HC Deb 01 May 1967 vol 746 cc48-59

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Charles R. Morris.]

12.30 p.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am hopeful that when hon. Gentlemen hear the important subject of this debate, they will not fly from it with the speed with which they are doing now. I want to discuss the position of the Registrar of Friendly Societies in connection with the collection of contributions for trade union political funds and, in doing so, I want to suggest how the Registrar might be given further powers of inspection and control over the spending of general and political funds for political objectives.

I am not suggesting that the whole system of contracting in should be changed to contracting out, though I believe that opinion in the country, particularly among the large and growing number of trade unionists who do not support the present Government and the Labour Party, will bring overwhelming pressure on the next Conservative Government to make a change from contracting in to contracting out.

It is perhaps relevant at this stage to mention that, in 1926, under the system of contracting out, 77 per cent. of trade unionists supported the political funds of their unions. By 1943, under the system of contracting in, the figure had dropped to 43 per cent. Now, again under contracting out, it has risen to approximately 81 per cent. There is much evidence of dissatisfaction amongst trade unionists who do not support the Labour Party, but find themselves still paying the political levy.

Largely through the activities of national and local committees of Conservative trade unionists in the constituencies and in the factories, 18 or 19 per cent. of trade unionists are now contracted out of the political levy. However, it is generally agreed that at least one in three trade unionists vote Conservative, and so those figures show that about 15 per cent. of those who could be expected to contract out do not do so. I believe that the main reason is apathy. It is partly due to fear of discrimination and intimidation within their unions and, most important of all, because they do not understand their rights of contracting out under the Trade Union Act rules.

Earlier this morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, Central (Mr. Grant) was given unopposed permission to bring in a Bill dealing with this aspect, saying that an application form for union membership should always have attached to it or coming with it an application form for contracting out. Only a small number of unions carry out that practice, and I should like to draw the attention of hon. Members to the form supplied by the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians.

Accompanying the application form for union membership there is a political fund exemption notice and a covering letter signed by Mr. Clive Jenkins, who knows a lot about this kind of thing, saying: Dear Applicant, Here is your Membership Application. On the back is a form we are most anxious you should not fill in. It is the political fund contracting-out form. The letter goes on: "We want a programme in Parliament for supervisors and technicians which supplements our collective bargaining work. I believe that that letter constitutes prima facie a breach of the political fund rules, and I look forward to hearing of an A.S.S.E.T. applicant testing the validity of this document with the Registrar of Friendly Societies on the ground that undue pressure is imposed at the time of application for union membership.

There are millions of trade unionists who do not know about their rights to contract out and, in that connection, I wish to quote from a few letters which have been received by a Conservative councillor in Yorkshire who wrote a letter to his local paper last November on the subject to contracting out. He had 30 or 40 replies, all of them asking for contracting out forms. One of them, from Middlesbrough, said: The contracting out forms: hardly anyone who I came in contact with had ever heard of these forms. They are not advertised by the shop stewards, and nearly all I spoke to welcomed them. I have another letter signed "Shop Steward—not Labour", with his name. He says: I will be most pleased if you will send me one hundred or more contracting out forms for distribution. There are nearly four hundred members in the branch of the Transport and General Workers Union which I also am a member of, and I know that a good percentage of us do not wish to support the Labour Party in any way. Our secretary insists that he has no contracting out forms, and is not bothered about getting any. However, if you send me some, I will see that they go to the proper people. Another, from Redcar, says: The forms required are for myself and friends who are members of the A.E.U. We have been unable to obtain these forms from our secretary for various excuses. Another, from Croft-on-Tees, says: Would you please let me have some forms for distribution? We are most grateful for your information. We did not realise that part of our weekly contribution was used as levy. We are still not aware what percentage is taken. Yet another from Middlesbrough says: Will you please forward me about ten contracting out forms… Seeing as I am a member of the Conservative Party, I see no reason to support the Labour Party by paying a political levy, and a number of my friends think the same. I have many more letters in that vein which I should like to quote, but there is not time. I believe that this is a response from only a very small number of people in answer to one letter in one local paper.

There is another growing practice which is called the "check-off" system by which an employer collects trade union dues and political levy contributions at source. Those who have contracted out have to pay at the time and reclaim later, except in the Civil Service unions, where the amount of the levy is repaid in advance. This seems to be a practice——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must remind him and the House that in these Adjournment debates only matters for which there is some Ministerial responsibility may be raised. It is out of order to refer to matters which involve changes in legislation.

Mr. Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am pointing out the position of the Registrar of Friendly Societies and suggesting that steps should be taken to give the Registrar greater powers——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No. It is out of order in an Adjournment debate to make proposals which involve legislation. Adjournment debates are confined to matters of administration. The hon. Gentleman can argue that the Registrar of Friendly Societies is not carrying out his duties properly under existing law, but he cannot make proposals for changes in the law.

Mr. Page

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will merely add that the Registrar of Friendly Societies is not sufficiently making known his powers to members of trade unions, to whom he is the appellant if they feel that there is something wrong in the handling or collection of the political levy. I suggest, therefore, that the Registrar be given power to advertise in factories and elsewhere where trade unionists work so that their attention is drawn to their ability to appeal against what might be considered the insufficient production of contracting out forms.

Attention should also be drawn to the Registrar's existing powers under the 1913 Act. The Minister should discover whether the Registrar is in a position to intervene in the check-off system, whereby a member of a trade union may be asked to pay the political levy and reclaim it later.

I turn from the system of collection to the spending of these funds. It appears that the only objectives on which political funds may be spent are in connection with the election and support of Parliamentary candidates. If that is correct, it follows that a large, though unspecified, amount of the general funds of trade unions may be paid to a political party, be it the Labour Party or Conservative Party. Does the Registrar of Friendly Societies consider that further information should be given, in the accounts of trade unions, about these political funds and the objectives on which they are spent? It seems ludicrous that a payment to Labour Party funds should be considered a "non-political donation" and that that position should continue without being sufficiently appreciated by many trade unionists.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that industry and commerce make vast donations to the Conservative Party without consulting shareholders, employees, or anybody else about them?

Mr. Page

Under the Companies Bill, which is now going through Parliament, it will be necessary for companies to explain in detail the size of any donation made to charities and political funds.

I urge the Minister to ask the Registrar of Friendly Societies whether he would find it more convenient for trade union accounts to contain exact details of payments to political parties and other amounts used for political purposes. At present, this money is given for "charities and other donations" and appears as a global figure in the accounts. I should have thought that the Registrar would wish to have fuller information, at least parallel with that envisaged under the Companies Bill.

I am not raising this matter in an anti-trade union frame of mind, but merely campaigning against the support of political parties by those who do not believe in the objectives of those parties. I fear that many trade unionists have insufficient knowledge of their powers of appeal to the Registrar of Friendly Societies in connection with the collection of funds for political purposes. We need modern, forward-looking, production-minded trade unionists. I urge them to make a final gesture of contracting out; that is, their affiliation to the Labour Party.

12.46 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Niall MacDermot)

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) said that he was not campaigning against trade unions, but I must leave hon. Members to form their own opinion about that. He prefaced his remarks by informing us that he was in favour of the contracting in, rather than the contracting out, system and hoped that the next Conservative Government would change the law accordingly. The Conservatives had 13 years in office but decided not to change the law. The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) introduced a ten-minute-rule Bill directed to this point in December last, but his proposal was decisively rejected by the House, by 281 to 131 votes.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West referred to a notice which, he said, had been given by A.S.S.E.T. to joining members when being supplied with a copy of the contracting out form. That, in fact, goes further than the legal requirement, as I shall show, on the part of that union. I therefore cannot see how there can be anything wrong or contrary to the rules in A.S.S.E.T. taking that step or in A.S.S.E.T. telling joining members that the union strongly supports the Labour Party and hopes that they will not contract out.

I come to the question of the obligations of unions, particularly in relation to the supplying of these forms. The Registrar of Friendly Societies has no power to require information or to lay down rules otherwise than empowered by the trade union Acts, particularly the Trade Union Act, 1913, Section 5(1) of which states: A member of a trade union may at any time give notice … that he objects to contribute to the political fund of the union, and …notice shall be given to the members of the union acquainting them that each member has a right to be exempt from contributing to the political fund of the union, and that a form of exemption notice can be obtained by or on behalf of a member either by application at or by post from the head office or any branch office of the union or the office of the Registrar of Friendly Societies. That provision is embodied in the model rules provided by the Registrar and they are followed by unions, only with such alterations as the Registrar approves.

The model rules require that a copy of the rules shall be supplied forthwith to every new member of a union and also that a copy shall be supplied to any member at his request. Thus, every person joining a union, and every member of a union on request, has a copy of these rules. They tell him of his right to contract out and how he can get a copy of the form from the union or—if he does not wish to get involved or if there is any argument with the union—direct from the Registrar of Friendly Societies. These rules also tell him that if he is aggrieved in any way and thinks that there has been any breach of the rules, he may complain to the Registrar of Friendly Societies, who may make such order for remedying the breach as he thinks fit. If need be, that order can be enforced in the county court.

I cannot see that there is any requirement or need for these provisions to be further advertised. As a result of the rules, they are and must be brought to the attention of every joining member. I do not think that the Registrar would want power to advertise these matters in factories. After all, he is in judicial position in relation to these rules and has to receive and hear complaints as they may be made.

The hon. Gentleman asked for fuller disclosure of how the moneys were spent. The power of the Registrar to make rules in these matters is contained in Section 16 of the 1871 Act which requires a registered union to send to the Registrar a general statement—and those are the words—of the receipts, funds, effects, and expenditure …and shall show separately the expenditure in respect of the several objects of the trade union, and shall be prepared and made out up to such date, in such form, and shall comprise such particulars, as the registrar may from time to time require.

Mr. John Page

Would it be possible for the Registrar under the law as it stands to ask for the particulars to be expanded? Could he ask for wider details of expenditure, and could those details be published?

Mr. MacDermot

The hon. Gentleman has already asked me that question and I am about to seek to answer it. The annual return form calls for expenditure on political objects to be specified, and this is done under general headings to the satisfaction of the Registrar. If he wanted more detailed particulars, he could ask for them. In fact, most unions publish in their accounts, which are distributed to their members, information in much greater detail than is called for or required in the annual returns.

Information about grants to charities and so on from the general fund are included in the returns, along with fees to Congress and trades councils. There is not, that I am aware of, any pressure or requirement, or general body of feeling, that more detailed information ought to be given. Certainly the Registrar has not thought it necessary to call for more detailed returns.

I imagine that any member of a trade union who wants particulars of the charities and other bodies which have been supported is able to get them. The suggestion that members of trade unions either can or do out of the general fund make contributions to political parties is wholly misconceived. That would be quite wrong and is not done.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

The hon. and learned Gentleman will find evidence in the discussions on the Companies Bill to show trade union support for political objectives out of general funds.

Mr. MacDermot

The hon. Gentleman is a little wide in his phraseology. His hon. Friend's suggestion was that contributions could be made directly to the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. That is erroneous, as I am saying. There are other bodies, which no doubt both companies and trade union support, which some might think to have a political content in their work, but that is quite a different matter. What is being suggested is that in some way statutory requirements about political funds either can or are being—I am not quite sure what the suggestion is—sidestepped by the making of contributions direct from the general fund. All I am making clear is that that cannot be done.

I wonder why the hon. Gentleman is making these suggestions not only about the specific point, but about the whole subject. What complaints has he received? He has read letters from members saying that they were not aware of their rights. I have pointed out that they must have been told their rights when joining the union. They may not have bothered to read the rules which were given to them, but that is a different matter and it is open to those who share the hon. Gentleman's view to take such action as they think right to try to publicise it further I do not see how the machinery of the law could do more than put in people's hands a clear printed statement of the rules setting out all their rights.

There are more than 1,500,000 trade unionists who have contracted out, and the evidence given by the Registrar to the Royal Commission on Trade Unions was that some 20 to 30 letters of complaints a year were received. Of those, he said, some were obviously misconceived while the majority of the rest were satisfactorily settled after correspondence with the union. Complaints necessitating a formal hearing, he said, did not average more than one or two in a year.

That is the sum total of the complaints. What is the mischief which the hon. Gentleman is trying to remedy? What is his evidence that any such mischief exists? I suggest that the only conclusion to be drawn is that it is the hon. Gentleman who is trying to create mischief where none exists.

12.58 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) was perfectly justified and should be fully supported in his complaints. It is of the utmost importance that the rules relating to the political levy should be administered scrupulously fairly and fearlessly, and there is a body of opinion in the country which thinks that that does not happen.

My hon. Friend brought forward letters from trade unionists who said that they did not know that they could contract out of the political levy. From time to time, hon. Members must receive letters of that type in their postbag, as I do. I try to explain to my constituents what their legal rights are. There is no doubt that among the 10 million people employed in factories, there are probably thousands, if not tens of thousands, who do not know their rights, who have never had the opportunity of having their rights explained to them.

Mr. MacDermot

How can the hon. Gentleman say that they have never had an opportunity of having their rights explained to them when they must have been given a copy of the rules setting out, in very simple and clear English, what their rights are?

Mr. Gresham Cooke

The hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer and has great opportunity to study the small print throughout the rules, but he cannot say that every person who works in a factory will study the small print on the back of the rule book.

This matter has to be highlighted because it has been highlighted in the debates on the Companies Bill the other way round. Companies are to have to make an exact disclosure of contributions which they make not only to political parties, but to all sorts of what might be called fringe political organisations, and the amounts will have to appear in every company's accounts, and at least a total given to the shareholders. If there is any doubt among the public that this provision is not being fairly applied throughout industry and on both sides of industry——

It being One o'clock, DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.