HC Deb 27 March 1979 vol 965 cc239-43
5. Mr. Bulmer

asked the Secretary of State for Employment whether he will introduce measures to protect individuals at work from abuse by trade union representatives of the power conferred on them in a closed shop.

Mr. Harold Walker

No, Sir, but as I have said often in the House and as the joint statement says, closed shops should be conducted in a flexible and tolerant way.

Mr. Bulmer

Has not the case of the West Yorkshire dyer, Mr. Thompson, demonstrated once again the total inadequacy of such protection for the individual worker as may exist either at law or in the union rule book? How much longer is the Minister prepared to see individual workers treated in that way?

Mr. Walker

I have expressed publicly my concern about the way that Mr. Thompson has been treated. It is intolerable, but the case proves the wisdom of the machinery that has been set up. The case has been referred to the independent review committee under Lord Wedderburn. I understand that in the meantime the threatened expulsion from the union has been suspended.

Mr. George Rodgers

Does my hon. Friend agree that closed shops can be introduced only with the consent of both trade unions and employers? Is it not true that many employers seek such agreements for their own convenience? Have not the Conservatives demonstrated their total opposition to trade union membership by their attitude to the Grunwick dispute?

Mr. Walker

I do not think that the House will want to go back over the saga of Grunwick. If the Opposition wants a debate, I am sure that we would welcome it. My hon. Friend is right about the mutual benefits that stem from a closed shop agreement. A recent study carried out for the Social Science Research Council at Warwick university indicates that many employers find benefits from a closed shop and have a positive interest in entering into such agreements.

Mr. Gow

Will the Minister of State tell the House what changes have occurred in the operation of the closed shop since the agreement of 14 February? Will he say, in particular, whether the Government propose to ask British Rail to reinstate the 43 workers who were dismissed, many of them after a lifetime of service, for the sole presumed offence of their unwillingness to join a trade union?

Mr. Walker

As I have told the hon. Gentleman and the House before, the British Rail case is, I understand, being submitted as a test case to the European Commission for Human Rights. It would be unwise for me to comment on a matter that is, in effect, sub judice. On the hon. Gentleman's more general point, it was pleasing that the TUC reinforced what I have often said in the House about the need to practise a closed shop in a flexible and tolerant way. The joint statement also includes what I have said in the House about persuading people of the merits and benefits of trade union membership and the obligations rather than using other methods to coerce people into membership.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Will my hon. Friend consider introducing measures to protect workers who seek to join a trade union and are dismissed by employers for seeking to do so? Will he encourage workers to join their appropriate trade union as the best way of maintaining their living standards and improving their working conditions?

Mr. Walker

The policy of the Government in industrial relations, as we have repeatedly said, is a system based on collective bargaining conducted by strong trade unions. We believe in encouraging people to join trade unions. Equally, we believe in encouraging employers to allow people to join trade unions and not to penalise them for doing so, as we have seen in some cases. We wish to encourage employers to recognise trade unions. There is little benefit in being a member of a trade union if employers refuse to recognise that union.

Mr. Hayhoe

Can the Minister of State give a single example of a closed shop which is being operated more flexibly as a result of the concordat? Does he not appreciate that the case of Mr. Thompson in West Yorkshire shows that some safeguards at law are required? In my constituency there is the case of Arthur Dungate, who was sacked by the Hounslow borough council two days after the concordat was agreed and yet no action has been taken to operate that closed shop more flexibly. What on earth is the concordat worth in relation to closed shop flexibility?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman might let me have details of the specific case to which he refers. He must not keep shaking and nodding his head. I am merely asking him to let me have the details.

Mr. Hayhoe

The Minister has them.

Mr. Walker

If the hon. Gentleman says that I have them, I must say I have not seen them. I will certainly look at the case he mentions. I have already commented on the Thompson case. I understand that the expulsion has been suspended pending further consideration by the independent review body. That illustrates that the machinery is working effectively. I am convinced that the atmosphere has been changed, as illustrated by the recent declaration of SLADE on its recruitment tactics. I was able to make a statement in the House a week last Friday to show that SLADE, since the concordat, has responded in a positive and constructive way.

Mr. Gow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the gravely unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I give notice that I shall seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment.


Mr. Giles Shaw

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In answer to question No. 5, which was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Bulmer), the Minister of State, Department of Employment referred to my constituent Mr. Joe Thompson and suggested that he was no longer expelled from his union. I am sure that the Secretary of State would in no way wish to deceive the House but the facts of the case are that Mr. Thompson is still expelled from his union. His case has been heard by the Industrial Relations Court once, by his union executive once and he has now been told to go back to the IRC. May I ask the Minister of State through you, Mr. Speaker, to take note of this and to join me in making representations to try to resolve this matter?

Mr. Speaker

I allowed the hon. Gentleman to make his point of order, and it will have been heard.