PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

DRAFT REVISED CODE OF PRACTICE ON TIME OFF FOR TRADE UNION DUTIES AND ACTIVITIES

Thursday 28 February 1991

LONDON: HMSO

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

(Chairman: SIR ANTHONY MEYER

Boscawen, Mr. Robert (Somerton and Frome)

Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry)

Bottomley, Mr. Peter (Eltham)

Bowden, Mr. Andrew (Brighton, Kemptown)

Campbell, Mr. Ronnie (Blyth Valley)

Clelland, Mr. David (Tyne Bridge)

Dicks, Mr. Terry (Hayes and Harlington)

Duffy, Mr. A. E. P. (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Evans, Mr. John (St. Helens North)

Forth, Mr. Eric (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment)

Hoyle, Mr. Doug (Warrington, North)

Lawrence, Mr. Ivan (Burton)

Lloyd, Mr. Tony (Stretford)

McCrindle, Sir Robert (Brentwood and Ongagr)

Taylor, Mr. Teddy (Southend, East)

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)

Vaughan, Sir Gerard (Reading, East)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)

Mr. C. G. Lee, Committee Clerk

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3 Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments &c. Thursday 28th February 1991

[SIR ANTHONY MEYER in the Chair]

DRAFT REVISED CODE OF PRACTICE ON TIME OFF FOR TRADE UNION DUTIES AND ACTIVITIES

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Eric Forth): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Draft Revised Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities. The background, briefly, is that the Employment Act 1989 amended the provisions in the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978 on time off for trade union duties. The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service is required, by the Employment Protection Act 1975, to provide suitable guidance in a code of practice on the time-off provisions. Such a code of practice has been in force since 1978. The amendment of the law on time off for trade union duties in the 1989 Act meant that the ACAS code was out of date and had to be amended. The new code has been produced strictly in accordance with the provisions laid down for these matters in the Employment Protection Act 1975. It was widely welcomed by interested organisations at consultation stage and I commend it to the Committee.

10.31 am

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Some might ask why a revised code of practice is thought necessary when the code drawn up as a result of the Employment Protection Act 1978 was not contested by the then Tory Opposition—although no doubt the Tory party today is a horse of a somewhat different colour. The Minister said that the draft code was consequential on the legislation passed under the Employment Act 1989. That may be so, but that Act in itself sought to restrict rather than facilitate trade union activity. It follows, therefore, that this code also represents a step back rather than a step forward in industrial relations. It might be looked on as a success of the trade union movement that, despite their obvious, often outspoken opposition to the trade union organisation, the Government —yes, even this Government—have been forced to recognise that trade union activity is legitimate and unstoppable. The code is, therefore, based largely on that drawn up under the last Labour Government. That accepted, it does, however, chip away at trade union rights and introduce new restrictions to make life a little more difficult for shop stewards and full-time officials. The practice in industry is somewhat different from the theory outlined in employment legislation, particularly in the past 10 years, and in codes of practice. The large employers are keen to foster co-operation and to facilitate trade union activity and organisation, especially where employers receive a useful arm of support from their trade unionist employees. For example, Vickers Defence 4 Systems, a branch of which is in my constituency, is lobbying for support for its Challenger II tank, and this week and for the next two weeks the company is financing the presence in the House of eight shop stewards, who are daily meeting MPs and others to put the case for their company. There is no argument here about cost; indeed, expense is the last consideration as employees and employers work together in their mutual interest. Nor is there talk of time off being a barrier against business. In fact, the common obstacle is the Ministry of Defence and the Government themselves. The good employers will not need to pay much attention to the code of practice, for they already exceed its provisions and ignore its restrictions. Without doubt, however, there will be employers who work to the letter of the code, and many more who operate restrictions regardless of its provisions. Many others, too, will avoid the provisions altogether by refusing to recognise trade union organistion and representation in their work place, thereby robbing trade union members of the proper representation for which they pay their subscriptions, and at the same time restricting their ability to learn and function as responsible trade unionists. Employers will do so on the ground that such activities, to use the Government's own words, are a burden on business and a barrier to improved performance and their ability to compete in world markets. Yet in Germany, which perform economically and industrially so much better than we do, the system of works councils allows council members paid time off to perform their duties, and in companies with more than 300 workers at least one works council member is entitled to be entirely exempt from work no talk here of barriers to business, but a recognition of the importance of co-operation. I now turn to the code's specific proposals. Will the Minister confirm that the main changes as a result of the new legislation are likely to be, first, that time off for representatives working in diversified and multi-plant companies is likely to be curtailed, particularly where there are different levels of recognition in different plants, that time off for meetings with representatives of associated employers will no longer fall automatically within the definition of rights, and that internal union meetings may be more strictly curtailed? Are rights to time off for training, likely to be limited to those collectively bargained over? Is the Minister aware of the following appeal tribunal ruling? It was: "The employer denied a union representative the right to time off to attend a training course on pensions. This was because there was no pension scheme within the workplace. The Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled that despite the lack of a pension scheme it was a matter over which there could be bargaining in the future." That was in the case of Young & Carr Fasteners 1979. Will that ruling be no longer valid under the new code? According to Ministers introducing the 1989 Act, the Court of Appeal cases remained valid in Thomas Scott & Sons v. Allen 1983, and British Bakeries (Northern) v. Adlington 1988, which emphasised that an official not taking part in industrial action but representing members who were had the right under the normal arrangements for paid time off. Is that still the case under the code? Is it also the case that the right to time off is further restricted by the requirement that the amount claimed is "reasonable" in terms of the number of times it is claimed, the employer's needs for work at specific times of the year, and the number 5 of representatives demanding time off together? Is it now easier for an employer to hinder time off on the ground that it is unreasonable? While it is not our intention to divide the Committee on the revised code of practice itself, I point out that it is the product of legislation that fails to appreciate the needs and importance of trade union activities. In that sense we regard it as at best a sensible interpretation of restricitive rules.

hon. Members: Only the hon. Member is present on the Opposition side.

Mr. Clelland: I take the comment that there is no one with me. That draws attention to the fact that hon. Opposition Members feel that one of us is enough to take on eight of the Government.

10.37 am

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): I recognise that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) can speak with more authority than most of his Labour party colleagues, many of whom have not seen anything closer to a trade union than a polytechnic branch meeting. I do not wish to disparage the people who teach in polytechnics, but the Labour party should have more people like the hon. Gentleman, who knows what he is talking about. I rise to put the point that we cannot rely merely on the ACAS code of practice. I focus on the Government as an employer. Why is it that, while allowing employees time off for trade union activities, whether voting or as representatives—in effect as the churchwardens of those working in Government departments—the Government tolerate in their departments such a low turn-out in trade union elections? If the Government are trying to encourage participation in industry and commerce, where employees are organised, they ought to ask whether they might do more for themselves. The Department of Employment did a great deal to abolish indirect discrimination in ethnic employment when it had a look at itself. Government departments ought to get ACAS to give them advice on actually measuring the level of participation in union elections. Too often people can get themselves elected—I am not saying that they are all extremists—on a very low proportion of members of the union. I recommend that both the management and the staff side of Government read their own code of practice to see what they can do to encourage the participation that will make the trade unions representative of their members, and useful for reconciling differences, as well as creating an alliance for progress—as the hon. Gentleman instanced with Challenger II.

10.39 am

Mr. Forth: The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) asked a number of questions which I will endeavour to answer. I undertake to write to him with specific details about any that I am unable to answer today. He asked why we had the amended code. I thought that I had shown the reasons in my introductory remarks, however briefly, but I am happy to reiterate them. ACAS is required by the Employment Protection Act 1975 to provide a suitable code of practice. As the hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, an adequate and acceptable code of practice has been in operation since 1978. The 1989 Act 6 made changes that were sufficient to justify—indeed, to demand—an updated and revised code of practice, which is now before us. Not only does the revised code seek to incorporate the changes made in the 1989 Act but it goes further in seeking to provide a clarity of presentation and a level of detail helpful to employers and trade unionists, and to employees generally, in identifying where the time-off provisions work. I hope that the Committee will agree that the presentation is now detailed and clear, and will in that sense be helpful to shop stewards and union officials in identifying readily with their employers where the code takes effect.

Mr. Clelland: While we might contest the Minister's last remarks, may I point out that I made it clear that I was aware of the reason for the code's being introduced; the question whether it needed to be introduced was rhetorical.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I wanted to be careful not to be open to the charge that I had avoided any of his questions. I am grateful for his confirming that, in my zeal, I have gone further than he wanted. It is important that the Committee understands that the code is produced by ACAS, a body not only independent of Government but rightly taking pride in the fact that it includes strong, senior and respected representation of the trade union side of business. There should be no suggestion that the code curtails trade union rights in an arbitrary way, or is inadequate to the needs of trade unions in the proper discharge of their duties. As for the hon. Gentleman's remark that the Government see no role for trade unions, the very fact that we have ACAS and that the code of practice identifies a proper and important role for trade unions gives the lie to that suggestion. Throughout the code it is laid out clearly and comprehensively exactly what the rights are and what the scope is for time off for trade union activities. As for the code's curtailing anything that has been allowed in the past, a reading of the code itself should explain that. If, on reading the code carefully, the hon. Gentleman believes that it does not, I suggest that he take it up in the first place with ACAS, who will be able to explain to him adequately what its code means and its intention, and if that does not satisfy him, that he apply to my Secretary of State, in whose name the code is laid before the Committee, in order to iron out any problems. The code has been through the mill. Wide consultation has taken place. It was widely agreed, supported and accepted. ACAS is the author of the code and, since ACAS includes wide trade union membership, I hope tht the Committee and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman will agree that it has gone far to meet his objections. I hope that that answers the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's points. If when we read the report of the Committee's proceedings any detailed points require to be followed up, I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman and answer them. I hope, however, that I have satisfied the Committee that it is right that we approve the code before us in the name of ACAS and the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved, That the Committee has considered the draft Revised Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities.

Committee rose at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.

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THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE

Sir Anthony Meyer, (Chairman)

Boscawen, Mr.

Boswell, Mr.

Bottomley, Mr.

Bowden, Mr.

Clelland, Mr.

Dicks, Mr.

Forth, Mr.

Vaughan, Sir G.

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