HC Deb 16 February 1993 vol 219 cc156-73


'. After section 24 of the 1992 Act there shall be inserted—

"Securing confidentiality of register during ballots.

  1. 24A.—(1) This section applies in relation to a ballot of the members of a trade union on—
    1. (a) an election under Chapter IV for a position to which that Chapter applies,
    2. (b) a political resolution under Chapter VI, and
    3. (c) a resolution to approve an instrument of amalgamation or transfer under Chapter VII.
  2. (2) Where this section applies in relation to a ballot the trade union shall impose the duty of confidentiality in relation to the register of members' names and addresses on the scrutineer appointed by the union for the purposes of the ballot and on any person appointed by the union as the independent person for the purposes of the ballot.
  3. (3) Any duty falling upon a branch under this section by reason of its being a trade union shall be treated as having been discharged to the extent to which the union of which it is a branch has discharged the duty instead.
  4. (4) The duty of confidentiality in relation to the register of members' names and addresses is, when imposed on a scrutineer or on an independent person, a duty—
    1. (a) not to disclose any name or address in the register except in permitted circumstances, and
    2. (b) to take all reasonable steps to secure that there is no disclosure of any such name or address by any other person except in permitted circumstances,
  5. (5) The circumstances in which disclosure of a member's name and address is permitted are—
    1. (a) where the member consents;
    2. (b) where it is required for the purposes of the discharge of any of the functions of the Certification Officer or of an inspector appointed by him;
    3. (c) where it is required for the purposes of the discharge of any of the functions of the scrutineer or independent person, as the case may be, under the terms of his appointment;
    4. (d) where it is required for the purposes of the investigation of crime or of criminal proceedings.
  6. (6) Any provision of this Part which incorporates the duty of confidentiality as respects the register into the appointment of a scrutineer or an independent person has the effect of imposing that duty on the scrutineer or independent person as a duty owed by him to the trade union.
  7. (7) The remedy for failure to comply with the requirements of this section is by way of application under section 25 (to the Certification Officer) or section 26 (to the court).
The making of an application to the Certification Officer does not prevent the applicant, or any other person, from making an application to the court in respect of the same matter."'—[Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

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

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Government new clause 7—Ballots for union amalgamations and transfers of engagements: notice and voting papers to be unaccompanied by influential material

Government new clause 8—Ballots: repeal of provisions for financial assistance and use of employers' premises

Government amendments Nos. 56 to 58, 9, 59, 10, 60 to 62 and 11.

Mr. Forsyth

The Government clauses tabled for consideration today, with their consequential amendments, all improve the current law on trade unions and industrial relations and in particular the conduct of ballots.

New clause 6 protects the confidentiality of trade union members when their membership details are disclosed to external organisations in the process of ensuring that ballots are properly conducted. New clause 7 ensures that trade union members will not get propaganda material with voting papers for union merger ballots. New clause 8 will, at the appropriate time, remove obsolete provisions from the statute book.

New clause 6 responds to important points made by hon. Members in Committee on the new requirements that the Bill makes in respect of union ballots. Hon. Members were rightly anxious to protect the confidentiality of union members' names and addresses. It is important that union members have the security of knowing that the ballots held by their union are as fair and democratic as possible. The clauses in the measure that deal with union ballots, like those in previous legislation, aim to give them that confidence.

It is therefore necessary that independent and qualified people are involved in supervising the electoral process, both as scrutineer and as the independent person responsible for storing and distributing ballot papers and counting votes. We are equally concerned, however, that the access to names and addresses which those people must therefore have does not risk compromising the privacy of any individual. I know how such information, in the wrong hands, can be used to harass or menace individuals, for example, women under threat of harassment or prison officers in Northern Ireland.

5 pm

Of course, such people should be confident that their privacy will be properly safeguarded. They are certainly far from unprotected at present. Those who scrutinise union elections must already satisfy criteria that aim to ensure that only responsible people will be appointed and the majority of membership registers that are computerised are, of course, subject to the protections afforded by the Data Protection Act 1984. I should also point out that a union could take it upon itself to ensure that its contract with the scrutineer included a duty of confidentiality.

But I accept the argument that we should take steps to ensure that there is no doubt in the minds of those who have legitimate access to, or a copy of, a union's register that they must in all circumstances and at all times be conscious of their responsibilities in this area. The amendment obliges a union to place a duty of confidentiality on the scrutineer and independent person and offers union members a remedy by means of application to the certification officer or the court if it fails to do so. The amendment adds to the existing protections that safeguard the confidentiality of individuals and makes the duty of confidentiality abundantly clear.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When I used to stand for election at the pits in north Derbyshire, before I became a Member of Parliament, ballots were conducted along similar lines to voting in a general election. We had little booths and we got a turnout of 75 per cent. or more on many occasions. Somehow that fact seems to have been forgotten in the arguments about trade union legislation, of which the Bill is another example. I find it strange that the Government are talking about confidentiality for trade unions when only two years ago the Tory party ballot in a Committee Room for the leader of the party, a putative Prime Minister, was conducted, not confidentially, by the 1922 Committee which could see which way Tory Members were voting—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is very wide of the subject.

Mr. Skinner

It wants putting on the record.

Mr. Forsyth

I must say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that it is the first time I have heard such an allegation. The hon. Gentleman will know that the scope of the Bill does not include elections for the leadership of the Conservative party. One difficulty about union ballots such as the hon. Gentleman referred to was that sometimes the number of people voting exceeded the number who might have been expected to do so.

Mr. Skinner

The Minister should give an example.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Forsyth

Before the hon. Member for Bolsover gets on his high horse, he might spend a little time studying the proceedings on the Bill and he would find out that the new clause is a direct result of a request from his hon. Friends, who asked that the Bill be amended.

Mr. Skinner

I just wanted to get in a swipe at the Tory party.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman must entertain himself in his own way, but throughout the proceedings on the Bill in Committee hon. Members on both sides tried to improve the legislation to make it more workable and effective. I listened to reasoned arguments which were put to the Government. The new clause is a direct response to the persuasive arguments of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith).

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

While I recognise that there were representations on this matter, is the Minister aware that in my trade union, of which I am proud to have been a member for well over 30 years, there were elections from the time the union was set up? Does not the Minister feel any inhibitions about referring to elections in trade unions when he is an active member of a political party which is known to be the least democratic of all the major political parties in western Europe? When is the Tory party going to reform itself and become democratic?

Mr. Forsyth

The Conservative party is not in a position where the clear majority of votes are cast by the trade unions and where people turn up to cast votes on behalf of millions of other people. I am not prepared to take lectures from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on the conduct of political parties. The Bill is not concerned with political parties; it is concerned with trade unions. Trade unions enjoy certain privileges and immunities which political parties do not. In return for those privileges and immunities it is appropriate that there should be a proper framework of law. That is what the Bill is providing.

Indeed, the step-by-step approach that we have taken in the reform of industrial relations has resulted in our seeing the lowest number of days lost through strike action since records began 100 years ago. Had we listened to the advice of the hon. Gentleman, none of those measures would have been brought to the statute book. The hon. Gentleman now finds himself a member of a political party which tells the electorate that it accepts the good sense of much of the legislation which it opposed initially.

On new clause 7, a key principle of the Government's reform of industrial relations and trade union law since 1979 has been our willingness to keep that law under review and to come forward with further measures for reform as and when experience shows them to be needed. The new clause and its associated amendment illustrate that principle in action.

Union merger ballots are important. They affect the very future of a union and its members should have the assurance of a properly conducted, fully postal, and independently scrutinised ballot. Measures already included in the Bill will go a long way towards giving them that assurance. However, during the recent NALGO ballot on merger with other unions to form the proposed new union "UNISON", it became apparent that members needed an additional protection in the case of such ballots. We heard, from various quarters and from several individuals who had brought the matter to the attention of their Members of Parliament, that the NALGO leadership had chosen to send out campaigning material with the actual voting papers themselves. That material was clearly designed to influence voters to cast their votes in favour of the merger. It was one-sided. Given the real division of opinion within the union, it is unsurprising that some members, rightly, felt concerned that the existing law did not prevent that.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I find the Minister's example difficult to understand. In the complexities of union mergers, which will inevitably take place as part of the pattern of change in the structure of trade unions, with a continuing reduction in number over the years, members will want advice as to what is best. Is the Minister saying that he regards it as inappropriate for the elected—I stress "elected"—executive to express a point of view on the merger, or does he regard union members not really as shareholders in the union who should not get opinions from the executive?

Mr. Forsyth

No, I am not saying that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The executive should be able to express a view, but I do not think it appropriate for that view to be included with the ballot papers.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and my hon. Friends the Members for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) and for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), in correspondence with me, relayed concerns expressed to them about the matter by constituents. I am glad to be able to move the new clause, and its associated amendment, to make changes to the law which will meet those concerns.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Surely the Minister understands that the trade union leadership would come to a decision in favour of a merger for many common sense reasons. Government pressure may dictate what happens to unions. During a ballot, is not it in order for a trade union to ask its members to consider the views of the union leadership? When political parties—including the Conservative party—take decisions, I am sure that they inform their membership of the views of the executive and the leadership. The idea of a trade union leadership informing its members of its views and the reasons for an amalgamation is not too complex to accept. I am sure that the Minister understands what I am saying. The massive bulk of trade union members is likely to wish to hear the leadership's views.

Mr. Forsyth

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The changes to be made by the new clause and the amendment will not prevent a union from communicating the views of its leadership or anyone else to members. The leadership will continue to be free to communicate such information about any issue. Nor will unions be prevented from giving members the information necessary to judge the main effects of the subject matter of a merger ballot. The law already provides that such information must be made available to voters in a union merger ballot and has done so for many years. That is secured by a notice, approved by the independent certification officer, which unions have always had to prepare in advance of a merger ballot. In future, by virtue of the provisions of schedule 7 to the Bill, that notice will have to be sent out with the merger ballot voting papers as a matter of course.

Ms. Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

I am intrigued at the Minister's use of the most recent example of a successful union ballot—UNISON—as when I worked for the Confederation of Health Service Employees, I was involved in the beginnings of that long and arduous process. Will the Minister confirm that he said that there have been three complaints from Members of Parliament responding to their constituents' concerns? Will he tell the House whether there have been any other complaints during that process, which has lasted three years, and, if so, how many?

Will the Minister also confirm that by the time that UNISON comes into existence in April the union membership will be almost 1 million strong? Is he really saying that the Government are willing to legislate because of three complaints out of 1 million?

Mr. Forsyth

A number of changes have been made to the Bill and the law because of matters that the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends mentioned in Committee. The Government listened to the arguments put to them. Three Members of the House—two Conservatives and one Opposition Member—mentioned the matter to me, following complaints from their constituents. We have considered the arguments and it seems appropriate to ensure that unions considering a merger are able to put the views of the executive or the union to the membership. It is right and proper, however, that one-sided material should not go to members when the ballot papers are sent out.

In elections to the executive, as the hon. Lady knows, there is an opportunity for all candidates to put their views. It is important that a balanced argument should be put across, where that is appropriate.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that before the UNISON merger got near a ballot it had been discussed extensively in union conference after conference by all three unions involved? There had also been extensive branch consultation on the issue. The merger has had more discussion than many of the provisions of the Bill. By enclosing that material, the union executive was doing no more than articulating the views of the membership, which had been expressed all the way through.

Is not it a fact that the Minister does not like the result of that merger ballot? If he does not object to campaign material being circulated, is not the amendment another attempt to make unions spend more money unnecessarily, by having to make two mailings to members when one would suffice?

5.15 pm
Mr. Forsyth

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should use that argument. Is he arguing that there had been so much discussion in conference and elsewhere that the executive was expressing the views of the membership? In that case, what would be the point of a ballot, which is to ascertain the views of the membership? There should be proper discussion of a merger and opportunities to get the arguments across. Surely the hon. Gentleman can see that it is difficult to understand why the union's view should be presented again at the final stage, when people are asked to vote in the ballot. He argued that there had already been extensive discussions and, on that basis, the membership would already be familiar with the executive's view. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman cannot understand why it is inappropriate for partisan information to be issued with ballot papers, because he is usually far more perceptive than that.

Whether I approve of the results of the ballot in question is neither here nor there. It is not for me to take a view on whether it is good or bad. It is, however, a good thing for people to receive ballot papers without partisan views attached to them with a paper clip.

New clause 7 provides for a new subsection, (3A), to be added to section 99 of the 1992 Act. It requires a notice about the subject matter of the ballot to be free of any statement making a recommendation or expressing an opinion about the proposed amalgamation or transfer. That means that the independent certification officer, who polices the relevant legislation and to whom complaints about breaches of union law must be brought, will not approve any notice which, in his opinion, contains such a statement.

Amendment No. 9 provides that only certain materials may be sent to members. They include the approved notice and the means whereby voters can return their completed voting papers.

Those changes to the Bill are modest but practical and have been prompted by consideration of events which occurred after its publication.

New clause 8 and its consequential amendment repeal sections 115 and 116 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

In December, we announced our intention to phase out public subsidy for trade union ballots. The reasoning behind that decision was made clear—with the aim of ballot funding achieved and now that postal balloting on major issues affecting union members is widespread and well accepted, the scheme does not merit continued public subsidy.

Ms. Eagle

The Minister is smiling.

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Lady smiles at me, I am always inclined to smile back. If she wishes to intervene, I shall happily give way.

We decided to phase out the scheme over three years and to announce the decision at the earliest opportunity to give trade unions maximum notice and the opportunity to make alternative plans.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Can the Minister share with the House how much money has been used during each of the past few years and what consultations took place with the party or the trade unions before the Government made the announcement?

Mr. Forsyth

As my hon. Friend will be aware from his experience in Government, there was considerable consultation with members of the Conservative party who were also members of the Government before the announcement was made. The announcement followed the review of public expenditure commitments in the Department. All Government Departments took part in the review as part of the public expenditure survey.

On my hon. Friend's question about the amount spent, if he consults Hansard he will find several written answers, which confirm that the figure was about £4 million during the past two years. I think that it was £4.2 million in 1992.

Once the trade union ballot funding scheme ceases to exist in 1996, the power to establish the scheme will be obsolete. Therefore, we have decided to take the opportunity afforded by the Bill to repeal that redundant power. As the new clause makes clear, the power will remain in force until the phasing-out arrangements are concluded at the end of March 1996.

Mr. Graham

Does the Minister believe that now is the appropriate moment to remove a subsidy of £4.2 million from trade unions? It is a time when trade unions are under pressure from rising unemployment, threats to benefits and now the issue of postal ballots—all the result of Government initiatives. How on earth can the Government have decided that now is the appropriate time? Is not it just another example of the Government putting the boot in?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman must have a cynical view of the Government if he can make such a charge and he must have a short memory. He may recall that when we introduced the scheme to provide for the funding of trade union ballots, we had difficulty persuading the trade unions to accept the money. There was strong opposition to the scheme and great criticism of the trade unions that chose to accept the money and participate in the balloting procedure when it was voluntary. It is no longer a voluntary, but a statutory, requirement.

I know that the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) works hard on behalf of his constituents and promotes many causes involving public expenditure. If we have to decide between using public funds to subsidise ballots on strike action or using them on the many other worthy causes that the hon. Gentleman draws to the attention of the House, I am sure that he will agree that we are right to consider that the continued funding of the scheme is no longer a priority.

Mr. Burden

In a written answer on 16 December, the Minister clarified that the TUC was informed of the Government's plans to phase out funding of ballots on the same day as the public announcement was made–10 December. On 26 November in Committee the Minister said: we should not put unreasonable cost burdens on trade unions."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 26 November 1992; c. 14] Does the Minister believe that the proposal would result in a cost burden on trade unions? Does he accept that there could have at least been discussions about whether it was reasonable or unreasonable? Why did not he consult the trade unions before making the announcement?

Mr. Forsyth

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman studies my words in Committee so carefully.

Mr. Burden

I do so all the time.

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Gentleman does so all the time, as he says from a sedentary position, he will also see that I said in Committee—I cannot give the exact words—that I was keen that we should give the Committee the clear position on the future of the ballot funding scheme during our consideration of the Bill. The announcement was made in a manner that enabled the Committee to be aware of the position so that it could consider the subject.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, in response to representations by Opposition Members, I said in Committee that we did not wish to add to the cost burdens on trade unions. The hon. Gentleman will note, from his careful study of my words, that I was then referring to the costs of the scrutiny of ballots, not the costs of running ballots. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that my arguments are wholly consistent.

Mr. Winnick

The Minister has a reputation for frankness, but perhaps it is difficult for him to be too frank when presenting the measure. However, does not he realise that we know that the Government loathe and detest trade unions? They can hardly make remarks about trade unions without attacking them. Of all the Ministers, none is more Thatcherite or more dedicated to Thatcherite views than the Minister of State—I suppose that he will take that as a compliment.

Mr. Forsyth

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliment. The second part of his comments may be true, but the first part certainly is not. While at the Department of Employment, I have tried to improve our contacts and relations with trade unions. However, the hon. Gentleman cannot expect the taxpayer to continue to subsidise activities arising from a decision to take industrial action. If trade unions wish to do that, it is clearly for them to find the funds to meet their legal obligations.

As for being Thatcherite—which I take as a great compliment from the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Winnick

I was in a generous mood.

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman says that he was in a generous mood. On the basis of the attitude that the Labour party has adopted to our trade union reforms—to embrace most of them and refuse to repeal the legislation now in place—the hon. Gentleman must find himself wearing the same mantle as me. I hope that he does so with the same conviction and enthusiasm as he attributes to me.

Mr. Graham

The Minister never told us in Commit tee that the Government were withdrawing about £4.2 million from the balloting procedure and replacing it by funding scrutineers. Is the Minister now saying that the Government are considering funding scrutineers for ballots for trade unions?

Mr. Forsyth

I am saying no such thing. The hon. Gentleman will recall that when we were ensconced in Committee, one issue raised by, I think, the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Speller) was that the cost of employing scrutineers where the number of people involved in the ballot was small would create difficulties. A request was made as to whether we would consider a concession to reduce the burden of costs on trade unions. I gave an undertaking, which has been honoured, to look at that matter with a view to giving assistance. That undertaking was what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) was quoting earlier—I suspect in an attempt to trap me with my own words.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth (Coventry, North-East)


Mr. Forsyth

I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I am in danger of filibustering my own new clause.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am loth to impede the Minister's progress, but the Opposition's problem does not arise from the Minister's frankness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said earlier —quite the contrary. The Minister is attempting to say that the trade unions' position has changed as they did not want to accept Government money when the systems were being introduced on a voluntary basis. Those systems are now being introduced on a compulsary basis, through legislation, in a deliberately over-bureaucratic way. The Government want to legislate to ensure that there are two separate postal circulations on a ballot, but, meanwhile, they have withdrawn the financial support for that process. The Government want to dictate the details of how trade unions should operate and, having done that, withdraw any subsidy. That is the problem and it shows how the Government's anti-trade unionism is creeping in.

Mr. Forsyth

If the Government were anti-trade union and wanted to make life difficult for trade unions, they could have included in the Bill many provisions that they have not. We are not opposed to trade unions; we simply think that they enjoy great privileges and immunities arid that there should be a proper framework of law. We believe that it would be inappropriate to use taxpayers' money to support ballots that are about either internal trade union matters or causing disruption in the workplace. We have made no attempt to remove the privileges of trade unions or to argue that they should not be able to go about their business.

The ending of the ballot funding scheme also affects section 116 of the 1992 Act, which relates specifically to ballots that meet requirements of a "scheme under section 115". Clearly, once there is no scheme under section 115 —as will be the case once the phasing-out arrangements for the ballot funding scheme are complete—section 116 will inevitably fall. We are therefore taking this opportunity to repeal section 116 as well.

These repeals are consequent on the decision to phase out public subsidy for trade union ballots. The Bill offers a timely opportunity to repeal soon-to-be redundant provisions and, in the interests of keeping statute up to date and as straightforward as possible, we have taken the opportunity to do so.

5.30 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley

When was the funding for trade union training introduced—mainly for health and safety —and what is its current level?

Mr. Forsyth

I shall be happy to answer that question at some point, but we are now discussing funds provided for ballots rather than funds provided for education and training, which are not affected. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to those arrangements, which are also being phased out. I have asked the Health and Safety Commission to consider how it can improve the provision of training related to safety and we have made it clear that funds would be available for such purposes. If my hon. Friend tables a question, I shall be glad to set out the facts in a written answer.

I commend the new clauses and amendments to the House.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

I welcome the Minister's reassurances about possible increases in funds for training in health and safety. That is a matter of increasing importance. The hon. Gentleman has been particularly mellow this afternoon. I am not sure whether that is due to the sense of relief that we all feel when the Report stage of a Bill is reached, or to the somewhat splendid lunch that we have all had today, but we shall find out as the night progresses.

New clause 6 was tabled in response to representations that we made in Committee. It imposes a statutory obligation of confidentiality on the maintenance of trade union registers. As the Minister said, various statutory regulations under, for instance, data protection legislation would make it difficult for a register to be breached and information given elsewhere. We felt, however, that that protection was not absolute, and that a statutory obligation was required because of the seriousness of the matters involved—especially in relation to security, particularly in Northern Ireland, and to junk mail. We are grateful to the Minister for what he has done in that regard.

New clause 7 can best be described as a piece of unnecessary legislation. Most Opposition Members would agree that it is a bit daft. I understand the Minister's view that only the ballot paper should be sent to trade union members, so that nothing influences their judgment. However, given that the Government's aim has always been the amalgamation of trade unions and a reduction in their number—indeed, some Opposition Members favour that—it seems particularly perverse not to allow ballot papers to be accompanied by information about the rights and wrongs of a proposed merger. That is not a political issue between left and right; it is about good organisation in trade unions.

It should be borne in mind that information is often provided along with ballot papers for elections to a number of organisations—including, probably, trade unions. Frequently, a curriculum vitae is included. Why should not information be contained in the envelope with the ballot paper? Surely that would be a useful way of conveying such information. The Minister may fear that it would be one-sided, but it would be easy to ensure that both sides were represented. The hon. Gentleman has made an unnecessary meal of the issue, basing his argument on representations from three Members of Parliament who have received an unspecified number of complaints. He has gone over the top to try to solve a problem that, in our view, does not exist. We should encourage the provision of information, so that trade union members can make better choices.

It is, however, to new clause 8 that we are most strongly opposed. As the Minister said, it withdraws payment to trade unions for ballots. It exposes the Government's word to some contempt, suggesting that, to a certain extent, they cannot be trusted. The Minister has said that, at the time when ballot funding was introduced, there was a dispute within trade unions about whether the money should be taken. Indeed, there were many arguments on both sides at that time, but it was consistently said that the measure was temporary: it would never stand the test of time. Once the ballots were introduced, the funds would be withdrawn.

Not at all, said the Government—and, unfortunately, chaps like me who supported the funding said the same. My judgment has been found wanting, which is one of the reasons for my anger at the withdrawal of the funds—which, at the time of their introduction, were supposed to be a continuing commitment. In its 1979 manifesto, the Conservative party—mentioning the matter for the first time—said: We will … provide public funds for postal ballots". On Second Reading of the Employment Bill 1979, the then Secretary of State justified the measure by saying that funding would remove financial obstacles to the holding of postal ballots." —[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 61.] The Bill, apparently, was telling trade unions: You do not have to have a secret ballot for any of your decisions. It is up to you. But if you are thinking of having one, you do not have to worry about the cost, for the taxpayer will reimburse you."—[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 165.] First, secret balloting is a statutory obligation; secondly, the Government consider it an essential part of the framework for the nation's industrial recovery and regeneration—and for good industrial relations—for ballots to be held before strike action, and in a host of other circumstances. If ballots are as important as that, surely it is important for the taxpayer to finance them. The Minister has not justified the removal of funds.

During the Report stage of the Employment Bill, the then Secretary of State said: the most likely means of achieving our aims, which are so widely shared, is by encouragement and the provision of funds rather than by compulsion."—[Official Report, 22 April 1980; Vol. 983, c. 304.] All those nice words were said at the time, but, as we now realise, the commitment was only temporary. The Minister has told us that, now that the Government's aims have, in fact, been achieved by compulsion, the money will be taken away.

Once again, the Government's reassurances cannot be trusted. The measure will impose a financial burden on the trade unions—a figure of £4.2 million has been given. The Minister will recall that, in Committee, we spent many happy hours smilingly listening to his talk of burdens. He was never worried about the imposition of burdens on the trade unions, but, whenever we suggested imposing a duty on employers, he said that such a burden was unacceptable. Therefore, we oppose the new clause. It reneges on previous commitments given by the Government. Once again, the Government have applied double standards, under which individual trade unionists and their organisations are treated differently from business men.

Mr. Graham

As my hon. Friend knows, the sum of £4.2 million was provided for this purpose. We are now talking about there being a requirement on every trade union to conduct postal ballots. Has my hon. Friend made an estimate of how much they will cost the unions?

Mr. Galbraith

The Minister might find that an interesting question to answer. I do not know the answer. However, my hon. Friend has brought me to my final point.

The trade union legislation to which I referred increased the statutory duty imposed upon trade unions to conduct ballots. The Minister intends to impose additional statutory obligations that will involve additional expense but he also intends to take away from trade unions the money with which to conduct ballots. That is further evidence of his double standards.

We approve of new clause 6. It meets some of the points that we made in Committee. We think that new clause 7 is daft, unnecessary and over the top. The Government: have over-reacted to what is not a problem. However, we shall not take the trouble to vote against new clause 7.

On new clause 8, however, we believe that the Government have reneged on their previous commitments to trade unions and individual trade union members. For that reason, therefore, we shall vote against new clause 8.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I believe, as do other hon. Members, that new clause 6 is acceptable. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) has just said that new clause 7 does not matter all that much. I should like, however, to say something about new clause 8.

It would be useful if the Minister could tell the House how much money he expects trade unions to have to spend on postal ballots. There were good arguments for the trade union movement accepting the money that was made available on a voluntary basis. The arguments were long and hard. There was some ill-feeling between the brothers, if I may put it that way, at that time. It then came to be accepted. There are now good arguments for ensuring that that money should continue to be made available for all within the trade union movement.

Now, nobody is compelled to be a member of a trade union. For the Minister suddenly to turn round and say that this abolition is part of a bilateral deal with the Treasury within the public expenditure survey, one of the more private aspects of Government that does not involve Parliament, or the trade union movement, is wrong. Half the trade union members are in trade unions that are not affiliated to the Labour party. The issue affects the Trades Union Congress. The TUC is not affiliated to the Labour party.

The trade unions and the TUC are together trying to put behind them the past apparent total assocation with the Labour party and to establish in the minds of their members and in the mind of Government that they—especially those that are affiliated to the Labour party—can do a better job by not constantly backing losers, as they have done in four general elections in a row.

They have become more open to dialogue and debate, with the result that some of the Government's ideas may be acceptable to the trade union movement, after discussion. Furthermore, many of the ideas of the trade union movement have been accepted by the Government, as we shall find when we consider amendment No. 54, which provides that health and safety representatives should not be sacked for drawing attention to potential dangers to health or safety in the workplace. The Government rejected that concept at one time, but a year ago they accepted it and it is now being consolidated in legislation.

In this case, the Government took an arbitrary decision. There was no consultation with Conservative Members who have an interest in the issue and who would have liked to take part in the debate. There were no consultations with Opposition Members, whether or not they are sponsored by trade unions. To drop it like a bombshell, especially on to those trade unions which found the provision useful, strikes me as wrong.

What is wrong with consultation, discussion and debate? Put like that, the House should vote against the new clause. I hope that those who advise Ministers will remember that the habit, over the decades, of discussing issues in the open and having meetings with the TUC and with representatives of the trade unions, was a perfectly reasonable way of going about things. If, after consultation, the Government decide that their expenditure plans require the saving of £4 million in this way, that may be acceptable, but it is unacceptable without consultation.

Mr. Graham

The hon. Gentleman will recall that at that time there was a lot of consultation with the trade unions. They were asked to accept the money. There were an amazing number of articles in the newspapers by Tory supporters and business men, all urging the trade unions to accept the money. Everyone understood at that time that the money was to be for all time and that therefore there was no need not to have ballots—that they could be put in place and paid for. It was said then that the money would be available for all time. How can any trade union now believe that any legislation introduced by this Government is to be trusted?

Mr. Bottomley

That takes us to a debate that I believe should have taken place before the Government announced their decision rather than now. If, as the Minister said, there will be a requirement that postal ballots must be held, there is a case to be argued for continuing public funding. We must at least be grateful that there is to be a phasing out of the funding rather than an instant guillotine, but I repeat my point that decisions such as this should not in future be announced in this way.

5.45 pm
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

The hon. Gentleman is making a particularly powerful case as a former Minister at the Department of Employment. He has a unique insight into these issues. Can he give his view of the motives behind the move? Is it to shave £4 million off a £50 billion deficit, or is it a mean, nasty attempt to cripple the trade unions financially?

Mr. Bottomley

It will not cripple the unions financially because not all trade unions have taken advantage of it. There is a debate within the trade union movement as to whether it was right to take the money and whether it is still right to take it. That is a separate set of issues. The key point is that the Government have not been in the habit of taking arbitrary decisions without consultation. I believe that the trade unions should have been consulted. That is why I shall vote against the new clause.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

I shall confine my remarks to new clause 8. It is interesting to note, following the point made by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), that the new clause was not the subject of advance consultations. That is an important point. I suspect that the reason why there was no advance consulation was that the Government were aware of what the response would be if they did consult. The response from both sides of industry would, I am sure, have been against the abolition of state funding for postal ballots.

It is also worth pointing out that we have not heard a convincing case from the Minister this afternoon as to why state funding for postal ballots should be removed. We have not heard a convincing case because a convincing case cannot be made for it. When the scheme was introduced in 1980, the postal balloting regime introduced by the Act was voluntary. There was no compulsion to hold postal ballots. Postal ballots were the preferred method by means of which trade unions could consult their members, but they were not mandatory.

The important point now is that almost all these ballots must be conducted by post. If we add on to the requirement that ballots should be held that they should all be postal, the Bill adds another layer of bureaucracy and requirements on to unions, for they will have to appoint professional scrutineers. The trade unions will be hit by substantial costs.

The figures from the certification officer reveal that last year £4.2 million was spent on the postal ballot scheme, that £2.6 million was spent on the scheme in 1991 and that £1.5 million was spent on it in 1990. Therefore, we see an exponential increase in the costs that trade unions have to shoulder because of the Government's legislative policy. That financial burden on trade unions will increase in the years to come, not just because postal ballots are now mandatory, but because additional costs will be incurred, due to the requirement to appoint scrutineers. The House is entitled to take the view that this is a rather sad measure. No convincing case has been made for withdrawing the state funding regime. The Minister has not made such a case this afternoon because no such case can be made.

It is also worth bearing it in mind that when the regime was introduced, the then Secretary of State for Employment said: it will remove financial obstacles to the holding of postal ballots."—[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 61.] That was the view of the then Secretary of State of the regime that he proposed should be established. It is logical, therefore, that the withdrawal of the scheme will increase the burdens and obstacles which, I suspect, is precisely what lies behind the new clause. It is a sad mistake. There is no case for it and it will add substantially to the financial burdens on trade unions.

The case has often been made that trade unions are in a special position because of their ability to influence industrial policy and to cause disruption in the workplace. It is therefore argued that there is a special case for requiring unions to ballot their members in certain instances. I agree with that argument. I am and have always have been a strong supporter of balloting within the trade union movement and I support the regime for the reimbursement of the cost of postal ballots.

Having made the balloting arrangement compulsory, why are the Government now proposing to withdraw from it? It has never been declared to be a temporary scheme. Our understanding was that it was permanent because of the special costs involved in administering postal ballots. Trade unions are voluntary organisations. Admittedly, they are in a position to have a special influence on the course of industrial policy but, as the hon. Member for Eltham said, they are voluntary associations. Therefore, there is no case for imposing a mandatory obligation to consult by means of a postal ballot on voluntary organisations and for the Government to then say that the unions must bear the cost on their own. That is grossly unfair and unreasonable.

I am sure that hon. Members of all parties support the case for postal balloting. It is a reasonable way to consult the trade union membership, but, having imposed a mandatory obligation on voluntary associations, it is not reasonable or fair for the Government to withdraw funding just at the moment when they are substantially increasing the costs of the postal balloting scheme.

The Minister referred to the fact that postal balloting is an accepted method of consultation and that, because the process has become accepted, now is the moment for the Government to withdraw funding. There is no logic in the Minister's argument, if that is his case. I draw his attention in particular to the Trade Union Act 1984 which made certain ballots mandatory and compulsory, especially those in connection with strikes and trade union elections. There was no choice about whether those ballots should take place in a particular way. However, the Government still applied the postal balloting funding scheme to those compulsory ballots, so there is no argument in precedent to which the Minister can turn to support his case.

The Minister gave the game away in his opening remarks. It is clear that the reason why the Government are withdrawing from the scheme has nothing to do with the balloting practice, democracy or the question of whether the state should subsidise strike ballots, because it was the Conservative Government who introduced the notion of subsidy for strike ballots in the first place. It is purely a matter of public expenditure.

The Government have examined the budget and pointed out to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury £4 million that they can lose this year. They proposed to proceed quietly and without consultation and to spring the decision in the middle of the Committee stage in order to save the Department of Employment £4 million this year, probably £6 million the year after and £8 million the year after that. The cost is substantial as we are talking about many millions of pounds. It is pathetic and sad that the Government have tabled the new clause.

Mr. Robert Ainsworth

As has been said, there were differences of opinion during the debates on various pieces of legislation about balloting within trade unions. I readily admit that I never was, and still am not, in favour of compulsory postal ballots, whether or not the Government agree to pay for them. We have reached a point where the deliberate interference in the internal workings of the trade union movement has become unacceptable. That has been widely recognised not only by people within the trade union movement but by the public at large.

On a personal level, I am perhaps not as upset as my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) who may have accepted the argument in the first place for the introduction of postal ballots and encouraged people to take the Government subsidy. However, I believe that the Government's proposal is run through with cynicism because the Government have no intention of reducing the wholly unreasonable level of interference in trade unions, but are deliberately bringing the full impact of their legislation to bear on them.

It is not only economic problems and the desire to cut public expenditure that is obliging the Government to do so. Vindictiveness runs through the Bill, and there is clearly a desire to punish the trade union movement. It is absolutely beyond me why the Government cannot break out of that mindset. Although it seems that one or two Conservative Members can, members of the Government Front Bench cannot.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Would it not be a good idea to consider asking the Government whether they will allow trade union subscriptions to have, in effect, tax relief at source? At the moment, many trade union members do not apply for it. It would save bother with the Inland Revenue, would help to raise money for the trade unions to pay for the ballot and would probably make more money than if they kept the £4 million.

Mr. Ainsworth

I had not thought of that proposal, but I stand by the general proposition that the trade unions should be accepted as independent organisations. If the Government get involved in such legislative detail, they should be prepared to pay for it. I do not believe that they should get involved with such detail in the first place but that they should leave the trade union movement to organise itself in accordance with certain criteria.

I have always believed that the prime aim of conducting a ballot of members was to gain the maximum participation in the decision-making process. There is clear evidence that in a wide range of decisions postal ballots do not achieve that aim. They were never intended to do so. Well organised factory branch ballots are the way to maximise participation in trade union decisions, whether about strikes or other matters.

Factory branch ballots are a good, efficient and cheap way for people to participate. They were made illegal by the Government who are now withdrawing the funding in order to meddle in the internal organisation of trade unions. For that reason, I deplore the new clause which is vindictive in the extreme.

Mr. Miller

I should like to ask the Minister a simple question.

Sections 115 and 116 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 deals with two effects. The first is the main principle that we have discussed and the second is the use of employers' premises. Section 115 describes the purposes for which the ballots are to take place. One involves strike action and the other deals with the acceptance or rejection of a proposal made by an employer in relation to the contractual terms … upon which, or the other incidents of the relationship whereby, a person works or provides services for the employer". Does the Minister not think that, in his haste to save £4 million or, as I see it, to make life more difficult for the trade union movement, he is putting at risk good industrial relations which could be affected by the removal of a statutory obligation, in certain circumstances, to conduct ballots in the workplace?

Mr. Winnick

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Government are not really concerned with good industrial relations and they are certainly not concerned with any financial problems that trade unions may have? The Government forced on trade unions one type of voting. As I said earlier, the trade unions require no lectures about internal voting. Unlike the Conservative party, all unions have voting systems. The Bill aims to make it far more difficult for trade unions to operate. It is motivated by spite, as has been the case since 1979, and I hope—I am sure that my hopes are well founded—that my hon. Friend has no illusions whatever about what the Government are trying to do in eroding and undermining trade union rights, banning trade unions outright, as at Government Communications Headquarters, and in other places making it extremely difficult for working people to belong to trade unions at their place of work.

6 pm

Mr. Miller

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is for the Minister to demonstrate that he is not so cynical towards trade unions as my hon. Friend believes. Having spent many years as a trade union official and three months in Committee, I share my hon. Friend's worries. If the Minister is genuinely concerned about the conduct of good industrial relations, and bearing in mind that the new clause will damage industrial relations by damaging workplace provisions that are set out in clause 116, would it not be better to drop the daft idea to claw back a few million pounds?

Mr. Michael Forsyth

We have had an interesting debate and I shall try to deal with some of the points that have arisen.

I found myself listening to Opposition Members wanting to take me back to 1979 and I was rather puzzled by some of the comments that were made. Unfortunately, the former Member for Dunbartonshire, East, now the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg), was not able to participate in our proceedings in Committee, although I understand that he is now back in harness in the House and I hope that he will forgive me for referring to him. What he said on 17 December 1979 as an Opposition Member is rather instructive when one compares it with some of the comments made by Opposition Members and one of my hon. Friends here today. He said: I cannot understand why the Government propose that money should be spent in this way. He was referring to ballots— The trade union movement has not asked for it, and there is no evidence that the trade union movement cannot afford to run secret ballots.—[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 121.] In addition, we have seen various reports from the TUC. In 1981 the TUC said: The general council reaffirmed their policy that affiliated unions should not seek state funds under the Act to finance ballots. In 1982 the TUC said: Affiliated unions shall observe congress policy and not seek to accept public funds for union ballots under the Employment Act 1980 ballot funds scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) was unkind to suggest that the Government were being precipitate. The matter is being phased out over a period to 1996. It does not require legislation to do so. The Bill does not withdraw the funding; it merely withdraws the power to provide funding. The funding would have gone in any case. That is not a legal opinion and I am confident that I shall be able to repeat it with conviction tomorrow and the day after.

Opposition Members will find it difficult to argue the case in the House for items of expenditure which are important to them in the health service or elsewhere while at the same time arguing that the Government should continue to subsidise, for example, ballots on industrial action. That is a matter which should not be a priority charge on the taxpayer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham asked me to estimate how much trade unions will spend on such ballots. The Government hope that the expenditure will be minimal because we do not want to see ballots on strikes. We want industrial relations conducted in a way which avoids such things.

It is perverse for the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who made so many splendid contributions in Committee, to sully his record now by suggesting that industrial relations will be helped by the taxpayer subsidising ballots to hold strikes.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) said that the new clause was all about a desire to punish the trade unions. I do not believe that he, in his heart of hearts, believes that. He recognises that the Government have to make choices and decide priorities and that it is difficult to justify such expenditure at present.

Opposition Members have expressed their views cogently and I hope that they will understand why, given the current restraints on public expenditure, the Government do not believe that it would be appropriate for funds to be used in this way.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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