HC Deb 30 March 1999 vol 328 cc989-96
Mr. Brady

I beg to move amendment No. 40, in page 5, line 38, at end insert— '(1A) This section shall not apply to an employer who shows that to comply with it would conflict with his religious beliefs.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 41, in clause 12, page 6, line 33, at end insert 'but such a complaint shall not succeed if the employer can show that he was unable to comply as a consequence of his religious conscience.'. No. 39, in schedule 1, page 26, line 23, after "22', insert 'except for reasons of religious conscience.

Mr. Brady

In view of the lateness of the hour, I shall endeavour to be brief. However, I would not wish any hon. Member to draw an inference from that that the matter was any the less serious. I tabled the amendment with particular regard to the rights of some of my constituents who are members of the Plymouth Brethren. Many other hon. Members also represent communities of Plymouth Brethren in different parts of the country.

In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and I spoke in support of amendments that would have protected the freedom of members of the Plymouth Brethren to practise their religion in the way that they believe is appropriate and right, and which they have followed for some 150 years in this country.

During that time, members of the brethren have benefited from the religious freedom and tolerance of which many of us are proud. They are a decent, God-fearing group of people who seek to live their lives strictly according to holy scripture. I note that some Labour Members seem to find that amusing. I find that rather disappointing; I regard the matter as having the gravest significance. Members of the Plymouth Brethren and other religious communities will be disappointed by the reaction of the Labour Members who find what I am saying amusing.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

It will not make the slightest difference to any Member of the House of Commons what the Plymouth Brethren thinks of us, because its members never vote in general elections.

Mr. Brady

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It is important, because to some hon. Members, it matters what people in our country are free to do, regardless of their ability to reward either individual Members or political parties with their votes. I take pride in the fact that I am speaking for a group of people who do not participate directly in the political process. That is all the more reason why they need Members of Parliament who are prepared to speak for their interests.

I do not share the brethren's religious beliefs—and I do not wish to be diverted by Labour Members who clearly do not take religious freedom and tolerance seriously. It is disappointing, and embarrassing for the House, that some Members take that stance. However, I shall return to my main point.

The Plymouth Brethren is a fairly small community, but its members run 1,200 businesses, mainly small ones, which employ 6,500 people, all but 2,000 of whom are members of the brethren. In general, they are among the best of employers, and I have heard no one question that assertion. In the conduct of their businesses, and in the relations between employer and employee, they are beyond reproach.

The Plymouth Brethren's interpretation of scripture is that the master-servant relationship is God-given. It is not appropriate, therefore, for any organisation to intervene in that relationship.

Mr. Fabricant

Does my hon. Friend fear that some people may claim to be members of the Plymouth Brethren in order to extricate themselves from the Bill's provisions?

Mr. Brady

No. Members of the Plymouth Brethren live a particular type of life. My hon. Friend's point could be made on virtually any aspect of the Bill. Every other part of it can be established before an industrial tribunal, and I cannot see why the validity of someone's claim to be a member of a particular religious community cannot come into the same category.

The Plymouth Brethren's religious beliefs mean that its members do not think it appropriate for trade unions or trade or employers associations to intervene in the relationship between master and servant. That has important implications for the recognition aspects of the Bill and for representation in grievance hearings.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) has pointed out that the Plymouth Brethren does not participate in the political process. That is no reason why we should not seek to defend its freedom. This is not a party political matter. When it was debated in Standing Committee, Labour Members gave a more mature response than some of them have tonight. This is a fundamental matter of religious freedom and tolerance. Earlier debates have related to tolerance for other groups, and I cannot see why the Plymouth Brethren should be treated with any less respect, though others clearly take a different view.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), said in Committee that the Plymouth Brethren, of which he has had some experience in his constituency, is a religious community beyond reproach".—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 25 February 1999; c. 164.] He said that he had some difficulty understanding the community's position, and that difficulty goes to the heart of the matter. Many of us, on both sides, may find it difficult to understand the position adopted by the Plymouth Brethren. Perhaps none of us chooses to live as its members do. However, that does not make their choices any less valid, and it does not constitute a reason not to tolerate their religious views, or not to give them the freedom that we enjoy.

The Minister of State also said that the accompanying person in a grievance procedure would be there to advise and support, not to intervene or answer questions. However, the Bill says, in clause 11(2)(b) and (c) that the person is permitted to address the hearing and is to be permitted to confer during the hearing.

The Bill clearly intervenes in the relationship between master and servant, and between employer and employee. The amendment is of the utmost importance because it goes to the heart of the religious freedom and tolerance for which our country is known and in which we—at least, the Conservatives—believe. I hope for a constructive response from the Minister.

Mr. Bercow

I am pleased to rise in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). In so doing, I say at the outset that I am genuinely saddened and shocked by the reaction of a number of Labour Members. In particular, it is a source of regret to me and—I suspect—several others that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton), who is a long- serving Member of Parliament and someone who sits on the Chairmen's Panel on behalf of Members of this House, should behave with such gross disrespect to a community of people who wish to defend and uphold their right to live their lives in the way that they think fit. If the hon. Gentleman does not have the nous to appreciate that he has behaved contemptibly, that says more about him than it does about the Conservative Opposition or members of the Plymouth Brethren. The same goes for other Labour Members, many of whom are in a tired and emotional state tonight. If they think such behaviour is funny or clever, or that it elevates them to a higher plane than the people on whom they sit in judgment, it is lamentable. Tolerance is not about putting up with people of whom or activities of which one approves: it is about putting up with activities one dislikes and people of whom one disapproves or whom one does not understand. If right hon. and hon. Members are not open to that blindingly obvious point, it is very regrettable.

Members of the Plymouth Brethren, as my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West pointed out, are God-fearing people. There are members of the Plymouth Brethren in many constituencies and at least 50 in my constituency. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, to whom we wish a speedy recovery, has had several meetings with members of the brethren over many months. He was good enough to say in Committee that they had always made their case effectively and courteously to him.

Mr. Byers

indicated assent.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful for the Secretary of State's assent to that point. The Minister of State added in Committee that he wished that other people who had come to see him had been as courteous. They had not, and the fact that a member of the Chairmen's Panel does not have the manners to listen to the views of the Plymouth Brethren is a sad commentary indeed.

Members of the Plymouth Brethren made it clear that nothing can interfere with the sanctity of the Lord's supper in the conduct of their lives. They have no personal hostility to trade unions or to members of trade unions, but because of their religious convictions, they do not recognise trade unions and, in the running of their businesses, they are not willing to accept the presence of union officials in the circumstances provided for in the Bill. In a letter of 22 February to the Minister of State, the members of the brethren made it clear that they had no intention of derailing the Bill: they simply sought an exemption from it.

The estimable commentary on the European convention on human rights by Harris, O'Boyle and Warbrick states that it contains a strong affirmation of the power and even the duty to protect manifestations of religious belief. The Human Rights Act 1998 underlines the importance of respecting individual human rights, including the entitlement to practise one's religious beliefs. If Ministers do not accept the amendments, will they explain to the House, the brethren and the country why they do not accept them? If Ministers will not accept the amendments, by what practical means do they intend to safeguard the interests and the freedoms of the Plymouth Brethren?

At least one Labour Member, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson), said in Committee that he hoped that the Minister of State would have some kind and helpful words to meet the interests of the community. Though he endeavoured to do so, he did not offer reassurance. I hope that the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry will tonight, and that he will reaffirm his respect for communities whose practices he does not share and with whose beliefs he disagrees. If he does, he will signally distinguish himself from several of his hon. Friends.

12.15 am
Mr. Wills

As hon. Members who served on the Committee, particularly the hon. Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) know, we discussed the Plymouth Brethren and matters of religious conscience at length. The Government made clear our respect for all those with religious consciences or who believe in religious practices.

The Department of Trade and Industry has had numerous contacts with members of the brethren. Officials met them before the Committee and again last week to discuss their concerns. I understand that many of the employees under discussion are members of the brethren and would therefore not wish to be accompanied by trade union officials at disciplinary or grievance hearings. It is therefore in practice most unlikely that one of the very few brethren businesses—I think that we are talking about some 35 in all—with more than 20 employees would face an application for membership that passes the test that we have set. In the unlikely event of such an application, the Central Arbitration Committee would no doubt take account, subject to the law, of the constraints imposed on the employer by religious conscience.

I do not doubt that the amendments are well meant, but they raise the difficult issue of whether workers' rights under law can or should be curtailed because of an employer's religious beliefs. Of course the Government respect religious freedoms, but we also respect the right to freedom of association and to form and join trade unions. Both those freedoms are enshrined in the European convention on human rights, so we face a conflict between two fundamental principles.

I have no reason to doubt that members of the brethren are good employers. We do not underestimate the sincerity of their beliefs. However, as my right hon. Friend the sadly missed Minister of State made clear in Committee on 25 February, the Government cannot accept that the religious freedom of employers, who are, after all, free to choose whether to employ others and how to arrange their affairs, should take precedence over the rights of individuals to form and join trade unions for the protection of their interests. The Government cannot agree that workers should be deprived of their statutory rights to recognition or to be accompanied at grievance and disciplinary hearings, which are fundamental human rights, because of the religious beliefs of their employers. Moreover, there must be a danger that any religious exemption would be a loophole through which unscrupulous employers would seek to exploit the Bill.

I repeat that the beliefs of the brethren are sincerely held. The Bill could pose some real problems for the members. I listened carefully to what has been said today and in Committee. I undertook then to continue to look at these issues carefully and to consider whether we can reasonably do anything to take account of the situation of the brethren without undermining the basic principles of the Bill. I undertake to continue so to consider.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have discussed this at great length, and I want to come to the nub of my remarks.

Unfortunately, we cannot accept the amendments for the same reasons that we could not accept them in Committee. To do so would put at risk fundamental freedoms and rights of individual workers. However, as I have said, we shall continue to think further about the matter and we will of course examine any further proposals that the brethren may care to put to us. I hope that, in the light of my remarks and reassurances, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West will seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Brady

I thank the Under-Secretary for his courteous and thoughtful response, which was in marked contrast to the comments of some Government Members. I am grateful for his conduct on the matter, as I am for the thoughtful response from the Minister of State. However, I cannot accept the arguments that the Under-Secretary makes. Although a very small number of businesses may be affected, the sincerity of the religious principle is not any the less real.

The question of recognition procedures may affect very few employees, but for grievance procedures there is no minimum threshold for employee numbers. I do not believe that there is any genuine conflict between articles 9 and 11 of the European convention on human rights. There is no problem in the amendments and the right to free association and to membership of a trade union is not in question. It is simply that a question is posed in certain circumstances in relation to recognition proceedings. There is no contravention of the convention.

I think that I heard the Minister say that the brethren were free to employ whom they saw fit, which is perhaps an invitation to them not to employ people who are not brethren, which would be an interesting response.

I am deeply disappointed that the Minister has not felt it possible to go further on behalf of the Government and that the best that he could offer was respect for, not tolerance of, religious beliefs. That really is not good enough. Given the lateness of the hour, I reluctantly do not intend to press the matter to a vote, but I feel deeply aggrieved, as will many of my constituents, that more progress has not been made. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Brady

I beg to move amendment No. 44, in page 6, line 6, at end insert '(d) is to be permitted to speak only on matters which are directly relevant to the subject of the hearing'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 4, in page 6, line 9, at end insert ', provided that he is a full—time official.'.

No. 50, in clause 13, page 7, line 33, at end insert— '(6) In the application of subsections (1)b and 3(b) above, where a worker seeks to accompany another worker not of the same employer, the employer of the accompanying worker shall be entitled to require that worker to take unpaid leave while absent from their place of work during the relevant period or periods.'.

Mr. Brady

The amendments relate to a tighter definition of the circumstances at a disciplinary or grievance hearing. They seek to tighten up the circumstances within which—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. These are all serious amendments and the House must listen to the debate.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), the pompous person, called a name across to one of my hon. Friends which was quite uncalled for. He should withdraw it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I did not hear anything called across the Chamber and I suggest that we return to the amendment in hand.

Mr. Brady

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am trying to move matters forward for the benefit of the House, but with little co-operation from Labour Members, it must be noted. It is important that the circumstances in which a person accompanying someone at a disciplinary or grievance hearing can act—in what ways and on what matters that person can speak—should be properly defined. The amendments would define the principle of the matter, in a way that would not affect the nature of the Bill but would clearly limit the activities of trade unions in this context to proper disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Mr. Boswell

I rise to comment on my amendment No. 4. The concern underlying it has been expressed by the Engineering Employers Federation and others. It is that persons may be brought along to a disciplinary or grievance hearing who may be inappropriate for the case in point.

I want to confine representation outwith the firm to full-time union officials, because concern has been expressed to us that unless representation is thus tied down, it might include, for example, a shop steward from a rival firm, who might be a trade union official but whose presence might prove difficult in the circumstances. I invite the Government to consider that matter further.

Mr. Wills

In respect of amendment No. 4, it appears that despite the fact that a Conservative Government enshrined in law the right to belong to a union of one's choice, the Opposition seem unable to accept the logical consequence: that trade union representatives should be allowed to represent their members in crucial matters. We see no compelling reason why that right should be denied to union members.

Presumably, if Conservative Members had had more time, they might have argued that employers would not feel free to discuss a sensitive subject before an outsider—perhaps someone employed by a competitor. There is no force in that argument; it is highly improbable that genuine issues of commercial confidentiality would arise and such issues would have to be revealed if the event led to a tribunal. The amendment is unnecessary and unacceptable; it would limit an important right and I hope that hon. Members will withdraw it.

Amendment No. 44 would qualify and narrow the range of functions that the accompanying person may perform when fulfilling that role. We should not lose sight of the purpose of that right; it will enable vulnerable workers to have support and a helping hand in presenting their case cogently and effectively when that might otherwise be impossible. There is no reason to limit the scope of the clause in that way.

Amendment No. 50 covers situations in which the accompanying person is not employed by the same employer as the worker who is being accompanied. Conservative Members want to limit the costs incurred by the accompanying person's employer. I shall put their minds at rest: the measure will not be a burden on employers. Several options are available to them and the arrangements that we have in hand adequately deal with the issue. The Bill will involve minimal disruption to third party employers; it does not require such employers to give paid leave. I see no reason for qualifying that right further. The amendment is as unnecessary as the others in the group and I hope that they will not be pressed.

Mr. Brady

I am disappointed in that response, but given the lateness of the hour, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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