HC Deb 16 September 2004 vol 424 cc1473-6


Lords amendment No. 1.

1.29 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 17, 56, 59 to 67 and 70.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I welcome hon. Members to this afternoon's discussions and deliberations. I note the absence of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who is on parental leave. I wish him every success and hope that everything goes well.

This is a large group of amendments, all of which relate to part 1 of the Bill and concern the statutory recognition procedure. Many of the amendments within the group are technical or consequential. For example, amendment No. 1 makes a small change to the way a person's "workplace" is described to ensure that consistent language is used throughout trade union law. However, some of the amendments are more significant than that, and I shall mainly focus on them in my opening remarks.

Amendment No. 2 addresses a situation in which the Central Arbitration Committee is required to hold a ballot, even though more than 50 per cent. of the relevant work force are union members. The CAC must currently take three criteria into account when deciding whether a ballot is held. In particular, if the CAC is informed by a significant number of union members that they do not want the union to bargain on their behalf, the CAC must proceed by arranging a ballot. That has caused problems in practice, because it gives insufficient discretion to the CAC to assess the quality of the evidence put before it, including evidence that workers were pressurised by the employer to write letters to the CAC that did not reflect their true views. The amendment therefore introduces some necessary discretion for the CAC to assess the credibility of evidence in determining whether a ballot should be held.

Amendments Nos. 3 to 5 relate to the definition of unfair practices during recognition ballots in clause 9. Amendment No. 3 changes the definition of an "offer" to induce a person to vote in a particular way or abstain from voting in a recognition ballot. We consider that the current definition may be drawn too widely and might cut across the normal campaigning activity of either the union or the employer in discussing the consequences of recognition. Amendment No. 3 therefore provides more precise wording on the nature of the offer by referring to the payment of money or the giving of "money's worth". That new definition of an unfair "offer" therefore focuses on the things commonly associated with the practice of "bribing and treating", which, as we know, is explicitly outlawed in public elections.

Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 create a new unfair practice of making an "outcome specific" offer. Such offers are not explicitly linked to a person's agreement to vote in a particular way or not to vote at all. Instead, they represent more general offers to make payments to the work force or give them money's worth provided the outcome of the ballot goes a particular way. Such offers are clearly designed to interfere with the ballot and should therefore be categorised as an unfair practice. Again, we have taken the trouble to ensure that that new unfair practice does not impede normal campaigning by either party, or encourage speculative complaints to the CAC that an unfair practice has occurred.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 concern the remedies available to the CAC where either the employer or the union is adjudged to have committed an unfair practice during a recognition ballot. When it left this House, clause 9 of the Bill did not define those remedies and provided a power for the Secretary of State to set them by order, which was clearly unsatisfactory. We indicated our desire to introduce amendments in the other place that would set out the remedies and sanctions in the Bill, and these amendments fulfil that commitment.

Among other things, amendment No. 7 empowers the CAC to award recognition, where an employer's practice involves the extreme behaviour of committing acts of violence or dismissing a union activist. It also allows the CAC to award recognition where the employer commits two lesser unfair practices or fails to take any remedial actions that the CAC might order. The CAC has corresponding sanctions to refuse the union's application for recognition, where the union commits the unfair practices.

Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 also provide for ballots to be rerun where an unfair practice has occurred and might have corrupted the initial ballot. In devising that system, we have given scope to the CAC to exercise discretion as needed. For example, it is not required to rerun a ballot where the party that was the victim of an unfair practice has won the ballot.

Amendments Nos. 9, 10, 11, 13 and 14 make the corresponding changes to the definition of unfair offers during derecognition ballots, and they also establish the corresponding system of remedies. They are virtually identical to the amendments that I just discussed, although some additional refinements deal with the special case in which a worker seeks to derecognise the union. All the other amendments in the group are either technical or consequential.

The amendments significantly improve the Bill. They are the product of detailed prior consultation with key stakeholders, and I therefore urge the House to agree to them.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for sending me a comprehensive note on the amendments, which, as he pointed out, are all Government amendments. We take the view that they are sensible: my noble Friend Baroness Miller of Hendon spoke for the Opposition in the debate and discussions in another place, where she made it clear that they significantly improve the Bill.

As the Minister pointed out, the statutory recognition procedure is important. The current definition of offers of inducement either not to participate or to abstain is too wide and could cut into normal campaigning, so the Minister has done the right thing. On amendments Nos. 7 and 8, will he confirm that there would be no need to rerun a ballot in which unfair practices occurred if the injured party wins? On balance, the amendments make sensible, albeit minor, improvements to the Bill.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), I thank the Minister for his best wishes. If and when the good news arrives, I will pass it on.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned that the Minister provided him with a briefing. Perhaps our channels of communication are bogged down and the briefing reached my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon but not me, or perhaps the briefing never reached my hon. Friend.

The briefing would have been useful, because the amendments are technical and detailed. The amendments are welcome, because they make sense of how a campaign can be fought. It is sensible to hold the genuine debate about the benefits of recognition in the open, without being sidetracked into whether those benefits are inducements. There is clearly a debate to be had in each recognition ballot, and it should be open for people to make a strong case, if they believe that recognition will advance their cause. I welcome the practical, common-sense approach and the fact that the CAC will have the discretion carefully to judge the balance rather than using a purely numerical measure.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con)

I welcome the amendments, which are broadly sensible. On amendment No. 7, when a ballot is rerun after unfair practice, what is the limit on the CAC's discretion? For instance, can the CAC resist a re-ballot if the side that lost wants a re-ballot and there has been some unfair practice? Would the CAC examine the degree of unfair practice and make a judgment whether it changed the result of the ballot, or would it simply allow a re-ballot in any circumstances?

Mr. Sutcliffe

I welcome hon. Members' contributions to the debate, which show that the union recognition procedure generally works, which is why the Bill does not change it substantially.

On unfair practices, the CAC has proved that it is capable of examining such issues in great detail and coming up with the right result. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) fears that the CAC may overstep the mark. However, if unfair practices exist, the injured party does not have to go for a re-ballot. The CAC will have powers to examine all the evidence, and its judgment will be held to account by employment tribunals, which is a clear safeguard.

I welcome the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and apologise for the e-mail being sent to the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). No attempt was made to take him out of the process.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments 2 to 17 agreed to.

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