HC Deb 01 August 1978 vol 955 cc554-62

4.40 a.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I should like to mention the workings of ACAS and the claim put to it by the United Kingdom Association of Professional Engineers for representation on the National Water Council. I do so on behalf of the president of UKAPE, who is a constituent of mine. There are also 10 water engineers in my constituency, and the Thames Conservancy and the Thames Water Authority are active in my area, and I am involved with both.

Before the water reorganisation in 1973–74, UKAPE was part of the negotiating machinery in nine water authorities, including the Thames Conservancy. It was represented in a consultative capacity on the Water Staff Commission, which considered reorganisation.

When the new water authorities were set up, UKAPE clearly understood that it would be involved in the future negotiating machinery. It had letters to that effect, including one from the National Water Council, dated 8th February 1974, which said that it was agreed by both sides that this distribution would reflect membership strengths of the respective staff organisations". That would apply to a union which is fairly big, having 1,000 members in the industry.

In another letter, from the secretary of the NWC, dated 14th February, the secretary of the NWC said that although you and your colleagues received assurances during your meeting here with Lord Nugent and the Director General on 21st December that you would in future be brought into the consultations on the establishment of negotiating machinery for the new water service, there was some doubt about that. But it was clearly implied in discussions that the union would be part of the machinery.

ACAS was then set up, and UKAPE took its case to that body. The union applied in 1976 and it took two years to reach a decision. ACAS soon decided that conciliation would not work and began an investigation. After two years, the report came out. I have a copy here. It contains some things that UKAPE contends are not right.

On page 6 of the report—no. 128, Employment Protection Act 1975, section 12—we read: UKAPE contends that

  1. I. as the NWC set up new machinery it must have considered the existing machinery inadequate. The NWC had discussions with UKAPE about the new machinery, so it must have regarded UKAPE as an appropriate organisation' under S.26(2) of the Water Act 1973;
  2. II. membership of the negotiating bodies ought to be directly related to levels of membership of the trade unions. At present this is not the case. With a substantial membership in the industry when the national negotiating machinery was set up in 1974, UKAPE ought to have been accorded a place in the machinery at that time;
  3. III. professional people need specialised representation, pointing to the Professional Officers' Committee as an indication that this has been recognised in the water industry and
  4. IV. the two engineers' unions currently holding POC seats are not representative because they do not have sufficient membership amongst staff covered by the National Joint Council to justify their monopoly of these seats.
It is particularly one of UKAPE's grievances that the professional engineers, who are part of the negotiating machinery have a very small membership compared with that of UKAPE.

On page 7, the report said that NALGO, which had opposed UKAPE's involvement, made the following points:

  1. "(i) that UKAPE recruited members in an area where trade unions were already established,
  2. (ii) that an overwhelming proportion of 'professional engineers' in the industry are already in membership of the currently recognised unions,
  3. (iii) that there are already too many unions in the industry and that any tendency towards further proliferation would be undesirable, and
  4. (iv) that the present system of representation in the water industry was set up very recently (in 1974) and should not be subject to revision at such an early stage."
Then came the part that worries me: NALGO has indicated that, should UKAPE be recognised, it would withdraw from the present negotiating arrangements (effectively making them unworkable). That is a direct and serious threat.

NALGO takes a positive view. In a 1978 report about non-TUC affiliated unions, it says that Continuing efforts should, however, be made by NALGO and the other TUC unions concerned to ensure that the role of the non-TUC affiliated unions —which include UKAPE— is diminished and a situation reached in which the other bodies are removed from the negotiating scene. In other words, in my opinion, pressure from NALGO has forced ACAS to come to that decision.

ACAS did a ballot among the members. It first decided to ballot only the professional engineers. Then, under pressure from NALGO, it decided to ballot all the members of the water authorities by questionnaire, and the members of their staff. The resulting figures come out against UKAPE, because it obviously has a much smaller proportion of those people.

On page 10 of report no. 128 we read, of the ballot: The responses to the question 'Do you consider that UKAPE should have a place in the existing negotiating arrangements covering NJC staff' were Yes'…33 per cent. 'No'…55 per cent. That sounds fairly decisive, but only 52 per cent. of all those who were sent a questionnaire responded, and 55 per cent. of 52 per cent. leaves only 28 per cent. of the total membership were against. Most were not all that concerned. They were not even involved. It did not matter to them. NALGO was already at the negotiating table. It did not worry them whether UKAPE was in or not. It was a bad way of going about the ACAS business.

The final question was: Do you consider that UKAPE should have a place in the existing negotiating arrangements covering NJC staff? That was put to the engineers alone, who naturally came out 73 per cent. in favour compared with 24 per cent. against.

The other grievance that the UKAPE members had was that in the negotiating arrangements there were two small unions representing the engineers which had a very small membership—only some 80 and some 120 respectively, members who were part of the professional staff negotiating sub-committee. It seems to UKAPE entirely wrong that it is right outside while at the negotiating table inside there is a small union which has a very friendly relationship with NALGO. It feels that its voice is therefore not being heard properly in the whole matter of negotiations in the water industry.

I urge the Minister to have a look at the whole question of union recognition and ACAS. I am not particularly anti-ACAS as such, though some of my colleagues seem to be. What I am concerned about is that when ACAS becomes involved in union recognition that is very often when it goes wrong.

In yesterday's edition of The Guardian—I did not know; I had already decided to raise the subject—there was a leader on the matter headed The right and wrong ways to change ACAS". It gives alternative ways of having other machinery to deal with union recognition, one of the most difficult problems between two different unions round the negotiating table. ACAS has found this difficult to adjudicate on, under the terms of the Acts as laid down by this Government. The Government should consider a different method of deciding on the subject, separate from the other work that ACAS does very competently. My criticism of ACAS is mainly about union recognition. The courts or tribunals may have to come back into this. The EMA has suggested another system of its own, which is mentioned in The Guardian leader.

Because of the lowering of differentials and the fact that they have felt squeezed, skilled workers are increasingly trying to flex their muscles, to get more involved together and have a better representation in negotiating machinery. The whole of this dispute reflects an element of that. The Governments must take account of it. Therefore, I ask that the Minister looks at this question of principle whether ACAS is the right way to deal with the whole question of union recognition.

We have now had the High Court judgment on the Allen case. I do not want to bring that case into my argument, except to say that in his decision about interpreting the Act as laid down the judge said that Parliament had made a second point in the terms of reference of ACAS, that it was not only to be a conciliatory body in order to make better industrial relations but that it was to improve the negotiating machinery. That was one of the reasons why he went against the ACAS judgment on Allen.

This has a reflection on my case. The Minister might well look at the High Court judgment in relation to the earlier judgment on the Allen case. There is an element there which could be transmitted to the case that I am raising. I ask the Minister to have a look at this again in the light of what Mr. Justice May said, on, I think 30th June. I am quoting from the Financial Times of 1st July, but no doubt the judgment was the day before.

I ask the Minister to look at this case again, to look at the decision that ACAS made, bearing in mind the court's judgment, and also to look, from the Government's point of view, at the question whether ACAS should now be pulled out of the area of union recognition. I do not mean by that recognition of a union being set up within a company, but inter-union argument as to who should be at the negotiating table. This seems to be where ACAS falls down on the job. It is a difficult matter for it to adjudicate upon.

I put those two points to the right hon. Gentleman. First, I ask him to look again at the water engineers' case in the light of the judgment in the High Court. Secondly, I ask that he should look at the role of ACAS in this difficult task of adjudicating between various trade unions around the negotiating table.

4.56 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Harold Walker)

I hope that the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) will let me apologise immediately for the fact that I was not present when he began to address the House. He and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will understand that, as is often the case on these occasions, it can be difficult to anticipate the time at which a debate will start.

Let me tell the hon. Member of my other difficulty. I obviously could not anticipate the issue that he raised, although he had given some indication of it to my office. He will appreciate that not only is there the difficulty of trying to anticipate what he might say; there are also inhibitions which face a Minister on such an occasion as this. The Employment Protection Act, in establishing ACAS, established its independence in such a far-reaching way that it is difficult for me to comment either on its functions or on the reports which the Service makes.

Sometimes that independence is not sufficiently understood. Perhaps I ought to refer to schedule 1 (11) of the Employment Protection Act. It says: The functions of the Service —that is, ACAS— and of its officers and servants shall be performed on behalf of the Crown, but, subject to paragraph 35 below —that refers to the obligations of my Department to provide the pay and rations of the staff of the service— The Service shall not be subject to directions of any kind from any Minister of the Crown as to the manner in which it is to exercise any of its functions under any enactment. That puts beyond any doubt, first the independence of the service and, secondly, the limit to which I can comment on any of the reports of the Service, in this case report no. 128, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention, dealing with the application by the United Kingdom Association of Professional Engineers for recognition in the water service. I have that inhibition in responding.

Having said that it is not appropriate for me to express an opinion on this report, I shall comment on the issue, in so far as I can, in a way that will help to put the matter into perspective. There is no denying that representation of professional engineers is a difficult and controversial area. I think that the professional engineers, like many other white-collar groups, are now waking up to the benefits of trade union membership and of collective bargaining. Consequently, there is competition among a variety of unions which seek to represent these white collar and professional groups.

A number of recognition references involving professional engineers have been submitted to ACAS. The particular difficulties that confront ACAS in dealing with such references should not be underestimated. ACAS is required in each case to take account of the views of the workers concerned and of any organisation with an interest. Furthermore, ACAS has a general duty, under the statute, to seek both to improve industrial relations and to promote the extension of collective bargaining.

The terms of reference of ACAS have been a matter of controversy for a substantial period. Difficult industrial relations judgments are therefore required of ACAS, particularly where, as in this case, there is disagreement among the unions involved, or if, in the view of ACAS, the interests of good industrial relations run counter to the views of the majority of the workers covered by a reference.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the W. H. Allen-UKAPE case. I do not think that he would want to tempt me to go too deeply into it now, but it is an example of where the question of good relations is in conflict with the obligation of the Service, under its terms of reference, to extend collective bargaining. It is certainly an example of the kind of difficulty with which ACAS finds itself confronted. But, of course, such difficulties are what ACAS was set up to respond to.

The water industry reference is perhaps in some ways rather different from some of the other references, particularly the Allen case, in terms of the recognition of professional engineers, in that, as is usual in the public sector, there is already a well-developed system of collective bargaining covering the employees. A number of unions are already recognised and are parties to the arrangements within the industry.

Indeed, most of the engineers covered by the reference submitted by UKAPE were already members of the National Association of Local Government Officers. The Council of Engineering Institutions, at the end of 1975, in a report entitled "Professional Engineers and Trade Unions", noted that NALGO already had about 10 per cent. of professional engineers in membership—more than any other union catering for professional engineers. It took the view that such closed unions in the public sector had long provided good service, and, by and large, adequately covered the interests of professional engineers.

It is widely recognised that the United Kingdom has too many trade unions. As I have said before, if there is one weakness of our industrial relations system on which there is common ground on both sides of the House, it is that we have too many trade unions, and not too few. I do not mean by that that we have too many trade unionists. While I believe that perhaps we have too many trade unions, I believe also that we have too few trade unionists. It would be to the benefit of industrial relations if we were able to diminish the number of trade unions, and certainly if we were to seek to avoid a further proliferation—a further recognition that would lead to a multiplicity of trade unions. Rationalisation of the trade union movement, as of other areas of our commercial and industrial life, can be a difficult and painful process.

Mr. Durant

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the number of unions, but one of the grievances of UKAPE in this case is that there are three small professional unions in the negotiating body, and it would be only one. I take the general case, but in this instance UKAPE would be assisting in the Minister's general thesis.

Mr. Walker

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but I must resist the temptation to comment too far on it, for the reasons that I gave at the start of this debate. I must avoid expressing a judgment on ACAS because of the independence that Parliament has given to it. No doubt ACAS and its officials will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman and I have said in this debate and will take it into account in their approach to this and similar matters.

One unsatisfactory feature has been revealed by the ACAS inquiries into this and other cases. It is that there is dissatisfaction amongst engineers about the way in which they are represented at present. I hope that in the circumstances NALGO will take to heart and act upon the recommendations of ACAS and will consider what steps need to be taken to ensure that the interests of members who are professional engineers in the water industry are adequately represented.

The hon. Gentleman made some more general observations about the role of ACAS in recognition references. Parliament has laid down a statutory procedure by means of which we can resolve the legitimate claims of trade unions which are seeking recognition by employers. It is a procedure by means of which we might avoid the conflicts that have dis- figured industrial relations previously and which, even during the currency of the Act, as in the infamous Grunwick case, have led to confrontation instead of a settlement by specific methods.

During the currency of the Act, whilst it would be wrong to draw conclusions from particular hard cases, such as Grunwick, and when, in spite of that case, a large number of recognition references have been dealt with and resolved in a useful, constructive and peaceful way, none the less the experience of the last two years or so has shown that we might find it necessary in the future to look carefully and critically at the question whether the provisions that we have laid down by statute need to be reviewed and changed. If they do, we shall take into account the comments made by the hon. Gentleman and others in deciding what kind of changes should be made.