HC Deb 02 April 1984 vol 57 cc764-73

`Where a trade union has established a political fund in accordance with the provisions of the Trade Union Act 1913 as amended ("the 1913 Act") and in accordance with the provisions of this Act, it shall be unlawful for an employer (or other person acting on his behalf) to make deductions from the wages, salary or other remuneration paid to a member of that trade union in respect of such contributions'.—[Mr. George Gardiner.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we may take the following amendments to the proposed new clause:

Amendment (a), at end add 'unless he has first received a signed declaration from the employee requiring him to make such a deduction'.

Amendment (b), at end add 'when that trade union member has signified, in writing, that he or she does not wish to pay the political levy.'.

We may also take new clause 10—Deduction of levy by employer— 'The following subsection shall be inserted in subsection (3) of Section 5 of the Trade Union Act 1913 (3) Where there is an arrangement between an employer and a trade union for an employee's trade union contributions, including the political contribution, to be deducted from his salary or wages, that employer must obtain the permission of the trade union member for the deduction of the political levy. The trade union may not request the deduction of the levy from trade unionists who have signified they do not want to pay it.".'.

Mr. Gardiner

We are here concerned with the collection of the political levy. When we were debating the previous new clause, frequent accusations were made by Opposition Members to the effect that we on these Benches were adopting a particularly vindictive and critical attitude and that in advancing our arguments we were motivated by some feelings of spite or excessive criticism towards trade unions and their practices.

I wish at the outset to assure Opposition Members that I shall be critical not only of certain union practices but of the practices resorted to by some employers. Perhaps I should explain initially the background to the new clause. It concerns the system by which employers frequently reach agreements with trade unions to make a check-off from employees' pay packets at source. This check-off covers not only trade union dues but whatever political levy has been agreed within the trade union.

We find objectionable the practice of a number of employers, particularly large ones, and in the public sector, who refuse to distinguish when making this checkoff between those of their employees who have contracted out of paying the political levy and those who have not. Therefore, we have the scandalous situation in which it is possible for an employee and a member of a trade union to exercise his right to contract out and yet find himself powerless to stop his employer from deducting the political levy from his earnings at source. The principle aim we had in mind when we drafted the new clause was to end that scandalous situation.

When we debated the last new clause, Opposition Members claimed that there was no evidence that difficulties were placed in the way of trade union members in exercising their right to contract out. Lest that charge be made against this new clause, I shall refer to a few classic cases that illustrate the malpractice to which I refer.

There was the case of Mr. Jack Cleminson, the son of a Durham miner and a member of the POEU, who opted out of the political levy to the Labour party every year but who nevertheless found the Post Office consistently deducting it from his pay. When he referred to his local union officials, they told him to claim the money back from union headquarters. Eventually Mr. Cleminson managed to get his money back, 12 years after he had begun to pay it.

There was the case of Mr. Douglas Reeves, a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, who was an aircraft loading supervisor at London airport. He had the political levy deducted from his pay by British Airways for several years, despite his decision to opt out of paying it, and when he asked his employers if supporting the Labour party was a condition of employment, they told him to ask his shop steward.

Another more recent case was that of Miss A. Elliott, a member of SOGAT who worked for the Bowater Scott Corporation. She, too, found that, although she had contracted out, the political levy was consistently deducted from her wages under arrangements made between the union and the employer. Only after she had taken the case to the certification officer was the situation remedied.

More recently still, in the latter part of last year, employees of certain local authorities discovered that whether or not they contracted out of the levy the employers insisted on deducting it at source.

That is the scandal that we had in mind in framing the new clause. We wished to ensure that no union member who contracted out of the levy would find the decision effectively negated by a deal reached between the trade union and the employer.

The scandal goes still further. It takes an especially dedicated trade union member and employee to go to all the trouble of fighting both employer and union to get back money that should never have been deducted. Indeed, there is little incentive for trade union members to exercise the right to opt out in the first place if they know that the levy will still be deducted from their pay packets.

Although that was our main objective, the new clause as drafted would prohibit all deduction of political levy at source by employers, which goes considerably further than would he required to meet the cases that I have described. We drafted the clause more broadly because over the years a number of employers have argued that with very large work forces and payrolls it is difficult to distinguish between those paying full union dues plus political levy and those paying union dues but not wishing to pay the political levy. To relieve them of that task of differentiation we decided to frame the new clause in such a way as to relieve them of the task of deducting the political levy altogether. Many also asked why employers should effectively act as agents or collectors of funds for the Labour party without even charging the unions for the service provided. Nevertheless, our primary objective was to end the scandal of union members opting out of the levy but having it deducted from their pay packets all the same.

Amendment (b) in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) and other colleagues seeks to narrow the impact of the new clause to deal with the scandalous cases that I have described. In view of our prime objective in drafting the new clause, I find that amendment entirely acceptable. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State either to accept the new clause with amendment (b) or to accept the spirit of it and to take appropriate action to fulfil it in another place.

Beyond all that, the iniquitous practices to which I have dawn attention are contrary to our manifesto commitment and, indeed, the Secretary of State's commitment since to ensure a free and effective choice for union members over payment of the political levy. This practice should be eradicated at the earliest opportunity so that never again can a large employer and a trade union effectively connive to rob an individual worker of his or her rights.

12 midnight

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

May I declare an interest? [HON. MEMBERS: "Do not be too long".] I shall speak for as long as it takes me to make my point.

This is a vicious act. The fact that it is being taken late at night is the fault not of the Opposition but of those who want to bulldoze the legislation through the House.

I have been the political officer of the Post Office Engineering Union since the middle 1960s. I object strongly to the language that was used by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner). There has been no agreement between what was the Post Office and is now British Telecom and the Post Office and the Post Office Engineering Union. On all occasions the advice from the union's head office to branches has been to facilitate the withdrawal of those who do not want to pay the political levy. That has always been the advice.

Over the years the POEU has dealt with millions in the trade union movement. Conservative Members produce five or six cases of bad administration and try to generalise and make a general principle. If we were to look at the conduct of companies and draw the attention of the House to the number of malpractices which take place on the boards of directors and among senior managers and then draw general conclusions for British industry, Conservative Members would be irate. They would say that such examples were not typical but were failures in a system that was otherwise fair.

The POEU does not collect its political levy for the Labour party. The POEU, when it conducted its ballot successfully in the middle 1960s, argued forcefully for a political fund because it wanted political representation. The members wanted the union's voice to be heard in the House on subjects such as pay, the future of telecommunications, and health and safety. That was why the political contribution was raised and why there was a ballot. The Labour party is the means by which the union obtained political representation. The primary point is to have that political representation.

Is it wrong for the union and workers to be represented by the Labour party when, through individual after individual on the Tory Benches, big business is represented? Is it wrong for the worker's voice to be heard from the Labour Benches when the directors speak day in and day out from the Conservative Benches? Those who speak for the City, for big business, for commerce, even those who speak for the small shopkeeper, want to continue to speak in the House for their special interests, but they want to deny those who speak for workers the right and the ease to speak from the Labour Benches.

That is what the legislation is about. It is about crippling the trade union movement. The political funds of the unions are small compared with what they ought to be. I have not understood in my time as a political officer how many people contract out. The figures of those who contract out—those who have found no difficulties of the kind about which Conservative Members have told us —illustrate that thousands find it simple enough to fill in a form and to submit it to their head office. Thousands upon thousands are able to do that. They are wrong to do it, because, by so doing, they reduce the effectiveness of their union, but at least they are able to do it, and they do it effectively.

This clause is a wrecking clause, and the hon. Member for Reigate knows it. A few years ago, Governments, both Conservative and Labour, employers and trade unions decided that it would be in the interests of industrial efficiency, and in the interests of the trade union movement, if union contributions could be deducted from wages at source. The check-off system was introduced to facilitate industrial relations and to assist the orderly conduct of trade union business. When the check-off system was introduced, the collecting system of the unions was dismantled. Conservative Members have sought to introduce a system whereby employers cannot deduct the political contribution at source. It would place an intolerable burden upon trade unions to create a collecting system for that part of the contribution which is allocated to the political fund. It is an attempt to wreck and to take away the political fund from the unions. This has to be resisted, and it has to be fought.

For trade unionists, so much is determined in the House. Wages in the public sector have been determined more in Whitehall than in negotiations between employers and trade unions for many years past. For trade unions in the public sector, representation in Parliament is essential. It is as essential as having bargainers to go and talk to management. For those who are interested in health and safety, it is not the negotiations with employers that are important; it is the fight for the health and safety legislation that has taken place in the House.

I could speak at greater length on the virtues of political parliamentary representation in the House for working people. I will not do so. I know that we are in Parliament to speak for working people, and that we are here to make certain that the aims and the aspirations of the trade unions are heard. Conservative Members do not understand these aspirations. They cannot understand what it is to speak for working people. I would waste my voice to try to explain to them the importance of worker representation. All that I know is that one has only to look at the volume of the declaration of interests to know that Conservative Members are always speaking for a vested interest. The difference between their vested interest and ours is that they speak for individuals, for capital and wealth, while we speak for the good of the working people, and we shall continue to do that.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

I am venturing to intrude into this debate from the majestic platform of three years as president of the Greater London trade unionists.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

How many of them are there?

Mr. Stevens

More than the hon. Gentleman would think.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) was saying, as it implied that my right hon. and hon. Friends do not want to see the voice of the working man represented in the House, although the voice of the working man is not the exclusive property of Labour Members. I wish that there were more genuine representatives of the working man on the Labour Benches—we rather liked the old-fashioned Member of that type and regret his passing.

I rejoice in the success of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in obtaining undertakings from the general council of the TUC on contracting in and contracting out. The principle that we are discussing with the new clause and its amendments is based on the same theories. I am interested to see that whereas the Liberal-SDP alliance has tabled an amendment that requires trade unionists to contract in, the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) and others requires them to contract out. In other words, it is the more magnanimous of the two amendments, and the late Mr. Stanley Baldwin, a great man, would have approved of it.

If the British people have a single, recognisable characteristic that distinguishes them from others, it is their sense of fairness. It is right that the people of our country, be they trade unionists or not, should hear that voice come from this House as the voice of fairness. Incidentally, Labour Members who have been trimming the pants off major companies might like to give them a pat on the back for collaborating in the collection of union dues, which we are now discussing. There should be no difficulty, in accordance with amendment (b), which I and Conservative trade unionists support, in these days of the computer, in deleting from the subtractions from earnings the political fund for those who have said in writing that they do not wish to pay it. It is no longer reasonable to say that it is too difficult for major employers not to deduct the levy in the case of those who do not want to subscribe to it.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will reflect the overwhelming majority of fair—minded hon. Members in the Division that has just concluded by accepting the principle on deductions by employers. That practice suits everyone. I do not question the good faith of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme in saying what a nuisance it would be for everyone if the practice ceased. We should support the continuation of that practice with the proviso that those who do not wish to pay the levy can opt out.

12.15 am
Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

The hon. Gentleman may know that, for a considerable number of years, I was the political officer for a million political levy-paying members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. One could count on two hands the number of complaints we received. Those who wanted to contract out had no difficulty in not paying the political levy to the union. Not one of those million members had the right to contract out of paying the political levy to the Tory party for purchases needed.

Mr. Stevens

That was an interesting intervention, but I do not entirely understand its relevance to the points that I and my hon. Friends are trying to make. It may have been difficult 10, 20 or 30 years ago to distinguish between employees who wished to pay the political levy and those who did not, but it is not difficult any more. It is simple and fair. I and my hon. Friends commend amendment (b) to the House.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I have been present in the Chamber throughout the debate, except for one short interval. I have been struck by the way in which the Labour Members have continued to assume that they have a God-given right to rush to the support of every trade unionist and to have it made as easy as possible for them to collect large sums of money from trade union members. In the real world, that certainty is cracking. Labour Members are extremely anxious about where the political loyalties of trade union members lie. They are equally worried, therefore, about possible sources of income. Throughout the debate, both in the Chamber and in Standing Committee, Labour Members have claimed that the purchase of votes in the Labour party councils is no concern of the people interested in this legislation. That aspect is, however, part and parcel of the whole debate.

Labour Members who claim that companies are contributing to the Conservative party pay no heed to the fact that no company, no matter how large its contribution, can buy political influence within the Conservative party by that mechanism. The purchase of political power is an integral part of the Labour party's constitution.

It is greatly to be preferred that we should advance as far as possible along the path of consensus in this matter. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has created an agreement on the political levy with the Trades Union Congress. That agreement is yet another necessary attempt to obtain the type of partnership between trade unions and the Government without which the country would continue to be divided, and eventually it would be brought down. Similarly, I believe that it is reasonable for trade union members to negotiate with their employers the right to have their subscriptions collected at source. I also believe in the spirit of new clause 6—that it is entirely wrong for employers nowadays to continue to deduct the political levy when an employee has signified his wish not to have it deducted. I shall support the new clause.

The lasting impression with which the debate has left me is that the Labour party feels thoroughly, and rightly, alarmed that its grip on the trade union movement has finally begun to shift. I believe that it has shifted irreversibly. I believe that that has nothing to do with the trade union legislation; it has to do with the realisation that, contrary to what Opposition Members continue to assert, trade union members are realising in increasing numbers that they are better represented by parties other than the party which claims so stridently to represent the working man but whose policies consistently sell him short.

Mr. Renton

I should like to speak in support of amendment (b) to the new clause which stands in my name and the names of my hon. Friends. I was surprised that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), in one of his shorter but passionate speeches, felt that new clause 6 and the amendment to which I am now speaking were likely to wreck the trade union movement.

Mr. Golding


Mr. Renton

No, it is my turn.

Mr. Golding


Mr. Renton

No, I shall not give way.

Mr. Golding


Mr. Renton

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am surprised that he should be so wrought up by this modest new clause. Is he that frightened——

Mr. Golding

Is the hon. Gentleman asking me a question?

Mr. Renton

Is the hon. Gentleman so frightened or such a stranger to the trade union movement? We are suggesting something that does not hit or hurt the trade unions. It is an inhibition and restraint on employers. We are saying that, when a trade unionist has signified to his employer—I add the words "in writing"—that he does not wish to pay the political levy, the employer should not be entitled to continue deducting it. What is wrong with that? Why does not the hon. Gentleman, who has been a vociferous supporter——

Mr. Golding


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would help if the hon. Member did not persist in asking questions of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding).

Mr. Renton

Thank you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall finish this long question and then I shall give way to the hon. Member. With ad his experience of supporting workers in the Post Office Engineering Union, he knows that there have been instances when the Post Office has been told by individuals, like Jack Cleminson, who have paid the political levy that they want to opt out of it. However, the levy was deducted from him for 12 years. Why will not the hon. Gentleman support an amendment that will stop that by preventing employers from carrying on that practice in future?

Mr. Golding

If the hon. Gentleman reads Hansard he will see what I said. I was talking about the new clause. I referred to it as a wrecking clause. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me to speak on amendment (b), I will happily do so. I did not do so in my original speech. It is important, from the point of view of keeping union records and keeping the books straight, that the union—I accept the agreement that the Secretary of State has reached with the TUC, and I shall do my best to implement it to the full —should know the precise status of each member. One of the difficulties of the clause is that different information can be given to the employer and to the trade union. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for speaking for so long, but I was asked about something that I did not refer to in my speech.

Mr. Renton

That intervention was very helpful. The House will have understood the hon. Gentleman to mean that by and large he is prepared to support amendment (b), subject to the clear proviso that both employer and trade union must know where they stand as far as the individual employee/trade unionist is concerned. Therefore, I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) that if, in particular, a potentially new member of a trade union signs a contracting-out form, it should be attached in duplicate to the membership form, so that one copy goes to the trade union and one to the employer. There would then be no question about where everyone stood.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, with his knowledge of trade union affairs, will know, but as many hon. Members may not know, the employer shrinks from having any responsibility for knowing which employees have opted out of the political levy. The employer says quite easily that that is the trade union's responsibility. I have with me a letter from the Central Electricity Generating Board, which is a major employer in the public sector. It is dated 10 October, and it makes the point crystal clear. It says: The Board has operated a 'check off' facility for many years whereby it deducts trade union subscriptions at source for employees at their request. The relevant trade unions notify the Board periodically of the subscription rates in operation including those for employees who do not pay one of the standard rates. It is a matter for the employee and his trade union to determine which rate he pays. The Board does not therefore need to identify employees who have opted out of the political levy for the purpose of deducting trade union subscriptions at source. That is the nub of the argument. The company does not currently have responsibility for doing that, and it does not try to find out. It tells the trade unionist that, if he has opted out, he must seek recompense from his trade union. That may be made months or years in arrears. We want to correct that inequity.

In passing, as president of the CTU, I should say that I am very glad that some of my hon. Friends who are active in it have already spoken. As was made clear in the representations made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment in May of last year on the Green Paper entitled "Democracy in the Trade Unions", we totally support the view that contributions to political funds should be by consent. Obviously that can be achieved by contracting in. We have already discussed that. However, it can also be achieved by making absolutely certain that those who have contracted out do not have to go on paying, and do not have to go to their trade union official once a month or once a quarter to make a political statement, saying "My employer refuses to cease deducting the political levy, and so I have to go to you once a quarter and ask for it back." That is clearly an injustice.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)


Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman will be able to make his contribution in a minute if he so wishes. We wish to ensure that, when the employee or trade unionist has given notice of his wish to opt out, the employer does not continue to deduct the political levy. That is the nub of the argument. In suggesting that, we are quite simply asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to right a wrong that should have been righted a very long time ago. I hope that he will consider the new clause, appropriately amended, in that light.

12.30 am
Mr. Tom King

I have listened to the speeches of a number of hon. Members on this point, including those of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner), who moved the new clause, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) who spoke to the amendment to it. It may be helpful if I now make it clear that, while I could not accept the new clause unamended, I certainly accept that, as amended by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, it amounts to a proposition that was referred to in the Green Paper. It identifies a situation that is quite unacceptable.

My hon. Friends will not be surprised to hear me say that, yet again, there are technical deficiencies in the drafting which make it impossible for me to accept the new clause and the amendment as they stand. I undertake, however, to redraft them so that the Government can table in another place an amendment—or, more probably, a new clause—which would seek to ensure that, where a member of a trade union has properly notified his employer that he has contracted out, it will no longer be lawful, as it is at the moment, for the employer to continue to check off the levy without any redress being available to that member.

Where a member has properly contracted out, and has so notified his employer, it will then not be lawful for the employer to continue to make deductions from his pay. I am sure that all my right hon. and hon. Friends are aware, as I am, of cases in which people who have felt strongly enough about the matter to seek to obtain remission have encountered considerable difficulties in getting their subscriptions back. There have been one or two exemplary illustrations of those difficulties. In one case, it took 10 years for a gentleman to recover his subscriptions. That is unacceptable.

I give my hon. Friends that assurance, and I hope that, on that basis, my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the motion at the appropriate moment.

Mr. John Smith

Clearly the Secretary of State has made a concession to his hon. Friends which will mean that there is unlikely to be a vote on the new clause tonight and that other proposals will be put forward in another place and will come back here for further consideration as a Lords amendment. I shall reserve my detailed judgment until the shape of the Secretary of State's proposal becomes apparent.

I have not myself been persuaded that it is necessary to change the law on the matter. The ink is hardly dry on the TUC's "Statement of Guidance", which was welcomed by the Secretary of State. Under paragraph 4 of that agreement, unions will ensure that members who do not wish to pay the levy do not do so inadvertently (eg under check-off arrangements). Clearly the question of changing the law was not focused upon very closely in the discussions with the TUC. It would be more sensible for the Secretary of State to rest, in this as in other matters, upon the undertakings given by the TUC in the "Statement of Guidance" than to rush to change the law. This appears to be a problem for the employers rather than anyone else. One wonders how efficient their systems can be, if they have to be so inflexible. To make an offence of a matter which should be dealt with by common sense seems to be going too far. However pressing the Secretary of State's political problems may be, he should not rush to change the law. He should discuss the matter further either with the trade unions or with the employers before making hasty changes.

Mr. Gardiner

I thank my right hon. Friend for his undertaking. I hope that he is not dissuaded by the argument of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith). In view of his undertaking, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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