HC Deb 30 March 1999 vol 328 cc983-7
Mr. Boswell

I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 1, line 19, leave out 'compilation' and insert 'use'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 21, leave out from 'unions' to end of line 4 on page 2.

Mr. Boswell

We move from the consideration of general issues to a more pointillist analysis of the Bill, and if we receive satisfactory responses from the Government, it may be possible to accelerate the pace slightly.

Clause 3 and amendments Nos. 11 and 12 relate to blacklists. We are far from certain that it is necessary to legislate on blacklists, but we are not reopening the issue of principle. However, a point in this regard arose in Committee which is embodied in the amendments.

If the amendments were agreed to, one of the two possible offences in connection with blacklists would be removed. As the Minister will no doubt wish to say when he replies, the clause is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We have not seen the details of what is to be proposed and they have not peen consulted upon. However, the amendments allow me to outline some of our concerns.

The amendments would confine an offence to the use of blacklists by employers or employment agencies for the purposes of recruitment. They would remove the offence of compilation of blacklists, for which there are at least three reasons.

First, as I said in Committee—in our haste to make progress, the Minister did not respond—it is possible for the compilation to take place outwith the jurisdiction altogether. For example, an agency in, for example, the United States, where the practice of union busting is a little more prevalent, might compile the list and post it on the internet. It is unclear whether an offence would then take place in the United Kingdom. Where that might take place is one of my concerns. On the other hand, the use of the blacklist in relation to UK legislation would be an offence which was tied to UK employees and would take place in the UK.

Secondly, lists could be compiled for a number of reasons, which may or may not, within the Government's terms, be malicious. One could compile a list at random. One could compile a list of trade unionists because one liked them or even wished to give preference to them rather than to discriminate against them. [Interruption.]

I am interested in the comments made from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I am sorry that he is not addressing himself to the details of the point. It is important that we get the matter right. We are not contesting the principle; we are concerned that the legislation should be viable.

My third consideration relates to what might be termed the possession of a list. There is no provision in the Bill for the mere possession of a list to be an offence, nor am I canvassing for that. But the point at which the compilation is complete is a matter of interest. I can understand that a list which has been compiled with the intention of being used to bust a union might be of concern to the Government, but what would happen if the list was in the process of compilation? When would we know whether it had been completed? When would we be able to say that it was definitely a list for the purposes of being used by employers or employment agencies for the purposes of recruitment? Those are legalistic points, but they have some merit.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Why does the hon. Gentleman not simply tell the truth? The truth is that the Tories favour blacklists.

Mr. Boswell

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting—because if he is I am sure he will want to reconsider—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Why is the hon. Gentleman arguing for them?

Mr. Boswell

The argument is simply about whether the offence that the Government are proposing should be confined to the use of blacklists.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My hon. Friend will remember the debate we had in Committee. The Bill does not ban blacklists: it bans lists of trade unionists. Clause 22 requires the Secretary of State to have a list of trade unionists to appoint to the Central Arbitration Committee.

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that. The essential point is that, if the Government want to go down that road, they can probably insist on banning lists or blacklists, but it may be speculative to create a separate offence of compilation, however well secured by preparation of regulations and consultation on them and by the affirmative resolution procedure; and I cannot see that it is necessary. If there is a problem, it consists in the use of those lists for the purposes of employment, and I think that that is what the offence should be.

Mrs. Fyfe

I am puzzled about what the Conservatives are contriving to do, because on three separate occasions in the past 10 years I have tried to make blacklisting an offence and on each of those occasions the Conservative Government used their majority to defeat those aims. Now we hear that the Conservatives do not support blacklisting: they merely want to ensure that the Bill is amended to prohibit the use of a list instead of the compilation of a list. That is an extraordinary proposition. Those of us who are against blacklisting—the Tories apparently include themselves in that—want such lists to be neither compiled nor used. They cannot be used if they are not compiled.

If a group of people in another country compile a list and put it on the net, that is obviously not within our jurisdiction. However, we can deal with offences within our jurisdiction and take action against those who compile or use such lists in this country.

Amendment No. 12 is plain silly, because it would prevent trade unions from making a list of members to ask them if they want insurance on loans, credit cards or holiday bargains. What is the sense in that?

I am glad to see this clause in the Bill. I have been campaigning on the issue for many years. In 1989, when I proposed this measure for inclusion in an Employment Bill, the Tories rejected it. That night, 170 hon. Members supported it, including my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). I am pleased that this measure will go through the House on this occasion.

Mr. Fabricant

I support the amendments because I believe that the days of the Economic League in the 1980s are past. I also believe that the Bill, as it stands, is unenforceable. 0I suspect that the Minister believes that too. Clause 3(2) says: The Secretary of State may make regulations". It says not "will" make, but "may" make regulations. The Secretary of State knows that, if he were to make such regulations, they would be unenforceable.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, when is a list a list? When is a list compiled, and when it is merely half completed or fully completed? There is no clarity in the law. Is a series of post-it notes a list?

Mr. Ian Stewart

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fabricant

I shall not give way, because it is in the interests of the House that I finish my speech relatively quickly, and interventions take time. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to keep the House up, far be it from me to prevent him.

11.45 pm
Mr. Stewart

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way.

My point is very clear and very simple. There is a dissuasive element in the Bill in relation to the compilation of blacklists, but the hon. Gentleman is right that a decision on whether a list is just a list or a blacklist must come after the list has been compiled. That dissuasive element must clearly be in place, so that people know that it is not right to do it in the first place.

Mr. Fabricant

I do not think that the purpose of law is to influence opinion; I think that it is to legislate. I am saying that clause 3 is a bad clause because it is unenforceable in many ways. I think that it will be challenged in the courts, and I do not think that the question of when a list is a list is at all clear.

In fact, the whole clause is unnecessary in any case. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) was right to claim that she had consistently argued against blacklists. She may remember that on 12 April 1988 she presented a ten-minute Bill to give persons a right of access to any information held by any organisation for the purpose of blacklisting. I think that that was an excellent idea.

We expected today, when a statement was made on the modernisation of government, to hear when there would be a freedom of information Bill, but nothing was said. Such a Bill would have given further access not only to blacklists held by individuals, but to blacklists that may well be held by the Government in relation to certain people. Why is there no such thing as a freedom of information Bill? What are the Government frightened of?

I believe that clause 3 is impossible in terms of legislation, and impossible to maintain in a court of law. I think that the amendment, which simply suggests that use of a blacklist should be deterred, is far more useful and sensible than the provisions in the Bill; and, as I have said, it is clear from the words "may make regulations" that the Secretary of State accepts my argument.

Mr. Byers

For the record, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is right to say that clause 3(2) gives the Secretary of State a power which he may exercise, and I certainly intend to exercise that power if I stay in my post long enough. To be blacklisted from employment—to be unable to work in one's profession or trade—simply because of trade union membership or activity is entirely unacceptable, and many of my hon. Friends have fought and campaigned for years for the day when, through legislation, we can ensure that such blacklisting is no more. That is exactly what clause 3 does, but we have to do this by way of regulation. I look forward to the time when we can debate in the House regulations that will, in detail, introduce the prohibition. There can be no place, in the last year of the century, for people being blacklisted for trade union membership.

The hon. Member for Lichfield spoke of points of law. There is a legal position underpinning the legislation, but we also believe that there is a responsibility in legislation to reflect public opinion. The message is simple. We do not believe that we should tolerate the keeping, the compiling or the use of lists that can be used to deny people work and the opportunity to earn their living, which is what blacklisting effectively does.

Mr. Fabricant

Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Byers

No. We have heard many exchanges this evening; some have been significant, many trivial in the extreme, but the time has now come to make some progress.

Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 would ensure that it would no longer be a criminal offence to compile a list of people relating to their trade union activities. We believe that that should be a criminal offence. We also believe that it should be a criminal offence to use such a list for the purpose of blacklisting individuals.

With respect to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), there is no earthly reason why compilation should not be an offence. I agree with some of my hon. Friends that it is more of a wrecking amendment than one that seeks to deal with the issue of individuals being blacklisted from work. That is why I will invite the House to resist the two amendments.

On the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Daventry, it is true that compilation outside the UK will not be subject to our legislation; it is like any other area of law. It is a loophole, but one which it is not within our power to control. I regret that, but that is the reality. However, it is no reason not to move forward with clause 3.

The hon. Member for Daventry says that lists could be held for a number of reasons, but then fails to outline what those reasons might be in the context of clause 3.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Byers

No; I am not giving way.

Our view is that it is inappropriate to give people a power to compile a list for the purposes that are outlined in clause 3. One must ask why people need to possess such a list if they are not going to use it for purposes that we believe are wholly unacceptable.

I had hoped that even the Conservative party in 1999 would support measures to stop blacklisting. I regret that it is unable to do that and that its two amendments seek to water down clause 3. I hope that the hon. Member for Daventry, the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, will reconsider the matter, look carefully at the effects of his amendments and agree that it is far better to keep the robust approach in clause 3 than to water it down.

Mr. Boswell

I suppose that the Secretary of State might expect me to defer to his superior legal knowledge in the matter, but with respect, I do not think that he has entirely addressed himself to the legal difficulties that I sought to outline, other than to concede that some of them were valid because we could not control the compilation of lists outside our jurisdiction.

I also noticed that the Secretary of State inserted into the various tests what he described at one point as keeping a list and at another point as possessing a list; it is not clear whether he has taken the relevant powers under the clause, or whether keeping or possessing a list is subsumed under the use of a list. It will be a matter of some concern if people who have a list in their possession—however they have come by it; perhaps they have inherited it from a parent—are guilty of a criminal offence even if they have never used it or intended to use it.

Nevertheless, having raised those points and invited the Secretary of State to reconsider them in preparing his regulations, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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