§ Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)
I begin by apologising for the state of my voice. Yesterday, I was visiting nursing homes in my constituency and the combination of the deafness of the inmates and my attempts to communicate with them has resulted in my finding it difficult to address the House. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of trade unions and industrial relations. I believe that it is of great importance as we discuss the next step forward in the Government's plans for trade union reform.
In May 1979, the Government were presented with a situation of chaotic trade union power and militancy which had been encouraged by labour legislation between 1974 and 1976. The unions had excessive bargaining power which led to wage demands far outstripping inflation. Strike was the only response and trade union immunity from legal action had been so extended that as a result industrial action was licensed even if it were directed against those far removed from the dispute.
While there has been much play from the Liberal party and elsewhere that we should not dwell on the events of the period 1977–79, my right hon. and hon. Friends should spend some time considering those matters as they consider their plans for the future. It is constructive to remember that in 1977 a Gallup poll showed that 53 per cent. of the population believed that Jack Jones was more powerful than the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), who was a much younger man then. Some 76 per cent. thought that the country was in a serious economic difficulty and, despite the Lib-Lab pact, 73 per cent. thought that the Liberals had little or no influence on Government policy.
I must not dwell on those unhappy times. Suffice it to say that matters came to a head in 1979 with the infamous winter of discontent when the myth that Labour could work with the unions was finally laid to rest. Action taken by workers involved strikes in the motor and haulage industries, bakeries, on the railways and in local authorities. Cancer patients were turned away from hospitals, refuse was piled high in the streets, while pickets blocked entry of food into our ports. Ambulance men threatened to refuse to answer 999 calls and, in Liverpool, even the dead lay unburied.
The Prime Minister of the day openly admitted that the Government were impotent to reduce unemployment. Mrs. Williams cheerfully admitted that there wasno real answer to the rising youth unemployment.Today, she tells a different tale.
§ Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House precisely what the unemployment figure was when the last Labour Prime Minister made that statement? If he cannot tell us, I will tell him. It was 1,300,000. It had come down every month since 1977. Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell us what the unemployment figure is now, after eight years of Tory Government?
§ Mr. Forsyth
I can do rather better. I can tell the hon. Gentleman what a Minister in his Government said in 1978, writing in the Glasgow Herald. One of his colleagues predicted that there would be 3 million unemployed within five years and said that to blame any Government for that did not get us very far. He went on to demonstrate that 237 it was part of the demographic effect. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will be able to confirm that a Minister in their Government predicted that there would be 3 million unemployed. Under his Government, unemployment doubled and the leader of his party claimed that they were impotent to reduce unemployment.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman should read the writings of his colleague the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan), who was quite authoritative on that matter.
When they were elected, the Conservative Government were determined not only to tackle the problems of unemployment but to restore the balance of industrial relations between the employers and the trade unions, which had been so distorted under Labour. They also wanted to make union leaders more accountable to members.
With all the talk from the Liberal-SDP alliance of the need to have pacts to moderate Governments, the period of the Lib-Lab pact did not restore Britain's economic fortunes or bring the trade unions to heel. The pact's aims were to make some progress in devolution, to get direct elections to the European Parliament under proportional representation and to get through the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act. Only the last of those aims was achieved, with a shoddy, ill-drafted measure which has created immense misery and the effects of which every hon. Member has to face in every surgery every week. That was the sole achievement of the Lib-Lab pact other than maintaining in office a Government that went on to nationalise and preside over a disastrous period in industrial relations.
The price of that pact was trade union militancy, spiralling economic decline and the winter of discontent, 10 million working days lost during 1979 and the spectacle of Mrs. Shirley Williams on the Grunwick picket line. Despite that, the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), as recently as 3 December 1986, said:that was one of the best periods of Government that Britain has had for a very long time."—[Official Report, 3 December 1986; Vol. 106. c. 1039.]I hope that in the forthcoming election, whenever it comes, the alliance will not be promising us that.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the efforts that have been made by the Government through existing legislation. As one who has been cynical about the step-by-step approach, I must admit that it has been an immense success. So far, we have removed legal immunity from unions when taking certain unacceptable forms of action such as sympathy strikes, blacking and picketing away from the place of work. We have provided public funds for ballots of trade union members on such issues as strikes, election of officials and amending union rules. We have made unions liable to injunctions for damages when they are responsible for unlawful industrial action. We have made the legal immunity of trade unions in organising industrial action conditional on holding a secret ballot to be held before the trade unions endorse a call for action.
We have ensured that every voting member of the trade unions' governing bodies is subject to election directly and by secret ballot of union members once every five years. We have given union members the chance to ballot every 10 years on the continuance of the political fund. We have 238 compensated those who were dismissed from closed shops between 1974 and 1980 and provided for a regular review by secret ballot of closed shops. We have given employers the possibility of dismissing, without having to face unfair dismissal claims, those taking industrial action, provided all those taking part at a particular workplace on a particular day are dismissed.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House who elected the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Hirst) as vice-chairman of the Conservative party in Scotland?
§ Mr. Forsyth
As the hon. Gentleman is always at pains to diminish the influence of the Scottish Conservative party and the nature of its influence in Scotland, I find it surprising that he should seek to compare the question of democracy and accountability of the trade unions to the internal workings of a political party. However, looking at his own party's record in the Division Lobbies, I can see that it does not treat it with the same seriousness as I do.
Our legislation has succeeded in its aims, not only of restoring a balance to industrial relations but in making trade union leaders more accountable to their members. It is no coincidence that the number of strikes has recently been at its lowest for nearly 50 years. For example, the National Union of Railwaymen voted three times against any strike action between August 1985 and July 1986 in defiance of its leadership. Under the previous Labour Government, working days lost through industrial unrest reached 29.5 million in 1979 alone. The figure for 1986 is 1.9 million.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The miners' strike of 1984 showed only too clearly the need for legislation, coming as it did before the Trade Union Act 1984. The Prime Minister said at the time that it was "a dispute about the right to go to work of those who have been denied the right to go to vote."
That right ought to have been guaranteed to them by the National Union of Mineworkers' rules. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) may make no justified criticism of the Conservative party in implementing its own rules, but I should like to think that he would criticise the way in which the NUM behaved in terms of failing to implement its rules. Had they been followed, a national strike could have been entered upon only as the result of a ballot vote of the members, with the support of a simple majority of those voting. However, Mr. Scargill continually refused to hold a national secret ballot. The issue of a secret ballot dominated the strike and showed the Labour party's contempt for union democracy.
Better industrial relations have been recently reflected by the growing number of long-term pay settlements, often secured in exchange for more flexible working practices and no-strike agreements. For example, the Electrical, Electronic, Plumbing and Telecommunications union has negotiated such deals with Sanyo, Toshiba and Hitachi. The Green Paper represents a further step forward in that process of giving rights to trade union members. I particularly welcome the proposal to give union members the right to restrain their union from authorising or endorsing industrial action involving a breach of employment contracts where a union has not obtained majority support from those taking part in the action in 239 a strike ballot and the right for union members not to be subject to disciplinary measures by a trade union for refusing to take industrial action.
The Wapping dispute serves well to illustrate the necessity of those measures. If they had been in force at that time any SOGAT wholesale worker could have obtained an order restraining his union from calling a strike without balloting the wholesale workers—which is what SOGAT failed to do. An individual member could have saved his union from financial ruin. As Brenda Dean, general secretary of SOGAT, said in the Financial Times on 20 February 1987:the lesson for me is that you can't postpone change, and you certainly can't stop change. If you attempt the results are so often much more unpleasant for the very people one is trying to protect.If only those who have positions of authority in the trade unions in the Caterpiller factory had followed that advice. Yet again, we see the dinosaurs of the trade union movement leading the workers up a blind alley at considerable cost to their families.
§ Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)
The Secretary of State for Scotland condemns the Caterpiller Tractor Company and criticises the men for the action they have taken. The men were provoked. They were promised a £62.5 million investment and then after three months the whole factory was thrown into disarray and 1,221 men lost their jobs. What would the hon. Gentleman, as a man with any backbone, do in a situation such as that?
§ Mr. Forsyth
The first thing I would do would be to ensure that the workers were given a secret ballot to decide what sort of action they should take.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman knows that there was considerable dissension among the work force on the question of continuing the occupation of the plant. By refusing to give the work force a secret ballot on the decision to continue the occupation of the plant, I believe that the trade union members responsible showed a degree of irresponsibility that was, to say the least, worrying. The consequences for those men will be that their families will be poor and the prospects of finding an alternative use for the plant are that more remote.
There are far too many people in the Labour party who are much more concerned about leading great crusades and winning headlines than about looking after the long-term interests of the work force. That was reflected in the conduct of those who refused a ballot for the work force. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland's criticism of the management, but, at the end of the day, the only way in which the dispute will be settled is if the management and the trade union representatives get round the table and get the best possible deal for the work force to secure the future of the plant. One does not do that by indulging in sit-ins and pyrotechnic displays for the benefit of the media.
In considering the Green Paper, I believe that the statutory duty on trade union trustees not to apply union funds in contravention of the terms of court orders is a 240 vital measure. In the light of the experiences of the past few years, the right of trade union members to inspect their union's detailed accounts is also important.
Further steps to remove trade union immunity from industrial action to establish or maintain a closed shop are important, as is an extension of the statutory election requirement to cover the election of all trade union executive members, presidents and general secretaries. That measure would prevent people such as Mr. Scargill from waiving their voting rights in return for a seat for life on the committee. It is also important to provide a new commissioner for trade union affairs to pursue any improvements in the conduct of elections, as identified by a certification officer.
The legislative programme of the Labour party is deliberately designed to enhance trade union power in Government and society. The Labour party is committed to repealing all the trade union legislation that has been introduced by this Government. The TUC-Labour party document on industrial relations entitled "People at Work: New Rights, New Responsibilities" gives details of the Labour party's proposals.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman says that it is a splendid document. I am glad that he is prepared to endorse it because itsnew framework would in no way give employers, or their customers or suppliers, any opportunity to seek damages agains unions.In addition, there are plans to legalise secondary picketing and secondary action and to strengthen the closed shop.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman says that it is all about democracy. However, the document states:any future legal framework must include provisions encouraging trade union membership".In other words, it seeks a coercive closed shop and to end pre-strike ballots. The document continues:trade union members also seek and expect rights to secret ballots on strikes … (but) not necessarily before a strike … but within a reasonable time if the strike continues.It is difficult to find out what the alliance parties believe. However, if one considers their record, none of the SDP leaders voted against any of the trade union legislation that was introduced between 1974 and 1976 by the Labour Government. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) voted against the Employment Act 1980. The alliance split three ways on the Employment Act 1982. Liberal Members and 17 SDP Members voted for its Second Reading, while five SDP Members voted against it. A further five Members of Parliament abstained or were absent. Liberal Members also voted for the Third Reading, while the SDP abstained with the exception of their then employment spokesman who voted against it.
In its document entitled "Industrial Relations: A Fresh Look", the SDP argues strongly for positive rights for trade unions and includes proposals to undermine the effectiveness of pre-strike ballots and to reinforce the closed shop. Pre-strike ballots would no longer be compulsory and would be required only when at least 10 per cent. of the work force involved demanded one. To establish a closed shop only 66 per cent. of the work force would be needed to secure approval. Subsequent reviews of the closed shop would be held only if a set proportion of the work force demanded them.
241 I have no desire to dwell on the policies of the Opposition parties. Suffice it to say that they would take us back to the period of the Lib-Lab pact, remove the rights of trade union members, and restore power to the trade union barons.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) shakes his head, but I refer him to a comment made by Lord Grimond in July 1977. He had some worries about the Lib-Lab pact and showed a certain perspicacity because his prediction came to pass. He said that he was worried that the pact mightentrench a Conservative closed-shop type of bureaucratic Socialismwhich would mean the death of Liberalism forever. His prophetic words have come to pass.
I congratulate my hon. friend the Minister on the success of his policies. I urge him to press ahead with the Green Paper proposals. Britain has been transformed from the mayhem of the Lib-Lab pact into a country in which the number of working days lost is the lowest since 1963, and less than one fifth of the days lost in 1977 and 1978. During the Government of the Lib-Lab pact, there were 4,300 disputes, with the loss of 15.9 million working days. Opposition Members cannot escape that, because that is their record.
Today the CBI forecast record orders and prospects for our country. The budget of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor offers hope of a complete transformation in our economic position,. None of that would have happened under a hung Parliament or under the policies of Opposition Members, and they must face up to that. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue with the step-by-step approach and to take some wider steps.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
Perhaps I was a little naive to think that we would have a constructive debate on trade unions, especially as the debate was initiated by the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). We certainly had an extraordinarily wide-ranging speech from him and one or two of his points deserve some response.
In his rather selective way, the hon. Member tried to draw conclusions from a period some years ago. I do not propose to go over that period, other than to point out that unemployment and inflation decreased and that for a short time there was a degree of stability in the economy which had not been there previously. There was also the appointment of the first-ever Cabinet Minister for small businesses. [Laughter.] It is interesting that Conservative Members find that amusing. Many small businesses appreciated that development and would like to see a Cabinet Minister with similar responsibility in the present Government.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee)
How does the hon. Gentleman define stability in the economy?
§ Mr. Bruce
Perhaps stability was the wrong word, but inflation, interest rates and unemployment all decreased and the economy moved in the right direction. If a Conservative Government had presided over that, they would have been pleased to boast about it. The Minister knows perfectly well that the ensuing winter of discontent arose against our advice, when an election should have been called and the matter resolved.
242 The hon. Member for Stirling picked on events that happened at a given time and blamed them entirely on the Government of the day. As he referred to the miners' strike I presume that he will not object to the Government accepting responsibility for that. Many working days were lost then. We have had riots at Wapping and in Birmingham, Liverpool and London. All that has happened under the Conservative Government, who therefore stand indicted for it. I am not as uncharitable as the hon. Gentleman in assuming that all those matters are the direct responsibility of the Government. but the Government certainly had a hand in creating that unrest and provocation. Indeed, when historians consider this period of government, they will not see it in the spirit of Nirvana in which the hon. Gentleman wishes us to dwell. The electorate is capable of making its own choice.
The Conservative Government's great concern with the details of the democratic process within trade unions has been of considerable benefit to some trade unions. Indeed, I have supported several of their measures. But they are selective and it is extraordinary how keen they are on the nitty-gritty detail of trade unions while they refuse to counternance any legal regulation of the City. Indeed, it seems that Mr. Gorbachev will be elected Secretary of the Communist party of Russia before the chairman of the Conservative party is elected. If Conservative Members are so concerned about democracy, it would help if they were consistent about it.
If the hon. Gentleman talks seriously, as I do to people involved in industrial relations, he will find that the type of sentiments he expressed are not greeted with great enthusiasm by employers, but are regarded with considerable anxiety.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
In an intervention and again now, the hon. Gentleman has commented on the way in which the Conservative party runs its affairs. I imagine that he has studied the matter in some depth because he seems to know about it. Does he realise that the majority of officers of the Conservative party in Scotland are elected, that the chairman and vice-chairman who are appointed are responsible for the management of central office and that all the elected officers run the associations throughout the country?
§ Mr. Bruce
I am not sure what that system is, but it is certainly not democracy. It seems extraordinary that the only jobs to which one cannot be elected are the top jobs which have the highest profile. The hon. Member for Stirling must address some serious points. If he believes that the climate and the tone of his speech are likely to improve the spirit of industrial relations in this country, he is very much mistaken. It has become fashionable under this Government to attack trade unions to such an extent that the positive, constructive and essential role that trade unions play has sometimes been obscured. Employers with large work forces simply would not be able to operate without the co-operation of trade unions. They are an essential means of communication and they have helped to improve working conditions and health and safety at work.
The alliance certainly accepts that in recent years there have been abuses of union power. We stress that they have been contributed to by weak and ineffective management. We have therefore proposed democratic reforms including the wider use of postal ballots and we believe that it is 243 important to ensure that trade unions become effective vehicles for change because change is taking place and must take place.
I fear that too often Tory legislation has been motivated by the kind of anti-union sentiment that we have heard from the hon. Member for Stirling, purporting to be concerned with improving the accountability of unions and giving them back to their members, while generally trying to undermine their ability to be effective. The worst example of that was the banning of trade union membership at GCHQ even in circumstances in which the union was prepared to co-operate and offer a no-strike agreement. That has upset many moderate people in trade unions who were disgusted that trade union members at GCHQ should have been treated in that way.
The other problem is that the shift of power away from employees to employers in the past eight years has given some unscrupulous employers—fortunately, only relatively few employers—an opportunity to take advantage of the new laws to undermine the use of the strike weapon, to break contracts unilaterally and to use the law to sack workers and deny them what might be regarded as reasonable rights.
The alliance takes a view that is not peculiar to the alliance Benches. That view is certainly widely held among employers' organisations and those involved in negotiation and arbitration outside the House. We believe that the Government should proceed cautiously at the moment. Many people feel that progress has been made. I accept that there has been an improvement. However, we now need time to allow things to settle down. Some equilibrium has been achieved, and many people are concerned that if the Government go too far down that road, that will create a backlash in the atmosphere within many organisations which could sour the progress that has been made. The Government must take that point very seriously.
I also believe that if further reforms are to be introduced, they should be put into a context of extending industrial democracy. I do not mean just democracy for trade unions, but for all people at work. Their rights should be developed at the same time as the responsibilities of trade unions are being spelt out.
I want to give an example of the balance of rights. If, as I think is right, the Government have set out legislation which states that before any strike is called there should always be a secret ballot, which should usually be a postal ballot, the results of that ballot should be binding on the members. That means a two-way street. If the ballot states that there should be no strike, there should be no strike and trade union leaders should not try to get around that decision. However, if the ballot states that there should be a strike, all members should normally be expected to support the strike. It is not reasonable for the Government to propose to set up legislation allowing people to break half the bargain but not the other half. Many trade unionists would regard an even-handed approach as a fair and reasonable balance and that is reasonable in terms of natural justice.
The alliance view is that, if we are to go further down that road, the involvement of employees in decision-making processes that affect them within their companies should be enhanced. We stress that employers' representatives—I have spoken to them—who call continuously for more and more detailed regulation of trade unions 244 cannot logically argue that there should be no statutory backing for measures that would strengthen employees' rights. It seems reasonable to us that employees' rights should go hand in hand with the responsibilities of trade unions.
The alliance believes that all organisations with more than 1,000 employees should be required by law to set up comprehensive employee participation agreements. We accept that the details could and should vary among organisations, but they must provide for genuine consultation at the top level and for the right of employees to be consulted on strategic decisions. Many of the problems of frustration and disillusionment, particularly those that have occurred recently, would have been averted if that type of consultation had been required. That practice is widely accepted in virtually every other industrial country with which Britain trades.
The trade unions must be tuned up to adapt to changing conditions. They should be helped to do so because conditions are changing fast. The closure of many industrial plants has changed for ever the character of many industrial unions. The hon. Member for Stirling may be surprised to hear that I think that he was on stronger ground on that point. Constructive support for trade unions to adapt to change is a legitimate role for Government.
Changing technology means that in future the old-style large industrial organisations will probably tend to be fewer, that many more of the work force are likely to be in smaller units and that flexibility will be required. We will need different and constantly changing skills. I suggest that the trade unions will therefore find that their traditional method of recruiting members will no longer serve them well. They will have to recognise the need to change.
Already some trade unions are changing their role, perhaps to some extent taking on the mantle of the old friendly societies and offering a wide range of services. But they should go further and start helping people who have lost an industrial job and are perhaps moving into self-employment, and into small business. The trade unions should not leave the creation of indigenous enterprise to other people. They should recognise that they have at least in an advisory capacity a useful role to play.
I shall draw on the example of west central Scotland which, perhaps almost more than anywhere else—although obviously parts of northern England are in a similar position—demonstrates the need for change. There is record unemployment and there have been devastating plant closures, with more feared and even identified. It is clear that a new industrial strategy is required. We need to ensure that Scotland gets a fuller share of new investment, new technology and new jobs. That must happen, and the trade unions should be actively involved in it. They must find ways of helping the people of west central Scotland to find new enterprise and develop new, home-grown enterprises. I suspect that the hon. Member for Stirling does not see that as a role in which trade unions should be involved. I am concerned that trade unions do not see it as a role that they should play. But that is the way in which they shall have to move if they are to play a constructive part in the industrial life of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom in the 21st century.
Far from pursuing another hard-line round of interfering in the detailed workings of the trade unions in isolation, the Government should first allow the present 245 situation to settle, at least for a little time. That is what the employers—never mind the trade unions—want. Many people are concerned that another round of union bashing by the Tories will create a sour atmosphere. Secondly, when further moves take place—we support some—they should do so hand in hand with measures to improve employee participation, consultation and involvement by right in the decision-making processes which affect them in the workplace. That balanced approach is fairer, more just and more honest than the one that we are likely to get from the Government.
The alliance has accepted that the Government's stepby- step approach has achieved some benefits. We believe, however, that there should be a settling down period, that the future goes hand in hand with the responsibilities and rights of employees, and that the type of sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Stirling will do nothing to reduce strikes, unrest or disputatious confrontation within industry. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman relishes it and always will. That is why 1 hope that he, too, is a dinosaur in Britain.
§ Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) has done the House a service by giving us the opportunity to debate trade unions and industrial relations matters on a broad basis and especially by focusing on the question of the attitudes and policies of the alliance parties. I propose to follow my hon. Friend's argument. However, I do not believe it is necessary to go back into the highways and byways of the politics of a decade ago to prove the case against the alliance. On that point, if not on any other, I am in agreement with the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce).
Experience suggests that the attitude of the various parties towards the trade unions and industrial relations depends upon their wider economic policies. On this point there is a basic difference of approach between the Conservatives and the other parties. To be brief, the Conservative party believes in fiscal prudence, public spending restraint, and lower public borrowing. We believe that the road to growth and higher employment lies in a flexible and dynamic corporate sector energised by incentives, lower taxes and higher profits.
That is our philosophy, and although we seek the support of the widest possible range of people, we do not require the political co-operation of the trade unions to make our policies work. We have therefore been free to carry through the most extensive programme of trade union reform undertaken by any Government in our history. That reform has been ably described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. It is a reform which has been unwelcome to trade union leaders—but it has been welcomed by trade union members and by the country, and we have more to offer in the same vein.
In contrast, the Labour party and the alliance parties believe that the Government should seek a short cut to higher employment by expanding demand through a rapid increase in public spending and public borrowing. The Opposition parties have different ideas about the extent of demand inflation which they believe to be feasible. But for the purpose of my argument the important fact is that all those parties— in the sense that the SDP and the Liberals are distinct— agree that the expansion of demand that they envisage will carry a serious inflationary 246 risk. Each of the Opposition parties proposes to resort to the classic device of an incomes policy to dampen these inflationary pressures.
It is true that the Opposition parties are approaching the question of an incomes policy in different ways. The Labour party is intellectually aware that such a policy is a necessary complement to its economic strategy. However, because it has been unable to get the agreement of the trades unions to an incomes policy it prefers to draw a veil over the whole subject. Nevertheless, we all know that if the Labour party was to form a Government it would have to seek the understanding of the trade unions with regard to wage restraint. We also know that, in turn, that necessity would dictate the terms of the Labour Government's policy towards trade unions and towards industrial relations—for we have seen all this before, in what used to be called the social contract. The Labour party has promised that it would re-write industrial relations law. There can be no doubt that this would be a repeat of what happened in the 1970s, when policy was effectively dictated from Transport house.
The alliance parties also know that an incomes policy is a necessary element in their overall economic strategy. They have tried to make a virtue of recognising that fact. The difference between themselves and the Labour party is that they are too naive—I was interested that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) used that word to describe himself— too inexperienced in government, or perhaps, like the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) too insouciant of detail, to appreciate that they would have to pay a heavy price for the co-operation of the trade unions in the operation of their incomes policy.
For with the alliance parties, as with the Labour party, their policy for trade unions and industrial relations—in spite of all the hopes and aspirations of the hon. Member for Gordon—would be bound to flow from their central commitment to an incomes policy. One important reason for this is that the incomes strategy which is envisaged by the alliance is unworkable, and its breakdown would drive it into the arms of the trade unions.
To make out my claim, I must examine the alliance's incomes policy, and that I propose to do. The alliance document entitled "The Time Has Come" proposes that its income policy should be based on two elements. The first element is what is described asa payroll incentive through reduced employers' national insurance contributions.The idea is to offer a premium from the Government to companies which settle below a norm for income growth.
But if the incentive were to be substantial enough to make any difference to the behaviour of employers, especially those faced with heavy pressures from the unions— I wonder whether alliance Members have thought this through—it would absorb a large part of that increase in public spending which the alliance parties believe to be feasible. For example, a cut of, say, 25 per cent. in the national insurance contributions of, for example, three quarters of employers—assuming that three quarters of employers are paying below the norm—would cost no less than £2.8 billion out of the total of £5 billion which the alliance believes is available in the way of increased public spending.
On the other hand, if the payroll incentive were not substantial, it would be unlikely to make very much difference to employers' behaviour. After all. National 247 insurance contributions amount to no more than 6 to 7 per cent. of wage costs. Inevitably, therefore, the alliance parties would be obliged, if they were in a position of power or influence, to call upon the second element of their incomes strategy, which is their proposed "counter-inflation tax".
Would that tax actually be counter-inflationary? let us consider it. If the tax rate were low enough to allow flexibility, many employers would not be deterred from settling above the norm. Such savings, if any, on the amount that they would have paid without the tax would be likely to be exceeded by the amount of the tax, so the effect would be inflationary. Moreover, all experience of incomes policy suggests that the norm tends to become the minimum. In other words, under a low inflation-tax rate, the effect would be to raise labour costs for the high-paying firms without reducing costs for the low payers. This would, again, fuel inflation rather than restrain it. In these circumstances the alliance parties would be forced to contemplate a high inflation-tax rate.
In theory there must be a tax rate which is high enough to ensure that the wage costs of prospective high-paying employers are lower, if they keep to the norm, than if they exceed it. But what then happens to the vaunted flexibility of the inflation tax? It is supposed to be a flexible way to arrive at an incomes policy. The Government of the alliance parties would, in fact, be left with an incomes policy which would be little different from the policies of their predecessors. It would operate, like all its predecessors, to stifle and distort the inevitable and necessary proceses of adjustment in the labour market. Like all previous incomes policies, the alliance policy would prevent firms from securing rapid productivity growth through high rewards to their employees.
§ Mr. Jackson
It is not specifically excluded, because of the logic of the policy. The alliance would be driven to make the policy operate on the basis of a high tax rate with limited flexibility, since otherwise people would break through it. So the policy would prevent firms from achieving higher productivity by rewarding their employees above the norm. Firms would be prevented from offering the prospect of future rewards for present sacrifices and they would be penalised for seeking to upgrade the skills of their work forces or to attract more labour.
§ Mr. Jackson
It is charming to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to productivity and profit-sharing exceptions. Indeed all these exceptions are listed in "The Time Has Come". Surely the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we have heard all this every time there has been an incomes policy, and every time there is a trade-off between the flexibility and the effectiveness of the policy. The general economic strategy of the alliance requires an effective counter-inflationary policy. The more loopholes that are put into 248 the incomes policy, the less effective it will be. The consequence, as with all incomes policies, will be that the policy will not be counter-inflationary but the reverse.
Perhaps what is even worse than the consequences of the breakdown of the incomes policy that I have been predicting—I return to the broad theme of trade unions and industrial relations—is that the unworkability of the alliance party's incomes strategy would inevitably drive it to seek political deals with the trade unions in return for their co-operation in wage restraint.
I ask the hon. Member for Gordon, rhetorically, which of the industrial relations reforms of the past decade, for some of which his honourable colleagues voted, he would give up to get such co-operation from trade unions? To be even more speculative and to refer to a subject that is close to the hearts of members of the alliance, and to which the hon. Gentleman referred, what sort of industrial democracy would they propose if they had to negotiate all its details with a trade union movement upon whose political co-operation their economic policy depended?
The fact is that this would turn out to be a nightmare for these innocents abroad—the babes in the wood of British politics—and for the country. Fortunately, of course, like all nightmares, it is only a dream. For just as after the next election there will be no Labour Government, so there will be no alliance Government or even an alliance influence in Government. I hope that my remarks this evening will show why that is an outcome to which we should all look forward.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
I listened carefully to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) about trade unions and industrial relations. The hon. Gentleman does not understand what trade unions are all about. For one thing, when the House is full, as during Prime Minister's Question Time, and all Cabinet Ministers and junior Ministers are present, about seven millionaires sit on the Government Front Bench. There are also millionaires on the Government Back Benches. What do Conservative Members know about trade unions?
Let us take the matter a stage further. Many Conservative Members have connections with financial institutions in the City. Many Conservative Members are members of the legal profession. What do they know about trade unions? I thought that the hon. Member for Stirling would refer to the closed shop of the legal profession, but he did not do so, and for a purpose. Government Benches are lined with people associated with the legal system. It is the biggest closed shop—never mind trade unions. Not all trade unions have closed shops.
The Paymaster General has a nerve to tell the Opposition and the nation what the Government will do about trade union legislation. He is a member of the biggest closed shop in the country. That is a shocking state of affairs. Trade union officials are elected to represent their members, and that is what they have always done. [Laughter.] Conservative Members are laughing because they do not know what I am talking about. The elected officers of trade unions represent their members, and the members determine the policy of the unions by the decisions that they take at branch meetings and at annual conferences.
I have been a trade union member since the age of 14. I am 61 now. That is a long time. There are some young 249 lads on the Conservative Benches who have not lived yet. They do not know what life is all about. They certainly do not know what trade unions are all about.
I went down the pits as a very young man. The week before last I said that I went down the pits as a young lad, but this week I am saying that I went down the pits as a young man. I remember the conditions under which we had to work. It followed the period in the 1930s when a Conservative Government crushed the trade unions and the workers. Between 1979 and today there has been a repeat of that period in the 1930s. This Conservative Government are taking a real swipe at the trade union movement in an attempt to crush it.
When I worked down the pits, production was the first priority, earnings were the second priority, and safety was the third priority. The Secretary of State for Energy talks at that Dispatch Box about the number of people who have been killed down the pits. He pours out figures, compares them with nuclear power stations and says that with nuclear power there would he very few deaths. The reason for the large number of deaths all those years ago was that safety was the third priority. The bosses wanted the highest production that they could get. They did not bother about the expense of serious accidents in the mining industry.
§ Mr. Haynes
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. Not many moments ago I said that there are far too many youngsters on the Conservative Benches, that they have not lived, that they do not know what life is about and that they certainly do not know what trade unions are about. I add that they do not know what work is about, either.
§ Mr. Dixon
My hon. Friend is right to point out that Conservative Members know nothing about trade unions or about workers. None of them has seen a pair of overalls, let alone worn a pair. Will my hon. Friend also point out to Conservative Members who keep lecturing the trade unions that when men and women go on strike they receive no pay, so they do not easily go on strike? It is usually their weapon of last resort. They have nothing to live on when they go on strike.
§ Mr. Haynes
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. That was part of the exercise when this Government and previous Governments took action against trade unions.
The job of the trade unions is to look after their members and to ensure that they get a fair deal, but this Government have shackled trade unions and tied them up in chains. The right hon. Gentleman who usually sits below the Gangway, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), was the Prime Minister of the 1970–74 Administration. I was a local government servant at that time. He chained me, too, with his Housing Finance Act 1972 and told us exactly what we had to do. That is what is happening now. The Government are telling people what they should do. They are taking away people's freedom.
This afternoon the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Terlezki) asked the Prime Minister to give the people freedom. It is his party that is taking freedom and rights away from people. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Employment will look carefully at the Green Paper and consider making changes to it, bearing in mind what is being said in this debate.
§ Mr. Dixon
Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the proposals in the Green Paper is that, if trade union members take part in a ballot and vote against strike action, but the majority take strike action, the trade union can take no action against those who do not do so? If the Government want to be even-handed, they should also say that when a member takes part in a ballot and the majority are against strike action, anyone who wishes to take strike action should be protected from the employer. That would be even-handed of the Government.
§ Mr. Haynes
How right my hon. Friend is. Let us look at that situation now that my hon. Friend has raised it. The Government say that every trade union by its legislation, must have a ballot before a strike. What about when a ballot is in favour of a strike? Conservative Members start to squeal, yet the union members have acted in accordance with the trade union legislation that this wicked Government have enacted.
The hon. Member for Stirling said that in years gone by trade unions had secured far too large increases in earnings for their members. He forgot something, and it is still happening today. The bosses can have what they like. The chairman and directors can receive massive increases. There are no shackles on that, and I know why. It is because they contribute to Conservative party funds, and while the funds are coming in they will be left alone.
I have been asked to wind up. I wanted to be brief to allow my hon. Friends an opportunity to make a good contribution because of what is being said on the Conservative Benches. I wanted to say what we aim to do when we get back into office. We shall release the chains on the trade union movement, and at the same time we shall give freedom to its members so that they can enjoy what they are paying for.
§ Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield ( Mr. Haynes) on a typically robust speech, in which he echoed the thoughts, hopes and beliefs of millions of working men and women throughout the country. There is no doubt that those who read the report of the debate will read his speech and recognise that he spoke for them, unlike the Conservative Members who have spoken.
At the outset I declare that I am proud to be a sponsored member of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and have been since 1 was 16 years old. I am proud of the fact that my union is the most democratic institution of any in the United Kingdom and I challenge any Conservative Member to deny that. I also make the point very strongly that the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers did not need any legislation or lectures from Tories about how it should have a democratic organisation; it built it itself. Men and women since the union started at the turn of the century have created that democratic organisation of which we are proud. We do not require and will not accept any lectures about freedom or democracy from the Tory party.
It is significant that the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) did not declare any interests. He certainly did not declare any membership of a trade union. I suspect that that was because the hon. Gentleman is not a member of a trade union and never has been. By his speech tonight he showed that he knows nothing about the workings of trade unions, the history of trade unionism or the practice of trade unions.
251 I suggest to the House and the British people that that is hypocrisy on the part of the hon. Gentleman, who boasts in the Register of Members' Interests that he is a public relations consultant to companies such as Pritchard's, which specialises in privatisation, the purpose of which is to ensure that some of the lowest paid workers in the land lose their trade union rights and jobs and get lower wages.
§ Mr. Michael Forsyth
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to withdraw that, because if he consults the Register of Interests he will find that the only declaration that I have to make is in respect of my shareholding in my company and the clients, which do not include Pritchard's.
§ Mr. Evans
If I am mistaken—[Interruption.]—and if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) says, the hon. Gentleman has been dismissed by the company, I shall withdraw what I said. However, I was quoting from a book that I read only a few moments ago and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has it put right by the authorities of the House.
Let me make it clear at the outset that a one-and-a-half-hour debate on the Consolidated Fund is not an acceptable basis on which to debate the Green Paper introduced to the House by the Paymaster General a few weeks ago. Labour Members expect a full and proper debate on the issues in the document before the Prime Minister plucks up the courage to tell the country that we are to have a general election.
It is essential that every Member of the House of Commons should be given the opportunity to address himself to the contents of that Green Paper which is an extension of the legislation which the Tories have introduced since 1979 and which was aimed solely at neutralising the trade union movement and disciplining the British work force. No one should lose sight of that fact.
A brief glance at the history of the legislation shows clearly what has happened over the past few years. It is often forgotten that the first step in the Government's legislation was the Social Security Act 1980 which withdrew £15 from the social security of families of people on strike, even if the striker himself received no pay or no strike pay from his trade union. That £15 has subsequently been increased.
Then the Employment Act 1980 attacked the closed shop. The closed shop ballots demanded by that Act created the farce whereby 80 per cent. of those affected by the closed shop had to vote in favour of it or 85 per cent. of those voting had to vote in favour before the closed shop could be put into effect.
If any of those figures were applied to general elections, I suspect that not one hon. Member would get here. I do not think that any of us can claim that 85 per cent. of our electorate have cast their votes. Yet that is the challenge put to the trade unions. It is significant that in almost all the cases where there have been ballots to maintain a closed shop, the vast majority of trade unions have voted in favour.
The Act also restricts the right to picket. It restricted the right of individuals in dispute to attempt to demonstrate their feelings about what had happened in their place of work. It restricted their right to participate in secondary action. We all saw the culmination of that in 252 the appalling dispute at Wapping, when News International erected a series of bogus companies to ensure that an arm's-length relationship developed between the workers' jobs in Fleet street and in Wapping. We had the ridiculous position where workers sacked from their employment could take no action against their employers.
The hon. Member for Stirling is smiling. He thinks that it is a huge joke that the law of the land should deny workers in that position the right to take any action to protest about what had happened to their jobs and their employment rights which were also denied.
The Employment Act 1982 contained further attacks on the closed shop. Trade unions lost their immunities and they can now be taken to court and fined huge sums of money because of the actions of their officials. Trade unions can be fined up to £250,000. That is the price that they have had to pay for Tory democracy.
We also had the abolition of trade-union-only contracts, which almost every decent local authority insisted upon to ensure that fair wages were paid to the work force employed on those contracts. Every hon. Member knows that. That is why they not only did that, but insisted upon privatisation.
Then we had the Trade Union Act 1984, which provided for the election of the voting members of the executive committee of a trade union. Part II insisted upon ballots before industrial action, and part III on ballots on a political fund. The Tory party does not like to be reminded that every union which balloted its members who were affiliated to the Labour party won huge victories in those ballots—anything from 80 per cent. to 60 per cent. They were all conducted properly and in a way of which the trade union had a right to be proud. The icing on the cake was when five trade unions which previously had not had a political fund, because of their fears of what the Tory party was up to, balloted their members and succeeded in getting a political fund. We have also had the Wages Act 1986, and deregulation.
At the back of all this has been massive unemployment, created by the Tory Government as a deliberate economic weapon to tame the British work force. It is now agreed by even the most Right-wing critics that the real figure for unemployment in Great Britain is somewhere around 4.5 million. The Tories have manipulated the figures in a manner of which any decent political party would be ashamed. We do not count unemployment in this country now—we count the unemployment figures. That is the bogus attitude which the Tory party has adopted over the past eight years. The truth is that now no one in the country believes any of the monthly statistics issued by the Tory party in relation to what it claims is unemployment.
Now we have the new proposals in the Green Paper, chapter 2 of which is called "Rights of Trade Union Members". That must be one of the sickest jokes that even this Government have ever attempted to perpetrate on working people. Chapter 2 deals largely with part II of the 1984 Act—ballots prior to industrial action. Again, the situation is that the trade unions have won the overwhelming majority of ballots that have been held in industrial action situations. If they are not to forefeit immunity to actions in tort, they must hold those ballots. Strictly speaking, they do not have to hold those ballots, as I am sure the Minister will confirm. They could take industrial action without the ballot, but if they did so they 253 would be subject to the usual actions in the High Court which unfortunately so many unions have been involved in over the past three or four years.
The interesting thing about the Act is that the right to take legal action against the trade unions was given to the employer, the supplier and the customer, but not to the trade union member. When we raised this in the Standing Committee on that Bill we never got any satisfactory answer as to why all those other people were given the right to take action against the trade unions, but not the worker. Now it is proposed in the Green Paper that the worker should have the right to take action against his own trade union. Whether there is any demand for that is not explained, because there is no evidence that any employee has ever suggested that he should have that right.
I have one interesting question for the Minister. If the situation is created in which the employee can take action against his trade union, will the employer, the customer and the supplier still have that right? Will we be adding to the problems of the trade unions in this area?
This section also deals with the rather vexed question of the right of trade union members legally to cross picket lines and gives them the right to complain to an industrial tribunal. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, no matter how it is dressed up, this is a flagrant, blatant blacklegs' charter, because a situation will be created in which, no matter what has happened over any ballot on industrial action, if an individual has had an opportunity to vote on industrial action and if the decision has gone against him, he is to be protected by law in his determination to cross a picket line and the trade union will be prevented from taking any disciplinary action against him.
I put it to the Minister that all sorts of organisations, such as the British Medical Association, the professional legal associations, cricket clubs, darts clubs and sports clubs of all kinds have the right to take disciplinary action against members who break their rules. Trade unions alone are to be denied that right. Is it not the case that the purpose is to make trade unions irrelevant? They will be prevented by law from taking any disciplinary action against their members in what, after all, is the most fundamental issue in trade unionism—the right to take action to protect one's job or one's conditions of employment.
Chapter 3 deals with the safeguarding and control of union funds. I do not know why this is in the document, because the suggestion inherent in this section is that somehow there is reason to doubt the honesty of union officials and the way that unions control and run their organisations. Not one shadow of doubt has ever been expressed about the way the British trade union movement conducts its financial affairs. I know of no case where a trade union official at the higher levels in the movement has been convicted in a court of law of swindling his trade union. I cannot say that about the City of London or about some of the things that go on there.
In tonight's issue of The London Evening Standard, even the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis speaks about the very large sums of Mafia money that are now washing through the City of London. There is no question of any Mafia money ever washing through the trade union movement. In the way it conducts its financial affairs, the trade union movement is a paragon of virtue which the City of London could well learn to take as an example. The 254 City could take lessons from the trade union movement because members' money is held in sacred trust by trade union officials. Many shareholders and many people cannot say that about the City and some of the crooks who operate there.
Chapter 3 also deals with indemnity.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
My hon. Friend has touched on an important point. There is no evidence whatever that the Conservative party is prepared to take any action against corruption in the City, which is a major problem. The Conservatives are attacking the trade union movement on issues about which they have no right to attack them, and there has certainly been no evidence that they are required to do so.
§ Mr. Evans
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The trade union movement is to be shackled and restrictions and every sort of Government control is to be imposed. However, the City of London is to have self-regulation even though it is patently obvious to the most naive people in the country that self-regulation is a total failure and will continue to be so. It will remain a failure until such time in the not too distant future that a Labour Government will regulate the affairs of the City of London.
Time is short and the Minister has to reply to the debate. One rather significant piece is tucked in at the end of the Green paper. Paragraph 6.19 speaks about the Department running a campaign to inform people of their rights under various pieces of legislation. Will the Minister give me an assurance that in the context of paragraph 6.19 the Government will not mount a massive campaign using taxpayers' money to try to get a propaganda exercise across to the British people in the run up to a general election?
If the Government are concerned about the abuse of power, why have they not taken steps to protect workers from arbitrary conduct by employers? Why are they making things worse for employees by restricting such things as unfair dismissal rights? The Government have a lot to answer for. I assure the Minister and the Tories that we will make them suffer when the general election is called.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
The House should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) for initiating this debate. There are some Members for whom a loss of voice would be viewed by the House with some equanimity. In saying that, I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), but when he reads his speech in the morning he may wish that he had been suffering from laryngitis, because he delivered himself of a number of extraordinary propositions. He said that it was the Government who provoked Mr. Scargill into indulging in the coal strike, and that he was looking forward to Mr. Gorbachev being democratically elected as the leader of the Soviet Communist party.
The hon. Gentleman was also looking forward, if and when the alliance had any input into Government, to introducing a measure whereby, if there was a strike ballot, anybody who was in a minority against a strike would be forced to come out on strike. That is an extraordinary illberal proposition. John Stuart Mill must be turning in his grave.
255 There is still some unfinished business to be done with trade unions. I warmly welcome the recently published Green Paper. The closed shop remains a blot on the statute book which has to be removed if only to remove the embarrassment of members of the alliance in this House, many of whom failed to take the opportunity, when they had it, to prevent such a measure from being passed. When the Liberal party had an opportunity to influence the Labour Government to change their labour relations policy in the fundamentally liberal direction of giving people the right—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Hamilton
When it had an opportunity to influence the Labour Government to change their labour relations policy in a fundamentally liberal direction by giving people the right to belong or not to belong to a trade union, the Liberal party failed to use the opportunity and the influence that it claimed to have to make that change. We look forward to having the support of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) if and when, as I hope we will, we introduce a measure to remove the last vestiges of the closed shop.
I regret to say that the policy of the alliance, in so far as it can be discerned or distinguished, is "Not tonight, Josephine", that this is never the time to make these worthwhile changes, and only in retrospect does it discover that it has some sympathy with them. I welcome the Minister and I hope that he can tell us that the Government intend to move in a fundamentally liberal direction and will restore to people the freedom which the Liberal party does not seem to want to give them.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We have had to attenuate our remarks because of lengthy contributions by Opposition Members. I content myself with the hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to tell us what the Government intend to do.
§ 10.3 pm
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I welcome the opportunity to speak very briefly. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) said that Conservative members were anti-union and were union bashers. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) suggested, as did the Opposition Front Bench, that Conservatives had no knowledge or experience of trade unions. The hon. Member for Ashfield ought to know that I, like him, at the age of 14 was a member of a trade union. I have been, as he was, a member of more than one union. I was on the national executive of a trade union. Indeed, I know as much about the workings of trade unions as he does.
Attitudes are important. Attitudes during the second world war, when the hon. Gentleman and I joined the trade unions, were very different, because the shop stewards then were mostly ex-first world war union members who suggested that it was important that we kept things moving, and strikes were out in the industry that I was in. This Government have taken a step-by-step approach which has been good for the trade unions and their members.
§ 10.4 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. John Lee)
Mr. Deputy Speaker. I—
§ Mr. Dixon
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought it was a convention of the House that you took one speaker from the Government side and one from the Opposition side. I have been sitting here all night, as have other hon. Members. Had the Minister not wanted to use the debate because he did not want to put forward an argument, he should have given the opportunity to Back Benchers.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
It is customary when Front Benchers rise for them to be called. I am following that custom.
§ Mr. Lee
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) on his good fortune in being able to raise this issue, as it is particularly relevant to the recent publication of the Government's Green Paper entitled "Trade Unions and their Members". I am particularly sympathetic about his loss of voice. Despite that, he made an effective speech. Our proposals are an important further step along a path which the Government chose in 1979 and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this chance to talk again about these proposals and the benefits that will follow from their implementation.
Before coming to the actual proposals in the Green Paper it might be worth reminding hon. Members of the position that we have reached so far. I agree with all that my hon. Friends have said about the problems and difficulties that this country faced in its industrial relations in the late 1970s. The Labour party was, after all, swept from power in revulsion against the wholesale spread of secondary action and secondary picketing that gripped the country in the winter of 1978, and unions' bully boy tactics and attempts to hold the public to ransom.
No one with any regard for the needs of our economy would want to see the situation that we then had. Trade unions were placed above the law, with virtual immunity from legal actions to recover the cost of damage they had caused. Trade union officials held immunity for the organisation of all sorts of excessive forms of industrial action— indiscriminate secondary action, political strikes, picketing at other people's places of work and secondary action to enforce the closed shop. Employees were being dismissed, without any compensation, simply because they refused to join a union. Union balloting practices denied members a proper voice in elections of officials, or were travesties of democracy, such as "votes" about strikes taken in mass meetings by a show of hands.
Whatever the Labour party may now be saying in public, I have little doubt that if it gets any sort of chance to act it will simply turn back the clock and we will have, once again, all the old evils and malpractice re-emerging.
Nor can the voter look with any confidence at all the alliance's ideas. The SDP leadership consists of the very same people who were prominent members of a 257 Government who presided over the winter of discontent and supported the laws which allowed it to happen. They really have learnt nothing from their experience, or—to be more charitable perhaps— have learnt the wrong lessons. How else are the public to regard a proposal to impose some sort of statutory process to establish trade union recognition rights— which can only result in repeated, and more frequent, "Grunwicks"— complete no doubt with Cabinet Ministers joining the picket lines?
When the alliance, or part of it, has not been fighting this Government's proposals tooth and nail, it has been looking round for weird and wonderful ideas—such as systems of "positive rights"— whose importation into British law would simply lead to confusion, misunderstanding and chaos, with consequent damage to our industry and commerce. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), in his elegant and devasting critique of alliance incomes policy, destroyed its credibility.
Our aim since coming to power in 1979 has been to redress the balance of power between employers and trade unions and to make unions more accountable to their members. There have been major reforms. Trade unions are liable for legal actions for injunctions or damages. Legal immunity has been removed from certain unacceptable forms of industrial action, such as indiscriminate secondary or sympathy action, and picketing away from a picket's own place of work. Secret ballots before strikes and some other forms of industrial action and for the election of voting members of union executives have been provided as have regular reviews of political fund ballots. Increased protection has been given against unfair dismissal for non-union members in a closed shop.
These changes have had significant effects. Strike ballots are becoming an everyday feature, with over 230 since 1984. Some major strikes, for example, in the Civil Service, the NUR, and the Post Office, have been averted because the law has been used to ensure that members were given the right to be properly consulted. Employers have shown themselves ready to used to ensure that members were given the right to be properly consulted. Employers have shown themselves ready to use the remedies available by taking legal action in over 100 cases. Some progress has been made in the protection of union members against their unions and the climate that we have created has meant that members are more willing to take advantage of the safeguards that the law provides. We have also made it possible for members to have a better say in the way that their unions are run. About 30 major unions have changed, or have said they will change, their election provisions to comply with our legislation.
There have also been independent initiatives which will improve industrial relations. The increasing incidence of new forms of agreement between employers and trade 258 unions are designed to reduce the likelihood of industrial action. There is greater emphasis on flexibility of working arrangements, and increasing emphasis has been placed on employee involvement.
These developments are creating a new climate. It can be no coincidence as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling said, that in 1986 the number of days lost due to strikes was the lowest for over 20 years. But more needs to be done. As I have said, the Green Paper "Trade Unions and Their Members" represents an important further step in the programme that we began in 1979. It might be best if I confirm, if only for the avoidance of doubt, that the Green Paper and the proposals that it contains do not single out for special treatment any particular sector of the economy. The proposals are intended to cover unions and their members whether they be in the public or private sector.
The impact of legislation based on the proposals will not depend, therefore, on where unions operate, or their members work, but rather on the degree to which the union itself has modernised its procedures to ensure, for example, the regular, secure election of its leadership. Unions which treat their members and potential members fairly and in a democratic way will have nothing to fear from our poposals. Indeed the reverse will be true. However, the old style unions have, at best, dragged their feet over implementing the changes introduced by our earlier legislation and, at worst, have blatantly ignored them. It is unions such at those, the dinosaurs of the union movement, that need to think again. Labour Members have shown open antagonism to, and outright rejection of, the Government's proposals. That leads me and, I have no doubt, the public at large to conclude that what matters to the Labour party is the protection of union power rather than union democracy.
The proposals are based on experience since 1979 arid will work in practice. Consultation is, however, an important part of our process of law reform and 10 weeks have been allowed for people to obtain the Green Paper. to read it, to consult others as they think best, and then to send comments to the Government, which must be received by 5 May. Special efforts have been made to offer small firms, as well as the TUC and the CBI, the opportunity to comment on the Green Paper proposals.
No one can legislate for good industrial relations, but good laws can help set a climate and framework within which good industrial relations can develop and flourish. Our efforts to date, and the Green Paper proposals, are in no sense an attack on trade unions as such. Responsible trade unions, willing and able to take account of their members' wishes, can be strong—perhaps the strongest— trade unions. I believe that the more we give the ordinary trade union member a say in his or her union's policy-making and actions the more loudly will the voice of moderation and good sense be heard.