Blair drops pledge on sackings

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Tony Blair, the Labour leader, yesterday ditched a pledge by the late John Smith to give workers full protection from unfair dismissal from "day one" of starting a new job.

In the teeth of bitter union opposition the party's powerful joint policy committee yesterday agreed a document which failed to commit Labour to the kind of legislation outlawing unfair dismissal envisaged by Mr Smith in his first and last speech as party leader to the Trades Union Congress in 1993.

Mr Blair, then home affairs spokesman, and Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, were furious at the time at what they saw as a concession intended to buy off union opposition to the "one member, one vote" reforms of party organisation.

A paper drawn up by Stephen Byers, employment spokesman, says only that the party will "review" the present law which provides protection after two years. The Conservative government extended the qualifying period from the original six months, arguing that it placed an undue burden on employers.

In his TUC speech Mr Smith said that both part-time and full-time workers should have protection from day one of their employment in all companies regardless of size.

But since then Labour policy makers have argued that such legislation would lead to the industrial tribunal system being inundated with cases. Party sources pointed out yesterday that pending court action under European law was likely to lead to the protection cutting in in under a year.

The Byers document does confirm some major concessions to the unions, however. Most importantly the paper, to be published tomorrow, says a Labour government would introduce an act enforcing union recognition where a majority of the workforce voted for it. Some had feared that the proposals might have been watered down. In particular, they believed a Blair administration might only enforce recognition where unions had recruited a majority of employees. Under Labour's plans, membership would not be an issue, simply whether or not workers wanted the union to represent them.

As expected, the paper will also propose that the present law on deducting union subscriptions from wages be repealed. At the moment workers have to confirm every five years that they want the subscriptions deducted from their wages. Under the Labour policy, they will only have to sign up once.

On the issue of unfair dismissal, however, Labour will come under fire. At the GMB general union's annual conference in Blackpool last week, John Edmonds, the general secretary, said he would be "very unhappy" if Labour dropped its commitment to the day-one protection.

He said his members regarded protection from unfair dismissal as one of their top priorities in the workplace. If the qualifying period came down to six months then unscrupulous employers would simply issue contracts which lasted five months three weeks, he said.