HC Deb 22 February 1984 vol 54 cc833-5 4.13 pm
Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prevent employers from taking action against employees for being members of a trade union; and for connected purposes. I declare an interest as I am the parliamentary adviser to the Civil Service Union, which has the largest membership at the Government communications headquarters in Cheltenham. Last month, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made a statement in the House designed to deprive employees at GCHQ of their right to join a trade union. If they refuse to accept the changes in their conditions of service, they will be offered a transfer; if they refuse to accept a transfer, they will be sacked without compensation. Although the Secretary of State did not admit that in his initial statement, he was forced to admit it later.

To try to sell that squalid deal to the workers at Cheltenham, the Foreign Secretary offered a bribe of £1,000 per trade union membership card. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told us that more than 50 per cent. of employees at Cheltenham had already accepted that offer. However, that is disputed by trade union representatives of the Civil Service. The general secretary of the Civil Service Union, Mr. John Sheldon, has rightly described the Government's bribe as Judas money.

The proposal came out of the blue. It was a unilateral decision and did not emerge from genuine consultation between the Government and the Civil Service trade unions. It appears that a decision was reached without consideration by the full Cabinet. The legality of the decision may also be questionable. On the face of it, it appears to be against the international labour convention. In evidence to the Select Committee on Employment, the TUC said that it had received advice to that effect from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The Foreign Secretary has denied that. He insists that what he is doing is legal and in accord with international conventions. In view of the dubiety of that, further legislation should be brought forward to clarify the rights of all employees on trade union membership.

My Bill would outlaw the sort of conduct of which the Foreign Secretary has been guilty. If any hon. Members are worried about the implications for national security, I can tell them that my Bill would not preclude the possibility of special arrangements for national security and security staff, but without using the draconian resort of bribing staff to give up their trade union membership. Indeed, I understand that the trade unions at Cheltenham have offered some concessions. Unfortunately, there has been no positive response from this intransigent Government. I hope that, when the Prime Minister meets the trade unions again tomorrow, she will reconsider the matter.

Some elements in the Government and the Conservative party are obsessed with the idea that trade union membership per se is a potential security risk. That is a gross insult to the trade union movement and its members, especially those at Cheltenham. It is also a gross insult to millions of trade union members, past and present, throughout the country who have given and are giving loyal and dedicated service to their country. Many of them have lived for their country, given service to their country and, in some instances, died for their country. The trade union movement grossly resents any implication that trade union membership presents a security risk. if the Government are really hellbent on looking for spies, traitors and disloyal people, they should bear in mind recent history and look at what has come out of the public schools and the Cambridge union, rather than any trade union.

My Bill is designed to deal not only with the position at Cheltenham. It would prohibit any employer in the public or private sectors from taking action to reduce the rights of an employee simply because that employee happens to be a member of a trade union. It is important that the Bill is so comprehensive, because many trade unionists see the action being taken by the Government at Cheltenham as the thin end of the wedge.

Tomorrow, for example, many hundreds of Civil Service trade unionists will be coming from all over the country to lobby Parliament. Unfortunately, it appears that the Government have prohibited trade unionists from GCHQ from joining in that lobby. They will be coming primarily in support of, and showing solidarity for, their trade union colleagues at Cheltenham. However, many of them are also concerned for their own situation. If the Cheltenham battle is lost, who will be next in line for deprivation of trade union membership? There is fear that it might not be confined to the Civil Service. There are many people employed in other essential services—for example, in the National Health Service, often working in a life or death situation, many of them good and responsible trade unionists—who may be worrying lest they are next in line for a change in legislation that might deprive them of their trade union membership rights. There are some ruthless employers in the private sector who would grab at any opportunity to deprive a whole work force of the opportunity of joining, or retaining membership of, a trade union.

Since the Tories took office in 1979 we have seen a whole series of attacks on the trade union movement. We have witnessed anti-trade union legislation designed to weaken the power of the movement to do what has historically been its role and duty to do, which is to look after the interests of its members. Apart from legislative measures, we have seen the deliberate use of mass unemployment to try to break the back of the trade union movement. We have also seen attempts, made through the media, to try to manipulate public opinion and to Instill in people's minds the belief that the trade union movement—or certain elements of it—is anti-social, antidemocratic and even subversive.

The latest action by the Government is designed to deprive some workers of their rights to join a trade union. The Government have denied that that has anything to do with pressure from the United States, but it is important to remember that our foreign and defence policy is much influenced, and in some cases dictated, by an American president who, not long ago, was responsible for having trade union members literally in chains. That occurred during the air traffic controllers' dispute in the United States.

We have a British Prime Minister who claims to be a champion and defender of freedom. She is on record as saying that she believes in a free trade union movement in eastern Europe. Many of my hon. Friends and are on record as believing in the right of a free trade union movement in eastern Europe, and in particular standing up in defence of the Solidarity trade union in Poland. But we will not follow the bad example of the Prime Minister in having double standards in this regard. We believe in a free trade union movement in Britain as well, and that means people having the freedom to join a union and to retain their membership of it, irrespective of pressures from any employer, be it a private or public sector employer.

I appeal to all who believe in genuine freedom, in a genuinely free trade union movement and in people having the freedom to join and retain their membership of a free trade union to support me in this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Gordon Brown, Mr. Eddie Loyden, Mr. Robert Parry, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. Robert Litherland, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. John Maxton and Mr. Tom Clarke.