HL Deb 12 July 1983 vol 443 cc725-35

3.38 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, it might be for the convenience of the House if I were now to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"I am now able to announce the Government's conclusions following the consultations on the Green Paper Democracy in Trade Unions and to outline the legislative proposals I propose to lay before Parliament when the House reassembles in the autumn. I am publishing today a paper explaining these proposals and providing an opportunity for consultations on them.

"Numerous detailed and thoughtful responses to the Green Paper were received from employers, employers' organisations and individual trade unions, including some affiliated to the TUC.

"These confirmed that there is widespread concern about shortcomings in trade union procedures for elections and for consulting their members on major issues, particularly on strike decisions. There is undoubtedly widespread support for legislation to safeguard the rights of members in relation to their unions.

"As foreshadowed in our election Manifesto, the legislation will cover three main issues: trade union elections, strikes and the political activities of trade unions.

"First, elections. The legislation will require elections to the governing bodies of trade unions to comply with the following principles: voting must be secret and by ballot paper; there must be an equal and unrestricted opportunity to vote; every union member should be able to cast his vote directly. These principles are not a legal straitjacket. They are the minimum necessary to ensure free, fair and democratic elections. Within them, trade unions will be free to constitute their governing bodies in the way they judge will best serve their members' interests and to decide on the form of ballots.

"Secondly, strikes. The consultations have shown continuing concern about the way in which strike decisions are taken. Accordingly, I propose that, if a trade union orders or endorses industrial action by its members in breach of their contracts of employment without first consulting those members in a secret ballot, that trade union should lose immunity from the normal civil law consequences of its action. This will give the community more protection against irresponsible industrial action and provide new safeguards for trade union members themselves against being required to strike without their consent. I also expect in due course to consult on the need for industrial relations in specified essential services to be governed by adequate procedure agreements, breach of which would deprive industrial action of immunity.

"Thirdly, the political activities of trade unions. The Government accept that a trade union should be able to adopt political objectives and to set up a political fund. However, I believe that the authorisation of a political fund should be subject to review by a periodic ballot of the membership. The present members of trades unions should not be bound forever by a ballot that may well have been taken before any of them were born. I propose that the 1913 Act should be amended to require that politi cal objectives and funds should be submitted to ballot at least every 10 years.

"For some years there has been disquiet over the operation of the system for contracting out of the political levy. I therefore intend to invite the TUC to discuss the arrangements which trade unions themselves might take to ensure that their members are fully aware of their statutory rights and able to exercise them freely and effectively. I hope that the trade unions will be willing to take such steps. If that hope is disappointed, I would be ready to introduce measures, as we made clear in our manifesto, to guarantee a free and effective right of choice.

"Mr. Speaker, the events of recent weeks have made it abundantly clear that trade unionists are now insistent that they should have a greater democratic voice in the affairs of their unions, and the Bill which I shall bring forward will respond to that demand".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement of my right honourable friend.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating that Statement, but I think noble Lords will agree that it is somewhat of a non-event. We seem to have been here before. It is a repetition of points made in our recent debate in this House on the gracious Speech, and points that we actually expected. Of course, we all want the widest participation of members in any organisation. In passing, one would question the position of the Conservative Party as regards the participation of its members, as regards the election of its own leader, who becomes the Prime Minister at certain times, and also as regards the election of its own chairman who, I think, is appointed by the leader without the participation of a single member of the Conservative Party. Of course, we all know that in many companies the decisions are taken by a few big institutions. Therefore, there are lessons in democracy and participation to be learned on the other side as well.

On the question of union ballots, we would of course favour the widest participation where the members of a union desire it. There are different rules—we have pointed this out before—different practices and different historical backgrounds, but I challenge the Government, as I did in the debate on the Queen's Speech, to show me any union rules which prohibit a member from tabling an amendment to change the method of election of its officers. Therefore, the rights are with the members and they should remain with the members, and should not be affected by the diktat of any particular Government.

Of course, on the question of strike ballots, there are times when one would favour the maximum participation of the members concerned. But even the Government's own Green Paper stressed that at times such ballots are impracticable, would do more harm than good and could prolong a strike rather than shorten it. Even the Green Paper stressed that there could be a tendency for more unofficial strikes, more "go-slows" and more working to rule. That has been ignored by the Statement which we have had today.

On political activities, any fair-minded person would say that this was a one-sided attack on a particular political party. Reference is made in the Statement to being bound forever by a ballot at one time. I repeat the challenge that I have made regarding the union rules. I challenge the Government to show me any union where the rules would not permit a member to table at his branch an amendment to change the political activities of the union, and, if desired, to withdraw a particular affiliation to a political party. That challenge is there with the other challenge that I made. Union rules may be amended—

Lord George-Brown

My Lords, would the noble Lord—

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am replying on the Government Statement and I do not think that this is an occasion for me to give way. If the Government are to proceed on these lines, would they be prepared to give consideration to the position of commercial donations to political parties, decisions about which are taken in the main by a few institutions? Should not the workpeople be aware of political donations and should not consumers be aware of political donations when they purchase objects at the shops?

There is one notable omission from the Statement. There is not a single reference to worker participation in any form at all. On this side of the House, we would say that proper industrial relations and proper worker participation would do far more to deal with the problems of industry than what is contained in this Statement today. I would remind the House that, as we have pointed out time and time again, the present Government who have put forward this Statement opposed the Vredeling Directive in Europe, which would have made it mandatory upon the big multinationals to give information to, and permit consultation with, their workforces. That makes these proposals somewhat hypocritical, but we shall do our best to deal with them when they come before the House.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches, I should like to join in thanking the noble Earl for having repeated the Statement by his right honourable friend. At this stage, I propose to offer only two general observations on the Government's legislative proposals. The first is that, in all the areas covered by the proposals, we are satisfied that abuses of union power or of the existing law have been identified and the case has, therefore, been made out for introducing further legislation. At the same time, it is important in our view that changes in the law should be of such a kind that they have the support of the general body of trade unionists and, therefore, have good prospects of proving effective. On this score, we shall study with particular care the proposals concerning secret ballots before strikes, on which in our debate last March on the Government's Green Paper I expressed certain reservations on grounds not of principle but of practicality.

Secondly, we welcome the Government's offer to consult with trade unions on two difficult questions which are referred to in the Statement—industrial relations in essential services being governed by adequate procedure agreements, and financial contributions to the political activities of trade unions. Is it not very much in the interests of trade unions themselves that they should now agree to enter into discussions with the Government, so that they have a better chance of influencing the form that legislation finally takes? I very much hope that that is what they will now decide to do.

I have just one or two questions to put to the noble Earl. Would he agree that all the legislation canvassed in these proposals is once again, perhaps necessarily, of a controversial nature? In response to a question that I asked last week relating to the desirability of employee involvement in the public sector—which was touched on just now by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill—not as the Minister appeared to think, through compulsion, but voluntarily in line with provisions that will in future apply to companies under last year's Employment Act, he appeared, if I may respectfully say so, to be somewhat dismissive. Will he take this opportunity to confirm—I ask this question in a constructive spirit—that the Government, like us, look forward to the time when, more positively than may be possible under these proposals, ground can be marked out upon which management and employee representatives are able to work together in trying to improve industrial relations?

3.51 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords from the Opposition Front Benches for the overall tone of their response to the Statement. Obviously, I rather prefer the response of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, to that of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. Of course the legislation was anticipated. It was inherent in widespread consultation, in the publication of a Green Paper and in our manifesto commitment that legislation should be anticipated. That is why this is democratically approved legislation. I do not think it was wise, if' I may respectfully say so, of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to complain that in some way he had heard this before. That was the very purpose of the Government: to make sure that people knew about it.

On the subject of the Conservative Party's internal procedures, they, like the internal procedures of the Labour Party, or even those of the Alliance Party, do not directly lead to the hiring and firing of individuals, nor affect their livelihood. That seems to us to be, therefore, a different case altogether. On the issue of applying the same principles to companies, companies are profit-making organisations which, subject to their shareholders' views, have a right to use those profits in whatever way they think proper and in whatever ways are allowed by the law. In general terms, unions are far less fettered by the law than are companies. This applies to political donations as well. One only has to rake through the statute book in respect of company legislation and look at the successful careers of lawyers dealing with City practices, codes and legislation to recognise what I am saying.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is, I think, famous up and down the land for his concern about the damage which entryism and other undemocratic practices have caused the Labour Party. I am simply sorry that this afternoon he did not appear quite to be evincing a similar concern over the same principles. On the subject of the political levy, which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised, review ballots for political funds and the right of the individual member to opt in or out of the levy are surely separate issues. Whether a union has a political fund and engages in political activities is, of course, a matter for the whole membership to decide—and, in our view, to decide not once and for all but at least once every 10 years. The right of an individual trade unionist to decide for himself whether he pays the political levy—a right established in 1913—is an entirely different matter. The right of an individual to opt out of paying the levy if he chooses to do so is in no way safeguarded by a balloting requirement, and the ballot does not affect the method which unions employ to collect the levy.

Both noble Lords urged me to make a statement about what is loosely called participation. It does not seem to me to be a negative approach to participation to oppose the Vredeling Directive, which would have loaded great costs and administrative difficulty on companies and thereby threatened profitability, competitiveness and employment. I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, as I did. I think, earlier in response to a question at the time of our debate on the gracious Speech, that the Government are very much in favour of unions and management working out for themselves good practices in participation, and I in no way retreat from that statement.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, asked me about essential services. I stress that we have held wide consultations and that we have a mandate for consultation on essential services procedure agreements as a separate issue.

Lord Aylestone

My Lords, the Statement which the Minister has repeated today is, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, mentioned, a return to the position which we debated during the passage of the Employment Act in the last Parliament. During its passage, we on these Benches and the Liberal Benches covered almost every one of these items as an amendment to the Bill. In fairness to the Government, let me say that they made it absolutely clear when amendments were withdrawn or defeated that the principle underlying those amendments would be raised in subsequent legislation. It was contained in the Government's manifesto. It was also contained in the manifesto of the Alliance. In fact, therefore, there is nothing new in these proposals, as the noble Lord. Lord Underhill, said.

I have only one point to make but it is. I believe, rather important. The document which is related to the Statement, called Proposals for Democracy, is to be circulated and made readily available. May I suggest to the noble Earl that this document should be circulated not just to the TUC but to every trade union individually, since many trade unions now adopt more democratic methods. For example, the Miners' Federation would be prepared to offer advice. When legislation is brought forward it will then be clear that it has been fully discussed with the trade unions which will be affected by it.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, both for his general welcome of the proposals and also for reminding me of a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, which I did not take up: the point about whether trade unions will consult with us about this issue. The straws are in the wind that they will. Certainly this legislation should be thought of not as anti-trade union but as pro-trade union member. We have had a very clear response from individual members of trade unions—found through polling, through consultations and also through the election—that they are in favour of these modest proposals.

Lord Lee of Newton

My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl a pertinent point about the constitution of the second largest union in Britain? I have never been a full-time official of it, so I have no interest to declare; but I was a member of its national committee, which is the supreme body for making its policies. It is composed of 52 rank-and-file members. That body, and no full-time official, makes the policies. There is also what we call a final appeal court. If the most humble member of the union wishes to take the president or general secretary to the final appeal court he will find that it is composed of rank-and-file members who will listen and give a decision as to whether the president or general secretary is right or wrong. Therefore, is the noble Earl aware that democracy in that union—and I know of others which are in the same category—is quite impeccable? All that the Government are trying to do is to recreate 1927, when they sought revenge for the General Strike.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I find that response from the noble Lord, with all his experience, an astonishing one. I am afraid it is another indication of the way in which the Labour Party is not moving with the times, not simply in respect of the concerns of my own political party but in respect of the concerns of its own most loyal members. Does anybody really think that things like block voting, or shows of hands at football fields, or elections held at night by tiny groups of activist people, are a proper way of conducting union affairs? Individual trade unionists have given an overwhelming thumbs-down to such procedures and we are simply taking modest steps to make their views apply.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that never was such a welcome and necessary reform accompanied already by so much consultation and public discussion, which we welcome? But are we to understand from the replies which my noble friend has already given that when, in the further consultations which are to take place with representatives of trade unions, conflict arises between the interests of the present representatives of the trade unions and the interests of their members, that conflict will be resolved in such a way as to give full freedom and democracy to the members?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, my noble friend is precisely right. I should like to repeat that the Government are not critical of all unions in the practices that I have mentioned, and about which practices my noble friend has shown himself to be so concerned. We recognise that there are some unions which, clearly, have democratic procedures—for instance, for electing leaders. Our concern is really twofold: first, that repeated appeals for voluntarism and for the unions to put their own house in order have fallen on deaf ears where the senior management of some trades unions is concerned; secondly, to bring more unions into line with the practices of the best.

Lord Donnet of Balgay

My Lords, might I ask the noble Earl the Minister a question concerning the political activities of unions? The Statement mentioned that the existence of an objective and of a political fund should be subject to review. Later, "fund" was changed to the plural. It would make all the difference in the world if the Statement had stuck to the singular, which mentioned "political fund"; but the Statement went on to use the words, require that political objectives and funds", with the objective and the fund or funds conjoined. Is that one subject? As a former administrator of a political fund, I find this point to be one of some importance.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I acknowledge with the noble Lord that there are broader issues relating to the funds of political parties overall. But the Green Paper—our consultation document for this legislation—was concerned with the relatively narrow, surely very important question of the individual rights of trade union members. As the system works at present, union members' acknowledged rights in the area of political contributions have not been properly protected, and that is what we have sought to correct.

Lord Gormley

My Lords, in dealing with this White Paper I am only allowed to ask a question, and I am therefore inhibited from saying things that I should like to say. As I said last week, I do not believe that the time spent on this legislation will help to put the economy right; it will not create one more job and will not create any more enthusiasm.

When I read this White Paper, I must admit that as a past president of a union I thought the Government had taken some of the rules from the union rule book in order to put them in this document. Well before this Government thought of democracy in trade unions the National Union of Mineworkers had it. We had secret ballots for officials and for national strikes. The political objectives of the NUM are quite clear, because they were set down many years ago. Also, I want to point out how difficult it is to change the rules of a union. One cannot change them just because the Government want them changed. There is no way that such changes can be forced upon a union unless the members, under their rules, choose to make them; but they cannot be changed in your Lordships' House.

Let me put this point to your Lordships. Let us presume that the executive committee of a trade union—which the Government may term responsible if it is a union that puts forward to its members something that the Government wish it to put forward—desire to change the rules in accordance with the Government's wishes. One of the rules in the union of which I was president was that in order to change a rule, such a change had to have the support of 66 per cent. of the conference. So what happens if the whole of the executive committee decides to recommend to the members that a rule he changed in accordance with the Government's wishes and then the members democratically turn round and say: "No way‡"? From whom will the Government take immunity? Will they take it from the executive committee, which has followed the Government's lead, or will they take it from the representatives of the other 300,000 members?

The Government are trying to introduce rules which cannot be operated. The Government must convince and coax people if they want something done, for they will not achieve changes by forcing laws through a Chamber such as this or the House of Commons. How will the Government deal with this point? How will they make a change possible if the union's members are not convinced that such a change is right? I do not accept the noble Earl's argument that trade union members want this. How the hell does he know what the members of the NUM are talking about any more than the leaders of the NUM know? How does the noble Earl know that leaders of other unions do not know as much as he does about the feelings of their own members? The noble Earl cannot glibly come here and say that he knows better than those who are in daily contact with trade union members.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, for the convenience of the House. I will just remind the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, of the rules. Ministerial Statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions for clarification are allowed, such Statements should not be made the occasion for immediate debate.

Lord Gormley

My Lords. I apologise—but ‡did say it would be difficult only to ask a question.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, is a very experienced politician and one of the ancient arts in which he is engaging at the moment is to put up a clay pigeon which does not actually exist in the Statement and suggest that I am aiming at it. Nothing in my right honourable friend's Statement is in any way interfering with the internal practices of the National Union of Mineworkers—that is not what the Statement is about.

Where immunity is in question in the Statement and in the proposed legislation, it is where a trade union orders or endorses industrial action by its members in breach of contract without consulting members in a secret ballot. That is nothing to do with interfering with the rule book of the NUM. as the noble Lord appeared to he suggesting I was doing.

The Government also accept, as my right honourable friend's Statement allowed, that a trade union—including the NUM—should be able to adopt political objectives and to set up a political fund. Nothing in the proposed legislation alters that. We simply believe that the authorisation of a political fund should be subject to review by periodic ballot and should not be a once-and-for-all matter which can continue until the end of time. There is nothing unreasonable in that, and certainly there is nothing in terms of interventionism with the NUM's rule book in such a proposal.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, may I ask two questions of the noble Earl? First, will he answer the question put by my noble friend Lord Lee of Newton: does he accept, with all the long experience my noble friend has in the trade union movement, that the conditions in the union which he described are fully democratic and do not need to he interfered with by any law imposed by the Government?

Secondly, this is the third time since the Conservative Party was elected in 1979 that it has taken action to impose its view of democracy on the trade union movement. Can the noble Earl tell the House when the Government intend to deal with democracy concerning industrial relations, industrial action, and political action from the CBI and its members and those companies which regularly give political support to the Conservative Party?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, that I will refer him to the response I made to my noble friend Lord Renton. It was not the Government's concern to pick out individual trade unions for criticism but to raise overall standards to those of the best. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Newton, is associated with the best standards in this and other fields.

As to the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, about the Government's view of the internal democracy of trade unions, I respectfully suggest to him that we are concerned with the country's view. Not merely at the most recent general election but at the general election before that the country gave an unequivocal indication that it would like to see some modest internal reforms in those fields. It is the persistence of the Labour Party's view that that is not the country's wish, among other things, that led it to he overwhelmingly rejected time and again.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, will the noble Earl please answer my second question?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I have already answered it in an earlier supplementary answer. All the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, has to do is to go through the statute book and look at the volume of company and commercial legislation in this country; it is overwhelmingly larger than the legislation pertaining to the internal procedure of trades unions.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, may I ask the Minister a very short question, particularly following on several speeches that have been made? Would he not agree that this time of such high unemployment is the worst time for the Government to start tinkering with the trade unions and to start tinkering with their laws which have been there for generations, and altogether the worst possible time to start their hanky-panky?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I would not agree with that. It has been the inability of trades unions to move with the new circumstances of the modern industrial world that has generated so much of the present unemployment.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree, in view of questions that have been asked, that it is right that those who pay their dues should have their views heard, whether by ballot or whatever?

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, and his views will be taken into account.