Parliament: Trade Unions: Worker rights likely to be watered down

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GOVERNMENT PLANS to increase trade union rights in the workplace are likely to be watered down to meet employers' concerns, Peter Mandelson hinted yesterday.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told Labour MPs during a debate on the Queen's Speech that he was "willing to give reassurance" to employers anxious about the impact of the Fairness at Work Bill on their businesses.

"We want to ensure that the proposals work well and strike a fair balance and, yes, to give reassurance, where this is justified, to employers who are understandably concerned about the impact of this legislation on their businesses," he said.

Under pressure from the Confederation of British Industry, the Downing Street Policy Unit has urged that workers should be members of a union for at least 12 months before they are counted towards recognition.

Unions believe they have successfully resisted the idea of a two-tier membership, but they may have lost the battle to scrap the upper limit on the amount of compensation for unfair dismissal. The present ceiling of pounds 12,000 is likely to be increased to pounds 40,000 or pounds 50,000.

As part of the drive to make Britain the best environment to trade electronically, Mr Mandelson announced the appointment of a "high-ranking digital envoy" who would ensure that businesses and consumers take "maximum advantage" of the Internet. "This person will speak for the UK in the international area to promote the UK as a global hub for electronic commerce, business and investment, and to drive forward the cross- government strategy for electronic commerce," he said.

Mr Mandelson pledged that "if and when" Britain joined the European single currency there should be more than "artificial convergence". But John Redwood, the Conservative spokesman on trade, accused him of failing to mention job losses, or the crisis in manufacturing industry, because all ministers were interested in was "abolishing hereditary peers. People out there are not clamouring for reform of the House of Lords. They are demanding more jobs, better schools, better hospitals and this Queen's Speech does absolutely nothing to stop the collapse in manufacturing which we see going on day by day," he said.

John Major, the former Conservative prime minister, reflected on Britain's entry into the European single currency, and said: "Tony Blair used to accuse me of sitting on the fence when it came to setting out a clear policy, he is now sitting on the adjacent spike."

t David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, was rebuked by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, for saying he would not be present for the debate. But he changed his plans after Miss Boothroyd said it was her "personal feeling" that Mr Blunkett should be present unless he was dealing with a matter of the "utmost urgency elsewhere".

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