§ 11.31 a.m.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
The essential purpose of the Bill is to give women and young people wider employment opportunities and to remove unnecessary burdens on business. Both employees and employers will benefit from the 521 simplification or removal of legal restrictions, thus taking a further important step towards a freer and more efficient market for jobs.
I stress the important role of women in the economy of the 1990s. In the last 10 years we have already seen a growing involvement of women in the labour market, by no means confined to low-paid or routine jobs. The role of women as administrators and managers, engineers and scientists, doctors, lawyers and accountants, not to say Prime Ministers, has increased dramatically within the last 10 years. For demographic reasons the contribution of women will be all the more important in the coming decade.
The impact of demographic trends will be even greater where young people generally are concerned. There will be fewer school-leavers looking for jobs, both absolutely and as a proportion of the working population. But that does not mean that we can relax our efforts in the field of young people's employment and training. One of this Government's highest priorities is to give our children and young people the grounding they need for the whole of their working life, through education and training that gives the fullest scope to their potential.
In the interests of both young people and employers, we also need to look carefully at the legislation that regulates young people's employment. Controls and restrictions that were introduced in entirely different conditions may no longer be relevant. One of the aims of the Bill is to remove such restrictions wherever possible.
Effective training will be essential if we are to meet the challenges of the 1990s. The White Paper, Employment for the 1990s, set out a new framework for training. This new framework will help to deliver relevant and effective training where it is needed. It will be responsive to changing labour market conditions both nationally and locally. It will help employers and individuals to make the right decisions about their training needs; and it will enable employers—the main consumers and providers of training—to make decisions about what the needs are and how best to fill them.
Having set the Bill in context, I should like briefly to describe its main provisions. The first six clauses change the relationship between the legislation of sex discrimination—principally the Sex Discrimination Act 1975—and other legislation. The 1975 Act in general prohibited sex discrimination in employment, but it did not remove all existing legislation which treated men and women differently. Under Section 51 of the Act any earlier legislation which requires people to discriminate between the sexes automatically overrides the prohibition of discrimination in the 1975 Act.
The Bill reverses this approach by providing that the prohibition of sex discrimination in employment is to override requirements of legislation enacted before the 1975 Act, except in narrowly defined circumtances. We have conducted a thorough review of legislation enacted before the 1975 Act to identify requirements which discriminate between the sexes. The results of this review are set out in a consultative document which was published in 1987. Where such requirements are, we believe, still justified and 522 consistent with our European Community obligations, the Bill allows them to continue in force.
We are retaining protection for women in areas, such as working with lead or radiation, where there could be danger to an unborn child. We are also retaining an exemption for different treatment of the sexes in a few special cases in the eductional field. Where, on the other hand, discriminatory provisions are not justified the Bill will repeal them or amend them to remove the unjustified discrimination. Matters outside the field of employment and vocational training, which may raise a variety of complex issues, will continue to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. We are firmly committed to removing unnecessary discrimination in all areas.
I shall briefly mention Clause 8, which was introduced towards the end of the proceedings in another place and was generally welcomed. Clause 8 ensures, following a recent development in case law, that the Government's programmes of training for employment can continue to give special help to parents who, for whatever reason, are bringing up children alone. This category of parent would otherwise find it more difficult to get the training needed to re-enter the labour market making full use of individual talents and abilities. I should mention at this point that the wording of Clause 8 as it stands may not cover all employment schemes where special assistance to lone parents would be desirable. An amendment may therefore be brought forward for your Lordships' consideration later.
Clause 9 repeals a number of archaic restrictions on the employment of women. The most important of these is the prohibition on women working for any length of time underground in mines and quarries. This prohibition goes back in part to the 1840s. Conditions in those days were very different. Some may suggest that we want to return to the bad old days, but of course we do not. It is doubtful whether large numbers of women will wish to work at the coal face, even in the most modern and highly mechanised of pits, though if some do there is no good reason why they should not. In any event the present restrictions are an obstacle to women working not only as face workers but as surveyors, engineers, or in other professional functions underground, and to their being promoted to management positions. This is a quite unjustified restraint and we shall remove it.
Clause 10 deals with restrictions on young people's employment. The Government have reviewed this area and uncovered a complex tangle of restrictions on young people's hours. Different rules apply to factories, mines and shops, while some sectors, such as offices, farms and hospitals have never been regulated. There are many inconsistencies between different industries and often no clear reason for restrictions at all.
It is essential to bear in mind that most of these restrictions on young people's hours of work were introduced many decades ago, when the economic, social and legal context of young people's employment was very different. There has been a general reduction in hours of work since Victorian or even pre-war times, and the economic pressure 523 on young people to work excessive hours has been lifted. Moreover, in most cases the restrictions were introduced when the school-leaving age was lower and a younger age group was covered. We also now have a comprehensive framework of protection under the Health and Safety at Work Act which imposes general duties on employers not to expose employees to conditions, including hours of work, which would endanger their health and safety. Finally, young people now have many opportunities for education and training after they leave school. The prevailing circumstances are entirely different.
We therefore believe that the whole regime of protection for young people in employment needs to be looked at afresh and without preconceptions. In our review of the legislation we have concluded that many of the restrictions are now unnecessary. The Bill will remove them. But I stress that we are keeping all the safeguards—for instance, on working with dangerous machinery and chemicals—that the Health and Safety Commission advise us are desirable for health and safety reasons. We are also keeping restrictions on employment in selling alcohol and in betting and gaming, where there are considerations of young people's moral welfare to be taken into account. We recognise that these are special cases.
The provisions of the Bill will greatly simplify the rules on employment of young people. It will widen their opportunities and remove disincentives to employers. In our view the simplification is long overdue.
The Bill also provides for a number of amendments to be made to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 to ease the burden of regulation on employers. Let me make it plain that these amendments are in no way an attack on employees' legitimate rights. Equally, however, we are committed to lifting the burdens on employers where it makes sense to do so. The point is that there has to be an appropriate balance; a balance between safeguarding employees' rights and enabling employers to improve their competitiveness and create new job opportunities. The Bill will help to strike that balance.
I shall mention two of these deregulatory measures in particular. First, we do not believe that there is any justification for imposing on employers the cost of paid time off for trade union officials to deal with matters which are outside the scope of the employer's recognition of the union. Clause 12 of the Bill will restrict the duties for which paid time off must be allowed to those concerned with matters for which the employer recognises the union.
Secondly, Clause 18 will help to deter ill-founded applications to industrial tribunals. The clause enables the Secretary of State to provide that the chairman of an industrial tribunal can hold a pre-hearing review of a tribunal case and, where a party's case has no reasonable prospect of success or appears to be frivolous, vexatious or unreasonable, to require that party to make a deposit of up to £150 as a condition of taking the case further. This does not mean that all applicants will have to make a 524 deposit. Nor is £150 a set amount: it is the maximum. It seems entirely reasonable that where a party has a very weak case he or she should think carefully before involving everyone in unnecessary trouble and expense.
The deregulatory provisions of the Bill, although individually relatively modest, collectively take a further important step in our wider deregulatory strategy to remove unnecessary burdens on employers.
In Clause 14, the Bill provides for women to receive statutory redundancy payments up to the same age as men—that is, up to age 65—or to the same normal retiring age if this is lower in the particular firm.
Earlier I explained our strategy for training. It remains to mention Clause 20 of the Bill, which provides for the dissolution of the Training Commission. The majority of the functions of the commission have already been transferred to the Employment Department Group under existing powers and administrative procedures. Clause 20 provides for the transfer of some residual legal rights and liabilities and makes consequential amendments to legislation where the commission is mentioned.
Clause 21 is also related to the Government's training strategy; it makes provision for the status of the staff of skills training centres if these activities are operated in future in the private sector. We shall shortly bring forward amendments for your Lordships' consideration to ensure a smooth transition to employer-led training organisations in the areas covered by the present statutory industrial training boards.
Before concluding, I should like to give your Lordships notice of a new clause that the Government intend to bring forward. The Government have announced in another place that regulations are to be made requiring construction workers to wear head protection. This had caused concern among the Sikh community, many of whom work in the construction industry and who for religious reasons will not wear anything on their heads except a turban.
The Government propose to exempt turban-wearing Sikhs from any requirement to wear head protection in construction work. There will be a parallel exemption for employers from civil liability towards Sikhs using the exemption. Many thousands of Sikhs in the construction industry might otherwise feel compelled to choose between their religion and their job. I hope that your Lordships will therefore view an exemption sympathetically.
In summary, the Bill takes a further step towards the rationalisation of employment law and freedom in the labour market. Its guiding principles are equality of opportunity, flexibility, and the removal of unnecessary regulation, while retaining all essential safeguards. I am sure that few of your Lordships will disagree with those aims, though some, no doubt, will dispute our case for particular provisions in the Bill. I believe the Bill is a constructive and realistic measure. I commend it to your Lordships.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Trefgarne.)525
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, this is another short Bill on employment. As with social security,we seem to have a short Bill in this area every year. Like its predecessor, in many respects it is a nasty little Bill. I say that even though I welcome the Minister's comments about the importance of women in the labour market. He has claimed that it is an important measure concerned with the equality of opportunity for women and young people.
I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that that is a highly commendable objective. But the majority of the clauses in that area are not fully acceptable to these Benches and I want to explain precisely why that is so. As the Minister has indicated, one clause would enable women to work underground in mines and quarries and to clean heavy machinery. There is also the proposal to enable young people aged 16 to 17 to have the opportunity to work long hours and night shifts.
I shall return to the matter of women working underground. However, I say at the outset that if the Government are concerned about opportunities for women they should do a great deal more than hitherto to provide essential support services. We had a debate about that matter in this House on 21st June. I said then that I was disappointed with the Government's response.
Moreover, in my view real concern about equality would have led the Government to look with more favour on the recommendations of the Equal Opportunities Commission for changes in the law. The EOC wants to see the complete repeal of Section 51 of the Sex Discrimination Act. In order to achieve some kind of hearing and justice in the industrial tribunals and the courts it has made a series of recommendations designed to make it easier for the individual claimant and less cumbersome and difficult than it is at the moment.
The Equal Opportunities Commission has made a total of 43 recommendations to improve the law on equality. But the Bill does not deal with many of them. Instead we have the proposition that women should be able to work underground in mines and to clean heavy machinery. No doubt I shall be challenged on the matter, but whatever is said about modernisation, about circumstances being greatly improved and so forth, the fact remains that we are talking about an industry which continues to be dangerous, where the level of accidents is still unacceptably high and where the unions would be the first to agree that a great deal more could be done in welfare and sanitary facilities.
That being so, I do not see why we should acquiesce in handing over another section of the workforce to suffer such conditions Therefore, until appropriate improvements have been made and safeguards introduced for both sexes, we shall continue to remain sceptical about that provision in the Bill.
As regards young people, the Government's case appears to be that the present restrictions constitute a barrier to business and that, in any event, they are old-fashioned because nowadays young people grow up much quicker. Of course, they cannot vote until the age of 18, but I suppose that that is a different matter.
526 The main effect of the proposition in the Bill will be to remove restrictions on young people's hours of work and related provisions on overtime, Saturday and Sunday working, rest periods, holidays and restrictions on night-work. At present there are approximately 900,000 16 to 18 year-olds in the workforce. About two-thirds will be affected by the provisions in the Bill.
But there are compelling reasons why young people should continue to be protected. The Government do not appear to have understood that the transition from school to work can be traumatic for young people. It takes some getting used to. In industrial environments that are hazardous it is even more important that there should be protection. There have been some pretty nasty accidents involving young people and there could be more if they are allowed to work longer hours.
It is not sufficient to rely on the Health and Safety at Work Act and on the Health and Safety Commission, good though that commission is. There are not enough inspectors. The number has decreased over the past 10 years. No doubt we shall be told that the Health and Safety Executive has fairly regularly written special exemption orders in regard to young people's hours. However, those exemption orders normally have conditions attached like adequate supervision, proper and adequate transport arrangements and so on. It is by no means clear what will happen to such conditions under this Bill. I suppose that they will disappear altogether and I should regard that as quite unacceptable.
Incidentally, adequate transport arrangements can be a significant and important issue particularly where young people are concerned, given the fears that many young women in particular have about going home late in the evening and the fears about public violence, which are very widespread.
While on discrimination, I have received a number of letters, as perhaps have a number of other noble Lords, from sufferers from AIDS or people diagnosed as HIV positive. They are concerned about discrimination in employment. I know that an amendment on that issue was moved in Committee in another place but it was defeated. However, it is possible that the Government may have had second thoughts on that matter because the impression that I gained from reading Hansard was that although the amendment was then opposed by the Government, there was a certain amount of sympathy for the principle involved. Perhaps we may hear more about that when the Minister replies to the debate.
There is also the question of age discrimination—and again that was a matter raised in the other place. However, I believe that if we are to have a Bill about discrimination, it might have been a good idea to include some reference to that because I believe that that is now quite a problem in some areas of industry and commerce.
The Minister made reference to the provision to exempt firms with less than 20 employees from the requirement to include a note on disciplinary procedures with a written statement of terms and conditions. I believe that that is regarded as one of 527 the burdens on small employers. I really cannot see it in that light. Good employers would probably do that anyway but the Bill seems to be helping bad employers. Very often workers in small firms are in a more vulnerable position than those in larger ones and there seems no reason to remove that small right from such workers.
Clause 10 seeks to put limitations on the rights which at present exist for lay trade union officers to have time off with pay to carry out their industrial relations duties and also to have training of an improved kind to enable them to do so. The present arrangements appear to be working quite well. Their purpose is to aid and improve the conduct of industrial relations. Why do the Government want to interfere with that? Why cannot they let well alone? That does not seem to me to represent very much of a burden on business.
Another mean little provision extends from six months to two years the qualifying period of employment after which an employee becomes entitled to a written statement of the reasons for dismissal. Surely all sacked workers, irrespective of the length of service, should be entitled to know the reason for their dismissal. There is very little to be gained by that provision except the removal of another small, individual employment right.
There is one particular clause in the Bill which can be wholeheartedly welcomed; that is, the clause in respect of redundancy. As the Minister explained, the Bill provides that where women are working on until the age of 65, they shall be entitled to receive redundancy pay up to that time and if along with men they retire at an earlier age, they shall be entitled to receive it up until that age. That is a very sensible provision and is in line with recommendations made by the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Clause 13 abolishes redundancy rebates to employees altogether. I am not happy about that. The Wages Act 1986 restricted the payment of rebates to employers with less than 10 workers and this provision abolishes that altogether. Even though the fund is in surplus, it seems unfair to propose this change while proposing no change in the level of contributions. It may make it more difficult to persuade employers in this category to pay more than minimum redundancy pay when an ability to pay more than the minimum would enable them to negotiate terms more satisfactory to themselves and to the redundant employees. Again, I see no pressing reason for that proposition.
We then come to the whole matter of industrial tribunals. Here we have one of the most objectionable measures in this Bill. The clause in question provides for a pre-hearing review before an industrial tribunal hearing at which either side may be required to deposit £150 as a condition for proceeding with their case.
There is little evidence that industrial tribunals have been flooded with frivolous cases. The situation is quite to the contrary. When industrial tribunals were first established, it was intended that they should be informal courts where justice could be cheaply and quickly dispensed and where the 528 individual employee could, if he wished, present his own case. However, gradually hearings have become more and more formal and the proceedings are increasingly legalistic. It is not too much to say that in some places they have become proving grounds for aspiring young advocates. Therefore, people must be fairly strongly motivated to go to an IT in the first place. Unions do not normally support cases which they believe to have little chance of success—and I have a great deal of experience in that regard and would never have recommended taking a case which did not at least have a marginal chance of success.
A deposit of £150 will not deter someone with enough money if he or she is determined to have his or her day in court. The vexatious litigant will not be put off by these proposals. He will find the money anyway. The person deterred will be the person with no money, irrespective of whether the case is good or bad; and that is disgraceful.
Moreover, we already have a provision for pre-hearing assessments. According to my information, in 1986 some 16 per cent. of applicants who proceeded to a full IT hearing, despite a costs warning given at a pre-hearing assessment, succeeded in their cases. Therefore, pre-hearing assessments do not always succeed in sorting out frivolous cases or cases which do not have much chance of success.
There are already enough hurdles placed in the way of the individual who wishes to proceed against his employer to an industrial tribunal. It would make more sense if claimants—who sometimes have to wait a long time before they receive money awarded to them, particularly if there have been appeals—received interest on their money. I have heard of cases which have lasted two or three years before being finally resolved. At least that would be an individual employee's right which I am afraid the Government are not likely to favour and it certainly does not feature in this Bill.
There is then a very short clause about the storage of celluloid film. I do not know why the Government have used this Bill as a vehicle for that. I understand that the material is often not stable and therefore can be dangerous unless properly stored and monitored. Why should that not continue to be the responsibility of the local authority? I know that those specifically concerned in this industry are very worried about the proposition in this clause and I have received some letters on that score. I should like to hear further from the Minister in that regard.
Finally, we come to the dissolution of the Training Commission. The last time we had an employment Bill before this House, there was a proposition to which we took strong exception; namely, that the number of employers on the commission should be substantially increased, thus undermining the tripartite nature of the commission. There was then the sudden announcement last year that the Government intended to do away with the commission altogether, since when the Secretary of State has taken over the function of the commission and its staff. I do not believe that that will in any way contribute to the improved training provision 529 which everybody here says is so necessary and which we have so frequently debated. Indeed, we debated that earlier today on the Question concerning the continuing function of the industrial training boards.
There it is. This is not a Bill which I feel able to welcome. There were opportunities to improve the law on discrimination and those have not been taken. Instead we have a collection of oddments connected with employment, some of which seem to me not to be necessary at all and others which seem to be downright objectionable.
§ 11.59 a.m.
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords, from these Benches I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for the clear way in which he has presented the Bill to the House. We support the first part of the Bill, which gives women more equality of opportunity in the fields of employment and training. We do not think that that will result in a return to the time when women were sent unwillingly down coal mines. It should instead give the increasing number of women who are now happily taking higher education courses in engineering, and who are at present unable to follow a career in mining, the opportunity to do so in future. That seems to us a most desirable development and I have no doubt that my noble friend Lady Seear will have more to say later on that part of the Bill.
While we support the removal of much anomalous legislation relating to the employment of young people, we regret the Bill's failure to maintain what we regard as adequate protection for them. It is significant that the CBI itself has suggested that in that respect the Bill could lead to the exploitation of young people by unscrupulous employers.
The parts of the Bill which are likely to concern us most in Committee are those which seek to restrict individual employment rights in a number of important ways. An example is the provision in Clause 11, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has already referred, which exempts firms employing less than 20 people from the need to include notes of disciplinary procedures in written statements of the main terms and conditions of their employment. We are concerned also about Clause 13, which increases from six months to two years the period for which an employee must have worked continuously before he is entitled, if dismissed, to obtain a written statement of the reasons for his dismissal.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who is to reply, will know that the British Institute of Management accepted that the extension of that qualifying period brought it into line with the qualifying period for a claim of unfair dismissal, but it did not see that as a sufficient argument in favour of the Government's provision. Indeed, when BIM members were questioned last October, 78 per cent. said that in their view the current level of employment protection was about right. That does not seem to tally with the Government's contention that the Bill will somehow lift the burden from small businesses.
In Committee, we shall further wish to question the Government closely about why, under Clause 530 15, firms employing less than 10 people will no longer be entitled to receive rebates on their redundancy payments. As far as possible the determining factor in all these matters should, in our view, be the principle that is involved and not the number of people who may be affected by it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, has already reminded us, under Clause 18 the Secretary of State is empowered to make regulations providing for pre-hearing reviews to be concluded before industrial tribunal proceedings and at such reviews to order employees to pay deposits of up to as much as £150 if they wish to pursue their cases. Like the noble Baroness, we shall want to discuss in Committee the point that the possibility of having to put up such a large sum might well deter certain deserving people from taking the first step in seeking to right a claimed wrong.
There are a number of other matters that my noble friends and I will wish to scrutinise on later stages of the Bill, but I hope I have said enough to indicate our general attitude to its clauses.
There is one other point I wish to raise, of which I have given notice to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. It does not stem directly from the Bill but rather, as he will recall, from the discussion that took place during the Committee stage of the Social Security Bill on 22nd June. The question that then arose was whether, in order to qualify for benefit, unemployed people should have to demonstrate that they are actively seeking work. In that context, my noble friend Lord Russell argued that there should be more willingness to recognise that unemployment is not normally the fault of those who suffer it and that more attempts should be made to persuade employers to take on the long-term unemployed. In his reply, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said:Of course we must help those who need it to find work … Clearly putting pressure on employers, as the noble Earl suggested is not right for a social security Bill, but it might be right in certain circumstances for an employment Bill. I take his point on that. The noble Earl will know that there is an employment Bill just around the corner. He might like to consider amending that perhaps in the way he desires,"—[Official Report, 22/6/89; col. 377.]We have now turned the corner and the Employment Bill is before us. However, having examined it in the light of the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I do not readily see at what point a relevant amendment could be inserted. Since the Minister was kind enough to suggest that my noble friend should do just that, I should be grateful for his advice as to where in the Bill I might now set about the task. If a suitable place can be found I should be even more pleased if the Minister would give me some indication of how the Government believe employers might be encouraged, beyond what they are already doing under the employment training project, to take on more long-term unemployed people.
In conclusion, I say this. Speaking on behalf of my noble friends at the Third Reading of what is now the Employment Act 1988, I expressed the view that there should be a minimum of law in industrial relations and that, where the law applies, it should strike a fair balance between the interests of employers and those of employees and their 531 representatives. This Bill is not concerned, except indirectly, with industrial relations but in our view it is an employment Bill of considerable significance. Like its predecessor, the 1988 Act, in a number of ways this Bill appears to tilt the balance still further in favour of employers. We on these Benches look forward to the day—I confess, without much optimism—when the Government think less in terms of continuing restrictive legislation and more of the need to improve conditions in industry by positively encouraging greater co-operation between management and employees.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Lord Murray of Epping Forest
My Lords, it may be that before the end of the debate I shall have to leave in order to satisfy a previous engagement in north London at two o'clock. I have written to the Minister to express my apprehension that this may be so. If it should happen then I hope that the House will forgive me.
I certainly share the disappointment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, at the end of this speech. This Bill and the Minister's speech could have been the occasion for exploring some of the most important employment issues which we have—collectively I hope—to tackle in the near future. These issues stem from the change in the age structure of the employed and the general population and from the trend towards early retirement with the loss of the skills and experience of older workers which characterised the face of industry in recent years. The debate would also have been an opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons that we can learn from the experience of other countries in the European Community, notably regarding the training and education of young workers on which I believe the Bill goes precisely in the wrong direction.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, said, regrettably the Bill adds up to another tilt in the scales notably towards small employers, some of whom, on their own may be paragons of virtue, but many of whom, I know, are among the most exploitative employers in industry. As my noble friend Lady Turner said, the Bill makes it easier to sack people with no questions being asked or answered. There is scant regard for the effect on individuals and families when they seek further employment and are asked why they lost their previous job.
In that respect and in others I fear that the Bill is another step towards the irresponsible industrial society. We are already seeing trailers for the next episode in the saga of union bashing. In the form of amendments to the Bill at a later stage, the Minister may be able to cast some light on the Government's intention or, as my noble friend Lady Turner has reminded us, that may be shown in next year's Employment Bill. I refer of course to the threats that we are continually hearing of further limits to the right of working men to withdraw their labour and to refuse to work except on voluntarily agreed conditions. That is one of the tests of a free society—a test I would have thought applicable on 532 both sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe and in the Government's own thinking.
Now there are hints of the intention to limit the right to strike in essential services. I hope that if such a measure is in the minds of Ministers they will either re-read their own speeches on this subject in previous years when they rejected the idea or they will consider recent and current events coolly and objectively. We are seeing a surge of strikes which has been compared to the winter of discontent. There is of course one major difference between that period and this. The winter of discontent was the culmination of four years of tight wage restraint accepted for long by trade unions and their members and to the undoubted advantage of the nation in terms of the reduction in the rate of inflation. Of course, that is typically ignored by noble Lords on the Benches opposite.
That period saw a growth of anomalies and tensions which was predictable given the importance of market forces in the labour market as elsewhere. It was relieved, as it always is, by employers in the private sector. However, the Government tried to hold down wages in the public sector. If the Government are moved to think in terms of limiting or even removing the right to strike in certain areas of the public sector, I beg them to think again.
It was this perceived discrimination against workers in the public sector which led to their resentment and action in the winter of 1978–79. It was action by workers; it was not stimulated by the unions. The latter were typically trying to hold back the flood. The action was stimulated by the members. Some similarity exists in the present situation. We see very substantial wage increases in much of the private sector. We see employees in the public sector taking at face value the Government's emphasis on allowing market forces to operate.
When railwaymen and local government employees ask whether they are to be excluded from the operation of this eternal and divine law, astonishingly we hear once again the familiar strains of the ministerial lament that such people are ruining the nation. The clear purpose of Ministers is to exercise pressure on the public sector. I do not know, but Ministers and civil servants may be talking behind their hands to the British Railways Board and others. What I do know is that the board never needed instructions at any time when I dealt with it to do what it thought Ministers would approve of and wanted it to do.
Where the comparison between 1978–79 and the present is accurate is that the pressure is coming from working people. It is not inspired or channelled by trade unions. But there is this addition: the action that is now being taken has been preceded by ballots which have validated the action. We would not have had some settlements in the winter of 1978–79 if the agreements reached by national officials and others had been put out to ballot. At that time it was the extreme Left which was demanding ballots before there was a return to work. There is not very much that a general secretary and an executive council can do if they are faced by a seven to one vote in favour of industrial action.
533 If ever the Government made a rod for their own back it was through imposing compulsory ballots by law. Of course there is a place for ballots and also a place for law in the conduct of industrial relations. It is dangerous to expect too much and to allow spite and prejudice to be used as a guide instead of calm analysis.
We heard warnings from the Benches opposite during the debate regarding the proposed legal reforms of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. We heard warnings from the Benches opposite about the dangers of proceeding without empirical evidence and proper study. I agree with that: the same principles apply to the reform of industrial relations. The real answer concerning essential services is obvious. It is to insulate certain groups from the need to take strike action. An obvious success was the case of the firemen. We all remember the traumas of the last dispute involving them. The dispute was terminated by an agreement to keep the wages of that group of workers broadly in line with the movement of wages in manufacturing industry.
The TUC helped to reach that agreement and, frankly, we had to force it down the throats of the firemen who at the time did not understand the value of it. The value was not only to the firemen but to the nation as a whole. It has given us a virtually strike-free area by removing the need to strike. I stand firmly against any attempt to remove that guarantee to firemen—it has been hinted at in the past—as I shall stand most firmly against any attempt to deny the right to strike. The removal of need is an entirely different matter and I commend that to the Government, hoping that they will take some note of the warnings in this area. We have warned against imposing automatic and compulsory ballots; we have warned against the enforced election of all senior officers. We have seen the chickens come home to roost in both these areas. And there are some very funny looking chickens among them! I do not expect a public act of repentance, but I do expect the Government to learn from experience.
If changes in the law are so successful how can pay settlements possibly be as high as they are now? How can inflation possibly exceed 8 per cent. when there are still more than two million people unemployed? Why have members not walked away from their unions? The Government have unleashed market forces and now they have to live with them. Those who take the sword—noble Lords know the rest of the quotation. The Government are not doing very well at stemming wage pressures generally. So, true to form, they have a go through this Bill at some of the weakest and most exposed groups, not pour encourager les autres so much as to keep with the spirits of their backwoodsmen.
Young people—16 year-olds—are a case in point. Faced by a shortage of school leavers and a fall in numbers in the 16 to 19 age group, we have to treat this group who are our scarcest resource with special care. But not a bit of it. They are to be treated as a source of cheap labour. The Bill will give the worst employers an incentive to snatch up school leavers, to half train them and to sack them with no questions 534 asked when they are at the point of getting an adult wage. Good employers will not do it—they never have—but this will expose the good employers to unfair competition from the worst kind of employer.
I echo the question that has already been asked. Where is the evidence that existing protection discourages employers? Nothing is revealed in the Government's reports. There is no evidence from the CBI, the BIM or the Institute of Personnel Management. It is one more example of how the Government see the solution to our problems. Their underlying view is to see the solution in terms of low wages. It is common ground that the key to keeping down costs and beating inflation is productivity. The key to that is the way we develop and use our skills. Training is not the sole answer but it is an integral part. Again I fear that the proposals in the Bill will not be conducive to achieving that end.
There are two major weaknesses in the Government's attitude to training as expressed in their actions and in this tying-up operation in the Bill. First, they see training as something which is done to people rather than with them, whereas training, if it is to be effective, has to be with people and worked out with them. The strength of the MSC, in respect of which we heard figures earlier, lay in involving work people through their unions. In a previous incarnation the noble Lord, Lord Young, saw that and recognised how the TUC put pressure on the unions to get members to change their attitudes. It is no good pulling up this root every few years and looking at it. It takes a generation to change attitudes towards training and towards job utilisation.
It is so much simpler to impose a period of wage restraint. That is why Governments have so often reacted to pressures in market forces by using wage restraint rather than persevering with effective training systems. The youth training scheme would never have got off the ground but for trade union pressure. It was not a perfect system by any means but there would have been a much lower content had there not been continuing trade union pressure on and monitoring of what employers were doing. We are now seeing it again in the employment training scheme. The TUC made a silly decision in September under pressure from certain unions which did not have the sense to realise that the Ayatollahs in the Government were falling over themselves to announce the death sentence on the MSC. I prophesy that we shall have to come back to some form of tripartite action. The best exponents of training —Sweden and Germany—have shown that it is the way to go.
The second major weakness in the Government's plans is their reliance on employers to make things happen. It does not pay employers to train. If it did we would have seen them falling over themselves to train. We have not seen that. However, it pays employers to poach trained people from other employers. This is one of the few places where one can get a free lunch.
The Minister referred to the training of trade union officials. In this respect I agreed strongly with 535 what my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden said. We at the TUC always saw the purpose of such training as improving the content of industrial relations. Our training courses and those of unions were essentially courses in problem solving, and how to deal with grievances and smooth the path. The more that is neglected and discouraged, the worse will be the record. This is a false economy. It will be grabbed by the worst and the most shortsighted employers. We hope to persuade the Government to have second thoughts about this and other parts of the Bill.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, I welcome the clause of the Bill which reduces discrimination against women. It gives them greater opportunities than they have had previously and makes much needed changes to the 1975 Act. Women will now have the ability, if they so wish, to work in mines. I happen to be the daughter of a mining engineer. I am not unaware of what conditions in mines would be like. It is extremely improbable that many women will wish to work in mines, but it is true that there are desirable jobs in the technical and managerial grades which some women will wish to have. If they wish to get those jobs they must be able to work underground.
That is where my enthusiasm for the Bill ends. In many ways it is an extremely disappointing Bill and a Bill of lost opportunities even in relation to women. It starts off with good intentions towards women, but despite all that has been said over and over again until one is almost embarrassed to repeat it, the Government have not gone further to get women into employment. Why have they not done this in the policies which have been repeatedly urged upon them?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, one cannot get more women satisfactorily into employment unless one does something—and something on a quite large scale—about child care. One has to invest in child care if one is to make proper use of womanpower in this country. If that is not done their contribution to employment is bound to be seriously interrupted. They will not receive the training and build up the experience which they need if they are in and out of employment and are seen as unreliable employees because of the demands of family life.
Child care is not just a matter of crèches, very important though crèches are. It is also a matter of the type of child care that is available. Child care needs to go on through school holiday periods right up to the school leaving age. Is it really too late to beg the Government once again to adopt an overall view of what is needed in the way of child care? Are they serious about getting women back into employment and keeping them there? Women are at present debarred because of the absence of child care facilities.
Other countries are doing it. Our competitors are doing it. We shall be woefully behind if we still refuse to take the measures which have been urged in this 536 country and of which there are excellent examples overseas. Why do the Government continue to resist the EC recommendations about parental leave? That is one example of the way in which our competitors in the Community are adopting progressive and useful measures which this Government refuse to support.
Older women who now want to come back to work are an important resource for industry. There are two major areas of blockage of opportunities for women. One is child care and the other is re-entry after women have been away from work bringing up their children. A great mass of those women were not eligible to take part in employment training because they were not registered as unemployed. Therefore, facilities for training such women do not exist. Of course, there have been some small concessions, but nowhere near on the scale that is needed. Many of those women are of very high potential indeed.
There are only a few examples of training for these women. Hatfield Polytechnic, as I have mentioned in this House before, put on a most imaginative scheme for the updating of women in professional categories. It was a small scheme for about a dozen women, all of whom, except one, obtained good jobs before the course was finished. It pays in the harshest economic terms to invest in these women and to produce grants for them so that they can be retrained. Moreover, they will pay the cost back in tax within a very short period of time, if they are just given the chance to do so. But, at the moment the resources are not there.
The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, started off with a great panegyric about the importance of women. But, if the Government really mean business as regards women, let them follow it through with practical measures of this kind which are long overdue and which, in anything other than the most short-term view, are value for money and would pay off extremely well.
I turn now to the question of young persons. I say "young persons" deliberately, because I was slightly entertained when the Minister said that of course the situation is altered now because the school-leaving age has been increased. He must know that the old factory legislation divided the protection of youngsters into two categories: 14 to 16 year-olds and then young persons of 16 to 18 years.
The protection for young persons aged between the years of 16 to 18 is what it always was; indeed, it existed under previous legislation. However, what has disappeared is the protection for 14 to 16 year-olds. Those are the youngsters who do not come on to the labour market because of the increase in the school-leaving age. But there is nothing new about the protection for 16 to 18 year-olds. It was always thought necessary that they should have protection of a different kind. There were quite substantial differences between the requirements laid on employers as regards 14 to 16 year-olds and as regards 16 to 18 year-olds. But that, in a sense, is a minor point.
I find it difficult to accept that the health and safety of young persons—indeed, not only of young 537 persons but also of other people; but it is young persons upon whom we are concentrating now—is adequately safeguarded by the Health and Safety Commission. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said—and this has been the experience of all of us who have had anything in practice to do with this aspect—Her Majesty's inspectors from the Health and Safety Commission are excellent people. But, there has never been enough of them. It is an absolute farce to pretend that the commission can by its inspectors see that everything is as it should be. In particular, it has never been any good at dealing with small employers, because there are just too many of them.
If you are employed by a large organisation you receive irregular, but certainly occasional, visits from Her Majesty's inspectors. I say "occasional" not because they are slacking in any way—indeed, they certainly are not—but because there are not enough of them to go around. However, they certainly do not spend their time visiting the small woodwork shops, the garages and all the other places where small employers operate. I was about to say that they get away with murder; but I think that I may need parliamentary protection if I put it quite so strongly, although it is not far off in some cases. To imagine that the inspectors will be able to keep tabs on what goes on in all the small undertakings is simply ridiculous. Anyone who knows anything about the practical working of the scheme knows that that is true.
Therefore to fob us off by saying that everything will be all right because the Health and Safety Commission will look after the situation is just transparent nonsense. I repeat, this is no criticism of the Health and Safety Executive; indeed, it does an extremely good job. But no organisation can do more than its manpower will permit. That is not the way in which youngsters are likely to be safeguarded.
That, however, is not my main objection to what the Government propose as regards 16 to 18 year-olds. I am absolutely astonished that the Government can in the same speech and in the same Bill talk about the importance of training and then say that they will allow unlimited hours of working, including night work, for 16 to 18 year-olds. It must be clear to everyone by now, as it is to our competitors, that the years from 16 to 18 ought to be years for education and training. I accept that a great deal of it will be employer-based; but, it ought to be predominantly training. That time should be spent investing in young people to ensure that they obtain the knowledge, the skills and the attitudes which will make them capable of dealing with the vastly changing demands of industry over the years ahead. That means proper, planned training. Far from this legislation helping, the fact that the level of unemployment is dropping will make training more difficult.
At least youngsters went into the youth employment training scheme because they could not find another job. But, as the noble Lord knows, and as he repeatedly tells us, unemployment is dropping. Thank goodness it is! However, when the level of unemployment drops youngsters say, "I'll go and get a full-time job which pays better than YTS". In 538 that situation, how many employers give the proper training to those aged between 16 and 18 years of age? YTS was far from perfect, but it provided some form of training.
When I asked a Question in this House only a month or two ago about how many of the youngsters who were not in a YTS scheme were being released for day-time training, the Answer which I received was 5 per cent. Is that evidence that under the present circumstances youngsters between 16 and 18 years of age will be properly trained in an increasingly full employment economy? We shall be back where we were; that is, taking people on and giving them no training. Moreover, as the noble Lord, Lord Murray, said, in the worst cases such youngsters will be thrown out just as they reach the age of 18, because they become more expensive. But, even if they are not thrown out, they will pass ultimately into the great mass of totally under-trained labour to face a future in which only people with trained competencies have a hope of holding their own. Cannot the Government think again about the whole question as regards 16 to 18 year-olds?
Then we come to the familiar saga of taking the burdens off business. I am bound to say that a good deal of this looks like shifting the burdens from the employer to the employee. That may well be the purpose. However, there is no evidence that such burdens are so heavy that they are stopping employers making the kind of progress that they should.
The Government are obsessed with the small employer. Of course small employers are very important. Indeed, we had far too few small businesses in the past. It is good that we have increased the number of small businesses. However, the Government cannot really believe that people working in small businesses for some mysterious reason need less protection than those working in large businesses. Surely the other way around is normally the case. For a variety of reasons the large employer is much better organised and has people specially trained and equipped to look after such issues.
Moreover, it is much easier to introduce trade unions into large businesses. But to do so in small businesses is very difficult and time-consuming. The employee in a small business has far less protection than the employee in a large business. Of course there are very good employers among small businesses; but there is no reason to suppose that all of them are the same. Indeed, we know perfectly well that they are not. I find it difficult to follow the argument that because it is such a nuisance for small businessses they do not have to comply with regulations which apply elsewhere. That argument just will not wash.
I find it unacceptable that this period of two years is now to be used. Indeed, I have always found it unacceptable in connection with redundancy. The fact that it should be extended now to cover other considerations seems to me to be a retrogressive step. The two-year limit invites the unscrupulous employer to get rid of people towards the end of the two-year period. That is an undesirable way of 539 handling things. It may be a burden that is removed from the employer to the employee, but it is a burden that the employer should properly be expected to carry.
With regard to restrictions on trade unionism, I would say, in general terms only, why do the Government not stop bashing trade unions? From these Benches we have supported, and continue to support, much of the trade union legislation brought forward by the Government, but no economy can run without responsible trade unions, as our competitors have shown; and continuous attempts to put still further restrictions on to trade unions will breed the kind of industrial relations which we thought were a thing of the past.
I am aware that the Government do not want to develop bad industrial relations, but they have never faced the fact that the so-called peace in industry of recent years has, to a considerable extent, been maintained through unemployment. We have to strengthen industrial relations policy when we return to full employment. There is not much sign that that is what we have.
Finally, on the question of the abolition of the Training Commission I want to say just two things, one of which, to my surprise, has not, from what I have seen, been raised to any extent in discussions. The Manpower Services Commission was brought into being by Act of Parliament. The Training Commission was abolished when Parliament was not sitting and when there was no opportunity, either in this House or for the elected representatives in the other place, to raise issues in connection with that abolition. That is yet another example of the contempt in which the Government hold Parliament.
It is retrospective legislation. We are now asked to pass legislation abolishing the Training Commission. It has been abolished. When discussing the Bill, there will be no opportunity to say that it is all a great mistake; that it should not have been done; and to put up possible alternatives to abolishing the commission. It was done in August when Parliament had no opportunity to say anything. I want it on the record that that is, in our view, no way in which major changes, previously embodied in legislation, should come about.
We have said a great deal already about our disbelief that employers, who in the past have done so little about training in this country, are the best people to be almost exclusively entrusted with the vitally important development of training in the future. Now that that training is to be put into the employers' hands, what opportunity will Parliament have to discuss the progress in training? Will we get any regular reports on the TECs so that we can see what is happening? After all, it is a matter of the greatest concern for the country as a whole, and to its economy, that training should develop properly. What chance will there be for Parliament regularly to monitor what happens under the new regime? Will the Minister please tell us?
§ 12.44 p.m.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, those of us with a sense of history, if not of irony, cannot help feeling that there is piquancy in the fact that, in this noble House, we are considering on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day yet another Bill to abolish workers' rights. That has not been mentioned by the Government. We know that the French Revolution is an event which the Prime Minister told French viewers the other day, she does not wish to remember and would not care to see repeated. We know that she believes that our own revolution, as she calls it—we would say counter-revolution—is much more important, much better managed and, as she said, quieter. What we say today is that it is becoming noisier and more divisive every minute. What we are saying today is that this irrelevant and small-minded Bill is unlikely to calm things down.
The problem that I have with the Minister's opening statement is that he did not see that point. He said that he wanted to put everything into its context. He then talked about the importance of women, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, has said. He said that he had no wish to return to the good old days, and went through the clauses.
The Minister appeared to be unaware, for example, that much of what is in the Bill, as speakers have said, is against the advice of employer organisations (the CBI, the British Institute of Management, the IPM and even, in some cases, the Institute of Directors). He was unaware that what he proposes to do in relation to the equal opportunities aspect of the Bill is against the advice of the Equal Opportunities Commission; that the Government may well have trouble again with the convention on international labour standards as a result of aspects of the Bill; that they may have trouble with the Commission's equal treatment directive; that Article 7 of the European charter, as I understand it, is against the employment on night work of persons under 18; but once again the Government produce legislation which will put us further in breach of ILO conventions, EC directives and rulings of the European Court of Human Rights.
I ask the Government once again, as I have before: what is their answer? I do not want prevarication or hypocrisy. What is their straight answer to the charge made by the ILO committee of experts that their legislation has already added to the complexity of labour relations law and the difficulty that ordinary people have in understanding it. What is their answer to the demand that they should be called upon to codify, clarify and simplify? Their answer appears to be to introduce more.
A democratic, advanced industrial country, we are in danger of being classified, by international labour standards in Europe and elsewhere, with Chile, Brazil, Ghana, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, or, if one wants to go East of the Iron Curtain, with Czechoslavakia and Romania. That is where the Government are taking us in the field of labour standards, and the Bill takes us further still.
I ask the Minister: is that the Government's intention? After all, we are now on the fifth son of Frankenstein. We are promised that the sixth son of 541 Frankenstein will work its way through the other place in October. We know that, if the Government do what they threaten to do, for example, on essential services, they will break another ILO convention, because the railway industry is not regarded as an essential service. We know that, if the Government do what they say they will do about unofficial strikes, they will break another convention. What is the reason for that? What is the justification? Why are we the only country in Western Europe which argues that it can stand on its feet and produce prosperity only by breaking every international labour standard in the book?
The Government perhaps will not think it funny, but there was a joke which was going around the annual ILO convention in Geneva this summer that the only European international standard that the Government will observe, and which is safe from future legislation, is the one on forced labour. They did not think it funny. I do not think it funny, and, in that context, I come to the Bill.
In broad terms, the Bill, as the Minister said when he reached the clause-by-clause analysis, is designed to do three things. I leave out what it does about the Training Commission because, as the noble Baroness said, that has already been done and discussed, and one or two other things about redundancy. There are three main points. The first relates to the removal of protection from young persons on hours, holidays, rest periods, overtime and so on. There will be no protection especially directed at young persons, although this will breach another international convention. We shall further narrow employee protection in general on discipline, dismissal and time off.
We shall frustrate—that is what it amounts to—the full implications of the EC directive on equal treatment, because to carry out that directive in full would involve abolishing Section 51 of the 1975 Act. We are not doing that. Clause 1 of the Bill would make us believe that we are, but we are not. We are only abolishing it for training, vocational training and employment. We are leaving it, for example, for education, for the provision of goods, facilities, services and premises. That is, I believe, contrary to the evidence and advice which we have had from the commission which have not been published and contrary to the arguments put forward which have been published by the Equal Opportunities Commission. That is what we are doing.
There are number of things which we can say about young people. First, most of our major competitors in other countries in Europe do not need to have a policy which abolishes protection for young people. In Germany they can beat us at our own game, while having restrictions not simply on young people but on hours of work for men and women as well. They can do the same in many other European countries.
Secondly, the evidence suggests that protection for young people, far from not being required, is more necessary than ever. Since 1980 there has been a doubling of fatal and serious accidents among young people and there is coming to be accepted an increasing relationship between accidents of various 542 kinds and working for unnecessarily long hours. This is the time when we decide to be the country which removes the protections.
The only justification which has been put forward for this that I can follow is the old argument which we saw so well rehearsed at the time of the Dock Work Bill: unless everybody has it, nobody can have it. The Government make great play of the fact that there are anomalies—we shall be hearing from them—in the coverage of this legislation. For example, it affects people in industry and factories but it does not affect people in distribution and in shops. As long as everybody does not have it, nobody can have it. It is the old policy of equality and misery. We rejected it on this side of the House on the Dock Work Bill and we reject it on this Bill.
The second main thrust of the Bill which the Minister mentioned was the further narrowing of the general protections, as the noble Baroness has said, in the name of removing the burdens on business. Most of the points which could have been made about this have already been made in the House this morning. I suppose it is in some ways comforting that the Government no longer pretend to bring up evidence for any of this. In the first few years of their period in office they were forced to publish a number of research papers from the Department of Employment which blew up the whole idea that there was any connection between employment protection legislation and the problems of small businesses.
Then there were some PSI and other studies, all of which came to the general conclusion that what worries small employers are interest rates, VAT rates, commercial uncertainty and so on and not all these silly little things which the Government believe are strangling the dwarf employer. The trouble with the Government is that they think that the dwarf employer cannot read. Therefore all the regulations have to be taken away because if the poor man or woman has to read all this he will collapse and go out of business.
Further, as has been said, there is no support for any of this from representative employer bodies. In general terms, the representative employer bodies fear, as the noble Lord, Lord Rochester said, that this will represent unfair competition.
Moreover, as several speakers on this side of the House have said, some of the proposals are particularly nasty, mean and spiteful, even for this Government. One is that workers should not be told the reasons for their dismissal. What possible justification can there be for that? Why should not all workers deserve to be told their reasons for dismissal? Another one is that there should be a £150 tax on justice. Unless an employee feels that he has a good case, the fear that he may be fined £150 will deter him from pursuing it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, it will deter not the bad case, but the poor case, the person who cannot afford it. What possible reason can there be for that? Of course, there is an exception: we shall not be doing that in trade union cases. The special commissioner for the trade union members, will continue to be able to take any case, however bad that case may be.
543 So we come to the clauses on equal treatment. Again, many of the points have already been made. They do not go far enough and I believe that they do not keep the Government safe in terms of our international obligations under the European equal treatment directive.
So I come to my final point. When we complain in the House, as we do, in labour debates about justice, about unfairness, we are always told, "Sorry. You see, the burden is on business. We must set the employers free. We must clear the way for the wealth creators". On this side of the House we have come to accept that we cannot get very far with this argument because the Government are committed to it and perhaps we might say in their favour that at least they are consistent.
However, they are not consistent. I was thinking about this after the Third Reading of the Dock Work Bill. It may be that I nodded off during the final Third Reading of the Dock Work Bill because I awoke to find the Second Reading of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill. I heard the dulcet tones of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, in the Second Reading speech. I must admit that at that moment I thought that maybe they had shot the Prime Minister or maybe the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, was outside his brief. What he was talking about—the noble Lord nods. That may be the explanation, and if so I hope that he will get up and say so. I hope that more Ministers can go outside their brief if that is the result.
The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, was talking about religious or political discrimination. The Government want to free employers, they do not believe in burdens on business, but what do they do in Northern Ireland, faced with religious or political discrimination? They propose to impose an obligation on employers to keep a register of those whom they employ by religious convictions, and to observe a policy which the Government or the agencies will lay down, to change their recruitment and promotion patterns until equality of treatment exists and—much more important—until equality of treatment can be proved to the satisfaction of the agency. If some employer, however small, however dwarfish, goes away from these ratios which are set down, he can be fined up to £30,000 as a backslider and he can be denied all government funds and grants.
The really amazing thing about this is not that the Government do it—we all know why they do it—but the reasons that they give for doing it. That is why I was transfixed by the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and the irresistibility of his arguments. He did not say, as we might have expected the Government to say, that they are reluctantly required to do this in defiance of their sacred principles and beliefs in order to buy support in the Catholic community for the fight against the IRA. That at least would have been honest. Or they might even have said, as we sometimes say—to reassure workers who may feel this, however unjustifiably —that some of the smaller or larger employers in Northern Ireland are a little bigoted, narrow and prejudiced. No, that is not what the Minister said.
544 At col. 795 of Hansard on 28th June, when defining the purposes of the Bill the noble Lord said that equality of opportunity in employment was the central aim, and that,Such equality is morally right".That is a strange phrase coming from this Government.
and that, in itself, is sufficient justification for the Bill before us this evening. But it is much more than that. It is first a political priority—here it comes—secondly a social necessity; and thirdly an economic imperative".So it is an economic imperative to regulate and to put burdens on business. The Minister then continued:Each individual has a right to expect fairness in competing for employment. Politically no government could condone the denial of such fairness, whether intentional or in any way unintentional, and it is self-evident that equality of job opportunity is vital to social stability. But it is also of central economic importance".We agree that each individual has a right to expect fairness in competing for employment. However, when the theme of fairness of opportunity in employment was referred to in connection with central economic importance, I thought the Prime Minister must have been shot. The Minister continued:Essentially equality of opportunity is about recruiting the best man or woman for the job. It is about canvassing job opportunities as widely and openly as possible. It is about ensuring that all compete on an equal basis and are assessed by the same criteria. It is about selecting on the basis of job-related ability or aptitude; namely, on the basis of merit".—[Official Report, 28.6.89; col. 795.]We salute the idea that equality of opportunity will come about through recruiting the best person for the job. We echo the Minister's words about sex discrimination, race discrimination, trade union membership and activity and protection of individuals against victimisation in cases of unfair dismissal. Indeed, I am told that the £150 levy of the Government on industrial tribunals is itself an abrogation of the European Charter of Human Rights. The Government will probably have to appear before the industrial courts in connection with that.
But I ask the Minister why such concepts as equality, fairness, regulation, monitoring, and all those things we would not dare suggest to this Government are wrong in the field of race discrimination, sex discrimination, worker discrimination or trade union discrimination, but are right in Northern Ireland? We cannot see that, and that is why we oppose this Bill. We look forward to the Minister's reply.
§ 1.2 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, with his inevitable skill at speaking had allowed me to go to sleep, I would have woken up and thought quite naturally that we were talking either about the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Bill or the Dock Work Bill. Therefore, I shall not talk about either of those Bills. However, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today on the Employment Bill 1989.
545 In his opening speech this morning, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne clearly expounded the central themes of the Bill as the Government see them. I shall try not to weary the House with repetition, but, as the speeches of some noble Lords have shown a misapprehension of the aims and effects of the Bill, I fear this may, to some extent, be unavoidable.
First, however, as the noble Lord is still present, I shall comment on the regret of the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, that this debate was not more general. His speech was, in general, about what is not in the Bill. I shall not complain about that because I found it a very interesting speech which will repay much study. However, I would gently point out to the noble Lord that the House debated Employment for the 1990s as recently as 5th April. Since then of course, as the noble Lord pointed out, there have been industrial relations problems in the public sector. However, although I do not believe the noble Lord mentioned this, he will know that the problems in the public sector among the various industries, employees and unions which are striking at the moment have arisen for reasons totally different from those the noble Lord referred to.
The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, made the point that unless everyone has it, no one should have it. I thought that was an excellent description of Labour Party policy. The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, cannot get away with that before a social security Minister of all people. A lot of this debate has been about training—
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, as the noble Lord is quoting me, I am allowed to correct him. I said the Government's policy was to say that they could do away with anything that everybody did not have. That is not fair.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the Government's policy is not that. Just look at social security, upon which this House has spent many hours during the past few days.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I have two roles in your Lordships' House. One is as a spokesman on social security and the other is as a spokesman on employment. However, I take the point that this is an employment Bill—something which the noble Lord opposite has obviously just remembered—and I shall now try to reply to this debate.
The debate has centred to a great extent on training. Practically all the speakers mentioned training. My noble friend explained how the provisions of the Bill on training will assist the introduction of our new framework for training provision through training and enterprise councils. I accept that this will be a fundamental change, and a change for the better in the way training and enterprise arrangements are handled in this country. The system will be more flexible and responsive to local needs, and it will give the main consumers of training a greater role in deciding how best to meet the country's training needs. We are confident that 546 our new approach has strong support from the business community. We are most encouraged by the progress which has already been made and we look forward with confidence to the success of this major reform.
Another point which has arisen, inevitably, is the matter of Europe. As regards the European Commission's draft social charter, the Government believe it is the wrong approach to achieving the objective of increasing employment and bringing down the number of people out of work. Indeed, it includes measures which have already been tried and have failed in the United Kingdom. All our experience in this country shows that the best way of creating new jobs and reducing unemployment is to remove unnecessary restrictions and barriers to employment, some of which this Bill achieves. Without businesses, there would be no employees. Thus the interests of employees are inextricably entwined with those of business. The Single Market will provide the opportunities for firms to expand and to create the jobs and the wealth we need to pay for continuing improvements in living conditions. Moreover, the Commission wants to impose harmonised and burdensome regulations on to all twelve member states, irrespective of their traditions and legal systems. This is something this country cannot accept.
Much of the debate has concerned sex discrimination. Noble Lords opposite have questioned the Government's commitment to the principle of equal opportunities. There is some irony in this as, under the present Government, we have seen a dramatic expansion in women's employment, not least in managerial and professional jobs, and perhaps in what I might loosely call trade jobs. My great aunt was looked at askance for driving an ambulance in the first world war. I am glad to say that the situation has changed. Only a few months ago I was glad to give a passing out certificate to a female forklift truck driver. In the past month I have seen women heavy goods lorry drivers, van drivers and cabbies on the streets of London. Moreover, women have created many outstandingly successful businesses of their own.
There has been an increase of over 1.8 million women in paid work since 1983. Women now make up 43 per cent. of the labour force and 25 per cent, of the self-employed. The United Kingdom is also the only country in the EC where women's unemployment is lower than men's, and we have the second highest women's participation rate in the EC. These are the facts against which the Government's record should be judged.
I now turn to the subject of women working underground. Whether or not conditions in mines have improved sufficiently to allow women to work below ground is rather beside the point. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made the point that no one is forcing women to work below ground. The question is therefore: why should women not be free to choose for themselves whether or not they wish to work below ground? That is what this Bill achieves.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, the Minister reminded the House that he is a social 547 security Minister. There is before your Lordships' House at the moment a new Social Security Bill which includes reference to entitlement to unemployment pay. Will a woman who refuses a job underground face the loss of possible benefit?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, this is something we should debate within the context of the Social Security Bill. That reminds me to answer a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, who took exactly the reverse point from something I said the other day on the Social Security Bill.
I am glad that the noble Lord recognised the strength of my comments on the Social Security Bill as an unsuitable vehicle for a provision to encourage employers to give greater consideration to recruiting long-term unemployed people. This is clearly an employment issue and therefore, if appropriate at all, a matter to be discussed in an employment Bill. Having said that, I cannot, of course, comment on any particular amendment, nor say where in the Employment Bill it may arise. But the noble Lord might note that an amendment along these lines was tabled and defeated after full discussion during the Report stage of the Bill in the House of Commons last month.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, asked why we had not gone the whole hog in response to the Equal Opportunities Commission's proposals for amendments to the sex discrimination legislation. Those proposals are currently under consideration by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in consultation with colleagues. With regard to the particular proposal that Section 51 of the Sex Discrimination Act should be repealed in its entirety, my noble friend made the point in his opening speech that matters outside the field of employment and training will frequently raise a variety of complex issues. We consider it right that those should continue to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. For example, women's colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, it is generally agreed, would not benefit from having male principals.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Yes, my Lords, but that is by choice, not by law.
So far as concerns child care, a matter which is raised in both the Bills in which I am currently interested, the Government believe that parents should be free to choose to make child care arrangements appropriate to their own circumstances. That is not to say that the Government do not have a role to play: clearly they do. Only on Wednesday I reported to the House the policy of the Ministerial Group on Womens' Issues. Our assistance for child care for lone parents on employment training is a pioneering measure and one that the Bill seeks to retain beyond doubt.
I turn now to another aspect of discrimination raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner—that of discrimination against people who are HIV positive.
548 The Department of Employment has recently published an advisory booklet on AIDS and employment. In most circumstances, an individual who is HIV positive presents no danger to other employees or to the public. The dismissal of an employee simply because he or she is HIV positive might well amount to unfair dismissal for which that employee could obtain redress from an industrial tribunal.
I believe that there has been some misunderstanding about the removal of restrictions on employment, and those in Clause 9(5) of the Bill in particular. That provision will not in any way reduce the level of protection. On the contrary, it will in principle increase it by removing the possibility of exceptions. I should explain that in practice the repeals will not affect the existing levels of protection as regulations have never been made to activate the exceptions in Section 17 of the 1963 Act. However, the repeals remove any possibility of a reduction of protection for young people which would arise if we were simply to provide that young people were to be placed on the same footing as adults.
So far as concerns the health and safety of young people, it has been claimed that lengthy hours or night work will put young people at special risk. I do not think that it is necessarily the case that lengthy hours or night shifts will become at all common for young people. However, I accept that in some cases young people will work longer or later than they are allowed to at present. If that presented a special danger to health and safety it would be right for your Lordships to be concerned. However, no such danger has been demonstrated and we have a great deal of experience on that point.
First, many workplaces such as hospitals and computer centres are not and have never been regulated. Secondly, even under the present rules, young people in industry already exceed the normal limits if their employers obtain special exemption orders. Thirdly, a considerable body of research has been carried out into the effects of longer and later hours. The Harrington Report of 1978 made a careful analysis of the evidence on the effects of shift work and night work on health. It concluded that in general there was little evidence of any major effects on the health of either adults or, more importantly in this context, young people, except the disruption of circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, which apply equally to people of all ages.
Nor is there any evidence to suggest that when the present, complex set of regulations is removed there will be a dramatic change in the terms and conditions encountered by young people. Even at present, in most cases young people's hours of work are well within the maximum permitted under the law. In those sectors which have never been regulated in this way there is no evidence of the widespread exploitation which has been envisaged. I see no reason why the pressures of the labour market should suddenly change so as to make young people more vulnerable to exploitation. On the contrary, for demographic reasons young people will be in a very strong position. They will be in a sellers' market.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, raised the subject of training accountability through TECs. The normal 549 parliamentary procedure will apply. Noble Lords will have the opportunity to raise questions and to debate the subject. At local level, TECs will be accountable to their communities. Each TEC must publish an annual report and a synopsis of its plans and hold at least one public meeting a year. To be successful, each TEC will need to collaborate with a range of local partners. Training and enterprise councils will be encouraged to consult such local partners as part of their annual planning process.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, this is a point of very considerable importance. Will the Minister's department issue any regular reports about what is going on? Asking questions without the data is not very fruitful. At present we receive a great deal of information from his department about training. What will happen in the future?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, as I understand it, the present arrangement is that training reports are placed in the Library of both Houses of Parliament. Although I cannot confirm definitely that that will continue, I shall be very surprised if it does not. If I am wrong I shall let the House know at an appropriate moment during the course of the Bill.
With regard to the abolition of the Training Commission and the complaints that there has been no opportunity for Parliament to discuss it, there has been a mini discussion today. I can confirm that the Training Commission will not be abolished until this Bill receives Royal Assent. It was necessary to do something rather different and that was to return the power of the Training Commission to the Secretary of State because of the TUC's unacceptable and unilateral rejection of Employment Training, a programme which, incidentally, the trades unions helped to develop through the commission in the first place.
That brings me to the question of tribunals and the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, about the ease of access to tribunals. Applicants to an industrial tribunal rarely have anything to lose. There is currently no fee to be paid for administrative costs and in only a tiny minority of cases are costs awarded. The possibilities for abuse of such a free system are therefore greater than under a system that operates in the ordinary courts, where a fee is required to recover the administrative costs of the case and where costs are regularly awarded against the losing party.
On the other hand, the costs to an individual employer of defending a case which has little prospect of success can be considerable. Such cases are also a drain on the public purse. The deposit proposal will ensure that weak cases can be filtered out of the system before the time and expense of a full hearing is wasted and enable tribunals to concentrate their resources on resolving genuine complaints.
There continues to be a proportion of ill-founded claims to tribunals. These, as I have said, represent an unnecessary burden. The new procedure is designed to weed out cases at the pre-hearing stage. A deposit will not be required in every case, but only in those which at the pre-hearing stage are thought 550 to have little prospect of success or appear to be frivolous, vexatious or otherwise unreasonable. Moreover, the £150 deposit is a maximum figure; in most cases we expect it to be much lower. It is important to note that the depositor will forfeit the deposit only if he loses the case and has a costs award made against him, in which case the deposit will form part of the costs settlement.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, is half wrong in saying that there is no provision for interest to be paid on industrial tribunal awards and the Government are unlikely to introduce such a provision. She will remember the consultation paper on industrial tribunals of May 1988 which said that the Government intended to implement the provision in the Employment Act 1982 to enable interest to be payable on tribunal awards. The paper put forward for consultation detailed proposals for implementation, and we expect to implement this provision later this year.
A certain amount of angst has been expressed on the subject of a written statement of reasons for dismissal in Clause 13 or rather the absence thereof. The right to written reasons for dismissal is intended to help people decide whether or not they have a basis for a complaint of unfair dismissal to a tribunal. The amendment will simply bring the qualifying period into line with that for unfair dismissal complaints. There is nothing to prevent employers providing written reasons on a voluntary basis to employees who do not qualify under the legislation.
Lastly, the noble Baroness Lady Turner, suggested that the restriction of the right to paid time off for trade union duties represents an attack on trade union members and representatives. This is not the case for a number of reasons. The right has always been restricted to members of "recognised" trade unions and to "duties" concerned with industrial relations with the employer. The clause merely adds that the duties themselves must be limited to matters within the scope of recognition. The clause will not change the range of purposes for which paid time off will be warranted as long as the union is recognised in these areas. A trade union member's right to take part in trade union activities is not affected by the clause. The amendment effected by the clause is a modest one but the Government are responding to the justified concern of employers over what is seen as an unreasonable legislative burden.
In conclusion, notwithstanding some alarmist comments on the Bill (one noble Lord described it as a "nasty little Bill"—which statement I totally contradict) I think that it is a perfectly reasonable Bill, carrying forward a progressive series of measures in the employment field. I do not believe that there should be any cause whatsoever for concern that any essential safeguards are in danger. I hope that I have been able to give your Lordships some reassurance on that score.
The Government believe that the Bill contains a positive package of measures which will increase equality of opportunity between men and women, free young people and employers from an archaic confusion of unnecessary restrictions and lift unjustified burdens from business, thus stimulating 551 continued employment growth. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, with regard to equal treatment, is he saying that he cannot explain the inconsistency between the interventionist policy in Northern Ireland and the abstentionist policy elsewhere; or that he does not care to explain the inconsistency; or that he will write and explain it?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the circumstances in Northern Ireland are completely different. This is an Employment Bill for Great Britain, and the answer is, I won't.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.