HC Deb 24 July 1991 vol 195 cc1161-74 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposals for further reform of the law on industrial relations which are published in a Green Paper today.

Those proposals are designed to consolidate and build on the improvement in this country's industrial relations over the past 12 years. Their purpose is to ensure that we have an effective and up-to-date framework of law in order to maintain that progress throughout the 1990s. Each of the proposals contained in the Green Paper is carefully designed to meet a clear deficiency in our present arrangements. They are designed to increase the rights of individual members of the public, of individual trade union members and of the community at large.

The first group of proposals in the Green Paper concerns strikes and other forms of industrial action. It is worth recalling that, before 1980, the law gave trade unions a virtually unlimited licence to organise strikes and industrial action, no matter how remote they were from the original dispute. There was no requirement for strike ballots, and the law allowed the disruptive effects of industrial action to be spread far and wide by flying pickets.

As a direct result of this Government's legislation, the law now protects jobs and businesses against secondary action and secondary picketing and, for the first time in our history, strike ballots have become a generally accepted feature of British industrial relations. Few now seriously question the role our legislation has played in reducing the number of strikes to its current level—the lowest for more than 60 years. We now propose to strengthen the law in the following ways.

First, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in his statement on Monday, we propose to provide a new right for members of the public in relation to unlawful industrial action which affects a public service. At present, the employer has the right to bring proceedings against a trade union which organises an unlawful strike. Members of the public, who are usually the specific target of industrial action, have no such right. If the employer does nothing, the citizen is defenceless.

We need to look no further than the recent strike of refuse collectors and other council employees in Liverpool for evidence of the need for citizens to be able to take action for themselves to protect the services on which they depend.

We therefore propose to establish a new right for members of the public to seek an injunction to halt unlawful industrial action affecting a public service if the employer concerned fails to use the remedies available to him. This proposal has been widely welcomed. It will enhance the protection of the public and it will be a further deterrent to unlawful industrial action.

Secondly, we propose to make it a legal requirement that unions should give at least seven days' notice of a strike. A period of strike notice is a well-established feature of the law in other countries. This requirement will help to protect the general public from the hardship caused by lightning strikes in public services. It will also allow employers to take steps to safeguard jobs and businesses.

I turn now to the rights of individual trade union members. The House will recall that in 1979 union members had no statutory right to elect their leaders; nor did they have any statutory right to vote in a secret ballot before a strike; and they had no protection against fines and expulsion from their union if they refused to strike. In short, the law allowed union leaders to exercise what the Attorney-General of the day described as "lawful intimidation" against their own members. Now as a result of our legislation, every union member has the right to elect his leaders by secret ballot and to vote in secret before he is called out on strike.

But experience has shown that the existing law does not always provide fully effective protection against fraud and malpractice in trade union ballots. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union elections for its national executive in 1990—and before that the general secretary election in 1984—both had to be re-run because of allegations of widespread vote-rigging in the first ballot.

Accordingly, the Green Paper proposes a number of changes in the law to strengthen the democratic rights of union members by giving them the opportunity to inspect their union's membership register to detect bogus and duplicate names and by requiring records to be kept of the number of ballot papers issued and returned in each locality. In addition, we propose to extend the requirements for fully postal voting and independent scrutiny, which have applied to union elections since 1988, so that they also cover strike ballots and ballots on union mergers.

I propose a number of further changes in the law to strengthen the rights of union members. The first concerns an employee's freedom to join the union of his choice. As a result of the Employment Act 1990 no one can lawfully be refused employment because he is, or is not, a member of a trade union. But it is still the case that operation of the Trades Union Congress's so-called Bridlington principles can deny individual workers the opportunity to belong to the union which they believe will most effectively represent their interests.

Indeed, the Bridlington principles can effectively deny an employee any choice at all in the union that he joins. In some cases, they prevent him from belonging to any union except the union that he wants to leave. If a union member disagrees with the policies of his union, he may find that his only choice is between remaining in that union and ceasing to be a member of any union affiliated to the TUC.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Bridlington principles have come under increasing strain and that they are now regarded as unworkable even by the leaders of major TUC unions. For example, the general secretary-elect of the Transport and General Workers Union, Mr. Bill Morris, said recently that the Bridlington principles are "ripe for review" and that today when we are about choice and opportunity for the individual there is no choice or opportunity within them. The recent turmoil in the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians is clear evidence of the truth of those remarks. We therefore propose that, where more than one union represents employees in a particular occupation or industry, individual employees should be free to choose which union they join without the constraint of any arrangement between trade union bosses which is designed to deny them that freedom of choice.

The second proposal for strengthening the rights of union members concerns the practice of making automatic deductions from employees' pay on behalf of their union. It is a clear anomaly in the law that deductions, which may include special strike levies as well as union subscriptions, can be made from the pay of a union member without his consent.

If those so-called check-off arrangements have been agreed between his employer and his trade union, there is nothing that an individual employee can do to escape from them, short of resigning from his union. There is evidence that, in some cases, these arrangements operate without even the knowledge of the employees concerned. In the construction industry, for example, some employees found that through the check-off they were paying subscriptions to a union that they had never joined.

Accordingly, we propose to make it unlawful for any deduction to be made from an employee's pay on behalf of a trade union without his individual, written consent. We do not propose to make the practice of the so-called check-off unlawful, as it is in France, but we do propose that in future it should have to operate with the consent of each employee.

The third proposal concerns the ability of members to ensure that the finances of their unions are managed, and are seen to be managed, properly. The Lightman report on the conduct of the National Union of Mineworkers' finances during and after the miners' strike of 1984–85 revealed serious irregularities. The findings of that report indicated a clear need to strengthen the law to protect the rights of union members. The Green Paper contains a number of proposals to increase the accountability of union leaders to their members for the conduct of their unions' financial affairs, and to strengthen the powers of the independent certification officer.

The final proposal in the Green Paper concerns the legal status of collective agreements. The law in this country is virtually unique in creating a presumption that collective agreements are not legally binding on both parties. In most other industrialised countries, it is normal practice for collective agreements to have the status of contracts that impose obligations equally on both parties. In those countries, employers and trade unions alike find that that brings greater clarity and precision to collective bargaining, and greater stability to industrial relations.

Furthermore, the effect of the United Kingdom's tradition of non-binding collective agreements is, in practice, to create an imbalance of obligations. On the one hand, trade unions are free to ignore agreements that they have signed, and to organise and threaten strikes even while those agreements are in force. Employers, on the other hand, are legally obliged to observe the terms of a collective agreement when they are imported into the individual contracts of their employees. The result is that the terms of collective agreements are legally enforceable by employees against their employers, but not by employers against trade unions.

Now that there is a much wider acceptance of the role of the law in industrial relations, the Government believe that the time has come to consider a change which would give positive encouragement to the development of legally enforceable agreements that would be binding on both parties. The proposal in the Green Paper is to reverse the present statutory presumption so that a collective agreement would be legally binding unless it contained a specific provision to the contrary.

Employers and trade unions would, of course, remain free to decide whether or not to make collective agreements legally binding. But changing the law in this way would mean that negotiators would have to consider in each case whether there were advantages in giving all or part of a collective agreement the status of an enforceable contract, and it would make it easier for them to conclude legally binding agreements if they wished to do so.

We have now reached a decisive stage in the history of industrial relations in this country. As a result of the legislation that the Government have introduced since the 1980s, our industrial relations have achieved a stability and a maturity that seemed unattainable in the 1970s. It is now generally accepted that the law has a legitimate and necessary role to play in protecting the individual and the community as a whole against the abuse of industrial power.

These proposals will benefit individual members of the public by giving them protection against lightning strikes, and a new legal right to stop unlawful strikes in the public services. These proposals will benefit union members by giving them the right to join the union of their choice, the right to protect the funds of their union from mismanagement and the right to decide for themselves whether union dues and strike levies should be automatically deducted from their pay. These proposals will benefit the country as a whole by making it even more attractive to overseas investors by providing further safeguards against irresponsible industrial action and encouraging legally enforceable agreements which are common practice in almost every other major industrialised country.

The choice before the House and the country is now clear. On the one hand, we could undo much of the legislation of the past 12 years, and in some respects go further than ever before in increasing the power of trade unions and making strikes easier, longer, more frequent and more damaging. That is the policy of the Labour party and its trade union supporters. On the other hand, we can carry forward the process of reform and build on the achievements of the past 12 years. That is what the proposals in the Green Paper are designed to achieve, and that is why I believe that they deserve the support of the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

The Secretary of State is right to say that legally enforceable collective agreements have not been the tradition in our country, but it is commonplace elsewhere in Europe. I assume that he is proposing that they are introduced in the same way as in the rest of Europe. Will he confirm that, in recent years at least, it has usually been employers, not trade unions, who have been in breach of collective agreements? Will he further confirm that, if these proposals are applied in the same way as they are in the rest of Europe, Rolls-Royce could not have issued the notices of termination to staff, ITN could not have dismissed its staff as it did recently, and the printing companies could not be de-recognising trade unions as they are doing? I assume, therefore, that the Secretary of State will do this in such a way that it will cover agreements between trade associations and unions as well as individual unions and employers.

As for customers who sue in respect of unlawful strike action, will the Secretary of State confirm that unions have no immunity now under the law if they call unlawful strike action? As for suing in respect of unofficial action, will he confirm that the problem has been not a gap in the law, but the fact that, because the action is not endorsed by a union, the plaintiff ends up suing an individual employee? That is why the law has not been applied more often in the past.

As for the bits and pieces on scrutineers of union ballots, balloting requirements and the finances of unions, there is a slight contrast, is there not, between the frenzy of activity in respect of union finances and the Secretary of State's total indolence last year when he received letters on behalf of the staff of BCCI? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] But again—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us have a stop to this pointless behaviour.

Mr. Blair

If the Secretary of State can show that there are genuine problems to which he has a genuine solution, of course we shall examine them carefully. Naturally everyone has an interest in seeing fair play at union elections, but why are the proposed measures to apply to unions only and not to companies? Why are the unions to be refused the right of direct debit in respect of union dues, but every other society, every other unincoporated body and every corporate body will be able to use direct debit without restriction? Why is there one law for unions and another for companies? Why are these highly complex rules to be applied to union members registering votes with their union, but not to shareholders registering their votes with companies? Why are there all these measures to insist that unions consult and inform their members but absolutely nothing to require employers to consult and inform employees? Is the citizen not an employee as well as a consumer?

I have gone through the Green Paper. I may be wrong, but I think that there are about 50 to 100 separate measures concerning union members and their union. Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is not one right anywhere in the document given to employees to require fair treatment from their employer? Indeed, on the seven-days cooling-off period, he says, again rightly, that there are similar provisions in the rest of Europe. So there are—in France, for example; and in Italy last year such provisions were introduced. When the provisions were introduced there the duty not to take action unilaterally was imposed not just on unions but on employers. Will that be the case here? Will the provision come with the same package of rights with which it comes elsewhere in Europe?

Is not the case about even-handedness nowhere more surely shown than in respect of the centrepiece of the Green Paper, which is an attempt to outlaw the arrangement between unions not to poach each other's members—the Bridlington rules? The Secretary of State says that he proposes not abolition but review. How does the proposal amount to a review of the Bridlington rules rather than their abolition? If he has any vestigial sense of responsibility, and if the proposal is not—it almost certainly is—a partisan piece of mischief-making, will he at least examine and discuss with employers the impact of such a move not just on inter-union disputes but on single union agreements, through which the proposal will drive a coach and horses?

In addition to heeding the warnings about the potential damage that could be inflicted by free-for-all industrial relations, is not the most telling point about the proposals not only their utter irrelevance to the key issues of the 1990s—training, skills and unemployment—but the fact that the Government will grant employees the theoretical right to join any union, and even the theoretical right to join a different union on different days of the week, but refuse absolutely to grant the right that exists in every other European country to allow that union to represent its members at the workplace? Employees have the right to join a union but are denied the right to have it represent them, which is the reason for joining it. Can there be anything more one-sided, partisan and irrelevant?

When the Secretary of State took office 18 months ago, he said on the "Today" programme that there would be no more union legislation because he wanted to concentrate on training. Is not the real reason for the Green Paper that he has so miserably failed on training that he must return to the old Tory refrain about unions? Is not that the hallmark of the Government? Those irrelevant, one-sided proposals are before us today because the Government have created the fastest rising unemployment in Europe and have not a clue what to do about it, and because the training of the British work force, so vital to our future, is being neglected and undermined by funding cuts pushed through by the selfsame Ministers. Because the Government have no answers to the problems of the 1990s, they return to the battles of the 1970s. That is the hallmark of this Government.

The Secretary of State could have used today to try to build a new partnership for success at the work place between Government and industry and between employers and employees—that would have been more possible today than ever before—but he has chosen not to do so. Instead, he has set out the agenda on which his party will fight the election. Whatever may have been the case in the past, it is no longer the agenda for the future of this country. For that reason, among others, we shall have a change of Government after the election.

Mr. Howard

Everything that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has said this afternoon bears the imprint of the trade unions which own his party lock, stock and block vote. They elect the Labour party's leader, choose its Members of Parliament, dominate its national executive and control its party conferences. The hon. Gentleman said that we should be talking about training. He should talk about training to the Transport and General Workers Union which sponsors him and the leader of his party. Just two weeks ago, that union voted to boycott youth training, employment training and the training and enterprise councils.

All hon. Members will have noticed that, on each of the proposals in the Green Paper, the hon. Gentleman maintained a cowardly silence which reflected his failure to face up to his trade union paymasters.

The hon. Gentleman specifically asked whether the proposals would cover agreements between trade associations and trade unions. I am happy to consider that suggestion in the context of the consultation document that we issued today. He rightly said that at present trade unions have no immunity from the consequences of unlawful action. The difficulty is that only employers and trade union members can take action in respect of such unlawful action. If they do not choose to do so as a consequence of damage suffered by the public, the individual citizen is defenceless. We are taking action to ensure that the citizen can do what is necessary to defend himself against unlawful industrial action that is specifically targeted at him.

The hon. Gentleman sought to draw an analogy between check-off and direct debit; but check-off is not direct debit. It is the removal of money from the pay packets of trade union members. All we say is that they should give their consent before that happens. Is the hon. Gentleman against or in favour of that proposal? Perhaps he will let us know.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that nothing in the document required the law to deal fairly with employees, but the law already requires fair treatment of employees. That has been the purpose of all the laws that we have passed in the past 12 years. That did not happen under the laws that were in force when Labour was in power, but it certainly happens under the laws that have been in force since we took office.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the effect that the abolition of the Bridlington principles might have on single union agreements. The proposals would have no effect whatever on such agreements. It is currently possible for employees to join another trade union and not to affect the operation of single union agreements. None of the proposals would have the slightest effect on single union agreements.

When the House judges the hon. Gentleman's response to the proposals, it will want to bear in mind the fact that, when we debated the legislation that provided the first ballots for trade union members, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) described our proposals as irrelevant effrontery. The hon. Member for Sedgefield described them as a shabby, partisan strategem. We made the hon. Gentleman eat the words that he uttered then, and we shall make him eat the words that he has uttered today.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Opposition Members should be ashamed of their attitude? How can they claim to speak up for British working men and women when 155 Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), are sponsored and paid for by trade unions? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Opposition Members will answer only to their paymasters and not to the people that we represent?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The extent to which the Labour party is beholden to its trade union paymasters is reflected in its every utterance on this subject.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

What has happened to all the recent protestations and claims about how good industrial relations are in this country? Is it not clear that the statement is absolutely unnecessary? It is crude and blatant electioneering, and the Secretary of State is abusing industrial relations for crude electoral reasons. The British people are far too sophisticated to fall for that. By linking himself to this operation, the Secretary of State is bringing the Department into disrepute.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, at least gives the Government credit for the improvement in industrial relations which has been achieved during the past 12 years. I am happy to acknowledge that it is our legislation that has led to that improvement in industrial relations. If we are to maintain that record in the 1990s, we need to keep the law under review and deal with specific and identified shortcomings in our present arrangements. That is what the Green Paper seeks to do.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Contrary to what the Opposition—[Interruption.] If I may declare an interest, it is as a member of the National Union of Journalists.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his proposals will be widely welcomed by the public, in particular the requirement to give seven days' notice of industrial action? Is he also aware that some of the most damaging industrial action in Britain takes place in essential services, such as transport and the health service? May I have my right hon. and learned Friend's assurance that the search for a better way of dealing with strikes and industrial action in essential services will not stop at this point?

Mr. Howard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support. He played a distinguished part in putting on the statute book the reforms of the past 12 years. I take note of his point, although I believe that a combination of the measures which he himself started in what became the Employment Act 1990 and the new rights which we give individual members of the public in these proposals will go a long way towards achieving the improvements that he has recognised are needed for essential services.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

I have spent a large part of my life trying to improve industrial relations and working for better industrial relations, and I find the Secretary of State's proposals this afternoon disastrous. How does he think that his petty proposals on collective bargaining and, not least, on check-off, which has worked successfully in many industries both for employers and for trade unions, will improve industrial relations? My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) struck the right note this afternoon in the proposals that he made. The Secretary of State will damage industrial relations, not improve them.

Mr. Howard

At least the right hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by the Amalgamated Engineering Union, has not followed the silent example of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) on the nature of the proposals. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the check-off and its success during the past few years. If the check-off genuinely has the consent of trade union members whose money is taken from their pay packets, nothing will change. The only proposal that we make is that those members should have to give their consent. If the right hon. Gentleman suspects that that will lead to a change, it can only be because those trade union members do not consent to what is happening at the moment.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that in relation to action that an individual citizen or citizens can take, provided that the trade union has repudiated the unofficial action, action cannot be taken against the trade union, and the citizen would have to find the leaders of the unofficial strike? Will he confirm that seven days may not be long enough for strike action notice and that we may need more time for negotiations to take place? Will he further confirm that the Government would like to see more three-year wage deals and could well set an example themselves by going for that where they are an employer?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend made three points [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) must sit down. He has not been called to put a question. [Interruption.] Order. This is disgraceful behaviour. The hon. Member knows perfectly well that we do not behave like that here.

Mr. Howard

I thought that Opposition Members were proud of their association with the trade union movement. My hon. Friend made three points—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have a busy day ahead of us. I shall have to put a limit on speeches, so I ask hon. Members to settle down, please. I shall allow questions to continue until 4.20 pm. We are then to have a ten-minute Bill, which I understand will be opposed. We shall move on to the Opposition day debate very late. I ask hon. Members to settle down.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend made three points. First, he asked about the rights that we would give members of the public. I am happy to confirm that those rights would apply to all unlawful action in public services, both official and unofficial. He rightly assessed how they would work in relation to unofficial action.

Secondly, the seven-day notice period is intended primarily not as a cooling-off period but as a period of notice to members of the public. I shall carefully consider any representations that are made in the consultation exercise on lengthening the period.

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's third point about three-year wage agreements.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Before the Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary wastes his time during his cowardly political smear attacks, I tell the Secretary of State that hon. Members who are sponsored by trade unions receive no money directly from them—unlike Conservative Members, who get money in their pockets.

Does not it speak volumes for the Secretary of State for Employment that, at a time when unemployment is mounting month by month and will reach more than 3 million, he feels it imperative to fiddle with the trade union movement, hoping to gain some political advantage? I welcome what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has done today because it is another nail in the Government's coffin. Three million individuals and their families have been deprived of their rights by his ineptitude.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, referred to unemployment. Does he think that his party's policies, which would make strikes easier, more frequent, longer and more damaging, would help to reduce unemployment?

Mr. James Cran (Beverley)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, whatever the more timid and timorous industrial representative bodies may think about the proposals, they will undoubtedly be widely welcomed by managers and individuals in the work force because they know that many elements in the trade union movement hanker for a return to the old days of lecturing Governments, pushing companies around and trampling on the rights of individuals?

I have personal experience of that, because when I was the CBI's northern director the northern TUC spent a not inconsiderable amount of time trying to get me sacked from that post because it did not like what I was saying publicly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that such conduct is not acceptable? Will he tell the Opposition that the trade union movement has a role, but that it is no greater than it is at present, and is probably less?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend speaks from considerable experience in these matters. He has recounted one example of unacceptable conduct by the trade union movement. Our approach must continue to be to consider our arrangements, to identify any shortcomings, and to deal with them fairly but firmly. That is what the Green Paper proposes.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Secretary of State accept that Liberal Democrat Members are not in the pay of trade unions or employers' organisations? Is he aware that we have supported many of the Government's trade union reforms over the past few years and have called—ahead of the Conservative party—for several of them, including ballots? Does he accept that there is a widespread feeling that there is no justification for taking firmer measures, that they are not relevant to improving industrial and employer-employee relations and that in many ways they are not germane to the fundamental business of running the economy?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell the House what rights he would offer, for example, to the 120 journalists at the Aberdeen Press and Journal who were sacked because they tried to belong to a trade union, which employers denied could negotiate on their behalf? Are not those journalists entitled to have unions negotiate on their behalf? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain his comment to the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) that there would be no end to single-union agreements?

Conservative Members have, rightly, been loud in their protests about the Transport and General Workers Union for undermining the Ford agreement in Dundee, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals will allow people to join another union and undermine the regulations. Simply standing at the Dispatch Box and saying that that is not true is not good enough; the right hon. and learned Gentleman must explain why. Employees need rights—they need the right to be consulted and the right to be involved. The Government have denied them those rights, which have been granted in every other European Community country.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken in his assertions. I explained clearly in answering the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) why these proposals would not cut across single-union agreements in any way.

As for the journalists who were dismissed, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the Government introduced legislation making it clear that people should not be discriminated against because they are members of trade unions. A Conservative Government first introduced the right for those unfairly dismissed to take their complaint to an industrial tribunal and to obtain compensation. The hon. Gentleman should give credit to the Government for those and other achievements.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is within the public sector one particularly difficult union—the Prison Officers Association? Is he aware that there are many fine people in that union but that it seems to be run by some difficult, bloody-minded men? Will my right hon. and learned Friend take a close look at the affairs of the POA and see what he can do to reduce the industrial disputes in the prison service? There are 40 separate such disputes at present.

Mr. Howard

I understand my hon. Friend's frustration, but it is not the job of Government to interfere in the affairs of individual trade unions; it is the job of Government to establish the right framework. That is what we have consistently tried to do over the past 12 years. These proposals represent a further advance along that road.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union—unlike the Secretary of State, a barrister, who is a member of one of the most exclusive trade clubs in the country and of Lloyd's, the most crooked bunch of trade unionists in the country.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why he failed in his statement to refer to the right of the 30,000 young trainees on waiting lists to sue the Department of Employment for their right to join a training scheme of their choice at a time of their choice? Why did not the right hon. and learned Gentleman refer to the right of someone unfairly dismissed from work, having worked there for 12 or more months, to go to a tribunal? Why did not the right hon. and learned Gentleman refer to the right to stop work if working conditions are proved to be unsafe? Those are the real rights of citizens at work, and they have been ignored by the Secretary of State. When will the Government stop attacking the trade unions and attack unemployment?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman is not only a member of the TGWU but is sponsored by that union. I find it extraordinary that he makes allegations about youth training when, just two weeks ago, the union that sponsors him voted to boycott it. The hon. Gentleman should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

May I, as an unsponsored and unchecked-off member of the Managerial Staffs Federation, ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether he agrees that the proof of the step-by-step approach to industrial relations reform is shown by the step-by-step approach to the record low level of strikes in this country? Does he agree that it is a major step forward to restore the individual's rights by abolishing the Bridlington agreement; and will he go a step further and ensure that the figures for membership of trade unions, which can often influence sitting rights on committees that negotiate, do not reflect the tombstone membership which all too often occurs? Will he stop this unacceptable practice of claiming to have more members than there really are?

Mr. Howard

That is an important point. The proposals that we make for insisting on the consent of trade union members before their dues can be checked off their pay packets may well go some way towards meeting that point. If my hon. Friend thinks that further action is required, he will bear in mind that this is a Green Paper, a consultation document, and I shall of course look carefully at all the representations that we receive.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

The Secretary of State had much to say about ballots taking place before strikes, and that has become the practice in this country. Is he aware that in my constituency a company called Craven Tasker (Scotland) Ltd. is engaged in an industrial dispute in which the working people followed the letter of the law before they commenced industrial action? They were immediately dismissed by the employer. Will he condemn that employer and give trade unionists who engage in wholly lawful industrial action protection against dismissal?

Mr. Howard

I am not familiar with the circumstances of the dispute, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to comment on circumstances with which I am not familiar. If he writes to me about the matter, I shall be happy to respond.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend be assured that those of my constituents who were greatly inconvenienced by strikes on London Underground and British Rail, called at 24 hours' notice a couple of years ago, will warmly welcome the provision that such strikes will require at least seven days' notice in future? Will he confirm that such a feature exists in the laws of most other European countries and that it is high time the British people had the same rights of protection against militant trade unions?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend truly speaks for the people of London, who have been severely inconvenienced in the past by lightning strikes of which no notice was given. His point is entirely right: similar protections exist in almost all other European countries, and they are more than overdue here.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

If past Tory propaganda about the culpability of trade unions for our poor economic performance was correct, now that we have the weakest trade union movement since 1926 and the lowest strike record for 60 years, why do we have recession and mass unemployment? Who is to blame for that?

May I refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his remarks about unfair dismissal provisions? Why does his statement, couched in the language of the citizens charter, make no reference to bad employer practice or to the fact that an employer can abuse an employee and break the contract of employment, and then dismiss that employee just before his two years' employment are up, thereby denying the employee recourse to the unfair dismissal procedure?

Mr. Howard

But if, as the hon. Gentleman said, the action was a breach of the contract of employment, the employee would have rights in respect of that breach whether or not the two-year qualifying period had expired. The hon. Gentleman should be well aware of that.

As for economic performance, does the hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that it would be improved by making strikes easier, longer, more frequent and more damaging—which would be the effect of the proposals of the Labour party and no doubt of his party, too?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, as his proposals today have been as vigorously opposed as all other previous reforms have been, we can reasonably expect that the Labour party will say next year that it was in favour of them all along? Will he agree that there could be no more effective condemnation of the complete insincerity of the Labour party on this issue than to recall that, when a proposal is brought before the House to give ordinary members of the public the right to resist unlawful action, the Labour party condemns it out of hand?

Mr. Howard

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's second point. The Labour party's attitude to this right of individual members of the public gives the lie to the extent to which it has any real regard for ordinary members of the public.

I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend's first point. It would be much more characteristic of the Labour party to give the impression next year that it was in favour of the reforms, but to write small print into its policy making it clear that it would go back on them if it was ever to gain office

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk East)

In order to save the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) the trouble of telling the Secretary of State that I am sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers, I shall tell him. However, as the Secretary of State knows, I like to preserve a balance. Therefore, I shall tell the Secretary of State that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East is a director of Wathes Holdings Ltd. and all its subsidiaries; he is a consultant to the Electrical Contractors Association; he is a consultant to the Institute of Civil Engineers; he owns agricultural land and property in Cumbria; and has shareholdings in Wathes Holdings Ltd. and its subsidiaries. The difference between us is that I do not receive any money from my sponsorship, whereas he lines his pockets with the money that he receives.

I remind the Secretary of State, as I reminded him last week, that he has the worst record on unemployment of any post-war Secretary of State for Employmnet. As a test of his sincerity, will he place in the Library a copy of all cases where he says that employers are deducting contributions from union members without their consent? Will he tell us whether an individual who seeks an injunction will be eligible for legal aid?

Mr. Howard

If check-off is being made only with the consent of employees, the proposals in the Green Paper will not make any difference. However, everybody knows that that is not the case, and I suspect that the proposals may make a difference. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least follow the lead of the general secretary of his trade union who, speaking on the radio on Monday, warmly welcomed at least two of the proposals in the Green Paper.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The House has heard that this is a consultation document. No doubt we shall come back to it when the House resumes in the autumn.