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Employment Relations

Volume 718: debated on Wednesday 7 April 2010

Question

Asked By

My Lords, the Government’s approach to employment relations will continue to be guided by three key principles: fairness aimed at providing the necessary protection for workers; flexibility aimed at providing choice and opportunity for individuals, combined with the freedom for businesses to create wealth and employment; and partnership aimed at increasing the number of workplaces where there is mutual trust and well informed co-operation, which is surely the best foundation for solving business problems.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. His right honourable friend the Schools Secretary says that it is not enough to protect front-line services, but that every aspect of every public sector employee’s job should be sheltered from the effects of Labour’s great depression. Does he agree?

No, is the short answer. I know that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, would seek to imply that somehow this Government are responsible for what has been widely accepted as a worldwide recession. We have already made clear our attitude towards public sector pay, for example.

Does my noble friend believe that drastic, doctrinaire cuts in public spending and deflation of a fragile economy would tend to improve employment relations?

I think that there was a touch of irony there from my noble friend. No, of course that would not help the situation. We value the public services. We know that they have a vital role to play in the future. We have made clear our commitment to front-line public services. Some financial savings will have to be made and we have indicated where those will take place.

Does the Minister not accept that there is a problem for this Government in presiding over an improvement in employment relations in the UK, when they are so dependent on funding the forthcoming general election with trade union money, particularly from the trade union Unite?

I suppose it was a vain hope. I would say only this to noble Lords: we have made absolutely clear our attitude towards the recent round of industrial disputes. However, the real analysis—if the noble Lord is interested in that—is a success story, because the number of working days lost this year remains very low by historical standards. In the 1980s, 7.2 million days on average were lost. I reject the view that somehow this Government are in hock to the trade unions. We believe in a responsible approach to employment relations which encourages both sides to resolve their problems.

Can the noble Lord tell me, now that £11 billion-worth of public sector waste has been identified by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, how many public sector jobs will be cut?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that industrial relations would be greatly improved if members of the party opposite accepted that they were wrong to oppose the national minimum wage, which has done so much to lift so many out of poverty?

Of course my noble friend is absolutely right: they were wrong to oppose it and absolutely wrong in their prediction that millions of jobs would be lost as a result of its introduction—but that is collective amnesia for you.

My Lords, will the Minister explain how it helps employment relations to reduce the size of people’s pay packets by increasing national insurance charges, as the Government propose?

My Lords, what we as a Government have tried to do is to act responsibly by indicating that in dealing with the deficit, some difficult decisions will have to be taken. Our record on unemployment is that we have created maximum employment over many years—it reached its height at something like 29 million, which is as near to full employment as one can get—and we do not believe that an increase in national insurance will have the effect that the noble Lord has predicted. Our main point is that we have been absolutely honest in saying that as we recover from the deficit, we will have to make difficult choices. I wish that the Opposition could arrive at the same conclusion.

My Lords, has the Minister observed, as some of us behind him have, that the three Questions that have been asked so far from the opposition Benches have all been supplied by central casting in such a way that all the questioners asking supplementary questions have had to resort to scripts?

Would the noble Lord accept that one reason why the number of industrial disputes fell in the 1990s was because of laws introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, which the party opposite opposed? I was proud to serve as his junior Minister. Will he get the facts right? Compared to 1997, the number of working days lost last year showed a substantial increase. It has risen again this year in what many people describe as a simmering spring of discontent.

My Lords, I was wondering when the seasonal analysis would emerge. I thought preparation would be helpful, so I will quote from the Economist on 3 April, which stated:

“A quick look at the numbers confirms that modern fears are overblown. Despite the odd conspicuous walkout, industrial relations have been serene for nearly two decades ... Official statistics going back to 1891 suggest that strikes have never been less frequent”.

Unfortunately, this is not just due to the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, but to a generally improved climate in employment relations, with fair and balanced legislation.