HL Deb 18 March 1998 vol 587 cc710-2

2.47 p.m.

Lord Islwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have held with the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress on trade union representation at the workplace.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis)

My Lords, the CBI and TUC met the President of the Board of Trade on 9th December to present their joint statement on trade union recognition. The Government have held discussions with both organisations subsequently.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that trade union recognition should be automatic when a majority participating in the ballot are in favour, and that the trade union should then have the right to be consulted on matters which affect the working lives of its members, whether it be pay, working conditions or future job security? Likewise, does my noble friend agree that the trade union should be involved in partnership to raise the training and skill level of the workforce? Finally, does my noble friend agree that there has been a tendency on the part of the CBI to sabotage a clear electoral commitment by the Labour Party?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I do not propose to enter into vituperative allegations about any of the representations that have been made. We are searching for a solution to strongly held views on both sides of the argument. It is important that the manifesto commitment that we made should be clearly understood. People should be free to join or not to join a union. Where they decide to join and a majority of the relevant workforce votes in a ballot for the union to represent them the union should be recognised. I believe that this underlines one of the points that has been made by my noble friend. This promotes stable and orderly industrial relations. There will be full consultation on the most effective means of implementing this proposal. That still stands.

Lord Garel-Jones

My Lords, is it not the case that now the Social Protocol has been elevated to the status of the full Social Chapter under the treaty these matters will be decided in Brussels and not here?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, no. This is a matter which will be decided on the basis of arguments that we are hearing from both sides. At the end of that time, the Government, having sought to reconcile the views—I hope that we shall be successful in doing that—will make their decision.

Lord Rochester

My Lords, I understand that the Minister cannot tell us the Government's decision on this controversial question today, but can he assure us that, as a means of bridging the gap between the views of employers and trade unions that has emerged in discussions, the Government are giving careful consideration to the proposal that a trade union should be recognised where that course is desired by a majority of those voting in the relevant work unit, provided that a minimum percentage of those eligible to vote takes part in the ballot?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, the noble Lord has put his finger on one of the main areas of contention in the respective views that are being put forward. I do not propose to take the argument any further on the Floor of the House this afternoon. We shall announce our decision in due course once all the representations have been heard and we have made our assessment. I can assure the House that a substantial area of full agreement was reached between the parties. There is another area of partial agreement between the parties, and we are left with the residue where insufficient progress has been made. There has been a great advantage in undertaking these discussions to identify, and, in some respects, reconcile competing points of view.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that if the CBI's proposals on workplace recognition were adopted, this country might face some serious industrial unrest? Does he accept that if a trade union were subsequently derecognised because it could not obtain the support of more than 50 per cent. of a company's entire workforce—a virtually impossible task, because those not voting would be counted as voting against—the chances are that that union would immediately ballot its membership in that plant seeking support for industrial action to maintain recognition in those areas of the company's workplace where it already had recognition?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I recognise the strength of my noble friend's views on this matter, but, as I have already said, I am not prepared to come down on one side or the other at this stage. I have reflected the manifesto commitment into which we entered. That is a clear pledge. The whole purpose underlying our approach is to ensure that there is a recognition of the dignity of work and of the people on the workshop floor: that they have an entitlement to a say; in other words, that there should be fairness and equity in the workplace. That is the underlying proposition. I do not want to contemplate the situation where we reach an impasse where industrial lines are taken by both sides, and the draconian consequences spelt out by my noble friend were to take place. That is the very thing that we want to avoid.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the Minister agree that good and successful industrial relations in the workplace—to use the technical jargon—are not dependent exclusively upon the presence and operation of trade unions; and that there are many successful business enterprises in this country that work well and are successful in this area without a trade union presence?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, 88 per cent. of the large enterprises in this country recognise trade unions. That is the appropriate riposte to that question.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, bearing in mind that successive governments of this country have been signatories to the ILO, have the Government sought its advice on this issue?

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, no. It is not appropriate for us to discuss this issue with the ILO, and certainly not at this stage. We are committed to internationally recognised standards at work. That is why we are determined to respect our international obligations at the ILO, which is far more than our predecessors did, and was one of the reasons why we recognise trade union representation at GCHQ.