HL Deb 13 July 1998 vol 592 cc9-11

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether disproportionate industrial action in the public sector will be proscribed as unlawful unless submitted to mandatory arbitration with binding effect.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, the Government see no justification for adding to the existing controls on industrial action.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Do the Government not believe that it is high time some steps were taken to deal with the sporadic and persistent strikes on the London Underground, which are disproportionate and which cause excessive damage and disturbance? Can he recall that when in opposition his party rejected every proposal in the Green Paper, No. 3470, to deal with such strikes in public sector services but that his right honourable friend, now the Prime Minister, then appeared to favour some form of mandatory arbitration?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I shall not comment on an industrial dispute which is taking place at present. The United Kingdom has some of the tightest controls on industrial action. Some groups such as the police and prison officers are prohibited from taking action and secondary action is banned. It would be unnecessary and unfair and almost certainly contrary to our undertakings under the ILO, of which we are members, to increase restrictions on industrial action.

As regards the Green Paper referred to by the noble Lord, yes, that was published in November 1996. I seem to remember that almost everyone felt that its recommendations were both unnecessary and undemocratic. In particular, the CBI and the Institute of Directors felt that way.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the term "disproportionate industrial action" could be used to describe any form of industrial action? Secondly, does he agree that employers, as much as trade unions, are reluctant to be subjected to compulsory or mandatory arbitration? Finally, will he confirm that trade unions are still subjected to industrial action ballots which were introduced by the government supported by noble Lords opposite?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I can confirm that trade unions are subjected to industrial ballots introduced by the previous government. I confirm also that this Government have no intention of changing that at this time. As regards my noble friend's other question, we certainly encourage employers and employees to make greater use of conciliation and arbitration, pay review bodies and early recourse to ACAS.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, following that question and answer, will the Government actively encourage employers and trade unions to reach voluntary no-strike agreements with a commitment to arbitration if a dispute cannot otherwise be settled?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, certainly it is the Government's view, that employers, employees and trade unions should reach voluntary arrangements. If they believe that no-strike agreements are right for them, then the Government are quite satisfied with that. But it is not for the Government to say what those arrangements should be.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no need for any imposition of statutory binding arbitration agreements because the trade union movement would like to return to the situation which existed in 1979, before the previous government abolished voluntary arbitration agreements? Would it not be a good idea if the present Government were to reintroduce them, particularly in the public sector?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, certainly in 1979 arrangements were in force in relation to arbitration. I believe that they were called ex parte agreements where one side or the other could insist on arbitration. However, those agreements have ceased since privatisation. As regards my noble friend's last recommendation, I repeat that it is a matter for the employer and employee. It is not for the Government to say what those arrangements should be.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, from a wealth of practical experience, makes a lot of sense and that his proposals warrant serious consideration? Is the noble Lord also aware that he did not answer my first Question, did not answer either of my supplementary questions, and that it is virtually a waste of time asking some questions in your Lordships' House?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, certainly my noble friend Lord McCarthy speaks sense and I know that he is highly regarded in the Labour Party. I am sorry that the noble Lord feels that my responses to his questions were unsatisfactory. I have tried to respond in a practical manner as far as the circumstances will allow.

Earl Russell

My Lords, as I am a member of the Association of University Teachers, I must declare an interest in this Question. Is the Minister aware that in the case of many trade unions, certainly my own, we have no objection to the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway? The objection comes entirely from H.M. Treasury.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that observation.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, if the Minister thinks so highly of the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, do I take it that he considers that industrial relations in the winter of 1978–79 were perfect?

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I certainly do not consider them perfect. However, at present the industrial relations situation is very good. We have the lowest number of days lost due to strikes since 1891.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, does the noble Lord understand that his tribute to the legislation of the previous government is extremely welcome? Also, I offer him a word of congratulation on the answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, although it was a disappointing answer for the noble Lord.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments.

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