§ 3.2 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter rose to move, That this House takes note of the Green Paper, Democracy in Trade Unions (Cmnd. 8778).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move that the House takes note of the Green Paper which is entitled Democracy in Trade Unions. In view of the exchanges at Question Time perhaps I should make it clear at the outset that, being myself one of that underprivileged majority who have not read the lucubrations of Professor Gennard, I shall not be seeking to refer to that, to me, somewhat mysterious personage in the course of this debate.
§ The technique of the Green Paper is one which has been substantially developed in recent years and is, I would suggest to your Lordships, a salutary one. It enables a Government to put forward ideas and possiblities for future development and future legislation without being committed to action in respect of any of them. It gives an opportunity for views of all sorts to be ventilated on such issues in advance of a Government coming forward with legislation, with all the constraints and restrictions that the legislative process itself involves.
§ I would suggest to your Lordships that a subject such as this-certain aspects of the law governing trade unions-is peculiarly apt for the Green Paper treatment, inasmuch as this is a subject on which views vary very widely, not only between the two sides of the House but also on both sides of the House. It is therefore one which this House, in particular, with the massive reservoirs of experiene which are at its disposal in these matters, can and should profitably discuss without any of us feeling at the end of the day that we have found it necessary to take firm or rigid positions on any of the issues. As I understand it, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment has asked for comments by early April, so that the comments of your Lordships will be before him in good time before he has to move further forward and advise his colleagues in the Cabinet as to what action, if any, should be taken.
§ This particular Green Paper deals with three aspects of the law governing trade unions, but I think I should 728 begin, before plunging into them, by making one general comment. There are people—and I think there are some in your Lordships' House—who take the view that we tend to exaggerate the importance of legislation in industrial relations matters and that there is so much good that can be done in that vital area of our activities without legislation that we should not therefore allow ourselves to become obsessed with the technicalities of the law and of the legislation governing industrial relations and the industrial area.
§ I have some sympathy with that view, but I am bound to remind your Lordships that there are three reasons why the law governing industrial relations generally has to be kept under fairly regular review. First of all, there is the importance of the trade unions. The powers of good or ill for the wellbeing of our nation and its economy which they wield are so substantial that neither Parliament not anybody interested in public affairs can fail to give them attention. Secondly, there is the power which the unions wield over their own members; and as their membership is broadly of the order of some 10 million people which, with their families, takes one into very nearly half the population of this country, it is obvious again that it must be the duty of Parliament to see that those powers are reasonable and are reasonably exercised.
§ Thirdly, there is the fact that as trade unions stand in a position of special legal privilege—I have in mind the immunity from damages resulting from a trade dispute—it is essential that they should always be in a position to justify their legal standing and their eligibility for this very substantial privilege, because it is a privilege of great importance to be able to do what no other body of men could do freely and with impunity, when any other body of men would be liable to be hauled before the courts. Those who hold privileges do have, by reason of holding those privileges, certain responsibilities.
§ This particular Green Paper deals with three aspects of this complex subject. First, it deals with the question of ballots for elections inside the unions; secondly, it deals with ballots in respect of strike action; and, thirdly, it deals with the political activities of trade unions. In opening this debate I will endeavour to refer with proper brevity to some aspects of those three sides of the matter.
§ Taking them in the order in which they appear in the Green Paper, I will start with Chapter 2: the question of elections inside the unions. I am bound to say at the outset that I find this part of the Green Paper the least impressive part of it. It gives a little—and I say this with all due deference to my noble friend—the impression of not being completely thought through. For example, it appears to ignore the fact, of which I think most of your Lordships are aware, that inside trade unions in the course of the year literally thousands of elections take place—elections of shop stewards, elections to district committees, elections to branch committees, elections of branch officers, elections of regional officers and elections to regional committees—leading up to the major offices of general secretary and president. To seek to provide that all that multiplicity of elections should be formally conducted by ballot has a touch of unreality about it. It would certainly be an expensive process, although I would 729 say in this context that I personally very much regret the refusal of the trade unions, so far, to avail themselves of Her Majesty's Government's offer of financial help in respect of ballots.
§ Having said that, it seems very difficult to know where one should draw the line. Elections of senior national officers of the major unions are matters of public importance, and they should be conducted in the open with the fullest care to see that they are properly conducted. But it really is straining that concept very far to suggest that the same procedures are necessary or desirable in respect of the election of a shop steward or a member of a local committee. Therefore, the first question which I would ask, and which the Green Paper does not answer, is: where should the line be drawn?
§ The other aspect of this part of the Green Paper which left me in a state of some doubt is the emphasis put on the fair counting of the votes. Of course, the fair counting of the votes is proper, necessary and right. But if an election is going to be fiddled, if it is going to be conducted improperly, that process will generally have taken place a long time before the votes come to be counted, and the counting of the votes is itself, in those circumstances, no more than a formality. If, in parenthesis, I may illustrate that general proposition from the political sphere, I recall that when my father was a Member of another place he was speaking rather complacently to a colleague from Northern Ireland about the high percentage poll he had had at a recent general election. My father was very proud of the fact that his poll had exceeded 90 per cent., at which his Northern Ireland colleague smiled and said, "My dear fellow, that's nothing. If you look at my last election, I polled 105 per cent." I tell your Lordships that ancient but, as it happens, true anecdote simply to illustrate that I think it is a mistake to put so much of the emphasis on the counting of the votes, as the Green Paper does, unless the whole electoral process is going to be properly supervised.
§ The only suggestion that I can make is that, instead of legislating to provide particular systems of election, it might be possible to put responsibility on the certification officer, so that if the affairs of a particular union were blatantly and scandalously misconducted in respect of elections the certification officer might have to take steps in respect of the standing of the union. That would seem to me to be, possibly, the only practical method of enforcement of what otherwise seems to be, in this context, the least impressive part of the Green Paper's proposals.
§ Therefore, I pass quickly to strike ballots. I am very glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, has indicated his intention to take part in the debate, because he, of all your Lordships, must have followed with a certain interest the proceedings, as lately as last week, in that great union of which he was until so recently president. That was certainly an example of the merits of the provision in union rules for a ballot before strike action, since it enabled the good sense of the membership to secure that the miscalculated, ill-judged proposal of the executive of the union to bring out the whole of the union, in order to try to secure the continued operation of a largely worked-out pit in South Wales, did not prevail. It was extremely reassuring as to the good sense of the union member, 730 and a very powerful example of the advantage of the system of a ballot.
§ That ballot, as I understand it—and the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, will correct me if I am wrong—was provided for under the rules of the union, which I think state that 55 per cent. of those voting have to favour a strike for the strike to operate. What the Green Paper deals with is the further question—and it is not quite the same question—as to whether legislation should lay down that there should be a ballot before a strike takes place. Once you talk of legislation in this respect, then, of course, you have to consider the question of enforcement. I suggest for your Lordships' consideration of this matter an aspect of it which is not mentioned in the Green Paper; that is, whether there is a distinction between a strike in a major public utility—a strike which can inflict general hardship on the community and, perhaps, help to paralyse the national life—and a strike in an ordinary company or firm of moderate size.
§ I think there is a real difference in principle here. A strike in one of the major public utilities does enormous damage to the community and does enormous damage to other wholly innocent and unconnected people. The only people to whom it does not do any damage are the members of the board of the public utility concerned, whose remuneration continues on exactly the same basis as before and whose normal life is no more disrupted than is that of any other member of the community. On the other hand, in the case of the ordinary traditional type of strike in a particular company the community as a whole is only, if at all, modestly affected, but those who run that company and who are dependent upon its profitability are very directly put at risk. Therefore, there seems to be a distinction of principle between these two types of strike, and it falls for consideration—some of your Lordships may offer views on this—whether, at any rate in the first place, provision for a ballot before a strike should be confined to the major public utilities and not applied generally across the field.
§ There is ample precedent for this. If your Lordships go back to the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875—which, as your Lordships know, was, in a way, the original charter of freedom of action for trade unionism—it will be recalled that under Section 4 of that Act (a section which endured down to 1971) it was made a criminal offence to interfere with the supplies of electricity, gas and water. That was repealed in 1971, and it was rightly, in my view, so repealed because it relied—as perhaps might have been expected in 1875—on criminal sanctions.
§ When your Lordships are considering enforcement of trade union law today, I think most noble Lords will feel that criminal sanctions, except in the case where there is violence involved, are inappropriate. First, I dare say, in the absence of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, that the criminal courts are very slow in operation; and, secondly, all that you are apt to do is to make martyrs of individuals as a result of proceedings which take place weeks and weeks after the whole matter has been cleared up.
§ The effective sanction, if we want one, for enforcement of trade union law lies in the civil courts, and particularly by way of action against the funds of the 731 union. Nothing induces more responsibility and care in any of us than responsibility for looking after other people's money. The knowledge that certain action could endanger the funds of the union is a real cautionary force in the mind of anyone in these circumstances. So I would suggest for your Lordships' consideration that the immunity for trade dispute action which exists generally might well be withdrawn in the case of strikes in a major public utility which have not been previously authorised by a ballot of the members.
§ One can sometimes learn from the experience of other countries. In the United States, under the Taft-Hartley Act the President can, by proclamation, provide for a cooling off period of, I think, some 80 days. Even at the end of those 80 days a strike cannot take place until a ballot of the unions concerned has been carried out by, I think it is called, the National Labour Relations Board. That is an indication that in this kind of sector, the major public utility sector, other countries have been giving some thought to the matter.
§ I hope none of your Lordships will regard it as offensive, because it is certainly not so intended, when I say that it is a fact that strikes in public utilities always seem to bring out collectively the worst in our own people. To take the water strike, for example, to which my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford referred so eloquently the other day, none of the individual strikers would have dreamt of going into anybody's home and saying, "I will turn off the water unless I am paid some extra money". None of them would have wished, as was brought out in a letter in The Times the day before yesterday by my noble and gallant friend Lord De L'Isle, to expose the inhabitants of a great city to 19 times the concentration of lead in their water which the World Health Organisation regards as tolerable. No individual would do that; yet collectively, because it is done as part of a collective dispute, just those kinds of things are done. They give rise not only to the hardship to which I have referred but also, perhaps, to long-standing bitterness. If those asked to take part in such action by way of strike were to be asked in advance to ballot as to whether they were prepared to take this action, it might have an extremely salutary effect. That is the thought I want to leave with your Lordships.
§ Finally, as regards the political expenditure of trade unions, the issue has lain for many years between contracting-in and contracting-out. The issue is very simple: do your Lordships think that under the present system of contracting-out a number of people contribute to the Labour Party who do not wish to but who, for one reason or another, do not like to take the necessary step to contract out? I would ask those of your Lordships who have any doubt on the matter to look at the extraordinarily interesting table on, I believe, page 25 of the Green Paper, which shows the percentage of members of different unions or sections of unions who contribute to the political levy. It shows on the one hand that there are a number of unions and sections of unions where over 96 per cent. contribute to the political levy. There is really no reason to believe that 96 per cent. of those union members are supporters of the Labour Party, least of all at the present 732 moment. One is driven irresistibly to the inference that the present procedure under which either a shop steward or a branch secretary has to be informed of a member's desire to contract out, particularly in closed shop industries, constitutes a very real deterrent. If this is right, people are being conscripted into paying to support a political party which they do not wish to support.
§ I do not believe that any loyal member of the Labour Party would wish to have it described as an organisation maintained by involuntary contributions. Those who resist a change to contracting-out must face this dilemma: either there are very few people paying the political levy who do not want to, in which case to change to contracting-in would do the Labour Party very little harm, or there is a very substantial number who do not want to, in which case the Labour Party is being supported by those who do not wish to help to finance it. That is a position which any self-respecting member of any party would find most disagreeable and unpleasant. Therefore I suggest that the time has come to consider moving back to contracting-in. That is the spirit of the 1913 Act. It is spelled out there very clearly that nobody should contribute to a party to which he does not wish to contribute. I do not believe that any noble Lord really believes in his heart that that is the position today.
§ There is also the curious fact that the decision to set up a political fund and support the Labour Party required only one ballot. There is no machinery for further ballots. Many of the ballots were taken very soon after the Trade Union Act 1913. In many unions, therefore, there is probably no single person still working who actually took part in the ballot. Is it necessarily to be assumed that those who were prepared to pay money to support the Labour Party of Keir Hardie are necessarily and automatically similarly disposed towards the Labour Party of Mr. Foot, or whoever it may be who will shortly succeed him? I do not know, but this raises quite serious questions—and serious questions, I say with great respect, for the consciences of the Labour Party in particular.
§ I hope and believe that this will be a valuable debate. I open it with great diffidence because I know well that there are many noble Lords with vast experience of this matter on both the employers and the trade union side. I am very glad to see from the list that many of them are to contribute to the debate. I hope that it will prove helpful, not least for the Green Paper purpose of helping to advise Her Majesty's Government. I would end by reminding your Lordships on this controversial subject of some words spoken by the great Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, at the end of a very difficult college meeting: "Remember, gentlemen, none of us are infallible, not even the youngest of us". I beg to move.
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for initiating a debate on this very interesting subject and for the moderate and critical way in which he has approached the Green Paper. I do not say that I agree with everything which the noble 733 Lord has said. I shall have something to say about some of the matters with which I do not agree as I go along. However, some of the points which the noble Lord made I find myself in agreement with—which is a pleasant change—at the beginning of our debate this afternoon. I should also like to thank the noble Lord for having, as he said, brought out many people to speak in this debate, many on our side of the House. There are other people on our side of the House who would have liked to be here today to make a contribution to this debate, but who unfortunately were unable to come. I apologise on their behalf, but the "League of ex-General Secretaries and ex-members of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress" is well represented on the list of speakers and they will be making their contributions as the afternoon wears on.
I should like to start in a critical way by making perhaps half a dozen points about this Green Paper. First, I wonder why it is a Green Paper at all. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is quite right when he says that Green Papers are a very good institution. But, for the most part, Green Papers look at both sides of the picture. Certainly the previous Green Paper which the present Government introduced on trade union law and which led to the 1982 Employment Bill looked at both sides of the case. In fact, I used to say at the time that it was rather longer and more persuasive on the case against further legal regulation—at least that was my of looking at it—and rather shorter on that in favour of more legislation. Maybe that is why the present Green Paper takes a different approach.
This Green Paper does not give a balanced view for and against. It is more a "Black Paper" than a Green Paper; indeed, it is more a "Blue Paper" than a "Black Paper"—it is a blue touchpaper, is this Green Paper, and I am not going to set light to it and retire immediately. I say to the House that this is a highly controversial Green Paper which argues one side of the case. It argues one side of the case in a tendentious and misleading way. It is tendentious and misleading when it is not plain wrong. Perhaps I can quickly give six random examples.
It is not true, for example, as the Green Paper says, that the Donovan Commission drew particular attention to the low level of participation in trade unions. It mentioned this in only six lines in paragraph 172 of its report and put forward no proposals. Indeed, in those six lines the main point of the Donovan Commission report was that it showed that there was no general disquiet among members of trade unions over the conduct of elections.
Secondly, it is not so, as this Green Paper says, that the scene in relation to participation in trade unions "has hardly changed" since Donovan's day. A survey which the Department of Employment authorised and paid for showed that there has been a considerable degree of change in methods of union government and in degrees of participation since Donovan. It is also not so that the absence of further change in the direction which the Government would like to see is the result, as the Green Paper suggests, of a "lack of will" on the part of the unions. The fact is that the same Department of Employment survey showed that unions changed their governmental procedures and 734 systems to deal with the problems they face day by day and not to deal with the Government's views on what those problems ought to be.
It is not true that the unions have refused—and to some extent the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, referred to this point—to take the Government's money for ballots because they are obstinate. They distrust the party opposite. They distrust the purposes for which this facility is being introduced. They remember the way in which, in the Industrial Relations Act 1971, a whole series of benefits hinged on the acceptance of registration. In view of that history the unions are, quite understandably, not cooperating over the ballots and the money for the ballots. But it is not a matter of obstinacy, it is one of fear; fear and suspicion of the Government's motives.
Also it is not true that the power of the trade union movement comes from its legal privileges, as the Green Paper says. If the power of the unions was a function of legal regulation and legal provision, the AUT would be as powerful as the NGA, which unfortunately is not the case. The fact is that a whole range of technological and market factors affect union power. The state of the law and the legal status of trade unions in law is not a result of that, and the legal situation is not the consequence of their power situation.
It is not true either—and the noble Lord also referred to this point—that the legal status of British trade unions is unique. It is a little unusual, but other countries began with a system of common law liabilities and immunities, and other countries now have more extensive rights—for example, in relation to a striker breaking his own contract of employment—than we do in this country. The status may be odd, but it is not unique, and is not particularly beneficial to the trade union movement. It is not true that leaders of trade unions possess the power to initiate industrial action. That is regulated by the rule book. There is no evidence whatsoever that union members are denied a fair opportunity to register their views.
I told your Lordships that I took these six examples of the report's being misleading at random. Perhaps I did not take them quite at random, because they all come from page one of the Green Paper. At this rate of inaccuracy and error 1 have worked out that there are 300 errors in this Green Paper. I have to tell the House that I did not get that far; I reached page 10 and found that the rate of error was about right, and then I gave up.
The first major point I wish to make is that this Green Paper is a partisan, biased, inaccurate and one-sided version of events. My second point is to ask, what is behind it all? What is the central agument running underneath this misrepresentation of fact? I call it ballotomania, which has nothing to do Arnold Haskell—the view that the other fellow would be done good to if he subjected himself to a continuous process of voting on all issues, and for all offices, all the time; and that if it did not do him any good then at least it might confuse him. This is combined with a great reluctance—as I will go on to argue—to accept that anything of that kind should be applied to oneself, to one's institutions or to one's power bases. It is a one-sided form of ballotomania.
735 That is really what is in this Green Paper. For example, paragraphs 32 to 46 tell us that ballots are always better than a show of hands. They tell us that direct elections are to be preferred to indirect elections. They suggest that periodic ballots are better than once-for-a-lifetime ballots. Most importantly, they suggest that no industrial action can be justified without ballots. That is my second point.
My third point is on a point of the Green Paper where reality begins to break in—and we have to thank the people who assisted the Government to write this Green Paper—when we come to talk about how we would bring about ballotomania. It is quite true, as the noble Lord said, that when the Government begin to talk about what they propose to bring into effect in relation to elections, the Green Paper itself grows very uncertain. It believes, and I think it may be right, that one cannot force trade unions down the road to ballotomania without taking away those existing immunities which remain after the 1981 and 1982 legislation.
The report considers a number of other alternatives and in the end we are told in paragraph 52(a) about the man in possession. If the unions refuse to remodel their constitutions in the direction of ballotomania, we have a picture of the civil servants taking over and actually running the unions. There is a wonderful picture of "Sir Humphrey" taking the chair at the AEU's Tuesday executive committee meetings in the Peckham Road; it is a marvellous picture if one has enough imagination. The Government look at this, of course, and see that it will not do. In the end—as the noble Lord suggested—they do not really have any effective way of driving trade unions into this particular one-sided cul-de-sac.
Similarly on strike ballots, the Government have a very great deal of information to make them more careful. They have the example of their own compulsory strike ballot in 1972 for British Rail. They have the evidence of the Donovan Commission taken in respect of compulsory ballots in the United States and Canada which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, mentioned also, where the evidence continues to be that unions win the compulsory ballots of the National Labour Relations Board and that they make strikes much more difficult to settle afterwards; and that, in general, these provisions are no longer used. So they have a very great deal of evidence to make them doubtful about what kind of sanctions they might be able to introduce to carry through ballotomania.
This brings me to my fourth point. In this Green Paper, as far as one can see, there are two very general, abstract, unsubstantiated arguments as to why we should struggle through and find legal forms to force us into this particular avenue. One argument is the importance of these institutions, which the noble Lord also mentioned. The trade unions are so important, so vital, they can do such potential damage to the economy, that we must ensure that anybody who acts on their behalf has the maximum degree of representativeness and support among the membership. That is the first argument. I prefer that to the second, At least they do not have to have any facts for that one.
The second argument is that there is "widespread concern" that "time and again" unions have been 736 shown to be out of touch with their members and that there is therefore "a possibility" of malpractices, and so on. In other words, single examples, and indeed for the most part no examples, are quoted: our old friends the four dinner ladies, the three railwaymen, the two local authority workers and the one chicken sexer we heard so much of in the 1982 legislation debates—isolated and unsubstantiated examples of widespread concern and people being out of touch.
There are things one can say on both these arguments. First, there is the general argument; what I call the Athenian democracy test. No one needs to come to this House, and I certainly would not attempt to do so, to say that trade union democracy is satisfactory or perfect or universally effective. What system of democracy is? The test is whether in general terms it stands up reasonably well to, say, the level of democracy in the CBI, where they never have any votes, where they do not have any motions, where there is no representative elections and where nobody really knows how the body emerges which runs the organisation. Or, for example, the Conservative Party, if I dare say so, where the leader nominates and sacks the chairman. Nobody says they should be regularly re-elected, and nor do I. Or, for example, professional associations, where very frequently there is no branch structure, where the nominated executive of the great and the good by and large greatly exceed the elected representatives. Or where we have such wonderful institutions, such bizarre creations as the grand general meeting of the British Medical Association. Or take private industry; take the chairman and board of directors of ICI, or Unilever. Even Mr. Ian McGregor was not elected, not even indirectly; he was nominated.
I shall be told that this is all stupid and all silly. Of course it is. It is silly to suggest that these institutions should be trnsformed into Athenian democracies and it is ridiculous to suggest that they are bad and imperfect institutions, and have no right to take action in their members' interests, if they fail that test. All I am saying is that on that test, on the Athenian democracy test, the trade union movement is further down the road than all those other institutions.
So we come to malpractices—the four dinner ladies, the three railwaymen, and so on. There are two points to make about that. First, I do not believe—and here I think the noble Lord was, to some extent, coming with me—that minor malpractices, in the sense of things done which are not completely in conformity with the rule book, are any more common in trade unions than in, say, local elections—certainly not in the local elections I have known. The point about minor malpractices is that the overwhelming majority of them do not matter because the overwhelming majority of them do not affect the result. That is the point about most malpractices in most trade unions, that they do not affect the result; in the same way as most of the people who do not quite fill in the nomination forms in local government, and the fact that the names of people are put down in the wrong order, do not affect the result, either.
The second point is that if it be true—I say this very seriously to the House, and I do not want to be misunderstood—that there is widespread concern, if it be true that a large number of our fellow citizens 737 believe that time and again unions are out of touch with their members, have not the Government some responsibility for this? Has not the press some responsibility for this? Is not this a legend which has been deliberately created and sedulously spread around the country? I use these words very carefully, and I hope I am not going to be misunderstood. It was Dr. Goebbels who said that if you repeat unsubstantiated generalisations often enough people believe them, and once people believe them you can argue that you must do something about them in order to reassure the people. That is the argument of guilt by association and misrepresentation, and it is not a very nice stable.
Now I come to my penultimate point, and that is how sad it is that in this Green Paper this Government—even this Government—have gone so far from seeking to argue their case by reference to the facts, because there are facts about this matter. There is a connection between this Green Paper, for example, and poor old Professor Gennard. There is a connection between this Green Paper and the fury on the Government side at the publication by the Department of Applied Economics of its research about the consequences of the abolition of wages councils. There is a connection between this Green Paper and what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, in the previous debates we had in this House, when we sought to guote the results of Mr. Daniel's investigations for the PSI into the effects of the Employment Protection Act. There is a connection between this kind of thing and the most recent research of the Institute of Manpower Studies, which we are told, according to the Observer, has proved the total worthlessness of the young workers' scheme. In all these areas, and in the area of this Green Paper, there are facts, there is research, there is evidence. But it does not point in the direction in which the Government wish to go. Therefore, in all these areas, particularly in the field of industrial relations, systematically and collectively the evidence has to be ignored.
I will give the House three very quick examples of evidence which lean against what this Government are suggesting in respect of legislation in the field of elections. There is no correlation between frequent and regular use of ballots, or postal ballots, and the political composition of the leadership or the degree of militancy of the leadership. There is ample research on this matter, and it was reinforced by an article, again in the Observer, by Mr. Robert Taylor, on 30th January, quoting some research, funded by the SSRC, by Messrs. Martin and Undy. Secondly, there is no correlation between militant leaderships in unions and abuse of the strike weapon, or even unusual use of the strike weapon. Right-wing trade union leaders have strikes just as frequently as left-wing trade union leaders. There is no observable correlation. The facts which lead them into strike action are much wider than their political position.
What undue use there is of the ballot—this is the most appalling example of neglect of the facts—produces not moderation but factionalism. There is a point at which, if a union moves into a constant, perpetual situation of re-election, not simply of its national executive but also of its general secretary and its president, all its officers and all its full-time officials, 738 and everybody given any authority in the organisation, the union inevitably becomes a series of factions; because winning the faction battle is absolutely essential for those who win and for those who lose. The real argument against ballotomania in trade union government is that it leads inevitably to factionalism. History indicates—I do not say that it is invariable—that one begins with Left-wing faction and, 10 years later, one perhaps gets Right-wing faction. That is the way it tends to happen because the Left organises quicker than the Right. That is the great case against ballotomania in elections.
But the same kind of evidence can be adduced in respect of strikes. First, as I have said, there is all the old Donovan stuff against compulsory strike ballots. More important, anyone could have told the Government—indeed, I suggest that their civil servants know only too well—that one of the most developed features about contemporary trade union behaviour is the development of ballots or, at least, the development of mandation—partly because of less authoritarian structures, partly because of changes in bargaining systems, and partly because the workers are very uncertain about what is a reasonable wage in the centre of a recession when most of the time they have very little chance of getting anything like the maintenance of their real income. The only way that a trade union leader can cover himself is to go through some process of mandation. That is the great feature of the British trade union movement at the moment: the refusal, with exceptions—and those who are exceptional come a cropper in the end—of trade union leaders, on the whole, to take these actions without a process of mandation.
The noble Lord mentioned the water workers. Of course the water workers had ballots. They had several ballots and every time the Secretary of State told them that they did not have a mandate they had another ballot and they got a bigger majority. So there are plenty of ballots about. One does not have to enforce them by legal regulation. All the evidence shows that if one tries to enforce them by legal regulation one gets the reverse of the answer that one wants.
Finally, and I do not expect the House to agree with this because I have said it before but I feel that I must come along and say it every year or so, the postal ballot for many purposes is a primitive and easily manipulated form of consulting large numbers of people. Anyone would prefer, if it were possible, to have all those affected in one room, even a very large room, in conditions of order where the case could be explained, where one could answer questions, where there could be motions and where there might be amendments. After all this is how we conduct our business. We do not ask that the business of the House on important complicated issues shall be decided by secret ballots. Even when we vote we put our names down. That is our system of conducting our business, yet we believe that for working men there is something essentially and intrinsically bad about the open system of democracy and that they must have secret ballots. I suggest that we look at this very carefully. One is either over-influenced by a few television programmes or, frankly, one has a rather low opinion of what ordinary people can do with the processes of democracy.
I come now to my final point. Am I saying, 739 therefore, in taking this line, that we need no law in this area? Of course not. We have argued in the past for law. For example, the Donovan Commission argued for the establishment of a statutory review body. To some extent the TUC has created such a body but it does not have surveillance over election rules. I see no reason—indeed, I would be in favour of it—why the present powers which the High Court has, and which the ordinary courts of the land have, to quash union elections on the basis of proven malpractice outside the rules or contrary to the principles of natural justice should not be given to industrial tribunals. I see no reason, because it is rather expensive and slow to do it the present way, why the whole of those rights should not be given to industrial tribunals—a tripartite system which is more easily and rapidly available, moving up to the employment appeal tribunal and perhaps then to the Court of Appeal. I see nothing against that. It would make it much easier for people to contest malpractices in union elections. It would be cheaper and they would get rather more understanding.
Finally, on balance I believe that the best form of ballot is not a postal ballot but a ballot undertaken, as do the National Union of Mineworkers, at the place of work after things have been explained. If the Government really want to encourage union democracy, let them introduce legislation which gives trade unions the statutory right to conduct meetings to discuss issues with their members and, if necessary, to ballot their members at the time that suits them with facilities provided by the employer. If one wants legislation, have that kind of legislation, but not the biased, misrepresenting, one-sided legislation represented in this Green Paper.
§ 3.55 p.m.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, I feel about the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, rather as I do about the composer Liszt—I prefer his technique to his tunes. It is, of course, again for me a pleasure to return from the deep, deep peace of Northern Ireland affairs to the hurly-burly of the industrial relations chaise-longue. I am conscious that this is far from being the first time that we have discussed industrial relations reform in your Lordships' House. Since coming into office the Government have brought before your Lordships two major Employment Bills and we have also debated an earlier Green Paper—on Trade Union Immunities—as well as codes of practice on both picketing and the closed shop.
I do not apologise for the fact that we have adopted what some might see as a piecemeal approach rather than seeking to rewrite the statute book at a stroke, so to speak. Indeed, I think that there has been great virtue in this way of proceeding. We have tried at each stage to identify those areas where the need for reforms have been clearly established and accepted by the vast majority of the country. And at each stage we have carried out extensive consultations to make sure that we have got our proposals right. That is the spirit in which I welcome today's debate. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for initiating it and I congratulate him also on his very penetrating analysis of the problems. Indeed, my noble friend's analysis makes much of my speech supererogatory and if you 740 wish to tend to the Government's overall view of this issue your Lordships could hardly do better than to study the opening remarks of my noble friend.
I believe that this process of consultation step-by-step has been essential and that its benefits can be seen not in what I am saying but in the very general acceptance which the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts have in fact now gained. There are few people in the land who now believe that we can or should return, for instance, to the law on picketing or the law on the closed shop as it was in 1979. I, for one, look forward to seeing how much of a showing the restoration of the pre-1980 position on picketing and the closed shop gets into the next Labour Party election manifesto. I believe that the great majority of the British people have welcomed the changes to the law on industrial action made by the 1980 and 1982 Acts, and have settled down to them. I include, of course, the great majority of members of trade unions themselves.
The Green Paper which we are debating today is a part of this same step-by-step process. It identifies issues which are of major concern to our society. It raises problems about which people are anxious and alarmed. But it does not rush to quick or easy judgments about the remedies for these problems. Instead, it puts forward the options for change—the pros and the cons—quite open-mindedly. We want to encourage a sensible and rational debate so that if we do decide that legislation should be brought forward the measures introduced will be practical, sensible, workable and well understood.
My Lords, I must say, however, that this Green Paper is different from the other industrial relations reforms which we have introduced hitherto, in a key respect. The reforms that we have introduced up to now have essentially looked outward. They have been concerned primarily with the effects of trade union action on people outside the trade unions—on employers and employees; on third parties caught up in disputes over which they have no control; on society as a whole. We have tried to provide remedies for injustices which people outside the trade unions—the non-union member, the non-union company, employers and the public generally, as I said—can and do suffer as the result of irresponsible industrial action. But the 1980 and 1982 legislation has had little, if anything, to say about the way in which trade unions conduct their internal affairs.
By contrast, this Green Paper looks not outward but inward. It looks at the way in which trade unions are run, at the way in which their leaders are elected and at the way in which key decisions—for instance, the decision to strike—are taken. It asks whether the way that trade unions organise themselves and their activities is any longer adequate for the needs of their own members and for the role which they have come to play in our society. In a sense this Green Paper and this debate in the name of my noble friend pose a fundamental question. The question is this: can we continue to regard the internal affairs of trade unions as something outside the legitimate concern of public policy? That is the fundamental question which the Green Paper poses. I for one believe that we cannot, and I want to say why.
The absence of legislative safeguards in respect of trade unions' internal affairs is quite remarkable, for 741 instance, when comparison is made with the position of other bodies—with the position, say, of companies. It is now well over 100 years since the first Companies Act was passed in 1862. Since then the company as a legal entity has been closely controlled and its purpose and behaviour defined and regulated. Its shareholders, its directors, its creditors and its debtors all have separate rights and duties. Indeed, Parliament has thought it right in recent years to regulate the affairs of companies in ever greater detail; some might say in too much detail. Since the last war there have been Companies Acts in 1948, 1967, 1976, 1980 and 1981. It might interest your Lordships to know that as a result of these various statutes company directors can face civil action or criminal prosecution for almost 100 different offences.
These legislative safeguards have always been seen as a quid pro quo. They are a quid pro quo for the concept of limited liability. Before Parliament intervened, trading with limited liability was illegal at common law and it was considered a fraud on potential creditors. But it gradually came to be seen as the means by which investment could be attracted and the totality of wealth increased. Indeed, it seems to me that the invention of the limited company, with the safeguards that now police it, can be credited as being a brilliant invention for this purpose.
Here is the clear parallel that we make with trade unions. Like companies, they have a great privilege conferred on them by statute—the privilege of immunity against common law actions when they are acting in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. Again, before Parliament intervened, most trade union action was illegal—a criminal conspiracy in restraint of trade. But, as with companies and limited liability, it came to be accepted that if trade unions were to survive and play their valuable role in society they must have some protection against actions at common law. And yet there is the great distinction that I mentioned: while Parliament has imposed on companies a great volume of statutory regulations in return for the privilege of limited liability, there has been virtually no attempt to regulate the running of trade unions in return for their great privilege of immunity against actions in tort.
There will of course be some who argue that the justification for this non-intervention in the affairs of trade unions is that these are voluntary organisations, more like a cricket club than a major corporation. That may indeed be the position in legal theory—indeed, it may at the very beginning have been the case in practice—but to argue that today is surely nit-picking nonsense. For thousands upon thousands of trade union members working in closed shops there is nothing whatsoever that is voluntary about their membership. More important still is the plain truth that the activities of trade unions and the decisions which trade union leaders take on behalf of their members can reach, as we have seen very recently, right into the living rooms of every home in the land. My noble friend laid great stress in his speech on the importance of industrial relations issues in respect of the public utilities. I certainly find it very hard to disagree with anything that he said there. There can no longer be the slightest doubt that the way in which trade unions exercise their industrial power 742 has the most far-reaching implications for the prosperity, and indeed for the economic survival, of this country.
This absence of legislative safeguards in respect of trade unions is all the more surprising in yet another respect. It is surprising when one remembers that Governments of both political persuasions—we remember In Place of Strife, for instance—have increasingly come to recognise in recent years that where the individual enters into a relationship with large organisations he or she may need to be protected. I think of, as an example outside the union sphere, the relationships of individuals with an insurance company, or a bank or a large retailer. Then the individual enters into such relations essentially on unequal terms and therefore needs the protection of law.
Time and again Parliament has acted in these situations to protect the individual citizen against the abuse of monopoly power. It has been pretty much common ground since the first restrictive practices legislation in 1948 that the law has to give protection against anti-competitive practices which operate against the public interest. That is why, when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has found that a monopoly situation or restrictive practice is restricting competition, the Government have the power to regulate prices; to prevent price discrimination; to declare refusal to supply unlawful; and indeed to prevent the acquisition of companies. In recent years legislative protection has been extended much further. It has been extended to people purchasing goods, buying services, entering into hire-purchase or credit sale agreements and buying life assurance.
Against that background, what protection does the law give the individual consumer or the individual employee against trade union monopoly power? The truth is that the trade union member has little real control over the contract he enters into when he joins a trade union. In practice, trade unions enjoy vast monopoly power—power which enables them to decide literally, in the case of industries such as printing, who will work and who will not; power to force up the price of labour, and hence of goods, without any regard to what the market will bear; power to compel individuals to become members against their will; and power to affect the supply of basic services to every home in the country.
I for one would still be very concerned if the monopoly power of trade unions were only a potential danger—an anomaly arising, say, out of their particular history. But of course it would be a lesser concern if, despite the absence of statutory safeguards, trade unions in the real world, in actual practice, conducted their affairs democratically; if they acted responsibly and with restraint; if they exercised their power in the real long-term interests of their own members and of society as a whole; and if they showed a willingness to put their own house in order when any shortcomings were manifest.
I have to say that the trade union movement has all too often shown itself lacking in some of those concerns. The facts are familiar enough and I do not believe that they are very seriously disputed. There is the fact that many trade union leaders are elected on 743 the votes of a very small percentage of the membership; there is the fact that the election procedures in many unions—for instance, the show of hands at a branch meeting—have the effect of discouraging the participation of ordinary union members; there is the fact that critical strike decisions are all too often taken not by secret ballot but by mass meetings at which militants may be packed at the front to outvote and intimidate those who may be against the dispute; and there is the fact that in some unions almost 100 per cent. of members are paying a political levy to one political party despite the evidence that only half of all trade unionists voted for that particular party at the last general election.
I want to make a slightly different point. I do not think that it can be argued that these criticisms are in some way being sprung by us on the trade unions; that they are recent phenomena of which unions themselves have only just been made aware. The inadequacy of the democratic structures and proceedures of most of the major trade unions has been well documented and well known for several decades, and it has been the subject of debate whichever Governments have been in office. For example, the very low level of participation in union elections which use the branch voting system is documented in academic literature dating back to the Second World War. One example is to be found in the work done in 1968 by Mr. John Hughes for the Donovan Commission and published by the commission as a research paper—work which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, will remember, given his own distinguished association with the commission.
In that paper, which was called Trade Union Structure and Government, Mr. Hughes looked in much detail at the way in which unions were then governed, and in particular at the different election procedures in operation. He concluded that:it can hardly be said that branch block voting helps encourage membership participation; it may instead mean that a relatively small proportion of the membership dominate branch participation in union government and are content to see this sitivation perpetuate itself".Later he went on to say:The traditional system of voting at the branch has in many cases failed to ensure trouble-free voting and, especially where the branch is divorced from the place of work, it severely discourages participation by the mass of members".This kind of issue has, therefore, been debated for at least 15 years, but with a few honourable exceptions it has led to no real change in the methods of trade union government. It was in an attempt to encourage voluntary reform that we as a Government made public money available to the trade unions in the 1980 Employment Act, for the holding of secret ballots on a whole range of issues, including the election of their executives and officers; strike decisions and the rest. We did that because we wanted to remove any genuine obstacles of cost which were preventing the introduction of greater democracy within the trade union movement.
I myself remember, as a fledgling Minister in the previous Conservative Government at the Department of Employment, debates within the AUEW when the noble Lord, Lord Scanlon—who I do not think I see in his place, but of course he is on the 744 side of the angels at present—was president. The case against ballots was then argued in that union almost entirely on the grounds of cost.
The provision of public funds, which has been there for the taking, has almost entirely been ignored. Not a single TUC affiliated union has applied for the funds. With my noble friend it really is difficult for me not to draw the conclusion that for the most part the trade union movement is either unwilling or simply unable to reform itself from within.
So in that context I turn quickly to the specific issues raised in the Green Paper. As the two noble Lords who have spoken previously have said, these fall into three main packages. First, the Green Paper is concerned with the need for secret ballots for union elections. It suggests four minimum conditions which unions' election arrangements should attain. These are that voting should take place in conditions of secrecy; that all members eligible to vote should have the opportunity to do so under a system which offers the best opportunity of a reasonable turnout; that all the votes should be counted fairly; and that those who take decisions at the highest levels should be properly representative of, and accountable to, the membership as a whole.
I really find it difficult to see how anyone can quarrel with such basic or minimum conditions. Yet, as the Green Paper points out, there are serious grounds for doubting whether most trade unions meet even these standards. I have already mentioned some of the reasons: the very low turnout in many elections and the electoral procedures in many unions which seem almost designed to ensure minimum participation. The Green Paper points to other reasons, such as the obscurity of some union rules and allegations of malpractice, which some see as "the visible signs of a more disquieting state of affairs".
There is, I think, no doubt that the case for legislation to require the use of secret ballots in trade union elections is overwhelming and is seen to be such in the country. But I do acknowledge that there are a number of practical issues which have to be resolved, such as which offices should be subject to election by secret ballot; whether totally postal ballots should be required; and whether all elections should have to be carried out by an independent body. These are exactly the kinds of issue which we hope the response to the Green Paper will illuminate.
The second main area with which the Green Paper is concerned is that of strike ballots. The argument of principle for holding ballots before strikes is surely simple and unanswerable. It must be right in principle that before trade union members are called upon to take strike action, they have an opportunity to make it clear whether they want to do so or not. But as the Green Paper shows, it is not as certain how legislation would operate to ensure this and how far legislation could be effective in practice. The idea of making ballots a condition of any lawful strike was canvassed on our earlier Green Paper on Trade Union Immunities but at that time it did not, as I freely acknowledge, attract widespread support.
The experience of the United States tends to show that ballots imposed by an external agency in the course of a dispute can become a test of solidarity and 745 of support for the trade union leaders and so obscure the real issues. On the other hand, if the law were to require ballots only when they were requested by a percentage of the members, that could not so easily be represented as external interference in union affairs. Even then, as we point out, there are great problems, for example, in defining the constituency for a ballot. Again, these are just the kind of points which the Green Paper invites people to go into. The fact that I myself am raising potential objections this afternoon is evidence surely that our approach is a flexible one. I think that that fact gives the lie to those who, like the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, claim that this is not a Green Paper.
Finally, the third area covered in the Green Paper concerns the political activities of trade unions and the political levy. What is quite clear is that in practice the present "contracting-out" system, under which the onus is on the member to say that he does not want to pay the levy, is working inefficiently and unfairly. It does not reflect the wishes of many individual trade union members. There is much evidence that the political levy is paid by many union members either without their knowledge or without their consent.
Many members are simply not aware that they are paying a political levy along with their trade union subscription, while others who would like to stop paying the levy have the greatest difficulty in doing so because the procedure for "contracting-out" is time-consuming, cumbersome or embarrassing, or because of specific difficulties put in their way.
It seems to me that the evidence on this is irrefutable. Does anyone seriously imagine that 98.4 per cent. of the members of the Transport and General Workers' Union who pay the political levy do so knowingly and of their own free will? And if they do so, why have we heard so much about the consequences of a change to contracting-in for the finances of the Labour Party? There is an iron logic here. If everyone paying the political levy is doing so willingly, then a change to contracting-in will make no difference to Labour Party funds. These funds are only at risk to the extent that those paying the levy now would, if given a genuine choice, cease doing so. An effective and genuine choice is what we believe the law should provide—no more and no less.
Therefore, these are the three main issues on which the Green Paper has concentrated. I am not, of course, suggesting that the record of all unions is uniformly bad. Some unions have made honest attempts to develop balloting arrangements which enable their members to vote in secret to elect their leaders and to have a decisive voice in strike decisions. I am very glad to acknowledge what has been done. I do not claim that the trade union movement is riddled with corruption or malpractice. The majority of trade union officials, as I know from my experience at the Department of Employment, are hard-working, honourable and highly intelligent men doing a difficult and often unrewarding job. But that job is made more difficult if they are elected by only a handful of the members they represent, or not elected at all. Nothing has done more damage to the reputation of trade unions and their leaders in this country than the spectacle of strikes being launched by a show of hands at mass meetings in football grounds or at factory gates 746 without even the pretence of proper democratic procedures.
Nobody pretends—I do not pretend; I hope that everything in my record suggests it—that the answers are easy or that legislation is the sole solution. I have no doubt that we shall hear a great deal from noble Lords opposite about the value of diversity and organic growth in the union movement. On this subject, if on no other, we can always count on noble Lords opposite to argue the case for legislative abstention and for market forces. But I must make it clear to your Lordships that, while I do not stand here with any legislative blueprint in my pocket or a ready made solution up my sleeve, I am convinced that the need for increased legislation is there. That is why we have published this Green Paper to canvas opinion in the widest possible way, and why consultation is the essence of our approach.
I have no doubt that there is a need for change. The reconciliation of freedom and responsibility is, of course, the perennial problem of any open or civilised society. It is never easy; the answers are seldom final. But no part of society and no group so powerful as the trade unions should be immune from that process for ever.
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, would he not agree that the true parallel between company law and trade union law is not the degree of liability but the fact that company law is not related to a single principle of ballotomania and participation and, secondly, that on the whole the business community accepts the present framework of company law? If the trade union movement accepted the present framework, we should not be arguing.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, it is my experience that trade union members certainly accept the need for increased legislation in this field. If they did not, I very much doubt whether the present Government would enjoy such support for their proposals as they do.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords, I am sure it is right that, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, we should be having this debate now as part of the consultative process on the Green Paper before the Government make up their mind what legislation, if any, they should introduce or, I suppose more probably, what should feature in the Conservative Party manifesto for the forthcoming general election. Come to think of it, the debate may prove equally helpful to Liberals and Social Democrats, should the Alliance be called upon to form the next Government.
I should like to start by saying that, in the three areas which the Green Paper covers, it provides, in my view, a very useful analysis of the points for and against legislating and, if legislating, how that might be done. It would be easy to become immersed in the minutiae of the many difficult problems that are dealt with, and I shall endeavour to avoid that course because it seems best that, in speaking first for my noble friends and I hope also for our allies, I should try to cover the whole field in pretty broad terms.
I very much regret that the TUC appear unwilling, if I understand the position correctly, to join in the 747 consultative process at all, except on terms that seem to me to be wholly negative; namely, that the legislation enacted by Parliament during the last two or three years should be reversed. Before now I have said in this House that I believe in the need for trade unions and that if they did not exist someone would have to invent them in order to safeguard the interests of ordinary working people and to keep management up to its job.
But, having repeated that, I must add that, although we are constantly being told that trade unions are against ideas such as those canvassed in this Green Paper—and if we had forgotten the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, has just reminded us—what many of us would like to know is what the unions themselves are prepared to do to remedy abuses in this field. If I may say so, I formed a considerable respect for the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, when until recently we worked together for about two and a half years, under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Seear, as members of your Lordships' Select Committee on Unemployment.
But, after listening to him today, with the exception perhaps of his very last remarks concerning possible further roles for the certification officers and for industrial tribunals, I am still waiting to hear from him, from many trade union leaders and, indeed, from the Labour Party, how they propose positively to respond to the concern that really is being expressed by the general public, including millions of union members, as to how the decision-making processes of trade unions are to become more democratic.
If I may respectfully say so in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, I fancy that he may agree with me that the governing bodies of too many trade unions in recent years have either failed to observe or refused sufficiently to recognise that power has increasingly been shown to reside in the localities and not at the centre. I only wish that there were more people like Mr. Trevor Bell, who is reported to have said last week after the strike ballot in the coal industry:We have got to listen to the membership, not tell them any more.The next point I want to make on these matters is really double-edged. As has been said, on the one hand, unions wield great power, and that is particularly the case—as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, emphasised—in essential services, as recent events have shown. Some of that power is of a monopolistic nature, stemming from the spread of closed shops, more particularly in the public sector. If trade unions are perceived by a society to be abusing that power, they cannot expect—and this was a point emphasised by the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie—alone of our great national institutions, to be exempt from accountability in law to their members and to the community as a whole.
On the other hand, the experience I have gained over a long period, sometimes painfully, of negotiating with trade unions prompts me to say that we, as politicians, must think very hard before bringing further legislation into this country's somewhat peculiar industrial relations system. And when we do, it should, in my view, be confined to the correction of 748 abuses that have clearly been identified, so that the law has a good prospect of sticking because it has the consent of the general body of trade unionists.
The situation in Western Europe is different. Their legislation plays a considerable part, for example, in the settlement of disputes. That is because it simply underpins what is already practised by both employers and trade unions, for in those countries, once agreements have been made, they are adhered to. Moreover, in Scandinavian countries and in Western Germany, there is a wider recognition of the need for collaboration in the creation of wealth before there is bargaining on how that wealth should be allocated.
I turn to the substace of the three subjects covered by the Green Paper. In every instance, abuses of power have, in my view, been identified, and, in principle—I stress that word—a case has been made out for legislative correction. In regard to invoking the law, however, I believe it should be used to the minimum extent necessary, and then only where legal remedies are practicable because they are likely to command a sufficient degree of consent among union members.
First, as regards secret ballots for trade union elections, I am sure the Government are right to say in paragraph 13:Any legilative steps which are taken must provide a full opportunity for unions to take the initiative, with the support and involvement of their members, in introducing more democratic arrangements.I agree, too, with what is said in paragraph 32 as to voting methods:The wide variety and different circumstances of trade unions electorial arrangements … suggest that it would be unrealistic to attempt to achieve the desired standards by requiring through legislation a single method for all types and levels of union election".Personally, having vivid recollections of the difficulties unions often have in practice in even, for example, persuading shop stewards to stand for election in that capacity, I think it might be best in the first instance for legislative requirements to be confined to ensuring that every union member has, at reasonable intervals of time, the right to cast a vote by secret ballot in the election of the governing body of the union. Thus, union officers would need to be elected only in so far as they were voting members of the governing body.
As for the enforcement of this statutory requirement, my preference is for the sanction suggested by my noble friend Lord Kilmarknock in discussing the amendment which was moved to last year's Employment Bill by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, who I am pleased to see in his place. That sanction would involve the High Court, or Court of Session in Scotland, removing the union concerned from the certification officer's list and a consequential loss of the right to tax relief for expenditure on provident benefit.
I have some sympathy with the alternative approach put forward in paragraph 54 of the Green Paper where it is said:if other arrangements"—that is, arrangements other than those canvassed in the Green Paper—could be demonstrated to have the support of a majority of members democratically expressed, the question arises whether such arrangements could not then be accepted as a valid alternative to the specified legislative requirements".749 It may be that one day we shall all have cause to feel that those last words in Chapter 2 are wise.
Next, on the question of ballots before strikes, I subscribe wholeheartedly to the principles set out in paragraph 56:if trade unions are to serve and fairly represent the interests of their members they should ensure that any important decisions are supported by a majority of the members voting in a secret ballot.Later it is said in the same paragraph:Society has a right to expect that the strike weapon will be used sparingly, responsibly and democratically.Surely those words should carry even more weight than when they were published—after the failure of the unions in the water industry to honour the undertaking in their procedural agreement to go to arbitration, and after the attempt by certain members of the national executive of the mineworkers' union at first to by-pass the admirable strike ballot procedure already available to members of that union.
Even so, I have reservations about legislating on this matter. They derive from my practical experience and I cannot in conscience fail to express them. As the Green Paper reminds us in paragraph 60:As the Donovan Commission pointed out, 'a law forbidding strike action before the holding of a secret ballot could not be enforced in the case of a small-scale unofficial stoppages, which make up the overwhelming majority of the total number of strikes' ".And then:a balloting requirement limited to strikes might well encourage the use of …other forms of industrial action short of a strike".And again:it would be even more impractical to apply a balloting requirement to action short of a strike than to unofficial strikes".I recognise that the idea of legislating for a ballot which is triggered by a certain proportion of union members has the merit that it cannot so easily be represented as external interference in union affairs. Nevertheless, legislation would have to deal with difficult practical problems concerning the operation of a ballot and sanctions against refusal to hold one.
There is, for example, the problem that once a strike has been endorsed by a ballot, settlement might be delayed by restricting the freedom of action of union leaders. There is the problem of how the question on which the vote is to be held is to be framed. For example, if the vote is on whether the employer's latest pay offer should be accepted, what happens if he then makes an improved offer? There are other difficulties, but I will not rehearse them; they are all set out in paragraphs 64 to 68 of the Green Paper, and I will leave it at that. I suggest that if anything is to be done in this field, it might be prudent, in the first instance, to try in some way to build on the experience of recent non-mandatory strike ballots which have resulted in the decisive repudiation of such action, sometimes in defiance of the advice of union leaders.
On the question of the political activities of trade unions, I concur with the statement made in paragraph 94 of the Green Paper, and if your Lordships will allow, I should like to quote it:It is objectionable in principle that anyone should have to indicate his dissent from the political alignment of his union to avoid contributing to political activities or to a political party to which he is opposed. And it is objectionable in practice that anyone should have to reveal his dissent to those from whom, given the realities of the shop-floor and trade union power, he may have good 750 reason to keep his political sympathies private. Finally it is wrong in principle that a decision to contribute to a political fund should result from inertia or apathy rather than from a deliberate and positive choice.".In my view, it follows that there is need for change in the operation of the 1913 Trade Union Act, and it seems to me that, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway (who is next to speak in the debate) advocated in his amendment to the Employment Bill of last year, there is a very strong case for the substitution of contracting-in for contracting-out in order to get over this problem.
Our concern on these Benches is that legislation in this field can so easily be perceived to be—I do not say that it is—a pursuit of a political pogrom aimed at the extermination of the Labour Party. We therefore think that so far as possible the approach to this matter should be even-handed as between employers and trade unions on the one hand, and political parties on the other. By that I mean that if contracting-in is to be substituted for contracting-out, there is at the same time a good case for debarring companies from making contributions to the funds of particular political parties, except with the express authority of shareholders, given at general meetings, rather than as now, when such contributions merely have to be recorded in a balance sheet.
I acknowledge that a distinction can be drawn between the corporate decision of a company and the individual decision of an employee, but I do not think that that should be allowed to impede such a change. I suppose that the only other way in which the desired even-handedness could be achieved would be through increased state funding of political parties. But that raises other issues which I do not propose to go into now.
Finally, in speaking for my noble friends and, I do not doubt, for our allies, I think it right to say that we have one further general concern about the Green Paper. It may be that there is justification for legislative change in all three of the matters covered by it, though in one—that of ballots before strikes—I have felt obliged to express reservations on grounds not of principle, but of practicality. But, as in the case of last year's Employment Act, so here we are troubled because legislation of the kind canvassed in the Green Paper would necessarily be restrictive and controversial, and we long for the time when more constructively there can be marked out ground on which employers and trade unions are able to work together to improve this country's industrial relations for the benefit of us all.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for the stimulating way in which he introduced this most important and constructive debate. I wish to concentrate on the essential services, and to look forward from today, not backward to Donovan. From where I speak, I am free to do so without preconception. I find myself in agreement with some of the views advanced by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, but assuredly not in agreement with the view that malpractices do not matter so long as they do not affect the result. With 751 respect, I find myself in disagreement with some of the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, but without reservation, and with gratitude, I adopt many of his views, especially those about contracting-in and the "check-off".
I adopt the broad analysis of my noble friend Lord Gowrie, and indeed that of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, in all the essentials, save the question of the pre-strike ballots. I wish to detain your Lordships in order to argue against the introduction of mandatory pre-strike ballots (referred to in Chapter 3 of the Green Paper) as a means of preventing stoppages in the essential services. I wish to argue against mandatory arbitral machinery which involves surrender—the permanent surrender—of the right to strike, and I want to argue in favour of the introduction of "other means" to which reference is made in the Green Paper.
There is a world of difference between voluntary ballots under union rules, and mandatory ballots arising from enforcement and all that that entails. I would not agree with the general proposition that union funds should be put at risk whenever there is a strike in the essential services unless a ballot has been held. That would be far too wide; and I hope to return to the point in due course.
Before developing the case, I should like to seek to remove the fear, the suspicion, expressed by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, that the Government would ever seek to reintroduce registration akin to that in the 1971 Act. Surely the Green Paper contains no basis for such fear, and though I am not close to Government thinking, I have never heard of such a proposal.
In its distillation of the essence of available options to seek to resolve the problem of stoppages in the essential services, the Green Paper recognises straight up that there is no panacea, there is no fail-safe mechanism. It would be idle to pretend that the Green Paper is other than a prelude to discussion and consultation with a view to taking the next legislative step. It is only by legislation—and if I understood the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, aright, he accepts this view—that the delicate balance may be reset between what my noble friend Lord Renton has referred to as the conflicting freedoms: the right to strike, and the right to enjoy the ordinary amenities of civilised living, in particular without danger or hazard to health. Surely in this matter, whatever the differences that lie between us, we can, on all sides of your Lordships House, make common cause of our concern about the appropriate remedial measures. Hence, the importance of this debate today.
Your Lordships may detect a certain want of constructive thinking in the rhetoric of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. Is it true that the trade unions are either unable, or unwilling, to reform themselves?—a point touched upon so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. One may not have regard to this Green Paper without taking into account the legislative measures already introduced by this Administration. My noble friend Lord Gowrie touched on this. These measures reflect the recognition that in the process of our social evolution the time has come for change, for review, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, put it.
752 It is against this broad perspective that there now arise these inward-looking questions, and rightly so. Where there is regard to essential services is the public an acceptable hostage in the contest for power between trade unions and Her Majesty's Government? In this and in other respects, do members of trade unions require protection against pressures exerted upon them by the body which often controls their means of livelihood? Should the politically-motivated activities of the trade unions generally, and in this connection in particular, be more in accordance with the views of the members? That is why the Green Paper is entitled Democracy in Trade Unions.
In this development of our philosophy, can we regard the internal affairs of the trade unions as outside the legitimate scope of governmental scrutiny? No, no longer! Here I adopt again, with gratitude, the views expressed by my noble friend Lord Gowrie. Although I have not worked it out for myself in this way, it is truly, as the noble Earl has stated it, a quid pro quo for limited liability. In practice these questions that I have canvassed before your Lordships as regards the essential services tend to merge. The hospital strikers, the water workers, afford but two examples.
The Green Paper deploys options, means of remedial action as regards these essential services. First of all, there are the pre-strike ballots; secondly, the cooling off period of say, 60 days to enable negotiations to continue, with or without a ballot on the final offer, before the resumption of industrial action. That is the temporary withdrawal of the right to strike. Thirdly, there is this mandatory arbitral machinery, with or without index-linked pensions and wages. That is the permanent withdrawal of the right to strike. There are possible combinations and permutations. There could be a cooling-off period with a ballot on the final offer and, if the offer is rejected, then mandatory arbitration, and enforceable award and the total withdrawal of the right to strike. I am wholly opposed to that solution. There are many permutations. That is why it is essential that all this should be considered and worked out in consultation with the trade unions—if only they will consult.
Because there are so many practical associated problems. Take the pre-strike ballot, a point touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. The problems associated with these pre-strike ballots are only intensified if there are triggered ballots invoked by a certain proportion of the membership of the trade union. Who should be balloted? There are impediments to communication—take the seamen or the actors alone as two examples. How is the ballot to be conducted? Who is to word the question? How is it to be controlled, and, anyway, how does one ever impose effective sanctions for breach? But, most of all, in my submission, what has to be avoided is the denigration of the authority of the union which is involved in such a process; because it is upon that authority that we rely for the strike to be called off speedily—an aspect of pre-strike ballots that I stress before your Lordships' House. I know that I repeat myself, for I took this point in the debate on the Employment Bill. The associated problems with the statutory, arbitral machinery are not ony the permanent surrender of the right to strike—which I find unacceptable—but also the inflationary aspect of 753 the awards which has a general repercussive effect throughout the economy.
There are the associated problems of contracting-in and the check-off. This reflects two amendments of mine, No. 55 at Report stage and No. 142 at Committee during the passage of the Bill. It is not for me to reargue my own case. May I respectfully adopt what has been said by other noble Lords, in particular, in the presentation of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in that of my noble friend Lord Gowrie and also, with particular gratitude, in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester. That aspect of the case, I would submit, speaks for itself.
In taking note of the Green Paper, I think that the process of interaction between these proposals in the Green Paper—and there are three of them—and the interaction on other aspects of the industrial relations law must be recognised; because the adoption of some weakens the case for the adoption of others. For example, if secret ballots for elections (Chapter 2) and contracting-in and the abolition of the check-off (Chapter 4) are to be adopted, does this not undermine the case for pre-strike ballots or triggered ballots in the essential services (Chapter 3)?
On this assumed adoption, does this not also affect the means, or the combination of the means, by which stoppages in the essential services may be prevented? Paragraphs 59 and 60 of this Green Paper (touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester) acknowledge freely that no country has introduced, or considers the introduction of, automatic pre-strike ballots other than in circumstances akin to stoppages in essential services. As the threat of politically-motivated strikes recedes, as it would recede if one adopts the proposals of Chapters 2 and 4 of the Green Paper, so the case for any further amendment of the law on secondary action weakens; and, with it, also, the case for pre-strike ballots weakens. I detain your Lordships in the hope of making the point that one cannot consider one proposal without its repercussive effect, its interaction, on other proposals as providing a fair means of resolving what, after all, is an important problem to every one of us in the country. On this I of course adopt what my noble friend Lord Gowrie has said about the secret of ballots for elections. In Chapter 2 I submit the case is overwhelming.
I take on board the problems to which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred. We should all be grateful to him for being able to express from the depth of his experience the view that there was a touch of unreality, that these matters required a little further working out, and that there was a line to be drawn. I, without derogation from my acceptance that in principle the case is overwhelming, gratefully accept and acknowledge the experience of my noble friend, and it is in that light that I submit that those points should be adopted.
So what is a possible solution? May I respectfully suggest one? Could we not opt for a three-stage mechanism under which the only means adopted is the cooling-off period with sanctions? At the first stage, the Secretary of State applies to the courts for a cooling-off order on the basis of some new statutory criterion relevant to maintaining the provision of essential services in the public interest. There should be an overriding discretion in the court to grant or 754 refuse such an order, even where such criterion is met on the facts of the case. The second stage could be that in the event of that order of the court anyone adversely affected would have an action against trade union funds—a member of the public, for example—where that union had authorised or organised the relevant industrial action. But after the end of that cooling-off period the union would have no restrictions upon it save those which now obtain.
Why should I propose that solution? It is because in my belief such measures as are introduced must be reasonable, moderate ones. They should only reflect the minimum measure of intervention in the internal affairs of the trade union; the minimum curtailment of the right to strike; the minimum interference with trade union authority requisite to reset this balance. Of course, no court would or should order a man to work. We should remove Section 5 of the Act of 1875 from the statute book. This is a token of earnest in our approach to the Green Paper. Here again, I gratefully adopt what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said about this matter.
I say repeal Section 5 knowing that my views are not shared by my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate or by my noble and gallant friend Lord De L'Isle, according to his Monday letter to The Times. I say this knowing that according to that letter my views are shared by my right honourable friend the Attorney-General who left it to the Freedom Association to institute a private prosecution, if so advised. I say to your Lordships: repeal Section 5. I say this because there is a current disparity of treatment on either side of the Border which brings the due administration of the law into serious current disrepute. I say it because implementation of this stale statute would work a great mischief with industrial relations, not only in essential services but generally; and I say it because, as I see it, it conflicts with the general philosophy of the Green Paper when seen in true perspective.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Lord Gormley
My Lords, it is fantastic to think that one of the first debates that I am able to take part in since I took my seat in this House is to deal with the job that I have been doing for the past generation. If I do not take so long as some of the other speakers, it is not because I have not a lot to say, but because I think that time is passing and we ought to get on with the job.
In the introduction to the topic the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, made some general remarks. He talked about the power of the trade unions. He talked about the numbers. Of course, the numbers are a little difficult today in certain circumstances. What are we talking about—more than 50 per cent. or 60 per cent. of the working population of Britain? He mentioned the power of the unions. I can tell the noble Lord that in all my time as a national leader I had never any idea of the power that it is said we have. I do not think that many trade union leaders have any idea that they have special powers. I do not think that they work in that way. That is not the objective of their job. Their objective is to do the job that they were elected to do. We shall come to the question of elections in due course.
755 I say to the noble Lord that the impugnities that he mentioned have never been in my mind at all. I was the president of the NUM and in that way I did my job. That is why I resent entirely what is said in the first sentence on page 37 of this paper, that the uncertain legal status of trade union leaders has influenced their attitude to the law. I can say quite sincerely to the whole of this House that the vast majority of the trade union leaders respect the law and will always do so, irrespective of all the propaganda against that view which is put out daily.
Therefore, for this debate I thought I would look up what the Oxford Dictionary said about what it is that we are talking about. We are talking about democracy in trade unions. Democracy in my schooldays was the rule of the people by the people for the people. Today, it says that democracy is government by the people directly representative of any form of society ignoring hereditary class, distinction and tolerating minority views. I thought that that was what the trade union movement was about. I thought that was what the majority in the trade union movement that I know really respected.
Then I come to the question of what is a trade union. We have to define what we are talking about. The Green Paper, quite rightly, refers to trade unions. The definition of a trade union in the Oxford Dictionary—I thought I would look it up about an hour ago—says that it is an organised association of workers in a trade or a group of allied trades or a profession formed for the protection and promotion of their common interests. I look around this Chamber and ask myself, how many here are not trade unionists? In fact, the people who have been writing the legislation are the strongest trade union in the country. They are the biggest closed shop in the country. We keep trying to profess that we are talking about trade unionism. We are not. We are talking about the unions who have taken the trouble to be affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. Why do we not be honest about it? If we were honest we would know what we are dealing with.
We are not dealing with the trade union movement as we know it. We are dealing with those lads who are affiliated and who cause some problems now and again to Governments. This is what we are saying, and it is what the whole issue is about. It has nothing to do with the issue of trade unionism as such. We would have the lawyers, doctors, dentists and everybody else under this same umbrella. But we are not saying it to them because we are not afraid of them. All we are trying to avoid is what might be a conflict in the future.
I think this is the wrong way to do it. That is why I take exception to this, irrespective of the compliments people have paid me on the ballot issue. When we come to the secret ballots, I for one would never vote against secret ballots. I believe in them. I have believed in them all my life. We were brought up with the idea that secret ballots were a necessary part of the democratic proceedings, and those forebears of mine who wrote them into the rules of the National Union of Mineworkers had a sense of the future. But they did not need Governments telling them: that is why I object to the issue being contained in legislation. The people who wrote the rules of the NUM had a sense of 756 the future and a sense of responsibility, and they did not need any Government coaching to do it, or Government legislation to make it possible; and I tell you that if you try to make it compulsory it will have a retarding effect. It will have such an effect that it will never become a fact; and I say that this issue has to be very thoroughly looked at, even when you are talking about ballots for strike action. I believe in those as well: I would be stupid if I did not say that.
But ask yourself a question. It is 6 o'clock on a rough Monday morning and the lads have had a rough Sunday night; somebody says something out of place when they are going down the pit, and the lads say, "Get the hell out of it", and they walk away. Do you then say to them: "We must have a strike ballot before you do this"? It is impossible when you are trying to work out what we are trying to talk about. What you have to do is to remove the cause and effect. It takes two sides to make a battle, and while we are going along on the issue of the need to have strike ballots, we are not dealing with the issues. We are not putting the things right which should be put right in order to avoid the need for strikes. We are approaching it from the wrong direction by trying to introduce legislation today and saying that before we have a bit of a strike we must have a ballot. I agree that if we were having a national strike we should have a ballot, and must insist on that, because it affects the country so much—
§ Lord Gormley
But when you are talking about strikes you are talking about a lot of things. You are talking about people's temperaments at a certain time of the day. You have to realise you are dealing with people: you are not dealing with some dumb animals. You are dealing with people who will say to you, whether you like it not, "you can have all the legislation you want and it won't make one iota of difference." All that it will do is to build up to worse and worse industrial relations. Instead we should be sitting down and deciding how we can deal with the problems between management and men, and how we can all get working together to make industries better without the need to have any strikes.
The point was made by one speaker that it just creates a big problem, even if you have legislation, to say that strikes—even national strikes—should be conducted on a ballot basis. You must also insist at the same time that you need a ballot to get off the strike. I remember one of your colleagues in the other place when we had a little bit of a fracas. We had an inquiry headed by one of our noble Lords, and at the end of that inquiry we came to a settlement after long negotiations. The Prime Minister at that time said to me: "Joe, do we need a ballot?" I said: "Of course we do. We had a ballot to come out, and we shall have to have a ballot to come in." That is what you have always to take into consideration—the time that would be involved in getting a settlement and then getting back to work, when more mischief could flow from people's determination not to let it happen.
You have to be very careful when you say you must put these things on the statute book. None of this can be done without full consultation within the Trades 757 Union Congress, because when you are talking about those trade unions that I mentioned there must be these discussions. We have to say to the TUC: "We are open-minded on the issue. Let us sit down together and discuss it in a proper, civilised way without having any preconceived ideas in the mind. We have a completely open issue with one objective—to make this country a better country for us all to live in"—because without that knowledge none of us succeeds.
Now I come to my last point: the political affiliations argument. I do not know what all the worry is about. The trade union movement today is involved in many things. It is involved in dealing with pension schemes, and they are very big business. If you give the trade unions the idea that you are going to stop them affiliating to the Labour Party, irrespective of all the blandishments as to whether they opt in or opt out, and if you give them the idea that you do not want them to affiliate to the Labour Party, they will say quite openly: "We will ensure that no contributions go to the Conservative Party from big business." They will make problems for you: do not get any wrong impressions.
I hope we do not get to that position. If we want to get away from this idea of the unions being politically affiliated and industry being politically affiliated, why the hell do we not adopt the German system? Why do we not look at the possibilities of adopting such a system where the expenses of political parties are paid from a central fund? Why do we keep trying to kid one another that we can solve the problem in any other way? You will never, in the present circumstances, stop the unions from affiliating to the Labour Party and making contributions to the Labour Party. We formed the Labour Party. Why the devil should we destroy the party that we formed? We are not going to do it, and I say "we" although I am supposed to be retired. But I say that it will not happen; and for anybody to pretend that it will happen is foolhardy and just hitting against a brick wall. So I would say to the Minister about the Green Paper: " Take it back again, Norman; drop it in the Thames. That is the only place for it, where it is going to sail down to the sea. It is not going to make much progress other than that."
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Lord Aylestone
My Lords, there can be no greater privilege than to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, in a debate on trade unionism. I am quite sure that, both in this House and in the other place, no trade unionist who has ever had any responsibility within a trade union has greater knowledge and greater respect than he has. However, I do not always agree with him and I do not on this occasion. But, on the question of secret ballots, I do.
This debate is on democracy in the trade unions. It is a pity that we are not at the same time discussing industrial relations in this country—relationships between unions and employers. However, this Green paper is a Green Paper—a paper for the purpose of discussion, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, pointed out—and I think that we should discuss it on that basis.
During the passage of the Employment Bill through 758 both Houses many, many views were expressed about the differing rule books and the differing constitutions of different unions. There was, if not a general view, a very strong view on both sides of this House that something needed to be done to bring them into line with each other, so that the power within the trade unions rested in the grass roots, in the rank and file, rather than, as in our view in some cases it does, in the executives. I rather think it would be the view of individual members of trade unions if, given the opportunity, they could state their clear views about what is necessary in adjusting and amending their own rule books. I would prefer that they do this themselves rather than it should be done by legislation; but that may not be absolutely possible.
We have seen recently—and it has been mentioned already once or twice and will be mentioned again—the importance of secret ballots. I will not say any more about it at this stage, but I will return to it later. However, we ought to have the background to this general discussion on democracy in the trade unions, because, in my view, both of the main political parties—the Conservative Party and the Labour Party—would find it difficult to take an unbiased and objective view about trade unions on trade union reform. That is because the Conservative Party have always regarded the trade unions as an unnecessary affliction—a cross which they have to bear—and are always inclined to support the management, whatever the issue before them. Whereas, on the other side, my former party, the Labour Party, despite contrary views from many of their members on certain specific issues, are unable to do anything other than appear to support the unions in every industrial dispute, at the same time making sympathetic noises in the direction of the members of the public who are inconvenienced as a result of that dispute.
It is my view that there are too many people who regard the trade unions, despite their historical past—and I am very conscious of that—simply as bodies whose main purpose, or whose only purpose, is to create unrest and to call strikes. This is a false view, it is an unfortunate view, but, unhappily, I regard it as a very prevalent view. One had only to talk to ladies with their buckets collecting water at a standpipe, or to commuters when there were no trains to take them to and from their destination, to realise how bitter the feeling about trade unions can be; and I will accept at once that it is more bitter on those occasions when everyone is affected. So before we start thinking of trade union reform or, by statute, of introducing more democracy into the rule books and constitutions, we should perhaps consider some of the reasons for industrial unrest, which, in itself, leads to anti-trade union feeling.
The present Government have a policy, so we are told, of non-interference in industrial difficulties with free negotiations between both sides of industry. As we all know, it just does not work at all. There is interference in almost every industrial dispute which looks like becoming a major one, and maybe it is right for Government to intervene. But there is no use in pretending that there is no interference.
Before we can think in terms of industrial peace, we shall have to introduce some form of incomes policy which, hopefully, will be acceptable to both sides of 759 industry. I know that incomes policies are not very popular at the moment with either of the two major parties, although Her Majesty's Opposition are trying with the TUC to work towards one. But I think that a high percentage of both sides of industry—the trade union side and the management side—would accept such a policy, based on an acceptable standard of impoved national production.
As I said, the present idea of freedom does not work. How can it, when one group of workers is offered 4 per cent. and, within a day or two, another group of workers get 14 per cent. or even 24 per cent? That is not my idea of freedom within the trade union movement or of free negotiation. I think that, given the right basis, we could then begin to think of more democracy within the trade union movement and changes in the rule books. I would again say at this stage that we might also have to think in terms of greater movement in the field of industrial relations.
During the years since the war, we have seen most organisations in this country, and in others on this side of the Iron Curtain, move towards greater democracy. For example in the House of Commons we have seen the introduction of Select Committees looking at the work of Government departments, putting Ministers on the mat, questioning them and, of course, their officials and listening to witnesses. That was a great move forward. As has already been mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, we have seen many amendments to company law which I think is right, and there is probably room for more still. That has been a help not only to the shareholders of companies, but to the public generally. Even within political parties, we have seen new and more democratic processes for the election of their leaders and even of Prime Ministers.
So it surely cannot be wrong that the trade unions, with a massive membership of something approaching 9 million—I am quite prepared to be corrected on the figure, because I have taken it out of the air—who have a great influence within the state, should now fall into line and introduce a more democratic system of control within the individual unions. It is right that the rank and file members of those unions should make their voices heard and their votes count within the unions. It could, perhaps, be argued that they are already able to do it, but I doubt it very much.
We on these Benches believe that trade union reform is necessary and that a more democratic control is desirable. We in this country probably have the highest density of trade union membership anywhere—certainly in Europe, if not in the whole of the free world. That is a huge force which, if correctly harnessed, could give us industrial peace and industrial recovery. It has to be harnessed to a horse which, at the beginning, may be a little unwilling, but that horse, too, could be nudged in the right direction. It would give us a system of industrial democracy not yet seen in this country, provided that the employing section is prepared to fall into line. We would then lose sight of what many people fear—that trade union executives, who are not elected by secret ballot, have considerable power over their members.
760 I suppose it is right for your Lordships to ask me what we on these Benches, the SDP, really feel about this Green Paper. I will start off by saying that we, and our allies in the Liberal Party, believe in the need for trade unions. Our view on trade union democracy is that it is a basic right for any man to join a trade union. If I may be excused an expression which I think comes from Marx, he has nothing to sell but his labour; therefore, he is entitled to sell it in the best market, But if he has the right to join a union, we must equally give him the right not to join a union if he so wishes.
We feel that the individual rank-and-file trade unionists must be allowed to participate fully, if necessary by secret ballot—I know that this is controversial, but I cannot think of any other way of doing it—in all vital matters. I emphasise the words "vital matters", because I do not believe that you need a secret ballot for the election of a shop steward, or for deciding whether the chief executive should be given another £1,000 a year. Those are not vital matters. I am referring to vital matters affecting the activities, the policies and the constitution of the union, and these should be decided by secret ballot.
We believe, too, that it is the right of a man to withdraw his labour individually, or collectively, as I have already said. Very often he may be doing that against the wishes of his own union, but that is his right. We believe there is a right for workers in the essential public services to take their case to arbitration when negotiations fail to reach decisions. I believe that arbitration is the way out of many of these problems. We trust those people who are responsible for arbitration. The chairmen who form the arbitration boards must be completely impartial and must be seen to be impartial. If there is any doubt in that direction, very often it falls before it starts.
At this stage I should like to pay tribute to the work which ACAS has done. We feel, too, that some industrial troubles could be avoided if the rank-and-file member of the union had closer contact with the executive. On the question of secret ballots of officers and executives, and on all important decisions, the only way to reach a real consensus is by what I have already described two or three times as a secret ballot—and I mean a secret ballot. The National Union of Mineworkers have proved time and time again to the whole trade union movement what can be done by a secret ballot. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, that one could not possibly operate a secret ballot on every conceivable and minor occasion. Certainly it would be a great improvement on the present position if decisions were taken by ballot rather than by a few, shall I call then "turners up" who turn up at a trade union branch meeting, very often when the meeting is at an end: very often a sparsely attended branch meeting (we have seen this in the political field, too) when intimidation can, on occasion, take place. A ballot is a much fairer way of coming to a decision than a show of hands at the factory gate.
Regarding the closed shop, I have not read Professor Gennard's report, but I am inclined to agree with the industrialists who feel that in some cases the closed shop is helpful. My only purpose in mentioning it is to point out that when a closed shop is newly introduced into a factory or company it must be made absolutely 761 clear that those trade unionists who refuse to take part, because they were not in a trade union before, must be fully protected. We believe, too, that there is a fine case to be made out for fewer trade unions and for rather more amalgamations. This could perhaps be done by the TUC or the unions themselves. No doubt (though I do not have the knowledge) they are looking at this point.
Turning to the question raised in the Green Paper of the political levy, we believe that the individual trade unionist must himself take some active step. I am not sure that he always does. It could be argued that when he contracts out he is taking an active step. Of course he is. He has to go to his branch manager or official and say, "I no longer want to pay the political levy". But is his action quite so definite and affirmative when he contracts in? Or does he, in need of a job, apply for a trade union card, and is he then asked to sign on the dotted line?—in which case he probably signs to pay the political levy at the same time. I am not so concerned about what happens, but I am concerned that there should be absolute freedom in this respect, too.
On the other side of the coin, I should like to see greater information than we already get in balance sheets of the contributions made by companies which are simply regarded as political contributions. It would be no hardship for them to declare to whom and in what way the political contribution is made. The view of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, is that the trade unions have no power and have no intention of using power other than for trade union purposes, especially within their own unions. But, unhappily, how frequently over the last few years have we heard of the threat of political strikes taking place, purely for political reasons? These we would strongly oppose.
Finally, we recognise that some unions are much more democratic than others. We favour a system where the individual votes of trade union members count. We would prefer that the move towards democracy in the trade unions should come from within the unions themselves but, failing that, legal reform may be necessary. Nevertheless, we fervently hope that, in one way or another, we can reach the situation in this country where the strike is used only as a last resort weapon.
§ 5.36 p.m.
My Lords, may I begin by saying that I agree with almost every word that the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, has said—No, I am still staying on this side of the gangway!—but I want to look at the situation from another angle: the angle of the man-in-the-street going about his job who suddenly finds his whole life come crashing about him because someone has called a strike which has destroyed his business. That is referred to on page 17 of the Green Paper, at the beginning of Chapter 3, which is headed Ballots before strikes. I should like to read a couple of sentences from it, because it deals with my point:As the industrial power of unions has grown, the effects of exercising that power have become increasingly serious, not only for the strikers themselves and those at whom the strike is directly aimed, but for the community as a whole … In recent years it has become common for strikes to be aimed at inflicting damage on innocent third parties in the hope that the distress caused will bring about Government intervention to press the employers to yield to the unions' demands".762 Having read that passage in the Green Paper, I thought I would have a look at what the European Convention on Human Rights has to say about our basic rights. May I list one or two of them for your Lordships. The first is that the right to life shall be protected by law. Then there is the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. There is the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority. Then, in Protocol 4, there is the right to liberty of movement. I believe that all those rights have at times been placed in jeopardy by strikes which have taken place in this country.
There is also another basic right: the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of a person's interests. However, this right is expressly qualified by saying that restrictions on that right may be madesuch as are necessary in a democratic society for the protection of health or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.Finally, in Article 17 of the convention there is a general qualification:Nothing in this convention may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth in the convention".Why should unions and their members be protected from claims for damage to the businesses, the health, the livelihoods of the general public with whom there has never been any quarrel? There is no basic right to strike. However much the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, talked about this, the right to strike does not exist in the European Convention on Human Rights. It has become a right, because it has been given to the unions through legislation in this country and possibly in other countries, but there is no basic right to strike. If we allow unions to continue to disrupt us, without redress, then the least they can do is to show that they are operating in a democratic manner.
There are three principal reasons or points which the unions should follow. Here again, the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, covered them. First, all senior officials should be elected by secret ballot and should have to stand for re-election at reasonable periods. Secondly, the full negotiating procedures must be seen to have been carried out before a decision to recommend a strike is taken. Thirdly, there should be a secret ballot before an important strike is taken. Otherwise, the protection of immunity which the unions enjoy at this moment should be withdrawn. At that stage, they would be treated like any other group of people in this country. They would be subject to the law and would have to accept the responsibility for any actions they carried out towards other people.
Last July, we debated amendments to the Employment Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, made mention of his amendment and I want to mention mine, which I eventually withdrew. It was to give the Secretary of State responsibility in certain severe circumstances for ordering a ballot to be taken before a strike was called. The Minister however, as he is no longer on the Front Bench, did not like to take that responsibility, preferring to keep out of any negotiations between employers and unions. If the 763 three recommendations I have made were to be implemented, that responsibility would be taken from the Minister and he would no longer have to worry. I believe, however, that there may still be situations in which the Government must take action short of bringing in the troops. In the case of very serious strikes in the public services, the Government cannot simply take no action, saying that they must leave the matter to the employers and the employees to resolve, because when it comes to the public services the Government are ultimately responsible for them.
I should like to see the Minister having the power, probably through an affirmative resolution, to order that in certain circumstances the immunity which unions are given under Section 13 of the 1974 Act should be withdrawn if the strike has reached such a state that the Government consider serious damage will be done to people not directly involved in it. I believe that many members of the general public see no reasons why the unions should be above the law and would like to see them having to accept those responsibilities. If the unions are to continue to enjoy these immense immunities, they must show themselves to be democratic—which they essentially are not at the moment.
I was very glad to hear in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, who is no longer with us in the Chamber, that he agreed that there should be two important ballots: the ballot for the election of important members of unions and one for when a strike is called. I hope that the Government will go forward to produce their next Employment Bill in the next Session, and I hope that it will contain some of those points.
§ Baroness Gaitskell
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Spens, sits down, may I ask him, since he has stated that trade unionists who get out of step or who try to put forward their own ideas must be dealt with in this way, who he thinks are going to undertake the hardest and the dirtiest work in this country? Because the trade unionists are the people who do it. It is not done by your Lordships or by me, but by the trade unionists.
My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell, is correct in that. I think that I do some very dirty work and I am not a trade unionist. I believe there are many people who do equally dirty work but who do not have to be a member of a trade union to do so.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, that last exchange reminded me that I had to clear my own drains only a fortnight ago, and on a Sunday at that! The background to this important debate, so wisely initiated by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter and which has produced so many thoughtful speeches, is that it was 20 years ago, when the late Lord Godber became Minister of Labour, that it was first suggested that the unions should, by voluntary effort and within their own ranks, put their own houses in order. My noble friend Lord Gowrie was at pains to point out the disappointment that there has been on that score. 764 However, we should acknowledge that some unions have put their house in order. I am sure your Lordships were very glad to hear what that patriot, the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, had to say. There is no doubt about the fact—and I speak with some knowledge of miners because for two years I was responsible under my Minister for their safety and health at work—that under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, the miners arrived at solutions to the problem of when to strike and on what conditions to strike. We saw a recent example of a national coal strike, proposed by the miners' national executive, turned down by the wisdom of the miners, within the machinery that the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, established.
The other important point in the background to this debate is that for the past three years, there have been fewer strikes in industry generally than in the last three years of the previous Government. But, alas!, in the past three years there has been a lot of trouble in publicly-owned industries and in essential services. There was the railway strike, the steel strike, the hospital strike, the recent water strike and—most unusually—even a strike in the Civil Service. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Mr. Tebbit, recently announced that he is to consider what should be done to prevent the community from suffering from disruptions of essential services for which they pay. He has made it clear that he is to consult the TUC and those responsible for providing the services before eventually submitting his views to Parliament. If I may say so with respect, the two Green Papers we have had so far have been valuable, but I do not consider that a further Green Paper will be necessary, because the two Green Papers we have had together cover so much of the ground that is involved and will be involved in these consultations.
Like my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, I would briefly invite your Lordships to consider the options open to the Secretary of State. Of course, some of the priorities he will have to consider arise in this second Green Paper. Other options were stated in the earlier one. Experience has shown in some trade unions involved in the public service that if the members had had more of a say, and in particular an earlier say, and had had more confidence in their leaders, especially some politically motivated ones, then the disputes would not have got as far as even threatening a strike. So I suggest that Mr. Tebbit's first priority is to proceed along the lines of this Green Paper and introduce legislation for secret ballots for elections to the principal posts in trade unions. I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that we do not need to have secret ballots right the way down to the shop floor.
The next priority, surely, is to make progress with regard to moderating the effect of the closed shop by implementing the provisions of the Employment Act 1982. Then, after that, there are various options open to him after negotiation, but in considering them he will have to consider, and we should consider, how they are to become enforceable. There must be sanctions. Voluntary sanctions may not be effective. Indeed, in the past voluntary sanctions have been a disappointment sometimes; for example, voluntary arbitration. So legal sanctions will almost certainly be necessary.
765 My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway mentioned that we should do without penal sanctions, and, broadly speaking, I agree with him. The only penal sanction left on the statute book—and it has been left there by Governments of both parties—is Section 5 of the 1875 Act. That makes it an offence, punishable summarily, to conspire to break a contract of employment in a way which endangers human life or does other damage. I suggest that that should remain on the statute book for the most flagrant cases. The fact that it has rarely been used is not an argument for repealing it. Indeed, the fact that it has not been necessary to use a law is very often a justification for its being there. I think we should think twice before we take it away.
The other sanctions are the civil ones: the civil sanction against individual officials or members of trade unions. Very often if large numbers of people are involved it is not realistic to try to enforce them. But there is the civil sanction against union funds, and that is perhaps the most valuable sanction of all. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Spens, mentioned, there is the question of suspending immunities. I am one of those—I do not think everybody on this side of the House agrees with me—who feel that the immunities are outdated, and on All Fools Day 1981 I endeavoured to develop that theme, that they should be gradually done away with altogether.
What are the options? A statutory cooling-off period is better than nothing, but I do not go along with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway in saying that we should invite the courts to decide whether the national interest is involved. I do not think that is a job for a judge. It is far better, if there is to be a statutory cooling-off period, that a Minister should take responsibility for it and be answerable for it in Parliament. In the interval the cooling-off period could be used by politically motivated people to whip up support for the strike, and so it may be self-defeating in its object. In any event, it is going to come to an end and we may have uncertainty at the end of that period. The next possible option is that no strike should be legal unless a week's notice of it is given. That was in the 1971 Act and has been repealed. Quite frankly, I do not think that is of much use.
The next option is a secret ballot before strike, as suggested in the Green Paper, and which was so effective in the recent coal dispute. That is an option which needs to be considered very seriously. But on some occasions we must face the fact that the secret ballot could be in favour of a strike, even in an essential service.
Voluntary arbitration is not much use, as the water strike showed. Now I come to compulsory arbitration. That is of more use, but there may be a problem and difference of opinion as to how to enforce it. If, as my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford suggested in that interesting short debate the other day on the Water Bill, acceptance of compulsory arbitration is made a term of a contract on which those in breach can be sued, there might be thousands of people in breach and the sanction of a civil action would be found to be awkward to enforce. I understand that compulsory arbitration caused a good deal of trouble in Australia; it did not really work.
766 I come to an option which I think needs to be very seriously considered by all concerned. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, probably knows more about this than anyone. The option is this: making it a condition of service that the employee will not strike, and making it clear that he will be dismissed if the condition is broken. That does not, strictly speaking, make the strike illegal, but it does mean that there is a very stringent sanction; indeed, it could be said, the most stringent sanction of all—the man finding he has lost his job. That used to be the rule in effect in the Civil Service, when civil servants could be dismissed at will and without reason given, because they were servants of the Crown.
That, of course, is virtually the position with regard to the police at this moment. It is also the position in the Armed Forces, although in the case of the Armed Forces, and indeed of the police, there are various internal penal sanctions which I should fairly state. But if we combined that sanction, the condition of automatic dismissal if there is a strike, with compulsory arbitration, then it might be more effective. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will be following me, and he knows so much more about this than I do. I must say that in the Civil Service I do not feel that compulsory arbitration should be regarded as a necessary quid pro quo. I know that that is a tough solution, but, as I have said before, it is an advantage and a privilege to serve one's Queen and country. The civil servants have been pretty well treated so far in pay and pensions and conditions of service and there is no reason why they should not be.
The last option I must mention is for the Government to be given the power to declare unlawful a strike which threatens the national interest. That, too, has been mentioned. That sounds justifiable enough and plausible on the surface and at first sight, but again the question of enforcement arises.
In considering these options, and perhaps others, the Secretary of State and the trade unions will, on the nation's behalf, have to reconcile two well-established but conflicting principles. The first is the right to strike, which the noble Lord, Lord Spens, was right to point out is not in the European Convention on Human Rights, but that is not the end of the matter. But surely an equally important principle is the need to maintain vital public services. To consider "a balanced solution" in this matter would be idle thinking. The needs of the community must come first. I understand that to be good socialism. It is certainly a principle which the Conservative Party supports.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I think we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for introducing this debate. He is a master of the art of introducing thorny topics with the sharper points nicely honed down with polished language and lucid exposition. He is a master of that. We are grateful to him for raising this subject. Probably he will think of another subject, equally difficult and probably underlying considerable differences of opinion, for our consideration on another occasion. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, at the end of his speech. We really should be talking more about co-operation and how we can all work together, rather 767 than spending so much time dealing with problems of disputation, disagreement, and division, both politically and industrially. That is a great sorrow in our life today; but we must do our best to work towards that.
I suppose that what we are talking about today is my life. This is my life. It is 60 years ago since I attended the first Trades Union Congress, when my noble friend Lord Shinwell was electrifying the congress with a bitter attack upon the president, as he was then, of the National Union of Seamen. My noble friend Lord Shinwell represented the Maritime Workers' Union, which was challenging the supremacy and the closed shop of the NUS. The leader was J. Havelock Wilson. That was a lesson in polemics and vituperation. I was to learn a lot about that in subsequent attendances at the Trades Union Congress.
My noble friend Lord Gormley said an awful lot in 11 minutes. He got away with an awful lot, too, in 11 minutes, I thought. I have great affection for him, but I could not believe what he said about trade union leaders being unconscious of their power. My goodness me! Was he really suggesting that the basic right of a worker to withdraw his labour is unconsciously used, en masse, without any idea of the power that that exerts on employers and on the community? No, that is not the case at all. In fact, we all know that unions are not friendly societies and they are not burial clubs. They came into existence to promote the cause of strength and unity, to try to match the forces ranged on the other side. They were not created for the furtherance of democracy. The aim of the trade union formations was to turn the working class into organised labour. First it meant strength, and later it meant power. That is what the trade union movement has been after throughout its histroy.
Democracy is the challenge to power: to restrain it, to defuse it or to lessen the dangers of the misuse of power. The exercise of that democratic restraint and intervention may come from outside, where there is harm to other persons and other interests of the community at large; and it may come from inside, where what the union is doing, and how it is doing it, is of concern to those who are members of it. Therefore, what we are really considering is whether straight intervention is necessary in the name of democracy for one purpose or the other.
The noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, referred to the fact that earlier Green Papers and legislation were dealing with the need for straight intervention to safeguard external interests from the activities of trade unions. Today, the Green Paper is dealing with the question of the internal arrangements of trade unions and whether they need the oversight or the intervention of the state.
A very admirable paper that has been circulated by the Engineering Employers' Federation—which is full of wisdom on this subject, if I may say so—refers to the fact that of the three matters we are discussing today only one (that is, ballots before strikes) relates to industrial relations. The other two are regarded as mainly social and political rather than industrial relations questions. I will deal with the non-industrial questions first. As regard the political levy, I shall just say that I was chairman of a committee appointed by 768 the Labour Government to look at the financing of political parties. My noble friend Lord McCarthy was a member of it, as was my noble friend Lord Underhill; and although the committee was not unanimous it had the advantage, in reporting on the matter, of presenting both sides of the argument, but with a majority for some measure of state aid.
My noble friend Lord Gormley said that we will never stop the workers from contributing to the finances of the Labour Party. I do not think that anyone wishes to stop them. The question is how it is done; and, probably more important still, how great is the dependence of the Labour Party on the political levy. That, in my judgment, is excessive and should be modified. The reason why we recommended a measure of state aid to political parties was to reduce the dependence of the two main political parties on their traditional sources of support. Both of them are open to criticism. No one can say that the way that the Conservative Party gets its money is free from criticism or, in some respects, of doubt as to whether or not that is a satisfactory way of raising money. Similarly, that applies to the political levy.
In West Germany state aid was introduced when that Government decided to withdraw the liberal tax relief given to industry for contributions to political parties. State aid was introduced, to replace that. In Austria, when they introduced state aid, it was to end the corruption whereby the ruling party, or parties, almost by convention, got a commission from those who enjoyed the benefit of Government contracts. That, again, was a very good reason for substituting state aid for the unsatisfactory features of voluntary help. Here we find ourselves with the substantial industrial aid to the Conservative Party, on the one hand, and the substantial trade union help to the Labour Party, on the other, with the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party not enjoying equal support of vested interests.
One cannot discuss this question of the political levy solely in terms of democracy within the unions. I have explained to the right honourable Member, Norman Tebbit, that when the proposal to introduce greater democracy in the trade unions on a matter of this kind is bound to have an immediate and a harmful effect on the finances of one of the major political parties, it is bound to be construed more as an attack on a political rival than it is in favour of the introduction of democracy in the trade union movement. After all, if we are talking basic English on this matter, every trade unionist who is confronted with the request to contribute to the political levy can sign a form and contract out. I know all the problems about that, and one must certainly question the very high percentage of trade unionists in some quarters who are contributors to the political levy.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, the noble Lord, with all his experience of the Labour Party, will be well aware that the greatest Labour Election victory in history took place when the contracting-in system applied.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I have not explained any victory or defeat by reference to what happened to the political levy after the Trade Disputes 769 and Trade Unions Act 1927. What I am saying is that when a political party is so heavily and constantly dependent upon particular sources of income, then if that is seriously disrupted there is bound to be a weakening of the financial strength of the party concerned. I think it is as simple as that.
There are devices which have been employed by unions which tend to obscure the element of the political levy from the rhythm of the payment of subscriptions, and members are not always aware or do not remain constantly aware of the fact that they are making a political contribution. But the Engineering Employers' Federation, dealing with the democracy side of this matter, or their own interests in this matter, say that their concern as employers is whether, if the payment of the levy is to be altered, employers should be required to include or should be barred from including the political levy in the check-off system of deduction of trade union subscriptions from pay. I can only repeat that I believe that a modest injection of state aid into the funds of the political parties would be a good thing for our democracy, for politics and for our parliamentary affairs. It is the only money which would go into political parties without strings and without some element of taint. I leave it there, because it will come. It will come, because I am quite sure that the political parties will not go on being financed under present conditions for very much longer.
The other question of a non-industrial relations aspect is the election of officers. This is a very intricate matter. When I left the Civil Service as a permanent pensionable officer of the Inland Revenue to become secretary of the Inland Revenue Staff Federation I was giving up a life job for a precarious appointment. I naturally looked to my union for the same degree of security with them as I had in the Civil Srvice, only with the condition that I could be removed in conditions under which the civil servant would normally not be removed. But the idea that that position should be open to re-election at quinquennial reviews, and so on, is a matter for the union to decide, having regard to the power and the position of the general secretary of the union. One has to be very careful in trying to arrange the internal business of organisations for them. They can surely do it better themselves. I see no reason at all to interfere with what the unions are doing.
I come next to the main issue of the pre-strike ballot. Here may I say that I do not think it is desirable or even possible for us to legislate to offset apathy. We cannot do that in general elections, local elections or any other elections; and some startling results can come out of the conventional methods of election. I heard a noble Lord just recently, at the time of the Bermondsey election, working out mathematically that in constituencies where there were 16 candidates, if the votes were distributed in a certain way, the elected candidate could lose his deposit. I suppose that that would be regarded as a quirk in an otherwise perfect electoral system. Okay, let it be like that. I would say that under the electoral reform system that would not be possible. I would leave that alone.
So far as strike ballots are concerned, we have had all these difficulties paraded before us from time to time. I emphasise again, as I began, that I think we 770 must bear in mind that in some cases and on some occasions strength in the trade union movement comes before democracy, because it is part of a struggle, and one is in a struggle to win. The National Union of Mineworkers, by deciding that at one stage it was going to put democracy before what might otherwise have been united action—I do not know-took the risk of weakening the union in face of a situation on which feelings were running pretty high in the union. Nevertheless, they decided that their constitution should be observed. All credit to them for that. They may have strengthened the union and not weakened it by taking that decision. Nevertheless, there are times when unions will swallow quite a lot in failure to live up to all the democratic principles in order to maintain the unity, solidarity and effectiveness of their trade union in face of a crisis. The democracy comes afterwards, when the fight is over.
Let me remind noble Lords also that the language of trade unionism is the language of conflict and war. This is an inheritance of the history of the trade union movement during the struggles of the past 100 years. One cannot get away from that. I think one must not seek to inject into the trade union movement an academic or a philosophical view of democracy in the belief that it needs it to make it more respectable in the eyes of democratic standards. I think that that would be a mistake. No, my Lords; I think the answer to all this comes in better relationships.
The record of the trade union movement and of industrial relations over the last 20 years have been worse in the public sector than in any other. I have often told my friends in the trade union movement who are in favour of nationalisation and of public ownership. "Why did you not come to the Civil Service to learn the bitter experience of political control?" Many unions went in for what they thought were the benefits of nationalisation without reckoning with the problems of political control. Now there is political control. This is creating one of the biggest problems for the trade union movement today. But the failure of successive Governments to get an acceptable principle that they could stick to for fixing public service pay has led to a great deal of bitterness and trouble inside the public sector.
I can only conclude by saying that I see no cause for state intervention on any of the matters raised in the Green Paper at the present time: far better let existing legislation take its course and get settled down and face the future in a spirit of closer co-operation and determination to overcome our disputes and difficulties, rather than stir up fresh trouble in trying to organise the business of trade unions for them without any overriding purpose or possibility of success in doing so.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Lord Ferrier
My Lords, I should like to begin by going all the way with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, particularly as regards his opening remarks welcoming this Green Paper as a means of discussion. That statement was confirmed by my noble friend Lord Gowrie. How welcome it is that we are able to discuss this matter without feeling that the hounds of hell are after us as regards having to make a decision now. The ground is difficult enough, as we have seen 771 today during this very wide-ranging debate. I could say a great deal, but I am not going to do so. We could discuss, for instance, the difficulties presented to us by the fact that our trade union system stems from craft unions instead of from industry-wise unions. However, I feel that it is proper that we should urge the trade unions to come and help. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, has just said—and I think he confirmed what the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, said—we ought to be doing that which we can agree about and not that which we disagree about.
I shall be brief because I come to a matter about which I feel very strongly. I have three particular reasons for intervening in this debate apart from my natural interest as a citizen who is concerned with the end product of my noble friend's Motion. First, in the debate on 2nd March on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, dealing with the Serpell Report, I emphasised that in my view the debate at that time was not an excursion into "union bashing". I hope that we can forget about that word and leave it out, because we are making a serious effort to establish the proper, permanent place of trade unions in the national economy, without which no worthwhile wealth producing plan for the railways can be worked out. That applies to may industries. I think I was right in noticing that the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, nodded his head when I said that we cannot get on with the railway problems until we have solved the problems of the trade unions. What, in fact is going on at the moment?—unpteen new trains are standing idle in a Bedfordshire siding while ASLEF, so far as I can see, renege on the settlement reached by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, last year.
Secondly, nearly a year ago on 15th June, during the Second Reading debate on the Employment Bill, I declared—and I repeat (and this was confirmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Spens, said in his speech)—that the people are fed up with the way in which the trade unions are conducting their affairs today. We cannot get away from that. Moreover, I quoted something written to me by an old and trusted friend. After a life's work in one of the top industries he said that in his working life he had watched:the unions strangle the efforts of enlightened management to improve the lot of the workers".I thought that I would telephone him to ask whether he still felt like that. He said, "Yes, only the more so". His impression at present is that, as a whole, trade unionists—many of whom are inarticulate and unwilling to butt in—are in favour of what is going on in the House today and the means offered to us to deal with the situation by this Green Paper and the Government's policy.
I am now proud to stand up and welcome this policy which is driving forward to some form of permanent agreement with the trade unions. In doing so, I feel bound to quote from the end of paragraph 56 of the Green Paper and confirm what has been said today. It says:Few things have done more to lower public regard for trade unions than the spectacle of strike decisions being taken by a show of hands at stage-managed mass meetings to which outsiders may not be admitted and where dissenters may be intimidated".That dissatisfaction has been properly deployed today.
772 My third reason for intervening is a curious one and it is to re-emphasise the importance of broadcasts, both by radio and on the "Box" in the process of democracy today—and it is democracy about which we are talking. We are on the threshold of technical advances in communications, the impact of which is so great that some of us cannot grasp it and many of us cannot foresee how far it will go. I should like to urge your Lordships, in taking note of this Green Paper, to ensure that any legislation which stems from it makes provision for safeguards such as are contained in subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 13 of the existing licence and agreement of the BBC. Despite what Mr. George Howard said on page 6 of his paper entitled Broadcasting and Politics, there must be no doubt as to where the ultimate responsibility for government lies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Spens, that we should plug ahead with what the Government are doing and get an acceptable settlement. Let me again confirm Lord Houghton's approval of Lord Rochester's appeal that we should work for an agreement. I believe that it is obtainable if we work hard enough.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ Lord Milford
My Lords, I am told that this is only a discussion paper, but it is a very, very cunning one. Its aim is not more union democracy; it is an election ploy to exploit and encourage anti-union prejudice. It seems so reasonable to the non-political person. It brings up no facts or evidence of any malpractice. But it is sinisterly vicious in innuendoes aimed at the non-unionists, leading them to believe that perhaps there are malpractices.
Again, it is cunning in that it exploits the fact that there are millions of unemployed on the scrap heap who deem it safer for them and their families if they remain silent and do not fight back, as they feel they should. The Tory Party is the party of the employers and has always hated the unions. From the nature of the capitalist system, with its two classes, this is absolutely natural.
I was born into a family of big business and in my youth I went into business. I was steeped in the anti-union atmosphere. In the General Strike I blacklegged and worked in the London docks unloading ships. At the defeat of the strike I remember the excited, joyful victory shout:We have smashed the unions and have imposed contracting-in".Luckily for me, I also began to think after the General Strike and started to read history. I soon turned to the Labour movement and became a union member for 50 years and a member of the Cheltenham Trades Council at all levels.
This Green Paper threatens basic democratic freedom—the right of trade unions to control their own unions. What incredible arrogance from the Tory Party! What about the democracy of their party? I should like to ask noble Lords opposite how they answer the fact that they are crying out for democracy in the Labour Party and on the trade union side, yet they absolutely ignore it in their party. Let us suppose that a Labour Government suggested that company directors should be elected by a secret postal ballot of the shareholders. That is the equivalent of what the Tories are trying to do to the trade unions.
773 This document also threatens the financial viability of a political opposition party—something that is unheard of. The suggestion of contracting-in instead of out is a blatant plan to cripple the Labour Party. There are no arguments for it. It is based on fear of the hostility towards the trade unions and the Labour Party. The Labour Party was created by the trade unions to fight in Parliament for their interests. Meanwhile, the Tory Party is the party of the monopolies, the multi-nationals, the banks, insurance, and all employers. They supply millions of pounds in funds for the Tory Party. Perhaps we should propose that a secret ballot be held of shareholders on whether to send funds to the Tory Party, because at present there is none at all: just the management settle it.
The Green Paper claims that trade union power springs from legal immunities and privileges and that, therefore, the Government must supervise their internal affairs. What about the legal privileges of the owners of limited companies? They are not even obliged to pay all a company's debts in full. I have in mind, for instance, the case of Freddie Laker. The Green Paper suggests laws to compel the unions to use postal ballots for all elections, and recommends an outside authority to run any union if its executive committee defies such a law. It also suggests that employers can insist on a ballot covering non-union employees before a strike.
On the question of postal ballots, to me the objections chiefly are that postal ballots isolate members from each other and so hinder workers' discussions at the place of work. Instead of discussing the issue together, they go home, look at the television and read the papers. The mass media have tremendous powers over them because they are not meeting and discussing at their place of work. Some unions have a high turnover, and to keep addresses of all the members is a very difficult problem indeed. If postal ballots were to be held, it would be practically impossible to have a list of up-to-date addresses.
On the internal methods of elections, over the last century unions have developed a great variety of internal structures from their own experiences, the nature of their industry and their work surroundings. The present system of elections of executive councils reflects this—for instance, delegates at the annual conference, ballots at the place of work, voting at branch meetings, and postal votes at home. There have been many serious union debates on reform. The Green Paper tries to deny this.
But what about the Tory Party and its organisation? The Tory Green Paper treats all these developements with contempt and says that the only one true democratic system is the postal ballot. The trade unions exist because of the conflict between workers' and employers' interests. Therefore, they must be run by their members without their employers or the Government barging in.
Let us look at an organisation to which the trade union movements of many countries belong—the International Labour Organisation. Their document says:Workers' and employees' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules. They will have the right to elect their representatives in full freedom. They will have the right to organise their administration and to formulate their programmes. 774 The public authority shall refrain from any interference which would restrict this right or impede the lawful exercise thereof.The Tory Green Paper cuts right across these fundamental principles. It is a tentative sounding-out of a future plan to restrict effective industrial action and to cut down the Labour Party, rather than a plan for more democracy. Unfortunately, last summer the Social Democratic Party produced a very similar document in many ways. Only a Labour victory can stop all this happening. But, of course, we must not oppose any true, fair and unbiased reform for more democracy anywhere.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, it is a privilege to speak following the noble Lord, Lord Milford. I have done so on many occasions. I wish, first, to thank my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for initiating the debate and for so skilfully opening it, and I must apologise to him and those who will wind up and reply to the debate if I have to leave to keep an engagement before they speak.
I agree with most of what has been said, apart, in particular, from the contribution by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, which I thought was not up to his usual standard. Though it was up to his usual amusing standard, its content was not as strong as it should have been in the right direction. Nor did I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Milford, said, but that is not surprising.
We have a profoundly serious and difficult matter to consider, because the Green Paper tackles possible ways in which the internal organisation of trade unions may be altered by legislation. It is not for the first time that that has been done, but it certainly needs very careful thought. Indeed, the Green Paper recognises that in the tentative way in which it deals with its subject. I would not agree with Lord Milford that it is cunning, any more than I would agree with him that Tories hate unions or, for that matter, that unions hate Tories, because many of them—or, at any rate, union members—vote with them.
Because trade unions started in an atmosphere of clubbing together to tackle the problems of the day, there is a strong element of clubmanship within them. One can understand why there could be resentment on the part of their internal management, especially at any interference in their internal affairs, particularly if it were introduced clumsily. I make that point strongly because in the past there have sometimes been clumsy moves, and they definitely need to be avoided. But although trade unions might have started like clubs, for most of them that was long ago. Much as I respect the many trade union leaders with whom I have had to deal, since those early days various attitudes and practices have developed, some of which have from time to time turned out to be little short of tyranny for some of the members. This leads me, therefore, to suggest that any proposal for change on the lines of those described in the Green Paper should be judged against the criterion whether it will be beneficial to the individual members of a union—indeed, not only whether it will be beneficial but whether it can be seen to be beneficial—and unless it can be shown to be so, it is unlikely to be effective.
There is another development which also needs to 775 be considered, and which, indeed, has been by previous speakers, and that is the fact that since the trade unions were initially formed there has been a vast increase in the number of activities—activities that directly affect the everyday lives of the ordinary citizens of this country—which have become centrally administered. One result of that, as noble Lords know only too well, has been that trade unions can take action which has a tyrannical effect on the public at large. That was brought out well by the noble Lord, Lord Spens, when he drew attention to paragraph 56 of the Green Paper, which makes the point clear.
Another criterion, therefore, for judging the desirability of proposals for change is whether such change is necessary for the protection of the public. Examining briefly the three main proposals in the Green Paper against those criteria, it is suggested that the proposal for secret ballots for the more important trade union elections—and on this I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that to have a ballot for each and every election would not be sensible—is one that could be particularly beneficial to ordinary trade union members and needs to be advanced with that as its main aim. Anything less could hardly be called democratic in the sense that we normally understand the phrase; and when I say "we" I do not necessarily mean the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Milford, normally understands the phrase—but sadly he is no longer in his place. Furthermore, I suggest that this sort of change could be brought into effect without requiring any change of note in a trade union's general structure of practices. Therefore, I feel that the sooner the necessary enabling legislation for this change (and I emphasise "enabling") is introduced, the better; and anybody with doubts on the matter should read paragraph 33 of the Green Paper.
Of the alternative ways in which secret balloting for trade union management, set out in Chapter 2, might be introduced, I would favour that suggested in paragraph 54, which, I suggest, deals with many of the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, who I rather felt from the way he spoke would agree with the general theme of what I have been suggesting, because, of course, the union of which he has lately been such an important and influential official has largely adopted the practice we are discussing, though its structure probably helps it so to do.
Turning to the question of ballots before strikes, these could clearly benefit both the trade union members who are personally affected financially by strikes and, of course, the general public in cases where public services are affected. However, Chapter 3 of the Green Paper spells out the difficulties in implementing such a requirement generally, and I believe that legislation for this purpose should probably best be delayed until after the union's own managers' secret election (if I could so describe it) has been in force for one or two years; and in the meantime the benefits to union members of secret ballots for strikes should be given much publicity.
As for contracting in, the question of political activities for trade unions described in Chapter 4 is rather different because there is no doubt, as many 776 noble Lords have said, that the Labour Party would be seriously disadvantaged financially by the introduction of contracting in. I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, that we want to have nothing like a political pogrom. Indeed, in making those remarks I think I would even agree with the noble Lord, Lord Milford, on this point, which makes it particularly sad that he has left before the end of my speech. While the direct advantages to union members—and I return to my two criteria—or indeed to the general public, are less obvious in this area, I suggest that the proposals in paragraph 124 of the Green Paper, which was particularly tenative on this point, are worthy of consideration.
There is one other possibility of change which is not mentioned in the Green Paper but which was raised by my noble friend Lord Renton; namely, to add other groups of public employees to those like defence, the police and, by their own decision, the members of the Royal College of Nursing, and to have a condition of service of not to strike. There is no doubt that such a move would well satisfy my second criterion of being beneficial to the public at large. However, there are obvious difficulties. My own feeling, after many years of thought, is that it would be possible, providing there were convincing arrangements for independent assessment of pay and conditions, for groups of skilled persons to be invited to accept a no-strike clause in their contract of employment. It would be necessary to appeal to their sense of duty by laying accent on the service to the community which would be the reason for introducing the change, and my noble friend Lord Renton made the same sort of point. But I do not believe that a no-strike clause would be readily acceptable for untrained persons or persons with limited skills. Thus, I strongly suggest that the contemplation of the introduction of no-strike clauses be limited to groups of trained and skilled people.
To sum up, I would say that there is much that is good in the proposals in the Green Paper, and useful legislation can stem from it. However, any changes must be judged against the criteria of whether they improve things for both the ordinary trade union members, who must see that this is so—and without whose support any change is unlikely to be effective—and the ordinary public, whose patience has been sorely tried in recent years.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, at the outset I must declare an interest in the Paper—whether it be green or black—because my firm has been associated with the National Union of Mineworkers (South Wales Area) and its predecessor, the South Wales Miners' Federation, since the latter was founded in about 1898. But, being in a frank frame of mind, I would assure the House that personally I have not been involved with the union for the last 85 years. As we have heard this afternoon, the National Union of Mineworkers is scrupulous in the manner in which ballots are held and in the manner in which the decisions are accepted. However, I am sure that the National Union of Mineworkers will have some special interest in this paper; but I speak for myself.
In the abstract the paper contains many attractive arguments about extending democracy in the trade 777 unions. I think that most of us—probably all of us—would go along with the principle of extending democracy generally and of making officials and governing bodies effectively accountable for what they do, or fail to do. I think that that is a healthy trend. On this side of the House we do not claim that union democracy is perfect; but the tendency towards extending democratic control is healthy. Where we differ is on the question of whether or not this tendency, which is already underway—and it seemed to me that the Minister was acknowledging that it was underway—is to be accelerated by the strong arm of the law or by the unions voluntarily, with possibly the assistance of the certification office. In other words, is it to proceed organically, or by force of law?
I wish to address myself to this issue. In the Green Paper it is claimed that legislation is necessary, partly because the Government detect a lack of will—these are the words used in the paper—on the part of the unions to reform themselves. What is the evidence for the lack of will? This is merely the interpretation placed on the unions' failure to apply for public funds towards the costs of postal ballots on various matters. But there is another explanation for the unions' reluctance to claim back from the state the costs of public ballots. It is that they fear that it would lead to state control of tame unions, run by people acceptable to the Government of the day.
What is significant is that in the Green Paper no weight whatsoever is given to that explanation. The paper freely acknowledges that there are "complex problems and difficulties" in the way of legislation. That is certainly so. Unions differ. They were created at different times, to meet varying circumstances in different industries. We know how they vary enormously in size. But each union has its own distinctive identity, government, procedures, and methods of election, which have been built up on a basis of custom and practice. Custom and practice dominate the rule book in the same way as they play an important part in industrial relations. Yet again, nowhere in the paper is there a single reference to custom and practice, although one cannot get away from history and experience; and noble Members of this House will know that.
The paper, anxious for precedent, states that the Donovan Commission had "criticised"—that is the word that is used—the rule books as being "confused, self-contradictory and obscure". Well, Donovan made that observation; but he also carefully guarded himself by saying that that was so because the rule book had been altered piecemeal over the years. The rule book can be changed, and is changed, at the call of the members. The confusion, the self-contradiction, and the obscurity have no sinister implications. Indeed, if one examines the constitutions of many other organisations, one finds that a similar situation prevails.
But the present Government—who abdicate from intervention generally—propose to intervene with principles, or criteriea, or even standard rules to govern methods of voting for the election of union officials and of the principal governing body. I think it is fair to ask: What is the Government's case for this external intervention? It is claimed that there is much public concern—and the noble Earl the Minister spoke 778 of public alarm—about the electoral arrangements of unions. Those are very general words. In many trade unions there is a low turn-out. On one view—which certainly I am not pressing—it could be argued that this is evidence that the members are content with the policies and activities of their union. That could be argued. There is undoubted apathy; I accept that. I would accept that the low turn-out is an unsatisfactory feature; but against that it can also be said that it is, too, a characteristic of local government elections, as well as the elections of many clubs and associations.
The paper relies on general allegations of election malpractices, and claims that such allegations erode public confidence. Again, this is unsubstantiated generalisation. So far as I can see from the Green Paper, in the post-Donovan period surveys have not been conducted to establish the extent of alleged election malpractice and abuse; research has not been carried out to establish the extent of the alleged disquiet among trade unionists concerning the honesty with which union elections are carried out. It is my submission that, in the absence of such evidence, to legislate in order to reform electoral practices is thoroughly unsatisfactory. In fact it is ironic that the Government base their case for legislation on unsubstantiated evidence, which is far too flimsy and too biased to be accepted by a court of law.
In a democratic society it should be beyond the powers of the state to change the constitution of trade unions, save in extremely exceptional circumstances. In a dictatorship things may be different. The democratic state should intervene in the internal affairs of a trade union only where it is clearly established that it is necessary to impose from outside new and important procedures in order to protect or enforce the individual rights of members. But even if my view is misconceived, one must set against the possible benefit of legislation the hostile climate that will inevitably be created by such interference. The trade union movement is, or, at least, should be, one of the country's social partners. What kind of relationship do the Government want with the trade union movement? Do they want a stable and constructive relationship? The Government's proposed legislation, if adopted, coming on top of their two Employment Acts, will erode confidence even further and increase resentment and hostility. If we arrive at that situation what will then have been achieved?
My Lords, I will refer to but not discuss one or two other relevant questions. If the proposal is workable, can it be enforced if the unions do not yield? Will it be short-circuited? Can one, in any event, agree standard rules or agree even criteria (which, like all criteria, will be subject to certain exceptions) against which to measure present rules which will be suitable for every trade union, without impairing freedom which trade unions ought to enjoy to frame rules to meet their own circumstances? That proviso is not necessarily mine; it is the proviso of the Donovan Commission.
Before concluding, I should like to make one or two observations about the third aspect of the paper, where is is proposed that contracting-in should be substituted for contracting-out. The paper is not able to call in aid the Donovan Commission because the commission advised against such recasting of the law. Neither is there evidence from the certification officer that those 779 members who have contracted-out have been discriminated against or, to use the words of the Minister, have been "embarrassed". There is no evidence from the certification officer to corroborate that. Certainly, the paper draws attention to apparent disparities between the high contracting-out trade unions and the low contracting-out trade unions.
The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, drew our attention, in particular, to page 25 of the Green Paper. I have had a very good look at page 25 and attention is drawn specifically to the 36 per cent. and the 100 per cent. proportion of members paying the levy in different areas of the National Union of Mineworkers. This is specifically singled out for attention. In the North Wales area of the NUM, 100 per cent. of the members contribute to the political fund; whereas in the Durham area of the same union, only 47.2 per cent. contribute to the fund.
The authors of the paper assert that this disparity cannot be explained. How far did the authors of the Green Paper look for an explanation? I understand that in page 25 the document is probably not comparing like with like; that, in arriving at 100 per cent., the North Wales area of the NUM excludes pensioners and ex-employees of the mining industry, who do not pay the levy; whereas in Durham, pensioners and such ex-employees are included when the percentage is calculated. That could explain or go a long way to explaining the disparity. It seems to me that as the paper failed to identify this explanation, what weight can we attach to many of its other alleged factual observations? I have been able to test the paper here and I believe that there is an explanation.
Finally, my Lords, the paper's argument for substituting contracting-in for contracting-out could be presented as fair only if it was accompanied by a proposal to enforce a similar régime on companies' donations to the funds of the Conservative Party. But, on this, the Green Paper is silent.
Although the paper is described as being a consultative document, the impression is already abroad that the Government have adopted a line towards the matters discussed in Chapter 2 and that they will stick to that line whatever is said or argued in the process of consultation. It is only natural therefore that the TUC does not consider that the document offers any basis for discussion with the Employment Secretary. There are no discussions, there is no dialogue. That is a sad state of affairs.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Lane-Fox
My Lords, contrary to the assumption of the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, that everyone on this side of the House sees trade unions as a cross that we have to bear, in my opinion well-run trade unions can form an important part of the tapestry of the life of the community. It is necessary therefore that they should keep, and, in some cases, regain their credibility at every level, not just that they influence the wide and important issues that they enter into in the daily lives of the ordinary people. I believe that the loyalty of individual members to their unions is determined to a great degree by the support and assistance that they personally can receive. This must 780 affect the low turn-out which is discussed in paragraph 9 of Chapter 2 of the Green Paper.
For many years it was my ambition to get accepted for membership of a certain union. Not only did I feel that this would help me to achieve greater job security even as a free-lance, but that it would make me an integral part of the workforce. When I was at last admitted to membership, I had reached the late age of nearly 50. Having assured myself that here there was no political levy, I then hoped to take an active part in branch business. It was disappointing to find that branch meetings were held in a completely inaccessible upstairs room.
On one occasion only was a meeting place agreed that was possible for me. On that day, I arrived at about 7 p.m. and left at 11.30 p.m. with business still going strong. This made me realise that those who are deeply involved in branch affairs need to have extra resources of time and energy, that with the best will in the world those who are not blessed with so much staying power or time have to leave their interests to be settled by the others—never exactly a satisfactory arrangement for those with active views.
The subscription question appeared to be wrapped in mystery. After my first payment, my request was to be told when this was next due; but it went unheeded. When, after some months, I made inquiries about mine, they told me I was in arrears. I have an absolute horror of arrears and this sent my blood pressure soaring. The same performance happened each year and we limped along with more inexplicable arrears and increased subscriptions. With 12 years or so of this unsatisfactory membership I had benefited in no way and had to pay annually increased subscriptions which finally grew to be over £50 per annum.
At last, having rid myself of my initial sentimental delight of being accepted by this union after so long, I made a few inquiries as to what it could do for me. The answer was not encouraging. On account of my late membership and increasing age, there was absolutely no help or benefit available for me from the union. That was where my union loyalty ended. I wonder how many others struggle along under similar—not exactly the same—circumstances without consideration of individual conditions.
I can assure the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, that in my case the union was quite out of touch; and I sincerely and earnestly believe that the CBI, for instance, as one of the examples that he gave, is far better organised than was the union to which I belonged. This is a different and smaller aspect from those referred to by other noble Lords today. However, I suggest that it has relevance in the low turn-out, the background to which cannot always be revealed on a vote.
To end, may I suggest that as individuals of the make-up of democracy it is the individual situation that must count in trade unionism. The Green Paper is designed to protect this better, and for that reason I support it.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, nobody in their senses in 1983 can seriously imagine that we can run the affairs of a still great and very complex industrial country 781 without well-organised trade unions and well-organised employers to deal with the multifarious matters which have to be settled at all levels in industry. So, we must surely be agreed that, whatever criticisms there may be of both employers' organisations and trade unions, what we want to see is well-organised, strong and effective organisation on both sides in industry. For my part, I would far rather see the two sides of industry in the process of negotiation dealing with the problems that they encounter, with a minimum of interference from outside and a minimum of legal constraint. Before the noble Lords sitting on the Government Front Bench think that I am coming in behind them in a big way, let me say that a minimum of constraint does not mean none at all.
One was entertained by the disclaimers that we have heard from the Labour Benches about how very little real power trade unions exert and how very little need there is to exercise any control over their activities. It is true that there are many unions which do not wield a great deal of power, and I do not think that it will be helpful to the discussion by lumping them all together as if they are all equally effective in getting their own way and having the same degree of power in affecting the lives of ordinary citizens everywhere. But there are some which undoubtedly have very great power. It was. I understand on good authority, a very prominent politician, not on the Government Benches, who, when someobdy referred to trade union barons, commented: "Barons! they are bloody Dukes". In any democracy the concentration of power, be it in the trade unions or any other group, is something to which all Governments, if they believe in democracy, must pay attention.
Where it is seen that the concentration of power, in unions or anywhere else, can affect adversely the lives of ordinary individuals or society as a whole, then Government have a right and a duty to intervene. On the one hand, I am saying let us have as little intervention as we possibly need; but, on the other hand, do not let us draw back from the need to intervene because of any false argument that trade unions are really just voluntary associations and that what they do affects only themselves, that they should he allowed to run their own affairs as if they were some Victorian tennis club with no more effect than that on what happens to the world outside. We do not want any more Government intervention than we absolutely need to have.
I was very interested in the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, at the beginning of this debate, when he seemed to me to be making a very important point about unions which wield monopoly power—and that is the key to the whole argument, surely—in important sectors of the economy which have great effect, both on the working of the economy or on the lives of ordinary individuals. It would not be too difficult to distinguish between unions which are in that position and those which are not, and a large number of ordinary trade unions in other activities which do not wield monopoly power and which do not have this kind of influence. This debate will be well worthwhile if we follow up that point and see what implications it might have for future developments.
I do not intend to do a tour d'horizon of every issue 782 of industrial relations that might conceivably be related to the Green Paper, because the Green Paper is rather a modest little document. What it is dealing with is not particularly interesting or important, dare I say. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who said that there is really only one issue raised here which has to do with industrial relations as such, and that is the issue of whether there should be compulsory ballots of membership before strike action.
My own view on this—and I relate this also to the first issue about the elected representatives—is that what one really wants is elected representatives who have the full support of the people that they represent and who are then trusted to get on with the business of negotiation. What the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, talked about as "ballotomania", which I suppose is what he means by what he calls one man, one vote when he does not like it, is really an objection to direct democracy on every conceivable issue. On this I would greatly agree with him.
What one needs is that true representatives should do the negotiation in advance of strike action and should follow through all the procedures. This is of the greatest importance. They should then be in a position to call a strike, having presumably found out that they have a very considerable degree of support. It may be—I think it would be—very desirable if the trade unions in their own rules and regulations had the opportunity of some triggering device to enable the members to intervene if they felt that they did not like the way that the negotiations were going. I do not think that this should be compulsory by law. The corollary of this is that you need to be satisfied that the people elected, the people doing the negotiations, are really representative. This strengthens the case for election of the senior officials.
Nobody in their senses, I imagine, would suggest that one should have private balloting and a postal ballot for electing every shop steward or convener who is being press-ganged into taking a job that he does not want particularly to do. But as my noble friend Lord Rochester said—and I think other speakers have said it, too—there should be elections for those members and governing bodies who are going to have a vote. If the officials doing the negotiation who report to those bodies are appointed officials and are, so to speak, the civil servants of the unions, and they do not vote, then I do not see that it is particularly necessary for them to be elected.
The people who control the unions should be subject to election and to re-election. Being elected once in a lifetime is surely not good enough to establish democratic control or to give the people with whom they are negotiating the confidence that they speak for the membership. For my part, I go along with limited—limited by level and by function—requirements for ballots for officials, but not with ballots as to whether a strike should take place. One can elaborate on the reasons for it.
My primary reason is that I think this is how negotiations should be done, by representatives who discuss and, as a basis of that discussion, come to what they think is a satisfactory solution. But there are practical arguments against it. There seems to be an assumption in the minds of some noble Lords that if, 783 buoyed up no doubt by last week's NUM strike, you go to the members, they will not want to strike. That was true last week, but there have been a great many occasions when it was not true; and once you have got people out on a ballot, how on earth do you get them back again? Knowing what the issues have been and what discussions have taken place they cannot possibly take part in the negotiations which can lead to a settlement. They cannot take part in the argument, and that seems to me to rule out the idea that this is an appropriate way of dealing with strike action. Surely it must follow that if you have a ballot to decide whether people are going out on strike then you must have another ballot to decide whether they come back again—and carrying that out in an effective way seems to me not possible at all.
That leaves the third issue, that of contacting-in and contracting-out. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, was singularly and uncharacteristically silent on this subject. I cannot think that he forgot it; I do not know whether one is to assume from his silence that silence means consent or perhaps that silence means indifference—
§ Lord McCarthy
My Lords, if I may interrupt, it is all a matter of the division of functions. It all rests on the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who will answer in full.
§ Baroness Seear
The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, was ever a good politician. I will not press him as to what his own view may be on this matter. But whether the figures on page 25 are accurate or not seems to me to be entirely beside the point. It surely must be right that people can decide whether they want to pay a political levy or whether they do not. You do not need to go back into all the history of it or to examine the credentials on page 25—and indeed perhaps it was something of a hostage to fortune to put it in at all, because somebody was bound to pick holes in it. How much further do you need to go? In 1983, whatever might have been appropriate at the time when the trade unions were struggling for existence and when the Labour Party needed to have the trade unions behind them in order to maintain their struggling existence, that is all ancient history. Today, with the numbers and strengths of trade unions, with trade unions in a wide variety of occupations and professions where trade unions never thought to penetrate 70 years ago when the legislation was passed, surely it is appropriate that people should say whether they want to pay a political levy, and not have to contract out if they do not want to pay it. Nobody in their senses, if they were inventing legislation now, would put it in any other form.
I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—but then of course I would—and indeed I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, in saying that a little more short money, if I may put it like that, would go a long way in dealing with the problem. Obviously, the Labour Party want the money that comes from the political levy and they find it very embarrassing not to have it. Here I speak from experience as a member of a party which has not got much money. But to justify an anachronistic position for contracting-out just because the Labour Party needs 784 the money does not really stand up. So, clearly, what we have to do today is to say that the whole approach of contracting-out is out of date, and we urgently need to look at other ways of financing political parties than those we have at the present time.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, we have had a very useful and interesting debate and our thanks are due to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for opening it, During the debate I noted in particular the contributions of my noble friends, Lord Houghton and Lord Gormley, who have brought to our House experience based on their long service as trade union general secretaries. They know the situation from within. Incidentally, my noble friend Lord Gormley has asked me to apologise to the noble Earl—he forgot to do so himself—because he has a long-standing engagement and could not stay.
There is too much loose talk about the power of trade unions, of union bosses, of trade union bullies and trade union barons—not so much in this debate, but these expressions are often used in your Lordships' House. It is always overlooked that trade union general secretaries and presidents are responsible to their elected executive committees. As someone who joined a trade union when eligible some 53 years ago. I find it very difficult to reconcile what some people describe as activities in the trade union movement with my experience over those 53 years.
The noble Earl and others said, I believe, that the trade unions are not affected by legislation. I do not know how one would describe the 1980 and 1982 Acts. The 1982 Act in particular put non-unionism on a pedestal: in fact, Mr. Norman Tebbit rather boasted that it was—and I quote—The most comprehensive and most effective protection for non-union employees that we have ever had in this country.That sort of statement does not encourage the trade union movement to go in with effective consultation and co-operation, which is what we all wish to see. The Green Paper, as some noble Lords have said, does nothing whatever to tackle the real problem of industrial relations. In fact it may do the opposite; but unfortunately that is not the basis of our debate tonight.
The impression has been given during the debate that the unions have done nothing to reform themselves. May I remind your Lordships of what my noble friend Lord McCarthy actually said? He said that since Donovan, trade unions have taken steps to reform themselves and that they use more moderation; they use more ballots before and during strikes and they are becoming more decentralised. I know there is a long way to go and, as one who had to enforce the rules of a political party over very many years, I recognise the problem of tackling the questions of voluntary officials at branch level. But all the unions have their rule books, governing procedures. Most of them are very detailed and very democratic in their make-up. Many unions have disciplinary procedures to ensure that the rule books are closely followed, and generally one finds that the unions and their executives are very jealous about their rule books. It would be good for many other institutions if they followed the procedures that are laid down in the rule books. The 785 difficulty is that one often is dealing with voluntary officials; and I recognise the problem.
My noble friend Lord McCarthy said that the Green Paper was not a balanced consultative document. It is pretty clear, looking at the Green Paper, exactly what the Government would like to see achieved. But when I go through it time and time again, it strikes me that truth does try to burst out, although sometimes one has to look carefully for it. Those who spoke with some enthusiasm for more legislation should take heed of some of the points which are made in the Green Paper; and I want to examine a number of those points.
The Green Paper recognises in paragraph 18 that unions have a variety and complexity of electoral arrangements. It points out, as my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies mentioned, that procedures are part of the unions' history of sometimes well over 100 years. I thought the point that my noble friend made about custom and practice at that point not being included in the White Paper was a very important one. The Green Paper does recognise that there are major differences in union procedures; and in paragraph 48 it is suggested that imposed uniform procedure requirements may run counter to the traditions and not meet the considered views of members. That has not been mentioned today, but it is in paragraph 48 of the report.
The Green Paper draws attention to the difference between some of the unions, and the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, referred to the AUEW. Perhaps he will indicate in his closing speech why he did that, because the AUEW is a union which elects practically all its officers at district, area, regional and national levels. It is engaging in elections almost every week of the year. The Green Paper also mentions the T and GWU, whose officers are appointed. I shall not draw a comparison to show which union is better run. All I know is that the T and GWU have some very good officers, who are all appointed.
The Green Paper recognises that some unionsadvertise jobs for national officers, interview candidates and offer them a contract of employment primarily on the basis of their professional expertise".Some unions adopt that procedure. Your Lordships will note what my noble friend Lord Houghton said on this issue as regards his own experience; and there should be no reason to interfere with the way in which different unions operate.
I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and others, made absolutely clear that they could see no point in balloting for the election of a multiplicity of officers. We must keep in mind that the elections of officers and committees at branch level are of the utmost importance. But, surely, they must be elected by members who are sufficiently interested to attend the annual meetings. I agree with my noble friend Lord Houghton, who said that one cannot legislate against apathy. It is the people who attend the meetings who know the membership and who know for whom they should vote when officers at branch level are being elected. Those appointed by the branch as delegates to the next tier—divisional, area or regional, according to the union's structure—will also best know the persons to be elected as officers and committee members, or the persons to be appointed to the next rung.
786 Paragraph 39 of the Green Paper admits that the system of indirect elections is deep-rooted in some unions, but it nevertheless seems to insist on urging direct elections by members. Strangely enough, in paragraph 54, many pages later, it is stated that theestablished systems of indirect voting might be held better to reflect members' needs and the diversity of interests of the membership.I prefer to take paragraph 54 and not paragraph 39.
Paragraphs 19 and 20 set out the position relating to shop stewards. I would remind your Lordships that the overall figure of 300,000 shop stewards is given. That is a very large number of irresponsible, militant people in the trade union movement, as some people would call them. But having implied criticism in those paragraphs of the present system of electing or appointing shop stewards, paragraph 46 expresses doubt as to whether balloting for stewards would be practicable or appropriate in many cases.
We then come to the important chapter of ballots before strikes. There have been many congratulations in regard to the miners' national ballot, and your Lordships heard what my noble friend Lord Gormley said on that issue. But we must not overlook the fact that it was the national executive committee of the Mineworkers' Union which decided to have a ballot. It was the national executive committee of the General and Municipal Workers' Union which, in the case of the water workers, decided to have a ballot. One ballot went one way and one went the other way. We must not always assume, as some noble Lords do, that a national ballot will always go against industrial action; sometimes, it confirms industrial action.
I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, stressed what is stated in paragraph 60; that:No country … has legislated to require universal, 'automatic' strike ballotsas a condition for industrial action. The same paragraph reminds us that the Donovan Commission pointed out that there is the problem that a secret ballot could not be enforced in the case of small-scale stoppages, where there is often instantaneous action which just blows over. My noble friend Lord Gormley referred to that from his own experience. The same paragraph states that a statutory requirement for a ballot in all cases could lead to encouragement for unofficial strikes. Those who believe that action can be taken to prevent strikes in essential services might reflect that wrong action on such a matter could lead to a growth of unofficial strikes. If men feel keenly about something, they will take industrial action.
Enforcement action against union funds could lead to more unofficial action, which I am certain that noble Lords in general would not like to see develop. Alternatively, it could develop into other action which is equally damaging—"go-slows", overtime bans or working to rule. There are all kinds of alternatives to strike action. Paragraph 61 admits that there was little support for statutory ballots as a condition of any lawful strike, in response to the previous Green Paper. I noted that that view was supported by the noble Lords, Lord Rochester and Lord Campbell of Alloway.
In order not to detain the House too long, I want now to move on to political activities, because my noble friend Lord McCarthy asked that I should deal 787 with this aspect, in particular, in view of my connection with political activities of unions inside the Labour Party. It was noticeable that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was more firm on this chapter than on any other part of the Green Paper. The history of the development of union political activities is set out quite effectively in Chapter 4. I would remind your Lordships that until the Osborne judgment of 1909 trade unions paid for political activities from their normal general funds. In effect, the 1913 Act was a form of compromise and the trade unions accepted certain limitations which were placed upon them, but which were not placed upon any other organisation that wished to engage in political activity. Paragraph 74 admits that the principles laid down in the 1913 Act have stood the test of time, but it goes on to say that a great deal has changed since then.
The first change was the 1927 Act, which changed contracting-out, which had been the statutory procedure since the 1913 Act. This change was not based on any principles. Even the moderate Labour Prime Minister, the late Clement Attlee, described it as a punitive measure because of the General Strike. We must keep in mind that the political activities of the unions had no bearing whatever on that strike. The 1927 Act, which brought contracting-in, was repealed in 1946, so we reverted once again to contracting-out.
The House should be reminded of the requirements of the present law, and should compare what trade unions have to do with what other organisations do. They must conduct a ballot of all members to establish political objects, with payments from a separate political fund. There must be a majority vote and, if the proposal is approved, political rules have to be drawn up which must be approved by the certification officer. A member of a trade union must be free to contract out of paying the political fund contribution.
Noble Lords will have seen from time to time the annual report of the certification officer, who receives details of complaints by members about the administration of a union's political fund. There is strict legal control over payments for political activities, but there is little legal control over payments made by companies and other institutions. I should like to emphasise that the ballot, which is a legal necessity, is not about affiliation to a political party. It is a ballot to approve political objects and the establishment of a political fund. It is only later that a union may take a decision to affiliate to a political party. Up to the present, the decision has been only to affiliate to the Labour Party.
As some noble Lords have made quite clear, ever since its establishment in 1900 the Labour Party has always had direct affiliation with the unions. This is contrary to most other democratic socialist parties in the world, but it was a British trade union movement which took the step to form the British Labour Party. That is why the trade unions are so closely identified with the Labour Party. But a trade union member who objects to the principle of paying towards political objectives or who may dissent from paying for affiliation to the Labour Party has a legal right to contract out. If I may paraphrase what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, any self-respecting member of any party would find it unpleasant to have 788 unwilling members. I would say that no self-respecting person would pay a political levy if he did not support the objectives of that organisation.
Each year the Conservative Party makes a big drive, in the local press in particular, to encourage people to know more about their rights to contract out. They boast of the success that they have in putting across their view. May I quote another respected person who is regarded as having been a moderate Labour Party leader, the late J. R. Clynes, once the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a member of two Labour Governments? He wrote in 1948:The law (that is, the 1927 Act) was a mockery of democratic practice, which is the observance of majority rule in the internal affairs of all manner of associations to advance their avowed objects".He wrote that the 1927 Act was the enthronement of minority dictatorship, That is what some noble Lords would wish us to return to by arranging for contracting-in. Paragraph 94 states:it is objectionable in principle that anyone should have to indicate his dissent from the political alignment of his union to avoid contributing to political activities or to a political party to which he is opposed".No-one is compelled to do those things. That statement is turning democracy on its head.
Surely it is absolutely objectionable that after a democratic decision has been taken to affiliate to a particular organisation a member who supports the majority decision should be expected to sign a piece of paper saying that he agrees with the majority decision and wishes to pay. The only democratic procedure is for the minority who disagree with that majority decision to indicate that they cannot support it and that they wish to contract out. Any other course makes complete nonsense of any talk of democracy. It has even been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, who echoed one of the proposals in the Green Paper, that it should be made unlawful for the collection of political contributions to be made by the employer through the check-off system. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, is not here. This is because the collection of political contributions is made at the same time as a person pays his trade union fee. If we want co-operation with the trade unions, to make it a condition that there should be no collection by the employer of political contributions through the check-off system would, I believe, be regarded as gross interference. It would not contribute towards the co-operation that we wish to achieve.
May I also emphasise that all political contributions do not necessarily go to the Labour Party. They are political contributions to the political fund of the trade union. The trade union decides how much of the contribution will go to the Labour Party. Some of it is kept nationally by the unions, some of it goes to the divisional committees of the union, and some of it goes down to the branches, which often use it for political education work, not necessarily for payments to the Labour Party. I echo what has been said by other speakers: that if there is so much concern about trade union contributions the Government ought to state quite clearly what is in their mind about the contributions made by industry and commerce. Many of them make contributions direct to the Central Office of the Conservative Party. Others make indirect 789 payments to the Central Office through the united industrial councils which exist in every region of the country. They make a sort of backhanded gift to the Conservative Party.
Perhaps in future years we can also expect a Green Paper on the finances of political parties. As my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby said, I was a member of the Houghton Committee. Its report needs to be updated in the light of circumstances. Even should there be contributions from the state to assist political activity, I am certain that the great majority of trade unions would still wish, on a democratic vote, to affiliate to the Labour Party. This should ever be kept in mind. If there should be any suggestion of a proposal to contract in so as to cripple the Labour Party, it would rebound upon anybody who made it. Therefore, I should like it to be kept in mind that contracting out is a democratic procedure and that contracting in would be a travesty of what all of us believe there should be—adherence to majority decisions.
§ 7.46 p.m.
The Earl of Gowrie
My Lords, I believe my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has very good reason to be pleased with the debate which he so ably initiated. One of the many illusions of another place about your Lordships' House is that we know nothing about industrial relations. I have always learned a very great deal about this subject, speaking as a Minister concerned with industrial relations, from debates in this House. I am not engaging in mere conventional politeness when I say so. My noble friend will also, no doubt, with his usual sense of humour, have noticed that if one wishes to hear the true and authentic voice of conservatism, of defence of the status quo, of tradition, of precedent, one has only to come to your Lordships' House and listen to the Labour Party on industrial relations and trade union reform. The democratic decisions with which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, regaled us may in many instances have been taken 50 years ago. As something of a conservative myself, I admire him for his defence of that position, but I am not sure that he should be allowed altogether to get away with it.
I am speaking, with the leave of your Lordships, for the second time in this debate. Your Lordships allowed me a good run on the principles of the Government's policy so I do not propose to say any more about them. I wish simply to deal with the points which have been made. A number of noble Lords, not least my noble friend, were anxious about the important problem of strikes in the essential services, strikes which hit the public direct and which often have their most damaging effects on those who, like the old and the sick, are least able to cope. The Government certainly share your Lordships' concern about this issue. The steps which we have taken in the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts, together with measures to improve the democratic processes in trade unions, such as those discussed in the Green Paper and in the debate this afternoon, can do much to encourage responsible behaviour in industrial relations in the essential services, as elsewhere.
But change of this sort takes time. Recent events have led many people to believe that some specific and 790 more immediate action is needed to deal with the problem of strikes in the essential services. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is therefore examining very carefully possible steps which the Government could take in this area, and as he has made clear recently his mind is far from closed on the matter. I undertake to see that he considers carefully the points which noble Lords have made this afternoon.
The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, suggested a sanction for failure to hold union elections by secret ballot—for instance, removal from the certification officer's list and loss of the right to tax relief for expenditure on provident benefits. That is one of the options which is canvassed in the Green Paper. I refer the noble Lord to paragraph 52. The Government will, of course, take his points into account as they consider an option which we ourselves have raised.
A number of noble Lords—this is a very substantive issue which came out of the debate—felt that the Government might be being unfair in relation to trade union contributions in respect of the Labour Party while glossing over the position of company contributions to the Conservative Party. This point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, although in his usual polite and moderate manner; and by the noble Lords, Lord Gormley, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, Lord Milford, Lord Prys-Davies, and Lord Underhill, I should really like to lay to rest this somewhat antique canard, because, in our view, the two issues simply do not stand comparison.
First, there is the existing balance between the degree of regulation between companies and trade unions to which I drew attention in my earlier speech and which noble Lords opposite have not answered at all. In general terms, unions are much less fettered by law than companies, and this applies in respect of their political donations as well. The shareholders have substantial powers of control over political contributions. Directors' reports must contain a statement of all political contributions over £200, and if the shareholders disapprove they can challenge the decision at the company's annual general meeting.
By contrast, union members have less choice and receive less information. A decision to set up a political fund and to impose a political levy may have been taken, as I said earlier, as long ago as 1913—many years before any of the present members joined the union. The size of the political levy paid by trade union members is often concealed within the overall union subscription. It seemed to me that in his closing speech the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, effectively acknowledged that fact.
Then there is the issue of the scale of the funding, which some noble Lords opposite have rather conveniently overlooked. Political contributions by companies are so small as a proportion of turnover as to have no measurable effect on the prices charged to consumers or the dividends paid to shareholders. Typically, they represent less than one part in 100,000 of the company's turnover. By contrast, the political levy may be as much as 7 per cent. of the trade unionist's subscription. The largest political contribution by a company is under £75,000; the largest union contribution is more than £¼ million.
791 An idea of the scale involved can be gained from the work of a leading expert in the field. I am referring to the work of Mr. Pinto Duschinsky, British Political Finance 1830–1980, who discovered that, and I quote:In the 1970s, the three top unions raised more money for Labour than the top 800 companies combined for the Conservatives.It is not my business to argue the case for the Social Democratic Party or for the Liberal Party—I remain the firm Tory I have always been—but it does seem to me that it is certainly unfair to them that this position should continue unchallenged; and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, with her characteristic brevity and common sense, drew that point to our attention earlier.
Coming to the points made by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, I always pay great attention to what he says on these issues and welcome his support for measures to ensure that elections of union officials are properly democratic and to end the system that allows political contributions to be paid as a result of ignorance, inertia or—worst of all—obstruction. I will refer these points to my right honourable friend as well. My noble friend and I are at one in seeking reforms which will result in the power of trade unions being used more accountably and in accordance with the views of their members. He pointed to recent events in the coal industry, as other noble Lords have done, and these have vividly demonstrated the importance of union leaders reflecting the views of their members. I, of course, take the point that ballots do not always go one way.
It may well be, as my noble friend suggested, that greater accountability by union leaders will reduce the need for strike ballots—at least, the need for legislative backing for such ballots. The practical difficulties of legislating in this way, which are described in the Green Paper, are undeniable and are there, as I admitted in my opening speech. But I do not wish to write off the case for a strike ballot provision at this stage. I understand that my noble friends are concerned about the authority of union executives, but we cannot, whatever we should wish, expect our efforts to bring about greater accountability by exhortation to become fully effective overnight.
The noble Lord, Lord Gormley—and I fully accept what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said as to his noble friend's inability to be here—made a robust and witty speech, but the burden of it was a little thin. He said that trade unions do not need legislative attention but will do what is necessary by themselves. We regret very much the need for legislation. We have tried to restrict any legislative proposals in the past, in the light of the step by step approach, to clearly perceived anomalies or injustices. That is the way we have proceeded until now and in which we will continue to proceed. But we have been waiting at the church for an awfully long time for some of these proposals to come forward, and we are, understandably, growing a little impatient.
This point of the noble Lord, Lord Gormley—which was echoed, with his great experience, by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies—was admirably answered by the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, who, I will remind your Lordships, is a distinguished former Chief Whip 792 of the Labour Party. Speaking for his party he said—and I hope that I am quoting him aright—We would prefer that reforms would come from within the unions, but failing that legislation would be necessary".The noble Lord, Lord Underhill—whose position and courage, and whose struggles for democratic procedures within the Labour Party, are well known—must recognise that many of his closest old colleagues take this view. I admire the dogged loyalty with which he refuses to take that view, but he should allow that it is not all part of a Conservative conspiracy against the trade union system; there is rather wider support for these issues than simply the support given by my own political party.
Going on from that point, the noble Lord, Lord Spens, advocated that the Secretary of State should be given the power to require trade unions to hold ballots in circumstances of special seriousness. He suggested that this might be done with the affirmation of Parliament. In this context, the noble Lord proposed that unions which fail to follow this requirement should lose their immunity against actions in the courts. Clearly there are attractions in the noble Lord's proposition—and it gives me special pleasure to say that, because the noble Lord and I were prone to tangle during the passage of the 1980 Act.
But we must bear in mind two points. First, there is the danger of turning an individual dispute into a confrontation between the Government and the union. This Government, whatever their virtues or shortcomings in other respects, have been singularly successful in avoiding direct confrontational disputes of that nature which were so damaging to the previous Conservative Government and, it must be said, to the previous Labour Government—as we know from the winter of discontent, the miners' strike, and the rest. Secondly, we have to remember that limitations on those who would have a cause for action under the law undeniably exist. Patients of the National Health Service or customers of public utilities, for example, do not have contracts on which they might sue organisers of strikes. Nevertheless, my right honourable friend is currently considering the whole question of strikes in essential services. As I said earlier, his mind is not closed to the idea of legislating on this issue and I am very grateful for the points which the noble Lord, Lord Spens, has made.
We had an interesting contribution, as we would expect, from my noble friend Lord Renton. He made the point, again in connection with the essential services, that it should be a condition of service for employees in the essential services that they could be dismissed if they strike. Of course, it is already the case that where employees go on strike they normally do so in breach of contract and thus are already liable to be dismissed. In practice, of course, it is very unusual for an employer to dismiss strikers, because that does not help to end the dispute, and indeed it could, and would be likely to, initiate fresh disputes. I am also grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, who reminded me in relation to this point of Lord Renton's that under existing law any employer can dismiss provided he dismisses all on strike, but again this would not be liable to lead to any very satisfactory conclusion.
793 My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I was sorry to hear, was rather less rapturous about this Green Paper than he was to the initial proposals we made when we came into office, in respect of secondary picketing and the like. I very much welcomed his support at that time, and therefore I am sorry that I have not yet won him over on this occasion. He made the point in relation to the election of union officials that this could reduce much needed job security of persons who have been appointed to such offices. Again the Green Paper recognises—I refer the noble Lord to paragraph 41—that a requirement for periodic re-election of all national trade union officers, whether elected or engaged, would—and I am quoting—…be inconsistent with the nature of the job where a union (as is the case with a number of smaller white collar unions) has found that its needs are better served by selecting a general secretary for appointment on the basis of his expertise and experience rather than by election from within the union on the basis of popular support.My noble friend Lord Ferrier noted that changes may come in this field, as in so many others, as a result of new technologies. When we come to the speech, which I enjoyed, of the noble Lord, Lord Milford, I thought for a moment we must be back in Northern Ireland or dealing with Northern Ireland affairs, where even the most enlightened policy document coming from the Government is often taken as being symptomatic of a dark plot to sell Unionists—the other kind in this instance—down the river. I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Milford, sufficiently acknowledged that companies are hedged about with legislation. I agree with him on the need for balance, but I do not think he was able to convince us that the balance was a fair one.
Coming to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, he really challenged me to provide evidence of public concern about union democracy. It seems to me that the evidence has flooded in again and again, in letters, in newspaper articles by well-known union leaders, and in polls. Indeed, I see that a very recent poll, one reported in last Monday's Financial Times, of 600 trade unionists showed that 68 per cent. favoured electing union leaders by secret ballots and over half believed that union leaders were out of touch with members. Those are not my views but the views, in this poll, of trade unionists themselves. On the issue of contracting-in or contracting-out, which the noble Lord raised, in perhaps the most graphic case which occurred recently—it was reported in the press, but I believe it is far from unique—over 150 members of a particular union branch who decided that they wanted to contract out and signed the necessary exemption forms to do so back in 1980 are, I understand, still paying the political levy through their employer's check-off system, and that three years later. The union members concerned have been quite unable to obtain a refund from their union in all this time. Other cases which have been raised with my right honourable friend's department have included examples of people who had only just realised that they were paying the political levy, or who did not know that they had the right to contract out.
My Lords, I was most grateful for the contribution of my noble friend Lady Lane-Fox. It was extremely brief, but it was all the more cogent for that.It seemed 794 to me that she provided much more crisply a kind of lantern slide to some of the points which at rather greater length and with less precision I was making in my opening speech. So I could not be more pleased, and I would draw your Lordships' attention to her experience in these things. Coming to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, I must say it did rather entrance me to hear anything emanating from my right honourable friend Mr. Tebbit described as a "modest little thing", which is how she put it. Her description will no doubt stiffen any timidity my right honourable friend may feel as he decides whether to take his next modest little step. I will refer him to what the noble Baroness has said. I think one of the reasons my right honourable friend arouses a certain amount of ire is that he is, of course, rather unique among Conservative Ministers in that he is an old hand in union affairs and knows some of the tricks of the trade. I certainly thought the noble Baroness, as we would expect, was full of common sense on the political levy, and I have already made the point that the levy is certainly unfair to her party.
I think if any real evidence of the need for further steps is required it was provided by this year's President of the TUC General Council, Mr. Frank Chapple, who in a recent court case made it clear that only 1.6 per cent. of his union members attended the branch meetings at which delegates to the union's conference were elected. That is not to criticise Mr. Chapple's union. His is one of the very few unions—and another, I fully acknowledge to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is the AUEW—which have introduced secret postal balloting on a wide scale in their elections, and that is thoroughly commendable. But it does go to show, and I think there is evidence from other unions, just how little we can rely on the existing structures of most of our major unions producing leaders who are genuinely representative of the views and wishes and aspirations of their members as a whole, as opposed to those of a hard core of union activists.
My Lords, if trade unions were less important to our society we could, of course, perhaps afford to shrug our shoulders at these inadequacies and at the continuing failure of the trades unions to face up to them. But that is not the case. The decisions which trade union leaders take on behalf of their members can reach, as I said earlier, into every home in the land. The way in which unions choose to exercise their power has the most far-reaching implications for the prosperity not just of their members but of the country as a whole, and of course in the word "prosperity" I include jobs and employment. That makes it essential, in our view, that those who exercise such power should reflect, and be clearly accountable to, the wishes of the majority of their members, and it is to that basic aim that our Green Paper is directed.
§ 8.9 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, when, rather more than five hours ago, I had the privilege of opening this debate, I ventured to suggest that your Lordships' discussion of these issues might be a most valuable one. Whatever other noble Lords may have found in my remarks to disagree with, I think they would not disagree with that. I think we have had an extremely 795 good and stimulating conflict of ideas and of thought on a matter which is of the most serious national importance. Although, together with my noble friend on the Front Bench, I very much regret the, I think, very shortsighted unwillingness of those who speak for the TUC to discuss this Green Paper, it was good to see influential members of the trade union movement who are Members of this House not feeling themselves in the slightest degree inhibited by that, but contributing from their very considerable experience their views on these proposals. I hope that their example—and they include some of the leading figures of the trade union movement and of the Labour Party over recent years—may be studied at Congress House.
Without wishing to press the point any further, the fact that one may dislike certain proposals and that one may sincerely think they are wrong, when they emanate as possibilities from the Government of the day, that is surely a strong argument for discussing them and not for refusing to do so. To refuse to discuss them could be construed. however unfairly, as indicating that one feels that one does not have a very effective answer to them.
I do not propose at this stage and at this hour to run over the debate. I want to say only two things. First, there was a very interesting strain running through the debate on both sides, and that was the special concern which is being felt throughout the country, and which emerged into expression in this House, about that type of strike, mainly in the public sector or public utility, which has a paralysing or damaging effect on the community as a whole and not merely on an individual company. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby—who, I suppose, knows more about the public sector than any Member of this House—the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, from the other side of the House, and several of my noble friends referred to this. I was very glad to hear my noble friend at the Dispatch Box say that his right honourable friend was giving some consideration to this issue. I am sure that our recent experience in this country, reinforcing as it did memories of a few years ago, suggests that we cannot leave the position in respect of industrial action of that sort where it is. Although opinions will, I am sure, differ as to the appropriate method of dealing with it, none the less I am perfectly certain that there is a growing volume of opinion in this country that before very long action must be taken in this respect.
The other matter which, as I indicated at the opening of the debate aroused natural controversy, was the contracting-in and contracting-out point. If I may say so, noble Lords opposite were extremely wise to select the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to put the justification for the Labour Party's point of view. They were right for two reasons. First, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, knows more about political organisation, I suppose, than anyone else in the House. Secondly, he spoke very late in the debate and it was, therefore, extremely difficult for anyone to have the opportunity of seeking to controvert his arguments. I learned when in Government that if one had a weak case to make at the Dispatch Box it was exceedingly prudent to make it as late in the debate as possible. Obviously the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, had the same thought.
I do not want to pursue our controversy much 796 further tonight because I do not flatter myself that I shall convert him, but I should like to take up his personal reply to me. I said (and I hope he was not indicating that he rejected the view) that no self-respecting party would wish to take money from people who did not willingly want to contribute. He did not answer that, but said that no self-respecting person would contribute to a party with which he did not agree. I do not believe that is true. There are circumstances in which individuals are placed where caution or prudence—one can perhaps call it cowardice—may cause them to do just that. If one is in the situation—and a number of people in this country are—of being in a closed shop industry, where the exercise of the right to contract out involves informing either a shop steward or branch secretary that one intends to contract out, that calls for a considerable degree of courage. The possibilities of unpleasantness, particularly in a closed shop industry, and of danger to one's job, are real, or one may think they are real. It is to mislead himself for the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to think that all those who contribute to the political levy wish to do so.
It passes all belief, for example, referring again to page 25 of the Green Paper, that 98.4 per cent. of the membership of the huge Transport and General Workers Union are active supporters of the Labour Party and anxious to contribute to it. I do not believe that, and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, does not believe it, either. If that is so—and it must be so—there is an element (how large, we can argue) of involuntary contribution in the payment of the levy. This happens very often through the "check-off" and very often, as my noble friend Lord Gowrie said, without it even being known that it is happening because of the operation of the "check-off". But there is a substantial volume of such payments which, and I think the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, agrees with me, no self-respecting party would want to accept.
It is no argument to say that one cannot deal with this unless one deals with the companies. My noble friend Lord Gowrie dealt with the companies situation. I add only this one point. If a shareholder in a company does not like making a political contribution—he will, or course, know of it because of the provisions regarding the inclusion of such payments in the annual report—apart from the right to which my noble friend referred of going to the annual general meeting and endeavouring to persuade his fellow shareholders to stop it, he has the perfectly good option of selling his shares. That is not an option open to a man whose whole asset is the skill of his hands in a closed shop occupation. I believe we shall hear more of this issue, but I do not wish to pursue it further tonight.
However, I do want to say to your Lordships that for me this debate has been made by, particularly, one thing. That was—and I am sorry that he is no longer here, but it has been explained—to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gormley, rise from the Bench opposite and without even a grin on his face say that it was news to him that trade unions and trade union leaders exercise power in this country. I thought at the time that it was a joke because the noble Lord, as chairman and president of the National Union of Mineworkers, was, as he knows perfectly well, one of the most 797 powerful men in this country before whom Governments of both political colours, if they did not tremble at any rate indicated symptoms of acute nervousness. This debate will remain memorable for me having heard that man of power disclaiming his power background, and doing so in such a characteristically charming and ingenuous way.
I shall not detain your Lordships. The Motion does not ask your Lorships to approve or to disapprove of any or all of the items in the Green Paper: it asks your Lordships just to take note of it. Your Lordships have been doing so for the last five and a quarter hours. I therefore formally move.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.