HC Deb 16 February 1993 vol 219 cc264-6

Amendment proposed: No. 45, in page 44, line 29 at end insert— '() No order shall be made under subsection (2D) unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

I wish to speak to the amendment as I believe that legislation passed in the House should have our constituents' footprints across it. While the title of the clause to which the amendment relates is: "Constitution of industrial tribunals", one should rightly call it the "unibunal" clause as I cannot think of another word to describe a tribunal which has one person sitting alone. The amendment is important as the factors set out in subsection (2D) can be brought into effect only by an affirmative resolution.

I wish to illustrate with a constituency case why the House must be careful before it allows a tribunal to become a "unibunal", especially in a case which is not contested, where the employer does not turn up. It is a case with which Ministers, particularly the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, should be familiar, as he has dismissed most of the parliamentary questions that I have asked on the matter in recent months. I have corresponded with Ministers, asked parliamentary questions and even contacted the chair of the tribunal, which took me back to where I started, as he said that he could not tell me any more than he had already said.

I shall take a few minutes to outline the case, as it is crucial. One of my constituents, Mr. Colin Yates, was dismissed by his employers in January 1991 on the ground of redundancy. He appealed to a tribunal against the dismissal, claiming that it was unfair as he had not been consulted or offered alternative employment, which was available.

He won his case at a tribunal hearing in July 1991. The employer did not turn up. The tribunal did not even make a basic award because my constituent had already received a redundancy payment, but it made a very large compensatory award—more than £33,000—for the loss of salary. That is the highest award made by a tribunal that I have located in my researches. That led my constituent to believe that he was due to obtain a considerable amount of compensation.

At the time of the award there was a maximum statutory level on compensatory awards of £8,925. Yet the chair of the tribunal awarded more than £33,000. My constituent lost £1,400 in unemployment benefit, leaving an expectation of over £7,500.

Here comes the rub. The firm, Bygging Rust Proofing, went into voluntary liquidation in 1991. The law does not allow compensatory awards in respect of unfair dismissal to be paid out of the national insurance fund: the employee goes to the back of the queue, which means that he will never see a penny piece.

That strikes me as ludicrous. In the instance that I have raised, one party did not turn up to contest the case, as set out in new subsection (2C)(f), and a huge compensatory award was made on the merits of the case. Yet, by means of a quirk—the wheeze of voluntary liquidation—the firm was able to avoid paying a penny to an aggrieved ex-employee. I might add that the company is still operating under another name, and that its chief director, Henry Gold, is still a director of what is effectively the same company.

In correspondence, Ministers and—before the general election—their predecessors have dismissed my constituent's case out of hand. They have flatly refused to say that compensatory awards should be met from within the national insurance fund, as is the basic award in unfair dismissal cases.

We may legislate tonight to allow tribunals to engage in City-style procedures, whereby a single person can make a decision which will apparently be fairly easy to accept if it is not contested. Because an employer did not turn up and thus avoided contesting the case that I have cited, a huge award will never be paid. My constituent will not receive a penny.

If the Minister is not prepared to answer my point now, I hope that he will go away and think about it. Perhaps he will look at the volumes of correspondence. It is grossly unfair that, following the making of an award in a public tribunal, a citizen who expects to receive some, if not all, of the money should not receive a penny because of a quirk in the law.

I am sorry to have detained the House at this late hour, but I promised my constituent Colin Yates that, if an occasion arose for me to put his case to the House succinctly without going into laborious detail, I would do so. I have tried every other avenue: I have tried correspondence, parliamentary questions and even writing to the chairman of the tribunal, which got me nowhere. The amendment seemed to be the best hook on which to hang what, in other circumstances, would have been an Adjournment debate. I am grateful to the House for its tolerance.

Mr. McLoughlin

We are to allow industrial tribunal chairmen to sit alone in some very specific cases. As the hon Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, the change that we are making is to invoke the affirmative-resolution procedure, which was welcomed by the Committee and, indeed, will probably be welcomed by the hon. Gentleman. The case to which he referred raises serious questions; perhaps we could meet and discuss it more fully.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I welcome the amendment, which improves new subsections (2C) and (2D). I hope that the Government will continue to find ways in which initial tribunal claims can be heard more quickly, and that they will find more ways of keeping the lawyers out whenever possible. In particular—this applies to a certain extent to clause 30—I hope that there will be some way of ensuring that the appeal tribunal waiting time no longer remains at two years in England and Wales, when it is only five months in Scotland.

Amendment agreed to.

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