HC Deb 10 February 1988 vol 127 cc440-7

Amendment made: No. 21, in page 32, line 1, leave out 'and 10 above and any other enactment which' and insert 3(3) and 10 above and any enactment which is contained in any other Act and'.—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]

Order for Third Reading read.

9.26 pm
Mr. Fowler

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I shall be brief. This is an important Bill, which makes changes in both industrial relations law and in training arrangements for unemployed people. In November when I spoke on Second Reading, I said that the Bill was set against a background in which unemployment had fallen for 15 months in succession by more than 400,000 in the 12 months to that date. We have debated the Bill for 70 hours since Second Reading and three months later it is interesting to see that unemployment has fallen, not for 15 but for 18 months in succession, and not by 400,000 but by more than 500,000 in the past 12 months.

The provisions give effect to three key proposals on employment and training which we set out in our manifesto. First, the manifesto outlined Our plans to consult on a major restructuring of our employment and training services. Secondly, it foreshadowed a change in the role of the MSC. Thirdly, it guaranteed a place on YTS to every school leaver under 18 not going directly into a job.

Our plans for reforming the training available to longterm unemployed people underlie these proposals. It is now our major training priority to give the long-term unemployed the skills necessary to bring them back to work. I shall announce the details of this new programme shortly, but I can say that it will make it possible for us to retrain up to 600,000 a year and it represents a massive investment in training unemployed people in skills that they and our economy will need in future.

The Bill also takes the process of industrial relations law reform a step further. The essence of this step-by-step process of change and reform is a determination to see that the framework of law is appropriate to match the needs of the day and to respond to any omissions that have been apparent. In that spirit, the Government published our Green Paper last February, which put forward issues and suggestions. During the general election, we made it entirely clear and gave full details of what issues we intended to legislate on. No one can claim that we have in any way hidden our intentions. The Bill basically puts into effect the promises we have made.

The Bill is not— I repeat, not—an attack on trade unions or trade unionists. Many of its provisions simply build upon the examples which some unions have given us of how the rights of their members can be assured. It is concerned with the right framework of law for trade union affairs—the framework necessary above all to protect and ensure the rights which ordinary trade union members want and need. It puts the interests of trade union members first and foremost. That is the essence of our approach.

The Employment Act 1980 adjusted the balance of power between employers and trade unions. The Employment Act 1982 set out new responsibilities for unions and employees and the Trade Union Act 1984 promoted democratic practices in trade union affairs. The Bill is concerned with giving new rights to trade union members and setting out new ways by which those rights can be enforced.

Trade union members must have protection from abuses of power by their unions and the rights in respect of their unions that they are entitled to expect in a free society. The Bill gives members the right not to be called out by their union without a properly held secret ballot which produces a majority; the right not to be disciplined by their union if they choose to work rather than to take industrial action; the right of access to their unions' accounting records and to have professional advice when inspecting them; and the right to stop their unions applying funds for unlawful purposes or handing out indemnities to those found guilty of criminal offences. It sets out other rights which will be available to all trade union members.

Many trade unionists have some of those rights under their contracts of membership with their union, and to that extent the Bill merely confirms them, but there are examples of union rule books and practices which do not guarantee the fundamental rights. All the evidence is that trade union members and the public support the law guaranteeing those rights.

The Bill has two strands. First, it develops further the training strategy of the Government, builds on the success of YTS and marks out our next priority, which is to provide better training for the long-term unemployed so that they can obtain skills to help them back to jobs. Secondly, on the industrial relations side, the Bill sets out a number of further reforms of the law which will ensure that excessive union power is held in check. But, above all, it gives new rights to trade union members. I commend the Bill to the House.

9.32 pm
Mr. Meacher

The Government are good, as we have learnt, at redefining problems they cannot solve so as to pretend they do not exist, and then they give them a new and wholly bogus name. To call the Bill an Employment Bill really does take the biscuit. It is not about employment, it is about keeping the anti-trade union vitriol on the boil. It is not even one Bill, it is two quite separate Bills, one about anti-trade union legislation and one about training programmes for the unemployed.

It is a Bill that no one wants. The CBI, the Institute of Personnel Management, the Engineering Employers Federation and even the Freedom Association have expressed hostility to main parts of the Bill, none of which the Secretary of State has paid the slightest attention to. The hostility is scarcely surprising, for what responsible person in industry would ever call for a ballot when those who lost were encouraged to disobey the majority verdict, or for a Bill in which the Government took action to prevent a union from disciplining a minority who broke the majority decision? It is official, in clause 3 of the Bill.

The Bill is the fourth in the Government's string of anti-trade union legislation. For a Government who like to claim respect for the law, the Bill totally undermines the deep respect held by the people for majority decisions democratically reached. Taken to its logical conclusion, it will boomerang against the Government. If clause 3 discredits ballots to strike, it also discredits a ballot to return to work. It could lead to protracted disputes even after a negotiated settlement. Is that the kind of industrial relations that the Government believe in?

What hypocrisy for the Prime Minister, having secured only 43 per cent. of the electorate's vote, to demand unswerving compliance with her laws while at the same time denying trade unions which secure more than 50 per cent. of their votes the power to carry through an overwhelming democratic decision without hindrance. Indeed, in recent weeks we have seen the Transport and General Workers Union receive 88 per cent. of the votes at Ford and the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers receive 90 per cent. of the pit vote.

The Government are so psyched up by their third election victory that they have gone even further over the top in their vendetta against the unions. Not only are minorities protected if they opt out of majority decisions, but clause 16 requires ballots to be won overall and at each workplace with exceptions that will constitute a field day for lawyers. Clause 16 is designed to break up industrywide collective bargaining and undermine the whole idea of collective rights.

We may conclude that the Bill is not simply anti-union; it is also profoundly anti-democratic. So it is. The Bill requires every ballot to be carried out by post rather than at the workplace even though the evidence shows overwhelmingly that workplace ballot produce much higher turnouts—in many cases twice as high. I would have thought that a much higher turnout at the workplace, plus the uncertain targeting by post, would have clinched the matter in favour of the former on democratic grounds.

No doubt the Government believe that exposure to Sun editorials for the postal ballot is considerably more conducive to the right result than exposure to industrial activists at the workplace. It is such a pity that the Government's eagerness to constrain every minute detail of balloting for unions, even to the extent of forcing less democratic methods on them, does not extend to requiring any democratic procedures from employers, the City or the Tory party.

However, amid all this bad news it is fair to state that there is something in the Bill that looks like a bit of silver lining. The Government are proposing to establish a commissioner for the rights of trade union members. That might appear surprising as not one union member has sought a declaration or enforcement order from the courts in the past four years. That is rather a small area of rights requiring attention when by comparison 30,000 complaints a year are made against the employer for unfair dismissal, of which one tenth are upheld by tribunals.

That is precisely the problem for the Government, as the Green Paper admits. Trade union members are simply not using the courts. This new agent provocateur, this new commissar for the harassment of trade unions, is being wheeled out to make union members use the courts. That is the first example of nationalisation under this Government of a purely privatised undertaking, the destructive role of David Hart and other industrial malcontents that we saw during the strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. That, writ large, is what the new trade union harassment officer is all about.

We might have thought that the commissioner would be ideally suited to stand up for the rights of trade union members in the GCHQ affair, as that involved the Government as employer trying to remove the basic right to belong to a trade union. However, the commissioner is expressly precluded from taking up such cases. He can act only against trade unions. However, if the Government are genuinely solicitous about the rights of union members, why not extend the commissioner's power to help union members enforce their rights against the employer over health and safety, training, equal pay for work of equal value and redress against unfair dismissal? If the Government are so keen, as they have claimed to be, to "give the unions back to their members" why not let union members elect the commissioner so that they get the person they want?

What confidence can union members have that the official appointed by the Government—not unknown for their partisan exercise of patronage in sensitive posts — will be impartial, or is the post being kept for industrial wallflowers like Ian MacGregor or as a bolthole for disgraced courtiers like the Secretary of State for Social Services?

Part 2 deals with training programmes for the unemployed which, as we have already made clear, fail to meet the fundamental requirements which we have outlined. First, the Government's proposal to abolish wages based on the rate for the job and to restrict payment to benefit plus allowance is highly damaging. It will mean that two people doing the same job may get vastly different rates of payment.

The change to benefit plus allowance would also rule out topping up by managing agents since any income over an additional £5 a week would be deducted pound for pound from the allowance. Paying the rate for the job is the only way to organise temporary employment or work experience for adults. It is essential to help prevent job substitution and undercutting of wages. This principle must remain the basic building block of any new programme. It is not in the Bill.

Secondly, the scheme must be voluntary. I do not wish to call the credibility of the Secretary of State into question, but I find it difficult to believe him when he says that the new scheme will be voluntary. People should join the scheme because they want to, not because they fear that they will lose all or part of their benefit if they do not join. Compulsion is a recipe for lower standards, resentment and disruption. It could drive the unemployed into the shadow economy or into even greater poverty. Neither employers nor trade unions want reluctant conscripts in workplaces or special projects. Compulsion, together with the reduction to benefit plus allowance, would effectively convert the community programme into the worst kind of workfare, as we have seen in the United States. That is what we believe would happen.

Thirdly, the only way to guarantee protection for participants is to ensure that they continue to have employee status, which will give them legal protection on anti-discrimination rights, health and safety, industrial injuries and other employment rights. The Government's proposals in the Bill will remove employee status from participants and deny them the right to legal protection.

Fourthly, trade unions are an essential way of maintaining proper terms and conditions for participants, for ensuring health and safety standards, for preventing abuse of commission rules, for representing participants and working to improve training schemes. The cooperation of trade unionists is essential to the success of such schemes. Therefore, trade union approval and monitoring, and endorsement by area manpower boards, should continue to be part of a properly financed scheme based on these four principles. None of the four principles is in the Bill.

The Bill is not about improving industrial relations; it is about poisoning attitudes to trade unions. It is not about creating employment; it is about undermining collective rights. It is not about enhancing training; it is about removing people from unemployment registers and providing cheap labour for employers. It is not wanted by either side of industry. It is a Bill too far, even by the anti-trade union prejudices of the Government. It will be unremembered and unlamented when the next Labour Government consign it to the dustbin of history.

9.43 pm
Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

This excellent Bill has my wholehearted support. One of the most important and essential ingredients of the Bill is clause 3 which defends the right of an individual to follow his conscience on whether he joins an industrial dispute, and removes from him the fear of having to live under the threat of a jumped-up little Hitler of a shop steward who will bang him over the head if he dares go against the wishes of the union.

Opposition Members have rightly pointed out that people have to consider what the reaction of their colleagues will be when a dispute is over and they return to work. They are absolutely right about that. It is useful to see Opposition Members at last recognising that one cannot legislate to change human nature. That is a factor which individuals have to weigh up when considering whether to join a dispute.

However, it is wholly unacceptable when unions such as the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, can expel 500 teachers, as it recently did, because those individuals put the needs of their customers — in this case, their pupils — before other matters that their conscience said were less important. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) had experience of that sort of travesty when he was expelled from the NAS-UWT in 1979.

Unions are unique. There is no parallel between a trade union and an employer and there is certainly no parallel between a trade union and a golf club, as we heard suggested by Opposition Members in Committee. It is interesting to note the reaction of Opposition Members who are saying that there is a degree of state interference coming into trade unionism. They are always the first to stand up and defend state interference in the way in which an employer conducts his business. If we look at the amount of legislation and the regulations that employers have to put up with, we see that it is still far more than anything that is happening in this Bill with regard to trade unions.

The way in which Opposition Members have ranted and raved about the Bill would lead one to think that we were giving the minority the right to veto the majority. Clearly, we are not. Clause 3 merely gives the individual the right to follow his conscience, and rightly so. It is a good clause and I support it, as I am sure do most of my hon. Friends.

Other major elements of the Bill are the two clauses relating to the closed shop—clauses 10 and 11. Much was made by Opposition Members of the Freedom Association's rather woolly thinking on clause 3 but they did not mention the essential caveat made by the Freedom Association, which was the ending of the closed shop.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and I said in Committee that we remain sceptical about the ability of clauses 10 and 11 to have any effect on the pre-entry closed shop. We welcome the commitment from the Minister in Committee that if clauses 10 and 11 do not have the desired effect, the Government will come back to legislate further to ensure that the closed shop — an odious concept, totally incompatible with a free society or free labour markets —is completely removed from our way of life.

I should like to make two quick points on clauses 12 and 13. First, I hope that the Government will carry out the commitment made in Committee to introduce a clause in the Lords for election addresses to be made a requirement of postal ballot elections. I hope that the Government will consider bringing forward a code of conduct for the nomination procedure for people who are to be nominated for the posts of general secretary and president, which are non-voting posts on the executive.

Clause 7 does not go anywhere near far enough. It is a travesty that millions of people in this country are being coerced into paying money to a political party that they neither support nor vote for. We have heard much from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) about democracy in all sorts of organisations, including the Conservative party. However, I am sure that there is no organisation as foolish as the Labour party, which allows block votes which include millions of people who do not vote for the party or support it.

I know that the Government will not do anything in this Bill, but I hope that one day we will bite the bullet of contract-in and contract-out and that we will legislate to say that if somebody wishes to pay the political levy, they have to volunteer to do so. At present millions of people are conscripts in the army of the Labour party.

I support the Bill, as do the vast majority of my hon. Friends. It will enhance democracy, freedom and accountability of trade unions and their leadership.

9.48 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) is as tolerant of trade unions as he is of ethnic minorities. His views on this matter are listened to as little as his views on racial issues.

The Government's approach to trade union measures is just like their approach to many other measures which they are pushing through the House. They have discovered that the step-by-step approach, in which one measure follows another in rapid succession, begins to have an effect if they take action, not by dealing with unemployment, but by encouraging developments whereby unions and others find themselves in a weak position to negotiate. We can learn some lessons from the Government's techniques in respect of trade unions and put them into practice when we come to office and reverse those measures to regain sanity in trade union matters.

There is a double tactic in the Bill, as there is in the local government legislation. Theoretically, the Government are pushing for a free and open market and arguing about a correct balance of power between capital and labour. Anyone can see that the balance which the Government have been trying to correct—they see it as an imbalance —has gone to such a ridiculous extreme that trade union organised labour is in such a poor position that it cannot defend the interests of its members. This is a further measure in that direction. Paradoxically, when the Government push such measures in the name of a sacred free market and of a balance of power, they do so by enhancing central control, as with local government legislation.

The role of the MSC and the commissioner is presented by the Government as a sea change. There is the almost obligatory change of name from the Manpower Services Commission to the Training Commission. The Government appear to believe that, by changing its name, they can make people forget their original criticisms of an organisation. It is like using new language to describe Sellafield, but people learn about organisations from the way they operate and changes of name do not alter people's attitudes towards organisations.

This change of name fits into a general pattern of a Tory version of newspeak. We all know about George Orwell and about Ingsoc. The Government have developed their own form of "ingcon" whereby words are changed to soften public images. For example, the poll tax is called a community charge and cuts are renamed efficiency savings. The measure has nothing to do with unemployment. People will be expected to forget their experiences of the MSC because it is to be called a Training Commission.

Let us examine the record of the MSC since the Government came to power in 1979. Since then, the number of unemployed has doubled and the Government have put millions of pounds into the MSC and its various schemes. During that time, the MSC was transformed from a benign, consensual, bipartisan, independent body, which role was assigned to it by the right hon. Member for Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and the last Labour Government, into the image of the market place.

Education and training are now targeted at the employer as customer rather than at the individual. The Government are supposed to be concerned about the individual. As an employee and citizen, the individual is not considered in the Education Reform Bill or this measure. Under the Tories, the MSC's aim has been to deliver a cowed, cheap work force to the lowest bidder. Its aim has been to reduce the expectations and attitudes of a generation who have been denied real jobs and given poor training. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in one of his franker moments, said, training is not so much low-tech as no-tech. We should remember the comments of the chairman of the MSC in 1981: the young should be the source of cheap labour. Yesterday, in a programme entitled "File on Four", the monetarist guru, Patrick Minford, frankly admitted that which politicians cannot admit; the new adult training scheme is about reducing wages. That is the Government's hidden agenda. We know that the NHS is not safe in their hands. We now know that rights, pay and conditions at work are equally unsafe. The Bill worsens an already bad situation and inevitably moves us towards more compulsory labour schemes and workfare.

The Government cures unemployment for 16 to 18-year-olds by coercing them into cheap labour schemes or low-paid jobs. They introduced a new adult training scheme, on which claimants will work for benefit-plus. That is as near to workfare as the Tories can get at the moment. That it is getting closer to workfare was demonstrated in Committee by the Tories' argument during the debate on clause 26. That clause expands the reasons for which unemployment benefit can be withdrawn. It used to be for six weeks. It is now to be increased from its current level of 13 weeks to 26 weeks. Under the Social Security Act 1975, unemployment benefit can be confiscated if a claimant has without good cause refused or failed to avail himself of a reasonable opportunity of receiving training approved by the Secretary of State … for the purpose of becoming or keeping fit for entry into, or return to, regular employment. Those words have been withdrawn from this legislation.

In this legislation, those 19 words will make a crucial difference. No longer will training have any relevance or purpose for the individual. An individual can be coerced into cheapjack training schemes or face the prospect of living even further below the poverty line than he does at present. The training measure demonstrates the depth of the legislation, and I urge hon. Members to vote against it.

9.58 pm
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

On Second Reading, as vice-president of the Conservative Trade Unionists organisation, I wholeheartedly welcomed the legislation for the dramatic improvement that it will make in the lot of rank and file trade unionists. Time is short, so I shall not deal with all clauses, but simply say that the organisation again welcomes the Bill. It has already had its first notable success, even before it has become law, by forcing the National Union of Mineworkers to have an election for its presidency. I expect that, when the Bill becomes law, there will be many more notable successes in the years to come. I warmly commend it to the House and wish it well in its further passage.

9.59 pm
Mr. Strang

We are fundamentally opposed to the Bill, which is anti-trade union, centralist and authoritarian. It seeks to concentrate more power over training in the hands of the Secretary of State. The Government are suppressing organisations in our society that seek to dissent, which is why they have abolished the GLC and the metropolitan counties, and why they attack our trade unions.

The Bill was brought out, and the decisions about it were taken, in the hope that the Conservative party could make political capital in the run-up to the general election. All the evidence shows that, day by day, more and more people are coming to recognise that, far from the legislation helping to solve industrial disputes, it will make it harder to do so. They are beginning to understand that the Bill will not enhance democracy in the workplace: it will diminish it. Above all, more and more people are beginning to recognise that it is in their interests that trade unionists should have more power in the workplace—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.