HL Deb 24 July 1991 vol 531 cc790-804

3.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Viscount Ullswater)

My Lords, this may be a convenient moment for me to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Government's proposals for further reform of the law on industrial relations which are published in a Green Paper today.

"These proposals are designed to consolidate and build on the improvement in this country's industrial relations over the past 12 years. Their purpose is to ensure that we have an effective and up-to-date framework of law in order to maintain that progress through the 1990s. Each of the proposals contained in the Green Paper is carefully designed to meet a clear deficiency in our present arrangements. They are designed to increase the rights of individual members of the public, of individual trade union members and of the community at large.

"The first group of proposals in the Green Paper concerns strikes and other forms of industrial action. It is worth recalling, Mr. Speaker, that before 1980 the law gave trade unions a virtually unlimited licence to organise strikes and industrial action, no matter how remote they were from the original dispute. There was no requirement for strike ballots and the law allowed the disruptive effects of industrial action to be spread far and wide by flying pickets.

"As a direct result of this Government's legislation, the law now protects jobs and businesses against secondary action and secondary picketing and, for the first time in our history, strike ballots have become a generally accepted feature of British industrial relations. Few now seriously question the role our legislation has played in reducing the number of strikes to its current level— the lowest for more than 60 years. We now propose to strengthen the law in the following ways.

"First, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced in his Statement on Monday, we propose to provide a new right for members of the public in relation to unlawful industrial action which affects a public service. At present, the employer has the right to bring proceedings against a trade union which organises an unlawful strike. Members of the public, who are usually the specific target of industrial action, have no such right. If the employer does nothing, the citizen is defenceless.

"We need to look no further than the recent strike of refuse collectors and other council employees in Liverpool for evidence of the need for citizens to be able to take action for themselves to protect the services on which they depend. We therefore propose to establish a new right for members of the public to seek an injunction to halt unlawful industrial action affecting a public service, if the employer concerned fails to use the remedies available to him. This proposal has been widely welcomed. It will enhance the protection of the public and it will be a further deterrent to unlawful industrial action.

"Secondly, we propose to make it a legal requirement that unions should give at least seven days' notice of a strike. A period of strike notice is a well established feature of the law in other countries. This requirement will help to protect the general public from the hardship caused by lightning strikes in public services. It will also allow employers to take steps to safeguard jobs and business.

"I turn now to the rights of union members. The House will recall that in 1979 union members had no statutory right to elect their leaders. Nor did they have any statutory right to vote in a secret ballot before a strike. They had no protection against fines and expulsion from their union if they refused to strike. In short, the law allowed union leaders to exercise what the Attorney-General of the day described as "lawful intimidation" against their own members. Now, as a result of our legislation, every union member has the right to elect his leaders by secret ballot and to vote in secret before he is called out on strike.

"But experience has shown that the existing law does not always provide fully effective protection against fraud and malpractice in trade union ballots. For example, the Transport and General Workers Union elections for its national executive in 1990, and before that the General Secretary election in 1984, both had to be re-run because of allegations of widespread vote-rigging in the first ballot. Accordingly, the Green Paper proposes a number of changes in the law to strengthen the democratic rights of union members by giving them the opportunity to inspect their union's membership register to detect bogus and duplicate names and by requiring records to be kept of the number of ballot papers issued and returned in each locality. In addition, we propose to extend the requirements for fully postal voting and independent scrutiny, which have applied to union elections since 1988, so that they also cover strike ballots and ballots on union mergers.

"I propose a number of further changes in the law to strengthen the rights of union members. The first concerns an employee's freedom to join the union of his choice. As a result of the Employment Act 1990 no one can lawfully be refused employment because he is, or is not, a trade union member. But it is still the case that the operation of the TUC's so-called "Bridlington principles" can deny individual workers the opportunity to belong to the union which they believe will most effectively represent their interests.

"Indeed, the Bridlington principles can effectively deny an employee any choice at all in the union he joins. In some cases, they prevent him from belonging to any union except the union he wants to leave. If a union member disagrees with the policies of his union, he may find that his only choice is between remaining in that union or ceasing to be a member of any union affiliated to the TUC.

"It is no surprise, therefore, that the Bridlington principles have come under increasing strain and that they are now regarded as unworkable even by the leaders of major TUC unions. For example, the General Secretary-elect of the TGWU, Mr. Bill Morris, said recently that the Bridlington principles are "ripe for review" and that, today when we are about choice and opportunity for the individual there is no choice or opportunity within them". The recent turmoil in the construction union is clear evidence of the truth of those remarks.

"We therefore propose that where more than one union represents employees in a particular occupation or industry, individual employees should be free to choose which union they join without the constraint of any arrangement between trade unions which is designed to deny them that freedom of choice.

"The second proposal for strengthening the rights of union members concerns the practice of making automatic deductions from employees' pay on behalf of their union. It is a clear anomaly in the law that deductions—which may include special strike levies as well as union subscriptions—can be made from the pay of a union member without his consent.

"If these so-called check-off arrangements have been agreed between his employer and his trade union, there is nothing an individual employee can do to escape from them, short of resigning from his union. There is evidence that, in some cases, these arrangements operate without even the knowledge of the employees concerned. In the construction industry, for example, some employees have found that through the check-off they were paying subscriptions to a union that they had never joined.

"Accordingly, we propose to make it unlawful for any deduction to be made from an employee's pay on behalf of a trade union without his individual, written consent. We do not propose to make the practice of the so-called check-off unlawful as it is in France, but we do propose that in future it should have to operate with the consent of each employee.

"The third proposal concerns the ability of members to ensure that the finances of their unions are managed—and are seen to be managed properly. The Lightman Report on the conduct of the NUM's finances during and after the miners' strike of 1984–85 revealed serious irregularities. The findings of that report indicated a clear need to strengthen the law to protect the rights of union members. The Green Paper contains a number of proposals to increase the accountability of union leaders to their members for the conduct of their union's financial affairs and to strengthen the powers of the independent certification officer.

"The final proposal in the Green Paper concerns the legal status of collective agreements. The law in this country is virtually unique in creating a presumption that collective agreements are not legally binding on both parties. In most other industrialised countries it is normal practice for collective agreements to have the status of contracts which impose obligations equally on both parties. In those countries employers and trade unions alike find that this brings greater clarity and precision to collective bargaining and greater stability to industrial relations.

"Furthermore, the effect of the UK's tradition of non-binding collective agreements is, in practice, to create an imbalance of obligations. On the one hand, trade unions are free to ignore agreements that they have signed and to organise and threaten strikes even while agreements are in force. Employers, on the other hand, are legally obliged to observe the terms of a collective agreement where these are imported into the individual contracts of their employees. The result is that the terms of collective agreements are legally enforceable by employees against their employers but not by employers against trade unions.

"Now that there is a much wider acceptance of the role of the law in industrial relations, the Government believe that the time has come to consider a change which would give positive encouragement to the development of legally enforceable agreements which would be binding on both parties. The proposal in the Green Paper is to reverse the present statutory presumption so that a collective agreement would be legally binding unless it contained a specific provision to the contrary.

"Employers and trade unions would, of course, remain free to decide whether or not to make collective agreements legally binding. But changing the law in this way would mean that negotiators would have to consider in each case whether there were advantages in giving all or part of a collective agreement the status of an enforceable contract, and it would make it easier for them to conclude legally binding agreements if they wished to do so.

"We have now reached a decisive stage in the history of industrial relations in this country. As a result of the legislation which this Government have introduced since 1980 our industrial relations have achieved a stability and a maturity which seemed unattainable in the 1970s. It is now generally accepted that the law has a legitimate and necessary role to play in protecting the individual and the community as a whole against the abuse of industrial power.

"These proposals will benefit individual members of the public by giving them protection against lightning strikes and a new legal right to stop unlawful strikes in the public services.

"These proposals will benefit union members by giving them the right to join the union of their choice, the right to protect the funds of their union from mismanagement and the right to decide for themselves whether union dues and strike levies should be automatically deducted from their pay.

"These proposals will benefit the country as a whole by making it even more attractive to overseas investors by providing further safeguards against irresponsible industrial action and encouraging legally enforceable agreements which are common practice in almost every other major industrialised country.

"The choice before this House and the country is now clear. On the one hand, we could undo much of the legislation of the last 12 years and in some respects go further than ever before in increasing the power of trade unions and making strikes easier, longer, more frequent and more damaging. That is the policy of the party opposite and its trade union supporters. On the other hand, we can carry forward the process of reform and build on the achievements of the last 12 years. That is what the proposals in the Green Paper are designed to achieve and that is why I believe that they deserve the support of this House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and also for his courtesy in allowing me to have an advance copy of it. However, I am sure that it will come as no surprise to him that I cannot welcome the Statement; nor do I think that it will find much of a welcome outside of this House among the electorate generally. If the Government think that there is electoral mileage in playing the union card again, they may find that they have been gravely mistaken.

Many people, including those in management, now think that we have had enough labour law. Seven pieces of legislation affecting unions and restricting union rights have emanated from this Government since 1979. Moreover, we now have a so-called Citizen's Charter. But the citizen envisaged by the Government is primarily a consumer. He or she is apparently not an employee because, if we look to the charter for employees' rights relative to an employer, we shall be gravely disappointed.

The employee, no matter how poor or vulnerable, is not seen as needing protection from a powerful and exploitative employer. Indeed, the rights of employees in employment have been substantially eroded by this Government, thus making it much more difficult to take cases to industrial tribunals. They have also removed the right of appeal from dismissed strikers and eroded the powers of wages councils to set minimum conditions, and so on. Of course in the case of GCHQ, even the right to belong to a trade union is refused.

As I have said, previous legislation has already severely restricted trade union rights. It has done so in a way that has brought condemnation of the united Kingdom from the Committee of Experts at the International Labour Office. That committee identified nine different ways in which UK legislation was in breach, as it saw it, of ILO conventions to which Britain is a signatory. We now have this further set of propositions. They are irrelevant to our training and employment requirements where the need is for job creation. These propositions will not support or assist job creation, no matter what the Government may pretend.

I believe that it has always been the Government's intention to utilise the law to keep down labour costs; hence their attitude to wages councils, exemplified in a Question I put to the House last week when the Minister said that wages councils had outlived their usefulness. Britain is a low pay country. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place said that Britain had one of the lowest labour costs in the European Community: one half of the costs in Germany; one third of the costs in France or Italy; only Greece, Portugal and Spain were cheaper. Despite that, we still have rising unemployment, and now further anti-union legislation. What does it amount to?

Check-off validation is likely to cause more administrative work for employers as well as unions. Employers with stable industrial relations, and there are many of them, are hardly likely to welcome it. When I was a union official it was customary to ask individual employees to signify upon a piece of paper that they wanted their trade union contributions deducted from their pay.

There is then an attempt to undermine the policy of the TUC in relation to the Bridlington regulations which, incidentally, have been supported by the courts and lauded by employers. They have assisted in resolving inter-union conflicts and have established a clear and unambiguous set of rules which everyone understands. Again, I do not believe that foreign investors, especially the Japanese, who tend to want to negotiate single union agreements, will be happy with that proposal. No one involved in industrial relations on the management side welcomes fragmentation of union membership. There is nothing wrong in requiring that someone who wishes to become a union member should join the union that negotiates the wages and conditions at the establishment in which the individual is employed. That is the criterion which guided disputes tribunals operating at the TUC under the Bridlington regulations.

There is next the proposition about declaring to members senior officials' salaries and the general disclosure of accounts. Most unions already do that under existing legislation. Most union officials are not well paid by the standards of industry or commerce. Even general secretaries consider themselves fortunate to receive salaries of even one tenth of what is now paid to senior executives of newly privatised undertakings. The general secretary (the chief executive) of the largest trade union in Great Britain receives the princely salary of £45,000 a year.

There are further provisions about disputes. One would have thought that the Government had already made it difficult enough for unions to organise disputes without importing more restrictions. It is already necessary to tell individual members, in a prescribed form on the ballot paper, that their vote for a dispute automatically breaches their contracts of employment. I cannot imagine why that should be so. In many European countries, the contract is merely suspended during an official dispute. It is now no longer possible to act under the union's rules against individual members who break those rules. So-called secondary action (sympathy action) is already illegal. The closed shop has been outlawed. It must have been difficult for the Government to think up further restraints, but they have clearly done their best, or their worst, however one cares to look at it.

So the notion has been thought up that a member of the public will in future be able to sue if inconvenienced by an official dispute; but suppose the dispute has arisen because of employer provocation. Suppose that men walk off a site because there has been an accident and there is an unsafe environment. What then? Is a dispute always and invariably the fault of the workforce and its unions, however provoked? Obviously the Government's answer is in the affirmative.

As for union ballots, the Minister referred to ballots in the TGWU. I remind the House that the rerun was at the instance of the union's leadership. It does not seem to me that further legislation in that area is necessary or justified.

The Government's opposition to unions, and indeed to any form of collective, has an ideological basis; but this time they have gone over the top. Unions now have a positive rather than a negative image. Recent polls have shown support for the notion that unions should be free to organise; people should be free to join; and unions should be recognised and encouraged to bargain collectively on behalf of their members. This time, the Government have gone too far. The union card will not win the next election for them.

If the Government present a Bill based on the propositions put to the House, we on our side will do everything we can to ameliorate it. As to our party's policy, we believe that there should be a fair, legal framework—not one heavily weighted in favour of employers against employees, but one designed to give both individual rights in employment and collective rights, without which there is often no ability to enforce individual rights. So we cannot possibly welcome the Statement.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, from these Benches I join in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement. Unlike the Labour Party, we supported much of the Government's earlier legislation affecting trade unions. However, when speaking on behalf of my noble friends on the Third Reading of what is now the Employment Act 1988, I expressed the view that there should be the minimum of law in industrial relations, and that where the law applied it should strike a fair balance between the interests of employers and those of individuals.

The Government nevertheless introduced another Employment Bill in 1989 which in our view further tilted the balance in favour of employers. At that time I said that we looked forward to the day when the Government would think less in terms of continuing restrictive legislation and more of the need positively to encourage greater co-operation between management and employees.

Now we have the prospect of yet another instalment of trade union legislation. Already organisations, such as the Institute of Personnel Management, whose members would have to put it into practice, have expressed misgivings about what the Government have in mind. The institute's director general is reported to have said that he is fearful that the Green Paper is a political thing rather than being driven by real need. Similarly, on a particular idea canvassed in the Green Paper that employees should have the right to belong to a union of their choice, provided that the union organises in the grade or industry concerned, the CBI has said that companies would want to look carefully at the proposal to ensure that it would not cause them problems.

I do not wish to strike an inflexible attitude, but I must ask the Minister a question: have the Government thought through the effect that that proposal will have on valuable inward investment for our manufacturing industry? For example, as the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, a number of Japanese firms have insisted that such investment should be conditional upon their securing single union agreements supported by the Bridlington rules.

That is not all. From a recent NOP poll we learn that two out of every three members of the public are opposed to further legislation in this area. Only 18 per cent. would support it. To the extent that the Government may be prompted by considerations of possible electoral advantage in once more playing what the noble Baroness called the "union card", I suggest that they would be wise to take careful account of the findings of that poll.

On these Benches we share the widespread concern that has already been expressed about what the Government have in mind. However, this is not the moment to comment extensively on the details of their proposals, which we shall clearly need to study carefully before reaching considered conclusions.

I am particularly interested in the suggestion that collective agreements should be made legally enforceable contracts unless employers and unions expressly and jointly decide against that. This proposal was canvassed by the Government in their Green Paper on trade union immunity 10 years ago. At that time they concluded that much more education was needed before negotiators could be sufficiently convinced of the desirability of such arrangements and that they could become workable. Now that the idea has been revived, I shall be interested to learn what employers and trade unions have to say about it.

For the rest, I shall content myself with asking the noble Viscount what I hope is no more than a rhetorical question. Will the Government undertake to give the most earnest consideration to the responses of employers and trade unions to the Green Paper before deciding what, if any, further legislation they should introduce in the field of industrial relations?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said that these proposals were not welcome. I appreciate that she could not give them a welcome. She also stated that they would not be welcome outside. However, I believe that the protection of union members' rights in the Green Paper and the Statement will be widely held to be useful. The noble Baroness said that they were irrelevant. She then addressed a number of remarks to areas completely outside the proposals in the Green Paper and the Statement.

However, she suggested that the check-off arrangements already exist. The proposals suggest putting into law what is already common practice. I see no harm in that. They may create additional work for employers, to ensure that they are not making any unlawful deductions, but it is quite wrong for employers to make deductions from employees' pay without their consent. That is particularly the case where a proportion of the money that they collect on behalf of the union has been earmarked, perhaps for a strike fund.

The noble Baroness also defended the Bridlington principles, but I do not believe that the defence is supported by other union leaders. For example, shop workers are now exercised about which union supports Sunday trading. One union may, another may not. This should be an opportunity for shop workers at least to be members of a union which supports their ideas and considerations.

As for the ILO, the Government believe that there is nothing in the proposals which would contravene any IL0 convention ratified by the United Kingdom. In the event of any such complaint to the ILO, I am confident that it would be successfully rebutted.

Union members are interested in how their subscriptions are applied. They are also interested in how the elections of the executive committee and the general secretary are carried out. They wish to know, because they elect the officers, whether they are getting value for money. That is why we believe that revelation of how the money is being spent and the salaries of the executives should be made available to members in the form of a financial statement.

These proposals are to protect members' rights and the rights of the public. I am not surprised that the noble Baroness said that this was a step too far. I believe that that has been her terminology for a while on proposals put forward by the Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, did not exactly welcome the proposals, but he spoke quite positively about a number of them. He suggested that employers would have misgivings about some of the proposals and questioned whether we had thought them through. I believe that inward investment will be encouraged by our proposals because they have no effect on recognition agreements that employers might have with unions. They do not touch the recognition agreements.

The National Opinion Poll was taken without a glimpse of the proposals in the Green Paper. Thus, it is hard to see whether the opinion of the population has been tested in any way. I believe that people would welcome the proposals which would strengthen the rights of union members.

However, the noble Lord gave a welcome to, or said he was interested in, legally enforceable agreements. He rightly said that the whole area has matured over the past 10 years. Through a consultative document it is now time to look at whether legally enforceable agreements should be incorporated into collective agreements. This is a consultative document; we shall consult. That is the purpose of the publication of the Green Paper and we shall consider carefully the responses to it.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend warmly for reading this long, complicated and enormously interesting Statement to your Lordships and for doing so with such force and clarity. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, said, it is the most recent in a long series of legislative projects dealing with trade union law for which the Government have been responsible. Whatever view the noble Baroness or any of your Lordships may take of the series of amendments to the law, the fact remains that the incidence of strikes is lower than it has been for a great many years. It is also much lower than in many other countries. That seems to suggest that the Government's contribution to legislation on the subject has been helpful to the production of that industrial peace which is extremely important to the working of our economy.

There are only two points on which I should be grateful if my noble friend would expand. First, it seems to me that one of the features of the Statement is the additional strengthened authority which it gives individual members of trade unions vis à vis their union. It was undoubtedly the case some years ago, and I found it to be the case when I was in industry, that the individual member of a strong trade union used to find himself with little authority or independence. Legislation has now moved that a certain distance. As I understand my noble friend's Statement, this legislation will move it a little further. That surely must be a sensible measure from all points of view.

Finally there is the matter, to which my noble friend referred in the earlier part of the Statement, of the position of the public in the case of a strike in a public service. It has always seemed to me very unfair that a strike in a public service can cause enormous harm and injury to individual members of the public without necessarily causing more than trifling inconvenience to the management of that service. The earnings, salaries and positions of the management remain utterly unaffected. It is the public who have suffered. Therefore I was particularly glad to hear my noble friend say that, in the case of a strike in a public service, members of the public who have suffered injury as a result of that strike will have the right to take proceedings against the union undertaking the strike. That seems to me simple justice. Perhaps the only criticism that could be made of that measure is that it is so obviously right and fair that it is a little surprising that it has not featured in some earlier legislation.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the noble Lord talks about people who work in a public service. I understand what he is saying and why and I am aware of the inconvenience that may be caused to the British public—

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I apologise for intervening but I hope the noble Lord, Lord Mellish, will frame his remarks in terms of a question to my noble friend Lord Ullswater. He is out of order in cross-examining my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I naturally regret that ruling, as there are few things that I enjoy more than a gentle bout with my noble friend—if I may so call him—Lord Mellish. But, apparently, that pleasure is to be denied me on this occasion. No doubt there will be future occasions when we can engage in bouts.

However, I shall return to the point I was making and that I was about to sit down on. It seems to me absolutely right that members of the public who suffer—as they can—serious loss, inconvenience and damage as a result of a strike in a public service should have the right (if so advised) to take action against the union concerned and against its members in connection with the damage they have suffered. I believe that is a very important improvement in our law. I should be grateful if my noble friend could expand a little on what he has said on that subject.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, before the Minister expands on that subject, may I make another point?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe I should reply to the questions put to me by my noble friend. My noble friend goes right to the heart of the matter with his observations. We have now a sense of industrial peace which is absolutely vital to our competitiveness in world markets. We should not overlook that fact or treat it too lightly. It is an absolutely vital fact.

The purpose of the proposals I have referred to is to strengthen the individual rights of members of unions. We have introduced the ability for trade union members to inspect their union's membership register to ensure that the correct names are on it and that it does not include the names of people who are not members of the union. Those names may have been included just to fill up the register. Our proposals give a union member a right to accept in writing that money should be deducted from his pay to pay his subscription. Those measures constitute a protection of the individual rights of union members.

As regards unlawful industrial action, we believe it is quite right that those members of the public who are caused great discomfort on many occasions by such actions should have the right to take proceedings if the employer or a member of a union does not take action himself. What the public really want is for the strike to stop and for the service to be reinstated. The proposals in the Green Paper will enable this to happen.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, as I am addressing my remarks to the Minister, I gather that I am now in order. How do the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, relate to the argument about public services? For example, if the employer of a bus driver will not give the latter an increase in salary, what is the bus driver supposed to do in that situation or in the case of any kind of industrial dispute? Is he supposed to say, "I am in a public service and I must never withdraw my labour because of the inconvenience that that would cause to the public"? The bus driver is in an impossible position. In my opinion the Government have made the position even worse. It has been suggested that it is because of government legislation that so few strikes occur nowadays. I have to reply to that point as I cannot take it sitting down. It is not true that government legislation has resulted in fewer strikes. Increased unemployment has resulted in fewer strikes.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, if the noble Lord has time to read the proposals, he will see that as regards the public services it is only when unlawful industrial action occurs that the measures we are discussing apply. We are not talking about the situation he described.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the rather romantic view of the Bridlington agreement is not shared by everyone who has had experience of it? In many people's minds it is the ultimate in restrictive trade practices as it enables old, large, outdated trade unions to protect their membership against the ravages of small, progressive unions.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, that is exactly so.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, are the Government seriously proposing that every worker should have the right to join any trade union even where the union chosen regards itself as not capable of effectively representing that worker at his or her workplace? Why are the Government undermining the Bridlington agreement, which, contrary to what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, is regarded in general by employers and incoming investors as an admirable form of domestic dispute resolution? Are the Government truly bent on improving industrial relations or are they bent on making mischief? Why are the Government conferring a statutory right to join any trade union while conferring no statutory rights of recognition—and therefore no statutory rights of effective representation—on any trade union? Is this yet another example of a want of even-handedness?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the freedom of choice to join a union is an important concept when one or more trade unions can genuinely claim to be able to represent an employee's interests. I indicated the difficulty that shopworkers might have over the support or otherwise that their union might give to Sunday trading. A union is not obliged to accept members where it does not represent employees of a similar skill or occupation. Unions do not have to accept applicants who have been unsatisfactory members of another union. Unions are not forced into accepting members. The remedy against a refusal is by way of a complaint to an industrial tribunal to obtain a declaration and compensation.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, as someone who a long time ago played a prominent, and sometimes personally rather uncomfortably prominent, part in campaigning for and implementing a framework of law for industrial relations in this country, I believe the proposals will bring a general further improvement to the situation. I particularly welcome the proposal that collective agreements should normally be binding on both parties.

I hope my noble friend will take into account two points. First, does he accept that in the area covered by the Bridlington agreement there is a point of genuine difficulty —and continuing potential difficulty —in British industrial relations? While I believe that the days of the Bridlington agreement are properly over and done with, I doubt whether it would be wise to leave a complete vacuum in the area of multi-union problems. That matter will need a lot of careful thought.

Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, referred to employees' rights. While I do not agree with many of the comments the noble Baroness made, 1 believe that we need to look carefully at employees' rights. Many people agreed that the Industrial Relations Act 1971—despite the furore that many of its measures caused—contained some important provisions regarding the rights of employees. Those provisions have never been put back on the statute book since that Act was repealed by the incoming Labour government. I believe that a Conservative government would be well advised to look carefully at some of those employees' rights and to consider their reintroduction.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend for welcoming our proposals, which he called further improvements. He also mentioned that we should consider carefully the legally binding agreements, and that is what the consultation paper does.

This is a consultative document and we need to consult carefully. However, the Bridlington principles do not affect any recognition agreements which a company might have with a particular union. The proposals relate more to the freedom of the individual to join the union which he believes would put forward his own principles. Modern union members do not necessarily look to their unions for collective agreements; they look to them for advice in many other fields, including pensions.

Lord Scanlon

My Lords, without having had the opportunity to study the Statement it is very difficult to go into much detail. However, I should like to comment on three main points. The first is the misnomer of giving the unions back to the members. That has to be analysed. It is a presumption to suppose that they have ever left the members. It is an even greater presumption for any government to believe that they own the property to give back.

I would argue most strongly that anything which needs to be remedied should be remedied within the trade union movement and not by legislation. One can argue that there is a degree of hypocrisy—I hesitate to use the word, but will—in talking of giving the unions back to the members. What is really meant is crippling the trade union movement so that it is no longer capable of fulfilling its major function. One kills it, first, by surrounding it by a legalistic minefield and, secondly, by pursuing policies of unemployment which make it even more difficult for unions to operate.

I also question the matter of the Bridlington agreement. Do we really know what the Bridlington agreement meant? Here I disagree with many of the remarks that have been made about it. One of the ideals which has been held up for Britain to emulate is the structure of the German trade union movement. It has been pointed out that it takes 17 unions to build a ship in Britain and 12 unions to build a motor car in Britain while both of those commodities are produced in Germany by one union only. We are now to bring in legislation which will permit any individual to join any union of his choice. That will permit someone to go into an engineering workshop and say that he wants to join the union for the suppression of solo violinists and he will have the right to do so. It is inconceivable.

I repeat that the time for detailed examination of the document will come when the matter again comes before this House. Be assured that there will be opposition to the proposals.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scanlon, has perhaps overlooked the fact that members pay their subscriptions to the unions. Why should they not have the opportunity to see how their money is being spent and whether it is being spent correctly? The unions have had many opportunities to put their house in order in the past but they have not done so; or perhaps the noble Lord thought that the situation which existed in 1979 was the correct position. We think not.

Regarding the Bridlington principles, I believe that the noble Lord misunderstands what the Government are trying to do. The Government are suggesting that union members should be able to choose from unions which represent their skills; that would not include the union for the suppression of solo violinists if an applicant is a boilermaker. That is not what we are doing. It would be the unions which represent his skills.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, perhaps I may ask these question interrogatively. First, in any questions which arise under the Government proposals, if they go to court to what extent will legal aid be available to the parties? Secondly, as regards the remedies available to a member of the public in respect of unlawful strikes in the public sector, I understood my noble friend to mention injunctions but I did not hear him say anything about compensation or damages. Was that intentional or am I mistaken in my understanding?

Regarding the validity of collective agreements, those which are now in existence were formulated under the presumption that they were not intended to have legal consequences. What is intended as a matter of transition? New agreements will have legal consequences by presumption. What will happen to the old ones? Will the presumption be imported retrospectively? What will be the position?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, my noble and learned friend asked me three questions. The first concerned legal aid. I am advised that legal aid is not available in tribunals. In other respects the provision for legal aid would be as normal for civil law cases. For unlawful unofficial industrial action the remedy available to members of the public would be to obtain an injunction for the unlawful act to stop. That is what he is interested in. At present there is no intention that damages would be awarded in that case. The view of members of the public is that the action should stop.

Turning to legally binding agreements, whereas the presumption is that they would be legally binding, in order to overcome that there would have to be a provision which would make them not legally binding. The proposals would apply to new agreements and not to existing agreements.