HL Deb 16 April 2002 vol 633 cc815-7
Lord Vivian

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What rights members of the Armed Forces have under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights to form a trade union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, Article 11 of' the European Convention on Human Rights provides for a right to peaceful assembly and association, including the right to form a trade union. The article allows the position of lawful restrictions on the exercise of those rights by members of the Armed Forces.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his Answer. I understand that Article 10(2) provides an exemption to Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, but only if restrictions on trade union activity by members of the Armed Forces are prescribed by law with sufficient certainty in primary or secondary legislation, so as to give them sufficient clarity as to what they are and are not allowed to do. Where is that legislation laid down?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the law that covers the Armed Forces is to be found in Queen's Regulations. Of course, that is law evolved through the Royal Prerogative rather than statute. The point about Queen's Regulations is that they have power if necessary to control the effect of Article 11, if that is how it is deemed to be used. So in the second part of my Answer, we point to the Queen's Regulations which, as the noble Lord well knows, exist for all three services.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, considering the number of cases at present being brought against the Ministry of Defence, does the Minister agree that the system of redress is not working as well as it should? Perhaps a review of the means of arbitration for members of the Armed Forces should be considered.

Lord Bach

No, my Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord's suggestion. It is well known that any soldier from the least rank can ultimately have his complaint dealt with by the Defence Council, if he is so inclined. That there are sometimes delays, as unfortunately there are in dealing with complaints in many fields, is true, but he has that right. Indeed, the system of complaints in the Armed Forces has been well received, so for once I must disagree with the noble Lord.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, would my noble friend like to take this opportunity to confirm that many members of the Armed Forces are indeed members of trade unions?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can confirm that some are members of trade unions. The Ministry of Defence has agreements with several major trade unions and concessions with professional associations whereby service personnel may be recognised as eligible for membership. That is often regarded as an aid to eventual resettlement into civilian life. Those due to leave the services are encouraged to seek membership of an appropriate organisation. I may say in passing that doctors in the Armed Forces are members of the British Medical Association and some members of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers are also members of the appropriate trade union. That is different from saying that there is a trade union for the Armed Forces.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that this takes us back to my amendment for an opt-out for the Armed Forces? Does he also accept that Queen's Regulations are no answer to the problem posed by the Question and that it will require primary legislation, if that is the Government's wish?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord at my peril, but as I understand it, either primary or secondary legislation would cover the matter.

If I may, I should like to make clear to the House that at present there appears to be no great urge on behalf of those who serve in the Armed Forces to concern themselves with whether they are members of an Armed Forces trade union. At present—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, shares my view on this—the Armed Forces are wrapped up in serious work all over the world, in particular in Afghanistan. It is perhaps more important that we think of them today than that we deal with this issue.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does it not seem a reversal of the usual historic process for members of the Tory party to be advocating people's right to join trade unions? My noble friend is right to be cautious. Nevertheless, given that many of us are concerned about the problems of the Armed Forces and the controversies surrounding their health and welfare, will he reconsider the matter?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that that seems a strange state of mind, but of course every sinner who repents will be well received both by him and by me. I stress again that the complaints and grievances procedure works pretty well. Of course, matters are raised frequently in this House, not least by my noble friend, that are matters of public importance with which the Ministry of Defence is dealing. But on the specific matter raised by the Question, there is at present no great impetus from those who serve in our Armed Forces to take the matter further.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, on a lighter note, if such a trade union were to be formed, can the noble Lord visualise who would be its shop stewards? Some sergeant-majors and drill sergeants would have to undergo considerable change of personality if they were to fill such roles.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I do not know whether I agree with the noble Lord. I am not sure that there are not sergeant-majors and warrant officers who would make superb shop stewards.

Lord McCarthy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a serious issue here about representation? It is not a joke, and it is not answered by saying that there are not many trade unionists in the Army or that there are not many soldiers who want to be a member of a trade union. It is an issue of representation. Are the Government in favour of having a system of representation—not necessarily trade unions—for members of the armed services?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is a serious issue. The Government will treat it accordingly. However, I must point out that there are no provisions in Queen's Regulations that either forbid or expressly permit the formation of a union to represent service personnel. Should a proposal arise from service personnel—that is the relevant point—we would consider it and assess its implications, particularly those relating to operational effectiveness.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that certain of our neighbours in the European Community recognise trade unions? Will he name those countries?

Lord Bach

My Lords, it is true that there are countries in the European Union that do so; the Netherlands and Sweden are frequently mentioned in that regard. It is equally true that there are other countries that do not do so.

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