HC Deb 20 March 1979 vol 964 cc1307-16

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to facilitate the organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities. Every attempt by members of the Opposition to introduce proposals that are likely to lead to moderate and sensible reforms in trade union practices calls forth an entirely predictable and uniformly hostile reaction from Government supporters. Indeed, sadly, I have reason to believe that there will be another manifestation of that Pavlovian reaction this afternoon. We may well hear a lecture on management studies from an hon. Gentleman who claims to speak in the name of the workers and who will put up yet another smokescreen about the dangers of confrontation with the unions and the inappropriateness of legislation on trade union activities. That point seemed to have singularly little appeal to the Government and their supporters a few years ago when they rammed through the trade union laws that have done so much harm to the country.

In fact, every day the smokescreen becomes easier to see through, although sadly there was an example only last week when even such a normally percipient observer as the Lobby correspondent of the Daily Telegraph was himself confused by the smokescreen in his appraisal of the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Page), who suggested that trade union members paying their political levy should have the right to decide which party should benefit from that levy.

My proposal is more moderate still. It is no more than to give to trade union members the right, should they so choose, to introduce a greater degree of democracy into trade union procedures. After these agonising months of industrial chaos—chaos that still continues—it is the very least that the people demand of Parliament.

As the effects of Government legislation and policies have worked their way into the system, the public have begun to see clearly the economic and political power that is exercised at national level by trade union leaders—although, sadly, their power over their own membership is often found to be wanting. They have witnessed the trade union leaders' destruction of the Prime Minister's 5 per cent. pay policy. They have seen the Government fail to extract from the TUC anything more than the tepid platitudes of last month's concordat, even in an election year. They are coming to know more and more about the massive funds that are controlled by the trade union leaders and the powers that they exercise as paymasters of the Labour Party.

The public regard with increasing cynicism the procedures of the Labour Party conferences at which Labour Members, who, very rightly in the case of Rhodesia, demand one man, one vote, seem obliged to accept one man, 1 million votes when they are sitting in Blackpool or Brighton, where those votes are wielded by individual trade union leaders. Those leaders are very important, not only to their trade union members but to all of us. It is therefore vital that they should be representative of their membership.

Believing, as I do, in the innate good sense of the British people, I am convinced that the more representative the trade union leadership is, the better it will be. We must therefore be ready, as the Bill proposes, to offer any sensible help we can to improve the level of democratic practices in the trade unions, whether it is to offer facilities for postal ballots, to encourage employers to co-operate in the organisation of secret voting, or in any other way.

Undoubtedly, some progress has been made. We have the example of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. After the introduction of a postal balloting system there was a dramatic increase in the percentage poll for union elections. That union now benefits from what is widely regarded as a sensible and moderate leadership. [Interruption.] I hope very much that such an accolade from the Conservative Benches will not cause any embarrassment to that leadership. Very much more needs to be done—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Whitney

Some Labour Members are obviously not accustomed to trade union bargaining procedures. Too many trade union leaders are appointed to positions of considerable power, often for life, by mechanisms that fall very far short of any reasonable democratic practice. I call in aid the darling of the trade unions, the arbitrator in chief, Professor Hugh Clegg, who, in his own study of the General and Municipal Workers Union, entitled"General Union ", pointed out that A regular attendance of 100 in a branch of 3,000 would be considered good. It can be seen, then, that elections are determined by a small minority. The general secretary of the GMWU and acting chairman of the Trades Union Congress, Mr. David Basnett, claims that he was elected to his job—and, as I understand it, elected to it for the rest of his working life—by 208,000 out of 832,000 votes, but it is clear that his actual support was a very great deal less than even the 25 per cent. that he claims. The GMWU is one of those unions that use the block vote system, under which those who turn up to vote at the elections also use the votes of those who do not. What sort of democracy is that?

I mention Mr. Basnett only by way of example. I do not intend to single him out, important though his position is—

Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South): But the hon. Gentleman has singled out Mr. Basnett.

Mr. Whitney

—because I have no doubt that his story—[Interruption.]—could be repeated.

Mr. Perry


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members know that interruptions from a sedentary position are quite out of order.

Mr. Perry

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise to you most profusely, but I did say that the hon. Gentleman had singled out the general secretary of my union, David Basnett. That was all I said. He has singled him out.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) feels strongly on the question. That is why I addressed my remarks to hon. Members in general rather than to the hon. Member in particular.

Mr. Whitney

I have no intention of making a special case of Mr. Basnett. I wish to use his story as an example of many, as we know that that story, or worse, can be repeated at many points and in many posts throughout the trade union movement.

The case for secret ballots over strike decisions is perhaps less clearcut, but it is nevertheless strong. In order not to delay the House further—[Interruption]—I will cite only two pieces of evidence in support of my argument. They are pieces of evidence which, I can assert with confidence, will be regarded as impeccable and as unchallengeable by the Labour Members who are giving me such a courteous hearing.

I refer, first, to the concordat negotiated last month between the Government and the Trades Union Congress, which made a strong recommendation that union rules should provide for strike ballots to be held. Secondly, in this House the Prime Minister has agreed that a show of hands is not a satisfactory way of conducting affairs ".—[Official Report, 7 November 1978; Vol. 957, col. 684.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Member now come to a conclusion?

Mr. Whitney

I submit that I have made clear to you, Mr. Speaker, that the challenge that we have to our industrial system can be defeated only by increased democracy. The Bill seeks to give the ordinary union membership the opportunity to assert that democracy. I trust, therefore, that the Bill will have the support of the House.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Tom Litterick (Birmingham, Selly Oak)


Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member seeking to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Litterick

I am, indeed, Mr. Speaker.

This is the eleventh, the sixteenth or about the twenty-eighth attempt by some extremely ignorant Conservative Members to talk about trade unions and the trade union movement of Great Britain in a hostile and critical way. It is not at all untoward that Members of Parliament should talk about great British institutions in a critical way, but it is a pity, and a waste of the time of the House, when a Member asks all these hon. Members to listen to him and displays the most abysmal ignorance of his subject.

The hon. Gentleman might at least have done a few minutes' homework. He should know by now that prejudice by itself is not enough. The House knows well when an hon. Member is just blowing his trumpet and has no substance to his argument. The hon. Member has demonstrated this very vividly during the last 15 or 16 minutes of his Ten-Minute Bill speech. It was very difficult to discover exactly what he was getting at. His motion says something about The organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities. It is not very informative.

The hon. Member's speech was even less informative. He bumbled along from one subject to another. He thought that it might be a good idea to have a vote on this, on that and on something else, but he did not stop for a moment to examine the implications of what he was saying.

The hon. Gentleman conceded, towards the end of his speech, that the case for having compulsory ballots in a potential strike might not be clearcut. [Interruption.] If he is saying that it is clearcut, he should be reminded that it was tried by the last Conservative Prime Minister, and it did not work. It was catastrophic.

As to the rest of what the hon. Gentleman might have been saying if he had been a bit more lucid, I suggest that he should have done his homework by looking at trade union rules. He would have discovered that most British trade unions are election-ridden. He mentioned the Associated Union of Engineering Workers. In a calendar year that union never has a moment when it is not involved in some sort of election.

Having mentioned the AUEW the hon. Gentleman, no doubt inadvertently, slipped in one of his value judgments, one of the criteria by which he would judge what was good and what was unsatisfactory union procedure, which is presumptuous and arrogant. He said that he approved of the last AUEW elections because a moderate and sensible leadership had been chosen. The House heard him say that. That is most interesting, coming from the Tory Benches. That moderate sensible leadership has put in a 40 per cent. wage claim. The hon. Gentleman should urgently have a chat with his Chief Whip, if not the Leader of the Opposition, about what is moderate and sensible.

The hon. Gentleman seeks to make judgments about the internal affairs of unions on the basis of his ignorance. He forgets that there are other great institutions that do not have elections. He does not mention them, and I shall not, either. He knows what I am talking about. He was not being even-handed; he was simply setting out on yet another attack on unions.

The ballots that he talks of exist. Almost every union in the country—and its electoral procedures—was investigated for the Donovan report. The report stated that Elections in the trade union movement are generally conducted with an almost excessive punctiliousness and by any sensible criterion the extent of malpractice is negligible. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends would accept the Donovan report as a reasonably authoritative judgment, but the country did. If the hon. Gentleman does not, that is his misfortune.

The hon. Member should also bear in mind another comment from the Donovan Commission, on ballots for strikes, namely, that It is difficult to resist the conclusion that most of the comments made about this position reflect the belief that the only sensible way to vote in the context of an industrial dispute is to vote against the strike action. Tory Members frequently and impetuously demonstrate that they do not approve of strikes, but their plea for secret ballots will not alter the strike situation. Their frequent assertion of hostility to free strike action by free workers is shared with the central committee of the Russian Communist Party. For that reason alone, we will vote the hon. Member's Bill down.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):

The House divided: Ayes 194, Noes 189.

Division No. 100] AYES [3.55 p.m.
Adley. Robert Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Hampson, Dr Keith Page, Richard (Workington)
Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East) Hannam, John Pardoe, John
Awdry, Daniel Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Parkinson, Cecil
Bain, Mrs Margaret Hastings, Stephen Pattie, Geoffrey
Baker, Kenneth Hayhoe, Barney Penhaligon, David
Banks, Robert Higgins, Terence L. Peyton, Rt Hon John
Bell, Ronald Holland, Philip Price, David (Eastleigh)
Benyon, W. Hordern, Peter Prior, Rt Hon James
Berry, Hon Anthony Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Biffen, John Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk) Raison, Timothy
Biggs-Davison, John Hutchison, Michael Clark Rathbone, Tim
Blaker, Peter Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Boscawen, Hon Robert James, David Rees-Davies, W. R.
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd) Reid, George
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Braine, Sir Bernard Jopling, Michael Rhodes James, R.
Brittan, Leon Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Brooke, Hon Peter Kershaw, Anthony Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Brotherton, Michael Kilfedder, James Rifkind, Malcolm
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) King, Tom (Bridgwater) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Kitson, Sir Timothy Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Buck, Antony Knight, Mrs Jill Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Bulmer, Esmond Lamont, Norman St. John-Stevas, Norman
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Latham, Michael (Melton) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Carlisle, Mark Lawson, Nigel Shelton, William (Streatham)
Churchill, W. S. Le Marchant, Spencer Shepherd, Colin
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Lester, Jim (Beeston) Shersby, Michael
Clark, William (Croydon S) Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Silvester, Fred
Clegg, Walter Lloyd, Ian Sims, Roger
Cope, John Luce, Richard Sinclair, Sir George
Cormack, Patrick MacCormick, lain Skeet, T. H. H.
Costain, A. P. Macfarlane, Neil Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Crawford, Douglas MacGregor, John Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Crouch, David MacKay, Andrew (Stechford) Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Sproat, lain
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Stanbrook, Ivor
Drayson, Burnaby Marten, Neil Stanley, John
Dunlop, John Mates, Michael Steel, Rt Hon David
Durant, Tony Mather, Carol Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Dykes, Hugh Mawby, Ray Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Elliott, Sir William Mayhew, Patrick Stradling Thomas, J.
Eyre, Reginald Meyer, Sir Anthony Tapsell, Peter
Fairbairn, Nicholas Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove) Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Fairgrieve, Russell Mills, Peter Temple-Morris, Peter
Fell, Anthony Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Fisher, Sir Nigel Moate, Roger Thompson, George
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) Monro, Hector Townsend, Cyril D.
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Montgomery, Fergus Waddington, David
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Moore, John (Croydon C) Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Wakeham, John
Fry, Peter Morgan, Geraint Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Wall, Patrick
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham) Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Walters, Dennis
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes) Weatherill, Bernard
Glyn, Dr Alan Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Welsh, Andrew
Goodhart, Philip Mudd, David Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Goodhew, Victor Neave, Airey Wiggin, Jerry
Goodlad, Alastair Nelson, Anthony Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Neubert, Michael Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Newton, Tony Younger, Hon George
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Nott, John
Gray, Hamish Onslow, Cranley TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Mr. Raymond Whitney and
Grist, Ian Page, John (Harrow West) Mr. Toby Jessel.
Abse, Leo Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)
Allaun, Frank Bidwell, Sydney Buchan, Norman
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Bishop, Rt Hon Edward Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)
Armstrong, Ernest Blenkinsop, Arthur Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)
Ashley, Jack Booth, Rt Hon Albert Canavan, Dennis
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Boothroyd, Miss Betty Carmichael, Neil
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham) Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Carter-Jones, Lewis
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Cartwright, John
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Bradley, Tom Castle, Rt Hon Barbara
Bates, Alf Bray, Dr Jeremy Clemitson, Ivor
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)
Cohen, Stanley Hughes, Roy (Newport) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Coleman, Donald Hunter, Adam Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Conlan, Bernard Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Cowans, Harry Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Rooker, J. W.
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) John, Brynmor Rowlands, Ted
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Johnson, James (Hull West) Sedgemore, Brian
Cryer, Bob Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Selby, Harry
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Jones, Barry (East Flint) Sever, John
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Jones, Dan (Burnley) Shaw, Arnold (llford South)
Davidson, Arthur Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Lambie, David Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Davies, Rt Hon Denzll Lamond, James Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Lee, John Silverman, Julius
Deakins, Eric Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Skinner, Dennis
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Smith, Rt Hon John (N Lanarkshire)
Dempsey, James Litterick, Tom Snape, Peter
Dewar, Donald Lofthouse, Geoffrey Spearing, Nigel
Dormand, J. D. Luard, Evan Spriggs, Leslie
Dunn, James A. McCartney, Hugh Stallard, A. W.
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth McDonald, Dr Oonagh Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Eadie, Alex McElhone, Frank Stoddart, David
Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) McKay, Allen (Penistone) Stott, Roger
English, Michael Maclennan, Robert Strang, Gavin
Ennals, Rt Hon David Madden, Max Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Evans, loan (Aberdare) Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Evans, John (Newton) Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Tilley, John
Ewing, Harry (Stirling) Maynard, Miss Joan Tinn, James
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Meacher, Michael Tomlinson, John
Flannery, Martin Mikardo, Ian Urwin, Rt Hon T. W.
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Morris, Rt Hon Charles R. Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Forrester, John Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Moyle, Rt Hon Roland Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Ward, Michael
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King Watkins, David
George, Bruce Newens, Stanley Wellbeloved, James
Gould, Bryan Noble, Mike White, Frank R. (Bury)
Graham, Ted Oakes, Gordon White, James (Pollok)
Grant, George (Morpeth) O'Halloran, Michael Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Grocott, Bruce Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Ovenden, John Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Hardy, Peter Park, George Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Parker, John Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)
Hart, Rt Hon Judith Parry, Robert Woodall, Alec
Hayman, Mrs Helena Pavitt, Laurie Wrigglesworth, Ian
Heifer, Eric S. Pendry, Tom Young, David (Bolton E)
Hooley, Frank Perry, Ernest
Horam, John Prescott, John TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Price, William (Rugby) Mr. Eddie Loyden and
Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Radice, Giles Dr. M. S. Miller.
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Raymond Whitney, Mr. Nicholas Ridley and Mr. Toby Jessel.
Mr. Raymond Whitney accordingly presented a Bill to facilitate the organisation of secret ballots in connection with trades union activities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 6 April and to be printed. [Bill 115.]