HC Deb 18 July 1989 vol 157 cc203-5
1. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment whether he has any plans to legislate on the subject of strike action in the public sector; and if he will make a statement.

15. Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he will seek to withdraw trade union immunities from strike action in monopoly public services.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Norman Fowler)

In the light of recent disputes the Government are reviewing the law on industrial action. We will bring forward any proposals in due course.

Mr. Riddick

I welcome the review. May I suggest, however, that a possible way forward would be to remove the legal immunities enjoyed by trade unions during strike action, particularly in public service monopolies? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision by the National Union of Railwaymen to continue its strike after the other two rail unions had accepted British Rail's offer is almost unbelievable and utterly disgraceful? Does it not show that the NUR does not give a damn about the travelling public?

Mr. Fowler

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about the decision itself—it was a deplorable decision, and one which caused hardship to many people. I can only hope that the NUR will think again about its policy. As for the review, we shall obviously consider the whole position and, as I have said, bring forward proposals in due course.

Mr. Bowis

Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too many strikes take place in the public as opposed to the private sector? Does he also agree that there are far too many monopolies in the public sector? While any strike is to be deplored, the effects of strikes in the monopoly public services go far beyond the people directly involved in the industrial action, hitting those who cannot use alternative provision, either because there is no such provision or because they cannot afford it. Should not my right hon. Friend take action to protect the vulnerable in our society?

Mr. Fowler

As I have said, we are reviewing the legal position. As an immediate step, I think that the NUR should accept the tribunal award, as have the other unions concerned. I do not believe that the public will understand if one of the unions keeps the strike going. We want an end to the dispute and so do the public—and so, I believe, do most railwaymen.

Mr. Grocott

Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to condemn people in well-paid jobs, including Ministers, who are always attacking those in low-paid jobs for taking industrial action to improve their standard of living?

Mr. Fowler

No one is attacking anyone at this point. [Interruption.] We are saying that the NUR should follow the example of the other two unions and accept the tribunal award. It would come well from the Opposition—particularly the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)—to condemn industrial action which is causing unnecessary hardship to many thousands of people.

Mr. Cryer

Does the Secretary of State not realise that the same sort of attack was made on the trade union movement in pre-war Fascist Germany? As the Prime Minister who appointed the right hon. Gentleman—and who may well be shifting him—supports trade unions in Poland, will he tell her that trade unions in this country should also have rights, which should not be confined to Poland? Why should not the NUR make its own decision after the weeks and months of deception on the part of British Rail management, which has betrayed agreements and continually gone behind the union's back, especially in the courts?

Mr. Fowler

I believe that the vast majority of people want the NUR to accept the tribunal's decision. The other two unions involved in the dispute have accepted it, and it is incomprehensible that the NUR has taken its present position.

The purpose of industrial relations legislation is to protect the public, and every poll carried out shows that our trade union legislation is supported by the vast majority.

Mr. Devlin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that since 1979 there have been three times as many strikes in the public sector as in the private sector? Does that not make the case for further privatisation and also for the further regulation of public sector unions, whose strike action inevitably hits the most vulnerable people?

Mr. Fowler

No decision has yet been taken on privatisation. I repeat that the immediate action that can be taken now is for the NUR to call off the industrial action and accept the tribunal's award, which has already been accepted by the two other unions.

Mr. Wallace

Does the Secretary of State believe in the basic right of an employee to withdraw his or her labour?

Mr. Fowler

There is, of course, a right to strike, but I think that the hon. Gentleman and also the public would expect us to look at strikes in the public services. We are not alone in doing that. Other European countries are having similar problems. I have already said that we shall review the position, and that is what we shall do. When we have reached conclusions, we shall announce them.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will my right hon. Friend accept from me that my constituents in Kent are fed up with strikes in the public services and with the posturing of national union officers? Is it not a fact that the losers are not only the public but public servants in the south-east and that we should be far better served by regional pay and local negotiations?

Mr. Fowler

That is obviously one of the issues in the dispute, but I think that what the public and the railwaymen want is an end to the dispute. Apparently, only the NUR executive wants the dispute to continue. I very much hope that the Labour party will make it clear this afternoon that it, too, wants the industrial action to be called off.

Mr. Meacher

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge and make clear that a ban on public sector strikes—something which the Government talked about during the dispute—is a daft idea? It did not work during the second word war, it was specifically rejected by the Government in 1981, it is not operated in other European countries and it is simply an invitation to provocation by management. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that if he seriously wants to safeguard essential services, as we all do, he would do far better if, rather than withdrawing fundamental democratic rights, he sought to improve the arbitrary and inept mismanagement that we have seen so often in the public sector in recent years?

Mr. Fowler

As I have made clear, we are reviewing the law on industrial relations. We shall make our proposals known after the review. The whole House will have noted that the hon. Member for Oldham, West has taken his line straight from the NUR executive. He has offered not one word of condemnation of the industrial action. The fact is that however damaging or irresponsible any industrial action is, the hon. Gentleman will always support it.