An employment Bill aimed at restricting further the ability of unions to take industrial action, was to be introduced this week. The proposals - which would also limit the ability of unions to have subscriptions deducted from wages by employers - have been put on the back-burner.
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, said she could not give a commitment to introduce the Bill before Christmas, but it would be laid before Parliament during the current session. Any suggestion that the delay was caused by ministerial sensitivities to potential criticism was 'rubbish', said Mrs Shephard, who was visiting the annual Institute of Personnel Management conference at Harrogate.
She said that the reason for the postponement was the difficulty encountered by her department and the Department of Social Security in drafting clauses dealing with new European Community maternity benefits for workers which would be part of the legislation. She said that under European law the directive, finally agreed on 19 October, would have to be introduced within two years.
However, ministers are also aware that the Bill might elicit more public support for unions at a time when British Coal is pressing ahead with 10 pit closures and the CBI forecasts 25,000 redundancies a month until Christmas. Government critics believe it is feasible for details of the maternity legislation to be introduced at committee stage.
Another possibility for inclusion in the Bill was the abolition of wages councils, which set minimum rates of pay for nearly 2.5 million of the country's lowest paid workers. Mrs Shephard repeated the ministerial line that the wages councils had no 'permanent place' in the labour market, but she would not say whether their abolition would be included in the employment Bill.
Frank Dobson, Labour's employment spokesman, last night welcomed the delay. 'I hope they will postpone it into the far blue yonder. The Government has clearly decided it was not an auspicious time to undermine the rights of unions and people at work. They know the proposals are preposterous and would make them even more unpopular.'
Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC, said: 'It would be better never than late. Whenever this Bill comes it threatens to damage unions, their members and stable industrial relations. I would hope that the Government would use the extra period to consider whether at this time the country really needs another Employment Act.'
Greville Janner, the Labour MP for Leicester West, last night ousted Ron Leighton, Labour MP for Newham North East, as chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Employment, writes Colin Brown. Mr Janner had the support of the committee's six majority Tory MPs. Mr Leighton had been the chairman for eight years.
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