HL Deb 18 April 2002 vol 633 cc1147-63

7.44 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to contain disruption to public services.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question raises the general case as to whether any action should be taken and, if so, what action? Should it take place before or after the general election? It is an essentially political decision that is worthy of your Lordships' attention. As I have no other opportunity in this dinner-hour debate, I want to thank the distinguished noble Lords from all parties who have attended this exploratory debate. We will discuss the matter, but we will not divide, and we may change some of our opinions.

Should an effective framework of law be introduced to contain disproportionate disruption of our public services by collective industrial action carried out at the behest of trade unions? That would be the last putative step to be taken in the step-by-step approach adopted by my noble friend Lady Thatcher. It was never taken—rightly, if I may say so in the presence of my noble friend Lord Tebbit. Some 20 years ago, when my noble friend was Secretary of State, it was his opinion that there was no need to take it. I agree that that was right at the time. However, the situation today more or less demands consideration of the question whether the symbiotic relationship between the trade unions and a Labour Government should continue to erode the entitlement of any government to govern under due parliamentary process. Should some framework of law be introduced to meet the concerns of the vast majority of Her Majesty's subjects, many of whom no longer bother to vote?

The Public Services (Disruption) Bill was given its First Reading last Tuesday. It is a tentative proposal for a resolution of the issue. I make it plain that the purpose of this debate is not to pre-empt critical examination of that Bill on its passage through your Lordships' House. We are concerned with the essence of the question, which is whether there is a general case for the introduction of a new framework of law, in whatever form your Lordships may think tit. That is the scope of the debate: it is not limited to my Bill.

The proposals set out in the Green Paper—Command Paper 3470—in November 1996, when there was disruption to the Royal Mail and the London Underground, were strongly opposed by Labour. The way in which they were opposed is irrelevant: the fact is that they were. On 3rd July, after a change of government, when there was disruption again—this time to British Airways and Connex —the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said at the Dispatch Box: The Government see no justification for adding to the existing controls on industrial action".—[Official Report,317197: col. 302.] However, in 2002, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both said that some such action should be taken; hut, as yet, they have not said what that action should be.

The scenario today is that we have to suffer disruption of our public services, and the continuing threat of such disruption, at the behest of trade unions that oppose government policy on public services reforms. For example, the General Secretary of the General and Municipal Workers—the GMB—threatened to withdraw union support for Labour council candidates due to the proposed private finance initiative in hospitals.

Many trade unions have also run media campaigns to oppose public service reforms. UNISON has spent money on an advertising campaign for cinemas, with the message that 83 per cent of the public do not want private companies to run public services". Unions have threatened to withdraw financial support for the Labour Party; for example, last year, UNISON threatened to withdraw its £1.3 million funding. In May 2001, the Fire Brigades Union voted to allow the union to fund organisations and candidates opposing Labour.

There has also been the threat of strike action over proposed job cuts at Consignia. Reports have suggested that militant elements within the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—the RMT—are attempting to use industrial action to force re-nationalisation of the rail system. The TUC conference, individual union conferences, and the Labour Party conferences put across their opposit on and reservations over public services reforms. The GMB, UNISON and TUC websites set out how and why the unions are opposing reform of the public services if it involves the introduction of private services.

In the main, the contest now is between government and the unions. It is a political contest that has little to do with what is ordinarily understood as a trade dispute, as defined by statute. The main areas of disruption in public services—utilities, transport and communications, including public administration, health, electricity, gas, water, post and telecommunications—taken as a percentage of all working days lost from the period 1971 to 1976, which my noble friend Lord Tebbit will all too well remember, averaged out at about 10 per cent to 12 per cent: from 1987 to 1995 the figure was about 65 per cent. Those are Board of Trade figures that feature on page 4 of the 1996 Green Paper.

I turn to figures for 1994–2000 from the Office for National Statistics—papers that are in the Library of the House—which were taken on a different basis. It is difficult to assimilate both; indeed, one can draw only a broad picture. According to those figures, on a total of 1,303,000 lost days in 1996, 874,000 were attributed to transport, storage and communications; 158,000 days were lost in public administration and defence; 120,000 were lost in education; and 8,000 were lost in the health and social work fields.

The figures regarding days lost for the year 2000 show that, from a total of 499,000, 97,000—again, the lion's share—related to transport, storage and communications; 50,000 days were lost in public administration; 50,000 also in the education field; and, in the health and social work sector, 122,000 days were lost compared with 8,000 in 1996. In my Question for Written Answer tabled on 10th of this month, the percentage is sought for transport, post services and telecommunications, which are the main ingredients of disruption. I make no complaint that such figures have not yet been provided.

However, using a broad brush, is it not wholly apparent to your Lordships that this presentation affords cogent support for the general case that some steps must be taken to contain disruption in the public services? It is right also in this context to acknowledge again, as I have acknowledged previously, that both right honourable gentlemen—the Prime Minister and the Leader of my party—agree that something must be done.

In conclusion, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that, on last St Valentine's Day, The Times leader told its readers that cuckoos had now returned to the crows nests of the trade unions whose members are employed in the public services: and said that something must now be done to contain disruption—the subject matter of this Question. My Lords, what shall now be done?

7.57 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for intervening at this point. Although I put down my name to speak in this debate—as I thought, through the usual channels—it does not appear on the speakers' list. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for giving way.

As noble Lords will know, this is a subject in which I have some interest. My mind is taken back to 1983 when the then Cabinet pressed me to do something about strikes in the essential services. Your Lordships will recollect that we had just experienced an extremely difficult and damaging strike in the water industry. There was grave public concern at the time. I remember slightly shocking my colleagues by saying that I was against taking any measures specific to the essential, or public, services. I was against creating two categories of workers, except in the most clearly defined and limited manner; that is to say, the armed services and the police, some of whom would have the right to take industrial action but some of whom would have that right restricted in some way.

It seemed to me then—and that is still the case now—that to deny a worker the right to withdraw his labour simply because he is employed by, say, a water company, as opposed to a retailer, would have to be balanced by some quid pro quo, such as binding arbitration in the case of trade disputes. That I did not welcome.

Furthermore, I shuddered at the task of legislating to define an essential service. It would probably be even more complex today. And some public services are not essential—at any rate, not in the short term. For example, about 20 years ago I guessed that Royal Mail would have been seen as essential and that telecoms probably would not. I believe that today we would take precisely the opposite point of view. Would railways now be regarded as essential? Our recent experience has been such as to persuade us that railways are not essential—we have been managing almost without them for some time. Moreover, are they a public service or are they an essential service? What about the employees of subcontractors to water or power companies or the railways? The questions appear to me to be endless and the ethics dubious of legislating in that area.

My argument was that if I got my legislation right, it would work in the essential and the public services just as well as in the non-essential services. And so it did. Across the board, the insane industrial disruption which had tipped both the Callaghan and Heath governments out of office subsided and this kingdom became a paragon of good industrial relations.

However, my noble friend Lord Campbell is right to express concern at the deterioration in industrial relations in what are not so much the essential services as the quasi-public sector and the public sector and the regulated sectors. What is more, the contagion which we see in those sectors is likely to spread to the mainstream private sector in a mirror image of what happened in the spread of peaceful industrial relations in the 1980s.

However, if I was right 20 years ago—and events would suggest that I was—what has changed now to bring about the deteriorating tendency in the past few years to which my noble friend Lord Campbell referred? Certainly public sector unions are today in an ugly mood. They have been paying their subscriptions to the Labour Party, just like the Hindujas, Mr Mittal, Mr Ecclestone and the chap who is the proprietor of some firm which makes vaccines against smallpox. They expected the same kind of favours that all those gentlemen received for their money. To be fair, they have not had them and they are disgruntled. And I am not sure that I would blame them.

However, that cannot be the whole story. Union leaders were, after all, far from gruntled when I was Secretary of State, but despite that industrial relations improved. The fact is that although my legislation has not been repealed or openly amended, and nor has that of my successors, it has all been severely undermined by human rights legislation and employment protection legislation conceived in Brussels. Although it has not been tested in the courts, there is a consensus among lawyers in the field that the provisions I made—for example, to allow those breaking their contracts of employment by striking to be dismissed and for an employer then to recruit new labour or selectively to re-employ strikers—would now fall foul of European law.

My conclusion, therefore, is that we do not need to enact any new provisions. If we want to restore the good relations of the 1980s and 1990s, two things are necessary: first, that new Labour should not revert to old Labour by doing favours to its trades union financiers secondly, that human rights legislation and the employment protection legislation of recent years, which has undermined the legislation of the 1980s that made Britain a country of excellent labour relations, should now be repealed. In my view, it is far better that we should deal with the causes of the problem of the deteriorating industrial relations in the public sector and in the essential services than that we should now legislate any complex laws to make fish and fowl of workers according to the nature of their work.

Lord Grocott

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that the debate is limited to one hour. I am sure that we will move on as quickly as we can.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, I hope that it is in order for me to speak for a couple of minutes in the gap. I do so in the light of the way in which the previous two speeches have gone. I remember the circumstances of the Green Paper issued by the Conservative government in 1996. Indeed, I remember it rather well. At that time, polling was carried out on how people saw the proposals in the Green Paper which were, inter alia, to give the government the right, with proportionality, to take action against strikes in certain industries.

The question was put by a polling organisation in the autumn of 1996: What do you think is the biggest problem facing public services?". It became obvious that funding was the overwhelming problem, with workers going on strike polling only 7 per cent of the votes. People were asked: Do you think that the government has brought these proposals forward at this time because there is a growing problem of public sector strikes or because there is an election coming up?". Fourteen per cent of voters said that it was due to public sector strikes and 79 per cent said that it was because there was an election coming up. Among Conservative voters, 26 per cent said that it was because of a growing problem of public sector strikes and 63 per cent said that it was because an election was coming up.

People were then asked: Would these proposals make you more or less likely to vote Conservative at the next election?". Four per cent said more likely, 20 per cent said less likely and 74 per cent said that it would make no difference. We therefore did not hear much more of those proposals.

Of course we hear the continuous chatter about trade unions and the Labour Party. During the 20th century, from the Osborne judgment onwards, there have been many opportunities to vary the system. It is not a question of trade unions giving money to the Labour Party—they do not do that. Members of trade unions which have political funds and which are affiliated to the Labour Party, and individuals who are not contracted out, are members of the Labour Party. They pay X as their subscription as members of the Labour Party.

In conclusion, I remind the House and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in particular—I imagine that he will remember it ruefully—that it was thought that it would be wildly unpopular for unions to carry on having political funds and it was made mandatory that they should ballot on whether they would continue to do so. One hundred per cent of the unions with political funds voted to continue with those funds and 17 additional unions voted to have political funds.

It cannot seriously be said that at this time we do not have a more co-operative trade union movement than we had 20 or 30 years ago, a period to which reference has been made. I believe that most people would accept that the degree of co-operation between the trade union movement and the government has improved. Clearly, there is in the minds of some people confusion about the role of the Government as the employer and their role as a government—

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. With the greatest respect, I should make the point that I am not criticising the trade unions. Because the leaders of two political parties, including the noble Lord's own, think that something should be done, I ask only that something should be done. I am not here either to criticise the trade unions or to suppose that the Green Paper proposals are the answer. I have done neither.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, I shall say a few words in the final seconds of my intervention. What is happening at the moment in the debate about the public services is that understandings and negotiations are properly being carried out and concluded between the Government and the unions in the public services concerning the protection of the rights of the workers at the point at which they are transferred from the public service to the private sector, or on the introduction of PFIs and so forth. That is what in the main is happening at present.

8.11 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, this debate has attracted attention as it has gone along. It is as though the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall and Lord Tebbit, were passing an open bar door and said, "Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?". The debate has been the richer for seeing both noble Lords back in the saddle.

I shall try to get us back on tack because we are all eager to listen to the Minister's response to the interesting Question put before the House tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. The noble Lord said in his intervention that he is not attacking the trade unions. I do not wish to tempt a second intervention, but to a certain extent in his presentation, I thought that he almost suggested that the trade unions should not have a campaigning agenda. I see nothing wrong with the trade unions attempting to influence the government of the day through adverts, rallies and so forth. A few years ago I believe that it was Mr Stephen Byers who raised the question whether the direct link between the Labour Party and the trade unions was wholly healthy. As the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, with his usual pugnacity and effectiveness, demonstrated, it remains something that seems strange.

This is a timely debate and one that will focus Parliament and the country much more than perhaps has been the case tonight. There is a feeling that we are entering a rougher industrial relations climate. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, pointed out, rumblings of discontent can be heard throughout the public sector: teachers, the police, railway and Tube staff, health service workers, university teachers and postal workers. Almost every sector mentioned in the Bill introduced a couple of days ago by the noble Lord is expressing some kind of discontent.

Of course, even using the word "discontent" takes me back to an era with which I am very familiar. I worked in Downing Street as a political adviser to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, during the winter of discontent in 1978–79. At that time, the labour movement, both political and trade union, got itself into a most unholy mess. I shall leave it to the judgment of history how we got into that mess, but it is worth recalling some of the clear lessons that came out of it.

First, it cannot be doubted that it is within the power of organised labour to summon the capability to inflict damage, disruption and discomfort on its fellow citizens. If we needed a recent reminder, then the disputes on the railways and the Tube demonstrated that it is possible for industrial action to hurt people who have no relationship whatever with the core dispute. The recent strikes by teachers did not hurt the education authorities. Those affected were working mums who had to make different provision for their children. As I have said, it is the hard-pressed commuter who suffers the pressure in the sandwich of the struggle between the unions and the employers. It was reported in today's Guardian that the Fire Brigades Union is to pull out of a no-strike agreement. Again, that is action which recalls the disputes of almost a quarter of a century ago.

So the lessons of yesterday and today are clear: industrial action by the public sector can and does hit the wider public. But there are other lessons from the past which those who preach the new militancy should put into the equation. The militancy of 1978–79 did not bring about a breakthrough in the pay, status or job security of the workers involved. On the contrary, it produced a government which brought about a major reduction in trade union power—a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—oversaw an increase in unemployment from under 1 million to over 3 million and carried out a massive transfer of employment from the public sector to the private sector. A capacity to hurt does not inevitably lead to an ability to win.

We are told that the new breed of union leaders have risen to the top seeking a pattern of more confrontational industrial relations, particularly in the public services. All one can say in response to such militancy is that the lesson of 1979 is very simple. The public at large are fairly slow to anger and often sympathetic to individual union grievances. But if they see themselves being used as a political football by public service unions, if they see pain and discomfort being used as a weapon in industrial disputes in which they have no part, they will demand action and protection from the government of the day. If the government of the day cannot or will not provide such protection, then the public will replace the government of the day with one willing and able to do so.

I say that as a simple lesson of history which I hope that Tube workers, teachers and others do not have to learn the hard way. That does not mean that the Government should be passive in the face of a changing mood in the public services. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that an holistic approach is needed. It may be that yesterday's Budget proved to be a genuine crossing of the Rubicon in terms of the Government's attitude to public service workers.

Earlier this week, in response to a question from myself, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, gave an assurance that the Government do not work on the basis of public sector bad, private sector good. I am not sure that that has always been made as clear over the past five years. Public servants need to be valued, not only in terms of pay, but also in terms of esteem, in their training and in the career prospects built into their chosen professions. For example, in a recent edition of the Public Service Magazine, an article stated that, the NHS needs to prepare people for leadership roles. Here is where we will build and nurture talent. It may take a bit longer, but over time it will provide the NHS with sustainable solutions". Quite so.

Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, pointed out that if the Post Office had been given the commercial freedom promised in the last Labour manifesto, and if it were properly funded and free of political interference, it would he safe to assume that it would be able to deliver its objectives. Almost every teacher will say that they need the freedom to escape an over-centralised bureaucracy that puts a mountain of form-filling between them and the children they want to teach.

Two years ago, I served on a Select Committee of this House chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley. We looked at the impact of the changes made in the 1980s and 1990s on the public service and public servants. We were amazed but encouraged to find that the commitment and dedication of our public servants, in all sectors, was still in place.

All three of my children go to state schools. For 51 weeks of the year I stand in awe of the dedication of our teachers. The one week of exception is when the National Union of Teachers comes together for its annual conference.

But the public service ethos is still there and needs to be encouraged by the Government as part of the holistic approach that I advocate. We have to restore quality and commitment to our public services. Of course they have to meet tests of efficiency, cost effectiveness and quality of delivery but they have to be convinced that they are not second class or second best services. That is the Government's side of the equation. I have tried to think of a phrase for it. I came up with the idea of a "social contract", but perhaps the Government would not want to go back to that.

There is a quid pro quo between demanding commitment and loyalty from public servants and being able to rely on them not to inflict damage on the wider community. Sometimes we must wonder what a profession such as nursing, which shows tremendous commitment, learns from the fact that its members are left on the pay ladder at a position where they cannot even afford social housing. So there is more to this matter than simply further legislation. It is a matter of providing the resources, training and a career structure to win the confidence of our public servants.

Nevertheless, within that context, one would hope that they will resist the siren voices for the short-term fix of a return to industrial militancy. There have been legitimate frustrations in our public services over the past few years that need to be addressed. Regardless of what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said—although his experience is valid in this regard—there is a case for exploring whether compulsory and binding arbitration, certainly in some industries, is the best way forward.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, the problem with binding arbitration is that if one side does not accept it, it is not binding. You then have to have some further sanction against them—and that is a road down which I would not wish to go.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from experience—experience from which, as he pointed out, the Government have not been hasty to reverse.

It has been demonstrated by the debate that there is an agenda to be discussed. If we can encourage a genuine debate we may be able to head off the solution of the militant quick fix and restore the confidence of our public services and our public servants in the deal that they are given by the community at large.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Before the noble Lord sits down, I go along totally with his concept that there must be mandatory arbitration. That is not something that ought to be discarded.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I certainly do not discard it. I shall be very interested to hear how the Minister's argument develops on this issue. I remember that during the 1980s there were all kinds of pendulum and other arbitration.

The public want to see that the Government are aware that the storm clouds are gathering and that they are not just waiting for the storm to break. They want to see that they are thinking constructively about how we can build a system of industrial relaions within our public services which gives the freedom of trade unions but also recognises the rights of the wider community.

8.24 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Campbell on initiating the debate and thank him for giving us the chance to explore this matter today. It opens up a further and hugely important strand of the ongoing debate about the state of public services, defined recently by Bruce Anderson in the Independent as, the greatest paradox in modern British politics—They spend vast sums of the public's money, yet few of the public feel well served". The fact is that this stands at the very top of the domestic political agenda—notwithstanding hurting or anything odd like that. Indeed, as we all know, public service reform is the platform upon which the Government came into office. The Labour Party manifesto states: Renewal of our public services is at the centre of new Labour's manifesto". Against this background and for the avoidance of doubt, I should make one point abundantly clear at the outset. For our part, we on these Benches believe strongly in the ideals of the NHS and other public services. We are wholly and wholeheartedly committed to them. The public have a right to no less. But, under the current Government, we are lurching ever further away from these ideals. It is evident that over the past five years taxes have gone up and public services have become worse.

That is why my noble friend's debate today is so timely and so valuable. It acknowledges not only that the cycle of decline in public service delivery needs to be addressed urgently but also that its context, the social and political climate in which it finds itself, has changed out of all recognition in recent times. It is this upon which I wish to focus in my remarks.

A measure of this is to be found in an interesting, even refreshing, document published recently by the Government. I am sure the Minister will recall the reply that he gave last month to a Question for Written Answer from his noble friend Lord Tomlinson seeking an outline of the Government's strategy for reform of the public services. The noble Lord's reply referred to the pamphlet, Reforming our Public Services; Principles into Practice, published by the Prime Minister. That document states on page 8: Public services…have to be refocused around the needs of the patients, the pupils, the passengers and the general public rather than the problems of those who provide the services". Hooray to that. On page 11 it suggests: The starting point must be that the public has a right to good quality education, to healthcare, to law and order, to local authority services, to income support, and that it is the duty of the Government to secure these rights on their behalf". Again, hooray—although I express surprise that there is no mention here of a right to, for example, efficient public transport. Moreover, I also express surprise that this is in stark contrast with the Chancellor's obsessive attachment to statist models of public service delivery.

None the less, the relevance of these statements to my noble friend's proposition is profound. As I said, in recent times there has been a sea change both in the public's perception of and policy attitudes towards the public services. As the pamphlet states: Rising living standards, a more diverse society and a steadily stronger consumer culture have increased the demand for good quality schools, hospitals and other public services, and at the same time brought expectations of greater choice, responsiveness, accessibility and flexibility". So we have to be drawn to the inevitable conclusion that it is the Government's wish to deliver customer-focused public services as a direct response to public demand, if not, as it were, an inalienable public right. This is the internal logic of the text of the pamphlet.

But, as the Prime Minister's observations about the "dark forces of conservatism", "the scars on his back" and "wreckers" indicate, there is many a slip twixt cup and lip. It is all very well having the best of intentions but these are utterly worthless if they are not translated into reality. As I said, the reality that the long-suffering public have to live with on a daily basis is that services are deteriorating. On top of this, Gordon Brown is dipping ever deeper into people's pockets, demanding that they pay for the Government's failures in public service delivery.

This is the stark legacy of the current Government after five years in office. As Peter Riddell observed earlier this week in The Times: The Government needs not just to extend patient choice (often limited in practice) but to make a reality of its rhetoric that the system is run in the interests of patients rather than NHS staff"— a remark that could equally well be applied to other public services such as those that are the focus of my noble friend's attention—the transport, post and telecommunication sectors.

As my noble friend Lord Campbell has outlined, these sectors have seen a rising tide of union militancy in recent times. Strike action within Consignia is a running sore accounting for more than half of all the strikes in Britain. As the travelling public know only too well, disruption on the railways has risen over the past few months. The trend line of public service disruption is upwards. But the essential point is that such actions cut across the grain of the Government's aims as stated in the Prime Minister's pamphlet. And yet, as my noble friend Lord Tebbit has illustrated, they are also, at least in part, a direct result of the Government's policies.

It is impossible to say which strand of policy the Government have faith in, to which they are wholly committed. But if the Prime Minister's pamphlet is to be more than just soothing rhetoric, we could presume that the Government are not averse to some sort of measure to constrain the rights of public service workers to take industrial action.

In a nutshell, my noble friend is suggesting a method by which that could be achieved. If I may paraphrase his proposal—I hope accurately—the right to strike of those in the public services in the transport, post and telecommunications sectors should be made subject to adjudication of the High Court as to whether the industrial action envisaged would be excessive or disproportionate as the means to resolve the dispute. For example, there may be a legitimate question to be asked; namely, whether the recent strikes by security workers at Manchester airport can, in the wake of the events of 11th September, be deemed proportionate. It is worth remembering that these strikes have taken place against the background of a serious security breach on 8th February, when fake explosives, detonators and genuine firearms were taken on board a British Airways flight to Gatwick. That begs the question as to whether strike action—whether or not by public service workers—can ever be proportionate if it exposes the public to that level of risk?

The Government maintain that public services should be, shaped around the needs of their customers". In other words, they are increasingly seen to be a legitimate right of the public. Accordingly, it is reasonable to argue that a building-block in securing the climate in which to achieve appropriate reform to this end should be to define in law the relationship between the workforces of the public services concerned and the customers who use them. In this way, the virtue of the Government's stated aim that public services should be made to work more effectively and efficiently to the benefit of their users would be cemented. It would shift the balance away from vested internal interests to the needs of the individual customer.

Here, we should be mindful of a further change in the context in which public services now operate; namely, the Human Rights Act, referred to also by my noble friend Lord Tebbit. If we are to accept, as the Government maintain, that the public have a right to essential services in the transport, post and telecommunications sectors, it is logical that such a right should not be withdrawn "disproportionately" as a result of industrial action. Moreover, if access to services is to be conceived as rights-based, there is logic to the presumption that rulings as to whether disruption to them is disproportionate or excessive should fall under the jurisdiction of the High Court. None the less, my noble friend Lord Tebbit—I bow, as I must, to his expertise in this area—makes a further powerful point. As he suggests, we can speculate as to whether the rights-based culture that has necessarily arisen as a result of the Human Rights Act has made it easier for trade unions to resort to industrial action. Nor should the effect of the Government's blithe acceptance of directives from Europe be underestimated. There is a real sense in which the Government's stated aim is to some degree being undermined by their policy approach in these areas. In reality, as my noble friend Lord Tebbit so astutely points out, there is also the difficulty of potentially creating two classes of workforce.

Viewed realistically, there is no reason why people should not have access to proper delivery of all services, irrespective of whether they are public or private. Indeed, this gets to the heart of the matter. Should not people have access to the same standards of service from the public sector—and by implication a relative freedom from the inconvenience and hardship of disruption—as they have come to experience from the private sector.

Be that as it may, like my noble friend Lord Campbell and the noble Lord, Lord Lea, I acknowledge the antecedents of the proposal. The Green Paper, Industrial Action and Trade Unions,. published in 1996 by my noble friend Lord Lang when he was President of the Board of Trade, postulated various options for change in this area. Drawing from their thrust, my noble friend has drafted but one solution to the problem in his Bill, which we shall no doubt debate in due course.

As I say, the important point is that the context and the public perception of public services have changed markedly over the past five or so years. I merely note in passing that, as cited in the Green Paper, most other countries have provisions in law to restrict strikes in essential services. Recent and increasing experience of hardship and inconvenience by the public in the transport, post and telecommunications sectors implies that there is a burgeoning problem in these services, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out. And of course the problem is exacerbated both by the Government's consistent failure to address the problem of public service delivery adequately and the increasing levels of disruption to which the public are being exposed.

I conclude by returning to the theme enumerated by Peter Riddell earlier this week in The Times. Again, his remarks apply equally to the transport, post and telecommunications sectors as to the NHS. He said: The NHS can also be made more consumer-friendly…That is the heart of the Government's political dilemma. Its emphasis so far has been primarily managerial, on changes such as the new primary care rusts. But this means little to most patients". I make no judgment as to whether the proposition of my noble friend Lord Campbell, or something like it, would be an appropriate step to take towards establishing more "consumer-friendly" public services. But, as I have tried to explain, the context of the problem makes its resolution a matter of urgency. As the Government know only too well—and wholly justifiably—the public's patience is wearing decidedly thin.

So what is really at issue here is whether the Government have the courage of their own convictions—or rather, whether the Prime Minister's or the Chancellor's policy approach is about to hold sway. Will the Government translate the Prime Minister's Office of Public Services Reform pamphlet into reality? Or is the country to be condemned by Gordon Brown to paying through the nose in taxes for ever worse services? On the evidence of yesterday's Budget, I fear that under the current administration the vision of "consumer-friendly" public services is no more than pie in the sky.

8.37 p.m.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston)

My Lords, I am conscious of the time that I have to address the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. He was listened to with great respect, given the way in which he has specialised in industrial relations over the years, and also for the measured way in which he advanced his arguments. I shall not attempt, as he suggests, to pre-empt debate on the details of his Public Services (Disruption) Bill. I merely mention it in passing.

Let us take the issue of strikes first and our approach to the public sector. It is our hope, as I am sure it has been of previous governments, to move forward in partnership with public sector workers—with doctors, nurses, teachers, and the police. We want reform in the public sector; and they tell us that they, too, want reform. We believe that the way to better services is to try to enlist everyone in the pursuit of excellence and to try to move forward in consensus, backed by increased investment.

We have heard a list of the industrial relations problems that might be faced in the near future, but we should also welcome the end to the industrial action in Jobcentre Plus, where there were difficulties over claims regarding staff safety at work in benefit agencies. I hope that those will be resolved in the very near future through patient negotiation. Last week, we heard my noble friend Lord Mackenzie talking about the fears of police officers over their new contracts. He expressed the belief that it would be unthinkable for the police to strike. That view seems to be shared by the great majority of his former colleagues. Progress is being made on the issues in the police dispute through the Police Negotiating Board, and precedent suggests that consensus will be reached. I also welcome the recent decision by head teachers to co-operate with the proposed extension of performance-related pay for teachers.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, mentioned statistics, and the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, talked about trend lines, but I think we should look at the comparisons to see how well we have done in recent times compared with the darker days of the 1970s mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the troubled times of the 1980s experienced by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. The comparisons show that, whereas 1.3 million working days were lost in labour disputes in 1996, in the 12 months to December 2001, the number was reduced to fewer than half a million days lost. Also consider that figure in the context of the 1980s, when an average of 7.2 million days were lost annually in strikes. In contrast, in 1999, only 242,000 working days were lost, the lowest since records began.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, gave a very interesting résumé of his thinking in the 1980s. Although many would think that his cautious approach was uncharacteristic, I thought it was very convincing—although I shall never be convinced by a description of him as "holistic". He rightly drew attention to the problems which could arise in matters such as binding arbitration and the judgments made in trying to define disproportionate action.

As a former trade union shop steward, my mind goes back to some of the lessons we were taught in those days. One of the most striking examples occurred in 1941, when the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, was himself in Colditz. Although it seems almost unimaginable now, there was a very serious strike in the coal mines in 1941, when 4,000 men were idle and an attempt was made to use the law against them. In those terrible times, simply because of the nature of these disputes and the facts of human nature, we ended up with bands marching at the head of striking miners and union officials being put in prison. The officials were rapidly released by the government, who realised that it was all going wrong, but there was an attempt to find enough magistrates to issue warrants against thousands of miners. It was soon realised that they could not put them all in gaol. Ultimately, of the 1,000 men involved, nine unfortunates had to pay their fine and did not receive their money back.

After all that chaos, there was a happy ending when the miners returned to work and coal output trebled. The incident has served ever since as a caution to Ministers and employers to ensure that action is proportionate.

As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, the Labour government of the 1970s also suffered. We remember the farce of the dockers being put into Pentonville prison, only to be sprung very rapidly under the government of Ted Heath and with the intervention of the Official Solicitor once it was realised that the situation could get out of hand. We also remember the 1941 Betteshanger disputes in Kent and the 1970s London dockers disputes.

In the recent fuel protests, when serving as Minister of Transport, I realised that it can be very difficult indeed to take legal action against some activities. Although we have emergency powers legislation which has been invoked perhaps a dozen times, it is not something to which one turns lightly. We rely on the good sense of British workers when they see the precipice looming in many such cases. It is to the trade unions' credit that strike levels have been so low in recent times.

As I said, I do not want to tread too far into the territory covered in the Bill promoted by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. However, as my noble friend Lord Lea said, the 1996 Green Paper attempted to introduce certain proposals which were judged ultimately as much by the public as the trade union movement as confused, unworkable and likely to introduce uncertainty to industrial relations. I believe that even the Institute of Directors was very concerned about the implications of those proposals. It was also judged very difficult to achieve a workable test of proportionality.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I apologise for intervening, but the noble Lord has a few more moments. Could he very kindly say whether he agrees with the Prime Minister that something has to be done to contain disruption in the public services? That is the point of the debate.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, my interpretation of the Prime Minister's comments is that he believes there has to be a better way than going on strike. We are pursuing an approach entailing partnership allied to investment, which we believe is the way forward. It is not a question of ending the right to strike but a matter of trying to end the need to strike.

We believe that the investment we have been making in the public sector has had a profound effect in the labour market. We have achieved the lowest number of people claiming unemployment benefit for more than 25 years. That will of course have a dynamic, knock-on effect in the marketplace when there is a tight labour market and people start flexing their muscles and asking for more money. People in the public sector can see a tight labour market in the private sector. Remarkably, however, 1.5 million more people are employed now than in 1997. That has to have an effect on the way in which people view their salary in relation to others. That is one of the issues that any government must face. It is also one of the problems that comes with our success. However, success for the workers involved has been demonstrated by the fact that pay for good and experienced teachers, for example, has increased by 30 per cent since 1997. The same applies to qualified nurses. The pay of hospital doctors has increased by at least 20 per cent since 1997.

We believe that the trade unions should be reassured both by the assurances we have given them and by other action such as changes to the TUPE regulations, transfer terms and pension rights. As the Prime Minister said, it is investment in return for reform.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, mentioned our pamphlet and our four principles of reform. Had time allowed, I should have liked to go into them more deeply. Nevertheless, the four principles are higher national standards and accountability; greater devolution and delegation to the front line; increased flexibility in the sense of an end to demarcation; and, very importantly, more choice and contestability. So, far from encouraging statist models, we are looking to PPP and PFI partnerships to have increased choice in order to ensure more customer-focused public services.