HC Deb 07 February 1986 vol 91 cc571-4 11.31 am
The Minister of State, Treasury (Mr. Peter Brooke)

I have been asked to make a statement concerning the position of non-industrial Civil Service trade unions and their possible establishment of political funds.

Political funds are unnecessary unless the Civil Service trade unions are proposing to participate in party political activities or to campaign for or against political parties or candidates. Provided this is not the main purpose of their campaign material or activities, they remain free, like other trade unions, to spend money from their general funds to promote and to defend their members' interests. This was the position before the Trade Union Act 1984 came into force and remains the position now.

If, wholly unexpectedly, unions were to experience difficulties in the courts on challenges that money had been wrongly spent from their general funds of activities to defend or improve their members' terms and conditions of employment, the Government would be ready to contemplate changing the law.

Any union that proposed to establish a political fund would have to consult its members by secret ballot. It is important that, in casting their votes, all union members are fully aware that a fund is not necessary unless party political activities are planned. Union members should know also that the creation of such funds will not be seen as in keeping with the political neutrality of a Civil Service that has to serve Governments of any political persuasion. Moreover, in the Government's view, political affiliation — a further but separate possible step — would run wholly counter to this need for political neutrality.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the Government's view is that these ballots are not about affiliation to the Labour Party? Is he aware that the question that members of some Civil Service unions are about to answer is set by the certification officer, a Government official? Does he agree that members of the Civil Service unions in question are being asked whether they should be allowed, not forced, to pay into a political fund?

Will the hon. Gentleman agree that, if it is acceptable for companies which advocate and benefit from privatisation to have a voice in Parliament through their links with Members of Parliament, it is right for those workers who will suffer and have suffered from privatisation to have a view?

Is it not plain that the proposition in the statement—that, if a union is taken to court on the ground that its general funds had been wrongly spent on activities to defend or to improve its members' terms and conditions of employment and the union suffers a massive setback in the courts, the Government will then consider the position — is completely unacceptable? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that no union can possibly act on the basis of hope but no certainty that its activities are legal? The hon. Gentleman's comments are utterly and completely unreasonable.

Is it not quite staggering that the Government who have passed legislation and insisted on changes in the Trade Union Act 1913 have now made a statement which implies that they do not know what their own legislation means? If the Government are not sure what it means, how can the unions know?

As for the references to political neutrality, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Civil Service Union and the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, both of which are about to hold a political ballot, are in the "politically free" category? Is he aware that, when the Post Office was a Government Department, the then Union of Post Office Workers, which is now the Union of Communication Workers, and the then Post Office Engineering Union, which is now the National Communications Union, had political funds? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the industrial Civil Service is represented by trade unions such as the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, and the Transport and General Workers Union, virtually all of which have political funds?

There can be no justification for the statement. The Minister should withdraw it at once.

Mr. Brooke

The reason why I made a statement was that I was asked to make one. I congratulate the hon. Lady on having asked a series of questions that was considerably longer than my statement.

The provision in the Trade Union Act 1984 which brought the 1913 Act up to date has not altered the freedom of trade unions to promote or to defend their members' interests where the main purpose of such activities is not party political. Questions on interpretation of that legislation are, of course, for my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General and Minister for Employment.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does the Minister recall that, during the passage of the 1984 legislation, we constantly complained about the ambiguity in the legislation on balloting for political funds?

The Paymaster General and Minister for Employment (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)


Mr. Steel

Yes. We pressed for a clear indication in the law that people should be allowed individually to contract in to political funds for the purpose of supporting political parties. The Government refused to do that. They brought this ambiguity on themselves. Surely the current position is that the political funds are not wholly in existence to support political parties. Indeed, the unions have won the ballots on the basis of that statement. The Minister is wrong. Have not the Government doubly brought this ambiguity on themselves by creating such antagonism, generally and individually, in the Civil Service?

Mr. Brooke

The ambiguity to which the right hon. Gentleman refers does not exist. There has not been a change since the 1913 Act. It is for the right hon. Gentleman to demonstrate, in terms of the wording of the 1913 Act compared with the 1984 Act, that such a change has occurred.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

Why has it taken more than five months and a threat of legal action for the Inland Revenue to confirm that it will meet the obligations imposed by the 1984 Act on every employer to co-operate in the arrangements for holding these ballots on political funds? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as the Inland Revenue Staff Federation has received legal advice which is the total opposite of the Government's interpretation of the law, it would be better for the federation's members to establish a political fund in case a judge at some time in the future disagrees, as he would be entitled to do, with the Government's interpretation of the law? Is it not better for the union's funds to be safe than for the Government to be sorry?

Mr. Brooke

The requests from the Inland Revenue Staff Federation are essentially matters for the chairman of the Inland Revenue. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the correspondence between the concerned groups. To determine the amount of assistance that it is reasonable for a Government Department to provide for campaigns relating to a ballot for a political fund and conduct thereof is a serious question. We are dealing with a novel issue.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Does the Minister realise that his statement was misleading? Does he recall that the 1913 Act, which established the need for political funds within trade unions, was a means of trying to constrain political activity, and it in fact failed? Does he remember that his 1984 proposals tried to put that right and failed yet again? Is not the statement a means of trying to redeem what has already been a complete failure? Is it not a fitting finale to a week of catastrophe for the Government which will herald a change not just of Prime Minister but of the party in government?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman seems to be going rather wide of the question that I am addressing. I repeat that the law relating to political funds in the 1984 Act has not changed from that in the 1913 Act.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Is that not a bare-faced attempt by the Government to head off the prospects of a victory in the ballots organised by the IRSF and CSU to establish political funds to defend their members' interests against the constant denigration by the Prime Minister and her Government of the Civil Service role? How can the Minister claim that a political fund leads, inevitably, to party political affilitation when a few moments ago he drew the distinction between a political fund and affiliation to a political party? Will he confirm that it is open to any trade union to establish a political fund without affiliating subsequently to a political party?

Mr. Brooke

As I said in my statement, I acknowledge that separate issues are involved. The Government are making known their views about the establishment of political funds. Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, provided the law is complied with fully, the matter is entirely for the members of the trade unions involved.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Will the Minister confirm that the object of the exercise is to prevent Civil Service unions campaigning on issues which affect the future of their members? In those circumstances, is it not preposterous for him to suggest that he is not trying to inhibit such activity when he is talking about them spending money on the production, publication and distribution of any literature, document, film, sound recording or advertisement, the main purpose of which is to get people to do something—to wit, to vote? If the closure of a Civil Service unit is threatened directly by one political party and not the other, is it not absurd to say that the people working there cannot campaign and use their money to save those jobs by saying that they should vote for one person and not the other?

Mr. Brooke

My constituency neighbour has missed the point. The purpose of the statement is to make it clear that the activities which the hon. Gentleman has described are properly fundable out of general funds.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The Minister made the point that the general fund could be used as long as it was not used for party political purposes. Has not the change that has taken place under this Government in relation to the Civil Service become party political? Was not one of the Prime Minister's earliest phobias the Civil Service, with a selective public pay policy and her campaign against public sector pensions? Are not the Civil Service unions genuinely questioning how far they can use their general funds to protect themselves against the Prime Minister's meddling?

Mr. Brooke

The law remains the law. The purpose of the statement was to bring home the fact that the activities in which the Civil Service may wish to enter, provided they are not party political, can be funded out of general funds.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that as a result of his statement he has almost certainly given an added boost to the prospect of success in the ballots? Is it not a scandal that we have a Government who have been telling civil servants that it is their job to defend Ministers all down the line but that they are not allowed to defend themselves against the Minister by having a political fund? Why are civil servants picked out for special treatment? They occasionally have to suffer the sack. They have to fight for their wages. They have to do all the things that many other workers have to do. Some of them need to buy Labour Research, like the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Social Democrats who used all the information from it this morning for the point of order that he raised.

Mr. Brooke

As I said in my statement, union members should also know that the creation of such funds will not be seen as being in keeping with the political neutrality of the Civil Service which has to serve Governments of any political persuasion. The Government have made the statement merely to have those issues of public interest in the public domain.