§ ".—(1) The requirements which are to be satisfied for the purposes of Part I of the 1984 Act (elections for certain positions) shall, in relation to any election held after the coming into force of this section, include the requirements of subsection (2) below.
§ (2) The trade union in question must—
- (a) subject to subsection (3) below, provide every candidate in the election with an opportunity of preparing an election address in his own words and of submitting it to the union to be distributed to the persons who are accorded entitlement to vote in the election;
- (b) so far as reasonably practicable, secure that copies of every election address submitted to the union before such time as it may have determined are distributed by the sending of a copy of each such address, with the voting paper for the election, by post to each of those persons at his proper address;
- (c) make such arrangements for the production of the copies to be so distributed as secure that none of the candidates is required to bear any of the expense of producing those copies;
- (d) secure that no modification of any election address so submitted is made by any person in any copy of the address to be distributed except, subject to paragraphs (e) and (f) below, at the request or with the consent of the candidate or where the modification is necessarily incidental to the method adopted for producing that copy;
- (e) secure that the same method of producing copies is applied in the same way to every election address so submitted and, so far as reasonably practicable, that no such facility or information as would enable a candidate to gain any benefit from—
- (i) the method by which copies of the election addresses are produced; or
- (ii) the modifications which are necessarily incidental to that method, is provided to any candidate without being provided equally to all the others; and
- (f) so far as reasonably practicable, secure that the same facilities and restrictions with respect to the preparation, submission, length or modification of an election address and with respect to the incorporation in any such address of a photograph or of any other matter not in words are provided or applied equally to each of the candidates.
§ (3) Subject to subsection (2)(f) above, a trade union may for the purposes of this section provide that election addresses submitted to it for distribution—
- (a) must not exceed such length, not being less than one hundred words, as may be determined by the union; and
- (b) may incorporate only such photographs and other matter not in words as the union may determine.
§ (4) A time determined for the purposes of subsection (2) above as the time by which election addresses for an election must be submitted to the union shall be no earlier than the latest time at which a person may become a candidate in that election.
§ (5) No person other than the candidate himself shall be subject to any civil or criminal liability in respect of any publication of a candidate's election address, or of any copy of such an address, which is required to be made for the purposes of this section.
§ (6) In this section 'post' and 'proper address' have the same meanings as in Part I of the 1984 Act."257
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this we may take amendment (a) to the Lords amendment; and Lords amendments Nos. 21, 41, 44 to 48, 50 and 51.
§ Mr. Cope
These are significant amendments which have been discussed in Committee as well as in another place. Those who have followed our debates will know that they enact proposals originally made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), whom I am glad to see with us this evening. There was and is considerable support for the measure both before and after my hon. Friend introduced his amendment.
The purpose is to provide for a candidate in a union election to have an election address sent round by the union explaining his stance so that the individual union members can make up their minds, on the basis of information, whom to vote for in the various elections. There was considerable support for early-day motion 270. There was also support in another place for amendments put down by Liberal and Cross-Bench Members. Even the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), while not supporting what we proposed, at least agreed that in principle it was highly desirable that any person voting in an election should have some knowledge of the candidates for whom he was voting.
The essence of the proposal is to give candidates the right to prepare, and have sent with the voting paper, an election address. The unions are left free to determine many of the issues, but some minimum requirements are laid down. The union, for example, cannot edit the election addresses unless the candidate expressly gives permission. Nor can it impose a requirement that they be less than 100 words. Many unions already distribute election addresses, and many permit a higher number of words. It does not mean that the candidate is obliged to use all the 100 words, but that is the minimum that the union is allowed to permit him. Another important aspect is that the candidates must be treated equally by the unions in the rules that they make for them. I am sure that everyone would agree with that.
The issue of liability if a candidate's election address contains inaccurate or libellous statements is important. We are anxious to make it clear that the content of the address is the responsibility of the candidate and not that of the union that distributes it, or those who print it on the union's behalf. The candidate must be responsible at law for what he says, and the clause provides for that and gives protection to the union against actions that might otherwise arise from statements in the address that might prove to be libellous or give rise to a court action.
The rules that we have provided for those election addresses to be prepared and sent out will be fair to the candidates and will assist union members in deciding which way to vote. I confirm that unions will be able to apply for a refund of the cost of election addresses sent out with the ballot papers under the existing trade union ballot funding scheme.
I commend the amendment to the House.
§ Mr. Strang
The Minister referred to our discussion in Committee. He will appreciate that, although we consider many things to be desirable about the activities of trade unions, we respect the right of trade unions to have their own rules. The point was made quite effectively in the 258 other place that, by stipulating these matters in legislation and laying down provisions by law, sometimes in contradiction of the trade union rule book, one would encourage trade union members to have less respect for their own trade union rule books.
We consider that the democratic history and evolution of individual trade unions is such that they have developed rules that satisfy the particular circumstances of the members of that union, depending on the industry in which they are involved. Therefore, it is quite wrong for the Government to make impositions or to turn practices into law. I consider that it would have been better to put some of the detailed points into a code of practice.
As the Minister has explained, Lords amendment No. 18 relates specifically to the election address. I am grateful to him for saying that the cost of election addresses can be claimed by unions if it is their policy to seek Government funding for such activities. The majority of trade unions issue election addresses, some of them longer than 150 words, but the amendment does not seem to constitute any problem in that respect.
I shall make one point about liability for the content of election addresses. I was pleased that the Minister explained that the intention was that the individual candidate would be liable for any libel in the election address. It seemed to us that it was wrong that the author of a libel might be immune in law from prosecution. Our amendment deletes the stipulation in the Bill that only the candidate is liable to any civil or criminal action due to the content of the election address. We certainly do not want the trade union to be liable. However, if some slander were incorporated in an election address, the author or originator of that slander should not go free.
We certainly shall not make a meal of this, and we shall not divide the House. We do not regard the amendment as important, and we shall not oppose the Lords amendment. I simply make the point that it is not really appropriate for the Government to prescribe this by statute.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
I support the amendment and I thank the Minister for honouring his commitment. He gave a fairly clear commitment in Committee that he would examine the principle of giving trade union members a greater degree of information about what each candidate in union elections was representing. I am most grateful to him for having moved such an amendment in the other place.
The new clause is probably an improvement on the new clause that I tabled in Committee. I recall that my hon. Friend raised many of the problems relating to libel, so I am pleased that those problems have been overcome with three and a half lines in subsection (5) of the new clause. I am pleased that we have been able to overcome the practical problems.
The clause clearly outlines trade unions' responsibilities. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), I welcome the fact that unions will not have to bear any of the cost of the improvements to the process of electing their officials. If, as it is so often said, the Conservative party wanted to bash trade unions, the easiest thing would have been to make them liable for the costs and make them pick up the bill. We do not want to do that. We want to improve the electoral process. We have done that and we have ensured that it will not cost the unions a penny.
259 I shall briefly examine the attitude of the Opposition, as I did in Committee. We understand that they believe that trade unions should be left to run their own affairs. That is understandable, but the Conservative party does not agree with that view. As we all know, trade union officials have to be elected by the membership. It was interesting that in Committee the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East welcomed the principle of the amendment that trade union members should have more information. I found it sad and a little revealing that other members of the Committee, including the hon. Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes)—who had a bit of fun at the end of that day in Committee—were much more hostile to the idea of giving trade union members more information about candidates.
I welcome the fact that, today, the Opposition spokesman has given the amendment a grudging welcome. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for having taken this point on board. Ultimately, we are ensuring that trade union members are given the maximum possible information so that they can make the best and most informed choice in the election of their principal officers. I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the amendment in the other place.
§ Mr. Clelland
I had not intended to speak in the debate, but the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has provoked me into doing so. I, too, believe that trade union members ought to have the maximum information about the people whom they are to elect. That is quite right and no one would argue with it. However, we continue to argue that free and independent organisations should be able to make such decisions for themselves, which should not necessarily have to be written down in statute. Indeed, numerous organisations throughout the country hold elections for officials, but only trade unions have been singled out for such treatment.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that those who might be considered to be more significant representatives of the public do not have that obligation. Members of Parliament are not obliged to put out election propaganda or information. They are not even obliged to tell the electorate which political party, if any, they represent.
§ Mr. Riddick
I understand that no candidate is obliged to send out information. The amendment simply gives candidates the opportunity to do so by compelling trade unions to give candidates that opportunity if the candidate so wishes. There is no compulsion on the candidate.
§ Mr. Clelland
There is no opportunity for candidates for local government or Members of Parliament standing for re-election to have their election addresses paid for by the state, as may be the case under the amendment, or indeed to oblige any other organisation to pay for election propaganda. That is just another demonstration of the special treatment that the Government mete out only to trade unions.
§ Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)
I seek clarification of two matters.
In the furniture industry it has been traditional for many years for candidates for elected office to have all their details submitted by the union journal, so this will come as no surprise to that industry. When a series of posts become available there may be only two candidates for one, but 10 for the other—for example, for a more 260 lucrative regional officer's job. Are all 12 to have the same size of photograph, for example, or will the union be a limited newspaper and determine which is the more important and give it space accordingly?
I fear that the 100-word stipulation may mean that after a person has been elected to office he will find himself disbarred because he has written 102 words in his election address. It is silly for any Government to insert a figure for that, especially when dealing with industrial relations. Perhaps it is too late, but I warn my hon. Friend that this will lead to unnecessary court action.
It is all very well to say that there is indemnification for everyone except the person who may have written the election address. In the fullness of time, when others have the responsibilities of those who have them today, I wonder whether that law will still be on the statute book and the courts will interpret it as it is intended to be interpreted now. We all know that courts reinterpret laws over the years. Is there to be indemnification for the publishers and printers of any literature henceforth and for all time? If so, we shall be bringing a new concept into the law of libel which may have deeper ramifications than the Employment Bill.
§ Mr. Allen
One hundred and one words in a manifesto would be permissible, but not 99, because the minimum is 100, so the position is even more ridiculous than the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman is describing. I imagine that that is just one of a few problems in this ill thought out, late addition to the Bill.
§ Mr. Holt
I have spent 25 years in industrial relations trying to work out what politicians intended. Most of them were long gone and I could not ask them. I could get only the latest interpretation of the courts, and they change their interpretations. The benchmark cases under the Industrial Relations Acts since 1963 go in leaps and bounds, which is why I am asking whether the Government are right to insert in the legislation a specific as obvious as 100 words and that people can be completely immune from a libel action, except the person who writes the libel.
§ Mr. Cope
I am grateful to those who have contributed to the debate. Most of them have supported to a greater or lesser degree some element of what we are trying to do.
Under common law, if two people write and publish a libel, both are legally liable. I am not speaking specifically about election addresses, but about the general case at common law. A candidate in some elections may have assistance in writing his election address. The act of giving candidates in these elections the right to prepare an election address and have it published alters the common law position to the extent that the unions, although liable under common law for publishing such an address, might have a defence in that they had done so to comply with a statutory requirement. There was a doubt and, because of that, we thought it right to make the legal liability clear. It is, after all, a privilege to have the opportunity to make an election address, and that privilege is given to the candidate alone in the specific circumstances of the election in which he is taking part. Therefore, it should he the candidate's responsibility alone to ensure that the address does not contain any libel, even if he takes advice in the course of preparing it.
261 As my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) pointed out, a candidate is not obliged to publish an election address, but the union is obliged to publish a particular number of words. He may decide to put out a short election address in the hope that more people will read it than if he covers pages with information. On the other hand, he may think that he needs to explain his views at greater length.
The union has an obligation to say that if there is to be a minimum number of words it must be 100. At present some unions permit 500 words, but they can put a top limit on it and say, "We are not prepared to duplicate reams. We cannot have a candidate sending out his life story." It would be wrong to oblige unions to do that, but at the same time they must be obliged to send out the address, hence the figure of 100.
§ Mr. Clelland
If it is right in principle that trade unions should give candidates the opportunity and the resources to send out an election address, albeit within the limitations of the Bill, why does the same principle not apply to local government and, indeed, to parliamentary candidates? Should the principle not apply equally? It may even be argued that it is more important in local government and parliamentary elections.
§ Mr. Cope
In parliamentary elections candidates have a free go at the post, but this is not necessarily relevant to what we are discussing. I think that the hon. Gentleman belongs to the Amalgamated Engineering Union, which permits candidates to send round an address of up to 500 words, so it is ahead of the Government in this. It is not alone in that, and I should not want to single it out, because many others also send round election addresses and have various figures stipulated in their rules. The limit of 100 is modest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) asked about indemnification and whether it would last for all time.
§ Mr. Holt
The legislation states that ballot papers must be sent out with the election addresses. Many unions keep the ballot paper so that it is certified by the certification officer in exactly the same way as in local government or national Government elections. It does not get lost and there is no argument about duplication. Is my hon. Friend seriously saying that the only acceptable way of doing this is by sending a ballot paper through the post?
§ Mr. Cope
Yes, our intention is that an election address should go out with the ballot paper.
My hon. Friend also spoke about indemnification for all time. The House cannot pass and has no means of passing legislation that will last for longer than Parliament chooses, as these are Lords amendments. A future Parliament can pass a statute to change the law of libel. Provided that the Bill becomes an Act in the form that we are suggesting and remains on the statute book, the liability will last. I hope that it will last for ever. I see no end to this protection against libel that is provided for a union and those who print and distribute election addresses.
Although the Bill is written in this way, it is open to a future Government to propose a change, and there is 262 nothing that I or any hon. Member could do about that. The intention is that indemnification should last for as long as the requirement to distribute the ballot papers.
§ Question put and agreed to.