HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1244-7


Lords amendment: No. 8, in page 5, line 5, leave out ("the worker")

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.—[Mr. Battle.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 14.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I rise to probe the Government. The Bill, as amended in another place, clearly defines that the person who will accompany a worker when he or she is in dispute and invited to attend a disciplinary or grievance hearing must be an official of a trade union whom the union has reasonably certified in writing to have experience of, or received training in, acting as a worker's companion in such hearings.

The fact that someone has a right to be accompanied and may wish to be so accompanied is not in dispute. However, it would be helpful to know exactly what the Government mean by "reasonably certified". Who will be the arbiter of that certification or the qualification of the person accompanying the worker as having received training?

As the Minister will know, concern has been expressed in both this House and another place specifically on the right of a worker to choose. Will the Minister clarify whether the trade union official will be from the worker's trade union or from a trade union from the worker's workplace or company? It is important that the worker should have confidence in the official who accompanies him or her, not only because the official may give technical or even legal advice, but because the official must be in a position to give the worker the moral support that is clearly desired. The worker must therefore have confidence in the relationship.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Minister clarified in what, if any, circumstances the provision of a certificate from a trade union stating that an official had met the required standards could be withdrawn? It would be very damaging if, having once been certified, someone was decertified for such purposes because the trade union felt that that person was not the right official to represent someone. As she rightly says, the individual should have as wide a choice of officials as possible. We need to know whether a certificate may be withdrawn. Preferably, that should not be possible.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.

I have a further question to ask of the Minister. Let us put ourselves in the position of an employer of a trade union official who is certified to carry out this work, and is called upon several times to accompany workers to disciplinary or grievance hearings. What sort of arrangement will there be if that individual is required to travel to companies and locations well away from their workplace? What requirement, if any, might an employer reasonably make of that individual if they become a specialist and intend to fulfil that role, perhaps outside their workplace? It would help if the Minister would clarify some of the matters on which we have asked questions tonight.

7 pm

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking many of the questions that I would otherwise have asked the Minister. I have one more question to ask in addition to that which I posed in my earlier intervention.

If the amendment is accepted and if the Bill is enacted, how will a trade union be defined? Hon. Members will be aware—and you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker—of the circumstances in which unions can, from time to time, fragment. We remember the Union of Democratic Mineworkers coming out of the National Union of Mineworkers 10 or 15 years ago. How is a union to be defined for these purposes? Who are the officials defined to be acting on behalf of that union? How is the process of change, as one union merges into another or splits away from a union, to be managed for the purposes of ensuring that courts can easily interpret this legislation, should it reach the statute book? I should be grateful if the Minister would address those points in his reply.

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I understand that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) intends to probe, not resist, the amendments that the Government have made. That is welcome.

Amendment No. 8 is a straightforward grammatical amendment, avoiding unnecessary repetition. Similarly, amendments Nos. 12 and 13 correct a minor inconsistency.

The substance of amendments Nos. 9 and 10, to which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton addresses herself, concerns the list of persons who may be an accompanying person. Hon. Members will be aware that the subject was much discussed in the House and in the other place, and I think that it is fair to say, and widely known, that the Government resisted attempts to minimise the scope for people who are not fellow workers to act as that accompanying person. As the hon. Lady says, it is important that the individual has confidence in the person who stands with them, as it were. The Government resisted attempts to minimise the scope for two reasons. First, if we had not done so, the right would have been cast too narrowly and, secondly, it might well have excluded some of the most appropriate and effective individuals—experienced trade unionists who are highly qualified, skilled and trained—from performing a standard function of a trade union. I am grateful for the support given to the Government in the other place on this point during consideration of this part of the right.

I know that that consensus was evolving around our position and I pay tribute to the supportive remarks that were made in the other place about the wealth of expertise and experience that full-time and lay officials of trade unions can bring to bear during disciplinary and grievance proceedings. I believe that there is a good degree of consensus of support for that expertise.

However, we noted the concerns of those who believe that it might prove unhelpful or disruptive to allow inexperienced outsiders to participate in internal procedures. As a result, we redrew the list of people who may act as an accompanying person, with a view to ensuring that only those who are suitably qualified for the task will be entitled to act as the accompanying person. I should point out that the right for a fellow worker to act as a companion remains as it is. Indeed, in many cases, the fellow worker will also be the local union representative, so the changes really relate to the outsiders who can attend the hearing.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I wish to clarify a point. The answer may be in another part of the Bill, which I have missed. Amendment No. 9 specifically says that the official is "employed" by a trade union. A few moments ago, the Minister said that the official could be employed part-time or full-time. But is there meant to be, or is there, a distinction between an official who is a paid employee and an official who is merely appointed as a representative?

Mr. Battle

The traditional definition of the difference between a lay representative and a trade union official is written into trade union law. The condition is that lay officials must be reasonably certified, in writing, by their union as having had experience of acting as an accompanying person or as having received training in performing that role.

The amendment does allow for certification to be withdrawn. Just as certification must be given in the first instance, to ensure that we get the right person into position and that people may have confidence—as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said—in that person, similarly, if it were proved that the person was ineffective, that could be raised with the tribunal by the person who objected to that representative, and they could ask for that certification to be withdrawn at the appropriate time.

I therefore hope that the amendments will give benefits to all parties to grievance and disciplinary hearings, because workers and employers need to be reassured and to rest easy that the accompanying person is an appropriate and competent person to do the job.

Mr. Collins

The Minister said that it was important that the accompanying person should be effective in the representations that they make on behalf of others, and he spoke about the possibility of withdrawing certification if someone proved to be ineffective. The words of amendment No. 10 simply talk about certification as having experience of, or … having received training". If one has experience or has received training, those things do not disappear with the passage of time. Might the Minister be saying that the courts, in interpreting the legislation, should have regard to something that is not in the terms of the amendment—effectiveness?

Mr. Battle

Let us test how the provision would work. I believe that it is up to trade unions to decide how they operate the accreditation process. By that I mean that they have a strong interest in ensuring that they field suitable lay representatives. Otherwise, full-time officials might have to be called in to sort out a problem caused by an inappropriate person who had been sent in. I am tempted to add that, if that happened, a trade union's reputation might be damaged. It might lose the confidence not only of employers but of its members, because its service to its members would be seen to be second rate. Therefore, it is in unions' interests to get the process right.

As I believe that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) acknowledges, most trade unions already provide training for their lay representatives, often via courses, educational services and the Trades Union Congress. It is in a trade union's interests to satisfy itself that officials who can perform such work are competent to do it. Probably, unions will not consider issuing a certificate to new lay officials until they have completed a basic shop steward's course, for example, or have been in post for a certain length of time. I believe that that is appropriate because the condition is that lay officials must be "reasonably certified"—in writing, as I emphasised—by their union as having experience of … acting as an accompanying person or as having received training in performing that role.

I was asked how a union was to be defined. As the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale mentioned it, I remind him that the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 provides a clear definition of a union. An organisation would have to meet that definition in order for its officials to qualify as an accompanying person. I hope that I can reassure the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the purpose and intent of the amendments are to sharpen up the clause and give people rights to which they are entitled.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to the Minister. Before he concludes, will he address the point about the employers of people who act as the accompanying official to people appearing before tribunals? As I outlined, an employee might find that, as a consequence of being certified, he or she was spending such a lot of time on this specialised work that it was having an impact on the employment that he or she was expected to carry out. Will the Minister say a few words about how he envisages that situation?

Mr. Battle

The hon. Lady makes a fair point, but the whole purpose and tenor of the Bill is to develop a partnership at work. This is an absolute backstop case. The aim is not to be in a situation where an accompanying person is needed. Such a situation implies a failure by employers in the first instance to deal with grievances or disciplinary issues in an appropriate procedural manner. Tribunal proceedings detract from the focus of the employer and employee getting together and getting on with the job in a positive spirit. I accept the hon. Lady's point, but the purpose is to enable employees to have rights at work and to have people appropriately certified to stand by them if absolutely necessary and needed. Our intention is to reduce the number of occasions on which we need to be driven into those circumstances.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 9 to 14 agreed to.

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