HL Deb 10 March 1964 vol 256 cc366-73

4.53 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have been asked to introduce to your Lordships the Second Reading of this Private Member's Bill which went through another place almost "on the nod". It so happened that it was introduced on a very busy Private Member's Bill day, Friday, and it was reached only at 3.57 in the afternoon, which allowed only three minutes for its consideration. Such was the bustle that the Parliamentary Secretary actually talked the measure out at 4 o'clock, but by some neat rearrangement on the part of my honourable friend it was taken again the following week and passed through all its stages without further debate. I therefore think that, as it is a Bill of some complexity and some importance, something should be said in your Lordships' House about it, even if in another place it passed without much comment.

I would start my remarks by saying that the Bill, although a Private Member's Bill, has the full support of Her Majesty's Government, the British Employers' Confederation, and, I believe, of the Trades Union Congress, too; I am hoping to hear more of that from the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. Some people might say that if that formidable combination all approved of this Bill, there must be some catch in it somewhere; but I would assure your Lordships that, in this case at any rate, I do not think there is any catch at all.

The Bill endeavours to deal in a small, modest way with the present effort that is being made in many quarters to streamline our industrial organisation. The British Employers' Confederation, the Federation of British Industries and other employers' organisations are all working to see whether some form of merger would not be more acceptable to the modern age. This Bill endeavours to help trade unions—and the British Employers' Confederation is a trade union—to modernise themselves if they so wish. But, of course, if we wish to make easier the course of modernisation and the merger of trade unions and the like, we must see to it that the proper safeguards for the individual union member are there and that they are maintained, and I hope to show in my few remarks on this Bill that we do maintain those safeguards.

The present structure of the trade union movement I suppose owes its existence almost entirely to historical accident. Like Topsy, it has grown up. And although efforts have been made from time to time to make amalgamations and mergers when they seemed desirable, yet they were not easy. There are hybrid unions, craft and non-craft alike; there are craft unions, there are general unions and various types of what are known as white-collar unions; and although this diversity is not a bad thing in itself, it can make for overlapping and difficulties and lead to demarcation disputes and arguments. From the employers' point of view, industrial relations may be made unnecessarily complex if the employer has to negotiate with a multiplicity of unions in his one trade; and everybody, I believe—employer, trade union and the general public—deplores demarcation disputes. Yet I regret to say we have them with us. The T.U.C., as I am sure Lord Williamson will remind us, themselves acknowledge that it is necessary to take stock. I believe that in 1961 or 1962 a motion was passed through Congress to that effect. As was widely reported at the time, the T.U.C. approached Lord Blakenham, who was then the Minister of Labour, to see whether something could be done to relax the existing laws governing trade union mergers and changes of name. I believe that the Minister on that occasion welcomed the T.U.C. approach and promised to examine the proposal sympathetically.

Perhaps I might remind your Lordships that the existing law is rather trict: if two or more unions wish to amalgamate, each must hold a ballot in which at least 50 per cent. of its members take part, and there must then be a six to five majority in favour. It is not so much the point of the required majority to which people object, but that it is difficult to get such a high proportion of members to take part in the voting—50 per cent. for a merger or, if there is to be a transfer, 66⅔ per cent. In these days, everybody knows that it is extremely difficult to get a large number of people to vote on any important measure; indeed, from time to time we see criticisms of trade unions for not being able to get more than 10 per cent. of their members to vote on important subjects. So the reported proposal of the T.U.C. was that, provided that all members had an opportunity to vote, the law should not require that a certain proportion must vote, nor lay down how large a majority it should be. I must confess that in present-day circumstances that idea seems all right, and this Bill endeavours to follow it out. The Bill makes a simple majority of those voting sufficient to approve an amalgamation or a transfer of engagements between two trade unions. This is a considerable relaxation of the present law, and therefore, as I have said, safeguards must be added. First, the Bill seeks to ensure that members are fully informed about the effects of a merger before a vote is taken. Secondly, members will have a right of complaint to the Registrar of Friendly Societies against voting irregularities.

To come to the Bill itself, Clause 1 lays down conditions and requirements which are to govern the holding of a vote on an amalgamation or transfer. It will be seen that at least a week before the vote members are to receive a notice about the merger, and this notice must contain sufficient information about the proposed merger so that members can make a reasoned judgment on the matter. To ensure that the notice gives sufficient information it has to be approved, before it goes out, by the Registrar. Clause 2 seeks to give the union executive a fairly free hand in making arrangements for voting. Unless it did, there could easily be confusion as to whether or not any rules existed. However, if a union so desires, it can say in its rules that this provision is not to apply, and can, again, tie its executive to a particular procedure for the future. When a union absorbs another, it may need to adapt its rules to those of the other union for this purpose. Clause 3 gives the executive power to make the necessary changes, unless the union's rules expressly say that they are not to do so.

Clause 4 deals, as I have already indicated, with the right of complaint to the Registrar. A member has six weeks after the application to register a complaint. The Registrar is given power to decide complaints, and his decisions are final. He may refer to the High Court any matters of law. I am informed that in Scotland the Court of Session takes the place of the High Court. Clause 5 reproduces the substance of existing law which enables the property of unions which are merging to be easily transferred. The T.U.C. also thought that the law with regard to changes of name was too strict. At present two-thirds of the members' votes are needed before a registered union changes its name. Under Clause 6 we have endeavoured to make that situation a little easier, so that a registered union will be able to change its name in accordance with its rules—as indeed an unregistered union already can—so long as the new name is not the same as, or is not calculated to be muddled up with, an existing name. Clause 7 gives the Minister of Labour the necessary powers to make regulations on detailed matters.

Clause 10 deals with Northern Ireland. This is rather complicated, because the Bill does not extend to that country, apart from ensuring that the Parliament of Northern Ireland has power to enact similar legislation, if that is thought fit. But mergers between unions based in Great Britain and unions based in Northern Ireland will be possible, and here Schedule 2 will apply. What will happen is that unions based in Great Britain will go through the procedure in this Bill, and those based in Northern Ireland will follow any procedure which the Northern Ireland Government lay down.

My Lords, I repeat that this little Bill has the support of the Government—indeed, Government drafting has been widely used in its preparation. It follows the principles which were suggested by the T.U.C. to the Minister of Labour, and in turn referred by him to the employers for their consideration. I think I have said enough to show that the Bill is widely welcomed by all those closely connected with industry. I am quite sure that the more we can streamline our industrial organisations the better it will be for all concerned. There are many unions which can easily, and with great advantage to their members, merge. There are some unions which may wish to transfer some of their members to other unions, with equal advantage to all. I hope that this little measure may assist to that end, and I beg to move that it be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord McCorquodale of Newton.)

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I think we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, for introducing this Bill into your Lordships' House and for explaining its provisions. I think that the Bill is to be welcomed, not because by itself it is going to create amalgamations or indeed cause amalgamations, but because it will facilitate the requirements of the law in trade union amalgamations and transfers and changes of name. In these days of tremendous change, it is not surprising that there should be such great interest in trade union structure which has been haphazardly built up over the last fifty, or so in some cases one hundred, years; or that there should be interest in some reorganisation in this field, which is long overdue.

One of the obstacles which have hampered unions who were desirous of coming together and creating more efficient units—particularly those unions where there is an identity of interest—is that it has not been possible to secure the requisite number of votes in accordance with the law. This Bill eases the legal requirements, and should go a long way towards ensuring, as time goes on, a more efficient and modern trade union structure.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, that there is not any "catch" in this Bill. It is long overdue. Indeed, it is surprising and almost unbelievable that the laws govern- ing amalgamations of unions were passed so many years ago. One Statute dates from 1876, a time when unions were small local organisations. Because of some amalgamations and mergers which have taken place since, we now have very large national unions, some with a membership of several hundreds of thousands. Under present procedures unions wishing to merge or amalgamate must secure a vote in each union involved of at least 50 per cent. of the members, and very often these members are spread not only over a whole district but over the whole country, and in some cases even abroad.

Not only must there be not less than a 50 per cent. vote, but those voting in favour must exceed by 20 per cent. those voting against. This Bill provides for a simple majority. As matters are at present, it means, in effect, that nonvoters are counted as voting against any amalgamation; therefore a sufficient number of members who are indifferent or who may abstain can obstruct and prevent a well-thought-out amalgamation from taking place. Indifference on the part of trade union members to voting in these matters and in trade union elections generally is often subjected to severe criticism in the country. But this lack of responsibility—and lack of responsibility it is—is no worse than the indifference which is shown in our local government elections, where very often not more than 20 or 30 per cent. of the electorate take the trouble to vote.

This apathy is probably characteristic of our democratic system, but it ought not to prevent desirable changes, essential for the better and more efficient running and performance of our democratic institutions, from taking place. In the past many possible amalgamations of unions in identical fields have been prevented by the antiquated law governing these matters. The sensible amendments proposed under this Bill should be welcomed, and I am sure they will be welcomed by your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord who introduced the Bill did not make too much of a point of this, but it is the case that in many industries and in many firms the employers have to deal with such a large number of unions that this hampers the taking of decisions and creates a good deal of industrial unrest. I hope your Lordships will forgive me for giving a few figures. In engineering, shipbuilding and vehicle building there are 50 unions; in cotton, flax and man-made fibres, 30 unions; in other textile industries, 30 unions; in transport (outside railways), 23 unions; and in insurance, banking and finance, 23 unions. Indeed, on looking up the Chief Registrar's report for 1962 I discovered that there are 388 registered unions with a membership of 8½ million. Yet I calculate that 16 of those unions—16 out of 388—cater for 6¼ million; and the other 2¼ million are catered for by 372 unions.

Many of these unions are very small indeed; and of course there is nothing wrong with a small union as such. Many small unions are very good, and the members comprised in them are proud of their unions, proud of their membership and jealous of retaining their union's individuality. But in these days, for a trade union to play its proper part and to take its proper rôle it must be highly efficient and possess adequate financial resources to maintain professional and trained staff for research, education, negotiation and administration generally, including a legal department for the protection of its members. There is plenty of evidence that where the smaller unions have merged and made a more viable unit there has been greater efficiency and better services to the membership, with advantage all round.

In this country we have some of the most responsible and well-run unions in the world. Trade unions are an essential and vital part of the modern State, and it is important that the law governing them should not be restrictive. The shortcomings of the British trade union movement—and it is not by any means perfect—are no greater than those which democratic society accepts in other fields as the price for the maintenance of a free society. The British Trades Union Congress fully recognises the defects in its structure and organisation and displays a readiness to remedy these defects. Up till now, the law has hampered progress in this direction, and this Bill, which has received universal support outside and unanimous approval in another place. I feel sure will have the blessing and goodwill of your Lordships' House.

5.18 p.m.


My Lords, may I say a brief word on this Bill? The Government very much welcome the Bill. I regard it as a family affair, because, as the noble Lord, Lord McCorquodale of Newton, pointed out, the Trades Union Congress came to talk to me last July about the possibility of getting some legislation of this sort on to the Statute Book. I very much welcomed their approach. It coincided with my own views at the time, because all sensible, thinking people realise that the law is rather out of date, is too ponderous, and is going to make more difficult a process which in many cases is desirable. Therefore, for those reasons, I promised at the time to give the help and support I could to any means of producing a Bill of this sort. As Lord McCorquodale of Newton is my brother-in-law and as the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, is an old friend of mine, I regard this occasion as a family occasion.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Blakenham for his remarks, and also the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for his support of this Bill. I think I ought to explain why it is a Private Member's Bill. Government time is very difficult to come by, but an honourable friend of mine in the other place was fortunate in the ballot, and he selected this subject as his contribution to the Private Members' Bills. Thus, it has a possibility of getting on the Statute Book before Easter, and I hope that it will play its small part in the modernisation process which we have been discussing.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.