HL Deb 26 October 1982 vol 435 cc396-9

2.53 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majest's Government whether they will have discussions with the Trades Union Congress and National Union of Mineworkers about making the mineworkers' ballot secret and the voting malpractices minimal.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, the organisation of ballot votes of the membership of the National Union of Mineworkers is a matter for that union.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, could my noble friend say whether the Electoral Reform Society, which I understand is to supervise this ballot, or the certification officer have any responsibility for seeing that there are not two ballot boxes, one marked "Yes" and one marked "No", and that a a trade union official is not supervising the ballot, so that secrecy prevails, which is surely the intention of the rule?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I understand that the votes are to be counted by the Electoral Reform Society. So far as the conduct of the ballot is concerned, that is nothing to do with the certification officer, it is entirely a matter for the National Union of Mineworkers and its rules. I understand that practices vary in different parts of the country but, as I have said, it is the responsibility of the union to see to the conduct of its own affairs.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that for 65 years, during which we have had ballots on many things, such as electing our local officials every year on a ballot, we have had independent scrutineers, the same at district level and at national level, and never once has there been a word said against the validity of the ballot in all those years? Is the Minister further aware that this is a dangerous, mischievous Question, especially on the eve of an election in the coalfields in the crucial position we are facing? The questioner ought to remember that it is only six years since democracy was introduced in his party, because the Leader of his party was elected by a heirarchy. You only introduced democracy six years ago.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I am very aware that the National Union of Mineworkers is jealous of its own practices. The only advice that I would seek to give it is that perhaps it should consider seeking funds from the certification officer, who is an independent statutory creature under Section 1 of the Employment Act 1980, to obtain public money to hold secret postal ballots. Unfortunately, the TUC has advised affiliated unions not to apply for such money. One hopes that the National Union of Mineworkers will perhaps see fit to reconsider its position.

Lord Taylor of Mansfield

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this Question is no coincidence coming, as it does, on the eve of a national miners' ballot which takes place on Thursday and Friday? Would he also agree that the inference in the Question is that the National Union of Mineworkers is not capable of taking and organising a secret and a fair ballot?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, the National Union of Mineworkers and the effects which can flow from its actions next week are of vital importance and concern to the whole community. Therefore I am not in the least surprised that my noble friend has put down this Question which reflects the anxiety of us all. But I repeat that the matter of the ballot is one for the National Union of Mineworkers.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister not agree that subventions to drum up support for a ballot for strike action could constitute a voting malpractice rather akin to buying a borough?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, it is for the membership of the National Union of Mineworkers to ensure that the union's rules are observed, and it is a matter for the union as to whether it is proper to pay an attendance allowance to people who come to meetings rather more than a week before the actual pithead ballot takes place. It is certainly not a matter for the Government.

Lord Davies of Penrhys

My Lords, as one who for many years worked in the pits and collected these ballots and knows what it is all about, may I ask whether the Minister appreciates that the noble Lord who put down this Question knows nothing at all about the matter? Let me ask the Minister one question. The noble Earl said: why do we not take advantage of the postal ballot. In postal ballots you have fewer people returning than you do in a miners' ballot on the pit.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, it is of course the purpose of Questions in this House for noble Lords who do not know the facts to elicit them from the Government. If the noble Lord who knows so much about the practices of the union is quite sure that they are above hoard, why then he and his friends have nothing to fear.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, would the Minister agree that what he said initially on this subject at this crucial moment should he directed primarily towards ensuring that in the vote on Thursday and Friday the miners reach a responsible decision?

The Earl of Mansfield

Yes, my Lords, and I am obliged to the noble Lord for that question. I have said more than once that the matters which go towards the conduct of this particular ballot are matters for the National Union of Mineworkers, and naturally the whole community is concerned, but I repeat that it is for the union to conduct its own affairs according to its own rules.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, is it not a fact that many votes in this House are not carried out in secret? Is that necessarily, as the Question says, a malpractice?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I rather agree with the noble Lord. A perusal of Rule 43, which I have perused, does not mention the word "secret".

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that by the response from the Benches opposite, the greatest conscientiousness is now being shown, as I understand it, and one hopes that will long be so, under whatever leadership presides over the National Union of Mineworkers? Is he aware that the Electoral Reform Society a few years ago on a ballot in South Wales in similar circumstances said that 102 per cent. of the strength of the miners had actually voted? Somebody asked if that was usual in a democracy and they replied that it often happened in ballots. Therefore, it is not quite as perfect as some people suggest and I am grateful for the helpful response which the Minister has given to some anxiety which exists in these quarters under the present leadership of the NUM.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, if my noble friend is correct, there seems to have been an almost too enthusiastic response from the membership to exercise their right. Basically, I am quite sure that the ordinary membership of the NUM know pretty well what they are doing and will vote according to the way they see their future as being best advantaged.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, in view of what the Minster just said, may I, as somebody who has spent his adult life in the Labour movement but who is not a miner, tell him that I regard the ballots of the NUM as the fairest in the whole trade union field?