HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc323-9
Mr. Brittan

I beg to move Amendment No. 115, in page 37, line 44, at end insert— Provided that no obligation shall arise under this section to permit an employee to take time off for the purpose of calling, organising, procuring, financing of taking part in industrial action whether or not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government Amendments Nos. 117 and 126.

We may also take the following amendments:

No. 116, in page 38, line 5, leave out from "to" to end of line 6 and insert— (a) how much time off is reasonably required for carrying out the duties or undergoing the training referred to in subsection (1) above and for the particular duty or training; (b) how much time off the employee has already been permitted under this section and sections 50 and 51 below; (c) the overall needs for time off under this section of all officials of trade unions in the employer's establishment; (d) the circumstances of the employer's business and the effect of the employee's absence on the running of that business; (e) any relevant provisions of a Code of Practice issued by the Service under section 6 above". No. 125, in page 39, line 14, leave out 'themselves'.

Mr. Brittan

These amendments relate to the provision whereby an employer is required to permit an employee who is an official of an independent trade union recognised by him to take time off. Both the Opposition and Government amendments seek to impose certain limitations on the extent of the obligation on the employer to permit time off to be taken by trade union officials for their union duties.

Amendment No. 115, which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and others, specifically calls for a limitation on the obligation to provide time off to the effect that that obligation shall not arise if it involves permitting an employee to take time off for the purpose of calling, organising, procuring, financing or taking part in industrial action whether or not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. In our view that is a reasonable limitation of the general right for time off, because it is one thing to require an employer to give an employee time to take part in any trade union activity in the discharge of his duties, but quite another thing, which will stick in the throats of most law-abiding and sympathetic employers, to impose on him a legal obligation to permit an employee to take time off for the purpose of calling, organising, procuring, financing or taking part in industrial action". In Committee the point was taken that the official might go to a meeting at which it was not intended that industrial action should be called, organised, procured or financed, but that the meeting would develop in such a way that it would ultimately become a meeting at which calling, organising, procuring, financing or taking part in industrial action took place. I suggest, in case this argument re-rears its ugly head, that it is inapposite and inappropriate to the terms of this amendment, because the employer would not be able to get over his obligation in such a situation. The question would arise at the time when the employer was obliged or not obliged, as the case may be, to allow the employee time off: what was the purpose of time off in the particular case? The employee would say, in truth, that the purpose was, as far as he knew, to hold a branch meeting, or whatever it might be. If it turned out that the course which the meeting took was different from what was anticipated, it would not alter the purpose of the meeting at the time it was called. Therefore, it would be quite safe and consistent for the amendment to be accepted as providing a reasonable limitation.

If the Government want the arrangement whereby employers are required to give time off for trade union officials to work, they will be well advised not to add to it a requirement of the kind that I have mentioned, which will stick in the throats of the employers. The appropriate way of dealing with the matter is to agree to Amendments Nos. 115 and 116. It is not sufficient to do what the Government have done, namely, to say that in the code of practice which the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service is obliged to issue on this matter, practical guidance must be given about the circumstances in which a trade union official is entitled to take time off in respect of duties connected with industrial action.

With great respect to the Government, that is ducking the issue. It will not do to refer specifically to that in the Bill and to say that it is for the ACAS to decide on practical advice relating to it. Employers are entitled to know that in giving time off to trade union officials to carry out trade union activities they are not expected to give time off for trade union officials to organise a strike, to put it at its simplest. That is the case that Conservative Members deploy, and that is why we favour Amendments Nos. 115 and 116.

Mr. Booth

If one could put the situation at its simplest in legislation and say that officials should not have time off work for the purpose of organising a strike, the issue we are considering would be much simpler. However, we are considering whether an obligation shall arise, under the clause, which permits an official to have time off work to carry out his duties as a trade union official, those duties being concerned with industrial relations between employer and employees, where any question arises of the official being involved in calling, organising, procuring, financing or taking part in industrial action whether or not in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute, That is a much more complex matter, because the forms of industrial action may be many and varied—anything from an overtime ban to a work-to-rule in a particular section. The way in which the official concerned is involved may also be complex. In the case of a large motor company, for example, at a meeting of shop stewards or even conveners of different sections of the works it might be known that a question would be raised that involved a form of industrial action. I would not wish the Bill, at this stage, to rule out the possibility of that convener attending in those circumstances. If that decision were made it might be highly desirable that a convener be present in order that his experience of his own work place and the views of the members he represents should be taken into account in that decision.

Therefore, it would be better to take the course which we are proposing of laying upon the ACAS a duty to provide a code dealing with the question of time off.

In Amendment No. 116 there is a proposal that a number of factors be stated in the Bill which spell out what must be taken into account in determining what is reasonable in all the circumstances when deciding whether time off for a trade union official or officials should be permitted. It would be better to leave this matter to the code of practice which the service will bring forward dealing with time off for officials. Those who are responsible for making the code, repre- sentatives of employers, trade unions and employees—

8.0 p.m.

Mr. John Evans (Newton)

Will my hon. Friend advise ACAS to draw up the code of practice very broadly? I have considerable experience of industrial relations matters. If the day ever dawns when an employer tells a shop steward "You cannot have time off work because of the industrial problem that will aris", the shop steward will walk out of the gate, and the chances are that there will be another strike before the strike that the shop steward was originally talking about. Will my hon. Friend ask ACAS to be careful not to try to lay down every aspect of the matter, not to dot all the i's and cross all the t's, otherwise we shall have a great deal more trouble on our hands.

Mr. Booth

I know that many of those concerned in ACAS are studying our debates, and I am sure that they will take note of what my hon. Friend says. I am impressed by two points. One concerns the need to draw the code broadly, to cover the wide range of industrial and employment circumstances in which people will require time off. I agree that if a shop steward is refused time off because the meeting to which he is going will consider some form of industrial action, that may in itself lead to the withdrawal of labour. Whether or not it does so, the very refusal is likely to worsen the industrial relations situation.

Secondly, the matter is not restricted to shop stewards or conveners. There might be other union representatives in a firm requiring time off for matters connected with the people whom they represent. It is of the utmost importance that those considering the code consider all these matters, and that they draw up the code very broadly.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

Any employer worth his salt senses the situation. The amendment was a lot of legalistic mumbo-jumbo. It showed a complete lack of understanding of the normal situation on the shop floor. The experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) was much more realistic. The situation is fluid and must be dealt with as it arises.

Mr. Booth

I should like to think that every employer appreciated the importance of union officials having time off to represent employees. If I were convinced of that, I should not be advocating the inclusion of the clause in the Bill. I hope that we are including it for the benefit of the employees of a few bloody-minded employers. To argue in favour of the clause one must believe that it will have to be used in certain circumstances, but we want it to be used intelligently, in a way that reflects the real needs of workshop representation.

For that purpose, I commend the Government amendments and ask the House to reject the amendments seeking to deny employees the right to attend meetings in any case where industrial action might be considered, or specifying the factors which would have to be weighed before allowing time off.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment made: No. 117, in page 38, line 6, at end insert— '(2A) In the Code of Practice referred to in section 6(2)(b)(i) above the Service shall in particular provide practical guidance on the circumstances in which a trade union official is entitled to take time off under this section in respect of duties connected with industrial action'.—[Mr. Booth.]

Mr. Brittan

I beg to move Amendment No. 118, in page 38, leave out lines 7 and 8 and insert— 'An employee who with the permission of his employer takes time off for the purposes specified in this section shall be entitled to be paid by his employer for that time—'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we are to take Government Amendments Nos. 119, 120 and 121.

Mr. Brittan

The amendments all relate to a point raised in Committee about the proper construction of the Bill in its unamended form. I believe that the Government have taken the point, and that their amendments clarify the situation satisfactorily.

Mr. Booth

The effect of our amendments is to make it clear that an employer is obliged to pay a union official for time off if the time off has been taken for the agreed purpose and in accordance with the employer's permission.

Mr. Brittan

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 119, in page 38, line 8 after 'section' insert 'for any purpose'.

No. 120, in page 38, line 8, after shall', insert ', subject to the following provisions of this section'.

No. 121, in page 38, line 8, leave out 'that time' and insert 'the time taken off for that purpose in accordance with the permission'.—[Mr. Booth.]

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