HC Deb 03 December 1998 vol 321 cc1027-9
4. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Whom the Government plans to consult on the extension of trade union and worker rights. [61295]

8. Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

If he will make a statement on the progress on implementing his fairness at work policies. [61300]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Peter Mandelson)

We have been consulting a range of organisations that wish to offer views on fairness at work policies. As stated in the Queen's Speech, the Government will be bringing forward legislative measures in this parliamentary Session.

Mr. Syms

Will the Secretary of State publish those consultations, so that we all know the thinking of the Government and the trade unions on this matter? There is great concern that any extension of rights will increase the costs to industry, which will have a knock-on effect for employment. Dorset has already had some bad news today from GEC. The Marconi communications group is to lose 1,000 jobs, including many from the Wallisdown road site, which will affect many of my constituents in Poole and others in Bournemouth. Costs to industry are of great concern, especially given the current state of manufacturing in Britain.

Mr. Mandelson

I have put a list of the more than 470 organisations that have submitted responses to the White Paper in the Library. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman contacts those organisations. When people submit their views to the Government, they do so in confidence. We listed those who have submitted their observations, and it is up to the hon. Gentleman to contact them. It is for them to let him have the information if they so wish.

Ms Ward

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principles of fairness at work should apply to all employees, including health service workers? Will he make clear his position on the application of the 40-hour rule to health service workers?

Mr. Mandelson

I agree with my hon. Friend. The central objective is to support a new culture of partnership and co-operation at work, whether in the private or the public sector. That is what I want to see. I have been greatly encouraged by the responses to the "Fairness at Work" White Paper, many of which have been very supportive of the Government's proposals. It is important that people in the public and private sectors, including the national health service, feel encouraged by the Government's proposals. They will help create partnership at work and a committed work force, whether in private firms and companies or in public services such as the national health service.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The hon. Member for Watford (Ms Ward) may have been referring to a report in The Times today, which states that the European Union may overrule the Secretary of State on the 48-hour week for junior doctors and thousands of workers in the haulage industry. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that is so? If it is, is it not a direct result of the fact that the Government, immediately they were elected, acceded to the social chapter? We are not able to veto these proposals, because they can be accepted by qualified majority voting. These measures will be imposed on this country whether we like it or not.

Mr. Mandelson

It was not the present Government who signed the working-time directive; it was the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member.

The hon. Gentleman says that the European Commission is seeking to overrule me. I do not know on what it can overrule me, as I have yet to reach a final view as a result of our current discussions with the Commission about the extension of the directive to other sectors, including junior doctors and the road haulage industry.

My view is well known. I believe that the position must be examined on a case-by-case basis. It is important for us not to create either unacceptable inflexibility in the working practices of junior doctors, or unacceptable costs to the national health service. It is with both those considerations in mind that the Government will proceed with their discussions with the Commission.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Labour Members are pleased that my right hon. Friend is using expressions such as "the promotion of social partnership", and is trying to inculcate a spirit of co-operation in industrial relations. Has he received any representations from Members of the other House about proposals relating to unfair and, in particular, constructive dismissal?

Mr. Mandelson

I do not know whether there will be a right of appeal for Members of the other place under our legislation. I am sure that someone somewhere in the Commission in Brussels will be prepared to hear such an appeal if the person concerned wishes to make it—but if he wants a friend during the disciplinary proceedings, I can think of no one better than my hon. Friend the Minister of State to come to his aid, and to hold his hand when he is next summoned to the headmaster's study.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Has the Secretary of State not observed that, during the last month, four of the five national broadsheets—The Guardian, characteristically and perhaps significantly, dissenting—have carried stories suggesting that he intends to perform what is described as either a U-turn or a climbdown in regard to powers for the unions? Will the right hon. Gentleman now tell the House specifically—no spin, honest—whether he intends to impose a moratorium, or cooling-off period, if he prefers, on trade union membership, in order to meet the automatic recognition criteria?

Would the right hon. Gentleman be content to go down in history—if I may slightly modify a deplorable ditty—as the man, the very smooth man, what waters the workers' rights?

Mr. Mandelson

I am sure that there are many competing issues in regard to which I may go down in history.

We are considering all the points that have been made to us in the consultation that we have undertaken following the publication of the White Paper, including a number of points made by employers' organisations. Some of those points are reasonable; others are not. Some are workable; others are not. I am confident that we will produce a Bill which, while not pleasing every single person in every respect, will be legislation with which everyone can live. It is important for a basis of consensus among both unions and employers to underpin legislation that will have serious practical effects and a considerable impact on people at work. Given its ramifications, it is right for us to spend as much time as we need to get that legislation right.

The Bill will strike a balance. It will be true to its principles and aims, but acceptable to all in its application.