HC Deb 17 November 1992 vol 214 cc168-246

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I must inform the House that, because of the number of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate, Madam Speaker has decided that there will be a 10 minute limit on speeches between 7 pm and 9 pm.

5.2 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard)

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

This is almost exactly the anniversary of the Second Reading debate—13 years ago—on the first of this Government's Employment Bills, introduced by my distinguished predecessor, Lord Prior. It is salutary now to remember how pessimistic many people then were, against the background of the winter of discontent, about the prospects of any legislation to reform industrial relations. To many people at that time, the problems of British industrial relations—strikes, restrictive practices, violence and intimidation on the picket line—seemed insoluble. They believed that the law was powerless to deal with those problems.

We know now that the pessimists and the sceptics were wrong. The changes that we have made in the law since 1979—for example, to end the closed shop and to introduce strike ballots—have not only proved effective, they are also now accepted by trade unions and employers alike as irreversible. The role of the law in industrial relations is no longer in question.

This is a wide-ranging Bill. It gives effect to a number of the Government's manifesto commitments. It represents the conclusion of extensive consultations. It will implement a number of EC obligations. Above all, it marks a further, important stage in the programme of trade union reform on which this Government embarked in 1979—a programme which has now been endorsed by the British people at four successive general elections.

The Bill has two main objectives: first, to strengthen and extend the rights of the individual—both individual employees and individual trade union members; secondly, to increase the competitiveness of the economy and remove obstacles to the creation of new jobs. In the first place, the Bill provides a range of important new rights for employees—rights which they have not enjoyed before in this country.

We promised in our election manifesto to provide all women in employment with the right to 14 weeks maternity leave and with protection against being dismissed because of pregnancy. The Bill honours both those undertakings. In future, every employee who becomes pregnant will be entitled to 14 weeks leave regardless of her length of service or the number of hours that she works. The existing right to return to employment after a maximum of 40 weeks—the longest period of maternity absence in the whole of the European Community—will, of course, be maintained for women who have been employed for more than two years and the Bill makes it unfair to dismiss any employee on the grounds of pregnancy, again regardless of her length of service and the number of hours she works.

Those are important new rights for women in employment. They give effect to the requirements of the EC directive on the rights of pregnant workers which was adopted as recently as 19 October.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Am I right in thinking that one of the major arguments surrounding the EC directive was the issue of maternity pay to accompany maternity leave? If that is so, if we combine the right to extend maternity leave—something that is welcomed on the Opposition Benches—with the abolition of wages councils, more women will be taken below the lower earnings limit. Although those women may be entitled to maternity leave, their right to maternity pay will immediately be taken away. Are not the Government taking away with one hand what they are giving with the other?

Mrs. Shephard

No, I refute the hon. Gentleman's allegation. In the first instance, the proposals extend new rights to all pregnant women at work and I am glad that he and his colleagues welcome that. I will refer to wages councils in a moment. However, the Bill is concerned with employment law, maternity leave and protection against dismissal. Matters of maternity pay were in doubt because the directive was adopted only on 19 October. That was the main area of dissension between Italy and the Commission and the other member states. That matter is not dealt with in the Bill. It is under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security who will certainly make an announcement in due course.

The difficult negotiations upon which I just touched in my reply to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) were brought to a successful conclusion under the presidency of the United Kingdom at the 11th hour. As a result, women in employment throughout the Community have gained new rights, which will safeguard their health and safety when they become pregnant.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

While the right hon. Lady is on the question of employment rights, does she believe that every worker should have the right to be represented by a trade union if he or she so wishes?

Mrs. Shephard

That is entirely a matter between employers and their employees. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is thinking of Government Communications Headquarters, Cheltenham, which is a special case.

Because of the directive, women in France and Spain will, for the first time, have the right to paid time off for ante-natal examinations—a right that women in this country have had since the first Employment Act 1980 became law.

Secondly, the Bill meets our manifesto commitment to give every employee who works for more than eight hours a week a right to a written statement, setting out their main terms and conditions of employment. Employees are entitled to an individual statement, which tells them clearly and simply how much they earn, how many hours they are expected to work and how many holidays they are entitled to. Those provisions meet the requirements of the European directive on employment contracts.

The Bill will also protect employees who have health and safety responsibilities from dismissal or action short of dismissal for carrying out their duties. It gives employees the same protection if they have to leave their work to safeguard their health and safety in the face of serious and imminent danger. Those rights will apply regardless of length of service or hours of work.

Finally, the Bill provides for an important extension of the jurisdiction of industrial tribunals. In future, they will not be limited to hearing cases that arise from the statutory rights of employees, but will also be able to hear most breach-of-employment-contract claims on termination of employment. That will bring to an end the inconvenience, delay and costs caused to applicants and employers when contractual claims have to be pursued in the county courts while others are taken to a tribunal.

All those proposals will extend and strengthen the rights of employees, and I believe that they will be welcomed on both sides of the House.

On the rights of trade union members, let us never forget that this Government ended the tyranny of the closed shop. In the 1970s, as a direct result of the legislation of the last Labour Government, more than 5 million jobs were barred to anyone who was not a member of a trade union. Hundreds of people were sacked from their jobs simply because they refused to become union members. As a result of the closed shop imposed on British Rail by the union which sponsors the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the legislation of the last Labour Government was found by the European Court of Human Rights to be in breach of the European convention on human rights. That was a shameful episode in our industrial relations history. The legislation that the Government have put on the statute book ensures that it will not happen again. No one can be lawfully denied a job simply because he or she does not have a union card.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

Will the Secretary of State advise the House what the European Court of Human Rights said on the question of the rights of employees at the Government Communications Headquarters who choose to remain in a union?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman must know that GCHQ is a separate case and a special issue. The Government attach fundamental importance to safeguarding the security and continuity of essential operations at GCHQ even if Opposition Members do not and I note with interest that they still defend the closed shop.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

It is interesting to hear the Secretary of State say that Opposition Members do not have due regard for the security of the country. Can the right hon. Lady give an example of a trade unionist who has given away the country's secrets? Is it not true that all the people who have given away secrets have been from Eton, Harrow and the privileged parts of our society?

Mrs. Shephard

It is good to know that the Labour party is alive, well and living over there. The fact is—and I feel certain that the hon. Gentleman must accept it—that GCHQ is a separate and special issue. If Opposition Members do not feel strongly about protecting the security of our country, which is of fundamental importance, it is a great pity.

The Government believe that the time has come to extend the rights of employees further and to get rid of another outdated and undemocratic restriction on their freedom of choice. People should be free to take jobs regardless of whether they are union members and they should have the freedom to choose which union they join.

As a result of the Trades Union Congress's so-called—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)


Mrs. Shephard

I shall make some progress and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady.

As a result of the TUC's so-called Bridlington rules, many people have been denied that freedom. They were introduced as long ago as 1939, as a means of resolving conflicts between unions over membership rights, and they have always had a fundamental flaw—they make no provision for union members to be consulted or for their wishes to be taken into account. The operation of the Bridlington rules has come under increasing strain as a result. They no longer meet their original purpose of avoiding conflicts between unions, as anyone who has followed the recent history of the electricians' union will acknowledge. It is generally considered that they are undemocratic and unworkable.

Mr. Skinner

Is it not a fact that in the Nottinghamshire coalfield people who chose to belong to the National Union of Mineworkers have not had any negotiating rights with British Coal for several years, despite the fact that the right hon. Lady is making those assurances? They do not meet with the coal board to discuss health and safety matters and many other issues. As for the security of the country and GCHQ being a special case, the truth is that it was not union membership which put the nation's future in peril, but the fact that the Government were negotiating with Saddam to sell him munitions despite the fact that GCHQ intelligence told them that it was unsafe to do so.

Mrs. Shephard

That is very ingenious of the hon. Gentleman. The question of British Coal and the NUM is for British Coal.

Dr. Lynne Jones

If the Secretary of State is concerned about workers' rights, will she introduce the right for the union that they wish to join to be recognised? I cite the case of workers at Burnsalls, at 10 Downing street in Smethwick, where 26 of the 29 members of the work force voted to join the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, yet the employer, who is paying the atrocious wage of £2.30 an hour with compulsory overtime, has refused to accept their wishes. Will she comment on the rights of those employees?

Mrs. Shephard

Trade union recognition and bargaining rights are different from membership.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that if an employee of Nissan—where there is a single-union agreement—who is a member of the AWEU decides that he wants to leave the union under the terms of the Bill and to join the Transport and General Workers Union, he would have the right to be represented in negotiations with Nissan by the TGWU?

Mrs. Shephard

As I have already said, that is a separate issue. Trade union recognition and bargaining arrangements are completely different from trade union membership. People join trade unions for many different reasons and not simply for pay bargaining. I am not stating simply my opinion when I say that the Bridlington rules no longer apply. I am repeating the publicly expressed views of the leaders of the two largest unions. The general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, Mr. Bill Morris, said of the Bridlington rules in May 1991: Today, when we are about choice and opportunity for the individual, there is no choice or opportunity within them". The general secretary of the engineering union, Mr. Gavin Laird, in an article in The Sunday Times on 6 September of this year, described the Bridlington rules as outdated and irrelevant to modern industrial relations. He wrote: Employees must have the freedom to join a union of their choice: unions cannot be exempt from people's freedom of choice. That is what the Bill will guarantee.

The measure provides other important new rights for trade union members. It provides new rights in relation to the election of trade union leaders to prevent the sort of fraud and abuse which occurred in the executive elections of 1990 in the Transport and General Workers Union, when the discovery of 10,000 forged voting papers led to the re-running of the ballot.

Several hon. Members


Mrs. Shephard

I will give way shortly.

The Bill will give every union member the right to a postal ballot before he or she is called out on strike and the right to have that ballot independently scrutinised. It provides new rights to information—

Ms. Angela Eagle (Wallasey)


Mrs. Shephard

I have given way several times. I wish to make some progress. I promise to give way to the hon. Lady later.

The Bill provides new rights to information about how union leaders spend the money which their members provide through their subscriptions, not least, information about the salaries that their leaders are paid. The House will recall how difficult it was for members of the National Union of Teachers to discover how much their general secretary was paid and how surprised they were to find that he had been given a 46 per cent. pay rise—[Interruption.]—taking his salary to £63,000 a year, at a time when the NUT was £1.4 million in the red. The Bill provides a new right for trade union members to be able in future to scrutinise such matters.

Ms. Eagle

The turnout in postal ballots for industrial action is much lower than occurs in workplace ballots. Does the right hon. Lady suggest that a postal ballot, with a probably much lower turnout, is democratic?

Mrs. Shephard

Regardless of the turnout, it is important for union members to feel that they can express their views in private and with the protection of a postal ballot.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

The Secretary of State is making great play of the need for union members to have knowledge of exactly how much are the salaries of the president, general secretary and executive of unions, and nobody disagrees with trade union members having that right. Why will the right hon. Lady not include in the legislation a provision to enable us to know the salaries of executives and members of private companies?

For example, is she aware that when public money is being spent in Scotland, in an area for which she as well as the Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible—the local enterprise companies and the training enterprise councils—the Comptroller and Auditor General said that he could not say whether the LECs in Scotland were being rutl properly because he did not have access to their accounts?

Mrs. Shephard

TECs and LECs are subject to close audit. The law has always provided for trade unions to be treated as the very special organisations that they are, and there are tremendous differences between trade unions and private companies, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

Several hon. Members


Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I may be allowed to make a little progress, having given way a number of times.

The Bill also provides a new right for trade union members to decide for themselves how they pay their union subscriptions. As the law now stands, an employer and a trade union can agree that union subscriptions will be deducted automatically from a union member's pay packet. The union member has no say in the matter. Such so-called check-off arrangements can be imposed without consent or consultation. If union members object to paying their subscriptions in that way, the law gives them no remedy. Their only recourse is to resign from the union, and that is not acceptable.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

The Secretary of State has explained how clause 12 will give ordinary employees and union members the right to opt out of the check-off system. Will she give an undertaking to keep in mind for the future the option of an opting in system for automatic deductions if unions abuse their position in regard to opting out?

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)


Mrs. Shephard

We are discussing the arrangements as they will apply under this legislation, but we always keep such issues under review, and safeguards are being introduced for union members—[Interruption.]

Several hon. Members


Mrs. Shephard

I have given way about 10 times.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Is it not a fact that it is a crime for an employer to deduct from the pay of a worker any sum of money unless that worker has previously consented to the deduction?

Mrs. Shephard

I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Perhaps he has been reading too carefully the briefing documents supplied by the TUC, which have helpfully also been supplied to me. I believe that there is a genuine misunderstanding on the part of the TUC. It is right that there must be an agreement between the employer and the union, but that right is not specifically extended to the individual. That is what the Bill does. It will ensure that no employee will have money deducted from his or her wages to pay union subscriptions unless consent has been given in writing.

Several hon. Members


Mrs. Shephard

I will not give way for a little longer, having already given way 11 times.

Mr. Dobson

I do not want to continue a host of interruptions of the right hon. Lady's speech, but setting aside anything to do with the law concerning trade unions, is it not the case, and has it not been the case throughout the 20th century, that it is unlawful for an employer to deduct from an employee's wages any sum to which the employee has not previously consented?

Mrs. Shephard

Perhaps I can clarify the matter for the hon. Gentleman. Union members covered by a collective agreement may have deductions made from their wages under the check-off arrangement, even if they have not given their individual consent—[Interruption.]—and the Bill addresses that matter.

The TUC has said that it supports a requirement for individual written consent to the check-off. It claims that there is already such a requirement. That is not correct. The law does not provide such a requirement, though the Bill does, so it should have the TUC's support as well as the support of Opposition Members.

The Bill does not make the check-off unlawful—as it is, for example, in France—and if union members want to pay their subscriptions by means of deductions from their pay, nothing in the Bill will prevent that arrangement from continuing.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the right hon. Lady accept—at least, according to the Library briefing based on the consultation document submitted to her—that the British Institute of Management, the Engineering Employers Federation and other employers' organisations said that they were clear that the Wages Act 1986 made it a criminal offence to deduct dues without such deductions being provided for in the contract or expressly agreed with the worker in question? In other words, is it not a fact that the proposed new legislation is not necessary because the existing law is adequate?

Mrs. Shephard

I will try again to clarify the matter. A collective agreement can be taken as consent. The Bill ensures that individual consent is given. People, including the general secretary of the TUC, who argue that it will reduce the income of trade unions to allow union members to decide for themselves how they pay their subscriptions should consider carefully the implications of their argument. If trade union members are happy to have union subscriptions deducted from their pay, nothing will change as a result of the Bill. The new rights will make no difference unless money is being deducted now from employees' pay without their knowledge or agreement. I wonder whether that is what the general secretary fears. He cannot have it both ways.

If this change in the law is unnecessary, as the general secretary claims, it will make no difference. If it makes a difference, it will be only because union subscriptions are currently deducted from employees' pay packets without their knowledge or consent. Once again, as with the introduction of strike ballots and ballots for union elections, those who oppose the new rights in the Bill must believe that trade union members should not be trusted to decide such matters for themselves but only if they are covered by a collective agreement. We reject that philosophy utterly.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mrs. Shephard

No. I must make some progress. I have already given way 13 or 14 times.

Before I deal with the other provisions of the Bill, I must mention another important new right that it will provide. This is the right which was first announced in the citizens charter White Paper in July 1991. The White Paper said that the general public usually have no legal remedy against unlawful industrial action, even when they are its victims and in some cases its deliberate target. Companies with contracts which are broken as a result of an unlawful strike have always been able to seek the protection of the law. Increasingly, they have been ready to use the remedies that the law provides and that is one of the reasons why our strike record has improved so dramatically. But the customer who, for example, relies on a train or a bus to get to work every day is defenceless in the face of unlawful industrial action. The Bill will, for the first time, give the individual citizen the right to go to court to get an order requiring an unlawful strike to be called off.

The Bill contains another measure to safeguard the economy and employment from the damaging consequences of industrial action. It provides for seven days notice of strikes to enable employers to take the measures necessary to protect their businesses and the jobs of their employees from the threat of industrial action. The measure has been widely welcomed.

There is no clearer evidence of the transformation in industrial relations since 1979 than the record of strikes. In the 1970s, an average of 13 million working days were lost each year because of strikes. In the past 12 months the figure was 0.5 million—the lowest figure since records began. We are proud of that record. We need to make sure that we keep it.

Nothing has done more to convince investors in other countries to put their money into the United Kingdom and to create new jobs in this country than the improvement in our strike record. Rather than opposing investment from abroad on the ground that foreigners are "aliens"., the trade unions should realise why this country has been so successful in attracting foreign investment. There cannot be anyone in this House who believes that this country would have become what Jacques Delors has called a "paradise for foreign investment" if the United Kingdom was still synonymous with strikes and restrictive practices. Nor does anyone—apart from perhaps a few Opposition Members—doubt the crucial role which our legislation has played in bringing about the transformation of our industrial relations in the past decade.

Now more than ever we need to make sure that the progress that we have made in reducing the level of strikes is maintained in the future. Without investment we shall not have the new jobs that we want to see. But without continuing industrial peace there will be no investment. Nothing could be more damaging to the prospects of employment growth than a return to the strike-happy ways of the 1970s.

Mr. Olner

Will the Secretary of State explain why so many jobs have been lost during this relatively strike-free period? I suggest that more days are lost through short-time working and through members in manufacturing industry being made redundant than were ever lost in the dark days which she so delightedly describes.

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman has clearly forgotten Britain's job creation record in the 1980s. Job creation was faster and more effective than in any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The dramatic fall in the number of strikes is not the only evidence of a transformation in industrial relations. Less than half the work force is now covered, directly or indirectly, by collective bargaining. Barely a third of the work force is now covered by national collective agreements. More and more companies negotiate pay on an individual basis with their employees in ways which take account of individual skills and performance.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mrs. Shephard

No, I should like to make a little progress.

Even where collective bargaining persists, pay determination has become increasingly decentralised to local level. These are all healthy and necessary changes, if the British economy is to be competitive and obstacles to the creation of new jobs are to be removed. [Interruption.] Given the ringing endorsement of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner), I give way to him.

Mr. Turner

Will the Secretary of State give a couple of moments thought to workers' rights? In the past few years a growing number of workers in Britain have found that they have hardly any rights whatever. They have no rights to redundancy payments, sickness benefit or unemployment benefit. People are dismissed on a Friday and re-engaged on a Monday. That is the society that the Secretary of State has created. It is based on fear. That is the answer to many of the questions that Conservative Members ask about the fall in the number of strikes. People are cowed by fear. That is the environment that the Government have created. People go without basic rights as a result of the Government's legislation.

Mrs. Shephard

I do not condone bad employment practices, wherever they occur. The hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on that.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

The Secretary of State mentioned that many individuals have negotiated pay with their employers. So why are the Government removing from more than 2 million workers the right to negotiate a pay rise of more than 1.5 per cent?

Mrs. Shephard

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in his autumn statement the necessity for people who are in work to make a little sacrifice to help those who are out of work. That was expanded by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the measure helps employment, most people will be ready to go along with it.

The wages councils are an example of the damaging and outdated methods of deciding pay from which most sectors of the British economy have now moved away. Wages councils fix rates of pay for their industries on a national basis without any regard for regional variations in levels of pay or labour market conditions.

Two thirds of employees covered by wages councils are paid well above the statutory minimum rates laid down by the councils. For some of them, the councils are simply an irrelevant and bureaucratic burden. But in many cases the effect of statutory minimum rates is to push up the rates of pay of those earning above that level, with results which are damaging both for competitiveness and for jobs. To quote from a recent letter from the British Hospitality Association: Wages Councils inhibit the ability of organisations to construct pay systems which are sufficiently flexible to reward skills and merit and at the same time take account of geographical variations. That is why the Government have always said that wages councils have no permanent place in British industrial relations. They were first established in 1909 when there were no statutory employment rights, no general health and safety statutory protection and virtually no social security provision. At that time, there was a justifiable case for arguing that statutory minimum rates of pay would provide a safety net against poverty. That is why the wages councils were established in 1909.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

The Secretary of State mentioned earlier the possibility of the Conservative party manifesto including a number of items in the Bill. Will she elucidate by telling the House on what page in the Conservative manifesto the abolition of wages councils was included?

Mrs. Shephard

The Government have always made it clear that we see no permanent place for wages councils in the labour market. We have undertaken extensive consultation on wages councils and that has been the Government's view since 1988.

The justification for the establishment of wages councils no longer applies in the conditions of the 1990s. Wages councils are not a safety net against poverty when 80 per cent. of the employees whom they cover live in households with two or more incomes. Low pay and poverty are not necessarily synonymous.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

When Winston Churchill introduced the Bill, did he not stress that it was to protect those whose livelihood depended on the industry and wage concerned? Does not the change outlined by my right hon. Friend show that those circumstances have completely changed?

Mrs. Shephard

Indeed, he did make that point and I have already spoken about the conditions pertaining at the time. I believe that Winston Churchill was a Liberal at the time.

Nor is there any reason to believe that removing statutory minimum rates of pay leads to lower levels of earnings. On the contrary, since young people were removed from the scope of wages councils in 1986, average full-time earnings for people under 21 have grown in real terms in all the main industries and occupations concerned.

In any case, wages councils have never provided anything approaching comprehensive protection against low pay. The number of employees covered by wages councils has been declining since the 1950s. Wages councils now cover only 10 per cent. of the work force. I might add that 10 wages councils were abolished by the last Labour Government between 1974 and 1979.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mrs. Shephard

I must make progress as I have now given way 16 times.

The wages councils they abolished included Industrial Canteens, which covered 218,000 employees and Road Haulage, which covered 210,000 employees. Between 1974 and 1979, a total of nearly 600,000 employees were removed from the scope of wages councils—that is nearly a quarter of the present total. If the Opposition are going to argue that the wages councils are some sort of safety net, they will have to acknowledge that they made some pretty big holes in it when they were last in power.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that those abolitions were carried out at the request of people working in the industries concerned and that Labour Ministers insisted on deferring some of them for far longer than people in the industries wanted?

Mrs. Shephard

A very good try, but the fact remains that it is the principle that counts in this matter. As for the Opposition's attitude, they must acknowledge that they are on shaky ground.

Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)


Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Shephard

I shall give way to my hon. Friend later.

Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)

As the Minister involved in the procedures leading to the abolition of the Road Haulage wages council, may I remind the right hon. Lady that it was because of pressure from employers and trade unions in the industry, who felt that the development of collective bargaining was being impeded by the existence of the wages council and that collective bargaining had advanced to a stage where they no longer needed that wages council. In any case, we could fall back on the road haulage wages legislation, which we introduced and the Conservatives abolished subsequently. As my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, we sought to keep the wages councils for longer than those involved wanted. The important point is that, in this Bill as in others, the Government are deliberately turning their backs on collective bargaining and seeking to undermine it.

Mrs. Shephard

I respect the right hon. Gentleman for his detailed knowledge of those matters and I thank him for reminding the House of what happened, but I am still confused about whether he was guided by principle or union pressure.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and for the intervention by the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker). Has not every wages council that has been removed, including the recent removal of the wages councils' so-called protection for workers under 21, resulted in the average wages rising higher for that group of workers than for those left within the wages council?

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. I made that point in respect of those wages councils covering young people under 21.

As the industrial and occupational structure of the labour force has changed so the coverage of wages councils has become increasingly arbitrary. For example, over the last 30 years the number of employees covered by the Fur wages council has declined from 9,000 to 800. The Ostrich, Fancy Feather and Artificial Flower council covers a total of 500 employees and the Coffin and Cerement Making council only 200.

The whole structure is shot through with anomalies and anachronisms. For example, the Laundry wages council's regulations do not generally apply to self-service launderettes but to those where the employees do the washing for the customers. The Clothing council's scope still assumes that the industry's products are made from woven materials such as cotton and wool. So workers engaged on the same processes using knitted fabrics are excluded. The Catering councils cover managers in restaurants but not managers in pubs. Selling cooked meat is covered by a wages council but not selling raw meat; the sale of radios is covered but the sale of tape recorders is not. Anomalies of this kind make nonsense of the argument that wages councils provide a general safety net of any kind, and dealing with them causes practical difficulties for employers.

The real argument between the Government and the Opposition is not about the survival of the remaining wages councils. The argument between us is about whether all employers should be obliged to pay all their employees above a single minimum rate which would be decided not by negotiation, not by the needs of the economy or of the labour market, not by the ability of companies to pay, and not with regard to individual performance and skills, but by the Government alone.

The Opposition want a national minimum wage, which would raise labour costs right across the whole economy as workers fought to preserve their differentials. Nothing could be more disastrous for competitiveness—or for jobs. That is the real difference between us: we believe in creating a flexible labour market, which can create and sustain jobs; they believe in a national minimum wage, which would cost up to 2 million jobs.

Finally, the Bill will implement changes in the management of the careers service, which were announced in the Government's White Paper "Education and Training for the 21st Century" in 1991.

A professional system of careers guidance is fundamental to the removal of barriers to jobs. With the benefit of expert advice, young people can maximise their potential and use their talents to their own best advantage and that of the community as a whole. The Bill will, for the first time, enable the Government to contract with a range of different organisations to provide a careers service that is more flexible and more responsive to the needs of local people and local employers. The new careers service will not be restricted to helping young people. There will also be scope to assist unemployed adults, people faced with redundancy or those seeking a career change.

There will be a general welcome for the new rights for employees that I described at the outset. I hope that that part of the Bill will not be controversial. Many of the other changes in the law proposed in the Bill and which I have not had time to mention respond to the needs and wishes of many individuals and organisations. Other parts of the Bill will be vigorously debated.

The Labour party remains wholly committed to the principle of a national minimum wage, regardless of its consequences for the economy and for jobs. On that issue there is a gulf between the Government and the Opposition that cannot be breached. But the new rights for trade union members contained in the Bill—the latest stage in our programme of trade union reform—are a different matter.

At the last election the Labour party claimed that, if elected, it would keep the trade union legislation of the 1980s—despite the fact that it had voted against every trade union bill that we have introduced since 1979. Some people doubted whether the Labour party's conversion to the cause of trade union reform was entirely genuine. Today, we shall see.

I am prepared to keep an open mind until I hear the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras speak. I hope that he will bear in mind the assurances that his predecessor, the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), gave about keeping the trade union legislation of the 1980s. I hope that he will not take the line of all his predecessors and attack every clause and every line of the Bill while it is going through Parliament—only to admit in three to four years' time that the new rights that It provides for trade union members cannot be repealed. If he opposes the rights for trade union members in the Bill, he will be making the same mistake that his predecessors made when they opposed the ending of the closed shop and the introduction of strike ballots. By the attitude that it takes to this Bill, the Labour party has the chance to break out of the cycle of unthinking opposition, followed in due course, as the next election gets nearer, by embarrassed and half-hearted acceptance. It has the chance today to demonstrate to the British people that its attitude to trade union law has really changed.

I put it to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras what is unreasonable about allowing trade union members freedom to choose which union they join? What is unreasonable about giving trade union members a right to a postal ballot before they are called out on strike? What is wrong with allowing union members to decide for themselves how they pay their subscriptions? And what is wrong with giving the citizens of this country the protection of the law if they are the victims of an unlawful strike?

Conservative Members have always believed that the law must define both the rights and the obligations of trade unions, and that it must set limits to the destructive power of industrial action. We have always believed that the law has a legitimate and necessary role to play in guaranteeing the democratic rights of trade union members, as well as m protecting the individual and the community as a whole against the abuse of industrial power. I believe that the argument about the role of the law in industrial relations has now been finally settled. I believe that when the history of the 1980s comes to be written, that will be seen to be one of the most important and lasting achievements of the decade. By strengthening the law, the Bill will strengthen industrial relations in this country. That is why I believe that it deserves the support of the whole House.

5.53 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I start by declaring an interest: I am sponsored as a Labour candidate by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which used to be the National Union of Railwaymen. I am proud of my connections with the union that represents the interests of railway workers, including hundreds of those who work at St. Pancras, Euston, King's Cross and 14 other stations in my constituency. It is the union of which my father and grandfather were members, and it has a proud record of promoting the interests of its members and their families, both through its industrial activities and through political involvement with the Labour party.

Our task today is to judge whether the Bill introduced by the Secretary of State deals with the most pressing problems of employment and unemployment which now face the people of our country. The Bill fails that simple test. When we look at the state of the nation after more than 13 years of Tory rule we are confronted by the following facts. Almost 3 million people are officially out of work, more than 4 million are really out of work, 30 unemployed people are chasing every job vacancy and 6 million women are on low pay.

Britain has the widest gap in the European Community between men's pay and women's pay. More than 2.5 million people who are in work are not paid a living wage, with the result that many of them have to fall back on means-tested benefits paid for by the taxpayer. Fewer than 4.5 million people in Britain are now employed in manufacturing.

Government training schemes do not lead to jobs. Pay, hours and working conditions in Britain are falling further behind those of our European partners. Employers are exploiting the fear of unemployment to worsen the working conditions of their staff. As the Secretary of State recently admitted, every person out of work for a year costs the taxpayer £9,000.

The Bill does not address those problems. It is not that it does not give them top priority—it gives them no priority. Instead, it reveals that when faced with the misery and concern about unemployment, poor training, low pay and exploitation, the Secretary of State gives top priority to fouling up the check-off of union subscriptions, privatising the schools careers service and abolishing wages councils, which provide a safety net for some of the poorest paid workers in the land. The Secretary of State cannot seriously believe that most of the matters covered by the Bill are Britain's top employment priorities in 1992.

The Bill includes some limited improvements which we welcome, but credit for most of those improvements must go to the institutions of the European Community which instigated them—it certainly cannot be claimed by the British Tory Government who delayed and obstructed them, and watered them down.

The legal position of Britain's trade unions is already the weakest in the European Community, but the Bill includes further mean-minded measures designed to make it even more difficult for trade unions to devote time and resources to promoting their members' interests. Under the Government, deregulation for business has been matched by over-regulation for trade unions. However, some of the proposals in the Bill seem likely to cause as much trouble for employers as for unions. For years, the Tories trumpeted the merits of single-union agreements and claimed that they attracted inward investment, but the Bill gives unions a legal power and incentive to poach members from one another. What will foreign investors think of that?

The bureaucratic burden of other proposals will fall on employers and unions alike. The proposal to permit the removal of lay members from industrial tribunals and leave them entirely in the hands of lawyers seems odd, coming from a Secretary of State who regularly assails the idea of the tyranny of the closed shop. There is no shop more closed than the lawyers' closed shop.

In the time available, it is impossible to deal with all the issues covered by this rag-bag of a Bill, so I shall concentrate on four topics: the abolition of wages councils, maternity rights for women, the privatisation of the schools careers service, and the check-off of union subscriptions.

The nastiest part of the Bill contains the Government's proposal to abolish wages councils. Nothing illustrates better the moral degradation of the current Tory party than that decision. Wages councils, which protect the worst off, were founded by Winston Churchill, strengthened by Clem Attlee and retained by Margaret Thatcher, only to be abolished by John Major—so much for a nation at ease with itself and a classless society. As the right hon. Lady said, wages councils are far from perfect—and we think that they should be improved—but they provide a safety net for 2.5 million of the worst paid workers in the land. Most of those workers are employed in shops, hotels, the catering industry, the clothing trade, and hairdressing. Wages councils are important in every part of Britain, especially in low-wage areas such as Northern Ireland. Basic wage rates range from £2.58 an hour to £3.10 an hour.

Mr. Stephen Milligan (Eastleigh)

The hon. Gentleman criticises the Government for doing nothing in the Bill to promote employment. Does he accept that all the evidence in this country and in Europe suggests that the setting of a minimum wage, either nationally as recommended by Labour or in a particular industry, destroys jobs?

Mr. Dobson

In brief, no.

Almost 2 million of the people covered by wages councils are women. The Secretary of State has Cabinet responsibility for promoting equal opportunities for women. If this proposal goes through, she will give 2 million badly paid women an equal opportunity to be paid even less. That is not the usual meaning of equal opportunity.

Mr. Heald

Throughout the 1960s, the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Transport and General Workers Union favoured abolition of wages councils. It said: Wages Councils do not represent an effective means of raising the standards of lower paid workers and they should be abolished". Why have Labour Members and that union changed their tune?

Mr. Dobson

Like any other institution in the world, the TGWU is not always right.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in due course. On second thoughts, having recognised him, I shall not give way to him, so he need not stand up any more.

Who is in favour of abolishing wages councils? The Government have refused to disclose who has made representations in favour of abolition. Apparently it is the lobby which dare not speak its name. We know that only half the employers' organisations involved in wages council industries favour abolition. The other employers fear that they will he undermined by bad employers.

The Institute of Directors favours abolition; it and the Government claim that abolition would be good for the workers concerned. What can they mean? Wages councils set a minimum wage. They do not stop employers paying more than a minimum. Under present arrangements, employers can pay as much as they like, but not as little as they like. In setting up the wages councils, Winston Churchill recognised that market forces do not always work, that employers often have the whip hand and individual employees are weak. When employees cannot get a fair bargain for their work, Parliament decided that the law has a role in protecting them and in promoting fair trade. Churchill argued—at the time even the Tories agreed—that anyone whose bargaining position is so weak that he cannot get a living wage should be helped by the law; otherwise, the worst off would be forced to accept poverty pay, the bad employer would undercut the good, and the bad would be undercut by the worst.

That is all still true, whatever the Secretary of State may claim about times having changed. Apart from the law, there is still nothing to protect a Bengali woman who depends on a job in a sweatshop in the east end of London, or an unemployed Cornish youth desperate for a summer job pulling pints in Falmouth, or a jobless young west midlands woman begging for work with a hairdresser, or the widow in Yorkshire going hack to work in a shop after her husband has died.

Mr. Nicholls

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

I have already made it clear that I will not.

In one respect, the situation has changed—but for the worse. At the time when the wages councils were being set up, Parliament also took action to protect children who were exploited by being paid children's wages for doing adults' work. The current Tory Government have undermined the laws protecting children so that adults now have to compete with children for low-paid jobs.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Given that most of the occupations controlled by wages councils are universally acknowledged to have relatively low rates of pay, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the conspiracy between the unions and some of the employers to depress wages needs to be broken? In occupations not covered by wages councils, almost all women do much better—as witness teachers, nurses and women office workers.

Mr. Dobson

I accept that wages councils pay a lower minimum basic rate than Labour's proposed national minimum wage, which is why I favour a national minimum wage.

Mr. Nicholls


Mr. Dobson

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, and that is that.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has argued against abolition. The citizens advice bureaux are against abolition—

Mr. Nicholls

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is not giving way.

Mr. Dobson

All those who have registered their objections to the abilition of wages councils can demonstrate a long history of genuine concern for the low paid. By contrast, the people in favour of abolition are a case study in cant and hypocrisy—and they are all Tories.

I have already mentioned the Institute of Directors. Then there is the Grand Metropolitan company, the boss of which is Sir Allen Sheppard. He was the man who orchestrated the letter to The Times before the election in which it was claimed that a Labour Government would threaten "the spirit of enterprise". To be fair, Sir Allen is an enterprising fellow—so much so that last year he paid himself the enterprising sum of £713,000. He is in favour of abolishing wages councils because he wants to pay his staff in pubs, hotels and restaurants less than current minimum rates. So Allen Sheppard gets £433 an hour while his staff get less than £3 an hour. No wonder the Tories asked him to be their party treasurer.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Is the hon. Gentleman telling the House that if—God forbid—there were a Labour Government he would bring back all the wages councils?

Mr. Dobson

Labour is committed to establishing a statutory national minimum wage, which would be better than that.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

On the point about Labour's statutory minimum wage, which was an issue at the last general election, is the hon. Gentleman aware of the comments of the shadow spokesman for transport, who said on "Walden" that if a statutory minimum wage were introduced there would be some shake-out of jobs and that any silly fool would know that?

Mr. Dobson

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) was telling the truth. When there are changes there will be some sort of shake-out, but we believe that all the evidence suggests an ultimate increase in jobs for everyone as a result of people being paid better.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's speech, but is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is Labour party policy not to restore the wages councils because Labour would have a minimum wage instead? Is he saying that he would not bring back wages councils if the Government abolished them?

Mr. Dobson

The Labour party will introduce a statutory national minimum wage. We shall then need to consider whether any other special protection should be offered people in what are called the sweated trades—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] Right, let us analyse the problem. Two and a half million of our fellow citizens are paid £3.10 an hour or less under wages councils. We would introduce a national minimum wage which would be in excess of that. If, having consulted the people who work in the industries concerned, and possibly even the employers in them, we thought that some additional protection was needed for the worst off, we would consider that. No doubt we shall enter into such consultations before the general election—there is a long time to go.

Ms. Eagle

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Equal Opportunities Commission and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which have estimated that the abolition of the wages councils will lead directly to 25,000 job losses in the initial period simply because of the withdrawal of spending power from the economy which the depressed wages will cause?

Mr. Dobson

That is the other side of the coin of the benefits which would flow from people being paid higher wages as a result of a national minimum wage.

The nub of the issue is why the Government, post-Thatcher, are abolishing wages councils. I believe that it is part of the pay-off to the companies which provided the Tory party with its funds.

Firms such as Whitbread, whose top-paid director receives £330,000 a year, and which paid the Tories £60,000 last year, are in favour of getting rid of wages councils. Trusthouse Forte contributed £86,000 to the Tory party last year. Its best-paid director gets by on £250,000 a year, but he thinks that the company's staff should take a pay cut—I saw him on television saying so. Allied Lyons, another in the catering trade, pays its top director £370,000 a year and contributed £80,000 to the Tories. Scottish and Newcastle, whose best-paid director receives £271,000 a year, is another company which will benefit from this kick-back in exchange for the £70,000 contribution that it made to the Tories. They are all rich Tory business people who favour lower pay for everyone except themselves.

The Low Pay Unit has calculated that the cuts in pay which will follow abolition could cost the lower paid as much as £3 billion a year once the full impact is felt. Some of that reduction in their less-than-living wage will be made up: more people will become entitled to family credit, or to more family credit; others will become entitled to income support, or to more income support; others will be entitled to housing benefit and poll tax rebates or more of both or either of those. Therefore, not all the burden of this bonanza for the employers will fall on the worst off and their families. Some of it will fall on the taxpayer instead, so those Tory employers will be lining their pockets at the expense of their work force and the taxpayer.

Mr. Miller

The largest single back-dated wages council award to an individual of which I am aware was in respect of a late employee of a BTR company owned by the noble Lord Hanson. That illustrates the point well.

Mr. Dobson

I make no further comment; my hon. Friend has made the point.

The Secretary of State has tried to say that abolition does not matter because so many of the workers involved are women working part time who are not the only source of family income. Yet when I asked her how many women covered by wages councils were the principal bread winner for their family, she said that her Department did not know. She could surely have found out before she decided to change the law, but she did not—preferring to augment Tory prejudice with ministerial ignorance. In any case, it is surely a matter of principle that women should receive equal pay for work of equal value whatever they do with the money. The Secretary of State for Health and the right hon. Lady are just as entitled to their Cabinet Minister's pay as any male Cabinet member. That is a principle which should apply to everyone.

That brings me to the maternity rights part of the Bill. We welcome the proposal as far as it goes. Without the stalwart commitment of Christine Crawley, the British Labour party chair of the European Parliament committee on women's rights, backed up by the TUC acting through the European TUC, the pregnancy directive from which this proposal springs would have been quietly smothered by the Government.

The Bill will rightly prevent a woman from being dismissed because she is pregnant. That is a step forward. It provides some cover from suspension on health and safety grounds. That, too, is a step forward. It also provides a new minimum entitlement to 14 weeks continuous maternity leave, irrespective of length of service or hours of work. That is a great step forward. We welcome these proposals, but they do not go far enough.

Why should women be protected from dismissal because of pregnancy whatever their length of service and hours of work but not have the same degree of employment protection when they are not pregnant? At the Tory conference the Secretary of State for Social Security was mouthing on about young women getting pregnant so that they could jump the queue for a house. If the proposal goes through in its present form, there is a real danger that he will be back at the Tory conference next year claiming that young women are getting pregnant to avoid getting the sack.

Mention of the Secretary of State for Social Security leads to the next point. We have been told that during their 14 weeks maternity leave women will receive 14 weeks sick pay from the Department of Social Security. The right hon. Lady mentioned that, but we look forward to the legislation being introduced and we still challenge why it is based on sick pay.

The Secretary of State claimed a lot of credit for the measure, but the House should remember that, as originally proposed by the European Commission and the European Parliament, the maternity leave entitlement would have given every pregnant woman the right to 14 weeks maternity leave on full pay. That would have benefited 350,000 women. As a result of the wrecking activities of the British Government, it is likely that the number of women who will benefit in full from the maternity pay provision will be 16,000 or 17,000. The pregnancy directive and the Bill gave the British Government the chance to catch up with the best maternity provision in the EC, but they have not taken that chance. In other words, the welcome improvements in maternity rights are largely to the credit of Brussels and Strasbourg; the weaknesses are due to the prejudices of the Tory Government.

The next item is the proposal to privatise the schools careers service. Why? Are people clamouring to say that it is not doing a good job. Is there evidence that it is failing young people? Does the track record of previous Department of Employment privatisations suggest that the careers service will do a better job in the private sector? The answer to all those questions is clearly no. The careers service should be helped to get on with its job. Instead, it is to be cast into months or years of turmoil, turned inside out and upside down and then flogged off, no doubt to some friends of the Tory party.

Many people are concerned that the careers service will no longer give top priority to serving the interests of children and young people. They fear that profit-seeking owners will give top priority to their profits. After all, that is their legal duty. Will the new owners give impartial advice and help, or will it be a racket? People also fear that equal opportunities will be denied to people with disabilities or learning difficulties and to others on grounds of race or sex. I believe that the threat is even more fundamental than that: if the careers service is privatised, there is every chance that it will disappear altogether.

Let us just look at what has happened with previous Department of Employment privatisations. First, the Professional and Executive Register was sold off—the outfit whose job was to help employers to recruit from the white collar workless. It operated a chain of 32 offices and was in direct weekly contact with 100,000 job seekers. In September 1988 that organisation, with a revenue of more than £9 million a year, was sold for just £6 million by the then Secretary of State for Employment, now chairman of the Tory party. Speaking of the buyers, he said: There is no doubt they have the expertise and commitment to give the company the start in the private sector that we want for it. He said that it was a business which I believe has an exciting future. The company will have the opportunity to realise its commercial potential, free from the restrictions under which it operated as part of the Government. The purchaser in which the Secretary of State had so much confidence was Robert Maxwell and the company ceased trading in December last year. There is now no special service for the record number of white collar workers who are jobless.

The Department of Employment's sell-off shambles did not stop there. It sold or, to be more precise, in some cases gave away the Skills Training Agency and 51 of Britain's skill centres. In February 1990, TICC was given £2 million to take over four skill centres in Cumbria, east Lancashire, St. Helens and Ipswich. By August 1991 the company was in liquidation. METEL, which was given the Liverpool training centre, went out of business this summer. Now ASTRA, the company which was given taxpayers' money to run 45 centres, is in severe trouble. It has already closed eight centres, and has made 1,200 staff redundant. It is now in desperate financial straits, demanding further redundancies and 15 per cent. pay cuts. It could well go down, taking the remaining skill centres with it.

No assurances from the Secretary of State about the future of a privatised careers service can possibly be accepted when we consider the assurances given by her predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who now presides over the council tax as he previously presided over the poll tax. Welcoming the privatisation of skill centres in what he called the first successful management buy-out bid in the Civil Service", the right hon. and learned Gentleman claimed that he had achieved a deal which is excellent for the taxpayer and for those who want to continue to receive training from the Skillcentres"— provided, of course, that they do not live in any of the dozen towns where skill centres have already disappeared.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

Conservative Members look a bit embarrassed.

Mr. Dobson

They have every right to look embarrassed. With such a track record, the Secretary of State really has a cheek to come to the House and ask for the power to privatise the schools careers service when it is doing a good job in the public sector. The House should not give her that power until she has got the skill centres and the professional and executive register up and running again, and helping people who are in desperate need.

We in the trade unions welcome new rules which are intended to protect members' subscriptions, and to guarantee that members are sent full financial details of their union funds and of officials' pay and perks. Many unions do that already, using cheaper, quicker and more efficient methods than those proposed by the Government. We expect the Government in due course to bring the law on company directors' pay and perks into line with best trade union practice.

That brings me to the Government's proposals to require—yet again—that employers have the written consent of each employee before checking off union subscriptions from wages. We believe that the law requires that already, and nothing said by the Secretary of State today undermines our confidence. It is theft for an employer to take money from an employee's wages without the employee's consent.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I think that a misunderstanding may have arisen about what is stated in the Wages Act 1986. The Act clearly provides that an employer may make a deduction from a worker's wages in only three circumstances, one of which is where the deduction is required or authorized…by virtue of…any relevant provision of the worker's contract". The point is that, when a collective agreement provides for the deduction of trade union dues, the deduction can be made without a worker's individual consent. The Bill provides for that consent to be required.

Mr. Dobson

The Minister should go back to the Box and get a better brief. Even in a negotiated contract of that kind, the worker must signify his agreement or consent to the contract in writing.

Mr. John Evans

Most of what the Minister said applies to deductions relating to, for instance, social and sports clubs. It is interesting to note that the Government have given the workers a new so-called right in relation to trade union subscriptions, but have pointedly omitted to give them the same right in relation to deductions for social or sports clubs—or, indeed, in relation to deductions for charitable purposes under the Government's own scheme.

Mr. Dobson

As ever, my hon. Friend is quite right.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I do not think that the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) is right about deductions for charitable giving. Surely, however, the differences between my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) relates to whether consent is direct or indirect. Ending that difference would probably bridge the gap.

Mr. Dobson

A contract is not a contract until the parties to it signify their consent.

In propounding this change, the Government referred to allegations that some employees who are not union members have nevertheless had union subscriptions deducted from their pay". When I asked whether the Government had investigated those allegations, the Secretary of State said: The Department doesn't investigate allegations of this kind. What double standards: the Government come to the House proposing to change the law because of unsubstantiated allegations about trade unions, but they have still done nothing to change the law to protect pensions from the demonstrable theft that has been going on in the City. In any event, as I have said before, if money is checked off without an employee's consent, it is the employer who commits the offence, not the union.

On top of that, the Government are now demanding that such consent be obtained every three years. What a burden that will be for businesses which are trying to keep their costs down. Why cannot union subscription check-offs be treated like other check-offs—or, for that matter, like direct debit for paying the poll tax? Why should there be a special rule for trade unions? We all know why. It is because the Government hope that they can change the unions into an ogre, to distract attention from what is going on in Britain. They hope to make it harder for unions to collect subscriptions and maintain their finances. They hope that, ultimately, such a change will undermine union help for the Labour party by reducing the donations that unions can make. What a cheek that is when the Tory party receives millions, in secret, from Greek fascists, Hong Kong insider dealers and foreign fraudsters who are given an easy ride in Britain; now those self-same Tories are trying to challenge the legitimacy of funds fairly and openly given to the Labour party by nurses, fire fighters, coal miners, dinner ladies and doctors.

As I have said before, the Bill is largely irrelevant to Britain's current employment problems. If the Government persist with it, we shall try to strengthen the better clauses and expose the spite and hypocrisy which lie behind the worst. But it would be better if the Secretary of State took the Bill away and came back with an improvement.

I ask the Secretary of State to think again. She says, as every Cabinet Minister does, that her party believes in choice. She and I are of an age. I remind her of the choice that was available to us, but is denied to the generation now leaving school and college. We both graduated in the early 1960s. When I applied for jobs I received offers from several employers, and I had a choice of jobs, pay and location. I am sure that the Secretary of State had as wide a choice as I had, or an even wider choice. That choice is no longer available.

For every person who was out of work when the Secretary of State graduated in 1961, 14 people are out of work today. In that year, the number of people seeking jobs scarcely exceeded the number of vacancies. Today, 30 people are chasing every vacancy. Choice has not widened for those leaving school and college—it has narrowed, and many have no choice and no job. They feel let down, and they have been let down.

The Secretary of State and I, with others of our generation, were the principal beneficiaries of full employment, and of the commitment by Governments all over the developed world to the belief that full employment was good for the world economy, good for growth and, above all, good for people. They were right. What we want now is not the introduction of petty measures like these; we need the vision of a better world, and a long-term ambition to return to full employment with all our people at work. We need the political commitment for that to be brought about. Full employment was good for the Secretary of State, for me and for our generation, and it is the least that we can offer to our children and grandchildren.

6.28 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

In a written answer given on 29 October, when asked for the Secretary of State's estimate of the number of new jobs that would be created following the abolition of wages councils and for sight of the evidence on which that evidence was based, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State ended his answer with the words: We do not have the information to quantify the number of jobs that are inhibited by statutory minimum rates; and attempts to do so are not likely to be successful."—[Official Report, 29 October 1992; Vol. 212, c. 825.] That, I think, was a proper answer; certainly a large amount of research evidence is not conclusive in any direction.

I intend to return to the subject of clause 28. First, however, I wish to say something about trade unions and their links with the Labour party. Half the members of trades unions do not belong to unions that are unions affiliated to the Labour party or that operate a political levy. It would have been better if more trades unions had dropped the political levy.

It is disgraceful to see public sector unions tying themselves to one political party. Although the National Association of Local Government Officers is not affiliated to the Labour party, it is disgraceful to see it spending its money in such a way that it appears to have swallowed all of Labour's propaganda.

I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union, but I do not pay the levy. It supports a political party that has lost the past four general elections. I do not believe that the Labour party will treat trade union issues in a fair-minded way as long as it relies so much on trade union affiliations. The Tory party will not consider employment issues in the unbiased way that we should as long as so many trade unions are affiliated to our political opposition.

I was president of the Conservative Trades Unionists in 1979. Part of my discussions with Harvey Thomas may have led to his brilliant organisation of the trade union members' rally on the last Sunday of the campaign at Wembley. It helped to deal with the issue of whether Conservatives in government could deal with trades union issues.

Evidence of the past 13 years has shown that we have better understanding of trade union leaders and have received as much support from trade union members and their families as we do from many other groups. We still have the capacity to get things wrong—or, to put it more positively, there are normally ways of improving our trade union legislation.

On Report, I intend to vote against clause 28, because I believe that we have made a mistake. I have been trying to advance my view since I was a Minister in the Department of Employment between 1984 and 1986. I have tried to take up the matter with Ministers, and I am grateful for my recent meeting. I was part of the 1985 review of wages councils, but was not at the Department when conclusions were reached. I can, however, refer the House to what appeared to be the best summary of the consultation. The reply of my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir John Cope) in column 557 of Hansard on 21 March 1989 showed that, from the number of responses to the consultative document on wages councils, there was little evidence that people particularly wanted to abolish them. I am not aware of any significant consultation since then.

On leaving the Department of Employment, I joined the Department of Transport and spent much time with what might be called the hospitality industries—working men's clubs, non-profit-making clubs, licensed victuallers and publicans. Unfortunately, I saw little of the British Hospitality Association, which is normally quoted as an opponent of the wages council system. Working co-operatively with many people across a broad spectrum in the alcohol trade—health and safety inspectors and trade union members—I encountered few employers who found the wages councils' minimum rates a burden.

I do not want to pretend that those rates have not been effective. I should not want to argue that they have not eliminated job opportunities, because at the margin they clearly have, especially on the fringes of employment opportunities, where people face a choice between work or no work, and also in areas where there are normally job choices, except in the depths of recession, but where exploitation or lack of skill in the labour market has meant that people have taken jobs despite being grossly exploited.

Mr. Nicholls

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Bottomley

In a moment. If I may say so, I think that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) unfairly discriminated against my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) by not allowing him to intervene.

Mr. Nicholls

How does my hon. Friend square the point that he is now making about voting against clause 28? I have reminded myself of the evidence on the point, because I subsequently had the same responsibility as my hon. Friend. I have a quotation, chosen almost at random, that the hon. Gentleman gave in a written reply: There is general agreement that the abolition of wages councils would slow down pay increases resulting in an increase in employment for both young people and adults." —[Official Report, 11 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 399.] I fully accept that collective responsibility binds us to curious things sometimes, but I should have thought that the speech that my hon. Friend is now making would have read well as a resignation speech; what I do not understand is how it came to be made in the House today.

Mr. Bottomley

If my hon. Friend—I shall refer to him as that rather than as the hon. Gentleman, which is how he referred to me—were to pay me the courtesy of listening with his ears rather than his mouth, he would discover that I have said that I am willing to concede that without wages councils some more people—[Interruption.] I said it with a smile—might have work, and other hon. Members will have heard me say that. That is consistent with the answer that my hon. Friend quoted from 1985.

My views have not changed, but I believe that my party's have. If it had indicated its intention to abolish wages councils, I would have expected to see some reference to it in the Green Paper on industrial relations and explicit reference in the election manifesto. Unless I have misread the manifesto or overlooked something in the Green Paper, I do not think that it was there.

I apologise for the way in which I responded to my hon. Friend, but he asked for it.

Mr. Nicholls

Would the hon. Gentleman like to talk about some of the other things that he has said over the years, because that was not an isolated example? Numerous examples appear in Hansard of the hon. Gentleman throwing his weight and authority behind the proposition that wages councils were bad for the lower paid. Unless my hon. Friend is going to try to say that this is an isolated example—I have done my homework, and it is not—he must say what is now different, apart from the fact that he and I are now sitting on the Back Benches rather than on the Treasury Bench. The truth is not that moveable.

Mr. Bottomley

The House would become rather bored if we continued this interchange too long. My hon. Friend said that he could give further examples of my comments on wages councils. I should be happy to consider all the points, but I doubt whether they will be inconsistent with what I am saying now or with what I was saying before he intervened.

I was talking about areas where there are normally good employment opportunities, yet where people can still be grossly exploited. There have been 14 prosecutions for illegal underpayment in the past year—twice as high as the year before—and there was some reason for them. More than £1 million was recovered for 12,000 workers, the majority of whom were part-time workers working fewer than 37 or 40 hours a week.

There was a reason why those employees were willing for wages inspectors to seek repayment of the wages of which they had been cheated and unlawfully denied. In many cases, workers do not make such requests because they fear losing their job, but if three times out of four employees are willing to have their wages chased up we cannot argue that they are frightened of losing their jobs. Such people want the protection of the law.

I suspect that the Department of Employment could have organised a survey of workers in wages councils industries. In fact, it would have been proper for the Department to have conducted a survey of employers in industries employing 100,000 workers or more. I think that many employers would have expressed some inhibition.have seen, for example, a letter from a member of the British Hospitality Association saying that he would prefer more freedom, which I can understand.

I can also understand people who argue that pay restraint in the public sector should be copied by more people in the private sector. If a wages council suggested a pay increase of 4 per cent. when many people were receiving increases of 1.5 per cent. or nothing, that would be destabilising.

If that is the problem that the Government think they are facing, and if it is the change between the Green Paper and the manifesto, they could say that wages councils cannot recommend increases in the next year or that council rates should be dropped by 10 per cent. or 15 per cent., if that becomes an important issue. My guess is that the Government are trying to crawl into an area of logical extremism. The Labour party, with its statutory minimum rate, sometimes defined as an hourly rate and sometimes as a weekly income, is at one extreme. That did not find a great deal of favour during the general election and was not supported by many of the trade unions for much of the time that I have been involved in industrial relations.

As a fellow of the Institute of Personnel Management, I sometimes see some of the representative comments made by bodies, with some of which I agree and some of which I disagree. My trade union, the TGWU, opposed the statutory minimum pay rate for some time, and the Trades Union Congress opposed it until the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees managed to generate enthusiasm for it.

I believe that there is a middle way between going for a statutory minimum rate for everyone and what some people, including, I expect, my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge, who succeeded me at the Department of Employment, would argue for: a total free market.

I have never quite understood why those who believe in a total free market bother to come into Parliament. They do not need Parliament to intervene. I think that there are good arguments for Parliament to intervene in some cases, and here I make a passing reference to clause 24, which means that people, no matter how short their employment, cannot be dismissed for taking up the health and safety at work issue. That is an issue which I and many other hon. Members on both sides of the House were raising a year ago in relation to offshore oil industries and work on the mainland of Britain as well. Those are the sorts of areas in which I think it is perfectly reasonable to interfere with the free market. It cannot be said that all things are the same in this respect.

I do not believe, further, that in the depths of a recession it is right to take away all existing protection for those who are often on low pay, when there are clearly pressures for their rates of pay to be reduced even further without necessarily a significant change in employment levels.

My hon. Friend the Member for Teignmouth, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, made reference to the change in the rates of pay for people under the age of 21. That was a change in the wages council system that I would support now, had it not already happened.

Reference was also made in some written material to the fact that the numbers employed had also changed after 1986. From 1986 to about 1989—probably the latest available figures—we were at the top of the boom; we were towards the end of eight years of consistent economic growth.

Those were the circumstances in which we were most likely to see an increase in both pay and employment opportunities, especially when a growing number of people under the age of 21 were going into further and higher education and so withdrawing from the labour market. So there are all kinds of consistent reasons why that does not necessarily support an argument that the abolition of wages councils in itself has a significant effect on either the rate of pay or the numbers under the age of 21 employed.

My argument is that, especially at this time, it would be wrong to withdraw all the existing minimum pay arrangements for 2.5 million people, even if only one in four are directly affected because they are at or around the minimum pay rate. It is not the right time to do it and it is not the right way to do it.

I hope that the Government will look upon this argument in a rational way and ask themselves what kind of Government they want to be. I was brought up with the idea that those with broader shoulders should carry the greatest weight when times are rough. I do not believe that everything that helps to make pay rates higher should be abolished.

I make the point not just to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State but to the Government generally that I have seen them agreeing pay rates for people under 21 when Government do not employ many people under the age of 21. They quite cheerfully agreed with trade unions that the rate of pay for 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds should continue to go up when the number of people in those categories employed in the various Departments is probably less than 100.

The effect of trade unions in negotiation with Government or private employers is that rates of pay are agreed which are way above the market clearing rate; they are the result of free negotiation, a balance of arguments, trying to deal with retention and with recruitment issues, not just in the depth of recession but throughout the economic cycle.

I hope that in Committee, or, if not then, at Report stage, whatever the other merits of this Bill, clause 28 will be examined not just by those who oppose it, but by those who think that they support it. I hope that they will look at their reasons and at the effects and ask themselves whether straight abolition of the minimum pay system for 2.5 million people, no matter whether they are mainly part-time or mainly female, just on the ground of free market consistency is right.

6.45 pm
Sir Harold Walker (Doncaster, Central)

The Secretary of State reminded us that it was almost exactly 13 years ago that the then Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Prior, introduced a Bill with the statement that Conservative party policy in industrial relations was a "step by step" approach. On that occasion I said to the House from the Dispatch Box that that statement was not an off-the-cuff piece of rhetoric but a declaration of war on the trade unions—the salami tactic of cutting union power down slice by slice. The Bill before the House today is yet another step in that continuous, unabated process, handed down from Minister to Minister like some sacred Chingford principle, in pursuit of Lord Tebbit's once declared aim of "neutering" the unions.

The Secretary of State suggested that the great improvement in industrial relations as measured by the fall in the incidence of days lost owing to industrial disputes was testimony to the effectiveness of the law that had been passed. I suggest to her that, as has been suggested by some of my hon. Friends, the reality is that the enormous growth in unemployment has been the chastening discipline. If she wants to bandy figures, she said that in 1979 a total of 13 million days' production were lost due to industrial disputes. I ask her to set against that the fact that this year there will be at least 100 million days' production lost due to unemployment.

Mr. Dobson

I think that my hon. Friend may be underestimating; it is, after all, 4 million a day.

Sir Harold Walker

My hon. Friend is right to correct my arithmetic and I am grateful to him.

We welcome some of the clauses in the Bill: the provisions applying to pregnant women at work, the written statement of terms and conditions of employment, the health and safety provisions and the transfer of undertakings provisions. I thought that the Secretary of State was less than generous, however, when she said that these were all measures being introduced for the first time. It was the Employment Protection Act 1975 which made the first provision for maternity pay and maternity leave and which first introduced the obligation on employers to provide a written statement of the terms and conditions of employment. The present Bill, in a very welcome way, extends those provisions to other groups.

I am astonished that nothing has been said about clause 26, relating to the application to the public sector of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, made under the acquired rights directive. I read that, following publication of the Bill and as a result of court action being pursued against the Government by the European Commission, legal experts believe that the compulsory competitive tendering system is on the edge of collapse. Apparently the European Commission has petitioned the European court to rule that the United Kingdom Government have been wrong to exclude the public sector from the Transfer of Undertakings Regulations. That is reflected in the Bill before us today. The Commission is also pursuing action, as I understand it, to determine that the directive applies prior to the introduction of the Bill in the House—that is, retrospectively.

Until those matters are resolved, the policy of compulsory competitive tendering seems to be in total disarray. Apparently, the Department of the Environment says that for the time being it is for each local authority to decide in each case whether its proposals amount to a transfer under TUPE, but how can they do that in the absence of firm, clear guidelines? In the event of their decision being proved later to have been a wrong judgment, who picks up the tab for compensation claims?

The Government will be aware that a recent decision of the European court found that where a member state had failed to implement a directive it was for that Government to recompense individuals who had lost out. I wonder just how many workers have lost their jobs or had their terms and conditions of employment significantly worsened because of compulsory competitive tendering. Presumably, if the Commission wins its case, there will be retrospection at least to the beginning of compulsory competitive tendering. As one legal expert put it in The Independent last Friday, the Commission appears to have driven a coach and horses through compulsory competitive tendering.

As has been said, clause 11 appears to give a qualified right for any individual to join any trade union of his choice. I wonder whether the Secretary of State thought that through. I thought that if there was one point in the industrial relations controversy on which there was some consensus, it was the structure of the trade union movement. I thought that there was general agreement in the House that it would be for the benefit of industrial relations if there were fewer unions—not fewer trade unionists because I am in favour of more trade unionists. Many of the union mergers in recent years have been welcomed, not least by employers.

The Government now seem to be going in the contrary direction because the proposals will inevitably encourage the formation of small, breakaway unions with a consequent proliferation of the inter-union conflict which so harmed industrial relations in the past. I thought that we had seen the last of that.

Furthermore, the proposals will lead to an unwelcome fragmentation of collective bargaining. The Government are not concerned about that because they do not believe in collective bargaining. It seems that the word "collective" has acquired unfavourable connotations, like the word "society". Things are good if they are done by one person. It is like the quotation from "Animal Farm": Four legs good, two legs bad. The Government seem to say, "individual good, collective bad." The Government are against collective bargaining, so they will not worry too much about the fragmentation.

It has been said that trade union membership is effective only in so far as it is accompanied by recognition for bargaining purposes by the employer. The question has been asked and deserves an answer: to what extent will employers be obliged to recognise the union of the employees' free choice? Throughout my experience in industry, people could join any union they wanted. The problem was always in getting recognition by the employer.

Clause 19 invites any Tom, Dick or Harry to take legal action if he feels that he is being affected by a dispute, no matter how remote his interests might be. Industrial disputes are difficult enough to resolve in most cases without third-party intervention or the deliberations of the courts. The proposal is an open invitation to the frivolous litigant and it is a potential disaster for those who have to manage industrial relations.

I will respect the obligation to keep to the time limit for those who are to follow. I join those who have made comments on the wages councils and I link those comments with my comments on collective bargaining. I note in passing the comment of the British Institute of Management, which said: In the middle of a recession the Government surely has higher priorities than abolition of Wages Councils and new union curbs. It is not only the wages councils which have been the subject of attack over the years. Since 1979, the Conservative party has sought to destroy anything that provided any protection for the weakest, most vulnerable and most poorly paid in our society. The fair wages resolutions were scrapped. Section 8 of the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act 1959 was scrapped. Schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act 1975 was swept away. The Road Haulage Wages Act 1938 was swept away. We sought to declare war on low pay, but the Conservatives are making war on the low paid. The Government have renounced International Labour Organisation convention No. 94 which required Governments and their contractors to behave like good employers.

I make it clear, if I have not done so in my earlier intervention, that I am not in the ranks of those who seek to preserve into perpetuity every wages council. I believe that the best way to improve the terms and conditions of employment is through collective bargaining conducted by strong trade unions with responsible employers and organisations.

The Government are hostile to collective bargaining, as they have made clear by deliberately filleting from the terms of reference of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service anything which applies to collective bargaining. When ACAS was established, having been proposed by Michael Foot, it was intended that it should be a conciliation and arbitration service—full stop. I persuaded him that it should have a wider role than the previous Commission for Industrial Relations had had. I suggested that it should look more widely at matters concerned with collective bargaining so that it could facilitate the development of good industrial relations through collective bargaining. Now the Government are sweeping all of that aside.

The Government may not stop at wages councils because there is yet another step to be taken—the abolition of the agricultural wages boards. The Secretary of State has kept silent about that. Will she give us an assurance that those boards and the millions who are protected by them will not be sacrificed as all the other protections have been?

There may be occasions when individual wages councils are an impediment to the growth of collective bargaining and to effective trade union roles. The existing statutory framework allows for that and makes provision for it. The provisions in the Bill are unnecessary. In circumstances in which the Government have deliberately impeded the development of alternative protection, the wholesale abolition of the councils can only be regarded as the action of people who are callously indifferent to the evil consequences of their actions.

Like much else in the Bill, clause 28 is yet another step in the sustained and deliberately cynical policy of attacking the hard-won rights of working people, weakening their trade unions and undermining collective bargaining. I look forward to the day when a Labour Government will sweep away the odious elements in a succession of anti-trade union laws introduced by the Conservative party and replace them with fair and equitable provisions which will not only encourage good industrial relations but will enhance the working lives of millions of our people.

6.55 pm
Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

The right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker), whose authority in these matters I readily recognise, may not agree that trade union reform has been the single most effective and least disputed achievement of the Conservative Government since 1979. There have been many other remarkable and radical changes in those years, each attracting its passionate advocates and equally vociferous opponents. Some of the developments have been tarnished by the passage of time, whereas others take on a different aspect in changing circumstances. All are open to question by thrusting revisionists, writers of political memoirs and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden). Hon. Members should read The Daily Telegraph today.

There is no question but that for the majority of people, not least members of trade unions, the reform of the unions has been seen as an unqualified success. Conservative candidates in the recent general election were able to campaign on the issue confident in the knowledge that in 1991 we saw the lowest number of days lost due to strikes since records began one hundred years earlier. The significance of that fact was not lost on the British people, and it was a major factor in their decision to re-elect the Conservative Government.

That fact was also a major factor in the decision of so many foreign companies to invest in our country. It is not simply a matter of getting a foot in the door of the European Community. There are 11 other countries in which such a door could be found. The significant fact is not only that we are members of the European Community, but that we have a good industrial climate in which new enterprises can prosper. I give many thanks to the Conservative Government for that and for the Bill.

Despite the massive advances in the past 13 years, reform of the unions remains unfinished business. Because of the extent to which the proposals will have an impact on industry generally, I must declare an interest as an adviser to the Federation of Master Builders.

I welcome the Bill, which I see as a further step in the right direction and I congratulate my colleagues in the Government on bringing it forward so soon after our return from the summer recess. The Bill introduces what I see as new safeguards. It contains safeguards for the community. Labour Members do not talk much about the general public except in passing references to Tom, Dick and Harry—a masculine view of the public. To me, the proposal to require notice of seven days before a strike is undertaken is of immense value. I welcomed the proposal the day it was announced, especially as Londoners have suffered more than most from such strikes, especially on their railways and other transport systems.

London is our capital city. It has a complex commercial and industrial society, so it needs protection. For some years I advocated that essential services should be required not to undertake strike action and that such an undertaking should be a condition of the contract of employment. If that is not to be, the Bill gives at least some protection against the hazard of strikes called without notice which can disrupt the lives of so many innocent parties. At least there will now be one week's notice.

I do not want to comment too much on an individual strike. However, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), the Opposition spokesman, is a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. London again faces a tube strike. We have forgotten what it is like to face such disruption to our everyday lives. Such a strike would be a very real prospect if it had not been for previous legislation. The fact that the Bill will strengthen the legislation is very welcome.

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that, as a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, I am following the London Transport saga with some interest. If the hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to 1972, when a Conservative Government first insisted on ballots being held before industrial action could take place, he will recollect that the railwaymen, including the then National Union of Railwaymen, were the first to be balloted on industrial action and that the result was that the vast majority of railway workers were hardened in their view that a strike was necessary.

If the hon. Gentleman is not careful, he will fall into the trap of overlooking the fact that, in the current dispute with London Transport, once a ballot has taken place, it will be extremely difficult to get people back to work—despite agreements reached by their leaders. The hon. Gentleman should not regard a ballot as a panacea or think that it will solve the current industrial problems in London.

Sir Michael Neubert

As a representative of parliamentary democracy, I have nothing against ballots: I welcome them because they reflect people's free democratic choice, even if it is a mistaken choice. That is important, in strikes as in anything else.

I welcome the creation of a commissioner for protection against unlawful industrial action—although the phrase does not exactly trip off the tongue. Something more succinct such as "ombudsman" might have been more helpful. I am interested to know how his office—I assume that the commissioner will be a man, although that may not be so—will be funded. How will the work be publicised, and how easy will it be for the individual citizen to take advantage of the commissioner's services? Under the control of pollution legislation, we have an "aggrieved citizen" procedure. It is there in law, but how many individuals are able and confident enough to use it? I shall be interested to know how the commissioner's office will work, what financial assistance will be given, and whether advice on proceeding to the court to seek the necessary injunction to stop the action will be included.

The Bill also contains safeguards for union members. I fully approve of a fully postal ballot, independently scrutinised, before every strike. That is a welcome advance. I naturally support protection against fraud and abuse in trade union elections. Presumably no Opposition Member will oppose that. I welcome the protection of individual union members against the mismanagment of their union's finances. That is another important consideration. I also welcome people's freedom to choose the union of their choice. Why should not trade unionists, like other members of the public, have choice extended in matters which are so important to them?

In April, the Conservative party enjoyed its fourth successive election victory. To find a precedent for a fourth successive general election victory, we have to go back as far as 1826. The general strike of 1926–100 years later —provides another landmark in politics, and a legacy on which attention is focusing again today. The year after the general strike—this, perhaps, explains some of the Opposition's sensitivity regarding what are apparently innocuous proposals—the Tory Government introduced contracting in, whereby workers had to make a positive decision to join a union and pay its dues. Union funds suffered a sharp decrease in consequence. I am sure that that anxiety lies behind many of the comments and much of the controversy that we have heard today.

After the war, the [...]mphant Labour Government returned to contracting [...]. The resultant boost to union membership and finances has directly and indirectly been a source of great strength to the Labour party ever since. Few workers had either the initiative or the inclination to drop out or deliberately to withdraw from union membership. It took character and courage to set oneself apart from one's fellow workers on the shop floor; most, very reasonably, thought that union dues were a small price to pay for a quiet life.

Let us acknowledge it: the Conservative party also found the issue too hot to handle, and confined itself to campaigns to persuade trade unionists to contract out through the established procedures. It had little success. More important, however, when it came to general elections, increasing numbers of unionists started to vote Tory and have stayed Tory. This growing support amongst unionists, nominally affiliated to the Labour party and included in the block votes brandished by trade union leaders at the Labour party conference, gave legitimacy and authority to Conservative proposals for reform. It was a vital element in the public acceptance of these proposals. Unions were seen as Militant-dominated and politically motivated, and the closed shop as a denial of liberty.

The proposal in the Bill that has caused a frisson to run through the Labour party and the trade union movement is that workers will be protected against the unauthorised deduction of subscriptions from their salaries or wages. I thought it significant that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras spent so much time on that apparently minor matter. Under a system called "check-off', which would not mean much to most people—it might be confused with a well-known Russian playwright—union dues can be deducted without a worker's knowledge or consent. In future, that will not be permissible unless the worker has authorised such deductions in writing within the previous three years—

Several hon. Members


Sir Michael Neubert

We have had enough interventions on that point and can forgo yet another.

In future, it will not be permissible to deduct dues unless the worker has authorised such deductions in writing within the previous three years and has not subsequently withdrawn the authority, which can be done at any time.

That is not, of course, a return to the full-blooded contracting in of 65 years ago, but for Labour's paymasters it is too close for comfort. They see that the new freedom could make significant inroads into union membership and funding. At a time when union membership—especially in manufacturing, and as a result of unemployment—has fallen well below its peak, that could be a further and, in some cases, fatal blow. The Labour party for its part—anxious, for political reasons, to present itself as independent of the unions, yet heavily dependent on them for its income, individual membership being next to negligible—is equally agitated. We have seen signs of that agitation on the Opposition Benches today.

Socialist spokesmen can therefore be expected to attack the proposal as a Tory plot to finish them off by cutting off their cash. It is true that in a parliamentary democracy which, to date, has rejected the idea of public funding of political parties, it is important that the current principal Opposition party should not be denied adequate resources when the current party of government is assured of very substantial contributions from business. Such considerations have no doubt played their part in the past in holding Conservative Governments back from returning to contracting in, and will no doubt do so in the future.

Yet, in isolation, the proposal is entirely justified. Conservatives believe in a role for unions but we believe equally strongly that a worker should have the freedom to join a union or not to join a union as he or she wishes. If it is to be a completely free choice, no automatic mechanism or administrative convenience is acceptable. Such arrangements are part of the past. There is now a different and healthier relationship between employers and unions, and between unions and their members. Each partnership can make common cause in its own interests, a benefit long enjoyed in the United States and west Germany and an essential feature of agreements reached by Japanese companies investing here. It follows that a union should be prepared to stand on its merits and provide positive incentives to recruitment, rather than rely on inertia.

There is the further fear for the Labour party that the political levy may also be subject to a switch to "contracting in". That does not look likely—at least, not this time around. The same arguments apply, however, and are equally valid.

The next few years are bound to witness changes in the political landscape if there is to be any feasible alternative to a Conservative Government—not that I am looking for such an alternative, the House will understand. The relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions will be among the most crucial of those changes —from which will perhaps emerge a more self-confident Labour movement which could cope with a freely contracted political levy. Until that time, the Bill—soon, I hope, to be on the statute book—is a welcome further step towards a more modern system of industrial relations.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I remind hon. Members that speeches are subject to a 10-minute time limit.

7.8 pm

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

As the Secretary of State will recognise, the Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties have supported many of the Conservative Government's trade union reforms. In some cases, we have pressed ahead—calling, for example, for the abolition of the closed shop in advance of the introduction of Government legislation. It is important to make that statement at the outset, because the Government have not made a case that justifies further substantial and detailed interference in the working of trade unions. There are other measures in the Bill for which no case has been made.

People who would normally be on the Government's side—for example, employers' organisations—have described the measure as "a Bill too far". The Economist, in a more graphic headline, referred to it as "kicking the corpse". It seems strange that the Government have an unbridled enthusiasm for interfering in the minute details of the workings of effectively private bodies, although operating very much in the public sphere, in a way which they would regard as unacceptable for almost any other organisation.

The hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) indicated what he thought were the concerns of the Labour Opposition. The Conservative party should bear in mind the dangers of provoking a backlash as and when there is a change of Government, which there will have to be if British democracy is to survive much longer. The arguments being put forward by Conservatives may be used, for example, to regulate the donations of companies to political parties and in other ways to regulate sources of revenue that the Conservative party previously depended upon.

As has already been said by several hon. Members, some of the better proposals in the Bill are there not because of the commitment of the Government but because of the requirement of the European Community. Indeed, the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State bore fine testimony to the strictures that were pointed out by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), in the recent debate on the Maastricht treaty, of a Minister who comes to the Dispatch Box and claims the credit for a number of measures which her Government have bitterly fought almost at every stage.

It is worth detailing that the provisions on maternity leave, contracts of employment, health and safety, equal treatment and the transfer of undertakings are all being introduced in order to fulfil European directives rather than the spontaneous desire of Her Majesty's Government to provide those benefits for citizens of the United Kingdom.

The measure at the heart of the Bill which has rightly attracted most attention and adverse comment is the proposition to abolish wages councils. It is well known that the Minister of State has made no secret at any time of his opposition to wages councils and has never bothered to speak in code about it, even though some of his colleagues did.

The case for abolition has not been made, and the timing is cynical in the extreme. To introduce such a measure at a time of record unemployment, the worst industrial downturn since the 1920s, when people in the unprotected sector are facing real cuts, and to suggest that those on the lowest wages should lose the benefit of the minimal protection afforded by wages councils is vindictive. I echo the comments of other hon. Members that it is nauseating to hear highly paid Ministers and even more highly paid corporate executives demanding that the lowest-paid people should carry the greatest burden of the recession. That is not defensible; it is neither a moral nor a justifiable stance.

There is no evidence that the abolition of wages councils will create jobs. That statement is made without substantiation: there is no firm evidence either way. The suggestion which equates the earnings of people in the wages council sector with pin money is offensive and unjustified. It ignores the changing circumstances brought about partly by social change and partly by the effects of the recession, which mean that, in almost every case, the money brought in by people in that sector, even if the majority are women, is essential to the welfare of the families who depend on it, whether or not the wage earners are the main breadwinners. Their partners may be facing or suffering the consequences of redundancy.

It is utterly offensive that, because women may not be seen as the breadwinners in given households, they should be paid less in spite of the merit of the jobs they are carrying out. Anyone who suggests that that is a high moral position to take in the last decade of the 20th century is trying to drive us back to an era that we all thought had gone for ever.

Obvious statements have been made about the abolition of wages councils leading inevitably to more people seeking more benefit from family credit and income support. It seems extraordinary that the Government should accept that. It is well known that, as Liberal Democrats, we do not share the Labour party's commitment to a national minimum wage, but we accept the need for a structure which provides people with minimum incomes and we accept that wages councils are essential in those sectors of the economy where people have no other protection.

The Government seem to be setting the careers service up not for simple privatisation but for unclear piecemeal privatisation. At present, we have a partnership whereby local education authorities are required to provide a careers service and the Secretary of State provides the inspectorate to ensure that it is done properly. The Bill proposes that the Government, through three Secretaries of State, will take total control of and responsibility for the careers service, with no inspectorate or accountability requirement.

In those circumstances, will the Minister tell the House how the quality of service will be assured, what mechanism will be used to ensure that every child has access to an impartial, professional careers service, and how we can be sure that it will not be suborned by the commercial needs of those running it to steer people into sectors where they require trainees rather than meeting the needs of the individual, whether a young person or a mature adult? Can the Minister explain how transferring the service from local authorities to the Secretary of State will increase local accountability? Does he no longer accept that local accountability is desirable or necessary?

If I may anticipate the suggestion that local boards of businessmen will be appointed by the relevant Secretary of State, that is not the accountability which people want. Such board members would not be elected, nor would they be required to explain their objectives.

Perhaps the most controversial provision is in clause 12, the check-off clause to which the hon. Member for Romford referred. Superficially it may be reasonable, but it seems to be moving into detailed regulation of trade union membership which goes far beyond simple contracting in and contracting out. If Conservative Members were as assiduous in calling for deregulation in that sector of the economy as they are in others, I do not believe that they would support the clause.

It is ironic that even employers are making the point that the clause will increase their administrative burden, yet apparently the Government are determined to impose additional regulations on employers against their express will. Time precludes me from quoting them, but many employers' organisations have expressed their opposition to the clause.

Clause 19 is a recipe for wanton litigation by people with no involvement in industrial disputes. It goes completely against the grain of trying not to clog up court time with unnecessary litigation.

The Bill is not necessary. It does not fulfil the aspirations of the people. It will do nothing for workers' rights, nothing for partnership and nothing for profit sharing, and we will vote against it.

7.18 pm
Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House as my involvement in and support for democratic trade unionism goes back many decades. I am a believer in democratic trade unionism. I started my career quite some time ago in the car and car component industry, at Fort Dunlop near the area which I now represent, in quality control on the shop floor. At one of the many meetings of the Select Committee on Employment that I have attended, Opposition Members found it difficult to understand that I had been among the steam, the smoke and the carbon black of the tyre industry. They also found it difficult to understand that a Conservative Member knew something about manufacturing industry hands on and about the real effect of trade unionism.

I am glad to say that my career progressed reasonably rapidly, and I found myself making quite significant decisions in the companies I worked for about introducing new products and having to cope with supply to the car industry.

The problems created at the time by the undemocratic practices of the trade unions were legion. People who remember Birmingham and Coventry in the early 1960s and 1970s will understand that, after 20 years in the industry, I became so frustrated that my colleagues and I could not manage. That frustration was my main reason for wanting to become a Member of Parliament. Decisions were taken capriciously by a small key core of trade union leaders and not by the lads with whom I had worked, who I knew so well and who were the real trade union members. They had no democracy. I believe in trade unionism and I believe that they should have, and now have, democracy.

It was therefore with great joy that I won my seat in 1979. Within 18 months, I was grateful to become Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Tebbit, who was himself a dedicated and experienced trade unionist. Following Lord Prior, we introduced various Bills in the 1980s, including the so-called Tebbit Bill and the secret ballot provisions. We provided trade union members with the democratic structure that they now enjoy. From Lord Prior, Lord Tebbit and others, we achieved that step by step.

I was a member of most of the committees in the early days when we made those changes. It was hard in a sense, because one understood the resentment felt by those who were affected by the changes. However, one was buoyed up by the strong support of those who wanted to see decisions on strikes in particular taken by the people who were intimately involved—the trade union members.

That is why, with that long experience, I welcome the Bill. I also welcome it as the joint chairman of the all-party motor industry group. The motor industry needs all the help it can get. It has increased productivity magnificently. It is now such an attractive prospect in terms of productivity and excellent and unrivalled industrial relations that we have inward investment from Japanese companies like Nissan, Honda and Toyota, which would not have happened without the Conservative legislation of the early 1980s.

That legislation led to the recognition that trade union workers must have democratic processes and be able to have secret ballots and it has led to our current superb record. Without that legislation, we would not have had that inward investment. It would have gone to France or Germany, and cars would have been imported instead of being built in this country.

It is not just a matter of the front line with the motor car itself. There is a knock-on effect into the car component and subsidiary industries. Many hundreds of thousands of jobs, particularly in the west midlands, depend on the car industry—for example, on the success of Peugeot. Peugeot is one of my constituency employers, because many of the people who work at the Ryton plant live in my constituency. Peugeot received a Queen's Award for industry in 1991 in the teeth not just of our United Kingdom recession, but of an international recession.

It is magnificent to know that many of the Peugeot 405s that we see driving around Paris and elsewhere in France are made in Coventry. That achievement was made possible only by the high productivity and good industrial relations of the company. There is a similar record at Rover and Land Rover. Land Rover's increased production of the Discovery is a landmark victory in the teeth of the recession. Again, that has been made possible only by good industrial relations created by Conservative legislation in the early 1980s.

Therefore, a further step is excellent. In response to those who believe that the CBI does not support the Bill, I will quote from the CBI brief: The CBI fully endorses the Government's continued commitment to the periodic review of the law governing industrial relations. The CBI welcomes the new Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill as a measure which contains some useful proposals in this area. The CBI has some detailed arguments to which I will refer briefly. I wholeheartedly welcome the main provisions of the Bill. I welcome members' ability to obtain information about a union's financial affairs. That is surely their right. All clubs, even local football clubs, have an annual general meeting at which the members are allowed to examine the accounts. Such examination may be time-consuming for the chairman and treasurer as the members go through the accounts in great detail. Surely trade unionists in a modern society should have the same right.

It seems eminently sensible to give individuals the choice to ensure that they are happy to be members of their union. There has been much discussion about what is or is not legal in respect of the check-off arrangements. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the existing law and what the proposals will mean in terms of extra protection for trade union members.

Proper notice of strike ballots and strike notice are absolutely vital in furthering the process of democracy and the involvement of trade union members—not trade union leaders. A manager of a company or a trade union president has responsibilities, in the case of the company manager to the shareholders and the employees, and in the case of the union president to the trade union members. The union president is there to represent the members, not as an ideological right to pursue political aims. The Bill adds to the step-by-step process towards democracy.

The proposals in respect of the citizen's right to restrain unlawful industrial action are excellent, and are part of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's citizens charter. All hon. Members are aware of frustrated people who come to their advice surgeries on Fridays and Saturdays complaining about the lack of an ombudsman or tribunal to help them. However, I have a word of caution, and perhaps the Minister will refer to this point when he replies to the debate.

We also see people at our advice surgeries who will never accept no for an answer. As good constituency Members, we pursue such matters to the best of our abilities. However, some people might be capricious in taking such action. I should be grateful if the Minister will reassure me that unlawful industrial action will be clearly defined, so that only those with a good, clear case against unlawful action will be able to approach the ombudsman.

I should like to make many more points, but I am conscious that my time is up. As my heart and life have been in the motor car and car components industries, I welcome the Bill. As they are the dominant industries in the midlands, my constituents will also welcome it.

7.27 pm
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North)

The Bill has finally surfaced 18 months after the Green Paper was published. It is significant that during that time, none of the consultations have been published. There has been no improvement in the knowledge of employment law on the Government Benches. As we have seen tonight, Conservative Members are not even familiar with contract law. There has been no improvement in the understanding of how trade unions work, their aims and objectives and what their members require of them. Not to worry, we should perhaps expect nothing other than that.

There are significant additions to the Bill which were not included in the Green Paper, one of which is the further centralisation to Secretaries of State in London of powers and duties previously held by local education authorities with respect to the careers service. What is the thinking behind that? Is it meant to provide additional funds to the training and enterprise councils to meet their present deficit in funding? Or is it even more insidious so that we will see the likes of Manpower and Brook Street Bureau providing career service advice on the basis of which client company pays the highest fees instead of on the basis of providing the necessary advice that young people require? Whatever the source of that career service advice, there seems to be a lack of objectivity. Perhaps our good friend the Minister will deal with that matter when he replies to the debate.

Much has been said about the abolition of the wages councils, which comes as no surprise to Opposition Members although it was not in the Green Paper or in either of the last two Conservative party manifestos—but there again nor is so much else. That addition to the Bill is simply an extension of the vitriol and dogma that we witnessed at this year's Conservative party conference, when generalisation and stereotyping about certain targets sought to divert people from the real state of the economy, of the nation and of the misery that people are suffering.

The abolition of the wages councils is also consistent with last week's autumn statement, in which about 5 million public sector workers were told that they will suffer a cut in pay in real terms during the next 12 months. If there is to be a cut in the public sector, there has to be equality with the private sector and the abolition of wages councils will ensure that everyone suffers in the same way.

The minimum wage argument is strange. When one considers that billions of pounds seem to be paid out by that mythical person, the taxpayer, in family credit, housing benefit, poll tax rebates and various other income-related benefits, I suggest that the state is operating a minimum wage in one form or another. Surely the responsibility for paying a decent living wage should be transferred to employers, in exactly the same way that the responsibility for statutory sick pay was transferred to them. It is okay for the taxpayer to pick up certain elements but not others.

The trade union-related elements of the Bill are dishonest. They are born out of malice and ignorance. They claim to be an extension of individual rights, but they will turn out to be a diminution. They seek to destroy totally the collective entity that is trade unions. The Government seem happy to see all employees as helpless individuals without the strength of collective bargaining and union recognition.

Is it not strange that as a society we deem it right and proper to have a taxation system, in which I include the national insurance fund, so that collective provision can be made for public services which would not be open to us as individuals? Even the Government do not challenge that. When it comes to rights in the workplace, that is to be denied. If we extended that principle to national defence, it would seem that we should make the army, the air force and the navy redundant and supply every household with a pea shooter.

Although it might be a frightening thought, let us assume that the Cabinet is the employer and that the Bill is law. Let us consider—[Interruption.] Did the Minister wish to intervene?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

No; I was talking to my hon. Friend the Whip.

Mr. Rooney

I just wanted to check as I thought the hon. Gentleman might be trying to learn something.

Consider the notorious and somewhat failed rebellion of anti-European persons on the Government Benches a couple of weeks ago. Let us imagine that the Bill applied to them and that they had to give the Government Whips seven days notice of their industrial action and of the names and addresses of the persons involved. They would have had to give three days notice of the exact motion that they would be framing. Can one imagine what would have been the tactics—the arm twisting and pleadings—of that wonderful employer known as the Cabinet, that so-called good employer? What would have happened if it were a bad employer? Really the idea does not stand credence.

Individuals should have the right to belong to a trade union, the right for that union to be recognised, to negotiate for them and to represent them. On several occasions, the Government have been asked why they do not legislate for cases when 100 per cent. of the work force has joined a trade union to make the employer recognise that that union has bargaining rights. They have ducked the issue on every occasion and have said that such bargaining is separate and concerns individual rights. That is nonsense.

I know of one example. Surprisingly, we have some good employers in Bradford, who encourage trade union membership. What is perhaps even more surprising is that they recognise unions, and negotiate with them daily. However, we have our share of bad employers. One company has about 38 employees on an average wage of £68 for a 44—hour week. Every employee joined a trade union and sought its recognition. The employers persistently refused to recognise the union. After two years, several industrial tribunal actions had been won by trade union representatives on behalf of people dismissed by the employer for engaging in union activities, and the employer finally recognised the union. The employees now enjoy wages of £160 a week.

The dishonesty of the Bill is perhaps best reflected in a document published by the Department of Trade and Industry. Probably no one in this Chamber has seen the document because it is available only at our foreign embassies and at overseas trade fairs. The document says, "Invest in Britain", and that Britain has the best anti-union laws in Europe, the lowest wage rates of the 10 industrialised countries and there are no restrictions on taking capital out of the country—

Mr. Ian Bruce

No, that is not correct.

Mr. Rooney

You might not like it, but get a copy of the document, pal. I will see you afterwards.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There are no pals here, only hon. Members.

Mr. Rooney

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The one good piece of news in that document is that we have the cheapest mined coal in Europe and the greatest energy resources, although the news does not seem to have reached the President of the Board of Trade—

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Rooney


The truth of the Bill, seen in conjunction with the past 13 years of trade union legislation, is the Government's determination for Britain to be a low skill, low wage, low esteem and no representation economy—a sweat-shop economy, which is simply the assembly unit for the Japans, Germanies and Americas of the world.

That situation was reflected throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s in the textile industry, which sought to survive in west Yorkshire on the back of low wages. We all know what happened to the bulk of that industry. The textile firms which survived invested in machinery, equipment and training and in paying people decent wages. The surviving companies are a testament to what the strength of management and unions can do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's 10 minutes are up.

7.37 pm
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

I am grateful to be called so early in the debate. I shall follow the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) with the brief remark that it seems strange that he should quote a document incorrectly and that he does not have a copy of it with him. He was probably trying to say that Britain has the lowest unit labour costs and not the lowest wages within the European Community, because everything else he said was patently rubbish.

I wonder why the Labour party did not rush to its feet to welcome so many elements of the Bill. So often, what is described by Opposition parties as an attack on trade unions is benefiting the rights of trade unionists to ensure that they are properly looked after at every stage of their membership, which is what is contained in the Bill. For the trade union movement to say that there is no requirement in law for someone to have to sign to authorise deductions from their wages, and to spend so much time objecting to the fact that that is contained in the Bill, seems inconsistent. It demonstrates the anomaly by which, apparently, by giving somebody a contract—

Mr. Miller


Mr. Bruce

With only 10 minutes in which to speak, I cannot give way.

We must sort out the law and make sure that, in future, people are clear precisely what happens in such circumstances. It may come as a surprise to Opposition Members to learn that, in briefing me personally, the TUC told me clearly that it wants to ensure that its members regularly receive from the unions to which they belong a statement every time the deduction is increased. That is not attacking trade unions but ensuring that they keep good contact with their membership.

There are many examples of people who have paid money to trade unions, and the link between the members of the union has been the purchase of union cards to enable them to join different organisations. Such examples have often been catalogued in the House. In other words, we are engaged in a sensible operation to tidy up the law to ensure that trade union members who are paying for a service can keep control of their unions.

There must, of course, be a right of choice if people wish to join other trade unions. That right exists today, assuming that another union will accept their membership. The TUC rules prevent unions from taking on members in areas where they do not normally have negotiating rights. Only by a trade union member knowing precisely what is going on can he be certain that the union to which he has become affiliated is doing a good job for him. Otherwise, he has no choice, especially if he cannot change unions.

I have been anxious to take part in the debate to correct some misconceptions about wages councils. Any statistical analysis of the evidence shows that wages councils have never worked. Indeed, the experience of many groups of workers who have been removed from the so-called protection of wages councils is that their wages have risen faster.

If Opposition Members are wondering why a Conservative Member should be urging the abolition of wages councils, I assure them that there are circumstances in which it is sensible for people to decide, in free collective bargaining, to work for lower wages. No hon. Member has ever objected to the fact that, in law, if one works for oneself, one can pay oneself 2p an hour. It is the right of anybody who sets up a business to take less pay to make a go of it. I lost £9,000 in the first year of setting up in business, and as a self-employed person I worked between 60 and 80 hours a week.

Why should it be permissible to work for less for oneself, whereas a business man who is in trouble, or who is trying to start up with few resources, cannot negotiate with his workers and say, "I cannot pay what I believe to be a sensible living wage, but I can afford to make a start, or to keep the business going, if you are prepared to take lower wages"? By that means it might be possible to create or retain jobs that would not otherwise exist.

The sort of wages that I was able to offer when I started my business attracted only women, and the only people with ability who applied were women. Yet within two years of setting up, the wages of all my staff doubled, and both men and women applied to work for the company. That happened simply because we showed that we could create business and employment, and only by such means can wages be paid.

Labour Members seem to think that, by some magical process, every employer can afford a certain minimum wage. That is not the case. Nor is it the case that employers are grinding their employees into the dust. The vast majority of employers would never attempt to do that, because a ground—down worker is not productive. Almost every employer I know would like to pay more, but must increase productivity to enable higher wages to be paid.

That is why we must take a realistic view of spending £3 million on wages councils. We must act to free up a section of the labour market. I guarantee that, when the Bill becomes law, the statistics will show that no harm will have been done to the average worker, that we shall have created jobs in the way we did in the 1980s, and that yet more bureaucracy will have been swept away. The measure represents an excellent move forward, and I am surprised that Opposition Members have not appreciated its excellence.

7.45 pm
Ms. Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

I wish at the outset to declare an interest. I am in the process of becoming sponsored by the Confederation of Health Service Employees, a trade union for which it was my privilege to work for seven years before coming to this House. The modest sums involved in such sponsorship never go into the pocket of the hon. Member concerned.

The Bill is the sixth piece of legislation since 1979 designed to regulate industrial relations. Indeed, we have been in a state of almost permanent legislative revolution of which Chairman Mao would have been proud. While the Government have used the rhetoric of freedom and fairness as justification for their actions, their real agenda has been the systematic destruction of rights at work, coupled with the deliberate weakening of trade unions' ability to resist. Their aim has been to deregulate the labour market and to bring back exploitative cheap labour to these shores. In that aim, they have certainly succeeded.

The Government will tolerate the existence of trade unions so long as they are impotent. They will allow a theoretical right to strike while ensuring that that right is so couched in a plethora of complicated rules and regulations as to render it practically impossible. If the unthinkable should happen and a strike should occur, the Government have sanctioned victimisation by selective dismissal to dispose of the miscreants. They have replaced bargaining in the work place with fear.

There are, in the Government's bizarre view of the world, no bad employers—only evil trade unions which manipulate their members by forcing them to go on strike against their will. Myths about the behaviour of trade unions which live on in Tory demonology have little or no bearing on reality, yet they have provided the Government with scant justification to dash headlong into legislative assault and battery, of which the Bill is another example.

The myth persists on the Government Benches, for example, that trade union leaders force their members, like some sort of conscript army, to go on strike. After seven years of working for COHSE, I assure the House that the truth is exactly the opposite. The Government concluded that, by forcing trade union members to ballot, they would almost destroy industrial action. Even so, 92 per cent. of ballots have resulted in a yes vote.

Even when the shameless Conservatives were unable to justify their next turn of the screw, we found the former Secretary of State for Employment declaring in a press release after his Green Paper had received the thumbs down: Governments must be prepared not only to listen but to lead. Sometimes it is the duty of Government to take action which is in advance of opinion. When we strip away the hypocrisy and doublespeak with which the Conservatives always deploy their argument in such debates, it becomes obvious that their legislative attacks are handsomely rewarded when the money from their paymasters in the City and business floods into Tory party coffers.

That is unregulated compared with the stringent laws governing trade union donations for political purposes. The Government have tightened up on those. Perhaps we would obtain more information about their sordid backroom deals if the Tories published their accounts in a regular and accessible way, as trade unions have done for years, even long before they were obliged to do so.

I invite the House to contrast the Conservative party's over-zealous legal regulation of trade unions with its attitude to fraud in the City, which is clearly a persistent and serious problem. The Cadbury committee, which recently investigated the matter, concluded that the guiding principles should be, first, that self-regulation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Bill deals fairly specifically with trade unions. I am not sure where the Cadbury committee comes into that. Will the hon. Lady return to the Bill?

Ms. Eagle

I am exploring the difference between the Conservative party's treatment of the voluntary regulation of City fraud and the over-regulation of trade unions. Is that in order? I should like your advice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

What the hon. Lady said at one point was out of order; that is why I gently suggested that she returned to the Bill. I hope that we can now move on.

Ms. Eagle

I hope that I have made my point about the Government's different treatment of different parts of our society.

The extent of the Government's bias against trade unions and the hollow nature of their rhetoric about freedom is summed up by the fact that virtually the only right that the Government have given working people in the past 13 years is the right to take action against their trade unions. Trade unions exist to protect people, despite what Conservative myths suggest.

People want the right to be treated fairly at work. They want the right to employment protection and decent wages and conditions. Yet the Government have systematically stripped working people of all those rights, bleating that such basic minimum standards are a burden on business. We even learned at the weekend that the Government apparently believe that the laws contained in the draft EC directive on the minimum age of work which aim to prevent the exploitation of children are also a burden on business. Next the Government will tell us that preventing children from sweeping chimneys for a pittance is an unacceptable restriction on the employer's right to manage.

The Conservative party claims that removing minimum standards and "freeing the labour market" creates employment. That is why wages councils are to be abolished. Indeed, the neo-classical theory of economics worshipped by the Conservative party predicts that result. However, no practical experience bears it out.

When 16 to 20-year-olds were removed from the protection of wages councils, their pay fell, but the rate of unemployment in that age group rose, and it is now one in five. If the Government proceed to abolish the wages councils for the 2.7 million people who are currently covered by them—80 per cent. of whom are women and the most vulnerable section of the labour force—they will achieve the same magnificent result.

The argument that deregulating the labour market creates employment is not proven. The opposite appears to be true. Where deregulation has occurred in our labour market, there is higher unemployment. Indeed, we still have mass and rising unemployment, despite the much vaunted success of the Government's employment legislation.

Conservative Members talk a great deal of cant about the benefits of the Government's employment legislation. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is currently the chairman of the Conservative party, had the gall to claim in a debate on the 1990 Bill that the Government's employment legislation was the great success of their period in office. I congratulate the Conservative party on finding any success in the smoking ruin that is now Britain after 13 years of their mismanagement. However, like most of its propaganda, that assertion is not true.

Not only has the recession inhibited strike activity, but the declining level of strikes which the Government cite as proof positive of their success has been observed in almost all western countries in the same period. Those countries have achieved better results than Britain without compromising human rights, reneging on international agreements or condoning fear and victimisation in the workplace.

Another equally absurd claim was made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) when he was Secretary of State for Employment. In the debate on the 1990 legislation, he said that the legislation would strengthen our economy. The accuracy and sagacity of that comment fair take the breath away.

It is about time that the Government got on with providing employment and decent standards of work for British people, and stopped pursuing their political vendettas and neo-classical economic obsessions. The sooner they do so the better.

7.54 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I begin by declaring my interest as a consultant to MinOtels Great Britain Ltd.

One could say a great deal about the Bill if time allowed. We know that the Labour party is against the Bill. It has also opposed every employment Bill that we have ever introduced. It is always in favour of the Bill before last. Labour Members may not mean it when they say that, but when an election approaches they always say it. We can be fairly sure that in the fullness of time they will be against the next employment Bill and will claim that they were always in favour of this one.

Several hon. Members have concentrated on the wages councils. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) put it well when he said that we should concentrate on the wages councils tonight. I accept that there is a case to be answered. At first sight, and when examined superficially, there is a beguiling case to be made for retaining the wages councils. It sounds like a good idea to have a council to protect the poorest members of society. Then we hear that the wages councils go back to 1909. So it is bound to appeal to the innate and reactionary conservatism on the Labour Benches.

We also hear that the wages councils were introduced by Winston Churchill. That is always a good thing to say to both Opposition and Conservative Members. So at first sight the wages councils seem a good idea. The idea seems to be self evidently right and to benefit the poor. However, the idea that the wages councils help the poorest workers in our society one jot is a manifest absurdity which masquerades as a self-evident truth.

Let us consider for one moment what the wages councils are supposed to do. They work on the assumption that a Whitehall bureaucrat or somone appointed for one day a month or one day every two or three months can say to an employer, "I do not want to hear about what you can pay, the demands of your industry, your problems of recruitment or pay differentials. I have decided that the right increase for you is X per cent." When one thinks about that, one realises what a thoroughly daft idea it is.

The only proper measure of a proper wage is what an employer feels it is worth his while to pay and whether someone is prepared to work for that sum of money. If the two are out of kilter, the bargain is not struck. If the employer believes that the service that he wants performed is worth a certain sum and someone finds it attractive to perform that service at that price, a sensible wage is fixed.

Earlier in the debate a sedentary intervention was made which was probably lost because it was not responded to. It was a fair point. Someone asked whether we would work for £2.50 an hour. Many of us have worked for less than that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] The reason why that comment incites noises on the Opposition Benches is that Opposition Members have no experience. If one comes to the House via the polytechnic route, one does not experience anything like the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) or I had starting a business or what it is like to work as an articled clerk for 50 hours a week for £6. Opposition Members have no idea about that.

Opposition Members are apparently so concerned on my behalf—I am touched—because they assume that if people are on a low wage they are there for life, locked into that wage for ever and that they will be ground down as the years go by. That is nonsense. For many people, low wages are a phase in their working life: it does not last.

Coupled with the idea that once people are on a low wage they are locked on to the misery train to the end of their days is the idea that somehow people support their families on that low wage. That is piffle. The evidence shows that 80 per cent. of people who work in occupations covered by the wages councils have either two or more earners in their home. So the idea that those who are covered by the wages councils are locked into a low pay system for life and have to support their spouse and family on it is nonsense. It simply does not work that way.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, spoke about the evidence that supports those propositions. In this short speech I do not have time to go through all the research. As I gently said to my hon. Friend earlier, a number of authorities show what the evidence is. A study by Kaufman in 1989 and a study by Beenstock and Warburton in 1984 both said that the effect of having fixed, statutory, low minimum wages is that, ultimately, people lose their jobs. Inevitably, those were academic studies but the experience that followed deregulation in 1986 for those under the age of 21 is yet more evidence. We were told that young people's wages would go down, whereas in reality the effect was that their wages went up.

The evidence does not stop there. Even if Opposition Members are neither interested in the academic evidence that supports the proposition nor concerned about looking at the experience of 1986, Labour Members have made the point time and again that minimum wages are not in the best interests of the poor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning) has already quoted the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) saying: I knew the consequences were that there would be some shake-out, any silly fool knew that". Some people align themselves with the man on the Clapham omnibus. The hon. Gentleman aligns himself with any silly fool, but he has a point—even a silly fool would know that.

Someone who knows what he is talking about without being bullied into it is the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who has previously worked with the Low Pay Unit and is an acknowledged expert in the subject that we are discussing. He said that the employment consequences of a minimum wage would be little short of disastrous". It does not matter where one looks—at the evidence, what has happened since 1986, or what Labour Members who take the trouble to think about it say—one cannot conclude that minimum wages are in the best interests of the poor.

The system is riddled with anomalies. It is absolutely potty that the wages councils will, for instance, cover those who work with cooked meat but not raw meat, those who sell a radio but not a tape recorder, and laundries but not launderettes. All those anomalies are implicit in a system that substitutes the judgment of bureaucrats for those of the people who work in the marketplace. There is only one of two ways to deal with those inconsistencies: either we regulate everything—a Stalinist mentality is still alive and kicking among Opposition Members from time to time —or we say that it is a complete nonsense and we cannot proceed in that way. All that we can do when faced with that problem is to say that those anomalies cannot be straightened out but are implicit in the system.

There is stacks of independent commentary. For instance, editorials in newspapers like The Times have made the point time and again, often quoting left-wing speakers, that minimum wages simply do not help.

I should have thought that we would want to do something positive for the low paid. We should be prepared to look at something that is beguilingly attractive but ask whether, ultimately, it sets out to help those who need help. We have heard nothing about that from Labour Members tonight. If we wonder why, given the fact that there is good authority from Labour Members about the destructive effect of minimum wages, we should look at how the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) feels about the employers that we are discussing. We all know that there are bad employers but, in the experience of most of us, those are a tiny few. But not according to the hon. Gentleman. What frames his policy on behalf of the Labour party? He set it out well in Blackpool in September and was quoted in The Independent by Barrie Clement, labour correspondent, who, whatever else he is, is certainly no Tory hack. He made careful note of what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras really thought about the employers who provide work opportunities in this country. He said that the hon. Gentleman described them as "rich buggers"—I, too, am offended by the language, but I am quoting— who paid poverty wages to their employees". Just in case somebody could not understand his subtlety, he apparently said with a great flourish of his beard that rich business people who pay their workers low wages were thieving scum". That is the attitude of Labour Front-Bench Members and what pervades those who frame their policies. With that degree of malignant mediocrity which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras brings to the debate, is it surprising that the Opposition are not prepared to consider the evidence?

8.4 pm

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

It is not surprising that Conservative Members' views on the trade union movement are based not on an intellectual argument but on the bias inherent in the Tory party since trade unions came into being.

As a trade union member of some 54 years, formerly a member of the National Union of Seamen at the age of 16 and a member of the Transport and General Workers Union since 1946, I have sufficient experience in the trade union movement to challenge many of the points that Conservative Members have made. I did not join a trade union for high political ideals but because, at the age of 15 when I went to sea, I was working under conditions that were deplorable in every sense of the word. Those conditions and my wages—28 shillings a month—made me aware that the person for whom I was working was not dealing with me fairly, so I became a member of the National Union of Seamen.

My experience over those years, excluding the war years, is that the trade union movement has been responsible for protecting workers from exploitation which Tory Members have not even mentioned, tonight or at any other time. The Bill confirms my view that the Conservative party's war of attrition against the trade union movement is on-going, and will continue while they remain in power. I do not believe for one moment that that arises out of pure ideological hatred, because there are other factors, such as those that can be seen in the demise of the construction industry.

In many areas, the construction industry has been deregulated. It is a diminishing industry due to the Government's economic policies. The unions deal not only with pay and conditions but with the health and safety of their members. The consequence of the Government's legislation is that cowboy outfits have come into the construction industry, and trade unionism is a thing of the past. Employers disregard health and safety measures in many places, resulting in record deaths in the industry.

In the docks industry, despite the promises by the Secretary of State that the post-abolition period would not mean an attack on trade union membership, we have seen a return to casual labour and everything that was prevalent in the bad old days. The consequence of the Tories' anti-trade union laws has been employers' derecognition of trade unions in virtually every port in the United Kingdom.

No one in the House believes that the Government have any other motive than to see the trade union movement made ineffective so that it will be difficult if not impossible for it to represent its members, as it has a responsibility to do. During the Government's term of office, we have seen the damaging effects that their legislation has had on the trade union movement. Government measures mean that a generation of young people have never enjoyed the advantages of belonging to a trade union, as they have been discouraged from doing so at their places of work, particularly in small businesses.

One reason that the Conservative party supports small businesses is that many of those businesses do not recognise trade unions. That is not to say that we do not support small businesses that act in the best interests of their workers, but many such firms take advantage of young people, paying them low wages and providing poor conditions.

I do not believe that the Conservative party is sincere in its attempts to improve the lot of the trade union movement. The Conservative party talks about the necessity of checking and re-checking whether the contributions of a union member have been authorised by him or her. I was originally opposed to the check-off arrangements. I have held every office at branch level of my trade union, and have been a district and national delegate of the docks and waterways section of the Transport and General Workers Union. The check-off system in my branch and many others resulted in a lowering of the attendance at the branches as contributions were deducted from members' wages. The convenience offered by the system has merits in the longer term.

However, it is wrong for Conservative Members and the Secretary of State to suggest that there is a need for employees constantly to refer to employers about the deduction of trade union contributions. Employees have a right to withhold union membership if they so wish. The employer is required to obtain the consent of the trade union member in order to deduct the payments from his or her wages. Therefore, there is no need for the clause in the Bill. That being so, the clause becomes an act of pettiness or a further sign of how the Government want to confuse the issue and escalate their persistent efforts to undermine the genuine work of the trade union movement on behalf of its members.

The trade union movement has rights that were established many years ago, when working conditions were such that even those who opposed the organisation of labour agreed that collective action by workers was necessary in order to remove many of the excesses that employers imposed on their work forces. The position has not radically changed. Since the Government have been in power, there has been a movement away from the recognition of trade unions and a deterioration in work conditions.

The Labour party believes that the trade union movement should have the rights that the Conservative party openly gives to employers. We believe that trade union rights should not be subject to constant Government interference. We believe that the trade union movement is entitled to continue to operate within the framework of the law, and should be in a position to represent its members.

During the past 13 years, the trade union movement has frequently been rendered ineffective when trying to represent its membership. It is almost impossible for a trade union to announce a dispute without falling into one or other of the traps set by the laws introduced by the Conservative Government. We believe that those laws have impeded the trade union movement. The Labour party must ensure that those laws are removed when a Labour Government come to power, as will certainly happen.

8.14 pm
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

I have sat on the Standing Committees considering most of the trade union reform Bills, and I hope that I shall be lucky enough to serve on the Standing Committee on this Bill. There will be endless opportunities for detailed discussions of many of the Bill's clauses in Committee, and I shall concentrate now on the strategic role played by the Bill in the development of industrial relations in Britain.

Having listened to the speeches made so far, I have a wonderful sense of deja vu. Labour Members trot out all the same phrases and make all the same speeches as in years past. They say that it is a "Bill too far", that it is "anti-union". The only thing missing from the Labour's speeches is a commitment from their Front-Bench team to repeal the Bill as soon as Labour comes into power. I suspect that that is because the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is a far cannier politician than many of his predecessors and has the benefit of experience. He knows that, in a relatively short time, what the Government are now proposing will be the orthodoxy, and will be adopted by the Labour party.

I declare an interest in that I am a lawyer and, since the early 1970s when industrial relations law began to develop, I have been very much involved with it. I have represented unions as well as employers, and individuals as well as companies. One of the most interesting features of this subject is the way that realities have changed, but the noises made by the Labour party have not—although the voices of many of the more intelligent trade union leaders have significantly changed.

When unions were formed, and for a large part of this century, the working man had no real protection other than collective action. If a worker was to be dismissed, the only protection to be gained was from collective action by his or her trade union. In the early 1970s, the bulk of industrial actions, particularly the devastating wildcat strikes, related to dismissals.

In today's debate, the focus has switched from strikes over dismissals to pay and conditions. That is because strikes over dismissals are now so rare due to the alternative body of law that developed in the 1960s and 1970s, giving individuals a platform of rights that they can exercise in accordance with their own judgment. They are no longer dependent in the same way as they were on the collective support of a trade union.

The first changes related to rights against employers, with legislation on matters such as redundancy payments, unfair dismissal, health and safety and women's rights. The Opposition were happy with those changes because their long-term impact was, to a degree, obscured. They came at a time when industrial relations—as developed through much of the century—had reached their nadir.

In the 1970s, the system had become a parody of what good industrial relations should be. It was frequently based on mindless confrontation and poor emloyment practices by employers and trade unions alike. Some trade union leaders had political ambitions that overreached their duties as trade union leaders, and they were unable to distinguish between the two.

A corporatist approach was adopted to industrial relations and the economy generally. The great and the good of industry and the trade unions sat down to beer and sandwiches at No. 10 to discuss the issues of the day. However, the great and the good did not represent the overwhelming majority of people in this country. The unions did not represent what was going on in the minds of many of their members. The Confederation of British Industry certainly did not represent small and medium-sized businesses. The consequence was that we lost out dramatically in the growth of the small and medium-sized businesses which have been the mainstay of many of our industrial competitors around the world.

While Opposition Members were happy to accept changes in employers' rights, they were less happy when faced with the other side of the coin: the rights of the members of trade unions vis-a-vis their unions. To be fair, many of the changes that we brought in were just imposing on the whole trade union movement the best practices adopted by some of the unions—certainly in relation to ballots.

Many unions had always had effective balloting systems. Unfortunately, as we saw with the National Union of Mineworkers at the time of its national strike, those balloting procedures did not work well when a president was determined to ride roughshod over his constitution. Hence the rule of law was reimposed, with powers of sequestration for the courts, and balloting procedures were developed. Certain key issues were sent to ballot. There was an end to intimidation, which had become commonplace and which had caused so much distress to many people through the 1970s and the early 1980s

The Labour party always argued against these changes, but once they were in place they came to accept them as the orthodoxy, because most people in this country, including a majority of those in trade unions, saw the reforms as thoroughly desirable.

The role of the trade unions is inevitably changing. If they cannot dictate to their members what they should do, and if they cannot compel people on the shop floor to join, they have to sell the services which they have to offer. Many of the better unions and the cleverer trade union leaders see that there is an important role for trade unions in this changing world. The sort of industrial relations agreements reached by the best manufacturers in the world—as evidenced in Japanese investment in the United Kingdom and much else besides—demands a highly collaborative industrial negotiating machinery, which is based not on confrontation but on a will to collaborate.

Successful unions are good at this. They must look at new areas, such as the protection of pension rights. They must offer skilled advice and representation of individuals to enforce their rights. A whole range of ancillary benefits flow from this too. These services are necessary, and, contrary to what we have heard this evening, I do not believe that the changes will necessarily lead to the fragmentation of the unions. To be successful in these areas requires a critical mass of resources and skills within a union effectively to represent its members' points of view.

Against this background, the Bill is mainstream. It continues a series of developments that have featured in industrial relations changes since the mid-1960s. It brings in a range of changes in respect of employers and individuals and in respect of members and their unions.

Perhaps the Bridlington agreement focuses most clearly on this point. Until now, people have looked at the Bridlington rules as a sacred cow. The truth is that, when they were brought in, one of the major problems in industry was the demarcation dispute. The Bridlington principles were a successful solution to such disputes. Now the situation has changed, and working practices are much more flexible. The problem for which the agreement was devised has passed away, and the rules are now being used to stifle the will of members. There have been many recent examples of members of unions being dissatisfied with their leadership and wanting to join another union instead.

Hon. Members will recall that members of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers wanted to join the GMB because they were fed up with USDAW's stand against Sunday trading. Airline cabin staff wanted to leave the Transport and General Workers Union because they were fed up with the militancy of its leaders. They wanted to join the British Air Line Pilots Association, but were prevented from doing so. There are many other similar examples.

No union should believe that its members belong to it as of right or that anyone who makes a pitch for those members is a poacher and should be deterred by the collective weight of the TUC. Carrying through that logic, the sort of dispute that occurred between the TUC and the electricians would be just the first of many. Competition between unions for membership in modern circumstances is just as healthy as competition between companies. Unions that are in favour of Sunday trading will attract shop workers who want to work on Sunday. That competition will make union leaders reflect their members' interests better, and will provide the mechanism for evolution and change.

I look forward to detailed debates in Committee. This Bill stands bang in the middle of the mainstream of industrial relations development. Some of the best companies in the world believe that Britain is the best place in Europe in which to manufacture. We must ensure that we have in place the best industrial relations practices for those companies, and this Bill takes that process forward.

8.24 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

I welcome the rights for employees enshrined in this legislation, and the protection afforded to citizens against unlawful industrial action, with the appointment under clause 19 of a new commissioner. I also welcome clause 20 and schedule 2, which add to current provision for pregnant women by giving a new right to all employees, irrespective of length of service, to 14 weeks maternity leave.

Many families throughout the United Kingdom rely on a mother's earnings to provide their basic standard of living. In more and more families mothers are the sole earner and the head of the household. For as long as that is so, every effort must be made to ensure that mothers-to-be enjoy the full protection of their rights as mothers and workers. Naturally I support clause 21, which provides for all female employees, irrespective of their length of service, a right not to be dismissed on the grounds of pregnancy or childbirth.

I also welcome clause 23 and schedule 4 which will give every employee who works eight or more hours a week the right, within two months of starting work, to a written statement of his main terms and conditions, including details of entitlement to pay, hours and holidays.

I am not persuaded by Conservative Members that the existence of wages councils has been holding back higher earnings for those protected by them, so I oppose clause 28 and the abolition of the wages councils. That is a step backwards for the rights of the workers who are covered. Wages councils provide a security net for low-paid workers, and by their removal the way will be opened to a minority of unscrupulous employers who have no respect for the rights of employees and who seek to exploit those already on low wages. Many who will fall victim to this lack of protection will have their spending power further reduced, and there will be an adverse effect on the wider economy.

The Government's statements of commitment to economic recovery will have a hollow ring, given this development. The Government cannot hope for an upturn in the economy while at the same time wrecking the means to that upturn for many families. The saving to the public purse from abolishing the wages councils and making their employees redundant will be greatly outweighed by the losses to the economy resulting from what will amount to a wage cut for many workers who will be deprived of their right to a fair wage.

In Northern Ireland, between 1971 and 1989, male employment fell by 9 per cent.; in the same period, female employment rose by 34 per cent. Of this rise in female employment, more than 97 per cent. was in part-lime work. Part-time employees are traditionally less qualified and lower paid than their full-time colleagues; yet many families rely on the wages of a part-time lady to provide the basic necessities for a reasonably dignified existence.

The economic and social consequences of exposing so many families to further reductions in income are frightening to contemplate. Unlike the Government, I do not see the destruction of workers' rights as a means of achieving their end. We cannot keep people in work and out of social security benefits by destroying workers' rights. The abolition of the wages councils can only lead to an increased reliance on benefits in the longer term, as more and more families find themselves caught in the poverty trap.

It is time that the Government directed their attention away from conference rhetoric to please constituency associations and towards long-term measures to ensure that the United Kingdom has a well trained, adequately paid and willing work force. With unemployment queues nearing 3 million and the United Kingdom struggling to regain its economic strength, the last thing that we need is a demoralised and unwilling work force.

In Northern Ireland, the 1991–92 minimum basic hourly wage set by the wages councils varies from £2.60 to £3.60 per hour and 34,000 workers currently enjoy the protection of the wages councils. Considering that many of those are involved in physically demanding work, £2.60 per hour is not much to ask of any employer.

What can the Government seriously hope to achieve by removing the protection of the wages councils? If the Government hope that it will stimulate the economy by giving greater freedom to the employer in the labour market, they should think again. No self-respecting employer would pay below that level. The only employers who stand to gain by the abolition of the wages councils are those who have no respect for employees in the first place and therefore have little contribution to make to the wider economy.

Of the 34,000 employees covered by the wages councils in Northern Ireland, many are in the service sector, but some still remain in manufacturing. It is nonsense to endanger their right to a fair wage.

Finally, I call upon the Government to pay careful attention to the need to ensure that Northern Ireland has equal representation in the new careers organisation along with other regions of the United Kingdom. I support the call of the Institute of Careers Officers for a national council for careers guidance, subject to the inclusion of representation as of right for Northern Ireland in such a group.

8.31 pm
Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough)

First, I declare an interest. My family business in Yorkshire owns a number of petrol stations, at one of which we have a small grocery stand, a fact which, on its own, brings that service station under the wages council for groceries.

I wanted to speak in today's debate because, from leaving school in 1974 until I became the Member of Parliament for Scarborough and Whitby, I worked in the family business. Our activities include retailing, manufacturing, property and agriculture. The company was established by Joseph Sykes, my ancestor, in 1845. Therefore, one way or another, my family has seen a lot of employment law.

The Labour party remains responsible for some of the most reckless and damaging trade union laws this century; legislation which culminated in 1979 when we saw the alien practice of union men picketing town halls, factories, depots and hospitals and union men threatening the wives and children of those who dared to cross the picket line. Those were the every day alien practices of life in the 1970s under the Labour party.

We were elected to change all that, at which point Labour Members scurried off to ask their union bosses, "What shall we do now?" So it was that they could not quite bring themselves to support the Employment Act 1980, which banned the violence of the flying picket. They felt uncomfortable about the Employment Act 1982 which dealt with the corruption of the closed shop, and they did not like the 1984 legislation one bit—an Act which gave union members a secret ballot before strike action.

Labour Members tried to blockade the Employment Act 1988 requiring union bosses to submit themselves to election by secret ballot and they tried to scupper the Employment Act 1990 because it removed union immunity from secondary action prosecution. So, there we have it: five Acts in 10 years and the Labour party voted against every single one of them. That is how it comes about that we have this particular flying picket on the Labour Front Bench today.

Two of the Labour Front-Bench spokesmen on the issue supported in writing the violence and howling pickets of Wapping. There they sit huddled around their brazier trying to warm themselves against the cold facts; sent here, I might add, compliments of the National Union of Railwaymen, or the PMT, or the RMT, or whatever they call themselves these days, compliments of the Transport and General Workers Union, compliments of the Graphical, Paper and Media Union, whatever that is; sent here this evening no doubt to "down tools" over the question of secret postal ballots on strike action. The Leader of the Opposition came out of the closet on that recently. He said that ballots are an "irrelevant effrontery", "intellectually disreputable", while hard on his coat tails was the delegate from the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union who, on "Panorama", said: on the restoration of a Labour Government strings will be pulled". He went on to say: and we would be definitely pulling strings of our sponsored MPs. Strings have been duly pulled, not to say wrenched. The Leader of the Opposition, despite his carefully manicured appearance, is sponsored by the GMB—quite appropriate really when one thinks about it.

No doubt there are some Opposition Members who want to "call out the lads" over the question of trade union financial affairs, measures that will give their members information about union finances—the fat salaries of the union bosses, the loaded perks that go with the job for which the ordinary member has to pay. I say that it is right to stand up for the member who faithfully pays his dues year in, year out. Is not he entitled to know what, or perhaps even more relevant who, his money is being spent on? But at least we know that the Opposition will support us on that one.

We also know that it will be "one out, all out" over the question of the wages councils. We know, for example, that minimum wages cost jobs. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the shadow Transport Secretary, came out of yet another closet on that one when he said: I knew the consequences. There would be some shake out. Any silly fool knows that. That is one down—270 to go.

I was forgetting. The Leader of the Opposition admitted that he had been hiding in the same closet when he said: One or two jobs may be lost. He may well be right—if he is talking about 1 million or 2 million.

No, we in the Conservative party will not take any lectures about the Bill from the Tolpuddle party. The only irrelevance that we have to deal with this evening is the TUC hymn sheet which Opposition Members have been sent here to sing all the way until Christmas. We will not take any lectures from Opposition Members whose only experience of employing someone is limited to the poorly paid research assistants who swarm about the Palace of Westminster every day.

No, the Bill is part of the process that takes trade and industry in Great Britain towards the millenium. It is part of the process that the Prime Minister set in train when he torpedoed the social chapter last December and which Jacques Delors acknowledged would make Britain a paradise for investment. Forget Labour's Europe. All one has to do to see Labour's Europe is to go to Sheffield or Liverpool.

No, as we head towards the 21st century, this is a Bill for more investment, more employment, more business, more output and more exports; a Bill for Great Britain; a Bill which is relevant for the 1990s; a Bill which consigns the alien practices, along with the Labour party, to the dustbin of history.

8.38 pm
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Today's debate takes place against the backcloth of massively rising unemployment and poverty which is so deep rooted in Britain that it is sad and tragic that all that the Government can do is to kick the boot at the worker and the trade union movement.

On 6 November, the Financial Times said: In deciding now to abolish the wages councils the government is taking a risk. Attempting to reduce the wages of low paid workers, at a time of depressed confidence, rising unemployment, and with the public sense of injustice already aroused by the miners debacle, is not the most politic of actions. In any case, the evidence does not suggest that the low levels set by the wages councils have a significant negative employment effect, as the government claims. Abolishing them now, in the current depressed economic climate, is likely to do little more than reduce the wages of some low paid workers, while increasing the amount of family credit paid to those low-income households that are adversely affected. The government is showing again a rare taste for the wrong battles. The Institute of Management Consultants believes that the abolition of wage councils will severely damage the United Kingdom's productivity. Its director general said: The success of organisations depends on the productivity of the work-force. A low wage policy leads to a vicious circle of low morale, low performance and low productivity. The UK cannot compete in the 1990s with a 19th century approach to labour. The way forward is through higher productivity and higher skill levels created and rewarded by higher pay … The government's belief that low wages will create jobs is mistaken in those industries with minimum wage rates only marginally above benefit levels. Growth and real employment will come only through rewarding skills. Instead of removing the remaining protection for the low paid, Ministers should be showing a public commitment to a better trained workforce. I happen to be sponsored by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and I am delighted and honoured to represent that union in the House. I know that it fights on behalf of low-paid workers and people who have not been given proper training, to take them into a higher pay echelon. It is unbelievable that this country can be at the bottom of the European league in regard to giving those who work for this country the conditions that they deserve.

The wages councils cover 2.5 million people, but they do not cover some of my constituents. I know a security man who works for £1.85 an hour. Conservative Members may say that everyone else in the family works, but that is not true: he is the sole breadwinner. Having spent 20 years in the armed forces, he left to work for a poverty wage. Is that what we want to happen? Do we want people who have spent a decade or two in the Army to end up earning a pittance?

That man worked for a Government establishment; that is, he worked in Coulport—under the Government's auspices—for a private security company. Why should we allow our people to be degraded by receiving such payments? Ultimately, the taxpayer will have to stump up housing benefit, income support and free school meals for that man's children. I think that it is appalling.

I am not a great lover of Churchill, but I recognise some of his main attributes. For instance, he fought and argued for the rights of wages councils. He knew that, out in the big bad world, there were employers who would speculate and get away with paying workers tuppence an hour. They would do what was done in the days of Oliver Twist—provide a bowl of soup, and give a belt in the ear to those who asked for more.

What happened when young people were taken out of the realm of wages councils? Were there more jobs for them? Not in my constituency. The facts and figures clearly prove that more young people are now unemployed; they also prove that young people are working for abysmal wages. They are forced to work seven days a week for about £1 an hour, with no rights, and they are sacked if they ask for half a day off to attend a wedding.

Christmas will be here in five weeks. What a Christmas present this Scrooge-like Government are offering to low wage earners. If they are still in power next year and the year after, there will be many empty stockings hanging up in our young people's homes. Many children will not know what Christmas is, and will never see Santa Claus—unless they are out begging on the streets. The steets of London, Glasgow and Edinburgh are full of folk begging. The Minister should consider them, and consider the workers who are trying to make a living wage and who need the protection afforded by the wages councils.

Every prediction that the Government have made has proved wrong. The Chancellor has kept telling us that the turning point is just around the corner. I feel that I am turning the corner at 100 mph, but all that I see is more poverty, more unemployment, more bankruptcies and more house repossessions. The Bill will not help the low paid. If the Government wanted to give working folk back their morale, they would establish the minimum wage proposed by Labour, and they would come up with a plan of action to train our young people to take on the rest of the world.

I believe that our young people have the necessary will and spirit; all that they lack is the mentality of this stupid Government, who do not realise that our people can make the nation great again. The Minister should abandon his proposals to abolish the wages councils, and consider the pleas of the trade union movement. The trade unions are the country's allies—not its enemies, as Conservative Members would like to think.

My father was a trade unionist who fought for this country; my aunts and uncles fought for it too, and they were all trade unionists. Opposition Members are as committed to Great Britain as anyone else, and we see the trade union movement as an integral part of the nation's heritage and the fight to make it great again. The Government, however, are prepared to drive our people further into poverty. They talk of individualism, but the only individuals they are concerned about are their friends in the City.

8.48 pm
Mr. David Evennett (Erith and Crayford)

I am pleased to be able to speak in such an important debate. I do not wish to follow the passionate but misguided comments of the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham), who epitomises the dinosaur approach of Opposition Members who are always looking backwards rather than forwards.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on her excellent, vigorous and constructive speech. The Bill is modest but wide ranging, designed to make limited changes to a number of important areas affecting employment and the trade unions. I believe that it will be warmly welcomed in the country and among a considerable number—probably the majority—of trade union members.

Since becoming a Member in 1983, I have taken part in a number of debates on trade union reform Bills which have subsequently been enacted. I am extremely interested in this subject, not only because employment issues are important to the country in general and to my constituency in particular, but as a former trade union member. When I was a teacher in the 1970s, I was a member of the National Union of Teachers for a while, during which time I saw at first hand how archaic trades union organisations were and how undemocratic they had become. Branch meetings were held at inconvenient times. The propaganda and voting by show of hands were quite appalling, and interest in individual members was non-existent. There followed the disgraceful situation of the union instructing its members to withdraw from school on a half-day strike, at which point I left the union because I felt that it was wrong for professionals to strike—wrong because of the principle and the damage to children's education, and wrong for a strike to be called before a secret ballot of all union members.

I was delighted in 1979, therefore, when the Conservative Government embarked on a systematic programme of trade union reform and employment legislation. That was long overdue and reform had become even more necessary after the legislation enacted by the Labour Government of the 1970s, supported by left-wing trade union leaders and financed by trade unions. Much of the legislation enacted in that period was proposed and allowed by trade unions.

Throughout the 1980s, I supported the rolling programme of legislation. That legislation has proved to be a great success. The worst excesses of the 1970s and the abuse of power by unrepresentative and irresponsible trade union leaders is well known. In addition, the Government had, and still have, a dual role—to protect society from politically motivated trade union barons and to assist ordinary trade union members to gain control of their unions. [Interruption.] Despite the sedentary comments of Opposition Members, I am not opposed to trade unions. I believe that they have a valuable role to play in contemporary society, but it is different from their historical role. Of course their role is to look after and represent the work force and to ensure that working conditions are improved, but they must now give advice, look after issues such as pensions and ensure that individuals are looked after in the workplace. Some good trade unions have done that, but others have failed to do so because they have been more interested in political activity than in advancing the interests of the workers whom they are supposed to represent.

Trade union leaders are now elected on a more democratic basis to look after their members' interests in the workplace. It is not their job to be political animals. Trade unions must attract members by showing what they can offer the work force; they cannot take members for granted, as they did in the past. Needless to say, the Opposition always opposed the union reforms of the past decade and remain out of touch. That is why they remain in opposition and will not be elected to government in the foreseeable future.

Employees should have increased freedom of choice —not only whether to belong to a trades union but to which trades union they wish to belong. There must be no coercion to join one union. That is in line with Conservative philosophy of choice. We know that it is anathema to Opposition Members, who do not believe in choice in anything. The Government are determined to increase choice for ordinary citizens, and that is—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. There are too many sedentary interruptions.

Mr. Evennett

We have provided increased choice in housing, education and many other areas. The Government are continuing to widen choice in all areas, including trades union membership. Under the Bill, individuals must not be excluded or expelled from a union without good reason.

I have confined my speech to trade unions. We have heard much about wages councils and most of what needs to be said has been said by Conservative Members, but the improvements for trade unions under part I are advantageous to ordinary union members, particularly the improvements to the conduct of union elections. I note and approve of the Bill's endeavours to improve the election system for trade unions. This must improve fairness for candidates and ensure that they are all treated equally. The Bill also addresses the secrecy of union affairs, such as membership and remuneration—

Mr. Jimmy Boyce (Rotherham)

What about Tory party funds?

Mr. Evennett

The hon. Gentleman has a large mouth and nonsense keeps coming out of it. If he listened for once he might learn something—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already spoken about sedentary interruptions. If hon. Members want to say something, they should seek to intervene in the proper parliamentary manner.

Mr. Boyce

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evennett

No, I have no time.

In 1992, union members should be furnished with important details about their union. Certification officers' powers should be strengthened to investigate apparent impropriety in union affairs. Those are democratic safeguards for individual union members. More information and power for individuals will make for better trades unions. More choice and increased rights for citizens are the order of the day in 1992.

The Government's commitment to the citizens charter has been well received by the general public. For far too long, individual members of the public have been powerless against the might of large unions. I welcome the fact that under the Bill ordinary members of the public will be able to seek legal redress if they suffer as a result of unlawful industrial action. We have all suffered when strikes have been held at short notice. Indeed, sometimes no notice has been given and such action has disrupted business and has disrupted and annoyed my constituents. When that has occurred, especially in the transport sector, people have experienced terrible difficulty in getting home after a long day's work. I know that Opposition Members do not care about ordinary citizens, but Conservative Members believe that they are very important and that they should be our prime consideration.

The Bill proposes seven days' notice of strike action, which will be of considerable benefit to the general public. I warmly welcome those provisions. Some of my constituents would like my hon. Friend the Minister to go further and would support no-strike agreements for public services, so perhaps he will consider that as part of the rolling programme which we warmly support.

Judging from the sedentary interruptions of Opposition Members, one would not have thought that this was a modest Bill, but it travels along a moderate road leading to improved and more responsible trade unions and more power to members of trade unions. It is a valuable addition, I believe, to the legal reforms of the past 13 years. It will strengthen the rights of the individual, the employment rights of people at work and the democratic rights of trade union members.

8.58 pm
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

There are just 55 wages inspectors, whose job it is to enforce the wages council legislation. Yet, even with this tiny number, their diligent work uncovered 5,971 establishments last year paying below the legal minimum rate. There were only, however, 15 prosecutions; that is, one quarter of 1 per cent. of the known, discovered offences were prosecuted. That hardly suggests wild enthusiasm for law enforcement, but of course this was a matter of whether money would be put back into the pockets of low-paid workers from whom it had been stolen by employers who were acting illegally.

Not satisfied with that, the Government are now embarked on a drive to cut the wages of the lowest paid. They must think that wages will fall; indeed, they say that jobs will he increased because wages will fall. They think that employers are so eager to take on extra staff that anything that they can save by cutting wages they will gladly spend on increasing their staff.

Employers employ as few people as they can possibly get away with. This can be seen by looking at the number of unstaffed check-outs, while customers have to queue. I declare an interest as a sponsored member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I know about check-outs, and of course unstaffed check-outs mean queues by customers. Customers have to wait just so the staff will not have one minute to look around. So as few workers as possible are employed, the hours of part-time workers are cut against their wishes and their hours are frequently lowered to remove rights to legal protection. Wherever possible, employers employ casual workers, temporary workers or home workers at the lowest possible rates. It is highly improbable that cutting wages will increase employment in that sort of situation. However, it will have the effect of worsening the conditions of the low paid.

We have been told that no damage has been done to the wages of the young since the wages councils were stripped of their powers in relation to young people. However, my union had a look at the job centres in the Manchester area a fortnight ago. It found an advertisement—one of many deplorable advertisements—for a junior trainee hairdresser to work from Monday to Wednesday 9 to 6, Thursday 9 to 8, Friday 9 to 7 and Saturday 8.30 to 4.30; age 16 to 17 only, at a rate of £35 a week. Assuming that she would get a one-hour meal break a day, which cannot be assumed in hairdressing, I make that 50 hours a week at £35 pay. That was in Bolton. In Bury there was an advertisement for a stock assistant: 40 hours; £1.66 an hour at 16, £1.86 an hour at 17.

As the Equal Opportunities Commission has said, the rates for young people have decreased as a proportion of adult rates, and it believes that there is the strongest possibility that the pay of women currently covered by wages councils will fall proportionately to men's rates. But the Government say that it does not matter. They say. in a letter to my general secretary—one of many similar letters sent by Employment Ministers: Most Wages Council workers are part-timers contributing only a part of the income coming into the family home. There is no close link between the wage rates of such workers and their income. There are a number of aspects to that. One is that the income coming into a household is not necessarily available to the woman of that household. It is not her income, and her husband or partner may not consider it to be their income; he may consider that it is his income. So the idea that women as workers can simply be subsumed into the household is absolutely anachronistic.Conservatives always accuse us of being old-fashioned. There is nothing more old-fashioned than that; nothing more insulting and damaging to many families.

The EOC refers to the fact that, in 1978, it was discovered through research that three times as many families would be in poverty if it were not for the earnings of the mother in the household. The EOC points out that women's earnings contribute more to the family now than they did in 1978. We are talking about family poverty.

The Government say that overwhelmingly people in poverty do not have a job. They are experts in increasing the number of such people. They are now going down the road of increasing the number of people who are in poverty despite having a job. They are adding to the poverty of unemployment the poverty of the working poor. [Interruption.] I notice a great sense of humour among Ministers. They laughed heartily when my hon. Friends talked about the problems facing families at Christmas. People can draw their own conclusions from such expressions of humour.

People will be in poverty; they are in poverty now. Earnings of women are essential; they are not frivolous. Their earnings are not second incomes in the sense of not mattering to the family. The earnings matter to the individual woman and they matter to her family. There is every evidence that women's earnings will be cut as a result of the Bill.

If wages will not fall as a result of the Bill, why do the Government say that there will be extra jobs? How will that come about? If the Bill will have no effect on wages, where will employers get the extra funds that they are deemed to be willing to spend on more employment?

What will really happen is that demand will be withdrawn from the economy, which is a fancy way of saying that people will have less money to spend in the shops. That will mean not only that shopworkers' wages will be cut because they are the biggest group of workers covered by wages councils, but that their job opportunities will lessen because the recession in retailing is likely to be worsened.

Anybody who continues to think that the Conservative party is good at managing the economy must be blind to facts. The one certain fact is that the Conservative party is greatly damaging the economy of private citizens, especially low earners. I am pleased to have had the opportunity of saying that and to draw attention to the fact that if one removes a floor, rates above are likely to fall as well.

There is no truth in the Government's press statement in which they say: Where companies pay above the pay levels laid down by wages councils, they are irrelevant. Wages councils provide the floor. If the floor goes, people earning above wages council rates will also be affected. The Bill is a drive against the wages of the poor, but it is also a drive against wages generally. I hope that it will be defeated.

9.7 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

If what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) said about the unions is right, if they have a powerful role in acting for their members in negotiations, if they are able to influence contracts of employment without reference back to their members personally, if they are able to have subscriptions deducted from wages without reference to their members every year, and if they are important in our society, why should they not give basic rights to their members?

One such right is the right to a full postal ballot before industrial action. Why should they not give that right so that employees have the opportunity to consider the merits of industrial action in their own homes, away from the pressures of the workplace?

Why should not trade unions give an annual statement of their finances, saying what is happening to the money that the members have paid? Why should not the trade unions consult on subscription increases when they come up? Why should they not have to justify themselves to their members every three years if they are to continue to have the right to check off? Finally, if the institutions are so important, why should not the individual member have the right to choose which one he or she wants to join?

Over the years, we have heard trade union representatives and Labour Members repeatedly object to legislation, only to find a few years later that it has become official Labour party policy. It is too bad that, instead of a genuine debate, we hear nothing but the Labour party's parrot calls.

Winston Churchill introduced the legislation which laid the foundations for wages councils in circumstances very different from those obtaining today. He wanted to protect the disabled, the widows and the infirm. He was concerned that the worker whose whole livelihood depends upon the industry concerned should not be "undersold". I repeat that circumstances have changed since then. In those days, the social security system, which provides a safety net for low-paid workers, did not exist—and the trade unions were perhaps not so effective as they later became. Above all, we should remember that 80 per cent. of workers now covered by the wages councils do not rely on that money for their entire livelihood.

There was a time when trade unions would admit that circumstances had changed. In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, the Transport and General Workers Union was opposed to wages councils. In its response to the Donovan commission, the TGWU said: Wages Councils do not represent an effective means of raising the standards of lower paid workers and they should be abolished. At the TGWU policy conference in 1981, at which a motion in favour of statutory control of wages was lost, the deputy general secretary reasserted the union's opposition to statutory controls on wages.

Under Labour, unions such as the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades took no part in the proceedings to abolish the wages council for box makers, but welcomed the change as soon as it had been abolished. It supported the abolition of wages councils. At one time, the Labour party defended proposals to get rid of 10 wages councils. It seems to me that, these days, we cannot have a genuine debate on these matters, even though there has always been a strong body of opinion in the trade union movement to the effect that wages councils are ineffective.

The councils are also inflexible. They interfere with employers' ability to provide incentive schemes for their workers and freeze differentials at low levels.They prevent new businesses starting up and moving from low wages to higher wages as they progress. They are anachronistic. Why are workers with woven cloth covered, whereas workers with knitted cloth are not? Why are hairdressers covered when beauticians working in the same establishments are not? Why is cooked meat covered but not raw meat? The time has come for the wages councils to be abolished.

I am amazed that measures to provide rights to trade union members should be opposed. Sensible measures to deal with anachronisms such as the provisions governing pregnant women must be welcomed, and it is a pity that Labour Members oppose the Bill.

The changes in the way in which industrial tribunals and the employment appeals tribunals work are important. At present, there are long delays and backlogs—indeed, I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about one case involving a year's delay. Measures to allow chairmen of tribunals and the employment appeal tribunal to decide cases on points of law will drastically reduce such backlogs. That measure, too, should be supported.

9.14 pm
Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

May I start by recognising the speech of the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley)? I appreciate that compliments from the Opposition are often considered mixed blessings, and so they should be, but while I did not agree with all he said, I appreciated his comments on wages councils and the way in which he presented them. I also noticed the pre-emptive strike on him by his party through the mouthpiece of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and I thought that the hon. Gentleman might require some assistance. However, he was able to present his case splendidly. Therefore, I look forward to further contributions from him in Committee.

The best that one can say about the Bill is that it is a squalid, mean-minded, mean-spirited and ill-conceived piece of legislation—in fact, one of the worst pieces of legislation to come before the House for a considerable time. It has little to do with workers' rights or industrial relations, and nothing to do with employment. It is all about trying to keep the Tory troops on the Back Benches in order and in good humour. The Bill is nothing more than a vestigial remnant from the past, and, like all vestigial remnants, it is utterly useless. It is a piece of outdated Thatcherism from which the world has moved on, but apparently not some in the Tory party.

It is not so much a Bill whose time has come, as many Tory Members tried to maintain; rather it is a Bill whose time has passed, although the contributions from the Tory Members make it clear that many of them are living in the past.

The Bill is schizophrenic. It is not sure where it stands. It lacks intellectual rigour and honesty. There are good parts in it, such as the provisions on maternity rights, the transfer of undertakings and contracts, and the attempt to protect whistleblowers and the right to stop the job. But all those good parts are submerged in a deluge of mean and provocative clauses which attack a decent wage, decent terms and conditions, a decent future and, above all, the only organisation which will fight for all those aims—the trade union.

The whole basis of the Bill was given away by the hon. Member for Romford (Sir M. Neubert), when he said that the check-off provision was the basis on which the Government would bring about the fatal blow to trade unions. That is what it is about. It is not about protecting the rights of individuals, but about trying to kill off trade unions and their links and contributions to the Labour party. I am grateful to the hon. Member for being honest enough to say that in the House.

Apparently the Government are embarrassed by this tatty little piece of legislation. So they should be. I was not a Member when the Government started to introduce their industrial legislation in 1979 and through the 1980s, but I understand that the Tory Benches used to be crowded when that legislation came forward. It is significant that most Tory Members are so embarrassed by the Bill that they have been hiding.

The Secretary of State was so embarrassed that she did not want the Bill brought back until after Christmas, if not later. She had briefed industrial correspondents on that. Presumably she was hoping that she or the Government would move on, but she has not been successful, and the ideologues have won. The Government have every right to be embarrassed; in future, they will be not just embarrassed but ashamed of the attacks on individuals brought about by the Bill.

Let us look at this curate's egg. On the one hand, the Government plan to abolish wages councils, saying that they are a burden on employers. On the other hand, they are introducing measures which we greatly value, such as the right to contract, maternity leave, and the transfer of undertakings, all of which in the Government's own language can be classified as burdens on employers. Why the contradiction?

Part of the Government's problem is that they do not know the difference between burdens and duties. It is the Government's job to place duties on employers to safeguard the rights of employees—the right to a decent wage, the right to decent conditions and the right to maternity leave and to a contract. Those rights are guaranteed by duties on employers.

I dare say that many employers consider those matters to be a burden. However, the Opposition do not take that view. We believe that they are duties that any reasonable society would expect their Government to place on employers. The main reason for the apparent contradiction in the Bill and its intellectual dishonesty, opposing duties in one sphere—wages councils—while supporting them in respect of maternity rights, health and safety and contracts, is that the latter measures are not ones that the Government wanted to bring in.

The Government did not want to introduce maternity rights or provisions on health and safety and contracts. They did not introduce them through any generosity of spirit. They have brought them in simply because they were forced to do so by EC directives. The Government should not claim any credit for those provisions. The Government did not want them. They are in the Bill because they were forced on the Government.

Even when the Government are forced to include such measures, rather than concede them with a good grace, they have had to be dragged screaming and kicking into the latter half of the 20th century. The Government opposed the directives on maternity rights and the other beneficial effects every inch of the way.

Clause 26 deals with the transfer of undertakings. The directive about that has been around since 1977. The Government have been in office for 13 years, but they are only now introducing legislation to implement it in full. That does not show much commitment on the Government's part.

The Secretary of State made great play of the maternity benefits, but the Government did not want them and they fought them every inch of the way in the Commission. They had the original proposals watered down. That is another example of how the measure is mean in spirit, mean in action and simply rotten to the core.

The meanest part of the Bill is the part that the Government do want—the abolition of the wages councils. It is difficult to imagine a more pitiful response at a time of economic slump. With Britain in recession, unemployment rising, homelessness increasing and confidence collapsing, it is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate Government response.

Then again, the Government are only being true to form. At the height of the recession, following their own gross mismanagement, their only response is to put the boot into some of the weakest in society, to remove from the weakest their only protection, the wages councils. It is typical of the Government and the Tories that, when they are in trouble, they can only attack the weakest. They attack workers earning as little as £2.60 an hour, which represents a take-home pay of about £80 a week.

The Government give many reasons for their attack on wages councils, and they are all as pathetic as the action itself. The Prime Minister gave some reasons in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith). The first of them was repeated tonight by the hon. Member for Teignbridge—that wages councils have been around since 1909 and therefore should be abolished. The Prime Minister said: These days, wages councils are an anachronism. They no longer have a useful role. They were set up in 1909 and they are not relevant to 1992."—[Official Report, 5 November 1992; Vol. 213, c. 407.] That is quite an interesting piece of political philosophy: because something has been around for a long time, de facto it must be abolished. The House of Lords has been around for much longer, and I therefore look forward in the next Parliament to a Bill to abolish the House of Lords for the same reason.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Or the abolition of the Government.

Mr. Galbraith

As my hon. Friend points out, the Government have been around for a long time and they are also in line for abolition.

The Prime Minister's next reason for abolishing the wages councils is that they are supposed to be bureaucratic. Whenever I hear that argument from the Government, I know that they are really struggling in their last refuge. Yes, wages councils cost just over £2 million, but new provisions in the Bill will cost that amount. Are those not bureaucratic? What is the difference? The councils and those provisions are not bureaucratic—they are the necessary price we pay to introduce decent terms, conditions and rights for individuals, and it is a price well worth paying.

Both those arguments are pulled together in what the Prime Minister said constituted a burden on employers. The Government's philosophy is laid bare—no burdens on employers, no regulations, no statutes, just the free market. Malnourished children up the chimneys and pregnant women down the mines—that is the Government's philosophy for society. There will be no rights, nothing for anyone, but there will certainly be exploitation.

The Government try to dress all that up as a measure to increase jobs. I heard much talk about that from the Conservative Benches. The Government contend that wages councils reduce employment. They have decided to abolish wages councils because of their ideology and they are now scrambling around for reasons. They have come up with the idea that they reduce employment. I am having difficulty finding evidence to support that case. They have trotted out the same hoary old studies on minimum wages. Even they must know that they do not necessarily apply to wages councils.

After considerable prompting by the hon. Member for Eltham, the Minister produced a long list of references, contending to support his case, showing a relationship between wages and employment. It was an impressive little biography, in nice alphabetical order, quickly pulled out of a computer. But the notable thing about the Government's list, which was also tripped out by the hon. Member for Teignbridge, is that it concerns the relationship between wages and jobs and not necessarily minimum wages.

Many of those studies are also fatally flawed. First, they presuppose the effect of a minimum wage on other wages, and set about calculating the extent of job losses based on the wrong premise. Because they work from the wrong premise, they get the wrong answer.

The second flaw in their argument, and the reason that the premise is wrong, is that the labour market is not a homogeneous body, with every part responding similarly, and I should have thought that Conservative Members would have known that. For example, take the rise in women's pay to equal men's, following the Equal Pay Act 1970. According to Government philosophy, as applied to the abolition of the wages councils, that would have reduced employment because it led to a rise in average wages; yet, far from falling, women's employment continued to rise.

The Government base their studies on the employment effect of wages councils and do not analyse any relative changes in wages. There is no conclusive evidence that wages councils decrease employment, and it may be quite the opposite. They may lead to an increase, and their abolition to a decrease.

In 1986, workers under the age of 21 were removed from the wages councils' responsibility. Wage rates for that group have fallen, but there has been no increase in the number employed. Nearly one in five young workers aged between 18 and 19 are registered as unemployed, which is double the rate among the rest of the population. Rather than helping young workers, removing them from the responsibility of the wages councils has led to their prospects deteriorating.

That was effectively summed up in the study by Machin and Manning, which I am sure the Minister has read in full, as I have. They studied wages councils in the United Kingdom—the councils that the Government hope to abolish—and concluded that there is no evidence of an increase in employment as a result of a decline in the councils' effectiveness.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Am I not right in recalling that that study excluded part-time workers, who are the majority of people covered by wages councils?

Mr. Galbraith

No, it did not exclude part-time workers, but I shall consider the Minister's question when I read the report again. The authors concluded that employment declined as a result of the decreasing effectiveness of wages councils, and added: There is no evidence that the activities of wages councils have acted as a restraint on employment in Britain in the 1980s. If anything, it is easier to make the argument that minimum wages have been good for employment. In other words, there is no evidence to suggest that wages councils reduce employment. Indeed, they have the opposite effect.

All that was admitted by the Government. In reply to a question from the hon. Member for Eltham, who asked what effect abolishing wages councils would have on employment, the Under-Secretary of State replied that the Government did not have such information. So the Government want to abolish wages councils even though they have no information on which to base their prejudices.

On the other hand, there are strong arguments in favour of wages councils, and many have been stated in the debate. In particular, they prevent the good employer from being undercut by the bad. The abolition of wages councils means pay rates falling so as to compete. staff becoming transient and jobs being used merely as a step further along the ladder. So good employers cannot maintain their pay rates, cannot retain or train staff, and cannot provide a better service.

The main argument in favour of wages councils is that of justice. My hon. Friends and I want not the abolition of wages councils but the abolition of the exploitation which will come from their abolition. With the abolition of wages councils, pay rates will fall, as my hon. Friends have pointed out. Indeed, that is the basis of the Government's argument, and they cannot run away from it. Their view is that wages will fall and employment will increase. That is the basis for a reduction in wages.

As part of the low pay review in the autumn of 1989, a study showed that the abolition of wages councils covering those under 21 resulted in their wages suffering. It also showed that, if the qualifying age had remained at 18, nearly 20 per cent. of the licensed hotels surveyed would have been paying below the minimum. A job survey by the Greater Manchester low pay unit in July 1988 found that 70 per cent. of jobs with advertised rates of pay were offering rates less than those that would have been paid had they not been under the protection of wages councils.

In a random analysis of cases referred to the Scottish low pay unit, the rates for those not covered by wages councils were absolutely atrocious. I will detail a few: hairdresser, £1.55 per hour; catering assistant, £1.80 per hour; security guard, £1.70; dental assistant, £1.95; clerical worker, £1.75; secretary, £1.67; car valeter, £1.67; care assistant, £1.75; and cleaner, £1.65. There was not one above £2 an hour.

That is the situation that the Government want to impose on the workers of Britain. Do they really want wages at such a pathetically low level? How long are they prepared to let wages fall? How much are they preparing for the exploitation of the workers? What standards do they want to set?

There are no reasons why wages councils should be abolished, and there is every reason to retain them. At the time of rocketing unemployment, with poverty increasing all round, the Government, with all their powers, pull themselves up to the grandeur of their office and all they can offer is a mouse—the abolition of wages councils—which is a response so pitiful, callous and inadequate that it is difficult to imagine it coming even from the present Government. Exploitation, poverty and injustice are clearly their vision for Britain.

The Bill is mean in spirit, spiteful in intent and callous in effect. It will do nothing to improve either the lot of employers or the economy of Britain. For all those reasons, we shall most certainly be pleased to vote against it in the Lobby tonight.

9.34 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

Listening to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), I found myself wondering why, if he thinks that wages councils are such a good thing, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) was so reluctant to tell the House that he would reinstate them after they were abolished by the House of Commons.

The changes that we propose in the Bill are entirely consistent with our successful step-by-step approach of the past 13 years. They will ensure that we have a legislative framework in tune with the needs of a modern economy: a framework which will contribute to, rather than impede, the promotion of individual rights; a framework which will enable businesses to respond quickly to changes and opportunities in a competitive market; and which will therefore help in the creation of new jobs, as my hon. Friends the Members for Romford (Sir M. Neubert) and for Meriden (Mr. Mills) said in their excellent speeches.

The Government's policy is clear, consistent and credible. But what of the Opposition's policies?

Mr. Graham

How will someone who is paid £3 an hour on a wages council scale be any better off if the wages are reduced to £2? Does that mean that for £1 an hour another person will be employed? Is that the logic of the Government's answer?

Mr. Forsyth

No, that is not the logic of the Government's answer. The hon. Gentleman ought to know that two thirds of the people covered by the wages councils arc paid more than the minimum rate. I shall come to the point about wages councils later. The hon. Gentleman may well want to intervene again then.

We have all grown used to the ritual commitments of Opposition spokesmen to repeal successive Acts of Parliament since 1979. Those Acts have helped to transform the climate of industrial relations in Britain, for example. by introducing secret ballots for union elections and before strikes; by the effective outlawing of most secondary picketing and secondary industrial action; and by ending the iniquities of the closed shop—the abuses which my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) described so vividly.

However, I thought that tonight the sobering experience of a fourth successive electoral defeat, together with the appointment of a new, although hardly fresh, Opposition spokesman, would herald a long overdue acceptance of the Government's industrial relations reforms. Where the Government have advanced through step-by-step reform, the Opposition, like Napoleon pulling back from Moscow. have been reduced to grudging step-by-step retreat—an observation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), in the light of all his experience of the Standing Committees which have considered employment Bills. I hope that his experience will be extended further by his participation in the Standing Committee which will consider the Bill, but that is a matter for others.

The House will have seen what the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and the Opposition have to offer in response to the Government's clearly formulated and detailed proposals. First, they have made a thinly disguised commitment to hand back more power to the trade unions. Secondly, they have a crass commitment to the disastrous minimum wage policy which would destroy so many of the very jobs for which they want artificially to increase the pay. Thirdly, they unquestioningly accept the Maastricht social chapter, in a misguided attempt to bring in by the back door the failed socialist policies so decisively rejected by the Government and electorate.

Labour's proposals are about as worthy of serious consideration as a Norwegian entry to the Eurovision song contest. But the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras deserves a prize for sheer brass neck in claiming that the Bill is irrelevant to the main employment issues that we face.

What is irrelevant about measures to give employees new rights and protections at work, new rights for pregnant workers and new protections for those with health and safety responsibilities? How can the Opposition pretend that it is irrelevant to protect the democratic rights of individual trade union members?

Mr. Burden

If the Government are so concerned about individual rights, why does not the Bill contain a clause to restore to employees who have been working less than two years the right to go to an industrial tribunal to claim unfair dismissal? Why can people be sacked unreasonably when their only crime is to have been employed for less than two years?

Mr. Forsyth

I should be more inclined to take advice from the hon. Gentleman on that matter if he did not intend to go through the Lobbies tonight and vote against a Bill that extends employees' rights to go to industrial tribunals of the kind that he described.

How can it be irrelevant to remove anti-competitive restrictions that hinder the creation of new jobs or to broaden the current straitjacket that regulates the management of the careers service? It cannot, and the Opposition know it.

The hon. Members for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) and for Wallasey (Ms. Eagle) and others showed clearly that the Opposition simply do not understand—or perhaps cannot bring themselves to recognise—that there is and always will be a very fundamental and direct relationship between economic competitiveness and jobs. Measures to improve competitiveness—for example, by reducing anti-competitive practices and removing artificial barriers in the labour market—will help to create a climate in which more, rather than fewer, new jobs will be created; and fewer, rather than more, existing jobs will be at risk.

Opposition Members have presented some ingenious arguments for the retention of wages councils tonight. Their views now are somewhat different from those of the last Labour Government. When the Opposition were last in office, they abolished 11 wages councils. The last Labour Government freed more than half a million workers from wages council control.

What has changed? I am puzzled. It is simple: when the Labour Government held power, they believed that they could dragoon people into joining the unions. Wages councils were seen as a threat to their recruitment plans and collective bargaining, as the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Sir H. Walker), who was a Minister at the time, confirmed earlier in the debate. The argument at the time was, why join a union if the councils set the rates?

The trade unions have now changed their views in line with the new reality. As their membership and enthusiasm for trade unions has declined, the wages councils have become the last refuge. With the wages councils, the brothers could still negotiate the wages even if they no longer represented the workers.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Will the Minister give his own evaluation of those matters—he must have an opinion? What does he consider is a suitable minimum rate of pay for, say, a security guard who literally puts himself in the line of fire in the interests of society?

Mr. Forsyth

Oh dear, the hon. Gentleman has chosen a poor example because security guards are not covered by wages councils. He makes my point for me. The position for the 10 per cent. of workers who are covered by wages councils should be the same as for the 90 per cent., which includes security guards, who are not covered. They should receive a wage that reflects the ability of the employer to pay in a competitive manner.

What has been the Opposition's principled response? "Never mind the arguments or what we did in government", has been their response. The Labour dogs have continued to jump through the trade union hoops, as they always do.

I am still not clear what the Opposition's new policy is. I shall happily give way to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, who so gallantly gave way to me. He refused to tell us what he would do in the unlikely event of his being in government. We know that the hon. Gentleman would introduce the job-destroying minimum wage, but would he bring it in and keep the wages councils? Would he maintain the councils' present powers or increase them? Would there be new councils to cover the 90 per cent. of workers forgotten by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson)? Would there be more bureaucracy followed by more bureaucracy?

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should tell the House what the Opposition's policy is exactly—it is all rather vague. The hon. Gentleman refused to give an undertaking that a Labour Government would bring back wages councils. I shall happily give way so that he can give that undertaking to the House—

Hon. Members

Give way.

Mr. Forsyth

Where now the crusade on behalf of wages councils? The leader of that crusade will not even give a commitment to bring back the councils.

Mr. Dobson

As the Minister should know, our crusade is not on behalf of any particular structure; it is about the people who are presently being paid less than £3 an hour and who the Government want to be paid even less. We believe that those people should and would benefit from the Labour party's proposal to introduce a national minimum wage at a rate far higher than they currently receive.

Mr. Forsyth

I think that the hon. Gentleman was telling the House that he has no intention of bringing back wages councils. Why? Because he has listened to. the arguments advanced by my hon. Friends today and has been persuaded. The structure in which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras should be interested is that of his own argument and campaign that has just collapsed around his ears.

The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) was even more opaque about the Liberal party's intentions in respect of wages councils and a minimum wage. I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wants to tell us the Liberal party's position. Once again, we see an Opposition who oppose, but have no idea about how to make progress on the issue.

I have the impression that Opposition Members have convinced themselves that wages councils are wholly concerned with combating poverty. The Opposition ignore improvements in living standards and the changes in the work force. They ignore the existence of targeted benefits and the fact that the majority of workers covered by councils are in two-income households.

There are almost as many low-paid workers from the richest 10 per cent. of households in this country as from the poorest. The biggest cause of unemployment—[Interruption.] Wage fixing is a cause of unemployment, but the biggest cause of poverty in Britain is unemployment, and wages councils put more people on the dole.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who was a distinguished predecessor in the Department of Employment, acknowledges that wages councils destroy jobs. He raised a number of other important issues, which I hope to have the opportunity of discussing with him in future.

Mrs. Gorman

Is my hon. Friend aware of the evidence from the United States—which does have a minimum wage law—which shows that every time the minimum wage is increased, there is an increase in the number of relatively low-skilled workers who lose their jobs? That has been happening since 1947 when the law was introduced in America, where it has been a disaster.

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no point in giving people the right to a minimum wage if the price paid is to have no job.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Forsyth

I should like to make some progress first.

The councils impose rigid and bureaucratic constraints on employers and workers. Every year the councils meet to set a new minimum rate. Every year there are percentage increases, sometimes well above the rate of inflation. Every percentage increase sets the going rate for wage increases over an entire industry. Every firm, large or small, whatever its position, comes under pressure to raise the pay of all employees, however much they earn. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) must recognsie that the firms have to do so without regard to the factors that matter: market conditions, productivity, performance and ability to pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) told the House, employers, trade unionists, academics, and City experts all accept that legal wage fixing destroys jobs—yet the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden doubts the existence of the evidence.

The Opposition leadership refuses to accept the large body of independent research which shows the link between pay and jobs. It refuses to accept what is obvious to every family in the country: the more things cost, the less people can afford; the higher the pay increase, the lower the number of jobs. In Labour's "Alice in Wonderland" world, if things cost twice as much, people can have twice as many.

I am surprised that the Opposition's minimum wage is only two thirds of median men's earnings. If the minimum wage does not put jobs in jeopardy, why not pay everyone even more? Why not raise the minimum wage to average earnings? Why not increase it so that everyone is better off and no one suffers? This is the economics of the madhouse, and it is the economics of Labour Front-Bench spokesmen. The need for wages councils has long since disappeared. It is time for them to go.

It is also time individuals had the right to join the union of their choice. The Opposition, to their discredit, oppose that, claiming that it will jeopardise single union agreements.

We have heard many fine words about single union agreements from Opposition Members, and from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras in particular. They exhibit all the zeal of new converts. I have not forgotten how opposition to single union agreements by trade unions robbed Dundee and the north-east of Scotland, where I was brought up, of 1,000 jobs and £40 million worth of investment, as Ford was sent scurrying to Spain. Then, in the same year, the Electrical, Electronics, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union was drummed out of the TUC because it had signed single union agreements. For the TUC to defend Bridlington while extolling the merits of single union deals is breathtaking hypocrisy.

The provision in the Bill is concerned solely with trade union membership rights. It will mean that a person who wishes to join a trade union can no longer be told—by the TUC, by union leaders, by an employer, or by anyone else —which union he or she must join.

Mr. John Evans

Will the Minister explain something that the Secretary of State refused to explain? There is a single union agreement at Nissan in Sunderland. If a person who is a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union decides to leave that union and to join, say, the TGWU, will he have the right to be represented in negotiations by the TGWU with Nissan management?

Mr. Forsyth

That sort of proposal was included in Labour's 1975 legislation, which was abandoned and which was not even supported by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service because it proved unworkable. Employers will remain free as they are now to decide which, if any, trade union they want to recognise. That is an entirely separate matter from the right of individuals to join a trade union of their choice.

Contrary to claims by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, there is no question of our seeking to outlaw the so-called check-off arrangements, as they are outlawed in socialist France. That is neither the intention nor the effect of our proposals—

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Why not?

Mr. Forsyth

Because we are reasonable. Employers and trade unions will still be able to enter into an agreement to operate the check-off, but they will no longer be able to force a trade union member to accept such an arrangement against his wishes. As with other measures in the Bill, the Government on this occasion are on the side of the trade union member. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) said in a splendid contribution, no one should have to suffer check-off deductions unless he has given his clear written authority in advance.

Mr. Dobson

Does the Department know of any examples of union deductions being checked off people's wages when those people have not given their consent? If it does, why were those examples not included in the answer I was given by one of the hon. Gentleman's ministerial colleagues?

Mr. Forsyth

A convener from the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians was reported in The Sunday Times last year to have said: a member known to me thought he had been paying his contributions for two and a half years and subsequently found he was not a member … now he asks where the money has gone … is he alone? Is he indeed? The hon. Gentleman should know.

We no longer live in a world dominated by the collective; a world where labour is treated as a homogenous block—

Mr. Dobson

Is it true that the company that stopped the money itself gives money to the Tory party?

Mr. Forsyth

What an astonishing question. The hon. Gentleman made it clear early in the debate that he does not understand the position in respect of individual consent for deductions of subscriptions. He asks me for an example of abuse and he comes back with a comment like that. It shows where the hon. Gentleman's loyalties truly lie.

The Bill is about creating new rights and freedoms; rights and freedoms which recognise the responsibilities of employers to their employees, of trade unions to their members, and of those who provide goods and services to the community at large. It champions the individual, whether as an employee, a trade union member or a consumer. In doing so, it provides protection against the unscrupulous employer and against the undemocratic or improper actions of trade unions or their leaders.

The debate has demonstrated in stark terms one of the fundamental differences between the Government's policies and those of the Opposition. The provisions in the Bill reinforce the Government's commitment to an employment market and an industrial relations climate based on the principles of flexibility, freedom and fairness —flexibility to meet changing business needs and the aspirations and circumstances of individual employees; freedom from unwarranted Government regulation and from manipulation by anti-competitive trade union practices; and fairness which derives from an effective package of individual employment rights.

In opposing the Bill the Opposition reveal their true colours. Their job-destroying national minimum wage and social chapter, which they espouse in the name of fairness, would hit hardest those for whom they sanctimoniously protest their support.

Worst of all, the Opposition have shown themselves to be the party which puts the interests of collective organisation above those of individual rights and freedom. In opposing the Bill's proposals for further reform of trade union legislation—reforms which respond to clear evidence of shortcomings in the existing law—the Opposition are confirming their established role as the mouthpiece of the trade union movement.

Do the Opposition really want to deny employees the right not to be victimised on health and safety grounds? Do they want to deny pregnant workers protection against dismissal? Do they want to prevent people receiving a proper statement of their terms and conditions of employment?

None of those new rights will come into law without the Bill. Will the Opposition vote tonight to deny trade union members the new democratic rights and protections included in the Bill? Do they still want to be seen as the party which denies individual trade union members proper statutory protection against mismanagement or abuse in their union's affairs?

Are the Opposition happy to see those who misuse members' subscriptions go unpunished? Do they want to prevent union members from knowing how much their leaders are paid? Do they condone elections where mythical Mickey Mouse and dubious Donald Duck can cast their votes again alongside real union members?

Will the Opposition vote to deny individual citizens protection against disruption and hardship which will come through the new citizen's right and the requirement for unions to give at least seven days' notice of strike calls? Or are the Opposition, as so often in the past, still to be cast in the role of the striker's friend?

The Opposition are singing from the old-fashioned song book of the trade union barons on whose patronage and support they still depend. But they are out of tune not only with the needs of the British economy and labour market of the 1990s, but with the aspirations and expectations of millions of individuals, including many trade union members—trade union members who, as the results at successive general elections have shown, continue to ignore the advice of their leaders by voting for the Government and supporting our reforms in this area. In their name I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 312, Noes 277.

Division No. 88] [10 pm
Adley, Robert Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Bates, Michael
Aitken, Jonathan Batiste, Spencer
Alexander, Richard Bellingham, Henry
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Bendall, Vivian
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Beresford, Sir Paul
Amess, David Biffen, Rt Hon John
Ancram, Michael Blackburn, Dr John G.
Arbuthnot, James Body, Sir Richard
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv) Booth, Hartley
Ashby, David Boswell, Tim
Aspinwall, Jack Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Atkins, Robert Bowden, Andrew
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Bowis, John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley) Brandreth, Gyles
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North) Brazier, Julian
Baldry, Tony Bright, Graham
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Browning, Mrs. Angela Grylls, Sir Michael
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Hague, William
Budgen, Nicholas Hamilton, Rt Hon Archie (Epsom)
Burns, Simon Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Burt, Alistair Hampson, Dr Keith
Butcher, John Hanley, Jeremy
Butler, Peter Hannam, Sir John
Butterfill, John Hargreaves, Andrew
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Harris, David
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Haselhurst, Alan
Carrington, Matthew Hawkins, Nick
Carttiss, Michael Hawksley, Warren
Cash, William Hayes, Jerry
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Heald, Oliver
Chaplin, Mrs Judith Heathcoat-Amory, David
Clappison, James Hendry, Charles
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ruclif) Hicks, Robert
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Coe, Sebastian Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Colvin, Michael Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Congdon, David Horam, John
Conway, Derek Hordern, Sir Peter
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)
Cormack, Patrick Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)
Couchman, James Hughes Robert G. (Harrow W)
Cran, James Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hunter, Andrew
Davis, David (Boothferry) Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Day, Stephen Jack, Michael
Deva, Nirj Joseph Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Devlin, Tim Jenkin, Bernard
Dickens, Geoffrey Jessel, Toby
Dicks, Terry Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Dorrell, Stephen Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Dover, Den Key, Robert
Duncan, Alan Kilfedder, Sir James
Duncan-Smith, Iain King, Rt Hon Tom
Dunn, Bob Kirkhope, Timothy
Durant, Sir Anthony Knapman, Roger
Dykes, Hugh Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Eggar, Tim Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Elletson, Harold Knox, David
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield) Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Evennett, David Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Faber, David Legg, Barry
Fabricant, Michael Leigh, Edward
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Lidington, David
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Fishburn, Dudley Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Forman, Nigel Lord, Michael
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Luff, Peter
Forth, Eric Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) MacKay, Andrew
French, Douglas Maclean, David
Fry, Peter McLoughlin, Patrick
Gale, Roger McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Gallie, Phil Madel, David
Gardiner, Sir George Maitland, Lady Olga
Garel-Jones, Rt Hon Tristan Major, Rt Hon John
Garnier, Edward Malone, Gerald
Gill, Christopher Mans, Keith
Gillan, Cheryl Marland, Paul
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Marlow, Tony
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Gorst, John Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambs SW) Mates, Michael
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Mellor, Rt Hon David Speed, Sir Keith
Merchant, Piers Spencer, Sir Derek
Milligan, Stephen Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Mills, Iain Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Spink, Dr Robert
Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW) Spring, Richard
Moate, Roger Sproat, Iain
Monro, Sir Hector Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Moss, Malcolm Steen, Anthony
Needham, Richard Stephen, Michael
Nelson, Anthony Stern, Michael
Neubert, Sir Michael Stewart, Allan
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Streeter, Gary
Nicholls, Patrick Sumberg, David
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Sweeney, Walter
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Sykes, John
Norris, Steve Tapsell, Sir Peter
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Oppenheim, Phillip Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Ottaway, Richard Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Page, Richard Temple-Morris, Peter
Paice, James Thomason, Roy
Patnick, Irvine Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Patten, Rt Hon John Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Thurnham, Peter
Pawsey, James Townend, John (Bridlington)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Pickles, Eric Tracey, Richard
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Tredinnick, David
Porter, David (Waveney) Trend, Michael
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Trotter, Neville
Powell, William (Corby) Twinn, Dr Ian
Rathbone, Tim Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Redwood, John Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Walden, George
Richards, Rod Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Riddick, Graham Waller, Gary
Robathan, Andrew Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Waterson, Nigel
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Watts, John
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Wells, Bowen
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Wheeler, Sir John
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Whitney, Ray
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Whittingdale, John
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Widdecombe, Ann
Sackville, Tom Wilkinson, John
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Willetts, David
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Wilshire, David
Shaw, David (Dover) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Wolfson, Mark
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wood, Timothy
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge) Yeo, Tim
Shersby, Michael Young, Sir George (Acton)
Sims, Roger
Skeet, Sir Trevor Tellers for the Ayes:
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Mr. David Lightbown and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Soames, Nicholas
Abbott, Ms Diane Bennett, Andrew F.
Adams, Mrs Irene Benton, Joe
Ainger, Nick Bermingham, Gerald
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Berry, Dr. Roger
Allen, Graham Betts, Clive
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Blair, Tony
Armstrong, Hilary Boateng, Paul
Ashton, Joe Boyce, Jimmy
Austin-Walker, John Bradley, Keith
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Bray, Dr Jeremy
Barnes, Harry Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)
Barron, Kevin Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Battle, John Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Bayley, Hugh Burden, Richard
Beckett, Margaret Byers, Stephen
Beggs, Roy Caborn, Richard
Beith, Rt Hon A. J. Callaghan, Jim
Bell, Stuart Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Hinchliffe, David
Cann, Jamie Hoey, Kate
Chisholm, Malcolm Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)
Clapham, Michael Home Robertson, John
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Hood, Jimmy
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hoon, Geoffrey
Clelland, David Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Coffey, Ann Hoyle, Doug
Connarty, Michael Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Corbett, Robin Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Corbyn, Jeremy Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Cousins, Jim Hutton, John
Cox, Tom Illsley, Eric
Cryer, Bob Ingram, Adam
Cummings, John Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Janner, Greville
Cunningham, Dr John (C'p'l'nd) Johnston, Sir Russell
Dafis, Cynog Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Dalyell, Tam Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Darling, Alistair Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davidson, Ian Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral) Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Jowell, Tessa
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Denham, John Keen, Alan
Dewar, Donald Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Dixon, Don Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Dobson, Frank Khabra, Piara S.
Donohoe, Brian H. Kilfoyle, Peter
Dowd, Jim Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil (Islwyn)
Dunnachie, Jimmy Kirkwood, Archy
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Leighton, Ron
Eagle, Ms Angela Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Eastham, Ken Lewis, Terry
Enright, Derek Litherland, Robert
Etherington, Bill Livingstone, Ken
Evans, John (St Helens N) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Llwyd, Elfyn
Fatchett, Derek Loyden, Eddie
Faulds, Andrew Lynne, Ms Liz
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) McAllion, John
Fisher, Mark McCartney, Ian
Flynn, Paul Macdonald, Calum
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) McFall, John
Foster, Derek (B'p Auckland) McKelvey, William
Foster, Don (Bath) Mackinlay, Andrew
Foulkes, George McLeish, Henry
Fraser, John Maclennan, Robert
Fyfe, Maria McMaster, Gordon
Galbraith, Sam McNamara, Kevin
Galloway, George McWilliam, John
Gapes, Mike Madden, Max
Garrett, John Mandelson, Peter
Gerrard, Neil Marek, Dr John
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Godman, Dr Norman A. Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Godsiff, Roger Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Golding, Mrs Llin Martlew, Eric
Gordon, Mildred Maxton, John
Gould, Bryan Meacher, Michael
Graham, Thomas Meale, Alan
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Michael, Alun
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Grocott, Bruce Milburn, Alan
Gunnell, John Miller, Andrew
Hain, Peter Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hall, Mike Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hanson, David Morgan, Rhodri
Hardy, Peter Morley, Elliot
Harman, Ms Harriet Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Harvey, Nick Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Henderson, Doug Mowlam, Marjorie
Heppell, John Mudie, George
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Mullin, Chris
Murphy, Paul Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon Smith, Rt Hon John (M'kl'ds E)
O'Brien, Michael (N W'kshire) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
O'Brien, William (Normanton) Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
O'Hara, Edward Snape, Peter
Olner, William Soley, Clive
O'Neill, Martin Spearing, Nigel
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Spellar, John
Parry, Robert Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)
Pendry, Tom Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Pickthall, Colin Steinberg, Gerry
Pike, Peter L. Stevenson, George
Pope, Greg Stott, Roger
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E) Strang, Dr. Gavin
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Straw, Jack
Prescott, John Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Primarolo, Dawn Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Purchase, Ken Tipping, Paddy
Quin, Ms Joyce Trimble, David
Radice, Giles Turner, Dennis
Randall, Stuart Tyler, Paul
Raynsford, Nick Vaz, Keith
Reid, Dr John Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Wallace, James
Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW) Walley, Joan
Roche, Mrs. Barbara Warden, Gareth (Gower)
Rogers, Allan Watson, Mike
Rooker, Jeff Welsh, Andrew
Rooney, Terry Wicks, Malcolm
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wigley, Dafydd
Ross, William (E Londonderry) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Rowlands, Ted Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Ruddock, Joan Wilson, Brian
Salmond, Alex Winnick, David
Sedgemore, Brian Wise, Audrey
Sheerman, Barry Wray, Jimmy
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Wright, Dr Tony
Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Short, Clare Tellers for the Noes:
Simpson, Alan Mr. Ray Powell and Mr. Thomas McAvoy.
Skinner, Dennis
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).