HC Deb 15 February 1994 vol 237 cc795-7
8. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for Employment if he intends to meet representatives of trade unions to discuss the position of the ban on union membership at GCHQ.

Mr. David Hunt

The Prime Minister and I had such a meeting on 20 December.

Mr. Winnick

Is the Secretary of State aware that the campaign against the ban on union membership at GCHQ is as strong as ever and that it will continue until victory is secured? There was no justification for it in the first place. Is the Secretary of State not bothered by the fact that the International Labour Organisation has expressed much concern about the continuing ban and that, as the Government are unwilling to compromise in any way, the ILO may well decide to issue a formal rebuke or reprimand? If that happens, it will be the first ever case of a western Government being so reprimanded.

Mr. Hunt

There are a number of points in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. Let me say, first, that we did exactly what the ILO requested us to do: we had discussions with the civil service unions to see whether a solution could be found. No one ever imagined for a moment that it would be easy to secure a solution capable of satisfying both sides. So far as the Government are concerned, the dialogue remains open. I am confident that we have nothing to fear from an examination by the ILO of our industrial relations policies. We believe that we can demonstrate that those policies comply with all the ILO conventions that we have ratified.

Mr. Allason

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the former director of GCHQ, Sir Brian Tovey, has stated that during the imposition of martial law in Warsaw and during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan about 10,000 working days cover was lost at GCHQ? Will he confirm that that is a perfectly good reason for the ban on external interference by trade unions in the activities of GCHQ? Can he assure the House that the existing staff association works perfectly well and that there is no reason whatever for interference by an external trade union?

Mr. Hunt

I can confirm what my hon. Friend has said—that, between 1979 and 1981, 10,000 working days were lost at GCHQ. We just cannot run the risk that anything like that will ever happen again. My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, we suggested that the staff federation should be affiliated to the Council of Civil Service Unions to enable people who belong to the federation to have access to the facilities that are available to unions affiliated to CCSU. Sadly, the civil service unions did not feel able to accept that proposal.

Mrs. Clwyd

Is it not true that, according to reports in the Financial Times, the Government are currently planning to withdraw the United Kingdom from the ILO, precisely because the ILO has censured this country—a sanction which is normally applied to countries like Haiti and North Korea? Are not the British Government becoming isolated, not only in Europe but throughout the world, for their anti-worker and anti-union policies?

Mr. Hunt

There is no truth in the assertion that Ministers intend to withdraw from the ILO or to seek an opportunity to do so. Despite criticism from the Trades Union Congress, we believe that our policies comply with all the ILO conventions that we have ratified. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, our overriding objective is to ensure the maintenance of continuous operations at GCHQ, which is vital to the protection of national security. However, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are ready to discuss any further proposals that the unions may wish to put forward, provided that they are consistent with our overriding objective of safeguarding national security.

Mr. Riddick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because of their irresponsible behaviour in disrupting the vital work of GCHQ in the 1980s, the trade unions have only themselves to blame for the ban?

Mr. Hunt

I could not agree more. It is important to ensure that GCHQ staff are not subject to potential conflicts of interest. As I said earlier, the Prime Minister and I listened for some considerable time to the points put forward by the trade unions to see whether or not that overriding national objective could be maintained, but we were not convinced that the trade unions could overcome those potential conflicts of interest. It ill behoves the Opposition to try and put a different gloss on the fact that, thanks to our legislation, we have put harmony in place of strife. We are not prepared to allow the Opposition to put that major achievement at risk.