HC Deb 08 July 1996 vol 281 cc142-7 10.13 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Malcolm Moss)

I beg to move, That the draft Industrial Tribunals (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved. I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss the following motion: That the draft Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved. I propose to deal with these two closely interrelated orders as a single entity. They are primarily a consolidation of existing Northern Ireland legislation on individual employment rights and industrial tribunals, one order providing the system whereby an individual can seek to remedy the infringement of a right as set out in the other.

As hon. Members will appreciate, Northern Ireland has its own separate legal and administrative framework of industrial relations legislation, but has generally followed the corresponding law in Great Britain. Government policy remains one of parity in this area, unless there are compelling local reasons for a departure; thus the employment rights in both jurisdictions are the same, as are the provisions for the industrial tribunal system. This part of Great Britain legislation was recently consolidated in the Industrial Tribunals Act 1996 and the Employment Rights Act 1996. The two orders consolidate the equivalent provisions for Northern Ireland by re-enacting existing legislation in two orders, thus replacing eight much-amended enactments dating back to 1965.

The opportunity has been taken, however, to insert a minor but necessary new provision in article 14 paragraphs (7) to (9) of the employment rights order. It makes special provision for those whose professional training of necessity requires successive employment with different health service employers. Without the provision, the move between employers would constitute a break in the continuity of employment; with the provision, during training for a profession, a move from one health service employer to another will not break the continuity of employment in the calculation of a period of continuous employment. That brings the Northern Ireland position into line with that in Great Britain.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, with his usual courtesy. Is he in a position to refute the allegation that cases involving charges of sexual harassment take longer to reach industrial tribunals in Northern Ireland than other cases?

Mr. Moss

I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, but I will look into it and write to him.

The orders closely follow the format and terminology of the equivalent Great Britain consolidation Acts, but there are differences in content between the Northern Ireland and Great Britain enactments. As I shall explain, however, the difference in content does not mean a difference in law.

I shall deal first with the Industrial Tribunals (Northern Ireland) Order. The order re-enacts the existing Northern Ireland provisions for the establishment and procedures of industrial tribunals. There are no new provisions, and the current Northern Ireland provisions are on all fours with arrangements for Great Britain industrial tribunals. There is, however, no equivalent system in Northern Ireland of the employment appeal tribunal. An appeal relating to a decision by a Northern Ireland industrial tribunal on a point of law is by way of a case stated to the Court of Appeal.

Of those who responded to the Department's consultation paper on the Northern Ireland review of the industrial tribunals, several raised the question of the introduction of a Northern Ireland system for appeal against an industrial tribunal decision. The outcome of the review is being considered, but considerable work is still needed, and further consultation will be necessary before a decision can be made. In any case, the order is not a suitable vehicle for such change. It is, after all, principally intended to consolidate, not introduce, a fundamental departure from the present provisions.

Hon. Members will have noted a considerable difference in the content of the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order and the Act relating to Great Britain. The main differences result from Northern Ireland's not having legislative provision for Sunday trading or Sunday betting, and the treatment in Northern Ireland of individual rights associated with trade union legislation.

In Northern Ireland, unlike in England and Wales, there is no development of law on Sunday trading or betting and the order does not need to make corresponding provision for those special and important employment protection rights that were introduced for shop workers and betting office workers. Another difference arises from the fact that Northern Ireland legislation has traditionally regarded as individual employment rights those rights that have been provided for people by trade union legislation. They include access to employment regardless of trade union membership; actions short of dismissal on grounds related to trade union membership or detriment in relation to trade union duties; and procedures for handling redundancies and remedies via the industrial tribunals in respect of such rights. In Great Britain those rights are in trade union law.

I hope that the consolidation and simplification of this legislation will be appreciated by all concerned and I commend the orders to the House.

10.20 pm
Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

As the Minister has said, happily, we are discussing the orders against a background of excellent industrial relations in Northern Ireland—a fact which, dare I say it, gives us an advantage over the rest of the United Kingdom because it is a permanent feature of the Northern Ireland landscape. To a great extent, that is due to the much maligned former Stormont Government and Parliament, which was always very cautious about industrial relations legislation being processed through Westminster.

At first, it was not always recognised that the Westminster Parliament was sovereign, and that led us into various difficulties which we need not pursue tonight. Admittedly, that made life rather exciting for me in the early 1970s when I was in receipt of the Whip of a Conservative Government who at that time were engaged in steamrollering through the somewhat marathon-like Trade Union and Labour Relations Bill, which finally had to be guillotined after we had sat up night after night and participated in as many as two dozen Divisions through the night.

At that time I supported the Government in the Lobby, sometimes in all those Divisions. However, when I returned home at the weekend to Stormont influences, my colleagues in that subordinate Parliament would have none of it. Even when direct rule was imposed—and let us remember on this of all days that it was imposed in 1972 with the object of ending the violence—trade union affairs did not excite passions as they unfortunately continue to do on this island.

Both orders contain many references to tribunals. By and large they and those who man them—perhaps I should say person them—serve us very well. I pay tribute to all those who are involved in the tribunal machinery, but I wish that the same could be said of all commissions because those bodies leave much to be desired. Some commissioners simply do not belong to this planet. As some of them have sat there too long for all the good that they have done and as commissioning has become something of a growth industry in Northern Ireland, there is a need for a root and branch review of both the personnel and the proceedings of some commissions.

Both sides of industry are burdened by restrictions and exorbitant costs to an extent that Parliament never really intended. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office will address that point seriously and urgently and that they will free employers and employees from the intolerable burdens that are imposed nowadays by a very special breed of fat cats.

10.23 pm
Mr. Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

As the Minister has said and as the Opposition recognise, the primary purpose of the measures is to consolidate an almost bewildering array of employment-related issues into a more comprehensible form, as has already been done in relation to Great Britain measures. The sheer volume of them, however, merits some consideration, albeit brief, on the Floor of the House, although it is self-evidently sensible to clarify the legal framework whenever possible. As the proposals generally translate the law in Northern Ireland as currently defined into two orders, we have no objection to them. Even so, although the resulting codes may be simpler to understand, it would be a substantial over-statement to describe either as simple.

Equally, this is not to say that the present legislation is either adequate or that the machinery for its implementation is working perfectly—I suspect that the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) may have been making an oblique reference to that—or even well in all cases. As the Minister averred, one of the principal differences in Northern Ireland legislation from that in the rest of the United Kingdom is the absence of the employment appeals tribunal system, which has become an important part of industrial relations practice over here. The most significant problem facing industrial tribunals of all sorts, however, is the substantial delays in having cases listed, let alone decided.

For a system that was originally devised to be speedy and informal, it is obvious that it has become hopelessly overloaded. In the past eight years, the number of cases coming before industrial tribunals has risen by about 90 per cent. and verdicts of unfair dismissal have increased by well over 50 per cent. in less than 10 years.

The problem is worse than those figures suggest because access to industrial tribunals is effectively denied to many people by the lack of legal aid in such cases, which means that only people with the means or the support of their union can bring matters before tribunals in any case. When it is realised that citizens advice bureaux dealt with some 670,000 employment-related cases throughout the UK in 1994–95, the scale of the problem becomes ever more apparent.

The Minister mentioned the disparity on Sunday trading. I shall pursue him slightly on that matter and I speak as an enthusiastic supporter of the changes effected in Great Britain. The draft order, which would extend those changes to Northern Ireland, has been around for some considerable time, so could he say whether his consultations have revealed that they should be proceeded with in an identical form in Northern Ireland?

I am thinking of what experience has shown in England and Wales to be the highly anomalous and widely resented differentiation of Easter Sunday. Christmas day is included in the same power, but it falls far less frequently on a Sunday, although I am readily aware that, in Northern Ireland, more so than in any other part of the UK, when dealing with matters that carry even the slightest religious overtone, one must tread with utmost caution. None the less, when, in any event, does the Minister expect the measure to be brought forward?

I have read elsewhere that the Minister has concluded that he has no plans to extend the regulations on Sunday betting. I have a degree of sympathy with his conclusion because, in the circumstances, the combination of the religious connotations that I have mentioned with gambling is probably too volatile a mixture.

The area in which the orders are most deficient lies in a missed opportunity to improve on the rights of people at work. Although. as I mentioned, the orders are almost exclusively a consolidation of existing regulations, that is not the complete picture. The Minister referred to article 14, paragraphs (7) to (9), which contain a wholly new provision for safeguarding the continuity of employment for medical professionals. We welcome that without reservation as both straightforward and necessary. That concedes the point, however, that the orders could, had the will existed, been used to introduce other elements that would have extended rights of redress for working people in Northern Ireland. In particular, those could have included steps to encourage dispute resolution by extending the ability of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to assist in the early stages of an impending dispute.

The other key area in which the measures are inadequate, although in this they are at least comparable with the position in the rest of the UK, is in relation to legal rights for home workers—or rather the complete absence of them. Home workers are essential to the economy, yet they remain the least protected workers in the work force. Many are forced to register as self-employed, making them ineligible for rights such as sick, redundancy or maternity pay, pension rights, or rights against unfair dismissal. Only one in five receives a written contract of employment, one in three an itemised pay slip and just one in 20, sick pay, redundancy notices or pay, or maternity entitlement. Yet home workers comprise at least 1 million of the United Kingdom's work force. The lack of protection that they enjoy is scandalous and compounds what I have already described as the missed opportunity of these measures.

Notwithstanding those glaring omissions, the broad thrust of the orders is to be welcomed and we do welcome them. Anything that serves to make the law easier to understand for people other than lawyers is a highly desirable advance.

10.30 pm
Mr. Moss

I welcome the opportunity to respond to the main points made by hon. Members in the debate—of which there were not many. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir J. Molyneaux) mentioned "fat cat commissioners". I am told that one person who fills the post operates with a fairly modest budget and is the Northern Ireland equivalent of the Great Britain commissioner, so the fat cats in Northern Ireland are the same as those here, presumably.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd) asked about delays. For a routine case, the average length of time from registration of a complaint to an offer of a first listing date for a hearing is between 15 and 20 weeks. In equal pay and sex discrimination cases, however, the delay is somewhat longer—that answers the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and I need not write to him now. There was a backlog of about 8,631 cases, if one includes equal pay and sex discrimination cases, as of 6 May 1996, but about 70 to 80 per cent. of those were multiple cases. In other words, the outcome of many cases depends on one that is taken forward.

On why we do not have a local employment appeal tribunal in Northern Ireland, the present arrangements whereby Northern Ireland appeals go straight to the Court of Appeal work satisfactorily without any undue delay. The case load is about 10 cases per annum only, which raises the question whether it would be cost-effective or even necessary to set up a new, specialist appeals body in Northern Ireland.

It is most important to remember that this exercise is one of consolidation—a re-enactment of existing provisions and not an opportunity to change the legislation. Without this exercise, the extreme difficulties of understanding legislation that is some 30 years old and which has been successively amended by some seven pieces of primary legislation dealing with employment rights and 28 other amending enactments, would persist. Those difficulties are not just in relation to the legal profession and industrial tribunals, but for trade unions, employees and employers, all of whom are entitled to accessible legislation, especially as it is their rights that are dealt with in that legislation.

The orders achieve a desirable objective. For the first time since 1965, the employment rights of Northern Ireland individuals are ordered and set out in a single enactment. They are in the form and terminology of the equivalent Great Britain provisions. The consolidation has been keenly awaited by the wide spectrum of those who work in this field

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Industrial Tribunals (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved.


That the draft Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, which was laid before this House on 17th June, be approved.—[Mr. Moss.]