HC Deb 28 January 1992 vol 202 cc813-29 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Howard)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's legislative intentions, following the consultation on the Green Paper "Industrial Relations in the 1990s", which was published in July last year.

Like all our previous trade union legislation, the proposals that I am announcing today have two main objectives—first, to safeguard the democratic rights of trade union members within their unions and, secondly, to protect employees, employers and the community at large against the abuse of industrial power. Each of the proposals is carefully designed to meet a clear deficiency in our present arrangements, that has been acknowledged by many of the organisations that have commented on the Green Paper.

The CBI says in its response that its members warmly welcome the Government's continued commitment to reviewing the law governing the conduct of industrial relations". The Engineering Employers Federation says that its members strongly support the Government's objective of providing a balanced and effective framework of trade union and industrial relations law and that the step by step approach has been seen by all to have worked successfully and it is right that it should continue. The Institute of Personnel Management says— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the House to settle down and listen to the statement, and I remind hon. Members that we have a busy day ahead of us.

Mr. Howard

The Green Paper, said the IPM, is primarily aimed at particular abuses which it is the duty of Government to address in order to protect the rights of the individual.

In all, we have had more than 100 responses to the Green Paper. These have come from employers' organisations, individual companies, trade unions and other organisations, and from individual people. The number of responses is in itself a clear indication of the interest the Green Paper has aroused and the importance of the issues it has raised. Most of the proposals it contains have been widely welcomed.

I deal first with the proposals to protect the public against strikes and other forms of industrial action. The first proposal was announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in his statement on the citizens charter.

We proposed in the citizens charter to provide a new right for members of the public in relation to unlawful industrial action which affects a public service. This proposal has been widely welcomed. 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 therefore intend to introduce legislation 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.

The consultations have also shown that there is strong support for legislation to require trade unions to give seven days' notice of strikes. Strike notice is a well established feature of the law in other countries. This requirement will help to protect the general public against lightning strikes in the public services. It will also allow employers to take steps to safeguard jobs and businesses.

In addition, there has been strong support for the proposal to reduce the scope for intimidation and fraud by requiring strike ballots to be conducted by post and to be subject to independent scrutiny.

These measures will add significantly to the protection which our legislation already provides against strikes which are deliberately targeted on the life of the community. We intend to introduce legislation to implement all of them.

I turn now to the rights of individual union members. The first concerns an employee's freedom to join the union of his choice. Only last year we saw how building workers who left the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians when its leadership fell into the hands of the far left were prevented from joining the General, Municipal and Boilermakers union, even after the GMB had indicated that it would welcome them. That was clear evidence of how the operation of the Trades Union Congress's Bridlington principles can deny employees the chance to belong to the union of their choice.

Contrary to the claims of the TUC, only a minority of employers have expressed reservations about the change in the law that we propose to make. We therefore propose to introduce legislation which will give individual employees the right to join the union of their choice, free from interference from any arrangement between trade union bosses which is designed to deny them that choice.

The consultation also showed widespread support for the proposition that the law should not allow trade union dues to be deducted from an employee's salary without his or her individual consent. Since the Green Paper was published, there has been further evidence of the scope for abuse of check-off arrangements. On 8 December, for example, the Sunday Times reported that union subscriptions had been deducted from the pay of some 10,000 construction workers in London, but that these subscriptions had never reached their trade union. The case for reform of the law is clear.

Some employers have said that they believe that a requirement to review the check-off annually would be unnecessary and burdensome. I have therefore decided to accept a proposal from the Institute of Personnel Management that employers should be required to seek the consent of their employees to the check-off every three years. In addition, we propose to introduce legal safeguards which will ensure that in future no employee has union subscriptions deducted from his pay without his individual consent.

Again, no one has seriously questioned the need for further legislation to protect union members against the sort of financial mismanagement which was revealed in the Lightman report into the affairs of the National Union of Mineworkers. Nor is there any serious doubt that the law on trade union elections needs to be strengthened, in the light of the ballot rigging in the 1990 elections for the national executive of the Transport and General Workers Union.

I have decided to adopt a suggestion which was put to my Department in the course of the consultation that unions should be required to employ a mailing house or some other external agency to distribute and store voting papers. This proposal is, I believe, the most effective way to ensure that electoral fraud of the kind which occurred in the Transport and General Workers Union is not repeated. I have also accepted the advice of a number of organisations, including the TUC, that, for security reasons, union members should not have access to the names and addresses of other union members. Instead, I propose that the independent scrutineer should be allowed such access on behalf of any union members who are concerned that the list may not be accurate.

The consultations have reflected a wide range of views on the proposal in the Green Paper relating to the legal status of collective agreements. There was both support for and opposition to the specific proposal on which we sought views. Some employers' organisations have put forward alternative suggestions. This is an important and complex issue. We shall continue to consider the scope for amending the law in the light of the comments that we have received and, if appropriate, we shall consult further before taking a final decision.

It should be clear to everyone that this has been a genuine and productive consultation. We have modified some of our proposals in the light of the views we have received. But the consultations have shown that there is widespread majority support amongst employers for a great majority of the proposals in the Green Paper.

The legislative plans that I have announced today are designed to consolidate and build on the improvement in industrial relations which we have achieved over the last 12 years. They will increase the rights of individual members of the public, individual trade union members, individual employees and the community at large. They will ensure that we have an effective and up-to-date framework of law in order to maintain that progress in the 1990s.

The clearest evidence of the progress we have achieved so far is our record on strikes. More working days were lost because of strikes in the last 12 months of the last Labour Government than have been lost in all the last five years put together.

No one should be surprised by that stark contrast. Before 1980, the law gave trade unions a virtually unlimited licence to organise strikes and industrial action, not matter how remote from the original dispute. There was no requirement for ballots before strikes, and the law allowed flying pickets to spread the disruptive effects of industrial action far and wide.

The choice before the House and the country is clear. On the one hand, there is the threat to roll back the legislation of the last 12 years, to put the trade unions back in the driving seat and make strikes easier, longer, more frequent and more damaging than ever before. That is the policy of the Labour party. On the other hand, we can carry forward the process of reform and build on the achievements of the last 12 years.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Howard

That is what the decisions which I have announced today will do, and that is why they deserve the support of the House.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield)

Let me deal with the main points of the statement item by item. On the seven-day cooling-off period, it is correct, as the Minister says, that there are similar provisions in other European countries, but will he confirm that, in those countries where there is a cooling-off period for unions, there is also a cooling-off period for employers? Is it his intention to legislate even-handedly for both?

Secondly, as for ballots before strikes, surely the important requirement is independent scrutiny of the ballot, whether it is postal or workplace. May I put it to him that the danger of his proposal of making workplace ballots illegal, which is what he is proposing, even where there is independent scrutiny, is that the participation level is lower for such ballots? Since he had the gall to suggest that employers' organisations all support the proposals, may I put it to him that this and many other parts of his provisions were vehemently opposed by employers' organisations, including the CBI, the British Association of Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Personnel Management?

Let me read to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what the Engineering Employers Federation said: Our experience is that provided they are properly conducted"— the very point that I am making— secret workplace ballots are not subject to harassment and have additional beneficial features. EEF experience is that workplace secret ballots have a significantly higher level of return than postal ballots.

Thirdly, as for members of the public suing in respect of unlawful action in the public sector, will the Secretary of State confirm that unions have no immunity now for unlawful action in respect of public services and, that, although there may be some doubt about it, the only decided case in law held that the public already have the right to sue in respect of action that affects them?

On the fourth part, relating to Bridlington, the Minister proposes legislation. Six months ago, we put to him the problem of single-union agreements and he dismissed it. The CBI, the British Institute of Management and the Institute of Personnel Management have all put to him the same point about single-union agreements. Will the Minister comment specifically on that?

While we are on the subject of "joining the union of your choice", will he ensure that the security guards who are presently members of the Transport and General Workers Union and the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, employed by the Ministry of Defence, are allowed to continue as members of the union of their choice and are not ordered into another—

Mr. Howard

We shall allow it.

Mr. Blair

The Secretary of State can confirm that when he speaks. If, however, he believes in the right to a free and independent trade union, let him grant that right to the employees at the Government communications headquarters, who have been denied it for the past eight years. Let him also take action against the Economic League, which prevents that right from being exercised by many people.

The Secretary of State gives a wholly misleading account of how check-off operates. Will he confirm that it operates only if there is prior written consent on the part of the employee—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to those below the Gangway that the debate takes place at this end of the Chamber.

Mr. Blair

Will the Secretary of State confirm that check-off already requires the prior written consent of employees and that, contrary to what he has just said, an employee can withdraw his consent to that at any time? Legally enforceable agreements formed the main part of the Secretary of State's original proposals. I gather that that issue has now been kicked into touch. Perhaps we shall hear no more about it.

The proposals are significant not for what they do but for what they omit. If the purpose of the statement is, as the Secretary of State says, to protect individuals against the abuse of industrial power, why does it contain scores of rights exercisable against trade unions, but not a single right to a British employee, male or female, exercisable for fair treatment by the employer at the workplace?

Why is Britain the only country in Europe that does not give legal protection to our 6 million part-time employees? Why is Britain the only country in Europe with no right to a minimum holiday entitlement? Why does Britain have the worst maternity rights, the fewest equal opportunities and the least protection against poverty pay? If the purpose is to protect the individual, why do we not sign the European social charter, as every other country is prepared to do?

The Secretary of State's proposals are not for the sake of better industrial relations but, for the sake of the worst prejudices of the Tory party. Can there be a more telling difference between the day when the CBI has confirmed the depth of the recession, unemployment is rising faster than in any other European country, we have a training and skills crisis, which the Government are making worse daily, and the fact that the Conservatives are returning to the agenda of the 1970s because they have no answers to the problems of the 1990s? That may have worked in different circumstances in a different decade, but in 1992 the people of this country look for something better. They will get it under Labour.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has huffed and puffed, but he has not told us the Labour party's position on a single proposal contained in the Green Paper. When I announced the Green Paper last July, the hon. Gentleman said that he would examine our proposals carefully. In November, I wrote to him pointing that the formal period for consultation was ending and I asked when we might hear his response to the Green Paper. I have heard nothing. This afternoon, he has treated the House to an extraordinary collection of half-truths and inaccuracies, but he has not told us the Labour party's attitude to the proposals that I identified in the statement.

On ballots, the hon. Gentleman quoted what one of the employers' organisations said about workplace ballots and its proviso that they should be properly conducted. There is always the risk with workplace ballots that they will not be properly conducted, which is why we think that it is infinitely preferable to have postal ballots. The hon. Gentleman did not explain the Labour party's attitude to that.

On the protection of members of the public, the hon. Gentleman said that a case had been decided, but that there was some doubt about the position. If he agrees that the position is as we think it should be, why does he not say that he agrees with the proposals in the Green Paper, which we intend to put into legislation?

On the right of trade unionists to join a trade union of their choice, the hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that even Bill Morris, the general secretary-elect of the trade union that sponsors the hon. Gentleman, has said: today when we are about choice and opportunity for the individual there is no choice in this matter or opportunity within them". Ron Todd, the present general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, has said: All I want, quite frankly, is the right for a worker to determine the union he wishes to join". The hon. Gentleman is behind even the leaders of the trade union that sponsors him.

I can certainly confirm on the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raised that those workers who work at the Ministry of Defence can continue to be members of the union of their choice. That is the answer to the specific question that was put.

Mr. Blair

They can carry on as members of the TGWU?

Mr. Howard

They can certainly carry on. That was never in doubt. The dispute, of which much has been made, I regret to say, by some ill-informed members of the Labour party, was about recognition, not trade union membership.

On check-off, the hon. Gentleman said that we could not have that now unless individual trade unionists gave their consent. He is wrong about that, too. There is no such provision in law, and that is one of the things on which we shall legislate.

The most extraordinary feature of the Opposition's response has been the deafening silence of their principal spokesman in relation to the proposals. There are two explanations for that. First, the hon. Gentleman is terrified of saying anything that would upset his trade union paymasters; secondly, he is afraid to do anything that would remind the electorate of the chains that bind his party to those paymasters—the bosses of the trade unions.

When he is challenged about the Opposition's attitude to trade union legislation, the hon. Gentleman says that that is a matter of public record. It is indeed. The hon. Gentleman is on record in the House as describing ballots before strikes as a scandalous and undemocratic measure against the trade union movement".—[official Report, 8 November 1983; Vol. 48, c. 210.] The shadow Chancellor has described strike ballots as an "irrelevant effrontery". The Labour party has opposed—

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have heard nothing disorderly.

Mr. Flannery

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, Mr. Speaker, is making a second statement. He has already made a long statement, and you are letting him get away with it.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is answering the questions that were put to him. If I cut him short, there will be complaints about that.

Mr. Howard

The Labour party has opposed every trade union Bill that we have introduced since 1979. Opposition Members have persistently evaded questions about their plans to repeal that legislation, but they have been more forthcoming about the new powers that they have promised the trade unions, including powers to force employers to recognise and negotiate with trade unions—

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to deal with this, please. I do think that the Minister is going a bit beyond the statement now. He should confine himself to the questions put to him.

Mr. Howard

The lengths to which the Labour party will go to rush to the defence of its trade union paymasters whenever this issue is raised are remarkable. The truth is that it is this party and this Government who have consistently sought to defend employees and trade union members over the past 12 years, and that is what the country will bear in mind when we come to the general election.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Flannery

The Secretary of State's answer took five minutes!

Mr. Speaker

Please do not shout at me.

I believe that it is desired to deal with consideration of the Prison Security Bill by 7 o'clock, and we also have a 10-minute Bill this afternoon. I shall therefore allow questions on this matter, which I understand will require legislation anyway, to go on until 4.30 pm; then we will move on. I ask for brief questions, and I ask hon. Members to try to keep off party-political point scoring.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, had this legislation been in place in 1984, my constituents would have been spared all the corruption and theft in the National Union of Mineworkers and the harassment and intimidation in the strike that took place that year? Will he also confirm that we are in danger of all this excellent body of legislation being swept away should the Labour party win the general election?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Others will have noted the way in which Labour Members stormed out while my hon. Friend was pointing out the extent to which the rights of her constituents would have been protected had this legislation been in force at the time —and the extent to which those rights would be endangered if the Labour party came to power.

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Nichol Stephen (Kincardine and Deeside)

There are—

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

What is the point of order?

Mr. Faulds

My point of order is simple: have you, Mr. Speaker, no control at all over the misuse of the Government Front Bench that occurs when the nastiest man in Government abuses it every time he appears at the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Speaker

Unfortunately, I do not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw".] I heard an unparliamentary word, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.

Mr. Faulds

Of course I withdraw the word, but the fact still applies. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I ask the House to settle down. It would be helpful to the whole House if we could deal with this important matter of trade union legislation in a non-party-political way.

Mr. Stephen

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My colleagues and I would agree with several points in this statement—for instance, in relation to balloting of trade unions, where the Secretary of State will be aware that my party was ahead of the Government with reform proposals. However, we are worried, perhaps most about the timing of today's statement, which was purely party political—an attempt to put the heat on the Labour party, with a motivation that is entirely negative.

That is to be regretted. My party would have preferred to welcome a fundamental reform of industrial relations in a statement that introduced greater employee participation, greater encouragement of employee-management buy-outs and more profit-sharing. The statement ignores all that. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the question?"]

So my question is, does the Secretary of State agree that what is required is legislation and a statement from him to bring together the two sides of industry in this country and to encourage co-operation between employer and employee? Is not the motivation behind the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement simply party politics rather than any deep desire to see both sides of industry engage in greater co-operation?

Mr. Howard

May I allay the hon. Gentleman's anxieties about the timing of the statement? Having issued a Green Paper in July and assessed the responses to the consultation in which we engaged following the publication of that document, we have a duty to the House to report the outcome of that consultation process to it and to make clear our intentions. That is what lies behind the statement. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have taken unprecedented steps over the past 12 years to encourage employee participation and management buy-outs. Many of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred complement the proposals that I have announced.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Is it not a remarkable fact that the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has now apparently conceded that the industrial relations law reforms that have been introduced by this Government have worked? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that they have been largely responsible for the huge increase in inward investment in this country? Is it not right that we should build on that with the proposals that my right hon. and learned Friend has announced?

Mr. Howard

In my experience, one should treat any apparent concession by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) with great caution. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's second point about inward investment. Survey after survey has shown that one of the vital advantages that attract inward investment to this country is our new atmosphere of stable industrial relations and our strike-free record. We must build upon that to take advantage of the opportunities that will be available to us in the 1990s.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Is it not all rather sad and entirely predictable that, in the run-up to a general election, the Government are indulging in an exercise of union-bashing? As there is no time for any of this stuff to be enacted, is this not a wholly transparent and competely shoddy and tacky exercise in electioneering? Instead of looking to the past, why does the Secretary of State not look to the future and note that all successful industrial countries regard the trade unions as valuable partners with whom to co-operate?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by SOGAT, again asks about the timing of the statement—

Mr. Leighton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Howard

I answered a previous question about the timing of the statement—

Mr. Leighton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State should have some knowledge of these matters, but he has said that I am sponsored by a union that does not exist.

Mr. Howard

I perhaps should have said SOGAT 82. The hon. Gentleman asked about timing, but I answered the question about timing that was raised by the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Stephen) on behalf of the Liberal Democratic party. Each of the measures that I have announced today is designed to deal with a particular abuse that needs to be dealt with. The Labour party's Front-Bench spokesman was not prepared to deny that, or to say that his party disagrees with the actions that I propose.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton), with whom I have a great deal in common, has just suggested that we should look to the future. What would my right hon. and learned Friend think of the future if his Department was in the hands of somebody who has described a trade union ballot as a scandalous and undemocratic measure against the trade union movement"?—[Official Report, 8 November 1983; vol. 48. c. 210.]

Mr. Howard

That is exactly what the hon. Member for Sedgefield said about union ballots, and that is the kind of future—[Interruption.]

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Not true.

Mr. Howard

Oh yes, it is all on the record. That is what the country could look forward to if the Labour party won the election and the hon. Member for Sedgefield were to occupy my office.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Is it not clear that my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement will be widely regarded as a fair, sensible and logical step forward in our trade union legislation, and that many people will contrast it favourably with the chaos that would follow a return to the 1970s-style legislation advocated by the Labour party? In particular, will not the proposal to allow union members to join the union of their choice be a significant restraint on extremist trade union leaders who will otherwise face the mass exodus of their members to unions that more accurately reflect the aspirations of their members?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend, who has considerable experience of these matters, has correctly identified one of the advantages of that proposal. It is noteworthy that, while my hon. Friends have been prepared to comment and give their views on the proposals that I identified in the statement, all that we have heard from the Labour party is a generalised rant.

Mr. Stan Crowther (Rotherham)

Does the Secretary of State not understand the simple point that giving people the right to join a union of their choice is meaningless unless the union of their choice has the right to negotiate on their behalf? Will he accept that most people in those circumstances would prefer to join a union with such a power? Why is he not introducing a provision that applies in many other European countries and that ensures that the union that represents, within a company, a majority of the people whose jobs are appropriate to that union has a guaranteed legal right to be recognised as the negotiator?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union, confuses the right to join a trade union with recognition. Under the proposals that I have announced, any trade union member will be able to join the union that has recognition rights at that workplace. Increasingly, there are many other reasons why workers wish to join trade unions. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that fact.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

As a Member sponsored by the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, I can tell the Secretary of State that many thousands of members of my union expect him to turn what talent he has to increasing employment—a far more important priority than this window dressing for election purposes.

I wish to explore a point of detail. Did the Secretary of State say that the members of a union should be allowed to decide for themselves whether the check-off system should be applied to their wages, because some of the money taken in check-off had never reached the unions? If that is so, the money must have remained with the company that checked off the wages. Even if employees decide to have this system, how does that protect them from the company stealing from the unions?

Mr. Howard

No, on the last point. If the hon. Gentleman reads the report in the Sunday Times of 8 December, he will see that there was no question of the money staying in the hands of the employer or of the company on that occasion. It was diverted from the trade union for which it was intended. Therefore, it was diverted not by the employers but by those who collected it—those to whom it was entrusted by the employers.

I want to deal with the important point raised by the hon. Gentleman, that about jobs. Perhaps the most important contributor to an environment in which we can create jobs and employment in the 1990s, after the conquest of inflation, is the creation of stable industrial relations and a strike-free economy. That is what the Government have achieved, and that is what would be destroyed by the election of the Labour party.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Did my right hon. and learned Friend note the extraordinary contrast between the angry, non-constructive outburst by Labour Back Benchers and the articulate vacuum of the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) who, to paraphrase W. S. Gilbert, is a man who says nothing in particular and says it very well? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that much of what has been achieved over the past 12 years might be at risk if we were to find ourselves governed by a party whose 233 existing Members of Parliament include 155 who are sponsored by trade unions?

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree. The hon. Member for Sedgefield is good at putting a covering of thin tissue over the raw nerve that is clearly exposed whenever Labour Back Benchers speak on that subject.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

As a Member of Parliament sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers, of which I have been a member for 58 years —having joined it before the Secretary of State was born —I am extremely proud of its traditions and history. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposed legislation is neither an industrial relations charter nor an industrial relations Bill, but an anti-trade union Bill.

The Secretary of State flings charges about paymasters. In the shoddiest display that I have seen from a member of the Government Front Bench in 26 years, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is introducing a Bill on behalf of his paymasters. There must be a change of Government, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman and people like him must be defeated.

Mr. Howard

The Bill will protect the people. It will protect ordinary members of trade unions. I invite the hon. Gentleman to cast away his slogans and to consider the detailed provisions that we propose, which are designed to remedy specifically identified abuses. If the hon. Gentleman will do so, with his background he will recognise that steps must be taken if ordinary citizens and trade union members are to enjoy the protection that they properly deserve.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on extending real choice to individual workers, so that they may decide for themselves whether or not to belong to a trade union—and which trade union they join. Is it not the case that Labour has opposed every item of this Government's trade union legislation, and cannot be relied upon to look after the interests of individual union members?

Mr. Howard

It is certainly the case that Labour has opposed every trade union reform that we introduced over the past 12 years. This party and this Government will continue to do whatever is necessary to protect individual members of the public and trade union members, so that they are not bullied and taken advantage of by those who have more power than they do.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

The Secretary of State made his statement today with the same air of intense sincerity that he adopted when he introduced the poll tax. Perhaps I may test the sincerity of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that he wants to respect individual rights. Will he approach the Secretary of State for Defence, who unilaterally decided to withdraw Transport and General Workers Union negotiating rights from those employed at COD Donnington in my constituency—who, for the whole of their working lives, have served this country's defence industries through their work in depot security?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it is entirely ludicrous for him to claim that he will continue to recognise the individual's right to be a member of a trade union when that union will cease to have negotiating rights? Will he approach the Secretary of State for Defence about that matter, so that we may see whether or not there is any sincerity in his commitment?

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman genuinely misunderstands the position. There was a reclassification of the workers concerned, and the group into which they were reclassified is one for which the National Union of Civil and Public Servants traditionally has recognition rights. That union's general secretary said: it should also be accepted that, since Ministry of Defence security guards are now regraded as non-industrial civil servants, NUCPS has negotiating rights in that area. The workers concerned can continue to be members of the unions to which they have always belonged, but the logic of the reclassification is that the NUCPS should have recognition rights.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

The Green Paper that gave rise to today's statement also included the proposal that trade union leaders' salaries and perks should be declared, so that union members could see where their subscriptions were going. If that is still my right hon. and learned Friend's intention, does he agree that union members should also know just how much is being spent on the sponsorship of Labour Members, including all those in the elected shadow Cabinet?

Mr. Howard

As my hon. Friend suggests, it is still our intention to legislate on the basis of the original proposal for the disclosure of salaries of trade union officers. I did not mention that in my statement, because it has aroused little controversy or disagreement. As for my hon. Friend's suggestion about the sponsorship of Members of Parliament, it is certainly an intriguing thought; at present, however, we have no plans to legislate in that regard.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

Do not the Secretary of State's attacks on the trade union movement, his manipulation of the television coverage of today's statement and the use of the race card represent the policies of discredited regimes? I am reminded of the 1930s. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is Dr. Goebbels incarnate: this is a squalid statement from a squalid Minister.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by SOGAT '82—

Mr. Litherland

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is no such union as SOGAT '82.

Mr. Howard

I am relying on the Register of Members' Interests for information about the hon. Gentleman's trade union membership.

Mr. Litherland

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is taking up time. I think that the House accepts that there is no such union, if the hon. Gentleman says that that is the case.

Mr. Litherland

Let me put the Secretary of State out of his misery. My union is the Graphical, Paper and Media Union.

Mr. Howard

No doubt that information will reach the Register of Members' Interests in due course.

The point about the hon. Gentleman's question is that, like other questions from Labour Members, it was couched in generalities—not very agreeable generalities, but generalities none the less. When will the Labour party address the specific problems that gave rise to the Green Paper and the solutions that we suggest are appropriate, so that we can improve the protection given to ordinary members of the public and ordinary trade union members? That is the purpose of our proposals.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, today's announcement will strike a chord with the majority of the British people— hence the unreconstructed gibberish that we have heard from Labour Members.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, towards the end of last year, thousands of my constituents were caused considerable inconvenience and distress by unofficial action on the Fenchurch Street line? The management of British Rail did not have the guts to do anything about it. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his statement will offer hope to my constituents? Once the new laws that he proposes have been introduced, those constituents will have the opportunity to do what British Rail's management are too gutless to do.

Mr. Howard

My proposals would certainly cover the circumstances described by my hon. Friend. No doubt he will draw his constituents' attention to Labour's reaction to those proposals, and will make it clear to them that we, unlike Labour, are prepared to act to protect them.

Mr. Jimmy Wray (Glasgow, Provan)

As a former trade union officer, I get the impression that the Secretary of State has never worked in industry in his life. I used to deal with union members who were on the check-off system, and not once was a check-off allowed to be taken from a person's wages without that person's express permission. Members also had the right to end the facility whenever they wished.

The Secretary of State suggested that money might not reach a union after a check-off system had been imposed. I challenge him to hand over his facts to the police: that would be fraud, and would bring not only employers but trade unions into disrepute. Because of Tory legislation, employers in my constituency are starting people but sacking them after two years so that they are outwith the employment legislation, and then restarting them the following day.

If the Secretary of State is interested in the rights of workers, he should ensure that he is in favour of rights for every worker and does not merely attack the trade unions. In addition, he should get the unemployment down in my area, because it is a disgrace.

Mr. Howard

I remind the hon. Gentleman, who is sponsored by the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union, that it was a Conservative Government—

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Is it about sponsorship? I think that we have heard enough about that.

Mr. Watson

Is it in order for the Secretary of State to refer continually to the trade unions by which hon. Members are sponsored without pointing out that, like the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) who is feeding him the information, he is a director of one company and a consultant of two others? He gets paid for that, but we do not get personal money from sponsorship—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Sponsorship of all kinds is in the Register of Members' Interests. This takes up a lot of time.

Mr. Howard

I thought that members of the Opposition were proud of their links with the trade unions, but I was dealing with the point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Wray). I remind him that a Conservative Government first introduced the right to obtain compensation for unfair dismissal, and he should bear that in mind.

On check-off, he said that, to his knowledge, employees —trade union members—were asked at, I think, regular intervals for their consent. That is not a universal practice. If that is a practice of which the hon. Gentleman approves, surely he will approve of this proposal to make it a universal practice and ensure that individual trade union members have the opportunity to give their consent at regular intervals. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a good idea, why does he not support the proposal?

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)


Mr. Campbell-Savours

Sponsored by Lloyd's.

Mr. Oppenheim

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, just as the Opposition opposed every piece of this Government's trade union legislation, they will begin by opposing this legislation tooth and nail, but that they will then go rather quiet and perhaps do a rather shifty U-turn when they see how well it works, as they have done with previous legislation?

Mr. Howard

I am not as optimistic as my hon. Friend. When the Opposition pretend to do a U-turn, one is well advised to look at the small print. One then finds that there is an appearance of a U-turn but that the small print would take things back to what they were in the 1970s. That is the Opposition's position, and we must ensure that everyone understands that.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that today he has done a great disservice to the development of industrial relations by the nature and timing of his remarks? Does he realise that, by moving from the Green Paper to proposals for legislation which he well knows cannot possibly be achieved in the lifetime of this Parliament, he is undermining the rights of trade unions? Why can we not have a White Paper which would include the possibility of considering trade union immunities, the rights of workers—women and part-time workers—and minimum earnings, so that we have an overall picture to ensure that industrial relations in the 1990s are not the victim of cheap electioneering by those on the Front Benches?

Mr. Howard

Surely the hon. Lady will agree that, having issued a Green Paper and received responses to that consultation exercise, it was right that I should report the outcome and the Government's intentions to the House. I had a duty to do that. If the hon. Lady is against such proposals as giving members of the public the right to stop unlawful action, against providing for seven days' notice of strike action and against giving individual trade union members the right to give their consent before money is taken from their pay packet, I can understand her hostility to the proposals. If she is not against those issues, she should support them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the measures he has proposed build on a long list of enhancements of the rights of ordinary trade unionists? To see that this is so, we need look no further than back to the miners' strike, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) referred, when the might of the National Union of Mineworkers was successfully tackled in an action started by one ordinary mineworker with all the legal assistance of the high street solicitor who conveyanced his house.

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend recognises that all the great advances in this area have been won by individuals prepared to stand up for their rights. The purpose of these proposals is to help those individuals. That is why we want to take them forward.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

For the avoidance of doubt, will the Secretary of State, accepting that there is another arena for party political broadcasts, tell the House what he thinks about the situation in which a majority of the work force at a single place, having been free to join any trade union, are in one trade union but the employer refuses to negotiate? What would the Secretary of State say to those employers, employees and trade unionists? What advice and legislation is he providing for them?

Mr. Howard

What I would say is that that is a matter for them to resolve and that when, in the past, attempts have been made to introduce legislation to govern these matters, they have been a lamentable failure. The provision in the Employment Protection Act 1975 that represented the last Labour Government's attempt to introduce such a right was repealed in 1980 at the request of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service because it was found to be totally unworkable.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that these proposals are a sensible extension of the kind of legislation that, over the past 12 years, has buttressed the position of individuals, both inside and outside trade unions? Does he agree that it is a gross indictment of the Labour party that it has opposed every single piece of industrial relations legislation which we have introduced over the past 12 years, and which have given us a strike record that is the envy of Europe and far below the European average?

Mr. Howard

My hon. Friend correctly identifies the difference between the two parties. It was Opposition Members who supported legislation that was responsible for the mob rule of the 1970s and the closed shop, with all its consequences for individual liberty. There is no point in the hon. Member for Sedgefield frowning: he knows perfectly well that that is what happened in our country during those years. It is from that fate that the Conservative Government have rescued the country.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

The Secretary of State will be aware that Sunderland contains the headquarters of the North of England building society, whose employees have twice voted, in secret ballots organised by the Electoral Reform Society, to join the very moderate Banking, Insurance and Finance Union. On both occasions, the management have told the employees to get stuffed. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to give those employees any rights as citizens, or is this all a fraud?

Mr. Howard

I said a few moments ago that previous attempts to legislate on this matter had failed miserably. As a consequence of the legislation that I have mentioned, it was discovered that there is no workable way of providing rights of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I tell the Secretary of State that I am very proud to be sponsored by the National Union of Public Employees, and not by Greek fascists? Can he tell me how this statement will help the workers —trade unionists—at Coloroll in my constituency, who at an industrial tribunal won the right to more redundancy pay but 12 months later have not received payment because his Department does not have civil servants to process the claims? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell me where those people will get jobs, given the horrendous rise in unemployment in my constituency?

Mr. Howard

If the hon. Lady writes to me about the particular case to which she has referred, I shall certainly look into it. We have taken steps to try to ensure that the period for which some people have had to wait for redundancy payments is kept to the absolute minimum.

As for the prospect of those workers finding other employment, I hope that the hon. Lady will reflect that one of the best ways in which we can encourage the creation of more jobs is to create a strike-free environment. Our reforms have contributed greatly to the achievement of that objective. The legislation introduced by the party that the hon. Lady supports had precisely the opposite effect.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

The Secretary of State describes the statement as aiming for the protection of millions, but is it not a fact that he is talking not about individuals and their rights but about the level of profit that employers make out of the weakness of trade union rights which almost 13 years of his Government have brought about? More than 200 Tory Members are sponsored by those employers.

The Secretary of State prattles on about the level of trade union wages. For almost 20 years, I have said that trade union leaders should, as I do, take only the wages of the average member they represent. The 200 Tory Members refuse year after year ever to declare the level of their directorships or their consultancy fees, and who pays them for what they say in the Chamber. The weakness of people's rights is not a problem caused by trade unions being too strong. The reason is that the powers of collective action have not been used often enough in the past 10 years to rein in the Secretary of State and his Government.

Mr. Howard

The hon. Gentleman's views are well known. I suspect that they are shared by a number of Labour Members far greater than the number who will own up to the fact. I fear that the hon. Gentleman's views would lead to consequences opposite to those which, I am prepared to concede, he genuinely desires.

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet at the moment. I remind the House that questions to the Department of Employment may be tabled today for answer on 11 February.