14 July 2008
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson). His final remark was that we might be over-legislating, and that was about the only remark in his speech that I can agree with.

The presentation of the Bill in the House has more to do with the Government’s not wanting to discuss the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. As the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) said, “It’s all to do with Catholics in by-elections.” The Bill has been rushed to the House today because the Government did not want to discuss the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I really think that there is no need to extend the debate to the subject just raised by the hon. Member. We have a Bill before us, so I look forward to hearing him conclude our debate on that Bill.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is just as well that I did not give way to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), as I would have been even further out of order.

We have had a good-tempered debate today up to now and we have heard 10 good speeches from both sides of the House. I have quite a lot to say about them and I do not want to detain the House for too long, so I am going to limit the interventions I take. When I have had an opportunity to get properly into my speech, I will give way to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye.

The Bill started its life in the House of Lords as long ago as 7 January 2008. It is curious, then, to consider why it has taken so long to get here. It comprises 22 clauses and is divided into four sections. Clauses 1 to 7 deal with dispute resolution: clause 4 deals particularly with the determination of proceedings without a hearing; clause 5 with the circumstances in which ACAS is obliged to offer conciliation services; and clause 6 repeals section 18 of the Employment Tribunals Act 1996. Clauses 8 to 14 deal with the national minimum wage: clause 13 excludes cadet force adult volunteers from qualifying for the national minimum wage. Clauses 15 to 17 deal with employment agencies and clause 18 relates to trade unions. I intend to say something about all of those provisions.

We have heard excellent speeches, not least on the Opposition side from my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries). I was particularly impressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire, as what he said, speaking without notes on the basis of his huge experience in employment tribunals, was enormously beneficial to the House. He proved that the Government’s rushed legislation of 2002, introduced by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) on the basis of his three-step and increasingly legalistic approach, was subsequently shown by the trade unions and others to be not the best way of proceeding with industrial tribunals. The Bill is welcome in that it starts to put right some of what the Government got wrong in 2002. My hon. Friend, along with the hon. Member for Blaydon and others on the left of the Labour party, demonstrated that the experience of members of employment tribunals counted for a great deal. It is a pity that the Government got this wrong in 2002; perhaps the Bill will begin to restore some of what was lost then.

I worry about the timetable. As the Minister made clear, consultation on the code will not finish until 24 July, yet under the timetable we are asked to accept later this evening, all stages of the Bill must be concluded by 23 October. For most of that time, the House will be in recess, so it will be difficult for us to get together to discuss what is in the Bill. The timetable makes it very difficult for the House to consider the code, which is one of the key aspects of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire alluded to the British Chambers of Commerce, which has conducted many surveys of its members who own small businesses. It calculates that the regulations introduced by the Government since they came to power 1997-98 amount to some £65 billion-worth of costs. She also quoted from the Federation of Small Businesses, which estimated that about 68 per cent. of its members do not employ anybody because they are fearful of employment legislation—in other words, they are one-man businesses. The Government should note that most of the employers in the small business sector have to deal with the welter of employment legislation on their own because they cannot afford to employ people to do it for them.

I will move on to deal with disputes resolution and hearings, along with the three-step approach and Government studies. If the Bill can simplify the way we deal with disputes, and particularly how if clause 7 deals with the enforcement of the award of compensation can be simplified that will be welcome. We have had a good amount of discussion this evening about how best to amend clause 7 to ensure that awards by tribunals can be enforced a little more quickly.

Clauses 8 to 13 on the national minimum wage have been extensively debated. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne bravely said that if he had been a Member when the national minimum wage legislation had been debated and voted on, he would not—with the experience that he has now gained—have voted for it. That is probably true for a large number of Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) asked how he could have debated the national minimum wage in Committee from 4.30 in the afternoon to 1 am the next day and still have been in the same parliamentary day. The answer is, of course, that we remain in the same day until the House adjourns. He may be right that that was one of the longest-ever such Committee sittings.

John McDonnell: I am not making a party political point as I want to reach consensus, but what is the official Opposition’s position on the minimum wage for people under 21? Do they support it or are they open to discussion to reach consensus on abolition?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We are still discussing the issue. I understand that there are three different rates according to different ages, but it is a matter that we wish to continue to discuss. Suffice it to say that we support the national minimum wage and its regular updating at least in line with inflation, which is quite a shift for the Conservative party in comparison with our position a few years ago. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not go beyond saying that at this stage.

Michael Jabez Foster: The hon. Gentleman is now recanting the decision originally to vote against the minimum wage and he suggested that little of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) said was correct—except for the point about the British National party. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the BNP has absolutely no place in the trade union movement or, for that matter, in any part of public life in Britain?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, which relates to clause 18 on the trade unions. I will be working my way slowly through the Bill and I certainly intend to deal with that issue.

Mr. Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that in reflecting on rates of pay for the under-18s, it is important to take into account the new obligations proposed in the Education and Skills Bill? Employers will be required to pay for training to a much greater extent than previously. Should not that also be weighed in the balance?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend that all these costs on employers must be taken into account. If we continue to pile regulations on employers, our country will become less competitive. The same applies to the EU, which has lost 10 per cent. of its world trade in the past 10 years. Some experts estimate that if we continue to impose extra regulations and burdens on industry, we will lose 40 per cent. of world trade in the next 20 years. We need to consider that possibility very seriously. It is not a matter of individual pieces of legislation, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, but rather the aggregate effect of all legislation that impacts on businesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire said, it is not so much the cost, but the burden of administering the regulations and their continually changing nature that causes the problems, as employers have to keep retraining people on the basis of what the newest legislation means. That is particularly burdensome on small businesses.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the aggregate burden of regulation. He referred earlier, as did the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), to total costs of £65 billion—a figure suggested by the British Chambers of Commerce. However, if we look at the aggregate gross domestic product since the present Government have been in power, that £65 billion represents a little more than 0.5 per cent. of GDP. Is that the sort of burden that would push firms to the wall?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: With great respect—and I do have great respect for the hon. Gentleman—I do not regard £65 billion as a small sum. I consider it incumbent on any Government to legislate for the minimum amount necessary to ensure that businesses operate properly and employers and employees are treated fairly, and in particular to ensure that employees do not suffer discrimination in the workplace.

Mr. McFadden: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the BCC figure to which he referred includes measures such as increasing disabled access to public transport? Does he consider that to be a burden, or the mark of a civilised society?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I certainly consider it to be the mark to a civilised society. What I do not know, and what the Minister did not say in his intervention on my speech, is how much of that £65 billion relates to the regulations. I suspect that it is not a huge amount, but I stand to be corrected.

Several hon. Members rose —

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I want to make progress, because I have been speaking for a while and I want the Minister to have a chance to catch up.

I welcome clause 13, which excludes cadet force volunteers from certain obligations that they are currently required to observe. I particularly welcome the clarification about adult volunteers, because there were fears in my constituency about the possibility that adult volunteer drivers would have to pay all sorts of tax and other charges. I also welcome what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne about employment agencies, which perform a valuable function in returning people to work. We want them to operate properly, but I remain to be convinced that the number of rogue employment agencies out there warrants such draconian legislation.

Clause 18 relates to trade unions and trade union membership, which has been discussed extensively this evening. It is heartening to learn that the left wing of the Labour party—the old socialist party—is still alive and well. We heard it from the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), we heard it from the hon. Member for Blaydon, and we heard it from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway.

Of course we all want to see trade unions functioning well, but there must be a balance in society between what they do for their members and what they do for the rest of the country. I think most unbiased people would conclude that in the 1970s, when we experienced the winter of discontent, we got the balance wrong. Some would argue about whether the balance was maintained in the other direction during the 1980s and 1990s. I would say that we should be careful not to place too great a burden on businesses, and not to place trade unions above the law in any respect. I do not want to see the country return to the immunity from prosecution that the trade unions enjoyed, in some respects, in the 1970s and before.

Let me deal with the specific point made by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye about the BNP, which clearly causes a big problem to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne in his own constituency. I am sure that none of us in the House espouses the policies of the BNP, which are abhorrent to many of us.

Mr. Walker: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will my hon. Friend allow me just one second? I think what I say will help him. Those policies are abhorrent, but what was most abhorrent about what my hon. Friend described was the threatening behaviour towards him in particular. If any organisation says “We are watching you”, that implies a threat, which is unacceptable in a civilised society. Now I will happily give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Walker: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words.

The BNP is no longer a problem in Broxbourne, in the sense that it is no longer a political force. It has been wiped out over the past three years. The real problem is the way in which its members behave and communicate. They do not understand civilised political discourse: their raison d’être is intimidation and veiled threats of violence. That is the real problem with the BNP, not just in Broxbourne but throughout this country of England that we love so much.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree. I think that the problem with the BNP, or at least some of its members, is the fact that they hold such extreme views that they cannot understand why those views, and their behaviour, are not at least accredited by others.

John McDonnell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I will in a second, for the last time.

Let me say gently to the Minister—I think he will face quite a long Committee stage given all the demands made by his hon. Friends, which will need to be debated at great length: I do not know how the Government will meet their timetable—that we have a tradition in this country of not legislating for individual prejudices. That means that he will somehow have to construct a Bill that deals with circumstances rather than the prejudices of individuals and, I suspect, individual parties. I think he will find it quite difficult to achieve that while ensuring that the Bill complies with the European convention on human rights, but I wish him well. He has the sympathy of the whole House, and I am sure that my party will support him on those and, indeed, other aspects of the Bill.

Michael Jabez Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No. I will give way to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, but I will not give way after that.

John McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman depicted a number of us as left-wing or old Labour, when we were simply referring to the installation in British law of International Labour Organisation conventions concerning the right to withdraw one’s labour. Will he comment on the statements of his colleague the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), about the need to restrict the right to strike in certain public services? How are the Opposition developing that policy?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If the hon. Gentleman is trying to deny that he is one of the old socialist brothers, I think that his record will belie that argument and that he is embarking on an uphill struggle. As for the right to restrict strikes in the public sector, I will not go down that route. I have already been upbraided once by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for not speaking within the terms of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman may wish to argue the point in Committee. I hope that his party will have the courage to put him on the Committee, because I think he would be a very valuable member of it. That remains to be seen, but I have my doubts.

Michael Jabez Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way once more?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: No, because I am up against my deadline. I have taken more than my allotted time—although there is time.

Michael Jabez Foster rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown: All right. I will give way for the last time.

Michael Jabez Foster: That is very generous.

The hon. Gentleman shares the justified prejudice of us all against the BNP. Does he agree that the trade union movement has a reasonable case, and that the Bill should reflect that by enabling it to expel BNP members?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: As I said, if the Government legislate not to deal with individuals’ or even individual parties’ prejudices, but to specify circumstances, which is what the Bill will have to do in order to comply with the ECHR, I would support clause 18, which would allow unions to expel members who behaved in an unacceptable way. The ASLEF case invoking the ECHR proved the difficulty, and I think the issue needs to be clarified in the light of that case.

We feel that the Bill contains good measures, but some of its provisions need clarification while others will impose burdens on businesses. I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Committee will wish to examine them in depth and to try to ensure that the Bill emerges from the Committee in a more workable form, certainly in the context of employment tribunals. That is incredibly important, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire pointed out, the increase in the number of tribunal cases since 1998—from 29,000 to 130,000—proves that there is a huge need for it.

The Government—or, rather, the Opposition—will not vote against the Bill tonight, but we will wish to discuss it further in Committee, and we will reserve our stance on Third Reading. However, we do not think sufficient time has been timetabled in respect of the conclusion of the consultation on the code on 24 July and the Bill’s ending—unnecessarily we believe—by 23 October. That will not give sufficient time for Members to make representations after hearing from their constituents over the summer recess.

The Prime Minister has said that simplification, clarification and cost saving are all at the heart of the Bill. The Opposition support those principles and we will support those parts of the Bill that aim to achieve them and that seem likely to do so. However, the record of this Government has been to pile complexity and burdens on employers and any changes they make are likely only partially to reduce the burdens they themselves have introduced. We will be watching the Government carefully to see if they reduce the burdens on business.

8.19 pm

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