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Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : The Secretary of State has made much play of injustices and the closed shop. What does he have to say to members of the National Union of Journalists in Aberdeen, who went on a legitimate strike and were sacked within 48 hours? Management now say that they will not, in any circumstances, discuss with the union the possibility of negotiations to end the dispute. Management say, "It's over. Too bad that they've got the sack, but that's the end of it." Those trade union members have been sacked simply because they tried to exercise their trade union rights. How does the Secretary of State propose to deal with cases such as that?
Mr. Howard : It has always been lawful--it was lawful under the legislation that the last Labour Government passed--for those who go on strike to be dismissed. That is a step that the employers are entitled to take under the law ; that is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The Secretary of State has made it clear to me and to the House that he is not giving way at this stage. I suggest that the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) should wait a while and put his own points. I am sure that I would want to call him.
Mr. Leighton : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Secretary of State misled the House, no doubt unintentionally, and I am certain that, on reflection, he would prefer to deal with the point now.
Column 43Bill. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt have an opportunity to make a speech in due course, and I must get on.
We are now given to understand that the Opposition share our determination to get rid of the closed shop. I hope that the hon. Member for Sedgefield will make his party's position clear this afternoon. I hope that he will say, without equivocation, that the Labour party will not oppose the first three clauses of the Bill and, if he does, no one will welcome that volte face more warmly than me. But I confess that I have a lingering doubt. For one thing, the Labour party's policy review is entirely silent on this subject. It has a long section entitled "The Right to Join a Union" but not a word about the right not to join a union. Perhaps that was an oversight. Perhaps the subject was regarded as so unimportant that it did not justify any pronouncement or even thought on the part of the Opposition.
It was not, it appears, until my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) intervened to put a question to the hon. Member for Sedgefield during our debate on the social charter on 29 November that the hon. Gentleman addressed the matter at all. My right hon. Friend asked about the implications of the social charter for the closed shop. As the Library brief delicately put it, the hon. Gentleman
"found it difficult to respond to Mr. Raison's intervention". The most cursory perusal of Hansard for 29 November will reveal just how much of an understatement that was.
To do the hon. Member for Sedgefield credit, he lost no time in seeking to put the matter right. Within three weeks, he was writing a letter to his constituents in which he clearly set out his support for ending the closed shop. The House might think that such speed of response would evoke warm enthusiasm on the Labour Benches. Judging by Labour Members' faces this afternoon, that enthusiasm is somewhat lacking.
One of the hon. Gentleman's shadow Cabinet colleagues told Tribune that the change of policy was "a gross mistake" and "totally unnecessary", and at the last count, 35 Labour Members had signed early-day motion 282, which says :
"the closed shop is of fundamental importance to the workers and the trades union movement".
The hon. Member for Walton sagely nods in his place. No doubt we shall hear from him later this afternoon. Various trade union leaders have been putting their own gloss on the situation.
I have high hopes of the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I hope that he will make it clear that the Opposition now believe that strikes to enforce a closed shop should remain unlawful. I hope that he will make it clear that he believes that union-labour-only clauses in contracts should remain unlawful. I hope that he will join me in urging all trade union leaders to take immediate steps to dismantle the closed shops that still cover more than 2 million jobs in this country. There is no need to wait until the Bill is passed. They can take action now, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage them to do so when he speaks in a few moments.
Column 44manifesto contained a commitment to publish a code of practice on trade union ballots on industrial action, but only last week the Labour party voted against such a document. The specific words of the manifesto that I have in mind are that the Labour party would act "by laying down general principles for inclusion in union rule books. These will be based on a right of union members to have secret ballots on decisions relating to strikes".
That is the sort of double-talk that we get from the hon. Member for Sedgefield.
Mr. Howard : I can certainly understand my hon. Friend's scepticism, which is no doubt well-founded, given the Labour party's record. But we must have high hopes of the hon. Member for Sedgefield, and we await with great interest his remarks this afternoon.
I want now to consider secondary action. The Government's position on that issue is quite simple. We do not believe that any business should be threatened with disruption unless there is a direct dispute between the employer and his employees. That is the position that the Bill will achieve. The scope for organising lawful secondary action was limited by the Employment Act 1980.
Mr. Robert Hughes : The Secretary of State seems to have finished his consideration of the first three clauses which deal with employment agencies and using information about trade union membership. Will the Secretary of State deal with organisations such as the Eonomic League which, for example, employs paid spies to attend anti-apartheid meetings to discover the names of trade union members who are also members of the Anti- Apartheid Movement in order to give false and misleading information to employers? While the Bill states that evidence from agencies like the Economic League might be used at an industrial tribunal, it does not make those organisations illegal. What protection will the Secretary of State provide for people, because those organisations currently get round the law by claiming that they do not keep information on computers?
Mr. Howard : There is no reason to make the activities of those organisations illegal. I understand that the particular organisation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred is prepared to make information on individuals available to people who ask for it. This Bill provides the protection that no one can be denied employment simply for being a trade union member. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that, instead of introducing red herrings into the discussion which are irrelevant to the point at issue.
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) : With due respect to the Secretary of State, that is not a red herring. Clause 1(4) specifically makes unlawful the practice of unions holding lists from which they will accept people for jobs. Why should there not be a commensurate provision to allow people to take a case to a tribunal if they are refused a job for being on an employer's blacklist?
Mr. Howard : Those lists have nothing to do with the critical question of membership or non-membership of a trade union. For the purposes of the Bill, the critical criterion is simply whether someone is or is not a trade union member. The hon. Member for Sedgefield is guilty of introducing the same red herring into the discussion as his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes).
Column 45Mr. Blair : With great respect, we deserve an answer to this point. Employers' lists may specifically refer to people because of their union membership. In so far as they do that, will the Secretary of State introduce the same provision as that in clause 1(4) in respect of trade union membership?
Mr. Howard : There is no need to introduce any such provision. The provisions in the Bill will be entirely clear. It will be illegal to refuse someone a job because of trade union membership ; that is more than sufficient protection. The premise on which the hon. Gentleman bases his intervention is entirely wrong. The lists to which he refers are not simply lists of union members and his parallel is therefore mistaken.
Mr. Blair : I am afraid that the Secretary of State is wrong. Clause 1(4) deals specifically with lists relating to union members. In other words, clause 1(4) could have been subsumed under the general requirement in clause 1(1), but it is not. Clause 1(4) deliberately refers to the practice of using a list to discriminate against people who are not union members. In so far as employers use lists relating to union membership, why will the Secretary of State not have a similar provision banning them?
Mr. Howard : There is no evidence that lists of trade union members are used in the way in which the hon. Gentleman described. However, there is evidence that lists of trade union members--which are dealt with in the Bill--are kept and used for purposes that would circumvent the provisions in the Bill. There is a clear difference.
Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South-West) : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt, but some of us want to contribute if we are called. The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is guaranteed to be called. Can you protect Back Benchers?
Let me make the Secretary of State this offer : if we can produce evidence that such lists, in so far as they relate to union membership, exist and are used, will he undertake to legislate about them?
Mr. Howard : I will undertake to consider any evidence that is adduced. No doubt the evidence will be considered when those matters are dealt with at length and in detail in Committee. That is the appropriate way in which to deal with the matter.
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : Since the whole issue blew up a couple of years ago, I went out of my way to talk to people who work for the Economic League. It would be advisable if Opposition Members did the same. I understand that the league has approached Labour Members in an attempt to explain what the leagues does, but Labour Members have refused to speak to league representatives. I understand that, far from compiling lists
Column 46of trade unionists, the league simply compiles lists of individuals who set out quite deliberately to create industrial mayhem and disruption in industry.
Mr. Howard rose --
Mr. Howard : No. My understanding of the matter is entirely in accordance with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). However, we can explore those matters at greater length and in detail in Committee.
Mr. Heffer rose --
Mr. Heffer : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to have to raise this point, but I appear on the Economic League's list twice. Will the Secretary of State tell us how people like me who, over the years, have consistently-- [Interruption.]
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair. A point of order must be something that the Chair can answer, and I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman's question.
Mr. Howard : I hope that the Committee of Selection will recognise the keen interest of the hon. Member for Walton in these matters, and will invite him to join the Committee. I am sure that his presence would give great pleasure to the hon. Member for Sedgefield. The scope for organising lawful secondary action was limited by the Employment Act 1980 to employees of customers and suppliers of the employer in dispute. However, in March 1988, we saw just how damaging the threat of secondary action could be to British job prospects. In that year, Ford had planned to invest £40 million in a new electronics plant at Dundee, creating 1,000 jobs. It had negotiated a single-union deal with the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Other unions, led by the Transport and General Workers Union, complained that the AEU had thereby broken TUC rules. Mr. Ron Todd announced that all components from the new plant would be blacked. So Ford took its plant, its £40 million and its 1,000 jobs to Spain.
Mr. Bill Jordan of the AEU rightly described that form of threatened secondary action as the
"unacceptable face of trade unionism".
The Opposition, under their TGWU-sponsored leader uttered not a peep of protest at that wanton loss of jobs. We do not want that to happen again. That is one reason why clause 4 of this Bill will ensure that no union ever again has the protection of the law if it behaves as the TGWU did over Dundee.
The Bill also breaks new ground on tackling the problem of unofficial action. Let us be clear : unofficial action is and always has been a major problem in this
Column 47country. More than 20 years after the Donovan commission drew attention to the damaging effects of unofficial action, it is still the case that some 75 per cent. of strikes are unofficial. That means that they take place without being authorised in accordance with union rules and without being put to the test of a secret ballot. Last year, some 40 per cent. of days lost through strikes were the result of that sort of unofficial, unauthorised, unballoted industrial action.
Furthermore, unofficial action is almost a unique blight on this country's industrial relations. It is far less common in other countries and virtually unknown in some. And What is perhaps particularly relevant to this debate is that it is unlawful in countries such as Germany, the United States, Canada, Sweden and Denmark.
Unofficial action damages jobs and businesses and, as we saw last saw summer, it can disrupt the life of the community as a whole ; and it can do all this without the trade union having to accept any legal liability for the consequences of the action or even having to give financial support to its members who are on strike. Unofficial action is a classic case of power without responsibility.
The Bill corrects two anomalies in the law as it affects unofficial action, and in doing so it will, I believe, significantly discourage such action in the future.
In the first place, the Bill corrects the manifest anomaly that unofficial action--even when organised by shop stewards or other union officials--does not have to be put to the test of a secret ballot. The effect of clause 6 is to put strikes organised by shop stewards and other lay officials on the same basis as strikes organised by national or regional officials.
If a union fails to ensure that strikes organised by its shop stewards have majority support in a secret ballot, that union will forfeit immunity, just as it does now in the case of a strike organised by its national officials. If there has been no ballot and the union wishes to keep its immunity, it will need to repudiate the strike as soon as possible. That repudiation will have to be unequivocal.
That means that it will no longer be possible for unions to ignore unofficial strikes or to use them in order to damage employers without risk to union funds--where they are not confident that the majority of their members would support official action in a secret ballot.
The second anomaly that the Bill will correct concerns the law on unfair dismissal. The law in this country has always provided that anyone who goes on strike in breach of his contract of employment is liable to immediate dismissal. That has been the position under successive Governments, but the law on unfair dismissal means that, if he is to avoid any risk of complaints to a tribunal, an employer must dismiss either every single one of his employees who goes on strike or none at all.
In the context of unofficial action, that is an unreasonable constraint on an employer whose business may be seriously damaged by a strike organised by a handful of troublemakers. We believe that in that situation the employer should have the option of dismissing strikers selectively without the risk of being taken to an industrial tribunal
Mr. Leighton rose
Mr. Howard : That option will be available only in cases of unofficial action which is not organised by a shop steward or which has been repudiated by the trade union concerned. Furthermore, the Bill provides that, in cases of repudiation, the option of selective dismissal will not be available until a full working day after the union has taken the decision to repudiate. That will give the union time to let its members know that the strike does not have its support, and time for the strikers to return to work.
The provisions of the Bill will ensure that unions take full responsibility for strikes organised by their officials--whether shop stewards or general secretaries. This Bill will ensure that in future strikes organised by shop stewards are either explicitly repudiated or put to the test of a secret ballot. The Bill will ensure that, in future, everyone will know exactly where he stands in cases of unofficial action--not just the union, but its officials, its members and the employers whose business is the target of action. That is why I believe that the Bill marks a positive step forward in enabling employers and unions alike to tackle the problem of unofficial action which has bedevilled industrial relations in this country for far too long.
Mr. Blair : Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us of another country within the European Community that allows the dismissal of people on unofficial strike without recourse to a court or tribunal?
Mr. Howard : There are many EC countries in which all unofficial strikes are unlawful. One must look at the entire legal context before one starts to make comparisons on that point. We can look at this matter in Committee, but the hon. Gentleman is misleading the House if he is suggesting that, for comparative purposes in such matters, one can get a true appreciation of the subject by taking one element in isolation, as he has sought to do, without looking at the general position in its proper context.
Mr. Blair rose
The Bill's provisions on unofficial action are fully in accord with the principles underlying all our previous legislation : that those who exercise industrial power should take responsibility for their actions, that they should be accountable to the people they seek to represent and that they should operate within clear legal limits which protect the community, businesses and jobs.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield and his hon. Friends may oppose the provisions today. I am confident that, in due course, they will become as recognised and as widely accepted a part of our legal framework as have the other reforms which we have introduced in this sphere in the past 10 years.
Column 49The remaining clauses amend previous legislation so as to extend the rights and protection the law provides in a number of areas. Clause 5 provides people who work under contracts for services with the same right to a ballot before being called on to take industrial action as people who work under contracts of employment already enjoy. Clause 8 extends the range of issues on which the trade union commissioner can give assistance to trade union members. Clause 10 provides a simplified procedure by which codes of practice may, with the approval of Parliament, be amended in the light of changes in the law.
Clause 11 provides for the merger of the redundancy and national insurance funds. That will simplify their administration, but will not affect the entitlement of employees to redundancy and other payments in any way. Finally, clause 12 will enable all secondary school pupils to benefit from work experience from the beginning of the summer term in their penultimate year at school.
This is the fifth major Bill to reform industrial relations that the Government have introduced since 1979. Each Bill has been opposed by the Labour party, but each Bill in turn has now become an accepted part of the framework of industrial relations in this country. On issue after issue, we have been told by Opposition Members that our legislation was unnecessary and would not work. On issue after issue, they have been proved wrong.
The role of the law in restraining the abuse of trade union powers and in guaranteeing the democratic rights of trade union members is no longer in question. That is why opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that our legislation has the support not only of the overwhelming majority of the British people, but of most trade unionists.
What is the policy of the Labour party on the reforms? The hon. Member for Sedgfield is a master of honeyed words, but the latest authoritative statement on these matters comes not from him, but from his colleague in the shadow Cabinet, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).
The latest issue of The Labour and Trade Union Review contains a long interview with that hon. Gentleman, whose smiling countenance appears on its cover. He deals in some detail with his party's attitudes to these matters. He refers clearly, explicitly and unequivocally to his party's policy towards what he calls the "Tory trade union legislation". He says :
"We shall repeal all of it. There's no little bits you can keep of it. There is nothing you can keep of this legislation".
In fairness to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, he seems to have the clear support of the leader of his party. In 1986, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) said that Labour would "undo the lot". In 1988 he said :
"our commitment is to clear it".
Where does the hon. Member for Sedgefield stand? Over the weekend, I wrote to him asking him to repudiate his hon. Friend's statement. I hope that he will do so without equivocation tonight. If he does not, we shall know that the hon. Gentleman's words count for nothing and that he is quite without authority to speak for his party. We shall know that it is to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hulll, East that we should look and listen if we want an authoritative statement of the Labour party's position.
Our position is clear. We believe that the law should protect the trade union member and the worker who does not wish to become a trade union member. We believe that
Column 50the law should protect the community at large from the abuse of trade union power. We believe the law should protect the creation of jobs. That is the philosophy behind all our trade union legislation since 1979. Those are the principles of this Bill.
The Bill will extend personal liberty against the closed shop, and safeguard jobs and prosperity against the threat of unofficial industrial action. It will protect our freedoms, improve our industrial relations and strengthen our economy. I commend it to the House.
Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield) : The Secretary of State dealt with the provisions relating to secondary action and to unofficial action with less than total enthusiasm. When he spoke on the radio the other morning, he told us that the Bill would be the Government's last piece of trade union legislation, but he left many of us wondering whether he regretted that it is his first. Having heard his speech, we can now see that he himself acknowledges that there are major problems in the legislation, especially with regard to secondary action and unofficial action. I shall deal with those later, because I must first tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Bill is important as much for its priorities as for what it proposes. We have the highest inflation rate of all comparable countries and the largest balance of payments deficit of all EEC countries, including Greece and Portugal--a deficit which encompasses new industries as well as old, developing nations as well as developed and capital goods as well as consumer items. Our interest rates are higher in real terms than anywhere else in the western world, and added £3 billion to industry's bill in the past year alone. However, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, above all we have a deficit in training skills. We have a forecast shortfall of 80,000 to 100,000 computer analysts alone by the mid-1990s. In any one year, half Britain's work force receives no training. We have gaps in our mathematics, languages and basic educational qualifications. Indeed, the head of the Government's Training Agency said recently : "at every level we are towards the bottom of the training league table."
The previous Secretary of State for Employment said in a statement that I can only assume was not meant to be complimentary that the results of his own "Training in Britain" survey were "mind-boggling". However, instead of the Government introducing a Bill to improve skills, upgrade training, encourage investment and stimulate innovation, we have a Bill that is a leftover from the old agenda of the industrial cold war. The Secretary of State has introduced a Bill designed not to solve the real problems of Britain today, but to deal with the lingering malaise of the present Conservative party
Mr. Howard : Was it simply an oversight that the hon. Gentleman omitted to mention not only our productivity and growth in earnings, but the item in our economic performance that is most relevant to the Bill, which is jobs and employment? The hon. Gentleman omitted to mention the 2.75 million jobs that have been created in this country since 1983 and the fact that our unemployment rate is now a fraction of the average in the European Community.