HL Deb 20 May 1993 vol 545 cc1856-60

3.38 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That, on Monday next, the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House in respect of Part I in order to consider the amendment to insert a new Clause (Action short of dismissal: non-infringing actions) before Clause 13 and that Standing Order 44 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to enable the remaining stages of the Bill to be taken on the same day as Committee (on Re-commitment). —(Viscount Ullswater.)

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I rise to thank the Minister and the Leader of the House for acceding to the request, which they received and treated sympathetically, from my noble friend Lady Turner that the matter should be dealt with in this way. I should apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lady Turner who is not well. However, she has asked me to thank the two Ministers involved.

Although we have no objection to, and are party to, the Motion as it appears on the Order Paper, the Minister and the House should be aware that it is churlish in the extreme for the Government—not the Ministers affected—to treat the House in this way. The House is entitled to know that the amendment which will be before the House extends into three pages. It is a new clause which deals with an extremely important matter. At this very late stage the issue which the Government have decided the House must deal with concerns the denial of pay increases to employees who refuse to sign personal contracts which require them to relinquish trade union representation. An industrial tribunal decided that offering financial inducements in that way constituted action short of dismissal on grounds related to union membership or activities in breach of Section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act. Those verdicts were overturned by majority decisions of the Employment Appeal Tribunal but the Court of Appeal ruled that the employers' action amounted to unlawful discrimination under Section 146 of the 1992 Act.

What troubles so many people is why the Government acted even before the judgment was available for study and why the Government announced on Report that they intended to bring forward this amendment in this way. The substance itself will be debated in the procedures that we have agreed. But it should be recognised that there are many people inside, and especially outside, the House who believe that the Government have acted with grave discourtesy and that it is a legislative outrage for the Government to act in this way.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, I, too, am glad that the noble Viscount, Lord Ullswater, has proposed that the House should resolve itself into a Committee next Monday to consider the Government's new clause rather than debating it as one of a number of amendments on Third Reading. I am sure that that is a wise decision. It means that there is now no need for us to engage in long and possibly acrimonious debate as to the procedure to be followed.

However, I must add that we consider it wholly wrong for the Government to introduce legislation to make a significant change in industrial relations law at the very last stage in the Bill's passage through the House, without any prior consultation with interested parties. We have also been concerned about the Government proposing to effect the change before it was known whether the recent Court of Appeal decisions in the cases involving Associated Newspapers and Associated British Ports were to go before your Lordships' Appellate Committee.

My understanding now is that the new clause will not affect either of those cases; nor, indeed, any others which may be awaiting hearing by an industrial tribunal. I should be most grateful if the noble Viscount would confirm that that is the case. Most importantly, we are strongly opposed to the substance of what is proposed in the government amendment. However, I shall reserve what I have to say until we come to debate the new clause next Monday.

Lord Eatwell

My Lords, I wish to echo the sentiments expressed concerning the procedure of rushing such an important amendment through the House. I ask the noble Viscount to reconsider his procedural Motion. I have participated in all stages of the Bill so far. I regret to say that its passage has been marked by a remarkable unwillingness on the part of the Government to listen and an even more remarkable unwillingness to answer any questions. That approach of the Government, taken by the noble Viscount, has created very considerable unease about the process to be adopted with respect to such a very important amendment.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, pointed out, the amendment is complex and difficult. It will require very careful consideration and the Government will need to listen and think. Most especially, it surely requires that the Government should have time to consider the arguments raised in Committee between the Committee and Report stages. The Motion before the House would eliminate the chance of the Government to consider the arguments put forward in Committee before Report. I ask the noble Viscount, once again, to reconsider this procedural Motion.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I should also like to echo the view put forward by my noble friend Lord Graham, the Opposition Chief Whip. Irrespective of the harmful effects this will have upon the parliamentary procedures and the proud position held by this House as a revising Chamber, it has been a feature of the Bill to have amendments tabled at a late stage without due consultation.

I have already made known my views concerning the special matters relating to Northern Ireland. But, with all sincerity, and while recognising the problems that confront business managers, I should like to point out that what is proposed will be harmful and may destroy the consultations and the trust that are chief elements of industrial relations, more so, perhaps, than the effects of the Bill itself. As regards the way that the legislation has been handled, I am not blaming Ministers in this House or the Opposition for trying to steer the Bill through. But, certainly, I am aware that it is having extremely harmful effects on the industrial relations procedures that exist in the United Kingdom.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I support the remarks made by my noble friends Lord Eatwell and Lord Graham. As regards the first part of the Motion, it seems to me to be all right to recommit on Monday if there is a new and important clause to be discussed. But in the light of proposals regarding the reform of this Chamber, if it is our defence that the purpose of this Chamber is to carry out careful scrutiny and reconsideration of legislation, it behoves us to honour that commitment and to show that we do deliberate.

If we are recommitting this part of the Bill at such a late stage, a proper passage of time should be allowed between that stage and the Report stage. If we do not do so, and if we hurry the legislation through, then we are being false to the claim that this is a proper scrutinising Chamber.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for confirming the agreement of the Opposition to the course of action laid down by the Motion. It may be for the convenience of the House if I explain briefly the purpose of the Motion. I believe that it will be helpful to your Lordships if the House reverts to Committee on the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill to consider the amendment which the Government have tabled on Section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, which deals with action short of dismissal.

I gave notice of our intention to move the amendment at col. 860 of the Report stage of the Bill on 6th May. As I said at the time, the Government's purpose is to clarify the effect of the law in this area. The recent judgments of the Court of Appeal in two cases have confirmed that the law is giving rise to difficulties and confusion. The present position is unsatisfactory, and it is important that we should act quickly to make the law clear.

I have, as I undertook to do, placed copies of the relevant Court of Appeal judgments in the Library of the House. I have also tabled the amendment at the earliest opportunity. I am sure that noble Lords will recognise that we needed to consider the implications of the Court of Appeal judgments very carefully in framing the amendment. I recognise that, if we were to have dealt with the matter on Third Reading, that would have restricted the scope for debate. I agree that it is important for your Lordships to have the opportunity to debate the amendment thoroughly. That is why the Government have tabled the Motion.

Through the Motion, we are providing an opportunity for the House to consider the amendment in detail in Committee. We tabled the proposed new clause as soon as possible to allow time for any further amendments to be tabled. I must point out to the noble Lords, Lord Eatwell and Lord Desai, that the rest of the Bill has received very thorough consideration by your Lordships. Therefore, in the circumstances, I think it reasonable for the House to proceed to Third Reading of the Bill on that day.

I am most grateful for the helpful and constructive approach which the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, and the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, have adopted on the matter. I commend the Motion to the House.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, I have listened to the debate with growing apprehension. I understand and support the reason why my noble friend Lord Graham agreed to the Motion. However, it seems to me that the choice he was given was between being hanged at the yard-arm and walking the plank. There is not much difference in personal comfort between the two.

Perhaps I may address myself to the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I read the report of the very important and valuable debate initiated yesterday by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. I noted with great interest, and some comfort, the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, at the conclusion. But here, surely, is an example—and only a day after those aspirations were uttered by the Government Front Bench—where, once again, we have instant government without time for adequate reflection.

I do not know what the noble Lord the Leader of the House has to say about this. I am sure he wishes to preserve the proper appreciation of legislation. I dare say he has been overruled in the Cabinet or in some other place but he really should take on board the fact that it is not much use having general debates on matters of principle, as occurred yesterday when the whole House united in condemning instant government, only for the Government to come forward the very next day with yet another illustration of instant government. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, will tell the Cabinet so. I am sure I speak not only for myself.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, had to say. When a noble Lord with the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, makes such comments, the House listens very carefully, as I do. I do not seek to defend what is being done as being in the interests of best government. The Government found themselves in a difficult situation where there was a lack of clarity in the law. We had to weigh the uncertainty that that would create in many people's contractual arrangements with the difficulties the House of Lords has in dealing with this matter. We discussed it through the usual channels and I am extremely grateful that the noble Baroness from the Labour Party and the noble Lord from the Liberal Party agreed—I accept they did so reluctantly—that this is probably the best way to proceed. That is why the Government have proceeded in this way. However, I certainly take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan.

On Question, Motion agreed to.