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ACAS Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities

Volume 712: debated on Monday 6 July 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the ACAS Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities.

Relevant document: 19th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

I have pleasure in introducing the ACAS code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities. Before this code can come into force, it needs the approval of both Houses. It provides practical advice and guidance on the operation of statutory rights to time off for trade union representatives and other union members.

The code covers entitlements for a range of trade union representatives including shop stewards, union learning reps and those union representatives who are consulted on a one-off basis when large-scale redundancies or business transfers take place. However, the entitlements apply where the trade union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes.

Much of the code has remained unchanged since it was first put in place 30 years ago, in April 1978. Since then, the world of work has changed significantly. New technology is widely available and has transformed the way we communicate. Working patterns are much more diverse, and the role of union representatives has progressed. During this period, the code has been revised as appropriate to keep up with changes to the law. However, there is now a good case for a more thorough revision.

In 2007, a large-scale review of the facilities and facility time of workplace representatives strongly supported the case for the revision of the ACAS code. As a consequence, my right honourable friend the Minister for Employment Relations wrote to the chair of ACAS asking his council to consider redrafting the code. ACAS is independent from the Government, and members of its council are drawn from leading figures in the employment relations field. The views of the council always carry great respect and draw on a range of sources.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank ACAS and its council for their work in preparing the revised code for us to consider. ACAS released an initial draft of the code for consultation in December 2008 and responses from that have shaped the draft of the code we have today.

I now turn to the substance of the code. Within this draft, ACAS has made some significant changes to its guidance. However, the legal framework that the code refers to has remained much the same. Therefore, I will focus on the areas in which the code has been developed.

As I have already stated, this revision updates the guidance in relation to changes in the modern workplace. It provides more guidance than before on the confidential and sensitive nature of communications involving union representatives. That will help employers in reassuring their staff that their communications with union representatives are not being monitored, while ensuring workplace security. Trade union representatives often have tasks that are demanding, complex and require great knowledge of employment law and the way the workplace functions. The provision of training has developed greatly in recent times with the widespread use of e-learning tools. That, too, is reflected in the guidance.

There is considerably more guidance on union representatives being given access to facilities at the workplace. By facilities, I mean the provision of workplace services such as office equipment, meeting rooms and stationery. These facilities will assist in communication and research in line with union representatives’ duties. It provides more information on the provision of cover for employees who take time off to perform trade union duties and activities. That is important at a time when there are increasing pressures in the workplace. Line managers are key to the smooth running and organisation of time off for representatives. It is for that reason the position of line managers is explored in more detail in this revision of the code.

The chairman of ACAS has produced a revised code that offers balanced, sensible and practical advice on time off for trade union duties and activities. It will be positive for both employers and unions in successfully interpreting and applying the law in their industrial relations. I strongly commend the code to the Committee for approval.

I thank the Minister for introducing the draft code of practice. As we debate it, we should bear in mind that it comes at a time of increasingly strained relations between some trade unions and employers. ACAS has a duty to provide practical guidance on the time off to be permitted by employers to trade union officials and members. It therefore produces this code of practice, which must be approved by Parliament.

While the general purpose of the code of practice is to aid and improve the effectiveness of relationships between employers and trade unions and offer guidance for employers, employees and trade unions, all of which is sensible, I would like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister a couple of questions. First, anyone who has read the newspapers knows that we face an economic crisis greater than anything in living memory. Honda workers have been on extended leave, many thousands of workers have been made redundant and the weekend press tells us, among other things, that BT is offering staff long holidays in return for a substantial wage reduction—yet here we are discussing leave for union representatives paid for by employers so that they can undertake union activities as if nothing has happened. Although I acknowledge the purpose of the code and our need to debate it, do the Government not understand that to the layman this sounds like fiddling while Rome burns?

My other question is more specific. In February, workers went on strike when Total employed an exclusively Italian and Portuguese workforce—not British workers but nevertheless all EU workers—to construct an extension at its Lindsey oil refinery. Sympathy strikes, which are currently illegal, sprang up quickly, and by 4 February, 22 other sites had been affected with an estimated 6,000 workers walking out. The dispute was settled in the end when Total offered 100 new jobs to be advertised by local contractors. I am not proposing a debate on whether Total or the union was in the right, but had a deal not been reached, which would have resulted in the Government being faced with a spate of illegal sympathy strikes, what would they have done? Perhaps I should ask what they will do when that happens.

We support these regulations. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, raises issues that I thought had long been resolved. It has long been accepted that engaging in trade union activities is an appropriate use of an employee’s time. That is perfectly legitimate, and it is appropriate for an employer to allow an employee to have the time off for that. That principle is long established, and it certainly would not be fit to re-open it.

I make one point on the documentation in front of us. The Minister tried to indicate the significant changes from the previous code, but in future, when we have a detailed code of practice, it might be helpful if the Explanatory Memorandum indicated exactly what material changes the Minister and his department think are being made. Otherwise, those of us reading it can find it quite difficult to follow the implications. Basically, I support the regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, talks about the impact at a time of increasingly strained industrial relations. In the current economic crisis, it is interesting to see some of the deals that are being negotiated as collective bargaining agreements. They are difficult deals—significant time off work on reduced pay, holidays and so on—and yet unions involved in collective bargaining have negotiated those deals. ACAS is trying to ensure that the situation is clarified in relation to time off. I do not take the view, to use a colourful metaphor, that we are fiddling while Rome burns. I think we are making a positive contribution to the development of employee relations. If employers use it in that way, they will gain as much as employees in a collective bargaining situation.

On revising the code in the current economic climate, we are not imposing any additional regulation or burden on business. The revised code will help business as it is made more relevant to modern workplace conditions. Allowing workers to have more time off will certainly not damage business because the revised code does not change the statutory entitlement for time off for trade union duties. Instead, the code assists business by providing more guidance on how it can manage the process of time off to enable union representatives to perform their functions both as employees and as representatives efficiently. Where that works well, as I quoted in situations like Honda or BT, there is a win-win scenario. I welcome the support from the noble Lord, Lord Razzall. He made a valid point about the material differences, which we need to take into account for the future.

On the Government’s approach to the Total dispute, I believe that the Gibson review is looking at the question of productivity and so on in those sorts of industries. I would not want to speculate on the future. The Government’s role has been to try to ensure that the appropriate organisations—ACAS and so on—have been involved to ensure that we end these disputes as quickly as possible.

Motion agreed.