HC Deb 13 March 1981 vol 1000 cc1174-80

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

2.31 pm
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I wish to raise the case of a constituent in the context of trade union practices with regard to disciplinary hearings. My aim is not merely to draw attention to a particular case of small but significant injustice in the hope that it can yet be corrected but to seek to correct a wider malaise which seems to be threatening at least one of our major trade unions in the hope that others of its members can be protected from the risk of similar injustice.

The case raises important issues of civil liberty in an area for which not only the union but the Government clearly have responsibility.

Colin Banton would describe himself as an ordinary working man. He is 36 years old, married, with four young children. He was, and still is, employed as a shift security officer with Allied Breweries in Burton-on-Trent—one of the great brewing companies in the land, sited in Britain's most important and famous brewing town. He is a member of the Transport and General Workers Union.

Three years ago, when Mr. Banton was off duty, he was shopping in the excellent Allied Breweries social club. He saw two mechanics come into the bar who should have been at work. Since he was off duty he decided not to report the two men. But later, when a transport manager complained to him about the absence of three men from work, Mr. Banton confirmed that he had seen two of them.

A short time later he received a letter from the branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union in Burton, dated 13 October 1978, summoning him to what can only be described as a kangaroo court. The letter reads: At a Branch meeting held on October 18th 1978, a complaint of breaking the union rules was made against you. The branch decided that there was some justification in this complaint, (Rule 11, Clause 19), therefore you are requested to appear before a Branch Committee at Transport House, 2 Horninglow Street on 31st October, 1978 at 7.30 p.m. to answer this allegation. The tribunal then followed a procedure which offends the fundamental rules of natural justice, to say nothing about the rules of the Transport and General Workers Union, in the following ways. First, the letter of summons did not specify what allegation was being made against my constituent. Secondly, the branch appears to have decided that there was some justification in the complaint before Mr. Banton was given a hearing. Thirdly, he was refused representation at the hearing. Fourthly, he was not allowed to be present while his accusers gave their evidence. Fifthly, no complaint had been made in writing to Mr. Banton under rule 20(a) of the Transport and General Workers Union's rules. As one who was there subsequently reported, it was a"put-up job and it stank."

Mr. Banton was subsequently sent a letter on 1 November which reads: After a great deal of deliberation the Branch Committee have decided that you be given a written warning regarding your future conduct, i.e. working outside your terms of reference as a security officer. The Committee will be keeping an eye on the situation in the future. It does not specify those terms of reference, nor do there seem to be any.

Mr. Banton came to see me at one of my regular Saturday morning surgeries. He was rightly concerned that a security officer, who owes his allegiance to his firm, should be held to account by his union, to which he does not owe a comparable allegiance, for doing his job. He was also upset by the kangaroo court.

I accordingly wrote on 29 November 1978 to Mr. Harry Urwin, the assistant general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, saying that I would be most grateful if he would look into this matter and let me know in due course what action he was taking to regularise it. I was particularly concerned that my constituent should not have the admonition contained in the letter of 1 November against him or feel threatened by the implication in the letter.

Two important questions emerged. First, where does a man's primary allegiance lie—with his employer or with his union? Secondly, what was the union going to do about the kangaroo court hearing and the unjust stigma attached to Mr. Banton?

An answer to the first question has not been given to Mr. Banton by the union. I should have thought that it was self-evident that an employee's first duty must be to his employer, or the situation would be too absurd for words. I shall be most interested to hear my hon. and learned Friend's advice on the matter.

The answer to the second question is that the Transport and General Workers Union apparently intends to do nothing about this mean and petty form of injustice. What followed my letter to the union leadership was a sorry saga which hardly sets the union in a creditable light.

The Transport and General Workers Union appears to be inconsiderate of the feelings of its ordinary members, incompetent to control from the centre the performance of its branchies, contemptuous of the rights of individual members and arrogant in its treatment of Members of Parliament who do not share its political views in a matter into which political views should not enter.

The story developed as follows. On 6 December 1978, Harry Urwin courteously replied: You will ses from Rule 20(b), marked on the attached, that Mr. Banton has a right of appeal to the Regional Committee. This is essentially a matter for our Midlands Regional Administration, and I would suggest that you advise Mr. Banton to write to: Mr. Brian Mathers, Regional Secretary, Transport and General Workers Union … West Bromwich. In fact, the rules do not give a right of appeal in this instance, because rule 20(b) states: If a branch, branch committee or divisional committee, as the case may be, imposes a fine for misconduct, or for any of the offences specified in clause 19, the member shall have a right of appeal to the regional committee, whose decision shall be final. I wrote again to Mr. Urwin on 22 December 1978 and I said: With respect, Rule 20(b) would only have given Mr. Banton a right to appeal to the Regional Committee had he been sentenced to a fine for misconduct or otherwise under Rule 19. As was made clear in the letter from the Burton Branch to Mr. Banton of 1 November 1978 the outcome of the 'Kangaroo Court' was to give him a written warning regarding his future conduct. Therefore, it seems that the Regional Committee is not the appropriate body from which I ought to seek clarification, and a reconsideration of my constituent's case, but rather the appropriate target for my letter does indeed seem to be yourself. I would be most grateful if you would reconsider this matter in the terms of my letter of 29 November to you, a copy of which I enclose. On 9 January 1979, Mr. Urwin wrote back saying that Mr. Banton could appeal to the regional committee anyway, since it had full authority to deal with matters of this kind. So I advised Mr. Banton to appeal to the regional committee at Birmingham, which he did, and he was invited to attend a hearing on Tuesday 27 February 1979.

Mr. Banton duly attended, and at the hearing an allegation was made that he had admitted a number of facts. That allegation was untrue, since the facts referred to had never been put to him to admit, and he had been given no copy of such allegations. Some members of the Burton committee who had adjudicated at the first hearing were called in, and Mr. Banton was sent out of the room, so he could not hear what was said. The case was then apparently referred back to the Burton branch.

Almost nine months later, no further action having been taken in the matter, I again wrote on 16 November 1979 to Mr. Urwin, explaining what had and what had not happened. I said: I think it is unfortunate that a trade union of your repute should not have a more regular and efficient method for processing complaints of this kind. I think it unfair that my constituent should have to feel threatened by the admonition in the Burton Branch's letter of 1 November 1978, a copy of which I also enclose. I am anxious that this matter should be disposed of as amicably and expeditiously as possible, and I would ask that the written warning be withdrawn by an authoritative decision from your union. I look forward to hearing from you further. Mr. Urwin was, unfortunately, unwell and my complaint was referred to Mr. Brian Mathers, the regional secretary at West Bromwich. He kindly wrote to me on 21 December 1979 stating that this is a matter for our regional administration and, having carefully examined the various letters, it would appear that there has been no contact, informally or otherwise, between our Union at either Branch or Regional level, since November 1978. If Mr. Banton feels aggrieved, then he is, of course, at liberty to use the constitutional machinery of the Union to have the matter dealt with. I am not aware of any disciplinary action which has been taken against Mr. Banton, who has constitutional rights open to him should he feel aggrieved. So the matter has been dragging on for over a year. Although the case had been referred back to Burton, there had been no contact for over a year between the branch and the region. The regional secretary knew nothing of any disciplinary action against Mr. Banton, although he was, according to Mr. Banton, present at the appeal, as one would expect. There were, apparently, constitutional rights which, if they were additional to those Mr. Banton had already invoked, had not been drawn to his attention.

I was beginning to get angry, and I wrote to Mr. Mathers on 5 February 1980. I said to him: Your letter is most unsatisfactory, and I will be grateful if you will reconsider the matter bearing in mind that I first wrote to Harry Urwin on 29 November 1978, and have been given the run around ever since. I have no wish to cause trouble over this matter but my patience is running out, and I am beginning to think that the apparent organisational incompetence of your Union ought to be given wider publicity if only for the sake of my many constituents who are members. I then set out in careful summary the facts of the matter to date, and I concluded as follows: My constituent has availed himself of his so-called constitutional rights, and got absolutely nowhere. The matter has been batted backwards and forwards between Branch, Region and Head Office without any decision being made. Why has there been no contact between your Union at any level since November 1978? I would be grateful if you would speedily bring this matter to a just conclusion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have been listening with great care. Will he indicate what the ministerial responsibility is for what he has been saying?

Mr. Lawrence

I am reviewing the history so that the Minister should be aware of precisely what happened. Ultimately it is a matter for the Government to decide what should be done about disciplinary hearings to make sure that they are held in accordance with decent and proper practice. I submit, therefore, that this matter falls within the power of the Government.

On 10 June, four months later, I received a reply to that last letter. It made three points: first, that no complaint had been received from Mr. Banton indicating that he had any grievance that he wished to raise concerning matters of discipline; secondly, Mr. Mathers said that he was not personally aware of any disciplinary action which had been taken against Mr. Banton, and pointing out that he was at liberty to raise any issue which he felt ought to be brought to the attention of the regional administration.

Thirdly, Mr. Mathers said: I feel, in any event, that it is for Mr. Banton to deal with the Union direct and I am sure that you will agree that it is most unsatisfactory to transact business through the medium of a third party. In making this latter point, I have no wish to be discourteous, but I am sure you will recognise the realities of the situation. On 19 August 1980, now getting on for two years after the issue first arose, I wrote again to Mr. Mathers: I must… tell you that my patience with this matter, which has been dragging on with no result since November 1978, is very nearly at an end. If I do not receive from either you or the General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union a withdrawal of the written warning given to my constituent, Mr. Banton, by the Burton Branch of the T&GWU on the 1st November 1978, together with an assurance that there will be no more Kangaroo Courts in Burton, I will raise the whole matter of your Union's incompetence in Parliament at the first opportunity in the new Session. I pointed out that it was ridiculous for Mr. Mathers to state that no complaint had been received from Mr. Banton, for complaints had continually been made by me on his behalf since I first wrote to Mr. Harry Urwin on 29 November 1978. Mr. Banton actually attended his appeal on 27 February 1979 pursuant to that complaint.

I pointed out that it was ridiculous for Mr. Mathers to say that he was not personally aware of any disciplinary action since from my letters he must have known that Mr. Banton was summoned to a kangaroo court, given a written warning, and had appealed against that disciplinary action to Mr. Mathers.

I said that it was ridiculous for Mr. Mathers to say that he had had no communication from Mr. Banton, in spite of the lapse of time, because he had had several communications from me on his behalf, and the lapse of time was entirely due to his union organisation's incompetence. I said that Mr. Banton had tried to deal with the union direct, but because he had been given the run-around I had been acting on his behalf. I pointed out, finally, that it was ridiculous for Mr. Mathers to say that it was most unsatisfactory to transact business through the medium of a third party. If that were so, there would be no justification for trade unions negotiating with employers on behalf of workers.

On the same day I wrote to Mr. Moss Evans, who had taken over the leadership of the union. I said: I have been endeavouring to obtain justice for my constituent, from your Union since November 1978, but have received nothing but a run around from officials … My request is that the disciplinary threat be withdrawn, and I be given an assurance that there will be no more Kangaroo courts held by your branch in Burton". I enclosed copies of correspondence and pointed out that, while I had no wish to cause trouble to him over this matter, my patience was running out and that if I did not receive satisfaction I would raise the matter in a debate in Parliament at the first opportunity. I offered to meet him to discuss the matter and trusted that he would give it his full consideration and feel able to act speedily. Mr. Evans replied promptly saying that he was consulting Mr. Mathers and would write to me again as soon as possible.

I then received the following unusual letter from Mr. Mathers, dated 8 September 1980: I am afraid I find your further comments offensive. Your preoccupation with the frivolous matters connected with our exchange of correspondence astounds me. It would better serve the needs of your constituents if you directed your energies to the decisions made which have created two million unemployed and which have caused the worst economic depression for nearly half a century. Please do not preach to us about our decisions when policies which you obviously support are being imposed upon our country for which the government has no mandate. Your reference to Kangaroo Courts is particularly offensive and displays a complete ignorance of the facts. We refute any allegations that the matter concerning Mr. Banton was dealt with other than through the Union's constitutional machinery. We are not, however, surprised at your attitude and will ensure that our parliamentary colleagues are made aware of your views if you are foolish enough to waste the time of the House of Commons with such frivolous issues. I note that the Opposition Benches are empty.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should now come to the part of his speech which deals with what the Minister's responsibility is. I remind him that it would not be in order to suggest legislation in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Lawrence

I am aware of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am not suggesting it. I replied, of course, to that letter. I pointed out that I regarded it as arrogant and ridiculous, that it showed absolutely no concern for the rights of the members of the trade union or for the integrity of the union, and that I thought that it would be viewed with alarm by Mr. Moss Evans.

We have heard not a word a for six months. It is now two and a half years since the matter started, and the injustice remains unrighted. Assurances still have not been given. All that we see is a stubborn and arrogant refusal to do what is fair and right. I consider the behaviour of the Transport and General Workers' Union in this regard to be disgraceful.

I believe that this matter comes within the purview of my hon. and learned—and very patient—Friend. I am aware that Mr. Banton might have a remedy in the courts as there were clear breaches of the rules of natural justice. That course would be costly, however—probably to the taxpayer—and as Mr. Banton did not lose his job, would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In a case such as this, Mr. Banton surely should not have to go to court.

I should like to know from my hon. and learned Friend what confidence others in Mr. Banton's position may have that they are adequately protected. If Mr. Banton's case is anything to go by, there may be hundreds of such people throughout the land who are subject to intimidation of this kind. Had the 1971 industrial relations legislation been in force, a trade union would not have been registered if its rules were not fair and fairly operated. But that is no longer on the statute book.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State introduced a code of practice in relation to closed shops. On page 13, section D, paragraph 50, that code lays down clear and sensible guidelines for disciplinary hearings. Clearly, the code contains good rules even for matters which do not involve expulsion from a union or a closed shop. But what is to ensure that a trade union follows that code of practice? What remedy is there in a case such as that of Colin Banton if the union and its officials simply refuse to do what is right?

Therein lies the problem in our law and our rules at present. What happens if trade unions do not face up to their responsibilities and obligations? If that problem remains unsolved, it will continue to cause anger and distress to many other decent, hard-working and law-abiding trade union members such as Colin Banton of Burton-on-Trent.

2.54 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Waddington)

I can well understand my hon. Friend's concern about this matter and I congratulate him on having brought it to light and on all his efforts on behalf of his constituent.

It seems pretty extraordinary that a union member should be disciplined not for doing anything to the prejudice of his union but—and here I quote the wording of one of the letters which my hon. Friend read out—for working outside his terms of reference as a security officer". It is hard to see how that could be any business of the union at all, let alone fall within the ambit of rule 11, paragraph 19, of the Transport and General Workers Union rules.

It would be a sad state of affairs if union members were to go in fear of disciplinary action for performing their duties as loyal employees, because employees have a duty of loyalty which in my experience is rarely forgotten by them.

Union rules should certainly not be so loosely worded as to give even the impression to misguided and over-enthusiastic branch officers that disciplinary proceedings can properly be brought in such circumstances, let alone have that actual effect. In its reference to"other forms of misconduct'', this rule is loose and vague indeed.

All union members are entitled to feel confident that the rules of their union, and the procedures provided by them, are clear and fair and operate with proper regard to natural justice. They are certainly entitled to have proper notice of the complaints made against them, but no such notice seems to have been given in this case.

I should emphasise that what I am saying is not just the Government's view, It is also that of the TUC, which provided detailed advice to affiliated unions on the subject of disciplinary rules as long ago as 1969. I remind my hon. Friend and the House of what is contained in page 143 of that congress report. It states: A separate rule or section of the rule book should set out the offences for which the union is entitled under the rules to expel or to take other disciplinary action… A separate rule or section of the rule book should prescribe the procedure for the hearing of cases". There must be an opportunity of being heard; a reasonably convenient time and place must be appointed; there must be timely notice, and so on. I hope that the Transport and General Workers Union and its members will carefully examine their rule book to see how far that excellent advice given by the TUC has been followed.

In addition, my hon. Friend pointed out that members have legal rights where there is a breach of union rules and where the operation of disciplinary procedures offend against natural justice. These rights are long-standing and are enforced in the ordinary courts of the land. Although resort to the courts in this way may not be thought an ideal remedy, it is none the less a remedy that has been used to good affect from time to time.

The Government have, of course, legislated. In the Employment Act 1980 they concentrated on the application of union rules where expulsion could cause the loss of a job because a closed shop was in force. Section 4 of the Act spells out the right of a worker not to be unreasonably expelled from a union where a union membership agreement is in force.

Finally, there is the code of practice, published last December, to which my hon. Friend has referred. It offers advice on union rules which is remarkably similar to the advice given by the TUC. That advice is pretty comprehensive. Whether or not there is scope for other action is, I am sure, a matter that will be discussed widely during the consultation period that will now follow the publication of the Green Paper on trade union immunities.

For the time being, I believe that the widest possible publicity should be given to the terms of the code. As time goes on, and as a result of public moneys now being available for ballots, including ballots in respect of the amendment of union rules, one hopes that individual trade union members will play a part in ensuring that rule books contain fair and sensible rules which correspond to TUC advice and the code.

For the moment the Government hope that that advice will be heeded by all unions. We believe that complaints concerning the content and operation of union rules should not be treated frivolously. I trust that Mr. Banton's difficulties will soon be resolved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.