§ (1) The Secretary of State may, after consulting the Trades Union Congress, make such arrangements as he considers appropriate for the purpose of providing financial aid to trade unions for the conduct of postal ballots in trade union elections.
§ (2) Any such arrangements shall be embodied in an order which the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament and which shall come into effect when a resolution approving the order shall have been passed by both Houses of Parliament.
§ (3) The Secretary of State shall not make any payments in pursuance of subsection (1) of this section unless the amounts of the payments and the terms on which they are made are approved by the Treasury.'.—[Mr. Prior.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
At the start of our proceedings on Report, perhaps it might be in order if I say to the House that I hope very much that we can make reasonable progress. We shall try to keep our speeches as short as we can. We have a great deal of business to get through, and I think it will be better conducted if we try to get through it at a reasonable hour. This will impose a self-denying ordinance on all of us.
§ Mr. Prior
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not usually make very long speeches. In Committee we were able to have a satisfactory debate and to agree on a satisfactory timetable. I hope that we shall be able to proceed in a rational way on Report.
The new clause is a matter of great importance and follows the debate that we had not only in Committee but on the 1828 Floor of the House. I do not know whether the Secretary of State has had time to read his speech, but I think that he will find that it was not one of his greatest efforts. On the Floor of the House he said:Moreover, the Committee proceedings and Report proceedings, which I know are sometimes criticised in some quarters because of the slowness of the operation, are also designed to enable Governments to take account of what is said by the House of Commons and to return on Report and to give a reasoned comment, perhaps in the form of a fresh amendment, on what has been said in Committee."—[Official Report, 23rd June 1975; Vol. 894, c. 44.]The Secretary of State should have had ample opportunity to make a reasoned reply. We hope very much that he will be able to accept a new clause on the important matter of financial aid for postal ballots in trade union elections.
In Committee the Minister of State finished his speech by saying:we will respond to the call that has come from many parts of this Committee by conducting a discussion with the trade union movement to ascertain whether, provided such public help is given, we could achieve the end which many members of the Committee have indicated they desire. In doing so, we shall come back and say what the outcome is. If we can find a way of giving effect to what we agree is desirable we shall attempt to do it within the Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F; 22nd May 1975, c. 246.]We have tabled the new clause in a different form from the clause which was put forward in Committee, where we tied it to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. I think that in its present form the clause meets the spirit of the debate which we had on the Floor of the House on 23rd June. Further, I believe that to a large extent it meets the spirit of the motion which was signed by hon. Members from both sides of the House, which read:That this House, in the interests of maximum democratic participation, urges the Government to introduce legislation to ensure the provision of financial aid for postal ballots in trade union elections.I think that there is a great deal of support in all parts of the House for a clause to be put into the Bill along the lines of that now before the House. We hope very much that on this occasion the Secretary of State will be forthcoming and accept the clause or tell us what the Government's intentions are as regards implementing the spirit that lies behind it.
1829 4.15 p.m.
Let me make it absolutely clear to anyone who may be worried about the clause that it is our intention that any facility granted for the holding of a postal ballot should be entirely voluntary, and that no union will have to take advantage of it if it does not wish to do so. However, if a union does wish to take advantage of the facility it can take the opportunity of a free post for the purpose of a postal ballot. Of course, since we last debated this matter the cost of postage has increased once again. I believe that this would be a small measure of increased public expenditure that would be entirely justified.
The greater the opportunities for the rank and file to take part in the democratic processes of their unions the better it will be for the unions and the union leaders. If they wish to take advantage of electing leaders by post, as some unions do, the new clause will give them encouragement to do so. To Labour Members who say that everything is all right and there is no need for any improvement, and particularly any improvement or suggestion which emanates from my right hon. and hon. Friends, I would say that the people who see some of the things that can be put right or improved are not always those who are most intimately connected with what is taking place.
My right hon. and hon. Friends are responding to a view that is widely held that there is a need—and the need has been shown clearly by the dramatic increase in the votes recorded in the engineering unions' elections—for some form of postal ballot if more people are to take part in union elections. This may be the way in which unions may wish to proceed, but we do not seek to introduce any compulsion.
I have pointed out in debate that it is my considered opinion—it has been backed up by certain union leaders I have spoken to who feel that their positions would be greatly strengthened if more people in their unions supported them and took part in union elections—that the facility that is set out in the clause should be made available.
When I came to read the Secretary of State's speech I noticed that he said that some people are under the impres- 1830 sion that it is the leaders who control what happens in the union and that they tell the rank and file what to do. We all know only too well that it is the rank and file who dictate policy to the unions. I want to ensure that the majority of the rank and file carry out that process and that it is not operated by only a few.
We would like to go further than merely providing financial aid for postal ballots. We would like to introduce a similar scheme for at least one election address by any union that chooses to adopt this approach. For local elections we should like to go further and provide a code of practice. We should like to see union elections held on employers' premises and in employers' time. We believe that the twin attack on the problem would have a very good effect as regards the number of people who play a part in union affairs.
Sometimes Labour Members accuse us of adopting a sort of Trojan Horse attitude towards the trade union movement. They think that everything we suggest is designed not to help the movement but in some way to cause it trouble, or to change it in some direction which they consider to be wrong. I think that those views are totally unjustified by the attitude we are taking in respect of the clause. I believe that when its provisions are recognised there will be an enormous response in the country. I believe that there will be a wide measure of agreement.
It is some months since we put forward this suggestion in Committee. At that time the Government wished to have a chance of discussing the matter with the TUC. I hope that by now those discussions have been completed and that today the Secretary of State will be able to give us a satisfactory answer. I do not believe that people outside the House will understand the position of the Government, or of the House of Commons, if on a straightforward matter of this nature we are not able to come to a decision to put the clause into the Bill.
§ Mr. John Evans (Newton)
The right hon. Gentleman has spent a long time in past debates dealing with the problem of postal ballots and has referred to my union, the AUEW. He got a little upset when it was suggested that the AUEW 1831 should change its method from postal balloting of members to the old method of voting at the branch. Would he have any objection if the AUEW decided to scrap the election of officers altogether and adopt the course followed by other unions of appointing their officers? Would he find that an objectionable course, or would he consider that it would be for the AUEW to decide?
§ Mr. Prior
I must make it plain that it must be a matter for the AUEW to decide. But I happen to believe strongly that it has been proved to be a good deal more democratic and in the interests of the members of unions that they should have the opportunity to vote by post. This has been borne out time and again by the numbers of people who have recorded their votes by post compared with the number of people who have recorded their votes at branch meetings. Although it must be a matter for the unions, Labour Members should think of the public interest. The trade unions are extremely powerful elements in our society. Men who become national trade union leaders are very powerful indeed. They exercise great power and possess great authority. It seems to us that the wider the means open to trade unionists of voting for those leaders, and the more democratic those ways are seen to be the better it will be and the more confidence the country as a whole will repose in those who are elected.
The step proposed in the clause is widely required by trade unionists and supported by the country as a whole. It also has overwhelming support in the House. Labour Members would not have tabled their motion, and we would not have had references by the Prime Minister to this matter at Question Time giving his support to such a procedure, if there were not widespread support for it.
I hope that Labour Members will not allow their prejudices to run away with them just because this matter is being proposed from the Opposition benches. Because the proposal will add one possible extra element of democracy to the running of these great institutions, we should grasp it and not cavil at what might happen. I hope that the engineering unions will continue to vote by post, and I hope that Parliament will make it 1832 easier for trade unionists generally to vote by post. That is the spirit in which we tabled the clause, and I very much hope that we shall have more satisfactory answers than we have had up to now.
§ Mr. John Evans
I shall be brief and not delay the House for more than a couple of minutes.
The clause is of considerable interest. We have discussed the matter at length in Committee, and we had a somewhat inconclusive debate on this tpoic on the Floor of the House. I am a member of the AUEW, which has always supported postal ballots. I also support the fact that the affairs of unions should be managed and run by the unions themselves.
There is one aspect of the case put forward by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) which should be further examined. He suggested that if the AUEW were to continue with postal ballots it would make it a more democratic union. That raises many questions. It is generally agreed by the trade union movement that the AUEW is already the most democratic union of all.
Does the postal ballot mean that there is more democracy and more participation in union affairs? There is a strong argument to the effect that the reverse is the case. Simply because one gives members votes two or three times a year to elect national officers can they be truly said to be participating in democracy? Many who oppose postal ballots argue that the best means of participation of members is through attendance at branch meetings. In that way union members can participate in the election of officers and also in union policy-making processes. In regard to the AUEW, it is only through attendance at branch meetings that members can participate in policy. Surely it is most important in making progress and putting forward ideas in union affairs that we should aim at the maximum number of members participating at branch level.
I suggest that there is something rather hypocritical in a suggestion of this nature coming from the Opposition, because they have not dealt with any of the trade unions which do not hold ballots in any shape or form. They have not said that such a practice is democratic or otherwise in respect of the election of leaders in trade unions. That ground could have 1833 been covered, but that has not happened. The AUEW is a democratic organisation. There is an argument among the rank and file of the union about how we should conduct ballots, but I hope that nobody will be misled by thinking that this is what democracy is all about. Democracy lies in participation in union affairs and in the policy-making processes. I suggest that is a matter on which we should exercise our minds rather than dealing with the proposals in the clause. The proposal seeks to lay down the practice that the Government should instruct the trade union movement in how to control its affairs. I reject that proposal.
§ Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)
I support the clause but, on reflection, I would go a little farther than my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) went in his speech. The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) raised the point that matters—namely, the question of what makes a union more democratic than it is at present. It is important that every trade union member should regularly attend branch meetings and become involved in elections and in the decision-making machinery. That is the ideal at which we should aim.
Let us remember that the AUEW for many years tried to ignore the fact that its members were not attending meetings. Certain arrangements had to be made to collect members' "subs" because they did not attend branch meetings. There was always somebody there to collect that money and to take it along to the branch meeting. The system in my union, the Electrical Trades Union, involved the appointment of collection stewards to take in money because we knew that many members would not attend meetings
It is true that many trade union members do not attend branch meetings. Even the introduction of fines for non-attendance at quarterly meetings does not bring in the members. For one reason or another they just do not attend. We cannot condemn them for that because those of us who are members of other organisations are not necessarily good attenders. We tend to leave it to branch officers to get on with it, and it is only when we hear a rumour that the secretary has made off with the funds that we attend a meeting. That is human nature.
§ Mr. David Mitchell (Basingstoke)
Does my hon. Friend agree when talking of other organisations that there must be many Labour Members who are familiar with the events in the local Labour Party in Newham where those who are not representative of the majority of Labour Party members in that area have gained control and where exactly similar parallels apply?
§ Mr. Mawby
I should like to remind hon. Members that it does not happen only in the Labour Party. The Conservative Party, the Liberal Party and other parties have the same problem. Members attend in order to pay their union subscription and then leave others to get on with the running of the union. This is an aspect of human nature that we have to accept. It is right and proper that the hon. Gentleman should continue to try to ensure that branch meetings are made more interesting in order to attract more members. Only in that way will a trade union be absolutely fully democratic, with members taking part in the election of officers and having their full say in deciding policy.
In the meantime, before we arrive at that Utopian position, we have to look at the present situation and consider what we ought to do about it. I believe that the number of votes cast in many elections of national officers of trade unions is far too low without the introduction of a postal ballot system. The clause is purely permissive and puts a duty only upon the Government and upon no particular trade union. I should like to see it place a duty on trade unions, but one must talk about the clause as it stands. It seeks only to say that the Secretary of State shall make the necessary funds available—I should have liked it to make available also the back-up services, if required—to enable a union to conduct its elections by post. I believe that this is a move very much in the right direction.
We have to compare the two methods. The first is that by which members can vote only by attending a branch meeting on a particular night, with all the problems involved for shift workers and others who perhaps are members of darts teams, and so on. There are many other human problems involved. We have to compare that system with the right of a member 1835 to be able within his free time to make a serious decision and return his secret ballot by post.
This is a move in the right direction—although it does not go quite far enough to suit me—and I certainly recommend the House to accept it.
§ Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le- Spring)
I join this debate first of all, perhaps, as the sponsor of the Early-Day Motion which the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) has called in aid in presenting his case for the clause. I want to make it perfectly clear that, together with my hon. Friends who supported that motion, numbering more than 100 Labour Members, it was not my intention—nor, indeed, was it theirs—to institute, or even to participate in, a witch-hunt against the AUEW or any other union.
I speak from a good deal of personal experience of the conduct of trade union ballots and participation, first, as a branch secretary of some 14 years' standing, and, latterly, before I came to this House, 11 years as a full-time officer of a union in the construction industry. I had the unfortunate experience year after year, as a branch secretary, of sending out ballot papers by post to over 500 members, and the responsibility then devolved upon the member to ensure that the ballot paper was returned. I had to face the quite obvious fact that there were far too few members sufficiently interested in the affairs of the union to return those ballot papers. Indeed, by far the majority of the few that were returned were returned personally by those members who were deeply interested in the conduct of the branch affairs of that union.
It is also clearly understandable that there are many competing factors for the time of trade union members. Whatever their interests might be, it is unforunately true that only a few of them express the kind of interest that I should like to see them take in the conduct of trade union affairs.
I see no reason why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should not lend not just an attentive ear but a sympathetic ear to the request that has been made both through the medium of the 1836 Early-Day Motion and in the rather inconclusive debate on the Floor of the House in June, when, even though my right hon. Friend appeared to be in some difficulty, I detected a degree of sympathy in what he said towards the spirit and intention of this proposition.
I should like to state, on my own behalf and on behalf of my 100 Labour colleagues who signed the Early-Day Motion, that the spirit and intention of it are honest, objective and straightforward. There is no attempted witch-hunting and no attempt to change the rules of any other union.
The only adverse comment I make concerning the clause is that it should be a voluntary system rather than a statutory requirement on a trade union. If a trade union conducts its affairs on a voluntary basis, that should be acceptable to the House, and the House should not attempt to interfere statutorily or to intervene in the conduct of the affairs of a trade union. But why should not the facilities be made available to permit many more members to participate in the election of officers, who have a vitally important rôle to play in the union they seek to represent? I hope that my right hon. Friend will be a little sympathetic towards the clause.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
The debate is settling down within a thoughtful framework, as far as one can tell, and that is the right kind of atmosphere for this subject. I shall be brief, because this subject has already been exhaustively discussed in a very long Standing Committee and debated elsewhere. It is also a subject that has been familiarly and frequently aired in the newspapers.
I merely want to add my words not in any way as an expert but in support of the terms and content of the clause proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). I unfortunately missed his first few sentences, but I should like to congratulate him and his colleagues in the Standing Committee on arguing the merits of this idea in a very reasonable and restrained way.
Without wishing to be too abrasive, I must say that it was a little irritating for Conservative Members to have to put up with some laughs and sniggers once again 1837 from Labour back benchers—not from the Front Bench. This is the traditional reaction of some Labour Members when confronted with reasonable proposals from Conservatives for the restructuring and reform of some of the institutional arrangements in industrial relations practice. As a result of the Conservative Government's Industrial Relations Act, this is now the automatic response of Labour Members when such matters are discussed. It is an ill service to the trade union movement as a whole and to the wider public, and also to my right hon. Friend, who has argued this subject in a very restrained way.
There is no sense in which the clause says that the Secretary of State shall intervene in a mandatory way in the internal affairs of trade unions. It is all on the basis that unions themselves should decide their electoral systems, and the election of officers in unions should be decided by the membership as a whole. I believe that there is overwhelming support for this, and equal support amongst registered paid-up trade union members.
In view of the experience of the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) as a branch secretary and full-time trade union official, we always listen to him with care. However, I think that in 1975 it is probable that there would be much greater acceptance in the wider sense for this proposal of postal ballots because of some of the larger issues which have come up in recent years about the democratic functioning of trade unions, about the ways in which their officers are elected and about the way in which the ordinary branch member feels not literally but emotionally disfranchised.
But, above all, this is the provision of an option. Subsection (1) of this skilfully drafted clause contains the cautious proposal that there should be full consultations with the TUC before any provisional steps are considered. Subsection (2) says what would undoubtedly satisfy lawyers on both sides of the House who would have their own ideas about the legal and legislative way in which this proposal should be put into effect. The control there seems adequate, to say the least.
Then we come to subsection (3), which deals with the control of payments. The wider public expenditure arguments apart, 1838 the idea today of State money being provided for any purpose is bound to be a sensitive issue. I was a little displeased, for example, about the way in which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House responded, in my view wrongly, to the idea of State money for political parties. But in this case there would be a proper degree of control of the way in which State money would be provided for this unique and limited purpose of ballot papers being delivered free by the Post Office.
We appreciate that this is a bad week for the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, I hope that he and the Government will respond favourably to the clause. It redounds upon that very critical issue in our modern industrial society of the way in which, all too easily, all sorts of organisations become self-perpetuating oligarchies. This happens in some trade unions. The clause provides a way in which the ordinary members can be represented in a trade union and can be encouraged to show an interest in its affairs.
It may be that the average turnout in a recent union election was 8 per cent. of the membership. I take that figure out of the air just as an example. If, as a result of the Government bringing in as soon as possible arrangements for postal ballots, the average turnout figure rose to no more than 10 per cent. or 15 per cent., I believe that it would be a built-in justification for adopting this proposal. But I believe that it would be more than that. With my limited experience, I detect that more and more average trade union members, primarily in the general and industrial unions, wish to participate. They wish to have the alternative option of saying that for various reasons—and it may be the very severe human problem referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) of a man on the late shift having to play darts—they wish to exercise the alternative option. It may be that they cannot attend a branch meeting. It may be that they do not find branch meetings congenial. Whatever the reason, they may prefer to vote by post.
What I have referred to as the "self-perpetuating oligarchy" in our society is a very much wider issue, of course, and the clause concentrates only on trade 1839 unions. But, taking the mirror image of the corporate entity in our society—the company—there is a similar problem about the representation of the average shareholder, which is far too low, and virtually non-existent in most cases. But perhaps a different conclusion arises from that which is in itself an interesting paradox.
People quite rightly complain about inefficient sloppy, bad and in some cases thoroughly disreputable boards of directors which go on perpetuating their existence and often are relatively well-heeled. They do it as a result of formal motions at annual general meetings which are not challenged because of the absence of those who have democratic rights in those companies; namely, the shareholders. But the fault in that case is the reverse of that which my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft seeks to put right in the trade unions It is precisely because boards of directors can command automatic and automaton-like responses by way of written ballots that they succeed in perpetuating themselves and their inefficient colleagues. It is only if the shareholders could be enjoined to attend annual general meetings and to vote by a show of hands that a different result could be brought about.
In the case of trade unions, the reverse is true, but not exclusively so, and that does not knock out the basic idea that personal attendance at branch meetings is a much better option and much more desirable. Nevertheless, this is a reasonable clause. It would improve the quality of this very lengthy piece of legislation. I hope that the Secretary of State will respond favourably to it.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) said that he and his colleagues had given this clause considerable thought. However, the very first line of it is based on a false premise. It says:The Secretary of State may, after consulting the Trades Union Congress …".That ignores the fact that the TUC is in a way like the CBI—an organisation built up of autonomous members. For that reason, consultation with the TUC is no way to start trying to alter the rules of any trade union which is a member of the TUC.
1840 Then the right hon. Gentleman said that he had talked to trade union leaders, who supported his clause. I should like to know the union leaders to whom he talked. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) said, the clause can refer only to one trade union. No comment was made in Committee or in the right hon. Gentleman's opening speech about other national trade unions which appoint or elect their national officers. I should have been more inclined to agree with the right hon. Gentleman if he had started by saying that he felt that all the national leaders of the major trade unions should be elected. That might possibly have been regarded as a step on the road to greater democracy.
Although my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) referred to the "spirit and intention" of his Early-Day Motion—and those are honoured trade union words which we use in all our agreements—his motion may have started off with that spirit and intention but it turned out to be a witch-hunt on the AUEW. There is no doubt about that. I know that was not his spirit or intention. However, very often one starts off on a good course but finds that it becomes warped along the way and comes back and hits one round the ear. I think that the Early-Day Motion did that to my hon. Friend.
If the right hon. Member for Lowestoft really meant what he said, we would be suggesting, via the Government, to the CBI that there should be a ballot of shareholders to elect the managing director. As the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) said, very many shareholders are moribund and inefficient and have contributed to the troubles of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State during this week in his struggle to do something about the current crisis. That might be a step along a good road.
I accept that it is not satisfactory in any election for only a minority of people to take part. We should be seeking and striving all the time to get above at least the 50 per cent. mark. It may well be that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft would be more constructive if he spoke to his friends in the CBI and suggested that they should come forward and offer to all the trade unions the possibility and the 1841 right to have facilities to conduct voting at the work place.
§ Mr. Prior
I do not think the hon Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) has listened to my speech. On various occasions I have put forward precisely that suggestion. If it is any consolation to him, I am constantly urging my so-called friends in the CBI—I am not quite certain who they are—to do just that. I should be very happy to see a code of practice incorporated into this Bill or another Bill to bring that about.
§ Mr. Park
I am glad to hear that. I am quite sure that if the trade unions saw that kind of approach being made they might well react in a different way. Unfortunately their reaction will be to regard it as a gross intrusion into their affairs. Therefore, I hope that people will view the clause in its total context. It really applies to only one national union. Therefore, it is limited and cramped in its scope and can be interpreted by the members of that union only as something which sets out deliberately to interfere with their affairs. As my union has one of the most democratic setups of all trade unions in this country, I have sufficient confidence that it will argue this one through and come to conclusions which are in the best interests of all its members.
However, if we accept the wording of the clause that there should be postal ballots, and if it could achieve the objective of getting above the 50 per cent. mark, I hope that the sponsors of the clause will accept that there should be a general application of this principle to local government elections and also national elections.
§ Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)
In my view, the last two Labour Members who have spoken are in error on one or two vital points.
The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) said that he did not want provisions of this kind causing trade unions to change their rules. I sympathise with that view. There is no provision here causing any single trade union to change its rules. I ask him to look at the wording again. There is no provision which persuades, obliges or brings any influence to bear, except to the extent that if any union decides freely to adopt 1842 this method it will have the benefit—if it so desires and if the clause is implemented—of financial assistance. In that respect it should be welcomed and greeted with approval by all trade unions, because at some time in the future any trade union might decide in its wisdom to adopt the postal method of election. Certainly there is nothing in the clause to cause that to happen at any particular date or on any particular occasion.
The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) said that he believed that trade unions should decide these things for themselves. He thought it was a useful method but that it was directed against only one union. The clause does not specify application to a single union. It is a general power which could be for the benefit of all unions.
§ Mr. Park
The reason I said that was that the AUEW is, to the best of my knowledge, the only major union which elects its national officers by whatever method. In the other major national trade unions the officers are elected by a combination of methods. In some cases they are appointed, whereas in others there is an electoral college of an executive which in turn appoints. That is why I interpreted it as meaning that it is directed to only one union.
§ Sir R. Gower
I do not seek to make any invidious distinction between major and minor unions any more than between major and minor prophets. No one knows what any particular trade union will choose to do in the future. If any union should choose to adopt this basis of election these provisions will certainly be to its advantage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) and other speakers, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), were absolutely right in pointing out that the vital business of regular attendance may be much more important. No one quarrels with that, and, indeed, a Labour Member made that point earlier. There should be a regular attendance for any organisation, whether it be a voluntary association, a club or a political party. There should be full participation.
Nevertheless, as in any election, it is surely of benefit to an elected person to know that he has been elected by a large 1843 proportion of those who are entitled to elect him. A person who is elected with a small vote cannot feel the same confidence. That is obviously of tremendous advantage.
§ Sir R. Gower
It is the same for councillors. If the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) happened to be a councillor for a particular ward, he would obviously prefer to be elected on a turnout of 70 per cent. rather than 17 per cent. Experience has tended to show—I shall not put it higher than that—that by this ballot method a higher proportion of votes is obtained than by most other methods. I hope that is not an extreme exaggeration.
On the whole—I say this with diffidence—this is an admirable provision. It makes no compulsion. It is not, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring, imposing any statutory obligation on any trade union. It is statutory only in the sense that it is embodied in a statute. However, it imposes no statutory obligation on any trade union. The unions can choose to carry on by any method they like
If this clause is incorporated into the Bill, the unions can still have any method of electing their officers. Should they decide in their wisdom to adopt this method they would receive the benefits. Experience has shown that this can be a fairly expensive procedure. That is why the provisions will be of great benefit to them. I hope that hon. Members who have doubts about this will reflect that in the long term it could be advantageous to those unions which may adopt this method.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)
Does the hon. Gentleman really think that we or the country are so naáve as to believe that if the Government were to give this kind of financial assistance both the Government and the country as a whole would not very soon want more control over how that financial assistance was spent? Does he really think that the trade union movement is so naive as not to see this as a device for mass intervention in its affairs?
§ Sir R. Gower
The hon. Gentleman is reading into the clause more than is in it. He is quite wrong. We would require a different form of legislation for any control to be exerted. No control of that kind could be exerted under this provision.
§ Sir R. Gower
Parliaments will come and go. I should hope that our successors will be more successful than we have been—
§ Sir R. Gower
—in inducing good relations in industry. I hope that those who succeed us will go far beyond our best achievements on both sides of industry. Nevertheless, I stick to what I said. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will study this matter again to see whether he can find any justification for his intervention.
I think that this is a fair, reasonable and most attractive suggestion. I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would be anxious to incorporate it in the Bill.
§ Mr. Caerwyn E. Roderick (Brecon and Radnor)
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House of any other trade union activity for which he thinks the Government should provide financial assistance?
§ Sir R. Gower
That may come. We can study the matter with great interest. We have this interesting proposal before us which could provide the basis for some reasonable help. There does not appear to be a comparable need in other trade union activities as a whole for such help. I do not exclude such a provision in other places. Mention has been made of the possibility of having such a provision relating to companies. However, companies are governed by a mass of statutory provisions which trade unions would not welcome, but perhaps that is not a fair comparison. I hope that we shall have support from both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)
I think that hon. Gentlemen opposite ought to understand the deep sensitivity which is felt by hon. Members on this 1845 side about suggestions of this kind coming from the Opposition.
After the introduction of the Industrial Relations Act had succeeded in souring industrial relations and after efforts to control industrial relations through the use of the legal process, it is inevitable that any suggestion of any so-called help to trade unions which emanates from the Opposition will be regarded with the deepest possible suspicion. It is not surprising that my hon. Friends, who in many cases have spent the bulk of their working lives in the trade union movement fighting for democracy within that movement, often against opposition from both sides, should feel distrust about the nature of the gift which is being offered by the Greeks, to misquote that old childhood phrase, and the nature of the motives behind that offer.
Therefore, we on this side start off soured by the knowledge that the new clause is without question the result of a campaign involving the AUEW—there is no doubt in my mind that that is its origin —and comes from people who have no understanding of the nature and sensitivities of the trade union movement.
§ Sir Edward Brown (Bath)
The historical fact is that it was the Conservative Party, not the Labour Party—which was not then in existence—which introduced the Trade Union Act 1871.
§ Mr. Janner
We are moving back into ancient history—almost as far back as the Greeks. I content myself with having watched the destruction which, during the five years in which I have been a Member, the Conservatives brought about when they were so disastrously in power.
The fact that a suggestion comes from the Opposition in these circumstances does not necessarily mean that there may not be a seed of good in it. Because it comes from them, it starts off on the wrong foot, but it is entitled to be examined to see whether it would or would not be of assistance.
I start from the basis, first, that there must be no interference of any kind or at any time in the workings of trade unions; secondly, that every trade union should be totally free now and at all times to decide how it conducts its own affairs and elections; and, thirdly, that, where a trade union decides to hold elections, it 1846 should not be trammelled because it is poor and unable to afford a method which it might wish to employ. The fact that a union does not have the money for a postal ballot should not prevent it, if, but only if, it so desires, from holding a postal ballot.
I can understand the feelings expressed by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) said that he feared that this would be the start of mass intervention in union affairs. I also understand very well the feeling expressed by one of my hon. Friends that, once payment comes from the Government, those who pay the piper will wish to start calling the tune.
I do not think that we can impose upon trade unions the ability to have money from the public purse unless they want it. Has my right hon. Friend consulted the Trades Union Congress leaders on whether there is a desire to have this help if it could be freed from the taint of the source of this suggestion? We must accept that that is how it will be regarded. Are not the trade unions ready, willing and anxious, if they are satisfied that there are no strings attached, to have the freedom to decide upon a postal ballot, if they wish, without having this vast drain on their resources—a drain which is likely to become even greater when postal charges are raised in the autumn?
If the trade union movement is against having this help, I do not believe that we should force it upon it. However, the suggestion has merit and requires consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend will indicate that he has given it that consideration, and will show some approach towards understanding the feelings of many hon. Members on both sides of the House regarding this suggestion, which merits careful consideration and thought, before it is totally rejected.
§ Mr. Esmond Bulmer (Kidderminster)
I welcome the clause. I am sure that many hon. Gentlemen opposite wish money to be made available, even if it is in the terms outlined by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner).
I believe that the public at large has a legitimate interest in the way in which trades unions are led. It is clear to the public at large that the leadership of 1847 important trades unions confers powers which, if used against the national interest, affect the whole of our society. I believe that this sensitive matter lies at the heart of our wish to encourage anything which may allow trades unions to reflect their membership more adequately. The vote on the Common Market created a situation in which all trade union leaders should stop and think whether they ought not to make greater effort to see that there is participation throughout the movement in all important matters.
We shall be moving in the 1976–77 Session to some form of legislation on industrial democracy. It therefore becomes extremely important that trade unonists should be seen to participate fully in their own activities if they are, in turn, to participate in the management of their companies. Their position will be that much weaker if they do not join in their own activities to the full.
On this side, we have a serious problem referred to in The Economist on 24th May. An article in the magazine said:At the last general election, roughly 0.1 per cent. of union members voted Communist and at least 20 per cent. voted Tory. Yet of the 345 members of the executive of Britain's 13 largest unions, there are some 50 Communist party members, but no Tories at all.There can be a theory of conflict or a theory of co-operation. The theory of conflict has failed this nation. We look forward to co-operation, but as long as important trade unions are dominated by unrepresentative elements that cooperation will not be so easy to secure.
While I have laid these facts very crudely before the House, I think there is a lot more that could be done by companies to make it easier for trade unionists to participate in elections. I hope companies will make time and premises available for this purpose.
On the question of cost, I do not think we should quibble, because important issues are at stake. I do not believe this would involve the use of one extra postman or post van. Compared to the cost of a strike which might otherwise have taken place, it is clear where the balance lies.
§ Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)
The right hon. Member for Lowestoft 1848 (Mr. Prior) understated the real intention of the Conservative Party in relation to trade unions. He has not demonstrated that this particular collective leopard has changed its political or industrial spots. Given the recent history of the Conservative Party in relation to the trade union movement, trade unionists like myself are justified in being very sceptical of this new-found attitude emerging from the Opposition Front Bench and in being worried about the real motivation of the Conservative Party in wishing to put money in the direction of the trade union movement.
To my hon. Friends who are attracted by the wording of new Clause 1, I say that I believe the Conservative Party has taken a lurch to the Right, if that is possible after the previous administration. If they pay now, they will insist on certain rules being observed by the trade union movement at a later date. We are witnessing the old method of "gently, gently, catchee trade union monkey". They still hanker to find some truth in the Tory myth that trade unionists are a bunch of sheep led by wolves on executive committees and at trade union headquarters. When they used the ballot of NUR members during the railway dispute, that myth was totally disproved.
I know people who would never dream of voting Communist in a parliamentary election, but who vote for Communists for trade union positions because they believe those people will do a better job in the industrial field than any other candidate. There is nothing wrong with that, and it should not be surprising to hon. Members that we have more Communists than Conservatives in trade union positions.
The right hon. Member for Lowestoft hung his argument on the importance of trade union officials in the make-up of national policy. I have been a member of a trade union which conducts national ballots. I am in favour of them, but only if the membership pay for their own trade union organisation. The right hon. Gentleman's priorities are wrong. Is he telling me that it is more important to have a postal ballot for the post of district secretary of the AUEW in Edinburgh than a postal ballot of party members for the leadership of the Conservative or Labour Parties?
1849 5.15 p.m.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), in an interview shortly after his speech here on the economic situation, claimed that he was the candidate of the rank and file of the Conservative Party. One can only conclude that the person who now leads the Conservative Party, the alternative Prime Minister, is there as the candidate of an unrepresentative lot that happens to be inside the House of Commons.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)
I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he advocating a ballot of Labour Party members in Newham, North-East?
§ Mr. Sillars
No. That is quite logical because I am not supporting new Clause 1. I do not think that a postal ballot always gets the right decisions. One can have uninformed opinions. One of the arguments put forward by hon. Members opposite in the referendum campaign was that only the people in Parliament had all the information at their disposal and they were the only ones equipped to take the decision. I believe in delegation inside the Labour Party.
There seems to be a contradiction in the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Who is the more important person—the district secretary of the AUEW in Edinburgh or the Leader of the Conservative or Labour Parties? Who has the most bearing on public policy and who is likely, on the past record, to do most damage to the economic and social fabric of this country? The answer can only be the Leaders of the Labour Party or the Conservative Party. I think the right hon. Member for Lowestoft has his priorities wrong.
If the Opposition want to extend participation, let us extend it in our own political parties first and thereafter to other voluntary organisations like the Church of Scotland, where we elect our own ministers—unlike one or two other organisations.
This is not the method by which to get reform inside the trade union movement. I concede that reforms are required in various places inside the movement. One of the tragedies of the period since 1968 is that the trade union movement has not been able to respond constructively to the criticisms of its internal organisation con- 1850 tained in the Donovan Report. It was responding constructively and had asked its affiliated organisations to review their rules and methods of conducting their internal affairs, but then it was forced back to defend basic principles. At every turn, the trade union movement has been hounded from pillar to post, and we shall never get the movement into a constructive frame of mind about its internal deficiencies until we stop the hounding which has been going on this afternoon and is contained in the clause.
I do not think the right hon. Member for Lowestoft realises the full implications of this clause in terms of public expenditure. It means there will even have to be a ballot of individual unions for delegates to the Glasgow trades council. I do not think this is small beer in terms of public expenditure. I have to explain to my constituents that we have problems raising money for nursery schools and hospitals and for improvements to the A74, where a number of people have been killed. The fishing industry, the agricultural industry and others need assistance, and these must be the priorities on which money is spent before the provisions of the clause.
§ Mr. Tom Arnold (Hazel Grove)
There can be little doubt, after our debates in Standing Committee and the Adjournment debate on the Floor of the House on 23rd June, that the singular merit of the proposed clause is that it does not seek the statutory application of a system to all trade unions in their many differing circumstances.
If the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) is saying that political parties are in need of some measure of reform in the handling of their business, there may be a case for that. However, here we are dealing with the Employment Protection Bill and the opportunity is open to us to deal with this problem within that context.
The strictly limited nature of the clause is such that it does nothing more than give a discretionary power to the Secretary of State should he choose to use it, and, with reference to what was said earlier by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), it does not suggest that the appointment of trade union officers or their indirect election should be abandoned in favour of the direct election of 1851 officers in each and every union. The clause does not in any way suggest an infringement of the rights of trade unions or propose anything which could exacerbate the very situation we are trying to solve. Nor does it suggest that unions, by conducting postal ballots, are in some way adopting a system which may be more democratic than that used by unions which do not.
Subsection (1) simply makes clear beyond peradventure that there can be no suggestion that we on the Opposition benches have misunderstood the way in which individual trade unions should be allowed to conduct their affairs. The precise nature of the powers given to the Secretary of State is further refined by the words "as he considers appropriate", and, going beyond that, the particular arrangements which the Secretary of State may choose to make are not specifically laid down. This leaves him with the maximum amount of flexibility. Finally, provision is made in subsections (2) and (3) for use of the affirmative resolution procedure and approval by the Treasury in respect of all the relevant public expenditure considerations, so that these can be taken into account. This is a matter of deep concern to all hon. Members.
Taken together, these many considerations surely indicate that there is no question here of us seeking to impose upon unions something which they may individually find alien. Rather it is a matter of providing unions which wish to avail themselves of it with the means of encouraging a wider degree of participation in their affairs by their members in circumstances, and only in those circumstances, where they themselves consider that the introduction of a postal ballot would be appropriate towards achieving that end.
The issue therefore is not one of compulsion but, as has been said many times before, one of encouragement. There can be little doubt that the low polls typical of union elections are an unsatisfactory feature of trade union life. It would be unreal to expect the level of participation in union elections to reach that of parliamentary elections. Undoubtedly many factors other than apathy contribute to a low poll, such as the constantly changing membership, and 1852 the Donovan Report was right to emphasise in paragraph 633 that a low level of participation ran the risk of placing power in the hands of unrepresentative minorities, thereby weakening the authority of elected leaders or trade union officials.
If an individual union takes the view that it wishes to widen the basis of participation and activity among its membership, and that the introduction of a postal ballot system is a suitable way of doing this, we say that it is not unreasonable for the State to make a financial contribution towards facilitating such an endeavour, when the exorbitant increase in postal charges might otherwise militate against such a decision.
I have no wish to stir the embers of the controversy which took place on 23rd June, when the Secretary of State seemed to imply that the Conservative Opposition were not assisting the process of a proper examination of the question whether some financial provision could be afforded on a limited basis, as some of his hon. Friends had suggested, and that we were seriously undermining the argument through the mere fact of holding a debate, since that had raised grave suspicions within the trade union movement. However, I do not believe that it is actually immoral to advance suggestions or to put forward arguments of which the Secretary of State and some of his supporters outside the House do not approve.
Conservative support for what was originally a Labour Party Early-Day Motion should not be considered so reckless that it immediately evokes the suspicion of an improper motive, and criticism leads to an inquiry into the culprit's personal character and antecedents, which is what the Secretary of State seemed coyly to imply when he said that we were seeking by some devious means to resuscitate parts of the 1971 Act.
The issue before us today is simpler. It is that the complexities of industrial life, which we are quite happy to accept, and the practical difficulties of organising trade union elections at different levels within the trade union hierarchy have led us to the belief that a clause of this kind would be in the public interest, and would go some way towards encouraging a greater degree of participation in trade union affairs by a growing range of the membership.
§ Mr. Brian Walden (Birmingham, Ladywood)
In rising to speak, I offer my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State two consolations. I do not think that he will necessarily disagree with anything I say. Secondly, this is the only time on which I intend to intervene in the course of this Bill. I hope therefore that I shall be permitted to put the case from a slightly different point of view compared with Conservative Members.
I sympathise with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold), but I am afraid that he will just have to learn to live with these things. The 1971 Act was a fatal blunder, the worst mistake by the Conservative Party at least since the war. I am afraid that, as he will see from many of my hon. Friends and from trade union leaders outside this House, it is no good the Conservatives saying that things are all different now and that the time has come to think again. As I said at the time of that legislation, and as the Opposition Front Bench knows, to do such a thing as that puts one out of the business of discussing things with trade unions for 10 years, and I am afraid that that is the situation in which the Conservative Party now is. I understand how annoying it must be when even supporting an idea put forward by someone else amounts to the kiss of death, but these are the practicalities of the matter.
That does not mean that I do not welcome the fact that the Conservative Party has put this new clause down in order to allow a debate. Nor does it mean that I in any way feel bound by the wording of the clause. I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that if one strips the clause of the technicalities and forgets the exact wording—and my right hon. Friend, having been a back bencher for many years, is unusually tolerant in doing just that—one can see that there is no question here of a statutory fund. Trade unions as voluntary bodies must always be allowed to determine what methods they will use for the election of their officers. That applies to the AUEW, which used to have a postal ballot system, and which now does not wish to have one. Frankly, that is that union's business. Nevertheless, trade unions must not get into the ridiculous posture of saying that no one should ever be allowed to comment on what they do because to do so is in some way anti- 1854 working class or against the Labour movement. That is palpable nonsense.
However, this House has no right to impose any sort of statutory function or liability upon the trade unions in respect of their own elections. That would be intolerable, and it would have exactly the effect of the legislation introduced by the Conservatives. It would produce a complete unity of effort to defeat that legislation. I could predict that trade unions would do nothing but campaign for several years to remove that imposition.
It is hard to explain these things, but the Conservatives must understand that the merest straw falling on the trade union neck seems to that movement to be a most irksome yoke. That is not an attitude I necessarily share, but the trade unions in general do. They do not like any kind of legal requirement imposed upon them in their internal affairs. It is very annoying of the trade unions, and it may be that this country would progress if they did not feel like that. However, they do and, therefore, it is completely impractical for this House to overlook that deep-seated feeling. There is no question of a statutory approach being taken.
The emotions having, I hope, been taken out of the argument—because it is certainly not my intention to do grievous damage to the trade union movement—everything that is left in the clause is good, with one exception, namely, public expenditure, with which I shall deal towards the end of my remarks. All the rest is a solid and sensible idea. It says, in essence, that any trade union that would like to have a postal ballot but does not have the financial resources to justify such a ballot can have that ballot at State expense. That this should be seen in some way as a grievous attack upon the trade union movement or even upon democracy is an illustration of the fact that if we are not very careful we and the Labour movement will get into a state of paranoia over this.
It is not anti-democratic to wish to produce a rather larger vote. I admit—and this is a vital point—that there are two different theories about democracy which are in conflict here. I do not have the slightest doubt about which theory 1855 is the correct one, or about the pedigree of the argument put forward by the Conservative Party. I shall state the two arguments. People such as me say that democracy is "One man, one vote", and that there is no question, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) said, about informed or uninformed votes. Democrats do not recognise any such concept. Votes are votes, they are all equal and none of them smells.
The other view is that that is not proper democracy at all and that real democracy is active participation by the concerned. Active participation by the concerned is a valuable asset, but it is not democracy—it has absolutely nothing to do with democracy. Often active participation by the concerned is the very reverse of democracy because frequently what the concerned want is not what the majority want. That is true in many spheres of human life, not simply in politics or trade union affairs.
The Labour movement has to be careful about the argument that unless one is active, concerned to give one's own time and in a mood of sacrifice, somehow one's votes and opinions do not count or, at least, are significantly inferior to those who can claim these qualifications. That is rubbish. I will state its pedigree. It comes straight from the most reactionary kind of Toryism that argues that there should not be "one man, one vote", because necessarily no electorate or no national leadership should comprise anything other than a small number of highly concerned people who "understood the issues", and were prepared voluntarily to give up their time in order to govern or participate in government. It is a Conservative idea, and the nineteenth century was all about defeating it—it was about "one man, one vote" irrespective of his education and his literacy, and whether he read or knew anything about the country.
The Conservative Party in those day was right to say "There are dangers in this system; stop and think what you are doing". There are dangers in that system. Some of my hon. Friends are quite right that there are dangers in a system that puts the trade unions under a greater degree of democratic control. However, we have to make up our minds 1856 whether we want the oligarchy of the concerned or democracy. I do not understand why we should not have democracy—my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire is right about this—in political parties as well.
In this respect I am totally pro-American. I am all for as many elections at as many different levels with as much participation of as many people as we can conceivably achieve. In my opinion, it works very well. Someone has to be purblind to claim that the present system is producing beneficial results, either for the trade union movement or for the country. Palpably it is doing nothing of the kind.
My hon. Friend claimed that it does not matter that someone who would not dream of voting Communist in a parliamentary election votes Communist in a union election because his Communist candidate works very hard for him. My hon. Friend said "What is the harm in that?" I shall tell him. If that individual were doing what he is doing for a purely industrial purpose, and if the Communists existed in order to increase wages and improve living condictions and found particular joy in doing that by serving in a voluntary capacity in the trade union movement, he would be absolutely right. However, the Communist has certain other functions, such as the overthrow of this society. There are those, and I am one of them—it is not a question of a witch-hunt—who believe that the reason why the Communist Party is prepared to do that sort of thing in industry is so that it will be better placed for the overthrow of our society.
I am old-fashioned. I like Labour men elected everywhere. It may be that the Conservative Party should have better representation in the trade unions. However, on the whole I would sooner see Social Democrats winning elections in the trade unions than I would see them winning elections in Parliament. I am old-fashioned about that; I do not want any allies outside the broad stream of the Labour movement, and there is no doubt where that is.
Public expenditure is the one argument against this. It will be a fairly costly business. I do not know if hon. Members have studied what it costs unions to 1857 conduct elections by postal ballot. The sums are staggering.
I do not wish to take part in any AUEW argument, but that union has a case against a postal ballot because it is extremely expensive. None of us can afford to say that that is nonsense, that there is no case at all and that it is all a secret conspiracy. Postal ballots are a devilishly expensive business.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) was quite right when he said that the AUEW is much the most democratic of all our major unions. If the major unions went over to this system, I do not deny that great sums of public money would be involved. It is for the Government to decide whether the considerable sums that would be spent are justified by the effect that they might produce. In view of the money that we spend on so many other projects, is this wasted money? What are the effects? Will there be no Communists in the unions, masses of Social Democrats, no strikes and happy agreements with some Conservative Members? Of course not.
First of all, it will remove suspicion about the choice. This is a most vital aspect of all electoral systems, and, as Newham has been mentioned, I would add that it applies to Newham. What is always wrong with low polls is that there is a suspicion about the choice. I do not believe that in the vast majority of these low polls Communists or Communist sympathisers have been manipulated into office. However, many people do believe this. They will continue to believe it because it occasionally happens. Therefore, every time that we get a low poll there is a suspicion that the person so elected does not represent his members.
It is worth spending a lot of money to be rid of that idea. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire that the result of a postal vote will not be significantly different from what we get now, and it certainly will not be unmilitant as far as wages and conditions are concerned.
It suggests two things. The first is that the average trade unionist can be divorced from his leadership on those things. He cannot. So long as his union is looking after his wages and conditions, all the evidence is that the average trade unionist, given any chance in any sort of 1858 election, will back his own leadership. However, we shall be rid of the suspicion that there is something unrepresentative about the choice.
Secondly, I hold a view that is exactly the reverse of that of some of my hon. Friends. I am far from feeling that participation in anything in life, let alone unions, is an all-or-nothing business— "You must go to the branch meeting. If you will not do that, you are unredeemed and cannot be saved until you do, and if you are given any soft, idle options such as filling ballot forms in, that will make everything worse". I believe that that is a very Calvinistic view. I do not believe it. Filling in ballots might encourage an increasing number of union members to want to know what sort of ballot they are filling in and who is on the ballot. It might encourage them to want to know a little more about their union, which would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. It will not necessarily mean much lower attendances at branch meetings.
To be blunt—I suppose that I shall suffer for this, because one does these days if one says anything that comes anywhere near the truth—the plain truth of the matter, which all of my hon. Friends know, is that attending branch meetings, or, for that matter, many other meetings within the Labour movement appeals to a temperamental type. That is the plain truth. There are meetings attenders. There are people—God save them—who actually like going along to take part in these incredible non-conformist rituals. I somehow do not think that they will stop attending just because there are postal ballots. Indeed, I honestly believe —and there is a lot of evidence for this; I could cite evidence from other countries—that it will generate additional interest. That is the second thing it will do.
The third thing it will almost inevitably do is to put all the pressure on the critics of trade unions to put their own house in order. As far as I can see, that is the last really outstanding complaint against trade unions—other than the complaint that they do the job which their members in fact expect them to do. Except for that small minority which expect trade unions to want wage cuts and worse conditions, the only substantial argument 1859 that seems to exist against them is that there is some doubt about their internal democracy. Remove that, and then inevitably, as hon. Members of the Opposition have been frank enough to confess, the spotlight will switch to the other side of industry and other institutions in this country, which will inevitably in the end be required to be no less democratic and participatory than the trade union movement would be if it had this option available.
It is not a very great thing for which to ask. It will not make a dramatic difference. However, it wipes away a very small but spreading stain. I hope that my right hon. Friend, who has always been enormously concerned in everything to do with democracy and participation, will, even if he cannot accept the clause, give some hope to those of us who see much of benefit in this idea.
§ Sir Edward Brown
I want to comment on one particular matter. The government of this country is within this House of Commons and not within the trade union movement. That ought to be established throughout the country.
The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) has mentioned certain situations regarding the trade unions. I take the view that we must accept what is the threat at present—to be turned over to Communism. I spent over 40 years as a trade unionist and know something about trade unions, so I shall repeat that because it is essential. My union branch was taken over by Communists. These officials were elected to national office and went on from there. There is a dire threat to this country.
Out of the 10½ million people registered within the TUC at present, less than 1 per cent. attend branch meetings. Therefore, there is an urgency about the new clause, although I disagree with my hon. Friends about the way in which they have drafted it. I believe that the consultations should take place with every trade union organisation and not merely with the TUC. The TUC is an advisory body. The organisations of trade unions have their own autonomy. Therefore, this matter should be discussed with each of the trade unions. The clause is one of the things which may bring that about.
1860 The hon. Member for South Ayrshire went on to talk about a lurch to the Right. Let me tell him this: I am ready to lurch to the Right. We have had a great advance on the Left, which the hon. Gentleman has already seen within his own movement. The House of Commons has got some of those lurchers to the Left sitting on the Labour benches, and we have seen the expression of a Government party within the Government party only last week.
That is the danger. If we in this place are not active in the saving of democracy, we shall lose it. The clause is one of the ways by which we can bring democracy about within the trade union movement of 10½ million. I remind the House that there are 14 million other workers not registered with the TUC who form a large part of public opinion and do not like to see what is happening within the TUC and its affiliated organisations. Therefore, if we want something very fair we should offer what is in the clause to each of them. That is to give the right for people to select their leaders.
As chairman of the central branch of ASSET in the years 1947, 1948 and 1949, I saw that branch taken over in this way. We have seen ballot-rigging exposed within the ETU. We saw it in Scotland recently. We saw the decision of the President of the AUEW, who had no authority to change the rules and had to change them back again because the wrong was exposed.
Therefore, it is clear that there should be complete acceptance of the clause by the House, which has responsibility to the nation and not to the trade union movement. The trade union movement is a lawful assembly which is given its rights under rules laid down by the House of Commons. We should make absolutely certain that we govern and that the trade unions do not govern us.
The Bill has been drafted by parliamentarians on instructions from the TUC and the affiliated organisations. This is one of the things about which we should be very careful as we go through the Bill clause by clause. We must see that we get a good Bill for the sake of industrial relations.
I warn hon. Members that if we in this House do not protect democracy, this is 1861 our last chance. Lurching to the Left is one thing. Lurching to the Right is another thing. Democracy stands in the middle. If we want democracy, we do not lurch to the Left or to the Right. We stand where we have already stood, for the nation's sake.
§ The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)
I respond, first, to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), who said, in the presence of a rather smaller number than we have now, that he hoped that the debates would be sharp and swift and that speeches would be short. I am sure that he was especially directing his remarks at myself, and I shall certainly take his instructions on the question. I shall be as swift as possible in dealing with the matter. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in his hope that we can proceed in this way. I am not complaining about the length of this debate on a most important subject, but I hope that we can proceed rapidly while giving proper time for all the debates.
The whole Committee proceedings were conducted very properly, perhaps partly because of my absence, but chiefly because my hon. Friend the Minister of State was in charge of the Bill. I believe that hon. Members in all parts of the House will agree that no Member of the House is more capable of conducting a complicated Bill through the House of Commons than my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I think that the House owes him a great debt of gratitude for the way in which he has dealt with the Bill.
I promise that I shall intrude into the debates only on rare occasions during the day or the night. However, I thought that I should respond to what the right hon. Gentleman and others have said about this matter, which was raised by Opposition Members and by my hon. Friends.
We have given careful consideration to the whole proposal. The reply I am making may be disappointing to Opposition Members, but we have considered it carefully. We have had consultations on the matter and have come to our conclusion on the basis of this consideration.
First, I certainly agree that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to make the clause as inoffensive as possible. He has 1862 taken into account the sensitivities that have been expressed. I am not saying that he has not sought to do that. If it were to have added to it the first amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) it would also have a further safeguard.
Even so, there are difficulties in the proposal. The amendment says thatThe Secretary of State may, after consulting the Trades Union Congress"—there is something in the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) on that matter—make such arrangements as he considers appropriate".That means that the Secretary of State for Employment may at any time make proposals for introducing postal ballots and providing for financial arrangements to support them.
I am sure that it is well understood throughout the House and the country that the present Secretary of State would not misuse his powers. I am sure that the clause would not have been drafted as it is if the Opposition had had any doubts about that. But Secretaries of State eventually go. The decades roll by; the aeons pass; and changes eventually occur. It is conceivable that in some unknown future a Conservative Minister might eventually arrive again at the Department of Employment. He would then have this instrument at his disposal, and could use it at the time of his own choice to indicate what he thought about what might be happening in the trade union movement. If he were to use it at the moment to which some of my hon. Friends referred, its use could be damaging to the trade union movement.
The right hon. Gentleman said that people outside would misunderstand if we did not accept his proposal now. I am not quite sure what he meant. Perhaps he meant that the newspapers would report our debates as if in some way by refusing a proposal about postal ballots we were injuring the possibilities of democracy. I think that that is how most of the newspapers might report our proceedings. But they would be wrong to do so. However, that is what we have 1863 to contend with in dealing with these matters, because the trade union movement is constantly subjected to misrepresentation and vilification, particularly on these aspects of the matter. It is constantly represented that the only way in which to sustain democracy in the trade unions, or in particular trade unions, is by resorting to or encouraging particular forms of postal ballot, when we know perfectly well from our previous discussions that there are very different procedures in different unions, and that postal ballots in themselves are by no means a guarantee of democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Walden) gave us his views about democracy over a wide field. I agree with him about the nineteenth century, although I am not so sure about his views on the twentieth century. As far as I could see, he did not bring them entirely up to date. He said that there was a suspicion, and that we must carry out the proposal to remove that suspicion.
In a sense, although I am sure that my hon. Friend did not intend it, his speech helped to feed that illegitimate suspicion, because he suggested that it is the absence of postal ballots in the election of trade union officers that is the deficiency in democracy. That is not the case. It would be improper for the House to pass a measure which seemed to pass judgment on the way in which individual unions elected their officers. I am not prepared to be a party to saying that trade unions which decide to elect their officers by different methods are injuring democracy by so doing. That would be contrary to all the evidence.
No hon. Member could argue, taking one union after another, that those which had postal ballots were the more democratic. There are different styles and fashions and different choices by different unions on how to conduct their elections and other affairs. They are right to have those choices. It is not the business of the House to lay down rules on how they should do it. We all agree about that. It is also not the business of the House to make choices which feed illegitimate suspicions.
If we were to accept the clause, particularly in the circumstances of the time, it would do exactly what has been des- 1864 cribed: it would help to create misunderstandings and feed misunderstandings. It would help people to believe that the test of democracy in the trade unions was whether they had postal ballots, and that that was the view of the House. I do not believe that it should be the view of the House. It should be the view of the House that these matters should be left to the individual unions.
I know that under the provisions of the clause it may be said that it is left to the individual union to choose whether it wishes to use the facilities. There is some force in that argument, but I am saying that in the circumstances now, in the circumstances of this debate and the way in which the clause has been presented, the suggestion is that full participation can be secured only if unions are encouraged to change their present arrangements, to change more and more to the method of the postal ballot to conduct their elections.
The choice should be left to the unions to make freely. But we should bear in mind that if the trade union movement told us "We would like to have such facilities, because of the rising postal costs"—the cost is a matter of considerable importance—there are other bodies throughout the country which could legitimately say "If the postal ballots facility is to be given to the trade union movement, we should also have it". There are other institutions for which it could be said that we think it essential, in the interests of democracy, to encourage postal ballots by providing the finance.
All these matters should be considered together, if they are to be considered. The issue should not be presented as if it is a judgment on the way in which individual unions conduct their business. They have the right to free choice. We on this side of the House believe in the diffusion of power. We do not believe that it is the business of Parliament to dictate to the unions how they should conduct their individual affairs.
§ Sir Raymond Gower
Why does the right hon. Gentleman convey the impression that the clause in some way preempts the choice of the trade unions, when obviously the main reason for it is that the postal ballot has been seen to be more expensive and it is, therefore, desirable that a financial accommodation 1865 should be made by Parliament for that more expensive method if it is freely selected by a particular union?
§ Mr. Foot
I do not want to repeat my whole argument, but I believe that to accept the clause in present circumstances at this time, against the present background of events, would give rise to exactly the misunderstandings to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. That is why we should leave the choice to the unions.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has actually encouraged the National Union of Journalists, of which he and I are both members, to have a postal ballot in order to deal with an attempt by certain elements to uphold a minority conference decision and so secure an unfair majority? If the right hon. Gentleman has encouraged it in this individual instance, will he clarify the reason why he is against it as a general principle?
§ Mr. Foot
As I said earlier, I was not criticising those unions that use postal ballots to elect their officers or to make decisions on policy as the National Union of Mineworkers does for many of its major policies. Not merely am I in favour of the ballot in the NUJ; I am strongly in favour of the ballot now being conducted in the National Union of Mineworkers. I say that about the NUJ as a member of the union and also as a member of the Government. I say it about the NUM as a member of the Government. What the House would be doing in the circumstances proposed here would be passing judgment on the manner in which different trade unions elect their officers. In my opinion that is an unfair and illegitimate judgment for us to make. I hope that the House will not accept the clause.
I do not question the good faith with which the clause has been proposed. I am presenting the reasons why I think it would not assist the relationships between the House of Commons, Parliament and the trade union movement if we were to accept the clause in these circumstances. If the trade union movement or individual trade unions wish to come forward and say "We want this facility, and we hope that the House 1866 will give consideration to it," that is a different matter. That is something that I believe we should be prepared to accept. However, that is not the question before us.
I say to my hon. Friends that I understand the wide variety of views that they have expressed upon this. I understand the purpose behind the Early-Day Motion which has been tabled, but I ask the House not to accept the clause at the moment. If the trade unions, collectively or individually, were to come forward and ask for this facility, that would be a different question and the more democratic way of proceeding. I did not agree with everything said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ladywood but I did agree with him when he said that the House of Commons has made many errors in the way in which it has dealt with the trade union movement. From the evidence we have had, from the information we have and from the discussions relating to this subject which we were charged to hold I believe we would make an error if we proceeded to adopt the clause. My advice, based on our consultations and considerations, is that we should ask for the clause to be withdrawn or should vote against it.
§ Mr. Foot
I certainly give that undertaking. I have already had consultations which confirm the view that I am now presenting. They were informal consultations. If any individual or the General Council of the TUC wishes to have further consultations on this we would be prepared to have them. It is one thing to have the trade union movement or individual unions asking for this facility but quite another thing for the Government to say that this facility will be provided irrespective of whether the trade union movement wants it. That is the choice. On that basis I hope that either the Opposition will be prepared to withdraw the clause or that we shall proceed on the basis that I have suggested.
§ Mr. Barney Hayhoe (Brentford and Isleworth)
We have had a good debate with the speeches being short and to the point. The purpose of this clause is to empower the State to provide financial assistance to help defray the cost of postal ballots in trade union elections, making it absolutely clear that the unions will decide whether such ballots will be held and the type of ballot that should be held. The organisation would be for the unions. There would be no compulsion. It is an offer of assistance and no more.
Attempts have been made to misrepresent the purpose and the motives of the clause. I suppose that such attempts indicate only too well the thinness of the arguments deployed against it. We have seen the old-fashioned technique of erecting a skittle simply to knock it down. The hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans) asked whether we were concerned about whether a union would have appointed or elected officers That is something for the union to decide. The hon. Member also referred to branch meetings. He knows only too well that the whole of the evidence is that there are often small attendances at branch meetings. People are often elected to attend branch meetings not on the basis of their place of work but on the basis of where they live. Sometimes the attendance at such meetings is not very good. There is a reference to this in paragraph 634 of the Donovan Report.
The Government would in no sense be instructing unions how to conduct their affairs if the clause was adopted. There is nothing in it dealing with compulsion or instruction. What the hon. Member for Newton was saying about this was total nonsense. I found it difficult to comprehend his surprising misrepresentation, or perhaps it was misunderstanding of the whole matter, because he participated in the earlier debates in Committee when all of this was made clear. Perhaps he was following the example of the Secretary of State, who so often shows us how easy it is to misrepresent arguments put forward by Conservative Members. He was as expert as ever today in putting an unreasonable slant on the argument.
The hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Urwin) sponsored Early-Day Motion No. 492 signed by a substantial 1868 number of Members. It is odd that it seems to be held to be a hostile act for someone from another party to sign such a motion. That at least was the impression given not by the hon. Member but certainly by some of his colleagues. We must judge these arguments upon their merits. The speech made by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring showed clearly what was the purpose behind the motion. It was, as he said, an honest, objective and straightforward effort to improve matters. That is the purpose of our clause.
There is no witch-hunt and no attempt to interfere with union rules. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) pointed to the advantages which would flow from increased participation in elections if the clause were carried and if unions cared to take advantage of it. The arguments of my hon. Friend were sharply underlined by the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Mr. Walden). The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park) spoke of the clause as altering trade union rules. There were overtones of this in other speeches. The clause has nothing to do with trade union rules. Trade unions decide what their rules are to be. This clause puts no pressure on the unions to alter the rules.
My hon. Friends the Members for Barry (Sir R. Gower) and Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) underlined that point and made it abundantly clear that the clause is permissive. It represents an offer of help to be taken or not as a union decides. The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) said that the adoption of the clause would lead to the Government controlling unions. That is a flight of fancy. A union decides whether to accept the offer of assistance.
§ Mr. Stallard
If the hon. Gentleman intends to repeat what I said, he ought to do it accurately. He speaks about misrepresentation and then misrepresents what I said. I asked whether he or his hon. Friends thought that the trade unions were so naive as to imagine that if this public money was made available to them, the next stage would not be a demand from the people paying the piper to call the tune. There would be a move towards further intervention in trade union affairs because ratepayers and taxpayers were paying for this.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I shall leave hon. Members to make up their own minds whether I misrepresented the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that I did. However, the record will show.
The monetary assistance will be on offer. It will be up to the union to decide whether to accept it. No one will be forced to accept it. Nothing will be imposed on the union.
We heard a sour and weak argument from the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). He began by condemning the proposal in the context of guilt by association. He inferred that nothing proposed by the Opposition could be sensible or helpful in these matters. However, he redeemed himself by judging the proposal on its merits, coming to the helpful conclusion that it was a sensible proposition, deserving of support.
The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) questioned the motives of his political opponents. We do not complain about that as we know that the hon. Member spends a fair amount of time questioning the motives of his political friends. He produced the red herring that as a result of this proposal we would provide for postal ballots for the leaders of political parties. He argued that everyone should be allowed to participate in a postal ballot on a decision of the moment except the members of the Labour Party in Newham, North-East. I can deal with his contribution on those lines.
The hon. Gentleman then came out with the remarkable proposition that hounding of the trade unions would occur as a result of the provisions of the new clause. If an offer of financial assistance with no strings attached is hounding, I wish that someone would hound me.
§ Mr. Sillars
I did not say that people would be hounded as a result of the new clause. However, some Opposition speakers used the new clause as a platform from which to remount their old hobby-horse of hounding the trade unions. That was what I said.
§ Mr. Hayhoe
I heard no mention of hounding. Neither a scintilla of evidence nor any argument has been produced to suggest that anyone is hounding the trade unions or that the new clause could be used to hound them.
1870 The hon. Member for Ladywood said that the trade unions must determine these issues for themselves and that the House of Commons should not seek to impose conditions. He made perceptive remarks about trade union sensitivity, with which I do not disagree. He stated that the proposal was helpful, that it was not anti-democratic and that he wished to see greater participation in elections. All those are sensible matters. The hon. Gentleman referred to the cost, which he pointed out could be substantial. The Opposition raised that point in previous debates. Although the cost could be substantial, the proposal could be worth while. The hon. Gentleman made a valuable speech. His anti-Tory gibes helped to commend the good sense of the rest of his speech.
We heard an unconvincing reply from the Secretary of State. He spoke of the new clause as passing judgment on trade unions. That is poppycock. It is a dishonest argument. The right hon. Gentleman made the hollow offer that if a trade union asked for help, he would give it. That is an arrogant attitude. Knowing the pressure on the legislative process, would it not be wiser for us to include this worthwhile provision in the Bill? I shall not again deal with the arguments which the right hon. Gentleman produced in one of our earlier debates when he led us to believe that the Government would bring forward their own proposals.
Amendment (a) could be accepted. The spirit of that amendment is in line with what we believe the new clause contains.
I hope that the House will reject the blandishments of the Secretary of State and vote for the new clause. We are debating an important matter. This new clause will not solve the problems of the trade unions. It will not automatically make all trade union leaders responsible, neither will it moderate or stop all strikes. However, it will be helpful. It would be an achievement if Parliament passed a helpful piece of legislation which would solve some of our problems.
§ Question put, That the Clause be read a Second time:—
§ The House divided:Ayes 241, Noes 276.
§ [For Division List 312 see col. 1985–90.]
§ Question accordingly negatived.