HC Deb 21 May 1998 vol 312 cc1103-17 3.31 pm
The President of the Board of Trade and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The Government have published today the White Paper "Fairness at Work", which is a further landmark in our drive to create both a more prosperous and a fairer Britain.

Let no one doubt that, in the modern world, those two ambitions go hand in hand. Companies and organisations that succeed in today's and tomorrow's world need to address and to anticipate the needs of their customers. To do so, they must draw out, and draw on, the native ingenuity, the innovative ability and the creativity of every one of their work force. The prosperity and opportunity of each are bound up with the prosperity and opportunity of all.

Some of the issues that we address in the White Paper relate simply to human dignity and enshrine simple individual rights. To assure them is simple justice, but it is also good hard economic and industrial sense.

Our industrial policy rests on the three pillars of strong markets, underpinned by our Competition Bill, modern companies, promoted by the White Paper, and building an enterprising nation, which requires those steps among others.

The White Paper is set in the context of action that the Government have already taken to create a fresh balance of rights and responsibilities at work, including signing the social chapter, bringing in, for the first time, a national minimum wage, implementing the working time directive, simplifying procedures for check-off and restoring trade union membership rights at GCHQ. Those were all necessary steps, but they are not sufficient to create a new and better balance in the fast-changing world of work.

The White Paper looks to the future, not the past. There will be no going back to the days of strikes without ballots, mass picketing and the closed shop. We are setting out to foster and support a new culture in the workplace—a culture of partnership. That culture is already evident in many of our most successful and modern companies, but the framework of our existing law all too often undermines or runs clean counter to it.

We expect and anticipate that many of the matters that we address, where differences of interest or of emphasis may genuinely arise, will be settled voluntarily and without recourse to the law, but, if required, the law must be able practically and sensibly to provide peaceful means to resolve disputes if they arise.

The proposals we make fall broadly into three areas: rights for the individual, collective rights and the development of policies that are family friendly. We also propose further consultation on many issues relevant to changing patterns of work. Those changing patterns can underpin flexibility and competitiveness, but they are undermined by a lack either of security or of confidence. So, in a world of far more frequent job changes, employees who have qualified for protection are reluctant to lose it by changing jobs.

Therefore, we propose, first, to reduce the qualifying time for protection against unfair dismissal from two years to one. We also propose to remove the limit on compensation for unfair dismissal, so that people who are unfairly dismissed can recover their full loss. That will end the anomaly whereby there is no limit on compensation for those unfairly dismissed on grounds of sex or race, but those dismissed for other reasons can at present be awarded only a maximum of £12,000. We also intend to index link other statutory employment awards and payments in future.

We propose, too, to consult business and others on whether—and, if so, what—changes are needed to the law on short-term and zero-hours contracts. Contract work can provide useful flexibility to both employers and employees, and the Government would not wish to lose that flexibility, but poor employment practices discredit such arrangements and deter people from taking advantage of the flexibilities offered by contract work in other organisations.

Secondly, we also need to establish a framework that promotes constructive dialogue between employers and employees. That will include implementing the European works council directive on consultation arrangements at work by the end of next year. In many cases, such dialogue is best established by collective arrangements, which are often the preferred option of both employers and employees. In other cases, more informal consultative arrangements can be suitable.

I shall not attempt in this short statement to detail all the changes we propose, but central to the White Paper is the promise in our manifesto to legislate to enable employees to have a trade union recognised by their employer where the majority of the work force want it. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress have worked together, and with the Government, to create as much common ground as possible on the practical issues surrounding such legislation.

The Government believe that mutually agreed arrangements for representation are the best way to proceed; but there are occasions when employees want to be represented by a trade union, but their employer will not agree. The Government believe that better and more effective relationships at work are fostered by having a clear procedure for the resolution of such disagreements, which is itself based on the starting point of voluntary agreement.

The Government propose that the law should require employers to recognise a union where the majority of those voting, and at least 40 per cent. of the eligible work force, are in favour of recognition. That will make it crystal clear that a vote for recognition enjoys genuine and widespread support among employees, and provides a sustainable basis for collective bargaining.

If there are issues on which the parties cannot agree, a restructured and reinforced Central Arbitration Committee will play a supervisory role—judging, for instance, whether the union has proposed a suitable bargaining unit, whether it has reasonable support within it, and whether a sufficient majority of employees support recognition.

When more than 50 per cent. of employees are union members, thus clearly demonstrating that they want to be represented by a union for collective bargaining, recognition will be automatic. There will be a similar procedure for derecognition, and the Government invite views on its operation. No new applications for recognition or derecognition will be considered until three years after a previous application.

The Government recognise that these arrangements may not suit the circumstances of small firms. The statutory procedures will not therefore apply to firms with 20 or fewer employees, although many small firms will no doubt recognise unions, as they do now.

Let me reiterate one vital point. The legal framework that we have proposed will come into play only when employers and employees cannot reach agreement on recognition; but, by ensuring that a clear procedure is in place and known from the outset of discussions, we believe that voluntary agreement is more likely to be achieved and industrial action to be avoided. Neither employers nor employees gain from the present arrangements, and the protracted disagreements that can occur only damage future relationships, whether a union is recognised or not.

The Government intend to take other collective measures—for instance, giving employees greater rights to complain of unfair dismissal if they are dismissed while on official strike, and a right for anyone to be accompanied by someone of their choice, who may be a trade union official, at grievance or disciplinary procedures.

Thirdly, we must recognise the special responsibilities of parents. We place great demands on them. Most need to work to give their children a secure life, but children need their parents' time, too, if family life and society are to be cohesive. The White Paper sets out policies that will enhance family life while making it easier for both men and women who work to avoid conflicts between their responsibilities at home and at work.

The Government will, for example, ensure that employees can take parental leave and reasonable time off for family emergencies, and will clarify the law on maternity rights, extending maternity leave to 18 weeks to match maternity pay, and provide new rights for adoptive parents. A number of those measures will flow from our implementing the European directive on parental rights, giving employees in Britain the same rights as their counterparts in the rest of Europe.

The White Paper sets out a broad agenda for legislative reform. The Government intend to proceed to implement these changes—in some cases after further consultation—at the earliest opportunity. The White Paper sets out the principles that the Government will follow in reforming employment law. It provides a comprehensive package of constructive change. It will take time to implement, and will undoubtedly require time and stability to settle into place. The Government regard the White Paper as a settlement for this full Parliament and do not propose further legislative changes in this area.

The White Paper will support the strong and evolving partnerships at work—partnerships that are needed to give British enterprise and the British economy a clear competitive edge. That edge comes from fulfilling the potential of our people and our country, and it is the only basis on which we can deliver prosperity and justice to all.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Once again, all the main measures in a Government White Paper were given to the press long before they were given to the House. Everyone knew what would be in the statement before the Secretary of State rose to her feet. I hope that she will explain how that happened, and why the press knew the detail—the exact detail—of what was in the White Paper.

The White Paper is a down payment on the bill the country will pay for trade union support of the Labour party. The unions gave more than £100 million to the Labour party during its Opposition years. Understandably, they now seek a return on their investment.

The right hon. Lady says that the White Paper is a final settlement for this Parliament, but the document makes it clear that even the crucial 40 per cent. threshold for ballots is subject to review. Will she tell us which of the following is true: will she give hope to Labour Members who do not think that the White Paper goes nearly far enough in helping the union cause, or will she tack back towards the Prime Minister and a little more towards industry by reassuring us that there will be no further significant changes after these measures have been put to the House?

I am sure that some Ministers will be grateful for the provisions on unfair dismissal. Many of them, facing dismissal in a few weeks—I am glad to see that one or two Ministers are laughing—will be pleased to find that they no longer have to serve two years before qualifying; there is some good news for them in the White Paper.

However, there is no good news in the measure for manufacturing industry. The last thing that manufacturing industry needs, as it grapples with the recession that this Government have created, is more costly regulation. The last thing that manufacturers need is more Government intervention to damage labour relations. The last thing that they need is the cost of a ballot on statutory recognition, half-charged to themselves.

The Institute of Directors commented today: The idea that we have a business-friendly Government is rapidly going sour. Meanwhile, Mr. Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union has threatened: You cannot compromise on fundamental principles. No amount of platitudes from the President of the Board of Trade can bridge that divide.

Why did the Government not let sleeping laws lie? Why have they not protected the fine inheritance of good labour relations—the best in western Europe—that we gave to them when we left office? It has taken Labour only one short year to set unions against business, and business against unions. The Government's very idea of partnership is phoney. They are not leaving the partners to come to voluntary agreements through free negotiation. They are forcing both sides to accept a deal that neither likes. That is not a partnership. It cannot bring peace and stability in the workplace.

The Opposition support freedom, choice and fairness for employees in the workplace. We will judge the detail of the proposals by their impact on good labour relations and the creation of more jobs. Our fear is that they will damage both.

Will the President of the Board of Trade tell us today what will be the total cost of these measures to business? How many jobs will be lost? Does she know that business organisations are already predicting job losses on the back of these measures and those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why cannot more small firms be exempted from what will prove to be very onerous provisions?

The proposals begin a journey back to strife. They begin a journey back to the bad old days and back to the bad old ways. They will do further damage to manufacturing, which is already damaged by high sterling and the recession that the Government have created. They demonstrate, if more demonstration were needed, that Labour is bad for business.

Mrs. Beckett

Not for the first time, I suppose that we could not expect the right hon. Gentleman to confuse himself or his colleagues with the facts. He demanded that I explain why there had been speculation in the press about some aspects of the package. No such speculation was in any way fostered or contributed to by myself or my right hon. and hon. Friends. The press will inevitably make guesses, but the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is much in the White Paper that the press did not foreshadow or get right. Indeed, if I recall correctly, the right hon. Gentleman himself demanded at the last DTI Question Time that I anticipate the White Paper by saying what was in it, so he does not have much right to complain about that.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to give an assurance that when I say that the White Paper is the full settlement for this Parliament, that does not include the prospect of review. I made it plain in the statement, as the White Paper makes it plain, that it sets out clear principles, but we have also made clear our determination that legislation should be workable and practical. If it becomes apparent over time that elements of the legislation are impeding the resolution of disputes, the Government will be prepared to look again at those elements.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Conservative party stands for freedom and choice, but it is clear from what he said that even if 100 per cent. of employees in a workplace wished to be represented by a trade union and to have that trade union recognised, he would not support them. I do not call that supporting freedom and choice.

The conflict that the right hon. Gentleman foreshadowed in such apocalyptic terms is all too plainly just what he and his colleagues would like to see. Of course, as in so many other things, they are out of date and out of touch. The new culture in the workplace is a culture of constructive partnership, because employees and employers recognise that their interests demand that they work together. The Government's goal is to make the best practice in the best companies normal practice throughout the economy. That is what the White Paper sets out to do.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

I thank the President for her statement and congratulate her on introducing the 50 per cent. plus one automatic recognition rule. It will mean that a number of trade unionists across the country will immediately get the recognition to which they are entitled.

However, some of us are a little worried about 40 per cent. rules being applied anywhere. We have experience of that in Scotland, and we have had troubles as a consequence. We are heartened by the fact that the President has said that she is prepared to look at the operation of the 40 per cent. rule. Will she confirm when such a review will be put in place following the passage of legislation? Some hon. Members might be prepared to give a fair wind to the 40 per cent. rule on the basis that there would be a review at an early date. Will the President help us in that regard?

Mrs. Beckett

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. He asks me to look some distance into the future. We are today at the White Paper stage. The legislation is not yet before the House, but my hon. Friend asks me to suggest when the Government might be prepared to review and, if there are problems, change it.

The Government are determined to introduce a framework of law in case disputes require to be taken to law—we hope and believe that that will be a rare occurrence. My hon. Friend will see that the White Paper's procedures for enforcing recognition, if a majority want it, always take us back to the voluntary agreement. Voluntary agreements are the whole thrust of the White Paper. However, if it becomes apparent—after some time and experience—that there is an impediment in some of the proceedings in the White Paper, we shall re-examine the matter. I fear that I cannot give my hon. Friend a clearer idea of the time scale.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

Liberal Democrat Members broadly welcome the President's proposals—particularly the fact that the emphasis is placed on looking forward rather than back to the past. She will know that the Liberal Democrats have long argued the case for treating the workplace as part of a stakeholder society.

Does the President agree that, in the context of developing her proposals for legislation, it is vital that all parties—the suppliers, manufacturers, customers, investors, employees and the local communities where the businesses are located—are persuaded to take ownership of the legislation?

I press the President a little further about individual rights, which are featured in her statement. Does she recognise the paramountcy of the individual in the proposals and their right to join or not to join a trade union? How will her proposals deal with the huge increase in the flexibility of labour, which is now a fact in our working society, with more and more workers finding that the key to their employability is their individual transportable intellectual skills? That is their property, which they take with them. How will her proposals marry those individual characteristics with modernising the traditional collective representation approach which has pervaded for so many years?

While I agree with the President that most claims for union recognition and collective representation are settled amicably—we should be pleased about that—does she agree that when recourse to law is required, that law must first establish a procedure that is not rigged or cumbersome, which, in itself, could only exacerbate a dispute?

Finally—[Interruption.] In response to the President's statement—which I think deserves a proper response—does she accept that, while we broadly welcome her proposals, which provide a platform for developing a package of measures that recognise the need for a more forward-looking approach to new partnerships with all stakeholders in the workplace, it is now important to discuss and scrutinise those proposals in order to develop legislation that actually works?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall pick up first the last point made by the hon. Gentleman. He is entirely right, and that is absolutely the Government's wish. When he studies the White Paper at length, he will see that we refer throughout to our wish to consult and to take advice, especially on the specific detail of how the legislation will be implemented. It has long seemed to me that a major problem into which the Conservative party got itself in government was that it ceased, over a long period, to listen to the views of those outside the Government. We do not intend to repeat that mistake, especially in the legislation.

The hon. Gentleman asked how we could develop the partnership at work and make it responsive in different circumstances. A Government proposal that I did not flag up in the statement is that we shall make funds available to contribute to the training of managers and employee representatives, precisely to assist and develop partnerships at work.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether it is clear in the White Paper that the Government recognise the rights of individuals to join or not to join a trade union. Of course we do, and we make that explicit. A difficulty in constructing the White Paper was achieving the balance of the sections on individual and collective rights, because some rights that come under the broad heading of collective rights are rights for individuals. We very much recognise the role of the individual and of an individual's skills.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about procedures not being cumbersome. We have sought to avoid that and have put in place clear time limits on procedures so that they cannot be dragged out unduly, to everyone's disadvantage. I repeat that the thrust of the White Paper is to drive back towards voluntary agreement, at every step.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

May I warmly welcome the solid family-friendly policies in the White Paper, especially the three-month parental leave, for men and for women, whether they have a child or whether they choose to adopt a baby? I also welcome the protection from unfair dismissal, should people choose to exercise that right.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the latest count, more than 14,000 women were on maternity leave in the north-west of England? Will she join me in asking the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) whether he is prepared to tell any of those women whether that new right would be repealed under a Tory Government?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The right hon. Member for Wokingham and his colleagues are clearly opposed to many of the measures in the White Paper; what is not clear is whether they would abolish the right to parental leave and whether they would go back on the reduction of the qualification period for unfair dismissal. It is far from clear to what extent the Conservative party would drive back the agreements that we propose to enshrine in law, but, as the right hon. Gentleman identified any change as being disadvantageous, my hon. Friend is entirely right to fear for our proposals, should the Conservative party be returned to power.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Does the right hon. Lady recognise that I particularly appreciate her statement that there will be no going back to the days of strikes without ballot, mass picketing and the closed shop? Does she recall the particular pleasure that I had of taking through the legislation that gave people the right to ballots before strikes? I have a good enough memory to remember that she and a considerable number of Labour Members voted strongly against it. May I say how pleased I am that there is to be no going back on that, and ask her whether she can give a clear assurance that recognition ballots will at all times be postal?

Mrs. Beckett

No. It would be possible for such a ballot to be conducted on the basis of a ballot at the place of work, if that is what is sought. [Interruption.] If there is a feeling that that would not be desirable and that there would be, for one reason or another, a desire for a postal ballot—obviously, all ballots would be secret—that, too, could be assured. We have allowed for either a workplace or a postal ballot, depending on choice and what is thought to be right.

Mr. King

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that brings me to my second point to him. He was careful to say that he welcomes our recognition that some of the changes in law that he made do not require to be changed in future. I hope that he will give us the assurance that he recognises that the pattern of change that the Government propose is right for today's and tomorrow's workplace and that he will support it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the nature of the trade union laws passed by the previous Government is such that it has resulted in, for example, the National Union of Mineworkers not only not being recognised by private owners but not being able, in the industrial climate in many workplaces where the bosses rule, to have a basic pay increase throughout the 1990s? The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is totally out of touch with the present climate of opinion in which people recognise that those who work and provide the country's wealth have a right to proper trade union recognition.

Two or three areas in the White Paper are a bit dodgy, to say the least. First, we think that the 40 per cent. should not have been applied. If it had been applied in the referendum on a mayor for London it would not have passed the test. Secondly, the limit of 20 employees will mean that about 5 million workers will not be included in the measures. The measures on unfair dismissal should have taken us back to the pre-1979 position or to day one from work.

Mrs. Beckett

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He has a long history of fighting on behalf of workers who face difficulties and, sometimes, exploitative and unfair employers. The 40 per cent. is a balanced judgment. There was certainly mutual agreement between the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress that it would not be right for recognition to be granted unless there was a serious body of support in the workplace for it—unless there was, in the phrase that is enshrined in industrial relations law and which has been practised for some time "sustainable support" for collective bargaining in the place of work.

It is generally and widely accepted that collective bargaining requires to be sustained by considerable support, and it becomes a matter of balancing that judgment. It seemed to the Government that the balance should be 40 per cent. One of the features of the Government's proposal on that judgment is that it is in everyone's interest to maximise turnout and the vote in the ballot. If an employer does not wish a union to be recognised it is in his interests to get as many employees as possible to vote. Similarly, it is in the interests of the trade union to get as many employees as possible to vote if it wishes for recognition. That seems to be the right balance. We are encouraging a genuine and as large as possible turnout of people expressing their view and that, after all, is the issue on which the legislation will be based. [Interruption.] I am reminded of the point that my hon. Friend made about small firms. Current employment legislation contains a criterion for small firms to be excluded on the ground that such legislation might have a particular impact on them. The definition has been set at the level of 20 employees or fewer, and it has been repeated in the legislation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that one of the most important reasons for the improvement in our industrial relations during the 1980s and 1990s was the decline in the number, influence and power of trade unions? Anything that reverses that is a step back to the anarchy and strife of the 1970s. Does she further accept that her proposals are a serious infringement of the rights of employees who do not want union recognition in their businesses? Is that not an example of the rights of individuals being set aside at the behest of the right hon. Lady's paymasters?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a prominent member of one of the few remaining closed shops—not, I hasten to add, that I am in any way attacking lawyers—and benefits from a protection that he wishes to deny others. As for all the other rubbish that he came out with, being in government for too long has made him completely out of touch with the modern workplace.

In today's workplace, people fear not the overweening power of trade unions, but having no rights, no security and no confidence either that they can be sustained fairly in their place of work, or that they can find fresh employment, should they be unfortunate enough, for whatever reason, to lose their job. Those are the concerns which, in a variety of arenas, and including the White Paper, the Government are endeavouring to address.

As for all that stuff about how people will have things forced on them that they do not want, it will be a matter of choice. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friends are saying that even if 100 per cent. of employees in a place of work wish their trade union to be recognised, they would deny it to them. That is not freedom of choice.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

May I tempt the right hon. Lady away from the 40 per cent. rule and towards what I believe are her own natural instincts? For 20 years, I have watched Scottish politics being poisoned as a result of a fundamentally undemocratic 40 per cent. rule, where those who did not vote were deemed to have voted in, or supported, one direction. It would give employers an incentive not to get people out to vote, but to let people stay at home. The Government did not ask for it in Scotland last year, they would not have dreamed of asking for it in Northern Ireland and they allowed a mayor of London to be created on 25 per cent. of the total electorate. How can it be that some of the largest, most progressive and successful companies in Scotland have made it clear that they would be happy with the principle of "One vote is enough in a democracy," but the Government have kowtowed to a few last ditchers in the CBI?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that there are many large and successful companies throughout the United Kingdom that believe that it is right and in their interests, as well as in those of their employees, to recognise trade unions. There is nothing to prevent them from doing so; indeed, this legislation encourages and supports them in that wish. The hon. Gentleman is simply mistaken in saying that this legislation contains incentives for people not to vote. That is not true.

The Government are clear, as are both the CBI and the TUC, what people want. I emphasise again that if it is not possible for voluntary agreement to be reached and if people are forced to fall back on the law—although we believe that, in the vast bulk of cases, they will not be—there will be every incentive for all the people involved to create the maximum interest in the ballot and to get the maximum expression of opinion among the work force. If that expression of opinion does result in a majority, with 40 per cent. of those who vote in that ballot being in favour, recognition will undoubtedly be secured. That is an important change.

It is crystal clear that we would not have got anything in this package from the Conservative party. Frankly, we would not have got it from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) either, as he would never be in a position to deliver it.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we had only to listen to the litany of out-of-date, out-of-touch attitudes from the Conservative party to be reminded of what the voters rescued us from on 1 May last year? Nevertheless, she will be aware of the widespread unease among trade unionists that the formula for recognition seems to be markedly different from what we believed the manifesto said. Even so, the White Paper represents a major step forward in enhancing fairness at work. What is required now is an enthusiastic response from the business community in pursuing partnership to deal with the productivity gap that the Government have identified.

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. The Government are seeking to foster such constructive partnership. In fact, one of the reasons for strongly promoting an atmosphere of voluntary partnership is precisely that it is the only way to secure productivity improvement. Indeed, it is the only way to secure economic prosperity.

On my right hon. Friend's first point, I can only repeat that the matter remains one of balance and judgment. I believe that no one thinks that a very small minority of people in a place of work voting in a ballot for recognition means that collective bargaining in that place of work could be sustained. Owing to his long experience and expertise in these matters, my right hon. Friend will know that, when informal procedures operated in this area, there was a general broad judgment of custom and practice on the level of involvement in the union required to sustain collective bargaining. The Government are giving that statutory recognition.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that much in the White Paper will be welcomed by the vast majority of people? It contains many great advances in family-friendly policy and other matters, but, as Mr. Eric Heffer, the former Member for Liverpool, Walton, once said over a document called "In Place of Strife", it is a barrel of honey spoilt by a ha'porth of tar.

This ha'porth of tar comprises two things. First, if 39 per cent. of employees in a firm of 100 employees vote for recognition, two vote against and the rest do not vote, there would be no recognition.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend spoke about simple justice and human dignity, but if one works in a firm of 21 people, the union is recognised, whereas if one works in a firm of 19, the union is not. My right hon. Friend has striven very hard, but even her figure of 40 per cent. does not meet the 33.33 per cent. that ACAS and others recognised in the past—and that was too high.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for some of his supportive words. All I can say to him is that, of course, whatever the threshold or the ballot result, a result will not be reached when a firm comes in at one below or two below. That would apply whatever the test or the nature of the test. The matter is one of balance and of judgment. In the overall framework of the package that the Government have proposed and in considering how such issues will be decided, we have tried to set the balance where we think it is right, workable and demonstrates serious and substantial support for collective bargaining.

The level of 20 employees has been enshrined in legislation as a point at which there is a difference in the structure of the workplace and the ease with which these matters can be decided. However, if some dispute or difficulty should arise in workplaces with fewer than 20 employees, particularly if a person is a trade union member—this is partly what I meant when I said to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) that, although some of the provisions are in the context of collective rights, they are rights for the individual—that individual trade union member will have the right to be accompanied by a trade union official should he or she wish to be so. I know that, from his experience, my hon. Friend recognises how important that is—perhaps far more than the threshold for very many employees of small companies.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

In its 23 years of existence, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service—ACAS—has made an enormous contribution to the improvement of industrial relations. Was it pressing for any or all of the reforms in the White Paper? Will the White Paper encourage more single-union recognition agreements in manufacturing industry, since such agreements have also done much to improve industrial relations?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we have recently supported legislation from another place strengthening ACAS's roles and responsibilities. However, ACAS's responsibility is not to advise the Government on how we should develop policy but to help to administrate. The context of the work done by ACAS is to encourage voluntary resolution of difficulties and disputes, which is the exact context and thrust of the White Paper.

It is for employees to decide whether they wish to work in a single union. I do not think that it would be possible to say whether the legislation specifically promotes single or multi-union workplaces. Quite simply, it provides a framework within which decisions can be reached when a majority of employees, or a substantial number of employees, seek union recognition.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Conservatives lost the general election because they created a climate of fear in every workplace across the country, which cost them hundreds of thousands of votes? Despite the change of Government, there is still a great deal of fear in the workplace about sticking one's neck out, to try to form a union.

Although the White Paper states that it will be an offence to blacklist anyone who tries to join a union, is my right hon. Friend aware that—in these days of the Data Protection Bill, and the widespread use of computers networked across the country—it will be very difficult to prove blacklisting? Is she aware that people who stick out their neck in trying to go for the 40 per cent., and fail, can easily be made redundant, placed permanently on night shifts, moved to another part of the country, or have other sanctions, which can be very difficult to prove, used against them? Will she show some flexibility on the 40 per cent., and on the blacklisting provisions—to make them watertight?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has great experience in these matters. With great respect, I tell him that, although blacklisting is not always easy to prove, the fact that it is now an offence to promote blacklisting will certainly make a substantial difference. It will also, correctly, be an offence to penalise anyone who campaigns either for or against union recognition. People will have the right to be protected against ill-treatment because of their actions either in their own cause or in advancing the cause of others.

As the legislation is considered, its detail will have to be explored to determine how effectively those rights can be protected. Nevertheless, we believe that the Government's enshrining of those protections in the law, for the first time, is an important step.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Is the Secretary of State aware that she has taken a huge gamble with industrial relations, and therefore with prosperity in this country? Against the background of a secular and very welcome long-term fall in unemployment and an all-time low in industrial strife, does she not think that there is at least a strong risk that many of the measures that she is proposing in the White Paper could jeopardise both of those positive factors, and therefore operate against prosperity in the medium to long term?

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise the concerns identified by the right hon. Gentleman. I simply tell him that I am not a gambler. The only thing that I ever gamble with is my life and my livelihood, by standing to be a Member of this place. He is profoundly mistaken in thinking that our package of measures represents a gamble. As I said earlier and now repeat: the Government are attempting to spread best practice in the workplace, so that it is normal practice.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find—as he has more freedom now to go about the countryside, inquiring about what is happening in the modern workplace—that all the most successful companies will be able very easily and very freely to operate within the framework of the law. The type of practices that we encourage and enshrine are those that they now pursue—which is partly why they are successful.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

I warmly welcome most of what my right hon. Friend had to say today, but, as she has heard from other hon. Members, a 40 per cent. threshold denied Scotland a Parliament, which a majority voted for in 1979. Is she aware that, had such a threshold been applied in the Government's referendum in Scotland last year, our new Parliament would have been denied the right to vary the income tax rate, which was supported by 65 per cent. of voters? Does she understand that, in the vast majority of cases, 40 per cent. thresholds are designed specifically to create an insurmountable obstacle to those trying to achieve whatever they are trying to achieve?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of a Labour Government is to provide not balance between the CBI and the TUC, but justice between the CBI and the TUC? The TUC has called the 40 per cent. threshold unreasonable and unworkable; I believe that it is also unjust and so do many of my hon. Friends. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that before she makes the mistake of writing that threshold into legislation.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, I always take seriously my hon. Friend's observations. I share his view that the Government's role is to provide justice, not between the CBI and the TUC, but in setting the framework of law for rights in the place of work. The Government do not believe that setting the threshold for those voting in favour at 40 per cent. creates an insurmountable obstacle. As I have said to other colleagues, we must consider the balance of the whole package. After all, that threshold is part of the final stage in procedures that will come into play only if voluntary agreement is not possible. I repeat that, at every step, the White Paper encourages and supports a move towards voluntary agreement.

The assessment of the bargaining unit in which the judgment is made, and the procedures to be followed for discussions and negotiations between employers and employees will focus on, support and encourage partnership.

My hon. Friend should take into account the fact that the Government recognise that there are occasions when the voice of employees is irrefutable, and there will be automatic representation where more than 50 per cent. of employees in a place of work are members. The overall balance of the package must be assessed. The Government believe that the balance is the right one to sustain collective bargaining, make practical and workable law and encourage the partnership to deliver competitiveness that we all want.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

In the Prime Minister's recent presidential tour of Japan, he drew attention to this country's excellent industrial relations and flexible labour market. Given the very high level of unemployment in most European economies, why is the President of the Board of Trade so slavishly following continental practice?

Mrs. Beckett

Oh, dear. The hon. Gentleman does not know much about continental practice if he thinks that all our actions slavishly follow it. We are setting a fresh balance for the framework of industrial relations law—where it is necessary to resort to law—that reflects the modern workplace and partnership that so many of our most successful companies advocate and practise.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that good employers will welcome today's proposals on employee rights and have no problems with them? Does she agree that beating up on one's work force is not good management and is not good for Britain's economy? Will she assure the House that in the consultation process that follows, she will consult widely with small companies employing between 20 and 100 people to ensure that their interests are fully taken into account?

Mrs. Beckett

Apart from encouraging the use of voluntary measures to resolve difficulties, the White Paper throughout places emphasis on consultation, and I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. I am now closing the exchanges on the statement.

As there are a number of hon. Members in the Chamber, may I make it clear that I have always believed, and acted according to the belief, that when Members wish to question a ministerial statement, they must remain in the Chamber to hear it. If they leave, they have not heard the full statement and it is a discourtesy to the Minister who is at the Dispatch Box.

I noticed today that Members on both sides rushed out to the Vote Office to get the statement and the White Paper. It is not the White Paper that is being questioned, but the statement of the President of the Board of Trade. The time will come to debate the White Paper. I shall not call Members who go out to the Vote Office and seek papers. I have their names, so they need not bother to stand, if that is their intention. We shall now have the business statement.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I take points of order after all statements.

Mr. Marshall


Madam Speaker

After we have finished the business statement.

Mr. Marshall

It is relevant, Madam Speaker—

Madam Speaker

They are always relevant, but I am afraid that I am now taking the statement by the Leader of the House.