Labour Conference: Fairness at Work - Unions to press for pledge on rights

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UNIONS WILL today publicly challenge the Government to pledge that it has no plans to water down controversial proposals on employee rights.

They suspect that Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who will be speaking at the Labour Party conference, has responded positively to persistent lobbying from employers who are keen to weaken the impact of the intended legislation.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Worker's Union, one of the party's biggest affiliates, said yesterday there were "ominous signs" that the minister would impose a limit on compensation for claims involving unfair dismissal. Under present regulations there is a cap of pounds 12,000, but the "Fairness at Work" White Paper proposes that there should be no restriction.

Mr Morris said it was "significant" that the minister had not denied claims that he was preparing to change the policy. If he failed to give those assurances, Mr Morris said his union would feel a sense of "betrayal".

The T&G leader said the union movement had already made considerable compromises in negotiations ahead of the publication of the document earlier this year.

Mr Morris said he wanted Mr Mandelson to act as an "impartial referee." In reference to the Confederation of British Industry, the union leader said: "The game is over, one team should not be allowed back on the field to score a few more goals. The signs are ominous. We are concerned about the reports and I will be seeking assurances that this is a done deal."

Speaking after a meeting of his union delegation at Blackpool he said that many of his colleagues had expressed "dismay" over indications that the Government might be seeking to reopen the question.

The CBI has also asked the Government to think again about its proposal to allow automatic recognition where a union had more than half of a workforce in membership. In addition, employers have expressed concern about a plan that would allow union representation in cases of "grievance" even where the union was not recognised.

Roger Lyons, leader of the Manufacturing, Science, Finance union, pointed out that the Public Interest Act on the protection of "whistle-blowers" in the workplace did not allow for a limit on compensation where workers were dismissed.

He claimed the Department of Trade and Industry had intervened in the drafting process to ensure there was no restriction on payments because that was the principle which was employed in the "Fairness at Work" White Paper.

Mr Mandelson is to meet Eddie George, the governor of the Bank of England, to discuss the growing demands for an interest rates cut by both business and trade union leaders.

Mr Mandelson said last night he wanted the Bank to be aware of the views of manufacturing industry and those who worked in it. He added that he wanted to encourage a two-way dialogue between the Bank and industry. But he denied that he would put any pressure on Mr George. "I strongly support independence for the Bank of England and I strongly support the way it has conducted monetary policy."