HC Deb 26 July 1999 vol 336 cc85-8

Lords amendments again considered.

8.25 pm

On resuming

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I have to acquaint the House that a message has been brought from the Lords as follows. The Lords do not insist on their amendment to the Employment Relations Bill to which the Commons have disagreed, but propose an amendment in lieu of that amendment, to which they desire the agreement of the Commons. They agree without amendment to the amendment proposed by the Commons to the remaining Lords amendment.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian McCartney)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords amendment in lieu, in page 8, line 20, at the end to insert the words— ("(4) The payment of higher wages or higher rates of pay or overtime or the payment of any signing on or other bonuses or the provision of other benefits having a monetary value to other workers employed by the same employer shall not constitute a detriment to any worker not receiving the same or similar payments or benefits within the meaning of subsection (1)(a) of this section so long as—

  1. (a) there is no inhibition in the contract of employment of the worker receiving the same from being the member of any trade union, and
  2. (b) the said payments of higher wages or rates of pay or overtime or bonuses or the provision of other benefits are in accordance with the terms of a contract of employment and reasonably relate to services provided by the worker under that contract.")
As my noble Friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey has explained in another place, the Government are prepared to accept the amendment in the spirit of partnership—[Interruption.] I knew that that would wake them up and get them going.

It was our intention to replace the power in clause 17 with a substantive provision. Unfortunately, that proved not to be possible in the time available. We had informal consultations with interested parties that revealed complications. Ultimately, we judged that it would be better to give ourselves more time to address the issue. Nevertheless, I shall take this last opportunity briefly to restate the Government's position.

We made it clear, in the "Fairness at Work" White Paper and subsequently, that current law allows the employer and worker, if they wish, to conclude a contract in terms that differ from those in a collective agreement that would otherwise apply to the worker. That is the position now, and it will continue to be the position once the scheme for statutory trade union recognition is in place.

Collective agreements are, of course, increasingly sophisticated, and many already provide flexibility—in the form of performance-related pay and benefits, for example—so that employers who have negotiated such agreements may feel no need to negotiate different terms for individual workers. However, other employers may wish to do so. They are free to do so, and they shall continue to be free to do so. The only proviso is that, in doing so, they must not discriminate unlawfully—for example, on grounds of race, sex, disability, or trade union membership or non-membership.

We believe that employees should be protected against dismissal or detriment if they refuse to give up the terms of a collective agreement. It should not be permissible, for example, for an employer to say, "Unless you agree to an individual contract and give up the collective agreement, I'll see you're never promoted again." We shall continue working to draw up regulations to protect workers from such pressure.

We agree with the Opposition, however, that the mere fact that one worker has received benefits under an individual contract cannot constitute a detriment for those who do not receive such terms. Obviously it will remain unlawful to link the granting or withholding of benefits to a worker's membership or non-membership of a trade union.

The Government should have preferred to deal with those matters somewhat differently in regulations, but we accept that the point was particularly important to the Opposition. We have been willing, therefore, in partnership, to compromise on an amendment that will allow the Bill to complete its passage today, so that the wider benefits that the Bill will confer may commence without delay.

I should also like to take this opportunity to say that the Bill has now involved—in constructive work—two years of my life. I give my thanks to the social partners—particularly the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry, but also others—with whom I have worked, over the past two years, in preparing the White Paper and subsequently the Bill.

God willing, the House will today pass the Bill, making it the Employment Relations Act—which will help to modernise workplace relations; help people to combine work and family responsibilities; underpin a flexible and efficient labour market; and help business to attract and retain the skilled work force necessary if they are to compete and succeed. The Act will also ensure that workers receive the proper rights at work that they should have had and maintained in the 18 years of the previous, Tory Government.

The Government are ensuring that, from day 1 of their employment, every British worker—full-time, part-time, temporary, casual or agency worker—is treated with compassion and as employers' most important asset. If an employee wishes to join a trade union, to be represented by that union and to work for others to be represented by that union, they will not suffer a sacking or other detriment for that important task.

I am proud of the Government's achievements in this area. I hope that the House will pass the proposal from the Lords so that we can get on with rolling out the rights in the Bill for millions of workers in Britain.

8.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

In the spirit of partnership, we are glad to have been of assistance to the Government in enabling them to incorporate this amendment in the Bill before it becomes an Act tomorrow. We are pleased to have been able to modify what we believe to be, in principle, a damaging Bill.

When the Conservatives tabled this amendment in Committee in another place, assurances were given by Ministers. Interestingly, many of the changes to the Bill in another place were due to the fact that Ministers there appeared to have some experience of running businesses, and were therefore much more receptive to many of the Conservative amendments.

In Committee, the Government seemed to support my noble Friend Baroness Miller who tabled the amendment and took it through the other place. Ministers in another place promised that they would bring back a modified amendment on Report. On that basis, the Conservatives were asked to withdraw the amendment. I am pleased that my noble Friend did not do so because it was subsequently put to a vote, which the Conservatives won.

Therefore, the amendment came back here, and only last Wednesday the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry tabled an amendment not to modify the Bill—as promised by Ministers in the Lords—but to overturn the amendment that the Conservatives had won in another place. I accept the contrite tone of the Minister's contribution tonight, but this was a matter of ministerial honour, as has been made clear in another place and here last Wednesday.

Ministers who give their word that they will bring an amendment back on Report or at Third Reading and then fail to do so are duty-bound, as members of the Government, to try to keep their word. I am grateful, now the amendment has come to the Commons, that Ministers have sought to rectify the matter tonight.

Much valuable time could have been saved last Wednesday if Ministers had tabled such an amendment then because, as we know, the Bill was guillotined and yet—quite properly—we had spent some time discussing clause 15 last Wednesday, which is a matter of some concern both here and outside this place.

I am not sure that we would wish to be regarded as partners in this matter, but we are pleased to have been able to advise the Government, and that they have accepted the amendment. We are particularly pleased that honour has been seen to be upheld within the ministerial team.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

I can understand the Minister's feeling of elation tonight, as it has taken some two years to get to this stage. The Liberal Democrats welcome much in the Bill, and we have long argued for many of the issues in it.

If I have a criticism, it is that, in spite of the Bill taking two years, many of the amendments for which we called in Committee have appeared only in the last week or so. Nevertheless, we are grateful to the Minister and his team, who have heard some of the pleas that we have made and incorporated our views in the Bill. For that reason, I am pleased to say that I wish the Bill to go forward. It is a first step—but not the last step—towards fairness at work.

Lords amendment in lieu agreed to.

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