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Minister explains new union laws

The government's "Fairness at Work" white paper was described as the greatest extension of union rights for more than 20 years.

While it was welcomed by union leaders, some were concerned that it did not go far enough to dismantle some of the legislation introduced by the previous Conservative governments.

The trade minister responsible, Ian McCartney, spoke to BBC News Online about the government view of the changes.

The publication of "Fairness at Work", the new framework for employment relations put forward by the government, is a landmark in the history of employment relations, and holds out a real vision of co-operation, not conflict in the workplace.

It is the latest in a series of measures aimed at modernising workplace relations, which have been introduced since the general election on May 1, 1997.

That list also includes the reintroduction of trade union rights at GCHQ, the signing of the social chapter, the introduction of the working time directive and the introduction of a national minimum wage.

Where previous policies have allowed the worst "Arthur Daley" employers to undercut competitors by exploiting their staff, Labour's agenda for people at work aims both to provide decent minimum standards, and to encourage partnership between employers and employees.

Unions an asset

Fairness at Work is a white paper the last government could never have delivered, which learns the lessons of the best of British companies, where unions are regarded as an asset rather than an enemy, and where developing family friendly employment practices is recognised as being to the benefit of the company as a whole.

Amongst the many proposals put forward in Fairness at Work, are making funds available to help with training both managers and employee representatives to develop partnerships at work, as well as new significant extensions to rights to maternity and parental leave.

Whilst promoting best practices, our proposals are also aimed at providing protection against the worst.

Under the Fairness at Work proposals the qualifying period for protection against unfair dismissal will be halved from two years to one year; the maximum limit on awards for unfair dismissal will be abolished; discrimination on the grounds of union membership and the blacklisting of trade unionists will be outlawed; and employees will have the legal right to representation during grievance and disciplinary proceedings.

There will also be a right of appeal against dismissal for taking lawful industrial action.

Union recognition

Recognising, as many employers do, the value of unions to successful businesses, Fairness at Work contains not one, but three 'paths' to the recognition of unions in the workplace.

Firstly, the white paper seeks to encourage voluntary recognition of unions by employers, as partners in the workplace. Secondly, the white paper outlines the procedure for a ballot of employees to gain recognition, allowing for voluntary recognition to be granted at any stage in the process. Finally, Fairness at Work proposes that there should be automatic union recognition where more than half of the workforce are union members.

Fairness at Work is not a return to the past, nor should it be. It is a blueprint for fairness in the workplace and the promotion of better, stronger relationships between employers and employees.

The white paper offers opportunities which both trade unionists and employers should grasp with both hands.

E-mail Steve Margetts