HL Deb 23 February 2005 vol 669 cc1207-9
Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Notwithstanding the preambles and explanations to the European constitution, what consequences the fundamental rights in the constitution, if ratified, will have, directly and indirectly, on the rights of trade unions in the United Kingdom.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, we do not believe that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which forms Part 2 of the EU constitutional treaty, will have any direct or indirect effects on the rights of trade unions in the UK. The charter is a showcase of existing fundamental rights; it does not create any new ones. The charter is addressed to the EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies, with due regard to the principle of subsidiarity and to the member states only when they are implementing European Union law.

The charter does not extend the scope of application of European Union law beyond the existing powers of the European Union, or establish any new power or task for the Union. Nor does it modify powers and tasks defined in other parts of the EU constitutional treaty, which specifically excludes EU action on legislative areas such as pay, the right of association, the right to strike and the right to impose lock-outs.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very clear Answer. In the light of it, will he advise the Trades Union Congress to look carefully at a report given to it last year? It concluded that there is no way of, protecting UK labour laws … from the impact of the fundamental trade union rights guaranteed by the EU Charter". The Government take a different view, as the noble Lord has made abundantly clear, and that view may well be arguable. In view of the importance of this point for British workers and their unions, will the Government consider publishing in the near future a paper with the detailed reasoning on the matter, which has never been fully explained?

Secondly, I assume that I am right to judge that it will not enact domestic labour laws that meet international standards, and that they are still in the posture of my right honourable friend Jack Straw in his pithy remark: We are not going to change Thatcher's laws and we're not going to let Europe change them.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, there is no need for the Government to publish any documents on this. If people read the document and the relevant clauses carefully, it is clear what it says.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the Foreign Minister, who wrote in Le Monde that a "no" vote would be an error for the European Left and a disaster for the trade unions?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, this is not a debate on the European constitution, which we will no doubt cover in great detail. A "no" vote would be disastrous for the whole of this country, including the trade unions.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that as such important bodies as the Trades Union Congress are apparently misunderstanding the sensible provisions that are made in the constitution, the time has now been reached when the Government, who have to win a referendum on this matter, need to get a much greater explanation of their point of view through to public opinion? The time for that publicity campaign, if it was not last week, is certainly now.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I agree that we need to get more people to focus on this legislation and on what it actually says. As people do that, it will become clear what the powers are. Without quoting in detail from the text, a number of articles specifically cover this point, and they make the answer clear.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I remind my noble friend that in the EU unions are generally regarded as social partners. With that recognition goes an acceptance of the need for unions to have basic rights. Does he agree that the constitution will support that point of view?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the constitution is clear, and the role of the social partners at union level is explicitly stated. It is also stated that the unions shall facilitate dialogue between the social partners. The constitution recognises the interests of unions and workers, and it is in their interests to support the constitution.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, have Her Majesty's Government ratified the charter? If they have, roughly, what is the effect on our law?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we are talking here about the constitution, of which the charter is a part. It is clear that we are signing up to the charter as it is set out in the constitution. Clearly, that has many implications; but as regards the subject of this Question, which is trade union rights in the UK, it has little effect.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, will my noble friend note that unions right across Europe have welcomed the Charter of Fundamental Rights? An analogy would be the Highway Code, which is a code rather than the specifics of the law on driving a motorcar. Nevertheless, the philosophy built into the charter protects the workers of Europe against any negative changes and underpins the improvements for part-time workers, fixed-term contract workers, and equal opportunities that we have seen under the Social Chapter in the past 10 years.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I very much agree. The charter showcases the key social and economic principles and rights that the Union's institutions are bound to observe. Again, that is important and is stated very clearly.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, may I give a practical example of where I hope that the new constitution would help workers? At the moment two unions—one that 1 used to lead—are suing my Government because they believe that the Government are in breach of a directive on safeguarding workers' pensions. Will the new constitution help that type of situation?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I think that I am right in saying that already built into the constitution are questions of law that relate to trade union matters. I was simply making the point that the constitutional treaty does not alter that situation. However, provisions have been built into it that are very important for trade unions.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the substantive Question was about the constitution, and the Minister's substantive Answer was about the charter, which he emphasised in his further replies was part of the constitution. Can he explain the relationship between the constitution as a whole and the charter, and assure the House that nothing in other parts of the constitution is of higher authority than the charter? In other words, which comes first?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, my remarks addressed the question of the constitutional treaty—the total treaty—of which the charter is a fundamental part. My Answer related to the whole of the constitutional treaty.

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