HL Deb 01 July 1993 vol 547 cc928-30

3.18 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they approve of the practice of employers who pay higher wages and salaries to staff who are not members of trade unions or staff associations.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, we believe that it is an employers' right to decide, in the light of the needs and circumstances of his business, how he wants to negotiate pay settlements with his staff. However, it is, and will remain, unlawful for employers to penalise employees because of their union membership or non-membership.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, is he aware that my Question has the support of Members of Parliament of all parties who are gravely apprehensive? We are just coming out of a great recession and such a practice could do irreparable harm. It is in the Tolpuddle style. It is a threat to freedom of association and might involve bribery and coercion. The Minister's reply is encouraging. If the practice referred to becomes a reality, will he assure us that appropriate action will be taken by the appropriate Minister?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, perhaps I should restate the law. It was never meant to interfere with collective bargaining arrangements. Its purpose is to protect employees from action taken against them as individuals by employers on the grounds of trade union membership or non-membership.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the question of the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, would end in the re-introduction of the closed shop? I was present in Germany and saw the German miracle take place because of the great trade union leader and Foreign Secretary to Mr. Attlee, Ernest Bevin, who abolished the closed shop in Germany, or did not re-introduce it, and made many other trade union reforms such as limiting the number of trade unions to 15. That was the basis of the German miracle.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk. The reforms of the 1980s have helped reduce strikes to record low levels and brought renewed confidence in the United Kingdom economy among overseas visitors. The 0.5 million working days lost in 1992 are the lowest calendar year total ever recorded since records began in 1891. The figure is nearly 25 times lower than the average for the 1970s.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, will the Minister tell his noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, who asked about the closed shop, that this Question has nothing to do with the closed shop but everything to do with trade union representation? Perhaps we may look again at my noble friend's Question in which he refers to staff who are not members of trade unions. He also has in mind those who seek representation by trade unions but who are denied that representation since higher wages and salaries are offered to people who do not seek representation by a trade union. That is the issue at stake here. Perhaps the Minister will reply to that.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, of course the provision that was made with the amendment to the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill is entirely even-handed. It applies equally where an employer takes action following a decision to recognise a particular union.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a place in a free society for freedom under law? Has not every question so far been directed towards substituting politically or morally defensible or desirable behaviour into the legal system, which is a great mistake?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I agree with my noble and learned friend. We must be careful not to put the law into every corner of our lives.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that under the recent legislation a reasonable employer should not offer a douceur to employees who support his decision no longer to recognise a union but withhold it from those who do not?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, in the cases with which we are concerned, which were subject to a Court of Appeal case, employers offered their staff a financial incentive to sign a new contract of employment incorporating different negotiating arrangements. There was no suggestion that individuals should leave their union.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, in an earlier Answer the Minister advised the House of the number of days lost as a result of industrial action compared with the previous period. Can he advise the House how many days' work have effectively been lost by the level of unemployment that exists today compared with the previous period to which he referred?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, how long is a piece of string?

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, in answering the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, I understood the Minister speaking for the Government to say that they were quite happy with the present situation. Would they be just as happy if, for example, a pro-union employer were to discriminate in favour of trade unionists; if he were to give those with collective bargaining rights more money, better conditions and shorter hours? Would the Government then say that that was an attempt to discriminate, short of dismissal, and that it was unlawful?

Viscount Ullswater

No, my Lords. I thought that my Answer agreed with the noble Lord—so long as employers do not discriminate against people who are not union members.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that I agree very much with what the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, said? Like him, I have very little time for closed shops. However, there is nothing in what we request that has anything to do with closed shops. If it had, I would be agin it. What I want is that there will be no unnecessary industrial action taken at this time to frustrate both our Government and our country, and that is the kind of thing that would lead to it. I plead with the Government to think again.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, I believe that the industrial relations climate in this country is very good at the moment and that the records show that that is so. I sought to indicate that to the House. I believe that the amendment moved to the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill merely restates the law as set down by the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, in a speech in this House on 23rd September 1975, at col. 189 of Hansard. He said that Clause 45, now Clause 146 in the consolidated Bill: deals with the individual rights of employees, not collective bargaining issues".