all-clear.

Mr. Thornton

I do not really see how the fears which the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) has will be realised, because the all-clear which I referred to would be in respect of admitted claims—where the employer has met his liability and is prepared to pay and gives notice of dismissal. We appreciate that short-time needs special consideration. Within the four weeks the Ministry can indicate whether it is a straightforward case, and the employer will know, before he makes his payment, that he will get the refund. Only if it is a disputed case will it go to the tribunal. In no way can I see that the Ministry will be usurping the functions or powers, or anticipating the decisions, of the tribunal.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendments made: In page 21, line 26, leave out paragraph (b) and insert: (b) in such cases as may be so prescribed, require prior notice that such a claim may arise to be given at or before a time so prescribed, so however that, where the claim would relate to an employer's payment in respect of dismissal, the regulations shall not require the notice to be given more than four weeks before the date on which the termination of the contract of employment takes effect; and.

In line 32, leave out from "he" to "to" in line 33 and insert: makes a claim or gives prior notice as mentioned in paragraph (a) or paragraph (b) of this subsection".

In line 45 leave out "notice of intention to claim" and insert "prior notice".—[Mr. Thornton.]