HL Deb 12 May 1981 vol 420 cc444-53

2.58 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Gowrie.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord Aberdare in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [The Corporation]:

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 16, at end insert ("and with recognised trade unions in the event of the operation of industrial democracy in the Corporation").

The noble Lord said: This is the first amendment to the British Telecommunications Bill, and it deals with the question of the possible resumption of industrial democracy at national board level in the new corporation. At Committee stage in another place an assurance was given that nothing in the current Bill would in any way prohibit or debar the resumption of industrial democracy at national level. However, we are returning to the issue today, since in view of the Government's stated position on industrial democracy, we feel that they ought to be prepared to go farther than they have gone so far by accepting the amendment and indicating their support for the resumption of industrial democracy in the new corporation.

Industrial democracy was introduced into the Post Office on an experimental basis in 1978. The experiment did not stop at the introduction of union nominees to the main board because, at the same time as the introduction of union members on to the main board, arrangements were made for union nominees to be appointed to certain regional hoards and area policy committees.

I am told that, from the start, management were very much opposed to the experiment at main board level and that, at the end of the two-year initial trial period the Secretary of State for Industry, in announcing the end of the experiment, made it clear that it was the view of management that the experiment should not continue; that was a determining factor in his coming to a decision as to whether this experiment in industrial democracy should be continued. On 12th December he said in another place: I shall, of course, be ready to take action that might fall to me to facilitate whatever new arrangements might be agreed between the Post Office and the unions". Despite the termination of the main board experiment, the experiments at regional and area level are continuing, at least until vesting day, when the arrangement will be reviewed; and the unions very much hope that, despite their disappointment over the national level experiment, it will be decided to continue in operation industrial democracy at regional and area levels.

We believe that industrial democracy is important for three reasons. First, at its most fundamental level, the demand for democracy at the work place expresses the desire on behalf of the work people to have effective control over the decisions which affect them at work. For many years, the mass of the people in this country have had the right, through the electoral process—which we witnessed only a few days ago—to determine at local level and at national level how and in what manner they are governed. The claim for an extension of industrial democracy requires the same right to be extended to that area of social experience, the work place, where the mass of the population spends the major proportion of its time and effort and where the true wealth of the nation is created. I would say that we have a certain control of our own destinies in this House.

Secondly, the extension of employee control will serve not only to formalise moral rights but to unlock the major source of productive potential within our country; that is, the skill and ability of the working people. Thirdly, a greater degree of worker influence is justified by the fact that working people must bear the consequences of managerial decisions in terms of job security, wage levels and working conditions. The Post Office believes that its extensive machinery for consultation and negotiation has made industrial democracy at the policy-making level superfluous. The trade unions involved have always argued that the demands for greater positive control are not a subsitute for or a replacement of the existing trade union machinery. Neither do they involve any change in the primary duty which trade unions have to protect and promote the interests of the members who form them. This is the traditional trade union function of negotiation and collective bargaining which will continue to be carried out on appropriate management levels.

The overall objective of the unions is to play an effective part in the shaping of policy at its formative stages at management level, but to retain their tradtional function of collective bargaining on behalf of their members. We do not know what view the new corporation proposed by the Bill will lake on industrial democracy. We hope that it will take a different view from the old joint board and be prepared to consider the introduction of industrial democracy in British Telecom and its reintroduction in the postal business. The views of the old boat d on the experiment that led to their decision that it should be terminated can be summarised as follows: that the board—that was the Post Office Board—was too large for effective decision making; the presence of union nominees had not improved the speed of decision making and the experiment had not resulted in any improvement in industrial relations in the corporation.

Certainly, we have some sympathy with the first of these criticisms and therefore we have not sought to table any amendment to Clause 1(4) which lays down an upper limit of 12 members for the corporation. However, I should say that an independent study of the national experiment by a team from Warwick University concluded in its interim report that the union nominees had not been as respcnsible for delays in decision making as the management nominees, that the union nominees had provided important inputs into decisions from their knowledge of the Post Office and its staff and that the idea of introducing industrial democracy at business level was almost unanimously opposed by all the managers whom the team interviewed. This is a modest amendment and I would hope that noble Lords would feel able to give it their support. I beg to move.

3.6 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

I have considerable sympathy with the general theme of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, in support of this amendment. Particularly I have sympathy with his outline of the history of the matter and the present position in regard to trade unions in the regions. But I have some difficulty about the precise wording of this amendment. It does not seem to me that this is quite the amendment that one would have expected to be put forward at this stage, especially having regard to the discussions which occurred at the first and third meetings of the Standing Committee when this was one of the amendments on industrial relations that were discussed.

In my view, the massive reconstruction which is envisaged by this Bill gives Parliament a unique opportunity to examine some of the fundamental issues raised in past years about the conduct of industrial affairs in the United Kingdom. My noble friend Lord Rochester has addressed your Lordships on many occasions about the value of employee participation and consultation in the wider sense and I am sure that your Lordships will allow me to take this opportunity of congratulating my noble friend Lord Rochester on the part he takes as the honorary secretary of the all-party study group on industry in this House.

The reorganisation envisaged in this Bill involves thousands of employees, many of whom have given a lifetime to the Post Office. According to paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 (to which we shall come) consultation has to take place with the employees on certain specific matters. It seems to me plain common sense that when Parliament is contemplating the membership of this corporation—as this amendment is directed to the clause about the membership of the corporation—the Secretary of State should seek advice on a wide scale with the workforce, and that would involve consultation with the recognised trade unions.

We are all aware that the POEU is doing excellent work at the present time and I am grateful to Mr. Stanley and Mr. Darlington of that union for the part they played in connection with the forming of the all-party group on information technology a year or so ago. My difficulty about supporting this precise amendment is its tentative character. It says, in the event of the operation of industrial democracy as if it is not anticipated that there should be some further development in relation to employee participation. I also always dislike the words "industrial democracy". Each of the two words separately is capable of misunderstanding. However, when used in combination it becomes worse. I would have preferred in this context the words "employee participation".

I do not feel that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is helping the position generally, and indeed the trade unions, in this matter when he singles out trade unions for consultation in the way that he has done in this amendment to Clause 1. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, it seems to me that he is missing an opportunity for a much broader amendment when the corporation is deciding what kind of members it should have. Although I sympathise with the general theme of the noble Lord, as at present advised I do not think that I personally am able to support this amendment.

The Earl of Gowrie

I share Lord Lloyd's enthusiasm for greater employee participation but also his misgivings about this particular amendment. It is well known to most of the Committee that the Government have frequently made clear their support for participation, but they believe that the form that that should take is much better created and is much more workable if it is as a result of full and free discussions between the employer and his employees, and that it has not been successful in this country where Governments have sought to impose it.

If agreement were to be reached between the new corporation and its employees for forms of participation at main board level, I certainly would expect that agreement to contain provision for the allocation of seats on the board and also for the procedures to be followed in making nominations to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for appointments. I do not think it would be appropriate to attempt to lay down in the legislation guidelines which would in any case predetermine the outcome of those necessary discussions between the employer and his employees.

That is the general policy point or philosophic point, but I also share some of the misgivings expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, about the particular form in which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, has cast his amendment. As drafted, it is certainly capable of different interpretations. If the purpose is to impose an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult with the recognised trade unions before appointing any member, whether a corporation, trade union nominee or otherwise, to the board while any form of employee participation is in operation within the corporation, I have to tell the noble Lord that such an obligation would be unacceptable.

As his noble friend Lord Glenmara is, I am sure, well aware, in practical terms the search for, and appointment of, candidates for board membership is a very competitive and therefore highly confidential process. Many candidates, and especially those recruited from outside the corporation, could be very embarrassed if their interest in an appointment were widely disseminated—all the more so if they proved individually to be unsuccessful. The wider the field of consultation by statute the greater the risk of disclosure and embarrassment. The effect would surely be to inhibit many candidates who might refuse to allow their names to go forward for consideration in the absence of absolute confidentiality. That would make the task of identifying suitable candidates even more difficult. I am not aware of any other legislation in connection with the public trading sector which imposes a like obligation. For instance, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industry Act certainly did not do so.

If, on the other hand, the amendment is designed to ensure only that no corporation trade union representative is appointed to the board, in the context of an agreement for employee participation at main board level, without consultation with those unions for which he will be a representative, it is both too broad in scope and liable to misinterpretation, commonsense would also suggest that it would be unnecessary.

I cannot envisage a situation arising in which there was an agreement between the employer and his employees for participation at main board level where any Secretary of State would, or indeed could, effectively appoint a representative of the employees without first consulting the employees. Surely, no assurance on this point should be needed because it is so obvious. Again, no such provision was considered necessary when the previous Government brought into law the Post Office Act 1977, and I would judge that none is therefore needed now.

For those reasons, while reiterating my support for collectively agreed forms of participation, this amendment is unnecessary and I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw it.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

I thank the noble Earl for his remarks and I am glad to know of his general support for forms of collective agreements within British Telecom. This amendment was tabled specifically to ensure that the door was not closed to industrial democracy at main board level and to have that written into the Bill. I shall read with great care the remarks which the noble Earl made in response to this amendment and, having read them, I could well return to this at Report stage. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Provisions with respect to the Corporation and the members thereof]:

3.18 p.m.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 77, line 44, at and insert— ("(3) Where it falls to the Corporation to participate in the operation of machinery established under this paragraph and the operation involves discussion of a subject by other persons participating therein, the Corporation shall make available to those persons, at a reasonable time before the discussion is to take place, such information in its possession relating to the subject (other than information where disclosure to those persons would, in the opinion of the Corporation, be undesirable in the national interest) as, after consultation with those persons, appears to the Corporation to be necessary to enable those persons to participate effectively in the discussion.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is to re-insert into Schedule 1 to the Bill the provisions of paragraph 11(3) of Schedule 1 to the Post Office Act 1969, amended only to reflect the creation of the new corporation. I understand that the reason for the omission from Schedule 1 to the Bill, which in most cases repeats word for word Schedule 1 to the 1969 Act, of the disclosure of information provisions, is that the Government feel that this matter is adequately covered by the provisions of Sections 17 to 21 of the Employment Protection Act 1975.

The Government have argued that the provisions of the Post Office Act 1969 are in some respects less advantageous than the Employment Protection Act provisions, and that nationalised industries should be treated in the same way as other private industries and have no greater or lesser obligations imposed on them about the conduct of industrial relations. This argument was also used to justify initially a position in which the statutory obligation to consult unions was confined to British Telecom itself and did not apply in wholly-owned subsidiaries.

The Government abandoned this position at Report stage in another place and tabled an amendment. We hope that having conceded the sense of the specific provisions for British Telecom in one instance, the Government will also accept the wisdom of conceding this particular amendment. Naturally, the first question must be whether the Employment Act provisions are more advantageous than those of the Post Office Act 1969. In many respects the 1969 provisions are both broader and better suited to the position of British Telecommunications and the Post Office than the provisions of the Employment Protection Act. In particular, the 1969 paragraph laid the obligation on the employer to determine what information appears to be necessary to enable those persons to participate effectively in discussion whereas the Employment Act clauses merely require the employers to disclose material on request.

The requirement of the 1969 Post Office Act to enable persons to participate effectively is a positive requirement and it is placed in a negative sense in the 1975 Act, where the provisions concern information without which the trade union representatives would be impeded. Under the Employment Act the provisions request has to be made in writing. These are a number of ways in which the 1969 Post Office Act on the disclosure of information is more advartageous than the provisions in the Employment Act.

If the Government resist this amendment, they will be placing themselves in the slightly paradoxical position of denying the unions the right to the disclosure of information on such subjects, while acknowledging that they are properly the subject of collective bargaining arrangements in the Post Office.

The second leg of the Government's argument on this point is that the nationalised industries should be treated on a par with the private sector on industrial relations issues. We on this side of the Committee would strongly dispute this idea and we believe that the public sector should continue, as it has in the past, to lead the private sector in enlightenment and to show it the way to better and more constructive industrial relations.

I think the Government's approach to date has been particularly insensitive to the feelings of the trade unions concerned and the staf[...] they represent, in view of the many unavoidably disrt[...] ptive changes to the two industries which must occur with the passage of this Bill. If the Government are intent on changing much else in the working environment of Post Office employees, let them at least leave them with a structure of industrial relations that they are familiar with. Why is it necessary for further fears to to provoked by depriving them of adequate arrangements for the provision of information? I beg to move.

The Earl of Gowrie

Again, the overall argument, as against the details of it, is rather close to the answer I made on the previous amendment. I do not disagree with much that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about the need for the provision of information to employees, and indeed to employee organisations such as trade unions. Of course it is necessary for both parties in any collective bargaining agreement to have such information as is pertinent to any discussion, but again I think that the amendment is very far from being precise as to how this might be achieved.

The Committee may know it is our view that wherever possible British Telecom should not be subject to specific statutory provisions if those provisions are adequately covered by the general law, and although the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, appeared to recognise this by arguing about a provision in existing general law I do not think he has made the case that the situation is not adequately covered here. For instance, in 1969 there was no general provision concerning the supply by employers of information to trade unions and it was therefore appropriate, in the interests of good industrial relations in the Post Office, to lay on it the obligation provided for in paragraph 11(3) of Schedule 1. But since then we have seen the passing of the Employment Protection Act 1975, and this obligation is now adequately covered by Sect ons 17 and 18 of that Act, which place a similar requirement on all employers. Section 17 lays a general duty on all employers to disclose information, which duty is cast in rather wider terms than are used in paragraph 11(3) of Schedule 1. Therefore, we feel it is no longer necessary to retain the special obligation in paragraph 11(3), and so my answer is that the 1975 provision should be quite adequate.

The noble Lord has also pointed out areas where the Employment Protection Act provisions differ from those in the 1969 Act and where he feels they are inappropriate. It has been said that the Employment Protection Act states that any request for information has to be in writing. That is not exactly the case. The Act says that "if the employer so requests" the request for information shall …be in writing or confirmed in writing". Wearing my own department's hat, as it were, I do not think there is anything sinister in that provision. It seems quite reasonable to me that an employer might wish to have a record of such transactions but I would point out that it is not necessary for the original request to be in writing and if, as appears to be the case in the Post Office, there are existing procedures between management and trade unions for the supply of such information, I for one do not see that this provision should cause any problems for either party.

The noble Lord referred to the fact that the exclusions for the requirement to disclose information under Section 18 are wider than those contained in paragraph 11(3). This is again true. I think also it is eminently reasonable because paragraph 11(3) makes an exclusion only in respect of information whose disclosure would damage the national interest. But Section 18 excludes information which the employer has received in confidence, information concerning any individual which may not be passed on without his consent and information the disclosure of which would cause damage to the employer's undertaking. I do not see why British Telecom should have to disclose such information, which could be damaging to their enterprise, when no other employer is so obliged.

Lastly, I can tell your Lordships that this matter has been discussed with the mangement of BT and the Post Office, and they are prepared to go along with the removal of the paragraph, since there is now provision in the general law, but, as a matter of policy, both corporations will continue the practice of providing staff with the fullest possible information consistent, of course, with their obligations to national security and to the interests of their customers. Therefore, I think the noble Lord is perhaps making rather heavy weather of this case and I hope that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

May I thank the noble Earl for his response to my amendment. I was particularly pleased to have the assurances he gave at the end of his remarks and I will read in detail his particular remarks in response to this amendment. In the meantine, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Schedule 1 shall be the first schedule to the Bill?

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

I rise quite briefly to raise a matter under paragraph 12 of Schedule 1. This paragraph, which is on page 77 of the Bill, imposes a duty upon the corporation in dealing with questions of staff, and, in my submission, it is a very important one. Your Lordships will see at line 19 that, it shall be the duty of the Corporation to seek consultation with any organisation", and generally to provide facilities in regard to three matters in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). The first deals with terms and conditions of employment; the second deals with the promotion and encouragement of measures affecting efficiency, and the third deals with the promotion and encouragement of measures affecting the safety, health and welfare of persons so employed.

I wonder whether the Government can give some assurance about the scope of that paragraph, because the provision of recreational facilities and sporting activities for staff is of increasing importance in the community at the present time. The last Government encouraged, and the present Government are encouraging, the very wide provision of facilities for sport and it seems to me that it is incumbent upon the corporation, which is managing an organisation of this kind, to provide recreational facilities for members of the staff.

It is an important matter in the social context of the corporation, and perhaps the noble Earl the Minister will say that, of course, the provision of such facilities falls within the "safety, health and welfare" of the staff. In my view, those words do not quite cover the position. Perhaps the noble Earl can give some reassurance to members of the staff of this corporation about the Government's attitude towards this.

Lord Morris

With all due modesty, I think that I can be of assistance to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran. I believe that paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 must be read in conjunction with subsection (3)(o) of Clause 2, which grants to the corporation the specific power, to promote recreational activities for, and activities conducing to the welfare of, persons who are, or have keen, employed by it", and so on. I think that that covers the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran.

The Earl of Gowrie

I am grateful for the contribution of my noble friend Lord Morris. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, that a reasonable interpretation of "safety, health and welfare" should include peace of mind and the enjoyment of recreational or leisure facilities provided by an enlightened employer. I agree with him that that is important in the social context, as he put it, of the work of the corporation. I am not sure that it is important in the primary legislative context of the work of the corporation, but I shall bring to their attention the noble Lord's not too liberal stretching of the word "welfare".

Schedule 1 agreed to.

The Earl of Gowrie

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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