§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter rose to move That this House takes note of the Green Paper, Trade Unions and Their Powers (Cmnd. 95).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Green Paper which this Motion asks the House to take note of is of course a consultation document in respect of matters on which, as I understand it, the Government have come to no firm conclusions, and upon which they are seeking by way of consultation views from all quarters. We are still in the consultation period which, as I understand it, expires on 5th May, by which time, I notice with some amusement, comments have to be sent to the third level of my noble friend's Ministry. I do not know the significance of the third level.
§ We are still in the consultation period. That seems to me to be an advantage, just as it is an advantage to proceed in a matter of this kind by way of Green Paper and by way of inviting and listening to the views of all concerned before governmental decisions are taken.
§ The purpose of this Motion is mainly to enable your Lordships' House to take part in that consultation procedure and to offer, from varying points of view, whatever advice it thinks fit to Her Majesty's Government. I must admit that the only disadvantage in the procedure affects my noble friend the Minister, because in the nature of things, as we are still in the consultation period, he cannot reply to the debate with the precision and definiteness that we are accustomed to hearing from him on almost every other issue. I am afraid that that poses something of a problem for him. On the other hand, I hope and believe that he will welcome the opportunity to hear the views of your Lordships' House.1487
§ Your Lordships' House is especially well fitted to offer advice on these matters. Your Lordships' House contains a great many people who have vast experience, and current experience, of industry and the trade union side. It is notable that we are to have the pleasure of a maiden speech by a very distinguished trade unionist, the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, whose speech I am sure all your Lordships are looking forward to warmly. We are also looking forward to hearing speeches from two other major trade union leaders.
§ I could not help but reflect and consider the interesting change which has taken place in that respect over the years. When I was first involved in public life, leading figures in the trade union movement came into Parliament; but they came into another place. Great figures such as the late Mr. Bevin and Mr. J. H. Thomas served in another place, whereas today it is in your Lordships' House that the most distinguished figures in the trade union movement sit, and it is to your Lordships' House that they can contribute. That is an interesting development—I do not know whether it is a constitutional or a social change—not wholly irrelevant to the decision to hold this debate.
§ I was sorry to see that the TUC, as reported in The Times yesterday, had stated that the Green Paper was what it regarded, in a rather curious phrase, as "a charter of harassment". I hope that your Lordships will not take that view. I am sure that it is not so intended. I prefer on this matter the view of a former leader of the party opposite whom I am happy to be able to refer to as Sir James Callaghan. I am sure that all your Lordships were delighted to see that Her Majesty had conferred upon him, in the light of his long career of public service, the highest order of chivalry. All of us wish him many years happily to enjoy that great honour.
Sir James, as we must learn to call him, is reported as having said the other day in a Channel 4 interview that the unions were given every chance to reform themselves and failed. He said:
To that extent they invited the legislation which was eventually visited upon them".
He went on to say:
I had no doubt that public patience ran out in the winter of discontent of 1978–79, and a number of the legislative Acts that have been put on the statute books since then have carried a large measure of public support".
I hope that in the party opposite, as with the public generally, that more balanced view will attract more support than the rather off-the-cuff comment that the Green Paper proposals amounted to a charter of harassment.
§ Lord Jacques
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? Will he further add that what Sir James said he objected to was the hostility shown to the trade union movement?
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, he refers in a very balanced speech to that, as he does to other matters. The point on which I was inviting attention was his very specific observation to the effect that the legislative changes which had been effected had been virtually invited by the unions by reason of their 1488 conduct in a period of which, after all, Sir James had more direct—if you like, more painful—experience than perhaps any of your Lordships. I do not therefore think, with respect to the noble Lord, whose interventions are normally relevant, that that has anything to do with the matter.
The Green Paper follows the step-by-step procedure which the Government have followed in respect of trade union legislation. The Acts of 1982, 1984 and 1986 each took the matter further step by step. As I understand it—the Minister will no doubt confirm this when he speaks—it has been the policy to proceed in this important, sensitive and very difficult matter not by some tremendous onslaught, not by showing (as the noble Lord opposite seeks to suggest) hostility, but step by step to secure improvements, to see how they worked, and to see what basis there will be for further improvements.
As I understand it, this Green Paper follows that procedure. That procedure is working. No one with any experience of industry can dispute that the atmosphere in industry is infinitely better today than it has been for many years. The time lost in industrial disputes is enormously less. Indeed, it seems nowadays almost entirely to be confined to certain aspects of the Civil Service. However, in industry proper there has been a degree of understanding, consultation and progress without strike action that for many of us our memories would have to go a long way back to be able to equal. Therefore without claiming—as it would be foolish to do—that this is due entirely to the legislation, as if the legislation has been consistent with that steady improvement, I suggest that it has played its part. But no one with any experience of these matters believes that legislation alone can either cure the evils or create a good situation. However, it can contribute, and contribute substantially.
That is not only a view that many of us hold, but is confirmed, I suggest, by what has happened in these last seven or eight years. It is against that background that we look at this Green Paper because there is quite a long way still to go in improving our industrial relations further. We still have some way to go until we reach the situation, for example, that exists in the United States where on the whole the unions are overtly anxious to see the firm which employs them prosper in order that they may be able to get a bigger cut out of the profits, very properly, as a result. This was brought home to me vividly when I visited an American company in Pennsylvania which was a subsidiary of a company of which I happened then to be chairman. There I saw that the local union representatives had put up in the works a large sign saying, "Customers make payday possible". I think that we still have something to learn from the American industrial scene.
It may be—here I touch quickly and delicately on a sensitive matter—that this is helped by the fact that the American trade unions do not regard themselves as being tied to any political party but support such political party as at the moment seems to suit their interests at any particular election.
As your Lordships will know, the Green Paper is not concerned with the balance of power between employer and employed or between unions and government. It is almost exclusively concerned with 1489 the balance of power between the union officers, committees and leadership on the one hand, and the union membership on the other. In other words, it is concerned with the balance of power within the unions. The objective that seems to run through the separate possibilities which the Green Paper adumbrates is that of restoring control of the union to its members.
This leads one to refer—as I do very briefly—to one or two of the individual items which I suggest support the general proposition that I have just ventured to make. Chapter 2 of the Green Paper deals with the position of union members called upon by their union to strike. The Green Paper brings out very vividly the difficulty of a union member who is doubtful as to the wisdom of the strike yet is called upon by his union to take industrial action. After all, the union itself—provided that it carries out the ballot required under the 1986 Act—is immune from legal proceedings. The individual union member is not. He is open, if anyone so wished, to legal proceedings, and, far more important from a practical point of view, by taking part in a strike he is putting himself in the position that he can be dismissed without compensation.
Therefore some thought is demanded of the position of a union member who may find himself (as he might put it) between the devil and the deep sea: between a union calling him out on strike and threatening him with expulsion from the union, with all that that involves, if he continues to work; or, alternatively, striking and submitting himself as a result to positive legal action and to the probability of dismissal. That is not a happy position for anyone to find himself in. It is therefore proposed as one of the matters for discussion that it should become illegal for the union to expel from membership a man or a woman who refuses to take part in a strike. If a union's officer so misjudges the situation—as one or two of them have over the years—that he calls a strike which his members do not want to support then probably the answer is to get a new officer. Certainly the answer is not to cause a number of people genuinely concerned with their own future to be expelled from their union and suffer all the inconvenience, unpleasantness and loss which that could involve.
That leads to what the Green Paper calls, I think very properly, a question of principle. It says:More important, however, are the issues of principle. The Government believes that a decision to take industrial action should be a matter for the individual. Every union member should be free to decide for himself whether or not he wishes to break his contract of employment and run the risk of dismissal without compensation. No union member should be penalised by his trade union for exercising his right to cross a picket line and go to work".That is obviously an issue of very great importance in principle which I am sure some noble Lords will wish to discuss.
There are other very important aspects of the Green Paper. Chapter 4 deals with the closed shop. The 1976 Act—for which the party of noble Lords opposite was responsible—had a very curious provision in respect of the closed shop. The only grounds on which a worker could be excused from joining a union in the closed shop situation was that he belonged to a religious sect which disapproved of trade unions. No doubt there are 1490 some sects. There are sects which believe anything. But I cannot think that they are a very significant section of our society. I doubt whether noble Lords opposite would wish to argue that either. But apart from those somewhat eccentric people, the closed shop could be imposed.
There are very strong feelings about the closed shop. It is perhaps a reflection on some of the unions concerned that they should feel that the attractiveness of their membership is insufficient to encourage voluntary membership and that it should be made a matter of compulsion that someone should join the union in order to do the particular job.
I believe that the number of closed shops is on the decline, but it is our experience that the worst industrial relations and abuses have been in closed shop industries. The classic example which all your Lordships will immediately have in mind is that of the printing trades, where enormous damage was done by the excesses of the unions there.
I had experience of that when I was Member of Parliament for Kingston. A constituent of mine who had worked for the local paper as a printer went abroad. When he came back after some years his union membership had lapsed. His old paper wanted to take him back but it had a closed shop situation and the local branch of NATSOPA, the union concerned, declined to take him into membership, which he was quite willing to accept. It said he should not be allowed to rejoin because it wished to put somebody else into that vacancy.
That seemed to be quite intolerable interference with the rights of a citizen. I am glad to say that as a Member of Parliament at the time I had certain leverage. I spoke to the regional secretary of that union, indicating to him that unless my constituent was properly elected so that he could go into the job the matter would be raised in the House of Commons. By a curious coincidence the next day he was elected and all was well.
I should like to mention the matter of the proposed new commissioner. It is no use giving legal rights to individual union members if they cannot enforce them. It has been said that the courts of law are open to all, like the Ritz Hotel. The fact is that the ordinary union member cannot possibly contemplate taking his union to the courts. With the unions' equipment of lawyers and resources it would be a hopelessly unequal conflict. So the general thinking is that if you are going to give legal rights to the individual, if necessary against his own union, you must give him some effective means of enforcing them.
Some of your Lordships may remember that when this House was discussing provisions to deal with trespassing some time ago several noble Lords with legal or professional backgrounds said that you did not need to give the police powers to remove trespassers because all the farmer or smallholder had to do was to get an injunction from a judge in chambers. Some of us pointed out that if you lived in the country and happened not to have a regular lawyer, and if this occurred at a weekend, it was not necessarily easy.
The same point arises here. As I understand it, the object inter alia of setting up the new commissioner would be that if an appropriate case arose he would be 1491 able to offer legal, professional and technical support to the union member if that member desired to take proceedings and if he, the commissioner, thought that they were sensible. That seems to be a necessary part of the provision, since without it this would be quite ineffective.
Perhaps I may mention postal ballots briefly. It is rightly proposed that these should be properly supervised. If they are not, there is risk of abuse. We know of recent cases where there has been abuse, and they would cease to be a safeguard if they can be abused. There is also the small but quite necessary provision to ensure that re-election of union officers by postal ballot is not frustrated after five years if they simply give up their voting rights. A device of that sort makes nonsense of what was the intention of Parliament. I think that this would put it right.
There are a number of other issues, but I know many of your Lordships are desirous of speaking and I do not wish to take up too much time. I would only add that I hope that the union movement will not regard the Green Paper as hostile. I am perfectly certain that a great many union members will not. They will realise that there are a series of proposals which would, if enacted, shift the balance of power not away from the unions but away from the union leadership towards the union membership, towards the democratic side of the unions.
Years ago that may not have mattered much, but those of your Lordships with trade union experience will know that the new generation of trade union members, the younger ones, the ones in younger industries, are taking a much more acute and intelligent interest in the way their unions are run, and would be glad, if they differ from their leadership, to have some powers to express those views and if necessary to restrain their leadership. I think that there is a considerable movement that way and that the proposals in the Green Paper would give a legal framework to it.
There is much to be considered, but all that I would venture to say, particularly in the light of what the TUC has said, is that this is not a situation in which one can stand still. Like the rest of us, the trade unions have to move and adapt to changing circumstances, changing needs and changing popular demands. Although I have often thought that the trade union movement was far more conservative than any Conservative I have ever known, it has to accept the necessity and the desirability, in its own interests as well as those of its members, of continuing change and adaptation to the differing needs of today.
I conclude with a few words which are often misquoted but which I believe to be true and relevant to this:The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt".I beg to move.
Moved, That this House takes note of the Green Paper, Trade Unions and Their Powers. (Cmnd. 95)—(Lord Boyd-Carpenter.)
§ 3.48 p.m.
Lord Young of Graf ham
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for intiating the debate this afternoon and for his thoughtful contribution. It was right that he should remind us that jobs go with customers. I was also interested in his reminder of the political affiliation, or rather the lack of political affiliation, of labour unions in the United States of America. It sometimes occurs to me to ask how well the leadership of unions in this country today reflects the real political views of the members, because I think there is a connection with the decline of membership which we have seen in recent years. However, that is not the subject for today.
I am glad to have an opportunity of returning to the Green Paper, Trade Unions and Their Members. When I made my statement on 24th February there was a clear feeling in the House that these important matters called for fuller discussion than was possible on that occasion. Several noble Lords have since been in touch with me to express interest or to seek clarification of particular points. The intervening weeks have allowed time for the paper to be studied and digested and for some of the first knee-jerk reactions of the critics to be reconsidered.
These are serious matters which deserve and require the careful scrutiny which they have been traditionally accorded in this House. A central feature of our economy and society has been a minimum of legal control of the collective bargaining by employers and trades unions of working conditions and pay in our various industries. On the basis of their negotiating position, unions have been able to play a determining role through collective bargaining in a number of areas where other countries impose more rigid institutional and legal requirements. Provided that the rules of the game are established in a way which provides a sensible balance of bargaining power, this system has an inbuilt flexibility which is highly desirable and which can assist the process of adaptation to economic change. Our system of sweeping legal immunities has in the past given great power to the unions in that bargaining process. That power imposes great responsibilities, however, upon the unions, not only in respect of the bargains struck with employers but also in their relationships with their members. To speak plainly, they must not—indeed must not be allowed to—sacrifice the individual on the altar of collective interests.
This is what lies at the heart of our Green Paper which is intended as the next step in our careful step-by-step reforms. It has little to say about the law on collective industrial action, but a great deal to say about the way in which unions treat their members. It is designed to correct undoubted abuses. Some of the cases which influenced us are displayed in the test. We took care to remind the public of some well-recorded recent cases when we drafted the document, although some noble Lords understandably could not contain their incredulity that anyone should question the evidence of abuse in respect of union discipline. I myself thought that the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, strained logic in questioning the evidence of abuse of the statutory election requirements in the same breath as he described a proposal as "the Scargill clause".
1493 The protections we propose for individual union members do no more than guarantee what they are entitled to expect as members of self-proclaimed democratic, voluntary organisations in a free society such as ours. If all unions always reached the standards of democratic conduct on which our proposals are based it is difficult to see in what respect our proposals could cause any difficulty whatsoever. I shall be interested to hear whether those who oppose these measures continue to claim that they are unnecessary because there is no problem or argue that their operation will be oppressive, thereby implicitly admitting that abuses occur.
We must be prepared to tackle issues of evident and real public concern as they arise. This lies at the heart of the step-by-step concept. In 1980 we had to put right the worst features of the laws which had helped throw society into chaos during the winter of discontent. In 1982, it was clearly right to bring trade unions themselves within the scope of legal actions for injunctions and damages for organising unlawful industrial action. In 1984 we took another major step to ensure that strikes could not be called by trade unions without support from those involved in voting in a secret ballot if their immunities were to be retained. The public—and I believe the great majority of responsible trade union members themselves—have applauded these measures and they have been of obvious, practical effect. All this is part of the step-by-step process referred to by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Last year the number of strikes were at their lowest level for 50 years.
We have throughout worked within the framework of existing law, and common law principles in particular. We have left it to those who actually suffer (or who might suffer) the harmful consequences of unlawful acts to seek remedy and redress. The Government have provided the means for others to take action, but have not sought to impose themselves as an active party. This approach has avoided the cry of "the state against the trade unions". It has preserved the fundamental principle that at the heart of an employment relationship there lies an implicit or explicit contract between the employer and the employee.
In all that we have done we have consistently aimed to allow more scope for market forces to operate. We have dismantled legislative provisions which have interfered with the bargaining process, such as the so-called, and misnamed, "employment protection" law—Schedule 11 of the 1975 Act—which could be used to impose rates of pay which were inappropriate to particular enterprises. We have drastically reduced the powers of wages councils and done away with the unworkable and disruptive statutory recognition procedures. Alongside these actions, we have done all we can to encourage the spread of good practice and realistic bargaining through stimulating debate about matters such as profit-related pay, local bargaining and better communications between employers and employees.
The benefits of our approach are now clearly visible. It can be no coincidence that over recent years we have seen historically very low levels of days lost due to strikes. But the figures are only part of the story. Just 1494 as significant is the hard evidence that overseas investors are now looking with confidence at the prospect of putting their capital into our country. We hear much less about the "British disease" of strikes, stoppages and lost production. It is my fervent hope that this Government will see the establishment of a new British tradition—that of a productive, flexible workforce able and willing to respond to the demands of modern industry, services and technology. I returned only yesterday from a short visit to the United States of America. Employers and investors there are very well aware of the change of climate in the United Kingdom.
Much has been done, but much still needs to be achieved. Guided by our experience over the last few years, we put forward in the Green Paper Trade Unions and Their Members a number of proposals which are really all about the sort of trade unions and trade unionism that we will need in the economy and society of the future.
I should like briefly to remind the House of some of our key proposals and of their implications. First, we propose giving a right to trade union members to restrain their unions from calling on them to take industrial action without a proper secret ballot. This right will complement the arrangements of Part II of the Trade Union Act 1984 which give employers, their customers and suppliers the ability to take legal action against trade unions authorising or endorsing unballoted industrial action. The proposal has been designed in such a way that it should have no untoward consequences for the bargaining process. We do not propose to give individual union members the right to insist that a ballot should be held, but only to get the court to restrain the union from acting in certain ways without a ballot. I am pleased to note that there is now general acceptance of the importance of pre-strike ballots and we believe that the member's right must be properly enforceable. Looking to the future, I am encouraged by the fact that unions which have the strongest balloting tradition are among those which most rarely proceed to strike action.
I should add that in order to avoid a restraining order a union would have to hold a ballot that met all the standards laid down in Part II of the Trade Union Act 1984. In future those who actually take part in a ballot will have the right to enforce the legal requirements, covering such elementary but vital matters as secrecy and effective entitlement to vote. This should help to flush out abuses which employers may find it very difficult to detect.
We also want to give individual union members protection against being disciplined by their unions if they choose not to go on strike. I cannot believe it is right that employees should be intimidated into breaking their contracts of employment by the threat of such discipline or expulsion. We understand the arguments about collective action and strength through unity. Nothing which we propose will prevent workers from coming together in a common purpose, and we do not seek to undermine legitimate union discipline generally. We are minded, however, to restrain organisations from forcing their members into breaking their contracts of employment.
In a highly technical chapter of the Green Paper we propose a series of measures to enable members to 1495 exercise effective control over the financial affairs of their unions and ensure that they keep within the law. Most union leaders are no doubt acutely aware that their organisations depend upon members' contributions and exist for their benefit. It ought to be profoundly shocking that measures of the kind proposed need even to be considered. But I shall be interested to know if any noble Lord thinks that we are tilting at windmills of our own invention. I do not think any Member of this House will dissent from the standards envisaged, which should govern the behaviour of any democratic and law-abiding trade union.
We propose taking further steps to remove the basis of legal support for post-entry closed shops, and to make it easier for employers to resist trade union pressure to establish or maintain closed shop practices. This Government have always believed that individuals should be free to choose for themselves whether or not to belong to a trade union. It is objectionable in principle to allow anyone to coerce an employer into putting someone out of work (or denying employment) on the grounds that he does not belong to a union, or to a particular union. What we want is to give individuals real freedom to choose. The law already offers employees unqualified protection in case of dismissal or other discriminatory treatment on grounds of union membership. It is right that nonunion members should benefit from equivalent safeguards.
Our proposals on trade union elections represent a modest extension of the requirements of the 1984 Act. We see a need to maintain respect for the law by blocking a loophole which has provided a temptation to misplaced ingenuity. On balloting procedures we have seen some unions struggle not very successfully to put their house in order while others hardly struggled at all. More therefore needs to be done. On the other hand, the unions have now had ample time to compile the registers of members required under the 1984 Act, and it is therefore practicable, as it was not in 1984, to require them to adopt fully postal balloting. Unions will be required to have these ballots independently supervised; some already do so. And here, as in so many other respects, we are doing no more than generalising existing good practice.
Finally, I ought to say a few words about the proposal for a trade union commissioner, not least because there have been some misunderstandings about the Green Paper proposal. What we are after here is a means of helping individual trade unionists secure observance by their unions of statutory duties which they owe to their members. The commissioner's support in legal actions will not come into play unless and until there is a union member who wants to bring a legal action. He will have no roving brief to initiate investigations but will facilitate the enforcement by members of certain key rights through the existing machinery.
The commissioner will have discretion in many cases to decide whether or when to offer support. Only where a union was clearly flouting the terms of a declaration issued by the certification officer, who had found the union in breach of a statutory duty in respect of elections, would the commissioner be under a duty 1496 to provide support to an individual. Further, the commissioner's role, at least initially, will be confined to supporting certain defined types of complaint. I should be quite content if the commissioner's services were hardly ever sought, provided that this was because trade unions were in practice observing the relevant statutory duties and their members consequently had no cause for complaint.
In the debates and comment on the Green Paper proposals we have heard a lot of what I can only call (and here I am being kind) poor and inappropriate analogies with company law. People have claimed, for example, that we are seeking to regulate and control trade unions, while letting companies in the City go their own way. The foolishness of claiming that companies (and for that matter City institutions in particular) are free from legal constraints—and even direct interference by government departments—will, I am sure, be apparent to all in your Lorships' House who sat through the recent debates on the Banking Bill and much of the other legislation that governs the City. The Green Paper proposals are designed to be relevant to the affairs of voluntary associations which are concerned with collective bargaining and cannot be read across by analogy to companies whose purpose is the application and combination of capital in a business venture.
I commend to the House the proposals set out in Trade Unions and their Members and to which I have just briefly referred. Together they should help to ensure that trade unions in this country evolve in the direction of modern, democratic, genuinely voluntary organisations. This is a Green Paper. We have invited comments and many have been received. I shall consider them all, as I shall consider the contributions of all in your Lordships' House. In the end we look for a movement which will be strong and healthy, responsive to the wishes of working people and capable of inspiring their loyalty. It will then be truly representative and able to contribute fully to the response of our economy and society to the challenge of our times.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Murray of Epping Forest
My Lords, I welcome this debate not least because it provides the occasion on which an old friend and colleague will have the opportunity of making his maiden speech in this House. I look forward very much to hearing the way in which my noble friend Lord Basnett negotiates, as it were, a non-controversial way through a difficult and barbed subject, one which is perhaps less of a Green Paper than an instalment in the Conservative Party's election manifesto.
In introducing the debate the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, set out the case for the Green Paper in all its stark reality. My main complaint about this document is that the proposals are based on no serious analysis of industrial relations systems or of trade union systems, or even of serious defects in those systems. It seems to me to be based at best on misunderstandings and at worst on misrepresentations. Indeed, we are offered legislation by anecdote.
The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, reminded us of occasions in the past when predecessors of mine found their way on to the Benches of the House of Commons. Indeed, this was true. At that time the 1497 Opposition Benches were graced by people such as Churchill, R. A. Butler, Macleod and, a little earlier, Walter Monckton. I sometimes wonder what those great leaders of the Conservative Party would have made of the increasingly ideological approach of the present Administration towards industrial relations and trade unions. It seems to me—and I say it with regret—that the passage of this legislation has been marked more by considerations and interests of class than of nation. That would never have commended itself to those leaders.
We are told that the result of these proposals would he to increase the freedom of the individual. On the contrary, my view is that taken as a whole and in part—I shall come to some of the parts, although I cannot cover every detail—their result would be to reduce the opportunity of the individual employee of receiving fair treatment at work. They are based on a preconception of what happens which in my experience bears far too little relationship with reality to command the emphasis and weight which has been attached to it.
When the first Secretary of State for Employment of the 1979 Administration, the predecessor of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Graffham, first spoke to the TUC about the Government's proposals, I gave him a blank piece of paper and invited him in all seriousness to write down his complaints and criticisms of trade union activity in industrial relations. This was to give to the TUC and the CBI jointly the opportunity of starting on the basis of seeing what was wrong and what needed to be done, not ruling out legal support where that was appropriate, but starting from industrial relations as they were. I regret very much that that was rejected. I repeat the suggestion now that, instead of going through what I fear is a charade of consultation, the Government should invite the TUC, the CBI, the Institution of Personnel Management and the BIM, if they like, to sit round a table and argue it out on the basis of evidence and of needs.
The impression that has been created—the noble Lord helped to create it—is that this document is the response to some great surge of popular demands from working people. All that I have ever seen of such popular demand has been in a column penned by two of your Lordships dealing in particular with complaints made by one man, who happened to be the chairman of the national trade union committee of the Conservative Party. He had occasion to complain to the certification officer about deviations and defects in his union, NALGO. Of the 14 complaints, three were upheld, two being minor technical matters, and the third was corrected by the union itself.
I ask again, where is this great surge of demand from working people? Of course, if there are complaints they must be examined and the evidence must be put on the table. I hope that it would be rather better than the evidence for change as suggested in paragraph 2.13 of the Green Paper, which discusses the matter of unions disciplining their members. It says:In the summer of 1982 … the NUR disciplined about 120,000 members.At that time, according to the TUC's record of affiliation, the NUR total membership was 150,214. I 1498 hope that the evidence on which other parts of the Green Paper are based is rather more substantial than a statement of that sort.
The Secretary of State reminded us that this is a consultation document. I cannot help but say that my confidence is hardly enhanced by previous experiences in this field. The TUC and the unions concerned were offered consultation on GCHQ. We know the outcome of the labours that were put into producing an agreement. So, to his cost, does the Secretary to the Cabinet, who helped produce a joint agreed statement. We know the outcome of previous consultations on reform of trade union law. Let me be fair. Some of the proposals put forward in previous Green Papers were indeed dropped—gone, but not forgotten, like ballots for trade union officers without a vote on the executive.
What we have to a considerable extent between the covers of this document is a collection of seconds, as it were, pulled from under the counter, only slightly used, put together by some Arthur Daley of the second-hand Green Paper trade with a lick of paint, and all in the name of defending the rights of workers—I am sad to say this—from a government who have repeatedly weakened and, indeed, removed the ability of workpeople who have been unfairly dismissed to get redress for it; a government who, as the Secretary of State has reminded us, although he did not use the verb, have emasculated wages councils, who have even watered down the rights of employees to be told about impending redundancies; and we are told that there are yet more on the way.
What the Government are doing in effect is offering in compensation to employees who have lost rights at work the ability to take action against their own unions, seeking to strengthen the rights of dissident members and dissident groups against their own unions. The Government in effect are offering here litigation against unions as a substitute for protection of workpeople against unfair treatment by their employers.
The rights of individuals at work were established and have been sustained by collective action by collective organisations created by those workpeople. The aim of these proposals, as with the preceding proposals, has been to weaken the organisations which workpeople themselves have established and sustained.
The Green Paper, at paragraph 2.26, talks of providing,assurance to trade union members that they could not be deprived of the right of reasonable access to the courts in case of breach of their common law or statutory rights".I do not object to that at all. But where is there any evidence of a union seeking to do that or succeeding in doing it? I for one would never defend it. This document is paraded before us as if there is some practice which needs to be dealt with and extirpated at the roots, seeking to create that impression, whereas I search in vain for proposals in the Green Paper for the protection of workers who are victimised by their employers for complaining about employers' breaches of their rights or for making representations to their own unions. On that there is not a word.
In a sense these are ill-considered trifles compared with the attempts to increase the pressure on unions 1499 and their leaders by disaffected groups and individuals. With all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, I believe that the only phrase is "an invitation to harass". I would not ask for sympathy for trade union leaders—they never got much from me in my time—but they do not lie on a bed of roses. It is a rough old life. Very often—indeed, usually—they have to make decisions that upset minorities; for example, standing outside ACAS or Congress House at one o'clock in the morning after reaching agreement, telling—in the old days instructing—the members that the return to work would take place at half-past seven the next morning, with a howling mob of Trotskyites demanding the ballot before they go back to work; or on the factory floor the trade union representative having to tell a member that he has no case, no grievance, against a foreman, thus creating a dissident minority.
The Green Paper proposes to offer to dissident minorities the right to take action against the unions to undermine the collective disciplines by which unions solve industrial relations problems and to that extent put employers in their debt. It will be more difficult for unions to resolve disputes, whether collective or individual, if this is done. We have a valued tradition that minorities abide by the decision of the majority. It is a tradition of trade union democracy and I should have thought that it is a tradition of democracy generally.
Now it is proposed that where a majority ballot for industrial action, the minority can ignore the result. Paragraph 2.10 of the Green Paper states (this has been referred to already):The right of the individual to choose to go to work despite a call to take industrial action is an essential freedom".There is no qualification. There is no damned nonsense about the merits of the dispute and the merits of the industrial action. There is no damned nonsense about consultation: this is an assertion. The right is an essential freedom. One might be tempted to ask about the right to go to work of 3 million people who have no jobs. Whatever happened to the right of British workmen and women not to go to work except on terms and conditions that have been agreed with their employer? It is the right which sets us apart from dictatorships, and which defends us against attempts to be taken over as agents of the state or as marionnettes who jump to some employer's whistle.
What is an essential right is the right to expect those who are opposed to a decision to abide by the results of a fair vote. We expect it in your Lordships' House, and what is good enough for us is good enough for a trade union branch leader. What is the point of holding a ballot if dissident minorities are then to be free to ignore it?
On the other hand, in relation to the closed shop, in previous legislation the Government said, "Let there be ballots", and lo, there were ballots with monotonous regularity. There were majorities exceeding 85 per cent. in favour of maintaining the principle that an individual who wanted to receive the benefits from that particular place must pay his whack of the contributions. Now we are to have second thoughts. Now we are told that no individual can fairly be dismissed if he persists in holding out his hand for 1500 the benefits and refuses to pay his fare or to pay his sub. But where are the individuals who have ever been dismissed for doing that? One can count them on the fingers of a hand. What about the more than 3,000 individual workers who every year prove to industrial tribunals that they have been unfairly and illegally dismissed by employers? The word "intimidation" was used. Where does intimidation lie?
Again—and this must be my last illustration—there is the proposal that all members of executives, including those without a vote, must be elected by postal ballots. I would make heavy weather of that proposal. This is known as legislation ad hominem and we all know the name of the man. I hold no brief for Mr. Scargill. The Secretary of State described this as a modest extension. Let me make a modest prophecy. If that law is placed on the statute book, the resentment created will increase the support and the votes which Mr. Scargill receives from his members.
These proposals could almost have been designed to bring the law itself into disrepute. This is where one finishes when one goes down that road, instead of starting from the industrial relations system and starting from trade unions as they really are, and when one fails to ask what are the purposes of the industrial relations system; what are the purposes of the trade unions; how can their defects be corrected? In that context, what is the role of law? The law has a place and a purpose in industrial relations and in trade union affairs. It is needed to protect the individual against abuse or exploitation. Yes, to protect him from the abuse of the power of his union and, yes, from the abuse of the power of his employers. It seems to be the concern of the writers of the Green Paper to throw out the baby of trade unionism but to keep the bathwater of exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
The second role of the law is to generalise good practices in industrial relations and trade union matters. This paper makes no contribution to that. I repeat that what is needed there is representatives of employers and workers to sit down and examine the changes that are needed. I should like to think that the TUC and the CBI might try again as they did in the late 1960s. They very nearly succeeded but for the nonsensical Green Paper or White Paper (whatever it was) In Place of Strife, and subsequently the takeover by the Industrial Relations Act 1970.
If the TUC and CBI cannot achieve that, perhaps some people should reflect upon the value of the Mond-Turner discussions of the 1930s, and upon the values that those broke down and the progress that was made through them. The point is that bad currency such as this drives out good efforts to include industrial relations. With deep respect, industrial relations are far too important to be handed over to lawyers and certainly to be handed over to journalists, who lie at the root of this matter. They are too important to be handed over to politicians who are seeking party advantage.
The danger of the Government's approach is, I believe, that it could well provoke equal and opposite reaction. It could lead to ping-pong legislation in the industrial relations and trade union field. It could lead to ever-widening swings of the political pendulum. That is no good for industrial relations, for industry or for our society.
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for having introduced this debate and thus enabling the House to take part in the consultative exercise now proceeding on the Green Paper. My noble friends and I are looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, whom I used to face across the negotiating table 25 or 30 years ago.
Hitherto we have given broad support to the Government's gradual approach to reforming the law relating to trade unions—for example, in 1982 on closed shop ballots and the limitation of union immunities and in 1984 on the extended use of secret postal ballots in electing members of union national executives. Indeed on that matter I should remind the House that we wished to go further than the Government in advocating not simply that postal ballots should be the statutory norm but that, if there had to be workplace ballots, the onus should be placed on trade unions to satisfy the Certification Officer that requirements as to secrecy, convenience of voting and freedom from interference and constraint were met rather than that responsibility for challenging dubious electoral procedures should be borne by individual trade unionists.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My Lords, may I ask a question? The noble Lord has said "we" on three occasions. Can he say whether he is talking both for the Liberal Benches and the SDP Benches?
§ Lord Rochester
My Lords, I gladly confirm that today I am speaking for the Liberal/SDP Alliance. To continue my speech, it is better late than never on the part of the Government. We continue to feel strongly, as the Government now agree, that trade unions should use fully postal voting procedures under independent supervision for elections to their principal executive committees and these should extend to the distribution, the receipt and the counting of ballot papers. The chief officers of unions, in our view, should also be required to submit themselves for reappointment at regular intervals either by the same electoral means or, at the very least, by the votes of members of principal executive committees who have themselves been properly elected.
The cost to unions of employing outside bodies to supervise ballots in this way will nevertheless be very considerable; so when the Secretary of State comes to reply I should be grateful if he would say whether, as in Section 1 of the Employment Act 1980, the Government contemplate trade unions being able to recover such costs from public funds.
I turn now to the section of the Green Paper dealing with industrial action and the rights of union members. When the 1984 Trade Union Bill was passing through this House I expressed the view that, although secret pre-strike ballots were clearly desirable in the case of major national stoppages, the effect of the measures then proposed by the Government might be to encourage even more unofficial action than there already was. In the event, I gladly acknowledge that the last three years have shown that unofficial strikes are no longer the predominant form of industrial action and the beneficial effect of the legislation in a 1502 number of industry-wide disputes in the public sector has been plainly demonstrated.
It is now proposed that individual union members should be enabled to take legal action to restrain their unions from authorising or endorsing industrial action which has not been validated by a ballot. We sympathise with the view that such a right should be seen as a natural development of those already accorded to employers, customers and suppliers under the 1984 Act.
However, the Government also now propose that individual union members should be protected from disciplinary action by their union if they refuse to take industrial action, even when it has been endorsed by a prior secret ballot. It is said that the individual should be afforded this legal protection since in taking industrial action and thus breaking his contract of employment he may render himself liable for dismissal.
On the other hand, it is argued by the Institute of Personnel Management, whose members have to carry the can in handling industrial relations in the front line, that the form of question now required on the strike ballot paper tends to remove the employer's existing discretion to treat strike action as a breach of contract. This, combined with the economic pressures on employment, may effectively denude the employee of the right to strike. Unless there is some counter-balancing, collective right to strike in certain circumstances, the scales appear to be very heavily weighted against trade unions.
As the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, has already mentioned, it said in the Green Paper that the right of the individual to choose to go to work despite a call to take industrial action is an essential freedom. But is there not also a case for limiting the extent to which employers are now able to seek ex parte injunctions, while trade unions are unable to take legal action collectively on behalf of employees, even though the employer may be threatening flagrantly to break the terms of an employment contract? What about those employers who by setting up a maze of artificial companies have been able to turn otherwise legitimate strikes into secondary action in a way which was not at all intended under recent legislation?
The CBI considers that the principal argument against this proposal of the Government is that it could undermine the balloting process itself in so far as it was seen to provide a formof statutory protection for those refusing to be bound by the results of the ballot. It concludes that the Government should not pursue the proposal, and I think they are right.
On the question of the post-entry closed shop, your Lordships may recall that when the Employment Act 1980 was being debated we opposed the immediate abolition of closed shops on the grounds that such action would simply drive them underground. Since then seven years have elapsed. In the case of many large companies closed shops which were already in existence have not been put to the test of a ballot and therefore they do not qualify for legal immunity now.
Where ballots have been held and have produced the required majority in favour few, if any, problems have arisen. Where the necessary majority has not 1503 been achieved, closed shops have been dismantled without adverse repercussion. In other words, for various reasons the practice is gradually withering away. Why not therefore simply let it die of inanition? If the Government are looking for a real restrictive practice to go at, what about the much more illiberal pre-entry closed shop, on which the Green Paper is strangely silent?
In the section of the Green Paper dealing with the control of trade union funds, it is proposed that members, accompanied by professional advisers, should have a right of access to their unions' detailed accounting records. Under the Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act of 1974 unions and employers' associations already have to make an annual return to the Certification Officer and keep proper accounting records which give a true and fair view of their affairs.
Rather than giving union members this new statutory right, with all the administrative burdens that could impose, why not simply require both employers and trade unions to disclose to their employees or members financial information, as was envisaged in the Industrial Relations Act 1971 in relation to employers?
There is another aspect to this matter. Companies are not legally obliged to provide the kind of detailed information which the Government apparently now have in mind for trade unions. For example, shareholders have no right to financial information on a plant-by-plant basis, nor to inspect their company's books. If I am right in my understanding, I must ask the Secretary of State or the Government to justify this proposed distinction between the members of trade unions on the one hand and the shareholders of companies on the other.
The last section of the Green Paper relates to the enforcement of statutory duties. It contains proposals designed to assist individuals who might otherwise feel deterred from pursuing their complaint because of the financial costs involved, or for some other reason. To help them it is proposed that a new commissioner for trade union affairs should be appointed. But his would surely be a highly controversial role since no limits appear to be set on the extent to which trade union members could call him in aid.
In the Green Paper the proposed commission is compared with those concerned with equal opportunities and racial equality, but those commissions can offer legal assistance only if a case raises a question of principle or is complex, and it is unreasonable to expect the applicant to deal with it unaided. Accordingly, I must ask the Secretary of State on what grounds trade union members are to be singled out from other citizens as recipients of this new kind of institutional help.
So far I have confined my remarks to the merits of the specific propsoals in the Green Paper, basing them on the Government's supposition that further trade union legislation is now called for. However, in the time that remains to me I wish to pose some fundamental questions relating to the Green Paper as a whole. First, is this really the time for the Government to be embarking on further union legislation? To judge from the response of the Institute 1504 of Personnel Management, the answer is, no. It believes that another round of major employment legislation at this time could be inappropriate and counter-productive. The institute considers that trade unions should be given more time in which to reform themselves. It considers that the rate of change was always bound to be slow and that more time should be allowed to make a fair assessment of the present laws before adding to them. The institute does not consider that, based on practical experience, there is justification for more legislation in the field of industrial relations. It refers to the growing number of companies where employers, unions and their members have been able to develop initiatives to improve industrial relations and hopes that these encouraging signs can be developed further within the existing framework rather than introducing new legislation which will be seen as unnecessarily controversial and adversarial.
If, in the view of those best qualified to judge this is not the time for introducing further legislation, why are the Government proposing to do it? Here one cannot help suspecting that they are less concerned with the need gradually to improve industrial relations by encouraging co-operation between management and employees than with a desire further to cripple the effectiveness of trade unions. The Government may think that this will rebound to their advantage in the forthcoming general election, but I warn them that it may do just the opposite. We on these Benches believe in trade unions as an essential means of enabling employees to join together to protect themselves from unscrupulous employers and generally to keep management up to its job.
I should next like to ask why the Government are showing themselves to be so discriminatory and lacking in even-handedness in their approach to regulatory legislation generally. Just over a month ago the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, introduced a Bill which sought to provide new rights to information and consultation for trade unions and their members involved in takeovers and mergers. In our view it would have been better if it had applied to employees generally; but never mind. On that occasion the debate centred on how in such situations the interests of employees and indeed of the general public could best be protected. I said that effective voluntary action was preferable to legislation, but that the trouble with voluntarism was that there had to be volunteers. If they were not forthcoming, legislation was all that remained.
In their response the Government referred to the review of law and policy on mergers and restrictive trade practices that is now taking place and assured us that the rights of employees in takeovers was one of the matters under consideration. However, I suggest that that slow moving, deliberative approach to further regulation of the City is in sharp contrast to the apparent imminence of further legislation on trade unions.
If there is need now for more trade union legislation, there is surely no less need for some statutory limitation to be placed on the current excess of speculative capitalism that is directed towards short-term gain rather than the long-term improvement of our industrial performance.
1505 My last general question is as to why we read so much in the Green Paper about the duties of trade unions and the rights of their members and nothing at all about the need for employers to do more to improve communication with their employees. It was to go just a little way towards providing some balance in these matters that five years ago my noble friends and I persuaded the House and ultimately the Government to accept what is now Section 1 of the Employment Act 1982. That is the section which requires companies employing more than 250 people to include in their annual reports a statement describing the action taken during the financial year to develop employee involvement in a number of ways.
Again, if there is thought to be this immediate need for further detailed regulation of the conduct of trade unions, why should the Government not build at the same time on what is already the practice of our most successful companies by giving employees the statutory right to be informed on matters of concern to them as employees and consulted in the making of decisions that affect their interests?
This debate is about the Government's Green Paper. The House today is not discussing the Labour Party's approach to the subject of further legislation affecting trade unions. However, having expressed our misgivings about both the timing and the unbalanced nature of the Government's proposals, I am bound to add that the Labour Opposition's intention to put the clock back by reversing so much of the legislation of the last few years would, in our view, have disastrous effects on British industry.
To mention but one example, the TUC Labour Party pamphlet People at Work: New Rights, New Responsibilities states that the new framework envisaged in it would,in no way give employers, or their customers or suppliers, any opportunity to seek injunctions and damages against a union".I cannot believe that the majority of trade unionists, never mind the electorate generally, will shortly vote for a return to the chaotic conditions that such a reactionary proposal would bring in its train. Certainly the Alliance will use whatever influence it may have in the formulation of policy in this field after the election to ensure that nothing of the kind is allowed to happen.
We believe that there is now a strong case for moving towards a system of positive rights for trade unions and individual employees in place of the current system of union immunities. This might well define the conditions under which there would be rights to union recognition and for individuals to strike, but we are also sufficiently realistic to recognise that such a major upheaval in the law would have to be managed with enormous care and would require the widest possible consultation and acceptance before it could be implemented.
To sum up, we think that there should now be a breathing space in which the legislation of the last few years, much of which we have supported, can be digested and management and employees can increasingly develop the interests that they have in common. Trade unions must continue to operate within a framework of law, but when the time is ripe for a revision of that legislation, let it be fair and let it be balanced in the interests of the community as a whole.
§ 4.50 p.m.
The Lord Bishop of Manchester
My Lords, I am very grateful, too, for the opportunity to debate the Green Paper. I believe that trade unions play a very vital role in our society these days. I am very conscious that the issues raised in the Green Paper are complex and that there are people present in your Lordships' House who have lived with them, perhaps from both sides of industry and commerce, for many years. We have already benefited from hearing some views, and I look forward in particular to hearing the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Basnett. I am not quite sure how long this debate will go on. Your Lordships might say that that rests partly in my hands along with other speakers. I should like however to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Young, if I am not in my place for the concluding stages. I hope to be here, but I shall have to see how it goes.
On study leave in India last year, I found myself in a silk factory in a major city. The factory was producing the most beautiful silks, fabrics and saris in the most terrible working conditions; and wages were clearly very low. Talking to the owner of the factory in the steaming heat, although it was supposed to be the cool season, I asked various questions about the workforce. How many? About 200. How many women employees? About 20. It was not very suitable for them. How many belong to unions? The owner put his hands together, raised his eyes piously to heaven and said, "We have no unions in this place, thank God." Market forces were truly at work.
It is important in a debate such as today's to remember something of the history of the trade unions and how they grew up in this country. I could not help being reminded, seeing conditions in India, of what conditions were like in Salford, in Manchester and in the other industrial cities of Britain back in the 19th century, and of the really vital role which trade unions then played to improve the standard of life of working people and, I believe, to help us generally forward into a better form of society.
It is very easy to build up ill will against unions in the sort of society in which we live today. The press can have a field day when something goes wrong in the conditions surrounding strikes and it is very easy to arouse a great deal of public anger. All of us have personal memories of the winter of discontent. Along, I am sure, with many of your Lordships, I was horrified by some of the things that happened, some of the incidents on picket lines. But we need to remember that trade unions arose in response to the power—the overweaning, almost unbridled, power—of employers, and to help the poor and the underpaid.
The role of the unions back in the 19th century—in the early years of their history—was necessarily defensive and protective. Their eyes were fixed on the welfare of their own members. This remains a prime consideration. But, naturally, the call today is for a wider role for unions and a greater consciousness of the kind of society in which they are operating—a call to which, I believe, they are responding.
It is necessarily part of the role of governments of every political complexion to make sure that the 1507 power of organisations and institutions in a country is not abused. All of us, I believe, ought to concede this. Personally, I give a welcome to some steps taken in recent years, as the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, has indicated, to achieve greater democracy in unions. It is right for governments to be concerned over abuses of power and particularly with the protection of the public. One is aware, when the public are endangered by some industrial dispute, of the awful humbug that goes on—humbug from those who are on strike and also from those opposing the wage claim, or whatever it may be, when it is argued that the intention is not to hurt the most vulnerable in our society and that the responsibility is all on the other side. That simply will not do. The innocent, the weak and the poor can get very badly hurt in such disputes. It is necessary therefore to watch for abuses of power and to encourage greater responsibility in unions along with other institutions in our society.
The trade unions are only one group of the organised institutions in society, and there are others, who exercise self-interest readily enough. My worry about the Green Paper is that there does not seem to be any awareness as to how many different groups operate in our society. It may be said that this is the responsibility of Green Papers in other fields, of discussions in other fields or of legislation brought forward, for example, to regulate the City. I do not think that that is an adequate reason for such a one-sided document now before us. Government departments can abuse their power; great multinationals, especially if they have monopoly powers, can abuse.
As regards professional associations, I should like to quote an example of what happened back in 1974—not all that long ago.Hospital consultants imposed sanctions to bring pressure to bear upon the Government in the case of a dispute over pay and began working to contract. In one month, a quarter of a million hospital appointments were cancelled. Support for the work-to-contract was total. Mass resignations from the National Health Service were prepared and more than half the consultants registered with private medical agencies in order to contract their skills to the National Health Service at rates fixed by themselves. The disputes rumbled on for over a year altogether before a satisfactory conclusion was reached. Where their seniors had led, junior hospital doctors and ancillary staffs followed. Grievances about pay and status were felt keenly enough for the conduct of the NHS to be in jeopardy and for considerable pain and suffering to be caused".I make no comment on the actual causes of that dispute or to what extent people were justified. I simply show that as one example of a power group in society prepared to misuse its power. All the attention should not be concentrated on the unions. Market forces themselves can lead to very great abuse, and I was not wholly convinced by the refusal of the noble Lord, Lord Young, to consider analogies between what happens in commercial companies and what happens in the field of the unions.
A main criticism, then, of the Green Paper is that it is far too one-sided and the trade unions are, I think, entitled to react on that basis. There is no recognition of the positive value of unions and their role in society, although I was very grateful to hear the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and also the noble Lord, Lord 1508 Young, himself, make a reference to this. It does not seem to appear in the Green Paper.
There is no recognition of the various centres of power in modern Britain. The comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, on companies in relation to shareholders were a good example of how power can be abused. All the emphasis is on individual rights. Individual rights are, of course, very important. It is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian tradition to care about individuals over and against the state or other power groupings. But group rights also matter. And they can indeed protect the individual worker which is what they are often designed to do. I do not think one can accept too readily a situation where individuals simply contract out.
There could be a parallel here which your Lordships may or may not accept. I have been put under a good deal of pressure in recent years to join the peace tax campaign. The idea is that individuals who do not agree with nuclear weapons or the purchase of Trident should be entitled to withdraw their taxes and to put them aside so that they can be used for good purposes, such as world development. The idea is splendid in theory but I have always declined to join because I believe that in a democratic society where you have a democratically elected government to make decisions—even those with which you do not agree—you still have a responsibility because of your group membership, your membership of the community, to go along with them. If individual rights are to be exalted above all else, one might well ask why we have party Whips operating in this House and in another place. I do not say that, because we do not have one!
The Lord Bishop of Manchester
My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, who is now present, that I was speaking of the value of party Whips—at least on one point of view!
If we look at paragraph 2.22 of the Green Paper, we see that it states:The Government believes that a decision to take industrial action should be a matter for the individual. Every union member should be free to decide for himself whether or not he wishes to break his contract of employment and run the risk of dismissal without compensation".I believe that that is far too simplistic and that the balance between individual and group rights is much better argued through, as, for example, in a document which came from the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility a few years ago which dealt with understanding the closed shops. What I shall now read to your Lordships relates to closed shops and compulsory union membership. It states that a Christian:will feel an obligation to work for the development of laws and institutions in society which respect the conscience of the genuinely dissenting individual, without weakening them so much that those institutions cannot perform their legitimate function. The tension here between freedom and order may be particularly acute, but the Christian should be realistic about the need to live with conflicting claims … motivated by the demands of love, should feel the need to be concerned with obligations towards others and not simply with the rights of individuals on their own. He will recognise too that true freedom has more to do with responding to the obligations inherent in relationship with others than with independence and self-centredness".1509 I commend those words to your Lordships' consideration because I believe that they are an attempt to wrestle with the difficult question of the balance between group rights and individual rights in modern society. I am bound to say that the unions themselves have, to my mind, sometimes given too little consideration to these difficult questions and I hope that they will consider them more in the years ahead. However, that is no excuse for the Green Paper to do the same. I am not surprised in the slightest at a TUC reaction which referred to "a charter of harassment".
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, on the need for change. That applies to every human institution, including the Church of England. However, there are great dangers if change is pushed in certain directions and if it seems simply to increase divisiveness in society. We are already threatened with a society which is divided in many ways, such as in the share of our resources and in health, as we have seen recently. To legislate along those lines could be a further move down that dangerous road. Co-operation for any government of whatever political complexion with the unions in the years ahead will be essential.
Incidentally, I do not recognise the rosy picture of industrial relations which has been given to us this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I do not think that it is sufficient simply to measure industrial relations in terms of the numbers of recorded strikes. There is a great deal of fear and many strained relationships, especially where unemployment is very high.
My last point for the consideration of your Lordships brings me back to the international scene, where I started when I mentioned visiting a silk factory in an Indian industrial city. One of the things that is happening in our increasingly concentrated world—a world which is shrinking year by year—is that the great multinationals are able to manufacture products in countries where labour is dirt cheap. There is a tremendous need there for the growth of the kind of organised union activity which we saw in Britain in the 19th century in order to give people a fair share of resources and to improve their standard of living. We in Western societies suffer very much from the fact that unions are weak in other parts of the world. Surely that is something to which any responsible government ought to give attention in the years ahead.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Basnett
My Lords, the sense of relief which I feel at now making my maiden speech is more than met by the sense of privilege and honour I feel with membership of your Lordships' House. The privilege is all mine; the honour belongs to the trade union movement and to its members, past and present, for the freedoms they have forged for the working people of this country and for the service they have done to our nation. One pleasure is perhaps unique to myself. It is the opportunity, after 40 years as an active trade unionist, to make a non-controversial speech on the subject of trade unions and the law. I can only say that I shall try.
I shall use the opportunity, not to address myself to the individual parts of the Green Paper, but to suggest 1510 two questions against which the proposals in the Green Paper should be judged. The first question is, "What have been the effects of the laws passed since 1979?", and the second is, "What would be the effect of the proposals within the Green Paper?". The Green Paper makes a number of claims for improvement. From its introduction I quote the two most important claims. First, it is stated that:there has been an avoidance of much unnecessary and damaging industrial action".Secondly, it is stated that:there have been initiatives to improve industrial relations".I am bound to recognise that there are arguments which have been advanced with great strength to support those statements. However, from my experience and involvement in the period since 1979, I cannot accept either of those statements as complete or wholly correct. While it is commonly accepted that the unions are now more cautious in their approach to industrial disputes, it is generally accepted that the major influence has been the depressing level of unemployment and, in many cases, rises above the rate of increase in the cost of living.
There have indeed been changes in industrial relations practices. I shall argue that they were occurring before 1979 and would have continued without the law. However, there is no argument about the changes in some of the unions produced by the 1984 Trade Union Act. What that Act did was not to create any major new practices but to promote the common adoption by all unions of practices which existed and which were followed by some of them. Those changes had a basis within the trade union movement. They were known; they were experienced. The Green Paper proposals, however, are not within the experience of any union within this country or indeed within any country. As my noble friend, Lord Murray, has said, they are not supported by any substantial analysis and on occasion they are supported by facts which are suspect.
In those circumstances, I am sure that your Lordships would wish to be assured that there was a general desire and a particular need, or even a general benefit, to be gained from those proposals. So the second question becomes: "Who wants them, who needs them and who would benefit from them?" No doubt at the close of the period of consultation the Government will give us their answers. In the meantime, I should like to address myself to a few points.
Neither side of industry has asked for these proposals. The CBI, while supporting some of the proposals, has totally opposed others. As has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords, the TUC describes the proposals as "unbalanced, one-sided and hostile". Within the Green Paper there is not one shred of evidence that trade unionists themselves want these changes.
Your Lordships may consider that the only wholehearted support for all these proposals comes from their authors. However, it is possible, even if there is no general desire for these changes, that there is a particular need for them. On the one hand it is possible to argue, as does the Green Paper, that the proposals provide a necessary protection for individu- 1511 als and for individual freedom. However, on the other hand it is possible to argue that they provide a licence for individuals to undermine the collective action and collective freedom which is so essential for the wellbeing of all trade unionists. I should like to give one example, which was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Having required secret ballots to establish majority decisions before strike action, they suggest a protection from disciplinary action which must encourage individuals or minorities not to abide by these decisions. Perhaps instead of the TUC's description of these proposals, and this proposal in particular, as harassment, the CBI's description that the Act would discourage democratic procedures would be more acceptable. I am certain that noble Lords would like to be sure that these proposals are even-handed. This point has been dealt with by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Rochester.
Finally, who would benefit from them? Certainly not industrial relations. Our system of industrial relations remains a voluntary system which in the past has relied on the self-regulation of both parties. As my noble friend Lord Murray has said, laws have worked and produced positive changes when there has been some basis for their introduction and some acceptance of them. When they are not accepted, even if observed without enthusiasm, they have never produced constructive or new initiatives. For instance, in 1974 it was a voluntary initiative that produced orderly picketing in the miners' strike of that year. In 1984 the new laws did not ensure peaceful picketing.
However, there is a need for new initiatives. The most successful OECD economies with strong trade union movements have, almost without exception, some form of industrial democracy or co-determination. The major thrust of any law or government intervention should be to seek to assist trade unions and employers to base their workplaces on the principles of social partnership, with unions and employers working to the same ends. They should assist unions to protect workpeople in industry and should reflect the genuine needs which exists in our society for their protection.
Trade unions respond to their members' needs and react to public opinion. They reflect, as must the law, the needs of the society in which they operate. The failure of either of them to do that could bring them into disrepute. I am sure that your Lordships and the general public will agree that a law not reflecting genuine and obvious needs would suffer, and would deserve to suffer, that fate.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord Thorneycroft
My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to speak after the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Basnett. It falls to me very genuinely to compliment him on the quality of his maiden speech. The noble Lord quite rightly said that he would make a non-controversial speech, but it was no less powerful a speech because it was non-controversial. The points the noble Lord made were made from deep knowledge and with great sincerity and I think they made a deep impression upon the whole House.
1512 I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to whom we are indebted for this debate, that it is indeed an asset for this House to have noble Lords such as the noble Lords, Lord Murray, Lord Basnett and others, who are able to contribute to what is an amazingly important and complex subject. I hope that we shall hear them speak on future occasions and that the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, will often contribute to our discussions.
The debate concerns the Green Paper on trade unions and their members. It is a fairly highly technical paper. I am not a wild enthusiast for every proposal that it puts forward. It is a perfectly good debating paper, a consultation document, but I would agree with the noble Lords, Lord Murray and Lord Basnett, that we ought to listen to what they and other noble Lords have to say before we come to any final conclusion about it. In any event, it is only a continuation of a policy which exists; it adds something to it.
I should like to discuss—and I say this in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Murray—the principles that underline the paper. What are we trying to do to the trade union movement? What is the purpose of the trade union movement, and are these proposals going to help or hinder it? The purpose of the trade unions is not to help a government. It was not the purpose of the trade unions to help Mr. Heath and it is not the purpose of the trade unions—nor should it be—to help Mrs. Thatcher. It was not the purpose of the trade unions to help the noble Lord, Lord Wilson. Anyone who has read Jim Callaghan's book would know that it was not the purpose of the trade unions to help him. If I may say so, if ever there was a man who deserved the help of the trade unions it was Jim—or Sir James as I should now call him.
§ Lord Murray of Epping Forest
My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the fact that the trade union movement helped the government of the day—including Mr. Callaghan's government—to bring down inflation from 28 per cent. to 8 per cent. over three years is a service not to that government but to the nation?
§ Lord Thorneycroft
My Lords, that may be so. Nevertheless, I pursue my argument. If ever there was a man who deserved that assistance, even in the terms which the noble Lord, Lord Murray, has just stated, it was Jim Callaghan. He had devoted his life to preserving the immunities of the trade union movement. He had challenged his Leader, Mr. Wilson, as he then was, who, let us remember, introduced In Place of Strife with Barbara Castle.
For a moment we all thought that at last the Labour Party would do what it was peculiarly fitted to do—introduce some orderly legislation for the trade union movement. Who defeated that? It was not the Tory Party; it was not us in opposition. We all know who defeated that. It was Jim Callaghan. He absolutely wrecked it and tore it to pieces. If there was any man who deserved the help of the trade union movement in any terms that the noble Lord, Lord Murray, would like to describe such help, it was Jim Callaghan. In fact, we had the winter of discontent. The very moment when he most needed help he was abandoned.
1513 I am not criticising the trade unions but trying to face the facts of life. The job of trade unions is not to help politicians but to help their members, and if we are speaking about principles it is as well to get to the reality of them. If that is the attitude of trade unions what should be the attitude of all governments?
I cast my mind back rather a long way—pre-Thatcher—to when Mrs. Thatcher was in opposition in a Shadow Cabinet and the Labour Party was in power and to the situation which then confronted us. We had an income and wages policy. They were under control—more or less under control; rather a "Solomon Binding" sort of control, but control of some kind. We had bargained away the freedom of dividends, so wages were under control and dividends were under control. If you wanted to pay a man more money it was not possible to do so. In industry we were buying men from one another. If a firm was successful it could not pay higher dividends and attract more capital. It could not pay higher wages and attract more men. We were all fixed under a highly centralised system of control.
Inflation was high and inflationary expectations were higher still. I do not want to exaggerate, because the country was not run as badly as all that. Actually the IMF was brought in and was running things rather well. Denis Healey was still in post as Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not think he was allowed to leave the country but he was still there. On balance it is right to say—because one must not exaggerate—that the position was not too bad. However, no one on this earth could have said that we were living in a free society.
It was against that background that the Conservative Party had to think out the policy that it should pursue. It wanted—and I ask the noble Lord, Lord Murray, to accept this as genuine—a free society. It wanted to get the unions back to a position where there could be free collective bargaining. Obviously we could not have free collective bargaining then; it would have been suicide. The Labour Party was not prepared to concede that; no one could with inflation going through the roof. We could not possibly have that. We wanted a high profit, high wage society. We wanted people who were successful to get more money. We wanted workers who were successful to be paid more money. That does not seem to me to be altogether unreasonable.
How did we set about that? We believed that there were two courses we had to pursue. First, we had to lower inflationary expectations. That is one of the principal actions on which we have been engaged over the past eight years. Unless you can lower inflationary expectations no form of trade union policy can succeed. If everyone with a job expects the price of everything to go up and up the next morning, no trade union leader—after all, they are human—can hold the situation. We tried our best and I am bound to say that over eight years this Administration have shown a remarkable degree of success.
That was one leg of the policy. The other leg was to reduce a little the immunities and powers of the trade union movement. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Murray, that we did go slowly on that. Your Lordships 1514 can have no idea of the caution exercised. Jim Prior, who was right, pursued a policy of slowly, slowly. We were pressed all round, mainly by trade union members, to go faster, but the world of the sympathetic strike, the closed shop, the triumvirate in which transport, coal and steel were going to be able to unite together to force their views, all those things were upon us. However, gradually, very gently, we have been enacting legislation until it is now accepted.
This Green Paper is a suggested extension. To tell the truth, I have not the faintest idea whether we should go forward. I think we should be careful about that. However, on the principle I am saying that over a period we made some dramatic changes, very quietly, very carefully, and we matched them with a reduction in inflationary expectations.
What do we do now? The Conservatives will stick to this policy. They will continue to try to hold down inflation. There are many reasons for doing that, but one is that a free society is impossible unless inflation is kept down. There cannot be a sensible trade union movement with inflation going through the roof. Therefore, we shall continue to do that. We shall hold on to the legislation that we have on trade unions. I am sure that Ministers will look very carefully at and listen closely to the lucid, fair and sensible arguments that have been addressed on the suggestions for expanding it in certain fields. No doubt in some cases they will expand the legislation a little and they will reject other suggestions as unnecessary or positively harmful. However, the broad line of the legislation—and that is what matters, not the detail—will undoubtedly be held.
What will the Labour Party do? I want to put this as fairly as possible. It seems to me that it will increase the public's inflationary expectations. I do not think anyone who examines even the most modest account of what a Labour Government would do if returned to power can doubt that there would be an increase in inflationary expectations. What will they do about trade union legislation? It is felt by many that they would begin to erode it. If inflationary expectations are to go up, the immunities are to be returned and the legislation is to be abandoned, there would be a dangerous situation.
I turn to the Alliance. In some ways it seems to me that the Alliance has the most fascinating policy of all. It has set it all out. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, has read it in this admirable little book about the two Davids. It is great stuff. The Time has come is good reading. I recommend it.
David Owen praises General de Gaulle. I do not think he knew that the first thing General de Gaulle did was to abolish proportional representation. Nevertheless, it is frightfully good stuff. I cannot put it down. It goes on to economic policy. But the Alliance's economic policy seems to me to be deeply flawed. It too will increase inflationary expectations. The Alliance admits it frankly. I do not think it would spend as much as the Labour Party, but it will borrow a great deal more money. It asks, why not. It says that we could spend more money. The real flaw in the Alliance's policy is that it says that it could spend more because it will have an incomes policy. This is where I came in. It will have an incomes policy. It will set counter-inflationary limits.
1515 I hope the noble Lord, Lord Murray, is listening to what I have to say. Counter-inflationary limits are just what poor old Jim Callaghan had. That is what we had the winter of discontent about. That is what left rubbish all over the parks and the dead unburied. We do not want to have it all again. I should have thought that by this time we would have learnt one thing—that wages policies do not work.
I think that the trade union movement will agree with me about one thing. It may like or dislike trade union legislation; it may think that this Green Paper is good, bad or indifferent but it would wear almost anything rather than have its right to negotiate the wages and conditions of its workers taken away. After all, that is what trade unions are for. That is what the row in the education unions is about at present. I yield to no one in my admiration for Kenneth Baker, but I do not think that his greatest admirer would suggest that the system of wage fixing in the education world should be translated into the rest of manufacturing industry. That is exactly what the Alliance proposes to do.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, who was talking rather lightly about crippling the role of the trade unions, that the one thing that will cripple it is not whether we do or do not have one of these proposals in the Green Paper but whether we take away its power to negotiate wages and conditions. That is what the Alliance proposes to do. It proposes to introduce the most centralised system of wage control that one could devise. At the back of it it will have an inflation tax.
Really, Roy Jenkins! Roy Jenkins was a member of the Labour Party. He was a party to all that went on. It is true that if one reads Dod's one would not think so. He admits to having some faint association with the Fabian movement, but he leaves out all the stuff about his role in the Labour Party. He was in it all. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, was in it. He was in the Treasury. They know about these things. To suggest today that the Social Democratic Party should try to sell that to its innocent friends in the Liberal Party over there is a bit too much.
One should learn as one goes forward. One should learn from one's own experience or, perhaps better still, from other people's. We have all made a mess of this already. The Labour Party has made a mess of it. The Conservative Party has made a mess of it. I almost invented the thing. Years and years ago when I was a young and innocent President of the Board of Trade, I introduced something called "Three wise men" under Lord Cohen, who sat up all night thinking about what people should be paid. I confess this blushingly to the noble Lord, Lord Murray. That is the sort of thing I did. I was not alone. That is the type of rubbish that every party has done, and now the Alliance wants to do it all over again.
I make this appeal. The Alliance may have a role in government. Not now and with this policy, but one day it may have a role. I beg it to try to get matters somewhere on the level, to have some type of policy, or no policy at all! I think that no policy at all is good for an opposition. It should try to reach the position where it is not hooked on a policy which will play all 1516 over again a gramophone record which we have already heard much too often.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I wish to join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Basnett on a most competent and impressive maiden speech. My noble friend Lord Murray, as a former general secretary of the Trade Union Congress, addressed the House with great authority and from great experience. It is remarkable, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, that this afternoon, for the first time I should imagine, we have a former TUC general secretary and three former members of the TUC general council on the list to make speeches. We have a current serving member of the general council in my noble friend Lady Turner, who will be speaking later. That is a pretty good turnout from yesterday's men and today's women. It shows that trade union leaders never die. They do not even fade away; they turn up in your Lordships' House, where they should be.
I have long been in favour of adding Lords industrial to Lords Spiritual and Temporal so that the viewpoint of a responsible body should be put in your Lordships' House, and, moreover, that they should be held accountable to your Lordships' House for what they do. I see no reason why the Bishops should have 26 seats in this House and the Trade Union Congress none at all. One day the composition of this House will change. I have no doubt that it will become more representative.
The noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, in his usual bantering and blustering speech which we all enjoyed, said that everyone had made a mess of things. I think that that is probably true, because the history of trade union law reads like a parliamentary scrapbook that has been accumulating for the whole of my lifetime and beyond. One can lay that beside a political calendar where Conservative, Liberal and Labour governments have all come into the picture on trade union legislation. What worries me is what lies ahead in this matter of trade union law, organisation, supervision and control.
We are on the eve of a general election. How will this Green Paper fit into the programme for the future? Bear in mind also, my Lords, that we shall have three party manifestos. Each will presumably contain intentions of policies for future government regarding the trade union movement. Does it mean that we shall have a trade union Bill every Session in the foreseeable future? Shall we undo a great deal that has already been done and have an entirely new approach from a new government? Are we ever going to be free of trouble, difficulty and controversy over the law of trade unions? This is what worries me. I do not think that it will help the trade union movement if it is perpetually on the parliamentary and political slab being dissected by the various political parties in order to decide what the ultimate shape of the body politic shall be. We ought to turn our attention a little more closely than we have done to how we shall deal with these matters.
It is obvious from what my noble friend Lord Murray said that consultation between the Government and the Trades Union Congress on all these trade union Bills has virtually broken down. Today we have a Green Paper containing a 1517 considerable number of tricky and sensitive proposals with a date fixed for representations to be received. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said, the Government will consider what the final shape of their proposals will be.
I do not know what message the Minister will take to the Government from this debate on the Green Paper. It will be very mixed in many respects, I have no doubt. I cannot see any clear mandate emerging so far which the Government can regard as so important that they should give it priority in the next Parliament if they are still in government. I believe that if we get future Bills on trade union law we ought to insist on more adequate consultation. We ought to insist on examining these Bills in a Select Committee, or other machinery for the purpose, so that we can deal with these matters after consultation and discussion between the parties concerned.
For example, let us take ballots on the election of executive councils and officers. This House approved an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that we should have postal ballots. The Government then had to reconsider the measure because they had serious misgivings about whether obligatory postal ballots would hold. After some delay between stages of the Bill, the Government said that they had consulted with the trade unions and that postal ballots were a sheer mechanical and administrative impossibility with the existing state of the trade union records.
The unions had to know at least the private addresses of their members for postal ballots, and many unions did not have them; contact was at the workplace. We therefore reached a modified proposal that while the conventional ballot should be by postal ballot, those who could not comply with that requirement should be given a dispensation to have ballots at the workplace. I believe that that is the position today.
Some problems have already arisen in connection with these ballots. I do not deny that before very long it may be necessary to consider whether they can be made uniform. Can we have an electoral system outside the national and local government electoral systems which will be clean and efficient? We may need a separate authority to oversee ballots which are undertaken—especially those undertaken by requirement of the law—to ensure that the ballots are properly conducted and to make a report to that effect to all concerned.
There are other aspects of ballots where difficulties have already arisen. I shall give an example. There are four Civil Service organisations that have previously been involved in discussions with the Treasury on pay in the Civil Service. Since they have not reached agreement on the latest offer it was decided by the four associations concerned that they must ballot their members on industrial action. Two of them received a favourable ballot and two did not.
The result is that that consortium has had to break up. One has four unions, each tied now by the result of a ballot taken in their respective unions, rendering their executive committees absolutely helpless in an endeavour to overcome this deadlock. I do not know who is pleased about this situation, but anybody who looks at it dispassionately must be very worried that two organisations are going ahead with strike action, 1518 with a ballot behind them, and two are staying out because the ballot was against strike action. How does this dispute get settled? Who can conciliate? Who has the authority to do a deal with anybody on any matter in the present circumstances?
I mention this only because this is a new situation, which will have to be resolved somehow, which the observance of the pre-strike ballot has created. We have to bear in mind the strange situations that a simple proposition for ballots before strike action can create.
One proposal in the Green paper attracts me considerably: that for a commissioner. However, I wonder whether a more elaborate organisation than a commission would be suitable as an independent body to take over the responsibility for discussions with the trade union movement and others on trade union organisation, administration and finance. Some people may be horrified at this. They may think, "Oh my God, we are going to have a new bureaucracy looking after the trade union movement". But I suggest that there has to be more accountability to Parliament by pressure groups, organisations, societies, unions, and those who are exerting power and authority and political influence in the community. I believe that all power should be accountable. The greater the power, the more accountable it should be. That is the essence of democracy. It is very difficult indeed for some bodies to be directly accountable to Parliament when Parliament will probably be far too busy to attend to the matters which may arise.
I quote as my example the creation of the Building Societies Commission. I know that one cannot compare the building societies with the trade unions, but they are derived from very similar origins. However, when the building societies were seeking an expansion of their range of activities and entering into financial power and operations far beyond those envisaged by earlier building societies Acts, the Government said that they can have such powers only on condition that there is to be a supervisory body. That statutory body, representative and independent, will have the power to look at organisation, management finance, personnel, and matters of that kind, and will give directions where they feel it to be necessary. Such a body of commissioners might have similar rights to those of the Building Societies Commission to promote statutory instruments for the introduction of regulations dealing with matters which are more suitable to be dealt with by regulation than by statute law.
Do not let us rule out anything in our approach to the trade union problem. We have been at it for a long time. As the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, said a few moments ago, nobody can be very proud of what has been done. I do not think the history of trade union law is any tribute to our glorious past. It is mostly the result of legal judgments, imposing on trade unions intolerable burdens of statute law from which immunities have had to be provided, or of political change. We now see yet again the see-saw of trade union legislation.
Can we go on like this? Is there no end to it? Is one political party going to undo what another has done? Is a third political party going to undo what the other 1519 two have done? What is the sense of going on like this? Since we are so busy organising everybody else's lives and that of bodies outside this House, why can we not give more attention to the obsolescence of many of the procedures in this House and of our way of doing business?
These matters are not suitably debated across the Floor of the House except in unreasonably long hours of Committee stages. After having had recent experience, I am convinced that a Select Committee is much the best way of going into problems in depth, sorting them out so that when they come to your Lordships' House much of the thinking has been done and all of the evidence has been taken.
There have been differences between the two sides of the House on trade union Bills in the past. Amendments have been carried which the Government have not liked and which they have wanted to change. I have already given an account of an occasion of that kind. I hope that we can consider these problems a little more closely before the time comes when we have to deal with another trade union Bill.
The trade unions are entitled to a period of relative stability. As the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, said, a lot has to be digested from the legislation which we already have. All these propositions in the Green Paper are arguable. Some of them appeal to me much more than others. I think we are right to look at questions of individual liberty in the trade union movement as well as elsewhere. We are right to look at the treatment of dissenters in the trade union movement, as we have to look at the treatment of dissenters anywhere else. I have a strong disposition towards dissenters and I am very interested in how they are treated.
I fought hard in the Parliamentary Labour Party and succeeded, as noble Lords will recall, in getting rid of the religious conscientious objection for three-line Whips there, and the trade union legislation regarding exception from closed shops. I have made a stand for people who want to dissent on grounds of deeply-held personal convictions no matter whether or not they believe in God. We must stand up for individuals everywhere unless, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said in a most excellent analysis of the situation, granting tolerance to dissenters and to minorities is a substantial injury to the interests of the majority.
I think the interests of the whole must take precedence over the rights of the few, especially when in many cases the remedy of the rights of the few is for them to get out of and remain outside the body with which they would otherwise be required to conform. I hope that we are not going to be bothered with this piece of legislation for the time being, but I profoundly hope that if there is a change of government the new government will consider whether it will be in the interests of the trade unions or those of anybody else to start turning over what has already been done without giving a fair trial to the legislation on the statute book. This is a matter of political judgment. The time will come when both Houses will have to deal with the consequences.
1520 There is much else that can be said about trade unions, but time does not permit and some of them are not germane to the Green Paper. However, I think they will have to be debated very widely before long. I sincerely hope that we can discuss these things with reasonable calm and lack of controversy. Your Lordships' House is probably the most unbiased assembly for debating trade union matters that I know of, because everywhere else it is one-sided. One might say that almost everything is one-sided which comes forward on behalf of trade unions, from wherever it comes. It is one-sided if it comes from a Conservative Government; it is one-sided if it comes from a Labour Government; it is one-sided if it comes from the TUC.
The Labour proposals on the future of trade unions are stuffed with rights. Now and again I like to see a reference to duties and obligations when one is establishing rights. All that went by the board when we had the Bullock Committee and there was an attempt to find a basis on which a new era of co-operation could be formulated, with good will on all sides, and based on the experience of Europe. That was no more successful than the attempt of the Labour Governments' In Place of Strife in 1969. There followed the Conservative Act of 1971, and that was repealed by the Labour Government in 1974. And so we go on.
I plead for some inward looking, some self-criticism, in Parliament itself about the way in which we are handling these matters. Let us ensure that they are properly discussed elsewhere if we cannot spare enough time to do it ourselves.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, it seems to have escaped the notice of your Lordships that the whole of this debate is out of order. The Order Paper refers to a Green Paper, Trade Unions and Their Powers. The title of the Green Paper which has been expounded to us by the Minister is Trade Unions and Their Members. However, I propose not to avail myself entirely of the licence which being out of order offers but only a little in order to take up some of the general points made first by the noble Lord, Lord Murray, and then by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester.
Both of them talked about the idea of trade unionism, of the ideas that went into discussing matters affecting the trade union movement, about legislation concerning it and also about its history. I thought that they were not sufficiently radical in their appreciation of the degree of change or of the nature of the anxiety which may exist in sections of the public about the trade unions in their current position. It has been well established that the real Green Paper dealing with trade unions and their members continues a line of legislation in certain detailed respects which has been argued about. One may or may not accept that as valid, or one may accept it in part and reject it in part, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, does.
But this is to assume that the problems of trade unionism are those that were described in relation to the last century—of the development of corporate action, of collective action, to deal with exploitation by private employers in search of greater profit. The ideology of trade unionism, like other ideologies which have existed for a long time, cannot altogether escape 1521 its origins. Yet the trade union movement today as it affects most citizens is not the trade union movement represented in private industry or commerce. It is that very large section of the trade union movement which represents people in public employment. The problems there created do not seem to me to be addressed by the Green Paper. There is no particular reason why they should be, but they ought to be ventilated at a time when we are considering legislation that may or may not come before a future Parliament.
The most important of these changes seems to me to be that there has been some departure from the original principle of trade unionism that was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, in his notable maiden speech and by other noble Lords—the principle that trade unions and the leaders of trade unions are primarily concerned with the physical and to some extent, if you like, moral welfare of their members. They were there to defend their members. But it is now clear that in some trade unions, or in parts of some trade unions, a rather different approach has been adopted; namely, that it is also proper for trade unions, or parts of trade unions, to use their bargaining powers to affect the policies of the bodies that employ them, irrespective of the immediate and direct effect of such policies upon their conditions of employment or their remuneration. It is obvious that this is the case in aspects of local government.
It is indeed curious—this is the only point I should like to put to the Minister—that the long and detailed report of the Widdicombe Committee on the operations of local government nowhere considers under that particular head the effect which may have come about in aspects of local government from the increasing influence of trade unions, either through elected councillors or through co-opted members of committees. Whether or not one regards that as a desirable development, it is certainly a relatively new development. It is one we shall certainly not seek to legislate about and perhaps can hardly debate unless we have an inquiry at least as detailed and thorough as that which the Widdicombe Committee made into other aspects of local government.
One is bound therefore to take anecdotal examples. One which is familiar is the position of certain members of the teaching unions in ILEA. We have been told by Mrs. Frances Morrell, who is not, I hasten to add, a natural pin-up of Conservative Central Office, that the ability of ILEA to make the best use of its undoubtedly and always necessarily limited resources has been handicapped by the unwillingness of trade unionists in the teaching profession to be redeployed from schools where the demand is falling to those where it is rising. That is to say that the ability of a local authority to carry out the policy for which presumably, as it was an elected body, it has a public mandate is frustrated by union action which is not directly concerned with the traditional motives of trade unionism.
I think I would go further than that and take up again a point made by the right reverend Prelate: that is to say, that it may be that the ideology of trade unionism—of collective action which was and remains wholly appropriate for certain occupations or certain groups of citizens—may become much more question- 1522 able when taken up by others. I think that for members of the medical profession to behave in the way which was described to us by the right reverend Prelate suggests a corruption of the professional conscience by motives which I think are inappropriate there, though they might well have been appropriate to other groups of employees.
I am certain that this is the case in respect of the present disputes in the teaching profession. I believe the teaching profession has suffered enormously from the imposition upon many of its members of an ideology of trade unionism which is inappropriate in a professional context and which allows its members to behave in ways which a generation ago would have been regarded as wholly inappropriate and unprofessional. For trade union leaders to pride themselves, as Mr. Fred Jarvis does, upon finding ways by which teachers can withdraw their work and disrupt the education of their pupils without suffering financially (as they would in a genuine strike) seems to me something which, if the trade union movement were to look into its heart, it might find it possible roundly to condemn.
There is all the difference in the world between men who have been employed saying to their employer, "Rather than put up with your conditions or your wages, we shall go out on strike; we shall put up with the financial consequences, with the losses that we shall suffer", and for a group of allegedly professional people to say, "We have found a way by which we can make the lives of our clients intolerable without sacrificing anything".
It is said that this kind of thing is all right because it has the backing of a conference. This is where there is some link between our consideration of secret ballots or other forms of balloting and other forms of decision-making. I am not inclined to think that the fact that a conference has decided upon a course of action of this kind exonerates the members or their leaders from responsibility. The teaching profession in the schools—I am thinking now of the secondary schools in particular—has rightly said that the new secondary school examination, the GCSE, involves considerable changes in their practices; it involves learning new syllabuses; it involves preparing lessons and methods of appraisal of a different kind. The teachers have said loudly—there is no doubt a foundation for it—that they have been very pressed for time. Professional people pressed for time in respect of their professional avocation, with a week's holiday and more in the case of teachers at Easter, would have spent that time getting up these new skills and learning these new requirements rather than trotting off to the seaside to pass resolutions.
§ Lord Beloff
I know that conferences have been the lifeblood of the trade union movement, but this again is an historical fact and an historical accident. It was splendid no doubt for people who had been down the mine or on the shop floor to find a reason to have a week at the seaside. It is hardly necessary for those workers in the teaching profession who enjoy the longest holidays of any employed group in the country. Their complaints about lack of time would 1523 ring more true if they did not apparently find their time so easy to dispose of on matters of this kind.
It is therefore an important aspect of what we are considering to wonder whether the whole notion of collective bargaining and corporate action should be looked at again in the light of a society which is totally different from the society of the first half of the 19th century, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, in which employment is in different ways, in which the pattern of society is different and in which people's lifetime experience is different. I can only echo what I think was said by another noble Lord. While at times people may have been worried by the radicalism of the trade union movement, today the major worry must be its conservatism. It is its conservatism which prevents those consultations which, like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I think should and always should precede changes in the law. But for consultations to proceed, they must proceed from a common grounding in the facts and a common appreciation of where we are and where we are going.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Lord Denning
My Lords, I think that I am one of the first to speak from the Cross Benches, apart, of course, from the right reverend Prelate. The theme I desire to develop is that we have quite enough legislation on the statute book at the moment and we do not not want any more in the next Parliament, whenever that may be.
I view it—as a judge I have had to view it—historically, because trade union legislation has been the to and fro of politics for the whole of this century. It is well to know the conditions. I start with the Taff Vale case where the railway workers at Cardiff were grossly underpaid. The union agreed upon a strike in order to improve their conditions. What was the result? The Taff Vale company brought the celebrated action against the union and the House of Lords held that the union itself could be made liable for damages and that those damages could be taken out of the funds so laboriously collected to benefit the men in their ill-health, old age or unemployment.
The country would not stand for the trade unions being penalised in this way when they were only defending and hoping to preserve or improve the conditions of their members. And so, in the Trade Union Act 1906, the Liberal-Labour alliance gave complete immunity to trade unions in respect of any action for wrongdoing; not only that, but, for their leaders, immunity concerning any action which they might take—and these are the golden words:in contemplation of furtherance of a trade dispute".That was the 1906 Act.
The Act did a great deal of good, if I may so. It enabled collective bargaining and collective action in support of those who were downtrodden. The trade unions did it well for a long time. That is the real role of trade unions—to look after their members, their terms and conditions of employment, and so on. That is what they did.
Unfortunately, it went too far. In the succeeding years—I jump here from 1906 to 1970—the unions increased their powers enormously by operating the closed shop not only with a single employer but 1524 throughout a whole industry. There was the case of a musician, Mr. Bonsor, who did not pay his union subscriptions regularly. As a result, he was expelled from the Musicians Union. As the musical sphere is a closed shop, he could not get any work and he was left removing the rust from Brighton pier. In the case of Mr. Bonsor, a trade union was taking its powers too far. It penalised, turning out of his job a little man who quite innocently had forgotten to pay his subscriptions. I forget the date of the case, but there it is. It was not the only case.
We have had cases in the courts of insistence on the rule book, expulsion of members quite unjustly, their removal from office and the like. Unions went too far in regard to their own members but also in regard to the population at large. There was action not only against employers but secondary action against other businesses and firms and picketing of their businesses. There was blacking. There was no end of abuses of trade union power. That was why, in 1970, when the Conservative Government came to power, they did their best by the Industrial Relations Act 1971 to put the matter right.
I do not want to criticise anyone. Their efforts were well intentioned but the Act did not work. I have often been accused of being against trade unions. Not a bit of it. In the Heaton case we decided, on the wording of the statute, that the trade union, its officers and people in London were not responsible for what the shop stewards did without authority on the ground floor at the port of Hull. As a result, a newspaper—I think it was The Times—came out with the statement:Trade union politicians on the left and the right had no doubt that the judgment of the Court of Appeal had driven a coach and horses through the Industrial Relations Act".That was our decision; So I would hope that I am quite independent.
As the trade unions could not be sued, the Industrial Relations Court took action against the individual dockers going so far—because they stayed outside the gates of some factory or other—as to send them to prison for contempt of court. The first three dockers were let out; then another five were released. However, the unions had gone too far in putting working people into prison for asserting what were their rights. Naturally, the country did not stand for that.
A new government, elected in 1974, went too far, repealing the 1971 Act of the Conservatives and extending immunities by Acts of 1974 and 1976. They went too far in giving trade union immunities.
So to 1978. I am afraid that I got into trouble then. I said in a speech in Canada:The greatest threat to the rule of law is posed today by the big trade unions. One of the biggest problems is how to restrain the misuse or abuse of power".It got back to England, and the Haldane Society said openly in the press, "Lord Denning should resign because of the extreme anti-trade union attitudes revealed by a series of recent decisions." My Lords, I did not resign.
The position—the real reason for an alteration—was that the trade unions had gone too far. They had abused and misused their power. Innocent people who took no part in any strike were damaged and inconvenienced beyond reason. Then the 1525 Conservative Government came into power. It was said at the time, if I may quote Shakespeare,Oh! it is excellentTo have a giant's strength, hut it is tyrannousTo use it like a giant.That is what the trade unions had done.
I will not go much further because I have almost finished my story. We have had the trade union Acts of 1980, 1982 and 1984. In my judgment they have done a great deal of good, but they have not gone far enough. I need not go through them all. The analysis is well set down in the consultation paper.
Balloting before strikes is, of course, excellent. Although there are a few matters which need not be dealt with now, let me take that one. To repeat the quotation from the Green Paper to which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, referred:More important, however, are the issues of principle. The Government believes that a decision to take industrial action should be a matter for the individual. Every union member should be free to decide for himself whether or not he wishes to break his contract of employment".My Lords, just think! That, it seems to me, would be destructive of collective action, collective bargaining—one of the foundations of trade union authority and power. It is only because people in the old days worked together and agreed together to go on strike, or whatever, that they had the power and the influence. Collective bargaining, collective action—that is essential in modern society. It is one of the pillars of the trade union movement. I am afraid that this provision, if it were introduced would be destructive of a most important role of the trade unions: collective bargaining, trade union recognition, and so forth. I merely offer this and other matters for thought.
The closed shop has been one of the foundations of trade union power. No one could take employment unless he were a member of the union. To go contrary to that meant that he could be dismissed from his job. It has been controlled by statutory provisions. There has to be 80 or 85 per cent. agreement beforehand on the closed shop. Does that not go far enough?
It is now suggested—this is in a provision on the closed shop—that there should be immunity for any action in regard to a closed shop. The Green Paper says that,immunity should be removed from all industrial action designed to create or maintain a closed shop".I do not think that that would be right. A closed shop is a feature of the trade union movement. If it has been approved by 80 to 85 per cent. of workers in the industry, why should it not remain?
I throw these matters out for consideration. I suggest that, good as the document is—and one has now had the benefit of listening to the arguments of both sides—it is better to let things settle down a little. The trade union statutes passed in 1980, 1982 and 1984, if I may say so, are first class. Let them work their way through. Is it necessary to go further? Certainly not without consultation.
There are two remaining points that I should like to make. The rule book of the trade union is not a contract, as the courts have said. The courts have held that any man who signs on in a union is bound by the rules in the rule book as if it were an agreed contract. 1526 Those rules give the power to expel if members do not go on strike. The rule books are really not contracts; they are a series of bye-laws laid down by the authorities of the trade unions. They ought to be revised. If there were a trade union commissioner the rule books ought to be reframed and put into good, sensible terms so that people can understand them. The power should not be used in any harsh or oppressive way. I should like to see all trade unions adopting a modern rule book.
As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, suggested, a trade union commissioner could look into these matters. If wrong was done to a member, he could inquire into it. I have one thought arising from what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said. Ought there to be some restraint on those who seek to strike in an essential industry, whether it be water, electricity, health or education? Ought not consideration to he given to putting some limit on the right to strike in essential industries?
Those are my thoughts. To sum up, as I said earlier, perhaps the best way is not to interfere with the present legislation. Let it settle down and let us go into the next Parliament, whenever it is, without this again being made a subject for political controversy.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Irvine of Lairg
My Lords, in the forefront of the Green Paper is the proposal to give union members a statutory right, in all circumstances, not to be disciplined by their union for failing to take part in industrial action. So a union has a secret ballot; a major vote in favour of strike action; the democratic decision is for a strike. As the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, put it in what was a commanding maiden speech, the minority are to have a statutory licence not to take part. The union is to be powerless to enforce the will of the majority.
What an extraordinary vision of democracy that is! According to the Government, the correct principle is that:a decision to take industrial action should be a matter for the individual".That proposal exposes hostility to effective collective action where a democratic decision has been arrived at. The essence of effective collective action is solidarity. Effective collective action cannot be mounted if a dissident minority is given a statutory licence to do as it chooses, as the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, said.
Surely a dissident minority should not be allowed to undermine the decision of the democratic minority. Surely the minority is being undemocratic in refusing to support the decision of the majority. The whole point of a ballot is to determine the majority view. That view should then prevail. There is no justification for allowing a person to remain a member of a union, not subject to any sanction, to be an active participant in its decision-making processes, to enjoy all the benefits of membership, while at the same time refusing to support the decision of the majority after a lawful and secret ballot. I was delighted to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, bring all the authority and experience at his command to identify the dangers of the proposal, if carried into effect, and 1527 what injury would be caused to free collective bargaining.
At the outset of the debate I heard the noble Lord. Lord Boyd-Carpenter, assure the House that the proposals contained in the Green Paper were not concerned with the balance of power between the employer and the employed, but were concerned with ensuring a proper balance within unions. With respect, I beg to differ. A proposal which diminishes a union's capacity to call effective industrial action in which all its members will join is plainly concerned with the balance of power between employers and employed, and it reduces that balance to the disadvantage of working people.
I also heard the noble Lord and the Minister extol the virtue of the proposal in the Green Paper to have a commission to ensure that union members can enforce these new statutory rights against their unions. The Green Paper provides that the commissioner would underwrite the plaintiff's legal costs involved in the court action. It might also be possible as an alternative that the commissioner could act in his own name on the complainant's behalf or jointly with the complainant. This is in sharp contrast with the continued refusal of this Government to make legal aid available to complainants for compensation for unfair dismissal against employers who, equally in breach of statutory duty, have unfairly dismissed them. Therefore public funds are to be made available to support legal action by workers against their union, but there are no funds available for legal aid for workers claiming against their employers compensation for unfair dismissal and for reinstatement in their jobs. In these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that many regard the proposals in the Green Paper as one-sided.
The proposal is fundamentally unsound for the reason that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, identified. In the Green Paper the Government seek to bolster a fundamentally unsound proposal by bad argument. First, it is stated that strikers are liable to their employer in damages for breach of contract. In practice that is not a very serious point; such actions are very rare. More seriously, the Green Paper provides that the employer, if he dismisses all employees for striking and does not selectively reinstate any of them, is by statute immune from unfair dismissal claimed. That is quite true. It is undoubtedly a mighty weapon in the hands of employers. It puts strikers at grave risk of permanent loss of livelihood.
The argument in the Green Paper runs in this way. An individual should be free to decide for himself whether or not to run those grave risks. To my mind, it is a form of argumentation which relies on old injustices to justify new injustices. Surely the correct principle should be that if a strike is approved by the majority in a lawful and secret ballot those who strike should be deemed not to be in breach of contract. The employer should not be able to dismiss them all with impugnity. In order that I need not be reminded, I shall acknowledge that employers have had the right to dismiss all strikers with impugnity under the legislation as it stood under previous administrations.
1528 However, the question today, when we are being consulted and asked for our views in principle, is: is it right or wrong in principle? We are told that this debate is part of a consultation process. I enjoy being consulted; I am accustomed to being consulted. On this point I offer the following advice to the Minister. It must surely be wrong in principle for statute to lay down, as it does, that it is automatically fair to dismiss strikers who have acted in accordance with a majority decision, arrived at by secret ballot in accordance with procedures laid down by Parliament. The industrial tribunal should be allowed to decide, in the circumstances of every case, whether it is fair or unfair to go to the extreme lengths of dismissing all the strikers. The arguments in this part of the Green Paper will persuade the enemies of any effective industrial action. They should persuade no one else.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I intervene in this debate. I propose to take trade unions down to the local level, dealing with local trade union members. I shall deal with the position of those local level employed trade union members as touched upon by my noble friend Lord Beloff. From the outset I make clear that even now I am a trade union member and I have been president of my local trade union in Oxford. I therefore wish to speak not on high politics, not on high law, but on the ordinary person at the grass roots.
I seek to make two points. The first is the power of the minority over the majority in relation to local committee structure. Some years ago when I was working as a chief officer in local government I had a deputation from all my staff. I could see that something was very wrong and they accused me of altering their method of pay, although at that stage not the figure. I said that it had nothing to do with me. I said that I was a chief officer, a trade union member, and that their trade union had asked for it to be done.
I went on to say, "Your trade union negotiated this with the treasurer's department and therefore you are grumbling about your own mistake". They said, "Well, we are very busy. We are hard-worked, we have not got time to attend the local committee and anyway, if we do, that committee goes on for such ages and talks such rubbish that we simply have not time to stay". I said, "But that is hardly my fault, and if you will not attend your trade union meetings or find out what your local trade union has done, please don't blame me, as your employer".
I make this point, hoping that perhaps something may be done. I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that legislation does not put everything right, but a climate of opinion does put things right. I enjoin all trade union members at local level to take part in their trade union meetings. I do not think it is right that a number of people should belong to a trade union and benefit by what it brings for them without having any duties towards that union and towards doing work for that union. If the minority stays on until twelve or one in the morning, talking a lot of balderdash in order to get through the committee something which they know their colleagues would not want, I can only say that it really is the members' own fault. Therefore I enjoin trade union members to 1529 remember that if they belong to a trade union they should experience the responsibility of doing so and should not allow the minority to control the majority.
I have to say that in many cases where I have had to deal with strikes in my department—I am thankful to say they did not often happen but, speaking as a director of social services, it was a very serious thing when it did happen—many of the trade union members came to me privily and said, "We don't want to strike but we have to strike". I was tempted to say to them, "Well, why didn't you speak up at an earlier stage, at an earlier level in your local committee?" I quite realise that this is somewhat outside the Green Paper, but I would ask my noble friend the Minister and also my fellow trade unionists—that is to say, I belong to a trade union—whether we cannot somehow engender a good local committee structure which is democratic. That is my first point.
My second point is one which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff; that is, the relationship of the trade unions to professions and to professional workers. Some time ago during a debate in your Lordships' House I asked the Minister on the Front Bench whether consideration could be given to the creation of a social work council. In this country there is no council for social work that makes social workers accountable. I ask for a social work council, first, to accredit social workers; secondly, to set standards; and, thirdly, to deal with difficulties arising in the social work field.
I have made this recommendation in your Lordships' House after consultation with eight social worker professional organisations both in the statutory and in the voluntary sectors. It is with very great regret that I have to say a high official in my own union said, "We are not going to have that". I said to him, "But this is a professional matter; it is a matter for our profession; it is for us to set professional standards—and goodness knows they need to be set—and I do not think this is the role of trade union officials".
The matter has become very confused as to what the role of the trade union is. The noble Lord, Lord Chapple, is to follow me and I hope that he will tell me what the terms of reference of a trade union are. I have always understood that the trade union was there to look after the wellbeing of its members and to promote their welfare, but I have tried to look up in the Library today where it says that the trade unions shall take part in the professional decisions, professional work, professional advice and professional structuring of any work, whether it be teaching, social work, medicine or nursing. I think it is very important that this point should be clarified. At the moment there is great confusion as regards the world of the professions and for those at the grass roots. In particular there is confusion for those of us who have had to run large departments. Therefore I would say just two things. I hope that somehow and at some time we will not allow the minority to control the majority. Secondly, I hope that we will be quite clear as to what the role of trade unions is.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Lord Chapple
My Lords, I must first apologise for having missed the first four speeches of the debate. 1530 Then I must go on to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, on the sincerity and the passion of his maiden speech. However, I must say that in 50 years of trade union membership my experiences are different from those of my colleagues, although the experiences of my union replicate the experiences of all other unions. Despite the numerous mentions that my union gets in this Green Paper, I do not share the view that what we were able to do in our union is not possible in any other union because the membership of our union is more stable than the membership of all the other unions.
I cannot understand those who say that you cannot have postal ballots in trade unions because their administration is so chaotic that they simply will not work. I just do not understand how anyone can be serious in attributing, as my colleagues do and certainly I have done, great motives and great purpose to the trade union movement—in some misplaced actions trade unions have even threatened the very existence of governments—and then say that they cannot have postal ballots simply because they do not have a decent administration. That simply does not make sense or hold any water.
I hope that if the noble Lord, Lord Murray, did not explain it to the House, perhaps the noble Baroness who is to wind up the debate for the Opposition will tell us how we came to have the policy of accepting government money for education purposes and numerous other things, but saying it was wrong to take government money in order to have a decent postal balloting system. I know that policy has changed, but it would be interesting to know how we came by such a policy in the first place. Why was it so objectionable for the rank and file members of a trade union to have a ballot at their home and vote upon who should be the leader of a particular trade union?
Therefore, as I say, although my personal experiences are different from the experiences of my colleagues, my union's experiences are similar to the experiences of all other unions. We have had our share of difficulties over operating agreements both in respect of employers and of recalcitrant members. However, my own experience in respect of ballots is not the naïve one portrayed in this paper, which says that with workshop ballots one gets a greater participation. It goes on to list the instances.
The problem with the investigations that have taken place into this and into the malpractices of certain unions in recent times is that they were not deep enough or serious enough. The people who talked about workshop ballots being the way to greater participation simply had not had my experiences of being offered ballot papers of other unions to fill in when certain elections were on. Everyone knows that the shop steward whose member tells him that he does not want a ballot paper helps him out by filling it in for him or goes round collecting them out of the waste-paper baskets in the office where they have been thrown and fills them in.
It may be difficult to police that practice. Therefore the notion of postal balloting is, in my view, the only sensible one if one wishes to have reasonably fair electoral practices in trade unions. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, who will wind up 1531 the debate for the Opposition may enlighten us on why it is right to live in an electoral democracy but not have the right to elect people who can seriously affect the decisions of the government of the day. I have never understood the view taken by my colleagues.
There are a great many technical matters contained in the Green Paper. I agree with a part of the comments made by my noble friend Lord Irvine of Lairg in respect of balloting before strikes. I say at this point that I have never agreed with the notion that every tiny dispute that ever occurred necessitated members being balloted before it took place. However, I have agreed that disputes which threaten major portions of industry, or perhaps the whole country, should be balloted.
However, having said that, then to say that the union, having conducted a ballot, then has no power at all over the member who wishes to go to work is carrying it too far. To say that this is a free country and that the man who does not agree with the decision of the ballot should be allowed to go to work is one thing, but then to say that the union cannot take any action against him, that it must allow that member to continue his membership of the union, even though he has gone to work after a ballot in which the majority of his fellows have decided that a dispute should take place, is an attitude that cannot be sustained.
What is more, in the long run I believe that it will prove dangerous to the development of good industrial relations and it may prove in the end to be dangerous to democracy itself. I agree with what my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby had to say on this point. I worry about the amount of legislation and changes in the existing legislation that the Government seem to be proposing in this document.
Again, it is not stated in the document, but the implications are that the unions have been responsible for all our economic ills and are now in a position where the Government can give them the coup de grace. It is implied that the unions are down and out and the Government can now wipe them out. I do not believe that that is possible. The unions may decline as regards numbers of members due to changes in their industrial status and changes in industry itself. The unions themselves will have to make changes to meet those changes. However, if the majority of the population gets the impression that the Government are merely acting punitively against the trade unions to disadvantage them in their negotiations with employers, that situation will soon change.
I do not believe that there is any electoral merit in projecting such a view. If all the proposed changes in this document are carried through, with the exception of altering the issue of balloting arrangements for the leaders of the unions, there could well be not just greater industrial unrest but a threat to the democratic institutions of the country itself.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I shall begin, as has every noble Lord who has spoken in the debate following the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Basnett, by extending to him my deep thanks and appreciation for bringing not just to this debate but to I am sure all the debates in which he will participate 1532 during the time that he will be with us the wisdom and sagacity which was a hallmark of his active trade union life. I am certain that when this debate is read, as it will be by many people outside the House, his contribution will be seen to be one of the wisest in a debate which I believe is notable for effective contributions from all sides of the House. I am very grateful and privileged to have the opportunity of speaking in the same debate.
I also wish to begin by saying what a pleasure it was to listen to the experience and wisdom of my noble friend Lord Murray of Epping Forest who spoke from the Labour Front Bench. Without going into the detail of the many points that he made, he left the very deep impression upon the House that what counts just as much as what is said is what one knows, has experienced and has seen.
The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who opened the debate, stressed that the Green Paper was a consultative document. He placed a very heavy responsibility upon the Minister to interpret fairly the word "consultation". Those who were in the House earlier today will recall that I took part in a short exchange with another Minister on what I think was a parody of consultation with British Rail in respect of fares and commissions. It all depends what one means by that. I am directing my remarks to the Minister who has been helpful to me on many occasions over the past two or three years. He has a very serious responsibility to ensure that all of the illusions, the fears and the allegations which have been made about whether the Green Paper is a charade and whether the Government are serious and have made up their mind can be put at nought. He must ensure that the consultation will be meaningful, that our words will be listened to and that the submissions from trade unions, employers and others will be given due weight by the Government. If his ministerial colleague winds-up by stressing the point that there will be genuine consultation which, to be fair, the Minister made when opening the debate, we shall have had a useful discussion.
In reading in the newspaper this morning—it is not the Guardian so the Minister can relax!—the comments of some of the Guardian writers who have moved to The Independent, I read the article by Mr. Peter Jenkins. That stated that the:Green Paper, on which the CBI and the TUC have now made their views known, contains only what look to be the scrapings from the bottom of the barrel served up in the hope of keeping the union question going as a vote winner".That view is widely shared. One must question why the Government have a compulsion and an obsession regularly and periodically to review trade union legislation. I say to the Minister as a life-long paid-up trade unionist to this day of the National Association of Co-operative Officials that the trade union movement looks with real suspicion at the Green Paper. In that regard my noble friend Lord Basnett asked some very fair questions. He asked who was demanding this legislation and who it would benefit. I declare a direct interest as I have an association with the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers. It may be helpful to the debate and to the Minister to relate not merely arguments but the direct impact on one trade union if many of these proposals are acted upon. The Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers and many others firmly believe that it is the 1533 intention of the Green Paper—if it ever becomes a Bill—to reject the principle and theory of collective bargaining and activity.
We have illustration after illustration of the nonsense that a trade union, whether it likes it or not—and many unions were dragged to this situation—is now in a position where it can comply with the law, where it can carry out its obligations and duties and where it has an obligation, by virtue of a mandate given to it by a compulsory ballot, but cannot operate its rules.
Let me tell the House of a number of ways in which I find this Green Paper objectionable. The Minister will have a job to reassure me, but I shall listen to him. The Green Paper gives workers a legal right to cross a picket line where the majority of members in a union have voted for strike action. I think that is wrong. The Minister can help to convince us on this. The Green Paper denies trade unionists the right to implement their disciplinary rules where individual members break union rules. A union will be denied the right to operate its own rules.
The Green Paper gives individual members the right to look at any union's financial accounts at any time. If I am misinterpreting the Green Paper, the Minister will tell me. It seeks to end the closed shop even where 85 per cent. of the employees have voted for it under the Act. It seeks to force trade unionists to vote only by postal ballot for union elections, regardless of union rules, and to elect general secretaries every five years by this method. The Green Paper gives individual members who are unwilling to accept the will of the majority the right to government financial support in bringing legal action against their union. The Minister has a very serious job in convincing me, the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers and the trade union movement generally that the Green Paper is fair, just, equitable and necessary in 1987 or 1988.
Let me tell the Minister and his advisers who I know are well briefed, of the conflict which exists in the shop workers' union. On the question of members being disciplined or expelled for refusing to act on a call for industrial action from the union, there is a definite conflict with the rule book as it stands.
The rule book of the shop workers reads under Number 32:Disputes and victimisation:Section 1: … the Executive Council may call upon all members of the Union directly or indirectly concerned, or any part of them, as may be deemed necessary, to withdraw their labour. Should any member refuse to obey such instructions he shall forthwith be expelled from the Union".If the Green Paper is enacted in legislation, that rule will be in contradistinction to the law. That is a rule that has been freely negotiated, entered into and approved and no doubt over the years amended and consolidated by the majority of the union.
The Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers is democratic, is accountable and is responsible. I happened to be at its annual conference in Blackpool this week and the union is very concerned about the way in which the rights of members are being whittled away in a range of ways. The Minister must give us some more concrete evidence as to why a union should 1534 be faced with a conflict of that kind. The noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who is invariably in her place, asked: what is the purpose of a trade union? It was a legitimate question which we all ask, even if we feel that we know the answer. Its purpose is to protect, to strengthen, to give an effective voice and to articulate the will of the majority of its members.
No organisation or association can ever say on behalf of 10 million or 1 million members that it speaks for them all. There are divisions. But in our democracy, which I think the Minister respects, as we all do, there is a minority and a majority. What we are saying is that the effect of the Green Paper, whether by design or not—and I make no allusions—will be to destroy the basic principle of solidarity. I am not talking about secondary picketing and so on. I am talking about the solidarity of a trade union and its members who feel that they are able to act as one.
On the question of the general implications and the major legal limits, the Green Paper gives a legal right to members to continue working despite the majority having been in favour of a strike. I simply say to the Minister that that is not only unacceptable; it is un-understandable, particularly in the light of what this Government have said for seven years has been the raison d'etre of the change in the way trade unions are organised.
Let me raise again the question of the rule book and the matter of acceptance. When anyone joins a trade union—and we realise that many people join far too lightly—and the question of reading the rule book arises, he signs a form which says in effect that he has understood. In the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers, as in many others, an individual declares that he will abide by the union's rules and regulations. Yet the Government's proposal denies this element of free association by making unlawful those parts of the rules and regulations made and agreed by the members which seek to impose penalties on members who flagrantly breach their conditions of membership.
May I very quickly turn to the question of union funds? I wonder whether the Minister and his advisers have taken on board the conflict for the trustees of union funds. A statutory duty will be imposed on all trade union trustees to prevent funds being spent in defiance of court orders. Yet in the rules of many trade unions, and certainly in the rules of USDAW, there are clear obligations upon the trustees to act in accordance with the advice, requests and instructions of the executive committee.
Let me quote from Number 13 of the rule book of USDAW, which states in Section 4b that trustees shall be required to,pay over to the Executive Council, or to such persons as they may appoint, such sums as may be required for the claims and expenses of the Union from the funds applicable thereto".I say to the Minister that if there is to be genuine consultation there must be a period when those with responsibility in these matters have an opportunity with colleagues to argue the implications for the union, because it is not just a question of putting a piece of legislation on the statute book.
I now want to talk about inspecting the accounts. I wonder whether the Minister has taken on board the 1535 mischief that can be caused. In the shop workers' union there are 400,000 members, and in some unions there are 700,000 or even 1 million members. Those who wish to do so will have an opportunity to disrupt, disaffect and interfere if there is an an untrammelled right to ask at any time to inspect any aspect of a union's accounts, knowing that on many occasions the accounts may be unaudited. They may not yet be in correct order. We are not talking in terms of anything untoward. We are simply talking in terms of the state of preparation of a set of accounts. The Minister and his colleagues ought to take that point on board.
Finally, the Government may very well feel that what they have sought to do is to return a union to its members and to make them more interested in democracy. Yet all the indications I have are that in postal ballots, which have happened since the previous legislation, there are not more people taking part but fewer. I raise the question of making the mainspring of this proposal the postal ballot. I believe in postal ballots, as do most if not all of your Lordshsips. However, they should not be the sole answer in every trade union and in every circumstance. It may well be that there are other ways in which such matters should be raised.
I believe that the Government have made up their minds that there are many people outside your Lordships' House who believe that there is a missing piece in the jigsaw for reforming trade unions. I happen to share the view of many people who wonder why the Government have rushed the Green Paper out in advance of what clearly, even in February of this year, was seen to be a pre-election period. I believe that the Government genuinely felt that this issue would be a vote winner and that there are people who will wish to continue the gradual undermining of the trade union movement and trade unionism by this Government over the past seven years.
I believe that the more people look at the unfairness, inequity and injustice of many of the proposals, the more they will say to the Government, "Although we wish to support you, you should think again about this aspect of the matter". I look forward very much to hearing what the Minister or his colleague may have to say tonight or at any other time.
§ 7.13 p.m.
§ Lord Elibank
My Lords, I think that there is a fair measure of consensus in this country that some of the economic decline that we have suffered over the past three or four decades has been due in part to the behaviour of the trade unions and their members. That is not the only reason. However, it is one of the main reasons and it follows from that that the present Government have embarked on the various legislative measures which they have undertaken. That is why we have in front of us today the Green Paper which seeks our views on proposals for new legislation.
On the whole, I should like to support the proposals in the Green Paper. However, I add the comment which the noble Lord, Lord Chapple, has made and which I think is a very fair and apt one: that any steps taken should be steps looking to the present and to the future and should not be seen in any sense as 1536 punishment for the past. I think that that would be counterproductive.
When one comes to consider bodies as powerful and influential as the trade unions, and when one contemplates legislation to regulate their procedure, it is worth spending a little time trying to look, however dimly, into the future to see what is likely to happen to those bodies in relation to changes in our economic and commercial life. Something which has happened already is the decline of the manufacturing base of this country which was traditionally the centre of power for trade unions. I should think that that is unlikely to return.
As regards organisations, we are seeing the breakdown of the large monolithic type of corporation into smaller units. Again, I think that that is a development which is likely to continue. We have seen an enormous growth in telecommunications and information technology which in turn means that large congregations of people in one place are no longer necessary and that it will be more possible, practical and pleasant to work either from the home or from the locality in which one lives.
There has been a dramatic change in work patterns with the introduction—which is fairly widespread at the moment—of flexitime, changes in working periods, job sharing and the like. Finally, young men and women now change their jobs at much more frequent intervals than they did in the past. When I embarked on an industrial career, it was normal to consider that on joining a company one would serve with it for the rest of one's working career. I should have thought that any such view now would not only be wrong but would be considered to be eccentric.
Against this background of change in our economic and industrial society, what is the future of trade unionism? It is my personal view that there will be a steady decline in influence and numbers, leading probably to the disappearance of trade unions in the early part of the next century. I see them being replaced by the sort of professional bodies we have already for engineers, doctors, lawyers and the like. On the other hand, I see a great increase in worker participation in management of what will then be much smaller firms.
Nonetheless, the Government have to deal with the situation as it is today and they must come forward with proposals which are relevant in today's climate. When we come to look at the Green Paper, the most prominent section is that relating to strikes. That is hardly surprising because strikes have been the principal point of contact of the trade unions with the public in general. Most members of the general public think of strikes instantaneously when the word "trade unionism" is mentioned.
We have heard of the provision for balloting before strikes which is a wholly admirable provision. However, at the present time a union executive is perfectly entitled to call a strike without a ballot. Of course it would run certain risks in law, and it would probably be ill-advised to do so. But it may do so if it is prepared to take the risk. As I understand it, the proposal is that a right of action should be granted to individual members of a union to insist that a ballot be taken before strike action. That seems to me to be an 1537 admirable proposal, not so much because strikes in themselves are bad but because the unions are in the habit in this country of calling strikes at the drop of a hat. There is no proper time for consultation and consideration of the issues in many cases, and anything which puts in an interval of time for consideration and conciliation is a progressive proposal.
The other proposal concerning strikes, upon which there has been a certain amount of debate in your Lordships' House today, relates to the right of an individual member to refuse to accept the view of the majority and to insist on working, even where a majority has passed a properly conducted ballot in favour of strike action. I must confess that I have more difficulty with that proposal. We are accustomed in this country in many ways to voting, to the majority having the power to put in laws, rules or procedures and to the minority having to accept them.
One particularly painful aspect occurs when one's political opponents are in power. They pass taxation measures with which one probably has little sympathy and they may then proceed to spend the proceeds on measures with which one has no sympathy whatsoever. Nonetheless, one is bound by the democratic process to accept that. The same is true of clubs. If one is a member of a club and the majority pass regulations, if one is in the minority which objects one must still obey the regulations and follow them or run the risk of being ejected from the club. For those reasons, I have some sympathy with the objections raised to the proposal and I should certainly like to consider it in more detail before coming to a conclusion.
There are some interesting proposals which are made about the control of trade union officials and the funds of a union. We have seen a number of prominent cases recently in which there were proceedings for damages, contempt or even the indemnisation of officials after the event. Those matters have received coverage in the press. As I understand it, the proposal is that there should be a measure of control over executive members of trade unions who risk their union funds in those ways. After all, they are the management of the union and traditionally management has a power over funds. I should need to be convinced that this was a fairly widespread abuse of trade union privileges before I felt that legislative action was necessary to control it more closely. It is something which we shall all have to watch, but at the moment I suggest that it is not a particularly widespread abuse.
On the subject of the closed shop, the most significant figures are those shown in the Green Paper. These figures show that the number of closed shops has dropped from 5.2 million in 1979 to about 3 million today—that is to say, the number has nearly halved. That being so, I can only agree with I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, that if it is an evil—and most of us feel some distaste for the concept of a closed shop, whether pre—entry or post-entry—it is declining fairly rapidly and at the present rate is virtually likely to disappear in another decade. In those circumstances, I do not see any pressing need for legislation to hasten it on its way.
1538 Referring to ballots, the proposal is for postal ballots for the election of officials and for the allocation of political funds, leaving workplace ballots to decide whether strike action should be taken. This seems to me to be an entirely sensible proposal, but it should be borne in mind that ballots tend to be rather expensive, depend for their efficiency on an up-to-date and accurate register of members, and also require a measure of independent supervision. Unless these are forthcoming a ballot can be a good deal less effective than some form of action in the workplace. However, on the whole one's sympathies are with the postal ballot. Although it probably produces a smaller turnout than a workplace ballot, it is considerably less liable to interference.
In general, with one or two minor qualifications which I have mentioned, the proposals contained in the Green Paper are sound and I hope that in due course the Government will see their way to bring forward the necessary legislative provisions.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Lord Wyatt of Weeford
My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, on his splendidly delivered speech. I have met him several times in the past and I am glad to say that we have had occasional agreements. I know that he will he giving us many wise and well-informed speeches in the future and I shall look forward to them.
The Green Paper is another stage in the process of turning the TUC and old-fashioned trade union leaders into reluctant democrats. We have had some evidence of that reluctance today. We are not quite there yet, but there have been considerable advances in the powers of union members to choose the leaders they want rather than those foisted on them by defective systems of election, easily manipulated by communists and other desperadoes.
Curiously, when the transformation initiated by the Conservative Government is complete the chief beneficiaries will be the Labour Party, the TUC and the unions. Accurate reflection by union leaders of members' wishes will mean that union block votes at Labour Party conferences will gradually not be available to support dotty notions, such as more nationalisation and one-sided nuclear disarmament. That will give the Labour Party a more modern look and make more attractive the unions which have been losing members by the million because of their obsession with long dead 19th century problems and because of their refusal to deal imaginatively with the problems of the present century and the next.
I do not think that the future of the trade unions is bleak at all. It could be very much better than what it has had so far. The Labour Party and the TUC ought to erect a statue to Mrs. Thatcher in gratitude for the reform which she has introduced. I welcome the Government's proposals with reservations. For instance, like others I wonder whether it is necessary to do anything more about the closed shop. The law is that they have no legal sanction unless they have been supported in a secret ballot either by 80 per cent. of the employees affected or 85 per cent. of those voting. Obligingly, the TUC has advised union members to boycott such ballots. Consequently there are now hardly any approved closed shops and non-union members have legal protection against the unlawful 1539 ones. Thanks to the TUC the closed shop is on its way out.
I am worried about the suggested taking away of a unions' rights to discipline members who will not abide by majority decisions to strike when there has been a properly conducted secret ballot. The working miners went on working because the NUM had broken its own rules by not holding a strike ballot. I was assured by representatives of the working miners that they were loyal members of the National Union of Mineworkers and that if there had been a ballot decision for a strike they would have accepted it and not gone on working.
Unions are collective institutions and are effective only if they work collectively. They are entitled to require their members not to break ranks in situations where the members have been able freely to express their majority view. I am glad that the Government are at last proposing that all significant union elections should be conducted by secret home postal ballot under independent supervision. As some of us have been warning the Government since 1979, any other form of election, such as a workplace or branch ballot, can be fiddled too easily.
There have been many recent scandals. For example, there was the scandal of the election of the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union in 1984. Among other peculiarities, more people voted in Ireland in 1984 than voted in 1977, though the membership there was down by a quarter. It was claimed that over 90 per cent. of members in Ireland had voted, though many complained that they had received no ballot papers. In London, one branch cast 799 votes out of 800 for the successful candidate.
Recently, in the general workers' section of the Transport and General Workers' Union 98 per cent. of the Irish electorate voted for a seat on the executive. Not even Stalin in all his glory ever claimed higher support than that! The electricians and plumbers' union has long had a secret home postal ballot sent out by, and returned to, the Electoral Reform Society. That is why it has such sensible forward-looking leadership in tune with its members' aspirations.
The engineers also have a secret home postal ballot, though it is not independently supervised. That has given them too a modern approach. Your Lordships will not be surprised that both these unions are accordingly very unpopular with the TUC.
A number of unions are not yet complying with the provisions of the 1984 Act for secret workplace ballots, preferring some form of block vote which commits members who are not even present to having their votes cast in a manner decided by the extremists who are present. The National Union of Public Employees, the National Health Service union, CoHSE, the National Association of Local Government Officers, the General and Municipal Workers' Union and the communist-dominated union, TASS, are important defaulters. The Certification Officer to whom complaints can be made is having a long and complicated struggle to get these unions over the first hurdle towards genuine democracy.
1540 That brings me to a serious failing in the Green Paper. A victim of the British vice of creating another commission whenever there is a tricky problem, the Government propose a new parallel authority to the Certification Officer in dealing with complaints from union members. At present, if the Certification Officer issues a declaration that a union shall comply with the law and the union takes no notice, as has been happening, the complainant has to go to court. That can not only be fantastically expensive but is alarming for unsophisticated trade union members.
Therefore the Government say that the aggrieved member can instead go to a strange new person—he might have been invented by Gilbert and Sullivan—the commissioner for trade unions. Having liaised with the Certification Officer and discovered that the complainant has good grounds, the trade union commissioner will fight his case and pay for it. That is said to be analogous to the Commission on Racial Equality or the Equal Opportunities Commission, but those more or less harmful organisations are greatly loved by the hard-Left wing. Someone who can get their support in the courts is a hero or heroine to those who make a profession of shouting at and intimidating their fellow workers. An ordinary member who took his union to court through the trade union commissioner would be instantly marked out for victimisation with the usual tyre slashing, bricks through the window, excrement through the letterbox, and the rest of it.
The motive of the Government is that they want to say to the unions, "Oh, it is not us who are enforcing the law against you; it is one of your own members". That is a cowardly game to play. Ordinary union members should not be put in the position of being law enforcement officers. I suggest something rather different. There should not be a trade union commissioner but the staff of the Certification Officer should be substantially expanded. The Certification Officer should have the power or duty, when a union refuses to remedy a complaint as set out in the declaration of the Certification Officer, to take the union to court without the original complainant having to pay anything.
Not only that, to avoid victimisation a complainant having established that he is a genuine member of the union concerned should be allowed to remain anonymous when he approaches the Certification Officer. It would then be a function of the Certification Officer to make inquiries, as would the police in a case of suspected drug pushing anonymously reported to them. The Certification Officer can then proceed accordingly if the complaint seemed well founded. The Government have created the laws about trade unions, not union members. They should not expect union members to do the high profile work of law enforcement, thus setting union members against each other.
The Certification Officer has not so far received frivolous complaints. I do not see why he should receive many, or any, if the system I suggest were adopted. A beefed-up Certification Office should also have the function of an independent supervisor of union elections. This should require unions to submit for approval their plans for complying with the electoral laws. The office should satisfy itself that those 1541 plans have been honoured. The Certification Office should act of its own volition to ensure that defaulters among union leaders are made to comply with the law, following up any information it receives even if it is anonymous.
One rule applying to postal ballots should be that each candidate must include an election address stating his political views and allegiance. The great majority of union members do not have the slightest idea of the background of the candidates presented to them. In my column in the News of the World I regularly print the names of those sane and sensible candidates for whom union members would be wise to vote. I receive numerous letters reminding me that I have not yet published the list for a particular election and asking whether I will please hurry up. They know nothing whatever about the candidates concerned.
I see that the Labour Party intends to remove all the new democratic rights which are already greatly valued by the ordinary union member. It has issued a programme, in conjunction with the TUC, called People at Work—New Rights, New Responsibilities. The present legislation is to be destroyed and replaced. Not only would the rights of employers to protect themselves by injunctions and court action against unlawful strikes be abolished but there would be a new law laying down general principles for union rule books. These would include secret ballots for union executives. However, there would be no way in which union members could go to the courts to enforce their democratic rights. Instead, and I quote:A Labour Government in consultation with the TUC would establish a new independent tribunal that would have the duty of acting on complaints by union members that the statutory principles had been breached".The idea of a tribunal operated by or connected with the TUC being independent is highly suspect, if it is not a downright joke. I spent years, beginning in 1956, trying to get the General Council of the TUC to deal with the well-documented fraudulent vote-rigging of the communists who had seized power in the electricians' union. The TUC General Council told me that it did not want to wash its dirty linen tri public. Eventually, it was the High Court in 1961 which had to get rid of the communist gangsters because the TUC General Council was either too frightened of, or too sympathetic to, the communists. To rely on a body like that to set up an independent tribunal to deal with complaints from union members is a farce.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Young, on his Green Paper. I hope he does not take it amiss that I have suggested what I think could be some improvements.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, at the outset I too would like to be allowed to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, on his excellent maiden speech, which was delivered with authority and sincerity and which has greatly enhanced the order of our debate today.
I generally support the Green Paper proposals as a relevant, requisite and imaginative basis for discussion and for the way forward in a modern, free, democratic 1542 society. It is seldom—I think it is the first time in any debate—that I have used the word "democratic". I use it today because it is clear that it means something wholly different to me, who concentrates upon the rights of the individual, and to those trade union officials who concentrate upon the rights of the group.
This Administration, largely because of the concentration of rights upon the group, inherited a state of affairs akin to anarchy. Let us not forget that. I agree that they have already established a viable measure of industrial peace, and that is to the credit of the Administration. This Green Paper, as my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft so aptly put it, as he always does, is a continuation of government policies. It is no more than that. It is a recognition. It is a form of consolidation of the Government's achievements so far by recognising certain of the rights of trade union members.
At the outset this is a Green Paper which invites comment. Of course it goes without saying that there will be consultations before any proposals for legislation are made. As I understand the position when those consultations have taken place there will be a White Paper setting out the proposals, with all the implications to which the noble Lord, Lord Graham, referred, which can then be debated before any legislation is laid. That is as I understand the position. It is not some terrible party ploy, put forward to pre-empt what is put in a manifesto. Assuredly, that is not how I see the position at all. As I understand it, but I do not necessarily know, it is as I have stated. It is straight up.
At all events, on account of the measure of achievement towards industrial stability, there is no immediate hurry. There is time for discussion. There is time for consultation. The worst possible legislation is hurried legislation, especially in a sensitive sphere such as this. In due course legislation will be introduced.
The notable contribution in the Green Paper, which I support, raises the very question of the conflict between the rights of the individual and the interests of the group. I accept this, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Murray, will accept it too, but inevitably one's reaction must depend on where one sits in the House. It is a political question. That does not mean to say that one cannot discuss the matter with total objectivity, as I propose to try to do, having declared which side I am on.
Put simply, the matter concerns the right of any man or woman, whether a member of a trade union or not, to work or to withhold labour according to an uninhibited individual will. That is a right which has not been recognised by trade unions. It has indeed been opposed by trade unions, which represent the group versus the individual. It is a right which has as yet not been recognised by the common law.
The question is whether your Lordships should endorse that as a fundamental freedom; as if, so to speak, today we were assembled at Runnymede and tomorrow there could be some new charter for a modern, free society. Or should we accept the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Murray, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg? What is the object, they say, of holding a ballot if the dissident 1543 minority is ignored? Is that acceptable? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester put it, the individual ought not to be allowed to contract out of the group. I think he should. I endorse individual freedom. The reason I do that does not spring from any particular theological concept; it comes basically from one's political stance.
I always support individual freedom in a conflict between individual freedom and the group. I always shall. It is not that I do not see the other argument; I just do not agree with it. I do not agree with it in this context because the time has come when trade unions, in their modern guise and in the discharge of their modern role, which is terribly important and which I have never denigrated in your Lordships' House but on many occasions have risen to support, must realise that they are the servants of society, in the sense that they are the servants of their members and are never again to become the masters.
Furthermore, unless we establish that fundamental freedom, I fear that the members' wishes will not be respected, but as in the past—I have to say this, I hope without causing any personal offence—they will be ignored. They will be manipulated. They will be abused by intimidation, disciplinary penalties, social pressures and other forms of oppression. That is why I support the individual fundamental freedom proposed in this paper.
The second point of conflict is the closed shop provisions. Although in a sense the closed shop is on its way out, it is taking a long time in the dying. It continues to exist. I shall be corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Murray, if I am wrong, and I invite correction, but I believe that there are millions of workers working today under closed shop agreements.
Legal immunity for industrial action to force an employer to create or maintain a closed shop will now be withdrawn, and so all that will be removed are the pressures to which exception is taken, and hence the source of much hardship for trade union members will be removed. The cause of much industrial action—the recognition, manning and demarcation disputes—will be removed. The hardship on the members, of which my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter gave but one example, was recognised by Ray Gunter when he was Minister of Labour in 1965 (at Volume 706 of Hansard, col. 1019–1020).
The principle of the closed shop was called into question by Frank Cousins writing in the New Daily on 12th February 1961 when he said that he had never favoured the idea of making a man join a union. It is contrary to Article 20(2) of the 1948 United Nations Convention on Human Rights. It has given rise to problems in the European Court of Justice. The desire to maintain the closed shop is related to concentration of power. Ray Gunter said—and I respect his opinion—that the main reason for his opposition to the closed shop was,that throughout the whole of my trade union career … it meant too great a concentration of power".So much for what the noble Lord, Lord Murray, stylised as legislation by anecdote. I rely on the reactions of such great leaders as Ray Gunter, Frank Cousins and so forth.
1544 There is no doubt, your Lordships may think, that Ray Gunter sensed that one day this great concentration of power would be abused, and so it was, first, to oust a Conservative Government, then a Labour Government and then in an attempt to topple the Thatcher Administration.
We have heard a little today in this debate about abuse of power. But never let us forget the realities of the background from which we debate the Green Paper today. It springs from a massive abuse of power to set up a form of government contrary to the constitutional traditions. The hope must be that the trade unions may soon accept that their influence and status may be enhanced only by abdication of this concept of the closed shop. It is true that it is a concept which in the distant past served a valid and justifiable purpose. However, it is no longer of relevance. Times change.
If today the trade unions are to discharge their functions in accordance with their true role—a role which affords a valuable, positive contribution to society, as expounded by the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, in that notable maiden speech—they have to recognise that they must be the servants of their members. In addition, rules which conflict with statutory requirements to be implemented by any future proposals must be made void by statute. This will afford the trade union member the right to apply to the court for a declaration.
On the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, that we ought to have model rules, 10 years ago I thought the same. Ten years ago I went to the Department of Employment. I have been there on various occasions since. That department, in good will and consultation with the trade unions, has been trying to devise a set of model rules. It is impossible to do so, not because the trade unions are obdurate or incalcitrant, but because there are so many types of trade unions that it has become a very difficult and impractical task.
One has the craft unions with a few members, the vast national unions and so on. With the best will in the world, it is very difficult to achieve model rules. If one cannot achieve this then one has to go about it another way and enact that any rules of the union which stand in contravention of the statutory requirements are void and unlawful.
I wish to say a word about the indemnification proposals. I do not think that anyone has mentioned them yet. Indemnification of officers for unlawful acts should surely not extend to such categories of conduct as violence or contempt of court in the context of industrial action.
On balloting procedures before industrial action, yes, the workplace ballot should be subject to independent supervision. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said, perhaps a separate authority should be set up. Perhaps a panel of independent supervisors such as justices of the peace, accountants or other suitable persons should be established. Perhaps assistance to the independent supervisors could be provided by ACAS. The union could select any person from the panel as a supervisor and the whole operation could be organised and funded by the department, one of whose officials would be designated for such a 1545 purpose. The proposal to graft the right of enforcement by the individual member on to Sections 10 and 11 of the 1984 Act would include the right to have independent supervision of the ballot.
Finally, there should be a reconsideration of the role of the certification officer and the commissioner. I would suggest respectfully that the role of the Certification Officer should be vastly extended. He should have power to make declarations which have no legal effect. In this area the role of conciliation—which is not supposed to exist within Part I of the Act of 1984—should be expressly recognised by statute. The conciliation procedures should be extended in this way because the concept of conciliation should permeate enforcement by public authority. My suggestion is that it is only if the conciliation officer with powers extended in this way should be unable to achieve a satisfactory acceptance by the union that he should refer the matter to the commissioner.
I do not accept the criticism that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, about the commissioner being a Gilbert and Sullivan character. He may be, but he is a very useful one and can play a very important part. He would be of the greatest possible assistance to the trade union member. The commissioner should be the person, not the Certification Officer, who in his own name and at his own expense can initiate proceedings in court where the union is in default. Those are the only suggestions that I have.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord before he sits down that I have been profoundly impressed by the strong case he has made of the detriment to the public and to its members which the closed shop brings. Would he agree that the same principles which he urged on the unions might perhaps be applied for benefit to members of the English Bar?
§ 8 p.m.
§ Baroness Turner of Camden
My Lords, first of all I too should like to congratulate my noble friend and distinguished colleague, Lord Basnett, of Leatherhead, on a very notable speech. Like the rest of the noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and who have commended Lord Basnett on his speech, I too hope that we shall hear a lot more from him. He has a great deal to offer this House, and a great deal of experience from which to offer it.
I want to express deep concern that the Government have seen fit to introduce this Green Paper. I question the necessity for it. I question the necessity, as indeed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has for another piece of so-called trade union reform. One wonders why the Government have decided to do it. Why have they thought it desirable at this time to bring forward these proposals? Do the Government really think that trade unions are so unpopular that a further attempted interference with them is a general election winner? That has been suggested by a number of noble Lords already in the debate. If they do think 1546 so, I sincerely hope that they will be gravely disappointed.
As your Lordships will know, I have an interest in this. As I have declared many times, I am in employment as a trade union official. I have been an official of ASTMS, the large white collar union, for over 25 years. I am also currently a member of the TUC General Council, and I have to say to the House that despite unemployment, despite unremitting hostility from almost all sections of the media, despite hostility from this Government—and government attitudes have a considerable impact on public thinking and the general climate of opinion—over 8½ million people in the United Kingdom still belong to trade unions. If you add to that number the families of those union members, it will be seen that a very large number of people in this country have an interest in what unions do, and they look to unions for their protection.
Despite the difficulties which this Government have put in the way of trade unions to try to hamper them in their task of looking after their members, still a very large part of the population voluntaril—and I stress voluntarily—puts its faith in collective organisation. Moreover, that 8½ million are in unions affiliated to the TUC. There are other collectives registered as trade unions which are outside the TUC but which nevertheless in their own way indicate the level of support that exists for collective representation. It is this idea of collectivity which is anathema to the present Government. That is at the root of their ideological approach and that, among other reasons, is why we have this Green Paper.
Yet employees need the protection of unions as never before. Mergers and takeovers threaten job security. We have discussed this before in your Lordships' House. Changes in technology threaten jobs. The great multinational companies may move their operations where they choose without being accountable to anyone. These are the forces that wield real power in our society. Nothing is done to inhibit their use of unrestricted power. It is they, the boards of directors normally completely unknown to the public and not unions, who make decisions against which unions can only react.
The idea that unions possess substantial power and that individual members have to be protected against the misuse of that power, which lies at the root of this Green Paper, is a myth, in my opinion. It has been sedulously cultivated in order that the opportunity will be there to bring in further legislation to undermine the ability of unions to protect their members.
Since 1979 Conservative Governments have set about removing from legislation all those measures which assisted unions to resolve issues in a reasonable way. No trade union official willingly enters upon a trade dispute if any other means is available to sort out that industrial problem. Long disputes in particular mean hardship for members and diminish union resources. We look for other means if we can as a way of resolving problems. Unfortunately there are fewer ways of doing this open to us now than at any time since 1945.
Since 1979 the Government have removed from legislation—the Minister made reference to 1547 this—Schedule 11 to the Employment Protection Act under which a union could refer to arbitration a claim that its members were being paid below the general level. Section 11 of that Act, which gave unions some method of establishing the right of recognition by employers, has also been removed. The Fair Wages Resolution, in existence since 1945, has been expunged. Wages councils have disappeared or have been emasculated. The role of the central arbitration committee has been diminished, I believe deliberately. In any event, it is fairly clear to me that this Government have little time for arbitration.
In such circumstances unions are left with only one ultimate weapon, that of industrial action, or else a tame acceptance of conditions that their members find unsatisfactory. Here the legislation we already have is intended to make this action as difficult as possible. Most unions anyway were in the habit of balloting their members in advance of strike action. We now have to insert on the ballot paper as a frightener the information that, in striking, members will be breaking their contracts of employment. Incidentally, I question why that should be so. In many countries in Europe the contract of employment is simply suspended during dispute action and not terminated. But even so, it is not enough for this Government that unions lose their immunity if they do not ballot their members in advance of strike action.
In this Green Paper, even if there is a ballot and a majority of members is clearly in favour of dispute action, individual members who are against it and who work normally are to be given protection by the Government against disciplinary action by their union. The Government are out to undermine effective and cohesive union action. Not only is there to be a secret ballot—and I have no quarrel with secret ballots—but people are to be encouraged not to abide by the outcome even when the majority favour industrial action. It is interesting to note that the CBI is not at all happy about that, and has said so. Members of the CBI to whom I have spoken say they think it demonstrates that this Government simply do not understand the facts of industrial life.
It is my experience in my own union that disciplinary rules are used very sparingly. Most union executives are well aware of the fact—mine certainly is—that they must apply their rules in accordance with the requirements of natural justice and that if they do not there can be grounds for action in the High Court. What the Government are now proposing, however, is a legal right to strike break. That is a very different matter. The TUC has pointed out that if this were applied in reverse it would justify minorities in taking strike action despite a majority vote against a strike. Clearly no sensible person would support this, just as every sensible person knows and understands the principles of majority rule in voluntary organisations. The Government are guilty here of exhibiting bias and double standards.
The Green Paper has some proposals to make about union funds. Among other things it is proposed to impose a statutory limitation on the ability of trade unions to indemnify officials against fines and damages. However, trade unions as employers are surely responsible for the actions they require their staff to take. Union officials do not in general act other 1548 than under instruction from elected executives. It is by no means unknown for other employers to indemnify employees acting on their behalf, sometimes by way of insurance cover. There is also a proposal that there should be a statutory right for union members to be allowed access to inspect their union's accounts with professional advice. There is already provision in many union rule books for such individual inspection, although not necessarily with professional advice.
My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has dealt with that in some detail, and I agree with what he had to say. One is entitled to ask why the Government wish to impose on unions requirements that do not exist in regard to other institutions.
In the section dealing with union membership agreements and arrangements, the Green Paper proposes outlawing industrial actions to establish or maintain union membership agreements and, further, makes any dismissal for non-membership of a union unlawful. However—this has already been mentioned in debate by a number of noble Lords—there are already stringent provisions relating to union membership agreements. There is no scope at all for lawful dismissals unless the agreement has been approved in a secret ballot during the preceding five years by 80 per cent. of the employees covered by it or 85 per cent. of those voting. So why is it felt necessary to have further legislation so soon?
On the questions of ballots, we have further attempts in the Green Paper to interfere with the internal democracy of unions. I emphasise the word "democracy" because unions really are among the most democratic institutions in this country. They are governed by elected executives accountable to annual conferences or sometimes to biannual conferences, and to membership pressures of various kinds in between those conferences. The officials are responsible to elected executives, whether they are appointed under ordinary contracts of employment or, as in some instances, elected generally by the membership. The legislation now in place requires executives to be elected by individual postal ballot, or, where workplace ballots can meet the same statutory requirements as postal ballots—I emphasise the phrase "the same statutory requirements as postal ballots"—by workplace ballots. Even here there is some official discouragement given to workplace balloting. I understand that public funds cannot be claimed towards the cost of a mixed ballot; only where there is an entirely postal ballot.
In some unions there is more membership participation and a higher ballot return if there is workplace balloting. So there really is no justification for removing this option. Even in the cases to which the Green Paper refers, the Transport and General Workers in particular, there were investigations by the union when malpractices were brought to light and independent advice and assistance were sought with a view to putting the malpractice right. I repeat there is no justification for introducing legislation to do away with the workplace option.
The Green Paper also proposes that independent supervision of ballots should be required. This is already the case in many unions. My own union uses the Electoral Reform Society. However it is an expensive business. I repeat the question put by the 1549 noble Lord, Lord Rochester, about the costs of such a service. The evidence of malpractice in my opinion, in any event, is relatively rare and remedies already exist. Therefore, why is it necessary to make this a statutory requirement?
Then there is the proposition that all non-voting members of executives should in future be required to stand for election. I suspect that this is to "catch" as the Government see it one particular union president. However this clearly has not been properly thought through. Why should not a major institution like a union have a chief executive employed on an employment contract like the chief executive of any other large institution? The 1983 Green Paper actually acknowledged this when it said that a requirement to stand for election would be inconsistent with the nature of the job where a union had found that its needs were better served by selecting a general secretary for appointment on the basis of expertise and experience.
We do not in this country elect our civil servants. We expect them to pass examinations. Trade union administration has become a much more professional job than it used to be. The chief executive may require to have qualities and sometimes qualifications that may not be forthcoming if the post is filled by election on the basis of popular support, or as a result of political caucus activity and media intervention. As we have seen, this can very often take place. The earlier Green Paper got it right and the Government have no basis for departing from that concept.
In my view, a disagreeable aspect of the paper is the proposal to establish a new commissioner for trade union affairs to assist and fund legal action by members against their unions. My noble friend Lord Irvine has already pointed out that such assistance will not be available from the public purse for employees who wish to sue their employers in unfair dismissal and similar cases. Clearly the role envisaged for this official is that of trade union harassment officer. The Government want to destabilise union activities and to undermine union ability to act on behalf of members. They foresee involving unions in constant litigation. Indeed the Green Paper may well be the product of disappointment that previous legislation has not produced a spate of cases by members against their unions; so the Government want to encourage some more.
The Green Paper is the product of prejudice and malice. If the Government are really interested in individual employee rights, then why has their legislative approach constantly been directed to undermining those which previously existed? Why, for example, have the Government made it harder for employees successfully to pursue claims against employers for unfair dismissal? Why have they reduced the period for advance notification of redundancy from 60 to 30 days for redundancies involving 10 to 99 employees? Why have they weakened employees' protection in respect of deductions from wages, as they have with the passage of the Wages Act?
Why do the Government continue to block EC directives on matters like parental leave and leave for 1550 family reasons? Why will they not take steps to protect the rights of part-time employees? Why do we get improvements in sex discrimination legislation only when we are told we must do so by the European Court? Why do the Government, for example, oppose the Vredeling directive which would provide at least some rights of consultation to employees and some small measure of industrial democracy? Why do the Government oppose giving employees some rights in merger and takeover situations? Why are rights for employees constantly denied by this Government on the plea that these would represent a burden on business?
These are the real threats to individual employees. In the Green Paper the Government are seeking to make some electoral mileage out of further attacks on trade unions on the spurious argument that unions have powers that must somehow be curbed. In reality the Government are out to curb collectivity—the only response that employees have to the unrestricted power of monopolies and those with real power in our society. The Government should not proceed with these ill-judged proposals.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Young of Graffham
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speakers in this debate. I am grateful to all for the careful attention with which they have examined our proposals and for the courteous and measured ways in which their views and criticisms have been voiced. When we published our proposals two months ago I emphasised that they were in the form of a Green Paper on which we would welcome comment. We have received a number of comments from diverse organisations and members of the public as well as from the TUC and the CBI and we are now considering these. We will consider with special care the expert views expressed in the House today. I see this debate as a very key part of our consultation process.
If I were to attempt now to deal in detail with all the points which have been raised, it would be a wholly inadequate response. Those who have contributed to the debate are entitled to expect that we shall examine their views with the same seriousness as they formulated them. Nevertheless, there are some comments I should make. I wish to make some contribution at least as an initial reaction if not always to the particular points that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, to whom it is always a pleasure to listen, asked whether this was an instalment of our manifesto. At least I can assure him this is a real manifesto and not an unreal manifesto, if he follows me from the last 24 hours, that his friends, I am, alas, afraid, have been guilty of passing off in the absence of any other alternative to put before the people.
Some of the points the noble Lord and many other noble Lords have made about the right to continue to go to work when the majority of your union votes for a strike, I can accept appears at first sight to be curious. I have listened with great care to the points made by many noble Lords. All stand up save in one respect. With a pre-entry closed shop, it is difficult to say to an individual who does not believe in a strike in which the majority does believe, "If you go out on strike you run 1551 the risk of being dismissed but you can maintain your union card and perhaps try to get another job. However, if you go into work to protect your job then you can lose you union card and not be permitted to work anywhere else". This is a very real problem. It is a problem we shall have to look at seriously: it is one that I hope we shall all consider seriously before any action is taken. The problem of closed shops and pre-entry closed shops in particular is one which bedevils our society.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Rochester, who asked about the cost of refunding postal and other spending connected with a postal ballot. Our intention is that this scheme should continue to operate broadly as of now. Since our proposals would require trade unions to make more use of postal ballots, they would be in a position to claim larger refunds from public funds. That, I think, would be a sensible response to these proposals.
The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, asked why in the Green Paper there is so little about the rights and duties of employers. This Green Paper is simply about unions and their members. It is only about the relationship between unions and individual members. Nowhere was this focused on more sharply than in the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester, who apologised that he could not stay until the end of the debate. Indeed this point was taken up by a number of noble Lords opposite and gives me a cause for great personal concern.
The right reverend Prelate said quite rightly that individual rights are the foundation and the very basis of our rule of law and can be traced back to Judeo-Christian times. Of course, individual rights are the basis of the rule of law and I say with great temerity and respect to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, that any society that puts group rights above individual rights ends up building a wall to keep its people in. The one essential difference between our society and others is simply that we respect individual rights and in no way will we allow group rights to overtake individual rights in the interests of justice.
§ Lord Murray of Epping Forest
My Lords, does the noble Lord not distinguish, on the one hand, between the use of collective action to enforce the rights of an individual, and, on the other hand, the development of some spurious sense of collectivity? What trade unions are concerned with is the development of organisations so that the individual can get his rights through the support of his mates.
§ Lord Young of Graffham
Yes, my Lords, but there are many countries in the world which claim that the individual's right is best supported by the collective. What the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester was advancing, as was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, was that collective rights should have equal if not as great a status as individual rights. I welcome with great pleasure the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, who made his maiden speech in your Lordships' House. I have had the pleasure of sitting opposite him or diagonally opposite him on the NEDC round table for many years. I look forward to many great contributions to our debates. I have a faint suspicion that I shall not always agree with him, at 1552 least at the beginning, but I hope that in the fullness of time we can perhaps try to convert him a little more to our side of he House, as an eternal optimism is the one guiding principle of my life.
§ Lord Young of Graffham
That may well be, my Lords. I am indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Thorneycroft who, in a very entertaining way, reached the very heart of what this debate is about. He reminded us that the purpose of trade unions is not to help government and he reminded us about so much of the recent past and the errors we have made and warned us about ever wishing to repeat them.
The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, also entertained your Lordships' House. Alas, I fear that we shall have to disappoint him. He asked whether we are going to have entirely new legislation from an entirely new government. The answer is no and no; and I suspect that you are going to have the same legislation subject to consultation from the same government in the fullness of time. But that is not a decision in which anyone in your Lordships' House takes a part. We shall just have to see.
The noble Lord raised an interesting point and one from which at the moment, in holding the function of my office, I am suffering. There is, alas, a strike going on within two of the Civil Service unions. It is true that of the four unions, all voted. Two voted to strike and two voted not to strike. I suspect it is an advantage that two are back working whereas in another system perhaps all four would be on strike today. At least we have the satisfaction or not of knowing that those on strike voted by a majority to strike. That is the wish of their members. Although I regret greatly the effect of the strike on perhaps the most vulnerable section of our community, I respect totally their right having decided to take that action. I shall consider seriously his suggestions about a body of commissioners in some way or other, as I shall consider seriously all the suggestions that have been made today.
My noble friend Lord Beloff drew attention to the relationship of unions and local government and in particular to the effect of trade unions on teachers. This is a difficult situation. I could not help to cool the passions by commenting on it but few of us could feel anything but concern in seeing some of the recent steps that have taken place with the teachers' unions and look upon teaching still as a real profession.
I was grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, for his history of trade unionism. The noble and learned Lord said that at the moment we have gone far enough and that we should stop. That is the purpose of the consultation. It is to consider the steps—admittedly small steps, although much has been made of them by noble Lords opposite. Those small steps are important in the relationship of individuals with powerful organisations in our land. I hope that the consultation will reveal that. We shall have to see after a suitable interval, and perhaps after other events, what comes forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Irvine, contrasted the commissioner for trade union affairs with the lack of legal aid for industrial tribunals. I take and understand 1553 that point. Industrial tribunals have always been intended to provide a quick, formal and easily accessible way of resolving disputes. Our view, which I must tell noble Lords was shared by our predecessors, is that introducing legal aid before tribunals would militate against that aim. Indeed the TUC itself made the point that the end result might be more legalism in the tribunals and that would defeat its very purpose. The cases that the commissioner is intended to support would be cases appearing in the High Court. It might be unrealistic to expect an ordinary trade union member to bring a case in the High Court without help and support. That is the proposal we have outlined and I shall read with great interest all the representations that have been made and are still being made.
My noble friend Lady Faithfull reminded us of the importance of attending trade union meetings. Nothing is more important than that, and I saw noble Lords opposite agreeing vigorously. What can he done to ensure that more people attend trade union meetings I am not too sure. In some countries of the world I suspect they are compulsory but I cannot see anything there. It is not a question of attending meetings but of playing an active part in trade unions. I suspect that in the fullness of time our postal balloting procedures will do as much to ensure that members take a real interest in the affairs of their trade union as any one single Act. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Chapple, drew attention to both the advantages and disadvantages of voting by ballot. He knows well what an important part union meetings play in the life of a union.
I took seriously the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. The purpose of the Green Paper is to strengthen the rights of members of a trade union and not to whittle them away. The noble Lord drew attention to some of the financial provisions of the Green Paper. Without commenting in great detail, the trustees of any voluntary organisation must act in accordance with the order of the court and not with the rules of the union. If the two were in conflict, surely, under the rule of law, the order of the court must be complied with.
As for mischief being caused by members wanting to look at the books, when a union, for example, the National Union of Mineworkers—I know it is a name that often comes up but perhaps it is a name that will not come up so often in the future—changed its rules in 1985 to deny professional help to its members when they go to inspect the books, I think we have to look at this with some seriousness, as there may be some members of the National Union of Mineworkers who thought that those books were worth inspecting. I do not know. We should remind people that the property of the union is the property of its members as are the funds of all voluntary bodies. We are doing no more than that.
My noble friend Lord Elibank looked ahead to a time when unions would evolve into professional organisations. My noble friend is not with us now—I apologise, he is with us now. I am not sure that I am as far-seeing as he is. I suspect that we shall always have trade unions with us. I hope we will always have trade unions with us. I hope we will always have trade 1554 unions with us, playing a proper role in looking after the affairs of their members.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the wrong person. I was not taking that point.
§ Lord Young of Graffham
My Lords, I thought I had said the noble Lord, Lord Elibank.
Among some of the other images that this afternoon's debate has conjured up in my mind is the thought advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, of the TUC joining the Labour Party in constructing and presenting a statute in gratitude to the Prime Minister for the contribution that she and the Government have made to trade union democracy. I am not sure whether that would come about—I suspect that this is not something we would in fact see.
What was interesting was the thought that the noble Lord advanced about the relationship between secret ballots and forward looking leadership of unions. I would not make any claim that the contribution made by government legislation towards secret ballots had any effect on leadership of the unions. But I do make a claim that it added a great deal to what we had to say about democracy within unions and, indeed, the record should speak for itself.
I listened with great interest to the concept advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, of a beefed-up—I use his expression—Certification Officer. I am not sure whether that would work, but I will examine it carefully.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, who displayed his enviable grasp of the legal as well as the industrial and political aspects of these matters. His points reveal not only the depth of his experience but the care with which he studied the Green Paper. I particularly appreciated his wise remarks on the subject of the closed shop and his concern about strike ballots held at the workplace. I believe that the vigilance of individual union members will provide an important safeguard of voting standards when they are given the right to enforce the balloting requirements.
As to his suggestion of a conciliation role for the Certification Officer, I should like to take time to reflect on that as, indeed, on all the comments made today on the role of the Certification Officer.
We then come to the contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. I could not help thinking when I listened to that contribution that it was in itself justifying much of the legislation of the Government in the 1980, 1982 and the 1984 Acts. To say—I took down the words carefully—that the Government have removed all those measures that enabled unions to settle disputes in a reasonable way is to me a surprising statement. I can still remember, being of that generation, the 1970s. I know that last year we had the lowest number of strikes for 50 years, and I know that at present we have the lowest number of days lost by strikes for the last 20 years. I know that I am the first holder of my office to have spent so little time in industrial disputes possibly in this century.
1555 I suspect that what we are seeing is not something created by unemployment since, if unemployment was driving down the number of disputes one would expect it to have some effect on wages. Yet year after year wages have gone up by 2.5 per cent. in real terms. Last year it was 5 per cent. in real terms, and in the last five years we have seen wages go up by 17 per cent. in real terms. That does not ally with any concept of a world in which workers or working rights are pushed down by economic matters. Unions are among the most democratic institutions in the country. I welcome that. Unions have absolutely nothing to fear from the proposals in the Green Paper.
The noble Baroness asked a series of questions which I should like to answer. She asked: why are the Government not welcoming the concept of parental leave; why are the Government not welcoming the statutory rights for part-time employees; why do the Government not welcome the Vredeling directive, and why do the Government always take the view that the rights of workers end up as a burden on business? It is because of the essential difference in the way in which the two sides of your Lordships' House look at the world. The union quite properly is concerned with the affairs of its members, and concerned with all its members who are employees. My job is to help those into work. Therefore all these matters will be a clog on the growth of employment in the country.
Anything that acts as a clog on the growth of employment in the country will not help to reduce unemployment. Parental leave will do nothing for jobs in small firms, nor will statutory rights for part-time employees when we have such a growth of part-time employment in the country and such a lack of growth in those countries which have statutory rights. Vredeling has made no great contribution towards the changes which we have seen in the City. As to rights, it is my earnest task to continue only the statutory rights that I can with safety, in the interests of promoting employment and seeing unemployment go down.
I have said what I have said. None of that has any effect on the seriousness with which we shall consider all that has been said in your Lordships' House today and the many representations now amounting to 50 or 60 from many institutions and organisations and, indeed, individuals which have been made and will continue to be made.
I hope that in the fullness of time when the proposals come back to your Lordships' House, your Lordships will see that we have listened and listened carefully. I hope that then your Lordships will agee that we are acting wisely.
§ 8.37 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, today's debate has brought out two matters of genuine importance with which I think most of your Lordships will agree. The first is the value of the Green Paper procedure and the opportunity that it gives to all of us to express views on difficult and complicated issues before the government of the day have committed themselves for or against them. The second is the value of your Lordships' House as a debating forum for the discussion of issues of this sort. No one who like myself has sat through the 1556 whole of the debate could regard your Lordships' House as being the body which takes any narrow or restricted view of these problems since almost every aspect of them has been expressed with clarity, vigour and sincerity. I am sure that this helps to build up even further the very high reputation that your Lordships' House has been establishing for itself over recent years.
I think that the only person who may be a little less pleased than I am with that is my noble friend the Secretary of State since we have undoubtedly given him a great deal of work to do and many points to consider. He and his officials, hard-worked as I know they are anyhow, will be even more hard-worked in the weeks to come.
We have had a valuable debate. If it is not an impertinence, I should like to thank all those who took the trouble to take part in it; and in particular, if I may, the noble Lord, Lord Basnett, whose notable and remarkable maiden speech was the great feature of the day. It will I think be long remembered.
I am tempted, having sat through the debate, to deal with a number of points, which I appreciate might not enhance my popularity. What Oscar Wilde said I often feel applies to me:I can resist anything except temptation".However, I should like to yield to temptation on one point on a matter personally raised with me in the most pleasant way by the noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He seemed to think that I was wrong in suggesting to your Lordships that the debate was predominantly about the relationship between union members and their leaders. He took the ingenious point that, if one protects the individual union member from victimisation when he refuses to take part in strike action, one may well be weakening the effect of that strike action or the threat to the employers by the union.
There is clearly some force in what he says, although I do not think there is very much. If the number of union members not taking part in the strike is very small, the effectiveness of the strike and the threat of it are hardly diminished. If it is very large, the idea of victimising quite a number of people because they will not take part in it seems to me, in human terms, in legal terms and in constitutional terms, infinitely so much more important than its possible effect on the unions' bargaining ability that I think the general statement which I ventured to put as to the effect of the Green Paper proposals is right. I dealt with that matter only because I respected the noble Lord's speech and I thought it fair to give him such answer to it as I could.
We have had the discussion and we have now formally to take note.
On Question, Motion agreed to.