HC Deb 22 October 1990 vol 178 cc23-38

Lords amendment: No. 6, in page 8, leave out lines 28 and 29 and insert ballot ceases to be effective in accordance with section (Period after which ballot ceases to be effective) below.

Mr. Forth

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 7 and 16.

Mr. Forth

This is the matter on which the House should dwell briefly, and, as it is a new development since the Bill was in another place, I should place its background on record.

During debates in this House, and in another place, the Government always made clear our willingness to consider changes to the law on union industrial action ballots which could allow a union, in certain circumstances, to make its first call for industrial action more than four weeks after the date of a ballot. We recognised the concerns that had been expressed about the way in which court proceedings, or an injunction which was eventually lifted, might create a situation in which it might be reasonable not to expect a union, as a matter of course, to re-ballot its members even though its first call for industrial action would take place more than four weeks after a ballot.

However, we also made it quite clear that the crucial principle to be preserved in such circumstances was that no such extension should be allowed if it could not be assumed that the ballot continued to represent the views of relevant members. While making such a change to the present law, the amendments also preserve this principle. To understand how they would work, it may be helpful if I describe their provisions in a little more detail.

Amendment No. 6 is a technical requirement. It replaces a reference in clause 7(3)(b) with words stating that the call for action, and industrial action itself, must take place before the ballot ceases to be effective in accordance with the new clause proposed by amendment No. 7.

Amendment No. 7 sets out the provisions of new clause 8. That clause provides that a ballot will normally "cease to be effective" for relevant purposes at the end of the period of four weeks beginning with the date of the ballot". That means that if a ballot produces a majority in favour of industrial action, it will be assumed, as a matter of course, that the result continues to reflect members' views for up to four weeks after the date of the ballot.

However, the remaining provisions of the new clause allow for the period of four weeks to be extended in certain circumstances. Those are where the calling or organising of industrial action is "prohibited" for the whole, or part, of the four-week period following the date of the ballot under a court order which subsequently lapses or is discharged, or by virtue of an undertaking given to a court from which the person concerned is subsequently released. In such a case, the trade union may apply to the court for an order providing that the period during which the prohibition has effect shall not count towards the four weeks.

In other words, the new clause recognises that, in certain circumstances, there may be no need for a union to hold another ballot. In relevant circumstances, a union may have the "privilege" of first calling for industrial action to which a ballot relates more than four weeks after the date of the ballot without having to re-ballot its members.

The new clause solves the difficulties that were highlighted in the other place and goes all the way to meeting the points that were made there. I hope that the House will see it in that way and therefore will support the amendments.

Mr. Tony Lloyd

The Minister bears no responsibility for this because he was not present in Committee or on Report. Clause 7 was passed on Report, and in reality there was little debate on this important new clause, the Government having failed to anticipate the need for it in Committee.

Clause 7 as drafted is objectionable. It is unacceptable to the Opposition because it makes it extremely difficult for legitimate industrial action to take place. The Minister would be wrong to think that the fact that we accept the new clause as constituting an improvement means either that we endorse clause 7 generally or that we consider the present proposal to be the best available. The new clause has not been debated in this place, and I think that I am right in saying that it was not introduced in the other place until Report, so even there the debate was fairly limited.

3.45 pm

We should pay tribute to those in the other place who, on a number of occasions, sought to persuade the Government of the need to recognise the defects in the existing balloting procedures. The issue first arose when the Transport and General Workers Union found itself in difficulty during the docks strike. The union balloted its members properly and in accordance with existing statute. Its members voted overwhelmingly in favour of industrial action. Then, as a delaying tactic—it was no more than a tactic—the employers took the TGWU to court and sought to use tortuous legal processes and the court mechanism to frustrate the democratic will of the TGWU's members, itself enshrined in legislation introduced by the Government.

Once the court process had been gone through, the four-week period specified in the legislation was up and the original ballot was deemed no longer valid. The union was then forced to go to all the expense and inconvenience of consulting its members again. Anyone who has any experience of industrial relations, however peripheral, will realise that the trade union and its members were thus put at a serious disadvantage, and that had been the employers' intention in using the court process. To that extent, at least, they succeeded in frustrating the interests of the TGWU's members.

Against that background, the new clause represents an improvement. It seeks to override the automaticity of the four-week period by putting an end to the validity of a ballot.

I hope that the Minister will comment in detail, as this is the first opportunity that we have had to probe the Government's intentions. We welcome the fact that a ballot will no longer automatically be deemed invalid at the end of the four-week period, but, none the less, the new clause leaves considerable discretion out of the hands of the trade union members and with the unelected and undemocratic courts system and those who sit in judgment.

I draw the Minister's attention in particular to subsection (4)(b) of the new clause, which lists the circumstances in which the court should not make an order allowing the original ballot to be considered a mandate for industrial action. Subsection (4) provides that the court shall not make such an order if it appears that an event is likely to occur as a result of which those members would vote against industrial action if another ballot were to be held. On what basis can the unelected judges of the British courts divine what the members of the TGWU—or any other union—are likely to believe at any given time? Nothing inclines me to the view that the judges are in a position to make a decision about the likely voting intentions of the members of a trade union.

This is not a trivial matter. Had the new clause come before the Committee, which took some time to examine the Bill, many of its provisions would have been subjected to considerable scrutiny. Because of the procedures that apply this evening, we are forced to consider the new clause en bloc. It is impossible for us to vote against it because it provides some benefits for trade union members. Its overriding benefit is that the four-week period will not apply automatically.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My hon. Friend said that automatic closure would not apply and that the matter would go to court. I take it that he is saying that, according to the new clause, the union would have to take the matter to court and spend a lot more money trying to get a further delay if that was possible. What would happen if the union ran into a judge like Justice Harman, who did not even know who Gazza was? What chance would the union have if it ran into a bloke like him rather than someone who knew something about trade unions? Someone is going to be stuck up there like Lord Almighty and he will have to adjudicate on a very important industrial matter. As a result of the new clause, a lot of money could be spent and at the end of the day the trade union might still face the same predicament as it faced before it went to court.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. Once court proceedings are under way, we are all aware who will be the ultimate beneficiaries: they will be the members of one of the more efficient trade unions in Britain, the national union of barristers and solicitors, who generally manage to make a fair amount out of court proceedings.

There is considerable concern that trade union members would have to pay for the legal procedure. I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to the fact that there is no appeal against a court decision. If the judges, in their wisdom, decide that as working class judges they would have voted against industrial action and therefore members of the trade union would have felt the same way, there is no mechanism for an appeal against the court's decision. What the court says goes, and if the court says that the union has had its four weeks, that four weeks will have well and truly been had.

Those concerns lie at the heart of the new clause. We must accept the new clause as a whole or reject it. Although it is defective, it is better than the former provision according to which after four weeks there was no possibility of a ballot maintaining its validity. Even with regard to cost, time and the overwhelming discretion of the court, the new clause offers something marginally better than the former provision.

The Minister is new to his present post and I hope that he will consider my points. We are told that there are areas of employment law which the Secretary of State is still considering. He may feel that it is prudent to rattle a few skeletons, and the Bill was introduced to put the trade union movement on the defensive. The Government have failed to do that with this Bill. If there is to be another Employment Bill next Session, I hope that the Minister will dwell on the points that have been raised about this new clause with a view to taking remedial action to improve the provision.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) has raised an important point about subsection (4)(b) of the new clause, which refers to an event … likely to occur as a result of which those members would vote against industrial action". Might such an event be the probable reinstatement of someone whose dismissal had caused the industrial action in the first place or, in the case of a wage demand, the announcement by an employer that it was willing to reconsider and increase the offer to the employees?

Subsection (5) states: No appeal lies from the decision of the court to make or refuse an order under this section. Does that include no appeal to the employment appeals tribunal, which is often seen and can be used as the last resort in industrial relations matters?

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Amendment No. 7 is the most substantive amendment that was carried in another place. Although I certainly would not wish to vote against the amendment, it underlines the fact that, in trying to bring more and more legalism into this aspect of the law, in an effort to take the sting out of unofficial disputes, more problems will be created than solved. In some circumstances, the amendment could lead to unofficial disputes becoming official, and being supported by a ballot to try to get out of some of the legal difficulties that are now being put in the way. Much trust has been put into the speed of the judicial process. Subsection (6) of the new clause makes it clear that, unless an application is dealt with within 12 weeks, even after 12 weeks, regardless of what the subsection or the court may say, the ballot ceases to be effective.

Assuming that a union is not able to get its application in until, say, the seventh week after the date of the ballot, one hopes that the courts will be up to it to make sure that the application is heard as quickly as possible so that the application is not defeated by the expiration of time.

My next point was dealt with at some length by the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) and was referred to by the hon. Members for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). It relates to the necessity for a union to apply to the court. The circumstances set out in the amendment will allow the court not to make an order allowing an extension of time. One wonders why it would not have been possible, after the order which was prohibiting the union from calling for industrial action, for the time to be added automatically. Expense will be incurred through having to go to court.

It is important also to concentrate on the fact that the court will be allowed not to make an order if it appears to the court—

  1. (a) that the result of the ballot no longer represents the views of the union members concerned, or
  2. (b) that an event is likely to occur as a result of which those members would vote against industrial action if another ballot were to be held."
I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West that some clear event might have taken place—for example, that the original demands promoting the call for industrial action had actually been met. That would be obvious. Hon. Members would accept that many other factors can come into play that are not quite as obvious in their impact on union members as that factor would be. That seems to be committing a great deal to judicial knowledge.

As the hon. Member for Bolsover pointed out, it would appear that a member of Her Majesty's judiciary was not aware of who Paul-Gazza-Gascoigne is. During my own student days, a judge once asked, "Who are the Beatles?" In difficult aspects of industrial relations, it is too much to expect so much to be within judicial knowledge, or for judges, even if they have the benefit of statements by barristers or advocates appearing before them, to interpret them and make decisions upon them.

In matters of procedure, will information be made available to the court through ex parte statements on behalf of the union and employers, or will there be scope for evidence to be led with regard to what the current views of union members are or what they are likely to be, or what events are likely to occur in the next few days? As the amendment improves the Bill, I shall not vote against it.

4 pm

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I do not wish to delay the House, but I should like clarification on a couple of queries. Broadly speaking, amendment No. 7 is a sensible change which, I am sure, will be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties. I shall concentrate on the point that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) and by Opposition Members. Clearly, circumstances can change and it is right that the court should be able to take any change into account. The court is probably as good a judge of that as anybody, as long as the information is presented sensibly.

To avoid endless legal arguments in the future, I seek clarification on the words "is likely to occur". Presumably they incorporate something that is occurring when the court is sitting, and not just a future change. What will happen if what is deemed "likely to occur" does not occur? Is there some way back to enable the status quo ante to be re-enacted?

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister if this next point was raised earlier. It relates to the introductory section of the new clause, which was part of the old clause. I am referring to the phrase at the end of the period of four weeks beginning with the date of the ballot. Perhaps my hon. Friend would clarify that, so that we can ensure that it does not provide scope for endless litigation or for endless lawyers' fees. Is the date of the ballot the date when the ballot starts or the date by which the last ballot paper must be received, because in practice ballots often take place on more than one date?

Mr. Skinner

This is really a debate about class in our society. Here we are, once again, discussing in the last stages of our consideration of this Bill the way in which trade unions and their members are being treated by the Tory Government and the way in which the law is being used against them despite the fact that on most occasions the people in the City of London and the establishment do not have to put up with such laws.

From the new clause it appears that the Government have decided that even in the courts it might be better if a little leeway were given. I am worried about the fact that, when a case gets to court, those who are running the outfit—85 per cent. of whom are from public schools and Oxbridge—will have a completely different view of trade unions and how they work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) has said, although the net result will be a marginal improvement—I have to agree with that, because that will probably be the case—we must wait and see what happens when a case goes to court. My chief worry is that if the first decision was set against a trade union in respect of the four weeks, and if it was decided that the ballot was all right and would have to stand, notwithstanding that there had been some difficulties, that might set a precedent for many other unions that might want to extend the time so that they would not have to hold another ballot. In such cases, the victory would be with the other side.

Does the Minister believe that any further representations to a court would be varied as a result of the setting of such a precedent? We know that when a matter goes to court judges look back at what happened previously and use that as a pattern.

In any case, I am disturbed by the way in which trade unions are always being attacked by the Government. The other day I was reading about Maxwell. Apparently, there was a discussion and ballot at the Derby County football club in which only two people spoke and voted in favour of Maxwell continuing at Derby because they said that he had his fingers in other pies, such as Tottenham. However, nothing happened. Apparently, somebody with a lot of money came along and put a stop to it, so that was the end of that. That is one side of business, but the people who are the wealth creators—the trade unionists—are continually being told, "You must have a ballot for this, that and the other." They are dictated to by the Tory Government and their henchmen and women in the media, with the result that, once a result is found to be inadequate or only partly adequate to the Tories, they propose different provisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford said, in this case they are not too sure about whether they can sustain it in view of what has happened previously.

I am also worried that, as my hon. Friend said, there is no appeal procedure against these decisions. It will be a tidy state of affairs if someone says to the courts, "We are making representations under the new clause passed at the last minute by people in the House of Lords and then verified in the House of Commons" but is told, "We are awfully sorry, but if you lose you cannot appeal." Why cannot trade unionists have a proper appeal procedure to enable them to challenge a decision?

There are laws for trade unionists and laws for other people. Sir Jack Lyons is a current good example. He admitted, among all the other things, writing to the Prime Minister and God knows what else in the Guinness affair. He said that he had made £3 million out of that scandal. What was he fined?—£3 million. So it was not a bad day's work for Sir Jack Lyons. That will not apply to people taking part in industrial action, for example, trying to obtain more than 7 or 8 per cent. against the Government when the going rate is 10.9 per cent. Who knows, in a short time we may have inflation of more than 11 per cent. That is what the ballots are all about in the main. They are not about £3 million, as in the case of Sir Jack Lyons. They are usually about someone on £150 a week or less who is trying to keep up with the rate of inflation but is being hammered by the Government.

The Government say that they have no incomes policy, but the incomes policy is contained in this legislation. Over the past 11 years, to hamper trade unionists in their attempts to keep up with inflation, the Government have introduced trade union laws backed by a massive dole queue. The dole queue is even greater now than it was in the early years when the Government brought in the most punitive legislation to force through their form of incomes policy. Today we are discussing the Government's latest attempts at an incomes policy. There will probably be another attempt in the next Session of Parliament.

There have been 11 years of dirty work against the wealth creators of Britain—the people who work for a living, as opposed to those who do not. Those who do not are represented by the Establishment and all those people on the other side of the fence, in the Tory party—all the 200 Back Benchers who have outside jobs. They do not have any problems with ballots. All the jobs were itemised in The Observer magazine. Unfortunately, all the information is not in the Register of Members' Interests. Conservative Members are not subjected to ballots. They do not have to appear before judges. They will not be subject to new clauses or further legislation. These people can make money on the side by moonlighting. But woe betide someone working in a factory, school or some office somewhere trying to keep up with the rate of inflation, which the Government are supposedly trying to control.

Mr. Wallace

What is the hon. Gentleman's view of his party's policy review, which does not seem to want to undo much of the so-called "dirty work" of the past 11 years?

Mr. Skinner

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening on previous occasions, he would know that I believe that all the dirty work of the past 11 years should be undone by a Labour Government. He would also know that I believe that there is only one freedom at work. It is the freedom collectively to organise together to stop the bosses from exploiting, in this case, trade union members and would-be trade union members. It is as simple as that.

In Labour's proposed new legislation there are some new rights, they tell me. I am not knocking new rights but merely saying that I want to see undone all the work that the Tory Government have done. When we get a Labour Government I shall remember what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has said. There is half a chance—no more than that—that he will be returned. We might win the seat. If he comes back as a Liberal, or whatever may be the current name of his party, I shall call upon him to support in the Lobby those of us who want to overturn Tory legislation. The hon. Gentleman can have a word with his gaffer chap, Paddy Backdown, to see whether they will do that. The Liberals are handy at giving the impression that they are on everybody's side. In view of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, is the parrot twitching on trade union legislation? Has the Liberal party extended its great history of liberalism and freedom to the fact that there is only one freedom at work—the freedom for people to band together in trade unions and collectively organise? That is the great natural freedom from which I and every Labour Member have sprung.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Skinner

I give way to the bookie's runner.

Mr. Holt

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if a person feels strongly enough about it, it is his right not to belong to a trade union and not to be blackballed from a firm because he wants to be an individual and not a member of a trade union? Would an individual have that right under your future Labour Government?

Mr. Skinner

Not "your" Government. You mean the hon. Member for Bolsover. I know that you find some difficulty getting it out, and that applies to many hon. Members. There is a way of doing it and you should listen closely to the way that I deal with the matter. The hon. Member from up north, who represents Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) —

Mr. Tony Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is not from up north.

Mr. Skinner

That is right. He is a southerner who got a seat up north, but he will be replaced by a Labour Member at the next election. Somebody who is prepared to take an 8, 10, or 12 per cent. pay increase that has been gained by collective action should expect to be part of the organisation that won that increase. If he wants to be a freeloader and imagine that he is doing it on his own, he should have to pay any price arising from that action. He has the freedom to do what he wants, but he should be smart enough to understand that he will not get such an increase on his own. There are plenty of examples.

Mass unemployment has been deliberately engineered by the Government to reduce the will of those who are engaged in collective action. The Tory Government brag about there not being many strikes. They purposely created a dole queue of 3 million or more to try to reduce the number of strikes and the ability of people to organise. In 1989, unemployment dropped slightly and in one or two areas people manged to get a little bit above the odds. That applies to the National and Local Government Officers Association. Even the BBC got an extra 2 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh is pleased about that.

The Government are now pushing up unemployment and introducing other employment measures. That is what they have been about from the beginning. That is why I have opposed such Bills and why I call upon the next Labour Government to undo all this dirty work so that we may give freedom, which is limited, to the wealth creators collectively to organise to improve their lot. They have a hell of a long way to go before they catch up with the 19 ex-Tory Ministers who have lined their pockets with 59 directorships in the past 11 years. They will also have a big job to catch up with all the Tory Back Benchers who are making money on the side.

I support the efforts of the wealth creators. This legislation is designed to stop their freedom and that is why we have opposed it from the beginning. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford says that the new clause is a marginal improvement. I am worried that when the matter reaches the courts and the judges examine it they may set a precedent that will hamper us even more. I am pleased that the issue has been raised in this way because it gives us an opportunity to state a few things that will be important in the next five years when we have a Labour Government.

4.15 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

This is a useful debate, not just because it gives my hon. Friend the Minister an opportunity to explain what this clause means but because it gives us a chance to note something about the Labour party. Over the years that I have been in the House, it has made great play of the fact that it elects its party chairman and has claimed that that gives it an infinitely more representative chairman that has the Conservative party, which has an appointed chairman. It is valuable that a recent chairman of the Labour party, who was so clearly representative of the Labour party, has given us an exposition of his view that all the industrial and employment legislation of the past 11 years should be undone. I am sure that the public will be extremely reassured to know that that is the policy of the Labour party.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) gave a qualified acceptance of Lords amendment No. 7 because, he said, it is an improvement on the original. It says that a court may find that the result of the ballot no longer represents the views of the union members concerned". How will a court determine this? The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) mocked my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but the Labour movement has elections and the one thing that the Conservative party seems most reluctant to have is elections. The chairman of the Conservative party is certainly not elected and there is no balloting over company contributions to that party. The board simply donates money and notifies the shareholders of what has happened—just like that.

What worries me is that even when the Government pass legislation on balloting, and the processes set out in that legislation are followed, employers still have the whiphand in the workplace. I can give a demonstration of that and the Under-Secretary may wish to check with his officials about the letter that I wrote in August about a company in my constituency—John Stanley in Willenhall.

In this company, several ballots were held in accordance with Government legislation. There was no doubt that they were carried out according to the law of the land. There were resounding majorities in favour of action being taken by the employees over a wage claim. As a result of those ballots a large number of people were dismissed and the dispute continues. I wrote to the Secretary of State asking him how he could possibly explain to the workers why, after they had observed the requirements of the legislation, they were treated in this way. The trade union official concerned, in Wolverhampton, which is near to my constituency, wrote to ask whether the Secretary of State or any of the Ministers in the Department of Employment could explain in person to the workers why they had been dismissed in this way, but the Secretary of State did not take up the invitation.

There is a contradiction between the way in which the Government handle trade unions and their attitude to employers. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover was right to say that there is inbuilt prejudice against trade unions. I can give an example of this. A Government Whip, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown), who is not present—I am not saying anything about the Whip who is here—has been quoted in the local press as saying that he would rather see his factories closed than accept trade unions. That is one illustration of a member of the Government who has a strong prejudice against trade unions. Are we to believe that the Minister who is to reply is not hostile towards trade unions? We remember him as a Back Bencher, when he mocked and baited trade unions on numerous occasions. Can he be regarded as impartial and as someone who wants to see fair play between employers and employees? Of course not. The Minister is on the side of the employers. He probably does not believe that it is right that trade unions should exist in the first place. He is certainly not in favour of trade unions being able to organise industrial action.

Perhaps I speak for myself, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover will disagree with me, but I do not want to see industrial action at every opportunity when there are difficulties. I believe that it should be used as a weapon of last resort. If the right of industrial action is taken from the work force, however, a fundamental freedom is removed from it. It is interesting to bear in mind some of the first actions that have been taken in eastern Europe. The countries concerned have been doing away with the Communist dictatorships and introducing free speech and free Parliaments. One of their first actions was to permit free trade unions to be formed that would have the right to take industrial action. My right hon. and hon. Friends have been trying to maintain freedoms which were established over many years, which the Tory Government have undoubtedly undermined to a large extent.

There is so much hypocrisy surrounding these matters. Yesterday, The Sunday Times supplied us with information about the way in which the very rich try to evade their income tax liability. We read about offshore tax havens. I do not know whether there are any Conservative Members present now in the Chamber who take advantage of those loopholes, but one or two Conservative Members were named in The Sunday Times. The Government talk about the rule of law and fair play and say that trade union officials should not encourage their members to ask for too much in wage claims. The same Government tolerate loopholes that give the rich extra money. The rich have done so well out of the Government, yet, despite pressure from the Inland Revenue, it seems that over the past two or three years the Treasury has refused to take action to close such loopholes that they know exist. There is a contradiction when the Government talk about fair play yet allow loopholes to remain open for the rich. At the same time the Government try to undermine in every conceivable way the right of working people to organise effectively and to take industrial action.

I have given an example of the way in which a group of employees in my constituency have been treated badly. Having listened to my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and for Bolsover, I also take the view that there is not much purpose in voting against this provision. We must be under no illusion, however; the Government are dedicated to supporting only one part of society. Time and again they have helped the rich and the near-rich. Even their natural supporters, such as those at Eastbourne, have decided that enough is enough. They are fed up with the Government, as are millions of others who voted for the Conservative party at the general election. They have come to the conclusion that the Government do not represent ordinary people. Instead, they represent the rich or the well off. They will do everything possible for a small minority. That is why the Government have lost so much support in the past few years. I have referred to Eastbourne, but in the Mid-Staffordshire by-election the swing against the Government was even greater. That was in the region of which I represent part—the west midlands—and so I am pleased about that. It is clear—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King), who is making idiotic comments while sitting behind the Minister, will undoubtedly lose his seat at the next general election.

Mr. Holt

I had no intention of contributing to the debate, but, having listened to some of the cant and nonsense from Labour Members, I find it necessary to intervene.

I represent many working people. Most of the Conservative voters in my constituency are working people. Most of them would find much to resent in the remarks of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who I believe has never done a day's work and dirtied his hands. He is a Member of Parliament who has been thrown out on one occasion, and I think that he will be thrown out again.

Reference was made to my antecedents. I think that the reference was prompted by the Opposition Whip. As usual, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) did not get his facts right. I was not born in the north of England, but I was educated there. My opponent during the general election was not born in the north of England either. He was born in India. I do not think that that should necessarily disbar anyone from becoming a Member of Parliament. If candidates must live, work and have been born in the area, the Labour party's national executive committee will have great difficulty selecting a candidate for Eastbourne at the general election. It threw out its good local man because he did not conform to the Mandelson image. Of course, Mr. Mandelson—the man who really runs the Labour party, with the puppet Kinnock up front—is seeking a seat in the north of England. He has been selected as a candidate for an area that he had never previously visited. He is fighting a good local Conservative candidate who was born and raised in the area. He will beat Mr. Mandelson at the next general election——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that such matters have been mentioned, but the debate is about a ballot ceasing to be effective in accordance with the relevant subsection. I know that general elections are about ballots, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to relate his remarks more closely to the Lords amendment.

Mr. Holt

I am just coming to the connection that you are seeking, Mr. Speaker. We are discussing ballots. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) referred to the dock strike at Tees and Hartlepool. It was, "All out boys, all out", but it was not very long before it was, "All back boys, all back." The union leader said that the strike would last for six months and would break the port employers, but in fact it lasted for about six days and almost broke the union. It is the workers from the Tees and Hartlepool port authority who will elect the Conservative candidate, Mr. Graham Robb, to this House rather than Mr. Mandelson, the carpetbagger from the south of England.

Mr. Forth

I have at long last achieved one of my life's ambitions, which is to be acknowledged by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) as a member of the Establishment. It is something that I have always wanted to be, and now I have it from the most impeccable authority in the House, if I may refer to the hon. Gentleman thus, that I am a fully fledged, bona fide member of the Establishment. I thank him for that because it has made my day.

The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) implied that the matter had not been fully and properly debated, but that is not strictly true. The principles underlying this important clause were debated throughout the Bill's proceedings both in this House and in another place. Although the exact clause had not been debated here, it was debated at length in Committee and on Report in another place and was widely welcomed on all sides. It had a fair amount of coverage.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could conceive of or suggest any events that would meet the requirements of clause 7(4)(b). Almost immediately, my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) gave examples of two such events—first, the possible reinstatement of an employee whose dismissal had given rise to the balloted action, and secondly, a new pay offer being made during the proceedings. Those are two obvious circumstances which could give rise to the requirements under the clause. It is not as unlikely or as obscure as the hon. Member for Stretford suggested.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Although those are relevant circumstances, if they were likely to arise the union probably would not have returned to the court on an application. The sting would have been taken out of the potential dispute. It is more likely that the circumstances will be much greyer and less obvious to define than the clear circumstances suggested by the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel), which would probably result in the union not wanting to make an application.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman may well be right. However, the thrust of this late change to the Bill comes in response to points raised—quite legitimately—in the other place. They were considered very carefully, and were prompted largely by the events involving the Transport and General Workers Union which were outlined by the hon. Member for Stretford. We intend to prevent a recurrence of those events.

4.30 pm

I shall not attempt to envisage in detail the circumstances that may arise; I feel, however, that the clause provides a mechanism that will allow the unions to prevent a recurrence of the TGWU problem by going back to court. I shall say more about that in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West asked whether an appeal to the employment appeals tribunal would be possible. As a division of the High Court, it hears appeals from the industrial tribunals, so it would not be possible in this instance. Besides, we feel that allowing for such appeals would introduce yet more potential for delay and uncertainty. I should add that employers have no chance to appeal either; to that extent, the position remains evenly balanced.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) queried the ability of the judicial process to respond quickly enough to the events that we are discussing. I can give him two assurances—one quite serious, the other entirely serious. Given the dramatic fall in the incidence of industrial action that we have observed over the past few years, the number of occasions on which this machinery will be needed have also been dramatically reduced; it will therefore be invoked in only a few cases. I am confident that a quick enough response will be possible, although, if I am proved wrong, we shall re-examine the position as a matter of urgency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) asked whether the term "likely to occur" related to the future. If something is happening or has already happened, the court can already take it into account under subsection (4A); subsection (4B) would not be applicable. I do not believe that his fears are well grounded, but, if he is not satisfied with my reply, we can consider the matter again if necessary. My hon. Friend also asked what was the applicable date of the ballot. The applicable date is the last date on which voting can take place.

It is remarkable that the hon. Member for Bolsover should still criticise the Government over the level of unemployment. Of course, any level of unemployment—even the present level, much reduced though it is—is unacceptable. Is not it significant, however, that our current rate of about 5.5 per cent. is below the rate in socialist France and socialist Spain, below the rate in Germany—that much-vaunted example of industrial efficiency—and, certainly, below the rate in many other countries that allege to have socialist Governments?

Presumably the hon. Gentleman still claims to be a socialist. I do not know whether that can now be said of any other member of the Labour party, but I suspect that, if there is one party member who still wishes to regard himself as a socialist, it is the hon. Gentleman. Given that that is the case, it is remarkable that he should criticise the present Government for the level of unemployment that an unacceptable number of people are still suffering: even his friends in the Socialist International—no doubt he, too is an active member, although he does not possess a passport—would consider that unfair. I hope that he will think again.

The hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members expressed suspicions about the courts. I regret that, because, although those of us who do not participate in court proceedings may find them difficult to divine from time to time, by and large it is a fair and impartial system. We should accept it as such, and we shall not make any progress by constantly criticising court procedure and those who dedicate their lives to this country's system of justice.

Mr. Skinner

The system of justice in this country is bent. I believe that the judges, by and large, mirror the views of the Establishment. When a Tory Government are in power, the judges, by and large, support that Government's views. There may be odd little exceptions, where the judiciary throw a sprat to catch a mackerel, but I do not believe that they act independently. A good example of that is the way that judges came back from their holidays and opened up the courts on Saturdays and Sundays to imprison miners. They do not do the same in the case of people from the City. Cameron-Webb and Dixon got away to America with £40 million without even having their collars felt.

When the judges were nearly tackled by the present Government two years ago, the judges threatened to go on strike and to have a big march down the Strand. As a result, the Prime Minister—the so-called lady who is not for turning—caved in, because the judges were her friends and she did not want to strike at them. I am sorry that the judges did not strike, because I had already made a placard and intended to join them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman has just answered the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who complained about the judiciary's lack of speedy response. The hon. Member for Bolsover offered the best example that anyone could of the judiciary's speed of response. I wish that I had thought of it myself.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland queried whether the courts could respond quickly enough when unions referred a matter to them under the terms of the clause. The court will already be dealing with the matter, so such a request would only be an extension of existing proceedings rather than anything new. Therefore, there is no reason why any obstacle should be placed in the way of a union in that respect.

I will not deal in detail at the Dispatch Box today with the specific case raised by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but I undertake to study again the correspondence that passed between him and my Department. If there have been any significant or relevant changes in the circumstances, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will advise me. However, that case does not change the substance of the amendment and the clause.

Mr. Winnick

I thank the Minister for agreeing to review the correspondence. I think that he will find that a rather useful exercise.

As the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) would not give way earlier, may I ask him now whether he agrees that it would be more useful to proceed by argument and not by smears? Apart from two years' national service and a further two years in higher education, I have been in paid employment of one form or another since the age of 15. To say that I have not worked is a Tory lie. I have worked all my life. Despite the wishes of the Tories, I hope that I shall have an opportunity to work for many more years to come. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh should acknowledge that he told a lie, and withdraw it.

Mr. Forth

I do not want to pursue those matters, but I hope that I have replied adequately to the substantive points made during our useful debate.

Mr. Holt

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I may point out that in response to the claim by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that only people who get their hands dirty are workers——

Mr. Skinner

I did not say that.

Mr. Holt

He did, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In response to that remark, I said that the hon. Member for Walsall, North had never done a day's hard work. I stick by that.

Mr. Winnick

What work has the hon. Gentleman ever done? Acting?

Mr. Skinner

Bookies' runner?

Mr. Holt

It is not a question of what I have done but of what work those two hon. Gentlemen have done.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. None of this has much to do with employment.

Mr. Forth

I ask the House to support the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 7 to 11 agreed to.

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