HL Deb 13 July 1995 vol 565 cc1939-42

10.6 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th June be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, a draft of which was laid before your Lordships on 20th June 1995 be approved. The purpose of the order is to bring Northern Ireland trade union law into line, and up to date, with that existing in Great Britain.

The draft order represents the second stage in the Government's step-by-step approach to aligning all Northern Ireland industrial relations legislation with that in Great Britain. In October 1993, the Industrial Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 brought the law on individual employee rights (unfair dismissal, maternity, redundancy and so forth) completely into line with that in Great Britain. The order before your Lordships today completes that programme by replicating for Northern Ireland, trade union law enacted in the rest of Great Britain since 1990, thereby providing a uniform system throughout the United Kingdom.

Your Lordships will appreciate that the legal and administrative framework for industrial relations in Northern Ireland is separate from that in Great Britain, but generally the legislation follows that in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, Northern Ireland trade union law currently reflects only the position in Great Britain prior to the enactment of the Employment Act 1990. Simple amendment of the existing Northern Ireland law within the confines of the 1992 order would have made it extremely difficult to ensure that the Northern Ireland legislation had achieved the same legal effect as in Great Britain.

It has therefore been decided to repeal and re-enact, with amendment, the greater part of the 1992 order in the order now before your Lordships. At the same time the opportunity has been taken to adopt the Great Britain structure and terminology in the draft order to make it more user friendly and, by aligning it directly with the 1992 Act, facilitate the use of Great Britain text books, journals and commentaries to the benefit of practitioners, industrial tribunals and other users, including employees. The close correlation between the law in the two jurisdictions will make for easier future amendment or consolidation.

The proposal for this order was published in December 1994 and a wide range of interested parties were invited to comment. Some 130 individuals and organisations received copies of the order and the explanatory document. Of the 12 who commented, five welcomed the order, four objected and three raised only minor technical points. Having considered the various representations made, the Government re-affirm their policy that there should be parity between the law in Northern Ireland and Great Britain unless there are compelling local reasons for a departure from the Great Britain position. The draft order, with one particular difference to which I shall return later, has that effect.

The key new provisions in the order before your Lordships extend democracy and accountability in trade union affairs and give union members new rights in relation to ballots, including independent scrutiny. Unions are made more accountable for their financial affairs and held responsible in law for the acts of their officials. Employers are given protection against precipitate industrial action and a new citizen's right is introduced to enable individuals to bring proceedings to halt unlawful organisation of industrial action.

The main aim of these provisions is to increase the rights of individual trade union members, so that they have a proper and effective voice in the affairs of their union, and of individuals who might fall victim of unlawful industrial action. All of these provisions already operate in the rest of the United Kingdom.

But I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the one significant difference from the law in Great Britain. The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 gave individuals in Great Britain a new statutory right not to be unreasonably expelled or excluded from a union of their choice. Following representations from the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, it was decided that, in the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, the statutory right for individuals in Great Britain to belong to the union of their choice should not be enacted in Northern Ireland. Ministers found the arguments persuasive and were prepared to make this change in view of the committee's experience of 25 years of sustained and courageous effort by the unions to combat discrimination and sectarianism and maintain peace in the workplace. That is a role the unions in Northern Ireland have played so tremendously well.

The establishment of a local appeals tribunal was the subject of much correspondence during the consultation. However, the present order is not a suitable vehicle for such a change and it would be inappropriate to deal in isolation with the arguments for and against an employment appeal tribunal at a time when the whole industrial tribunal system is under review. The review will present opportunities for further consideration of the subject.

This is a long and complex order, but, as I have indicated, some two-thirds of the order consists of re-enactment and modernisation of existing law and only one-third consists of new provisions. All the provisions apply in the rest of the United Kingdom and are familiar to employers and trade unions in Northern Ireland, particularly since almost 80 per cent. of Northern Ireland trade union members belong to Great Britain unions. This order will give Northern Ireland workers the rights and privileges already enjoyed by their counterparts in Great Britain. The fact that it will bring uniformity to trade union law throughout the United Kingdom is of benefit to unions and employers operating in Northern Ireland and will help in encouraging inward investment. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 20th June be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Fitt

My Lords, the noble Baroness has answered many of the questions that I had intended to ask. The most important concerns the difference between trade unions in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom because of the existence of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Was there any difficulty in finding agreement? Many of the trade unions in Northern Ireland cross the Border.

Before I sit down I want to congratulate the Minister. Many new phrases and words have been brought into being and coined because of the circumstances in Northern Ireland. I see that she has found another one and she can take credit for it. This is the first time I have ever heard of "agentisation". She can take credit for introducing that word into the Northern Ireland vocabulary.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction of the order and for the opportunity to reiterate what she said—so many people who have contributed to trade unions in Northern Ireland have done so much in the struggle against sectarianism.

Some of the articles are curious. They may well be part of general law in this country but that does not excuse their oddity. Why is a direct debit equivalent for the payment of union subscriptions limited to three years only? My subscription to my trade union—the Bar Council—goes on forever, or until death, whichever comes first. On an occasion as solemn as this I must not intrude into private grief, but I believe that even the dwindling number of Conservative Party supporters who pay subscriptions by direct debit are able to subscribe, if they wish, however misguided they may be, for a period of longer than three years. Why does the protection of the law after a strike ballot last for only four weeks? Many people who are concerned with union negotiations feel that that is rather too tight a timetable.

I entirely agree with the Minister when she said that one wants to develop, assist and support democracy in unions with every possible mechanism available. Therefore, why does Article 140 take away financial state assistance for unions to have ballots and even the obligation on an employer to make premises available for such a ballot? It seems to me quite nonsensical to want internal union democracy and to take away two of the means for bringing that about. The Minister has dealt with the question of VAT. Is it not the case that the CBI and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions both support an employment appeal tribunal in Northern Ireland?

My final question to the Minister is this: why is it that the right to belong to the union of one's choice is not allowed in this legislative scheme? I am conscious of the fact that I have bowled a fair number of questions and that I have not had my usual opportunity to give full notice of them to the Minister. At this time of night and in the spirit of harmony in which we always operate, I am perfectly content if the noble Baroness feels it to be more useful and efficient to write to me rather than to reply to the questions of which I did not give her full notice.

I should have said that my noble friend Lord Fitt and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, in one case were short and in the other, silent, because they both have serious difficulties about transport owing, I believe, to an incident of government policy to do with the conduct of the railways.

10.16 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I take the message about it being appropriate this evening to respond promptly, although British Rail and the unions negotiate their own settlements or problems. I say quickly to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that the problems resulting from cross-Border activities were discussed with the Northern Ireland Committee. As I have said, the one area where there may have been a problem has been taken out.

I also disclaim credit for the word "agentisation": I simply read it out. I had never expected to sit here and hear the Bar Council put forward as the leading trade union in the country—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is very effective.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I suspect that it is indeed very effective. I also suspect that there are many of my gender who would argue with that. I shall write to the noble Lord. Most of the questions he raised were raised by the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen in the other place. There are answers. I fully appreciate the difficulties that may affect people in getting home. I also appreciate the problems which the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, has. Lady Fitt is not in the best of health and I wish her a speedy recovery. With the great affection which this House has for Northern Ireland, I commend this order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes past ten o'clock.