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Column 51debunked, not least by the report published recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife Central, (Mr. McLeish), which has not been challenged in any particular by the Conservative party. I advise the right hon. and learned Gentleman that unemployment is now higher than in 1979, when the Government came to power, and nothing can hide the fact that on inflation, interest rates, our balance of payments, and skills, after 11 years of Tory government this country is now woefully behind.
Despite all that, the first measure that the new Secretary of State for Employment brings before the House as the stamp of the new regime is a Bill about which he has once again given us the ritual incantations about the evils of the trade unions and of the over-regulated workplace. We were told that those were the problems when the Government introduced the Employment Act 1980, we were told that those were the problems when the Government introduced the Trade Union Act 1984, and we were told the same in 1988 and in 1989. Now, 11 years on, when our trade unions are more constrained than unions practically anywhere else in Europe and when our Labour market is less regulated, we are still told that the trade unions and the overregulated workplace are to blame.
It is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's misfortune that the one thing that has changed beyond all doubt is that now, when industry is fighting interest rates of the present level, when our education system is teaching fewer 16 to 19-year-olds than are taught in any comparable country, when out adult work force is now serviced by fewer training managers than there are now anywhere else in the EEC bar Greece and Portugal, the people of this country know that it is not protection in the workplace that is causing Britain's problems, but the fecklessness of Cabinet Ministers in their workplace. They have no one left to blame but themselves.
The Secretary of State set a context for the Bill ; let me now set it in its true context. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress are now probably closer on training than they have been for years, and they are united in their anxiety to deal with 1992 and the greatest competitive challenge facing this country. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must be the only Employment Minister in Europe who wants to spend three or four months in Committee, pitting one side of industry against the other. If all that we could say about the Bill was that it is merely irrelevant, that would be one thing, but it is not merely irrelevant. Much of it is wrong, damaging and unfair.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : Will the hon. Gentleman note that in my constituency we have an excellent training establishment which is run by a trade union--the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union? Sadly, the rest of the trade unions decided that the EETPU had no right to belong to the TUC, which is a pretty good indication of the sort of trade unions that support the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.
Mr. Blair : There it is. That is the authentic voice of division. The hon. Gentleman does not realise that the CBI and the TUC are today close about the need for training. I am delighted that the training provisions in Esher are so good. The training provisions everywhere in Britain should be good, yet they are not, as is conceded by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
In the Bill the Government have laid down two tests about union membership. First, they have said that the provisions should deal with union membership in the same way as race and sex are dealt with. Secondly, they have said that the provisions should be in line with the European social charter. Clause 1 contains two major flaws and I should be grateful if these points could be dealt with when the Minister responds. Conclusive presumptions are made in clause 1 in that if people are refused a job when the job requirement is that the person either is or is not a member of a trade union, that person is conclusively presumed to have been refused a job for that reason. Clause 1(4) also contains the conclusive presumption of refusal of a job for non-membership of a trade union. As far as I am aware, that system is unknown in both race and sex discrimination laws. The conclusive presumption means that the employer cannot even prove that there may have been another reason for dismissal. That is extremely rare in general law, and it would mean that a person could be refused a job for a wholly extraneous reason that had nothing to do with union membership or non-membership, yet he would still be entitled to claim.
I should be obliged if the Minister who winds up would deal with the following example. Five or 10 people apply for the same job. They could be refused on the basis that they were not on an approved list of union members ; all five or 10 could then claim unfair dismissal and be conclusively presumed to have been dismissed for that reason in respect of the same job. That cannot possibly be right, and it is way out of line with race and sex discrimination law.
The Bill is not even-handed in its approach. Most people would consider it entirely reasonable that if the Bill describes a requirement for union membership--that is, for a list of people who are union members--the same provisions should apply to lists of people who may be discriminated against on the ground that they are union members. So there is no reason why the Bill cannot include a provision in very much the same terms as clause 1(4) to put an end to the obnoxious practices of the Economic League and the employers who go in for them. If the Secretary of State is serious about dealing with that problem, he should deal with it now. I take it from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said earlier that, if we can provide evidence in Committee, he will legislate to this effect.
Will my hon. Friend join me--and, I am sure, the Secretary of State--in welcoming the dismantling of organisations in eastern Europe such as the Securitate? Will he also agree that the employment of private spies by public businesses in this country is obnoxious and to be condemned?
Column 53they are not published, so people do not know that they are on them. Some of the most horrendous cases that have come to public notice have been in respect of people who had no idea that they were blacklisted.
As the Secretary of State knows, it is unlawful to dismiss someone for his union activities. There are higher penalties at law for dismissing a person for that reason, but it is not wrongful to refuse to employ people on the basis of their union activism. Surely that is a gap that this Bill could fill, and it would be in line with an even-handed approach.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : The hon. Gentleman has mentioned clause 1 only in the context of two technical amendments which he hopes can be resolved in Committee. Will he confirm here whether the Labour party officially accepts the ending of the closed shop and will not in any circumstances seek to reintroduce it?
The two flaws that I have identified are not technical : they are substantial. If they are dealt with, fine. Let us see whether the Minister will deal with them--[ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] I have just answered it. Perhaps Conservative members should wake up. I have made it clear that if the flaws in clause 1 are dealt with we shall be happy to support it--if not, we shall not. We shall support it if it is even-handed and drafted in accordance with the European social charter. I cannot put it more plainly than that.
I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for having passed so quickly through secondary action and unofficial action this afternoon, and I shall expose why he did so. I imagine that he has done his homework rather carefully now that the Bill is having its Second Reading. The Government proposition is that there is no set of circumstances, no matter how close the connection between one group of employees and another, in which the first group in dispute with its employer is entitled to ask the second for assistance. In other words, apart from a limited right in respect of picketing, all forms of sympathy and secondary action are to be forbidden.
That proposition is so manifestly unfair and unreasonable, for the reasons that I shall adduce, that it is fatal to any pretence of even-handedness in the Bill. What is being forbidden is not merely the right to take sympathy action but the right to ask for it. If one group of employees want another to take sympathy action they can only ask : they will still have to go through balloting procedures, and, given the limitations on the generosity of human nature, there are bound not to be many occasions when such a request for action is granted.
To prevent such requests in all circumstances would be unreasonable and unpractical, but hon. Members need not take my word for that. Lord Prior went through all this in detail--the Secretary of State called him in support of his claims this afternoon--on Second Reading of the Employment Act 1980. Lord Prior was quite definite about this :
"the only other position that we could take would be to say that there will be no immunity for anything other than primary action"-- In other words, the Government's position today.
"I do not believe, for reasons that I shall give, that that is either a practical or reasonable position to take. We have sanctified that there should be no limitations on how far
Column 54immunities stretch. We are seeking to reach a position which we believe is fair and which recognises the traditional rights of the trade union movement."
The ability to take limited secondary action has thus been in existence for 10 years. Where is the clamour to alter it? Where is the desire on the part of employers, let alone the trade unions? Lord Prior went on to utter words that Conservative Members should take to heart :
"the clause seeks a position which is balanced and reasonable. Simple repeal of the immunities for all secondary action would not be right. I know that some of my hon. Friends would query that remark. I shall tell them why.
I have said on a number of occasions from this Box that, just as it is not reasonable to leave trade unions with more power than they need in the vain hope that they will not misuse it, so also it would be unreasonable to weaken them to the extent that they are unable to defend their members against attack. Finding the right course calls for enormous effort and thought on the part of us all. It will not be achieved by reburnishing our prejudices."--[ Official Report, 17 April 1980 ; Vol. 982, c. 1490- 98.]
That is what this Bill is all about.
Mr. Blair : That was a dispute between two unions ; it had nothing to do with secondary action, and it is ludicrous to suggest that it provided a basis for legislation against all secondary action. Even if it was a case of secondary action, the Government are today proposing a ban on all sympathy action. That would mean that National Health Service managers could contract out ambulance work to a private company and the NHS workers could not even ask the private ambulance men to black the work that they were doing in their place. Will the Secretary of State confirm the following example of how extreme the proposition is? It applies to circumstances in which a company shuts down its premises and moves the work to another company. That other company could even be an associated employer of the first company. Even if the second company were part of the same group of companies and the workers were part of the same trade union, doing the same work that the other employees were doing, the first group of workers would not be able to ask for support from the second for the primary dispute.
I hope that hon. Members realise how extreme the proposition is. An employer will be free to use his contractual or commercial power in any way he chooses directly to undermine and circumvent the industrial action of the union, but the union will have no commensurate right whatever to ask for sympathy action to make the action effective. I cannot understand how that can be explained as reasonable.
Mr. Heffer : Has my hon. Friend considered what happened at Tate and Lyle in Liverpool? The factory had been open for well over 100 years and had had only one dispute in that time, so it did not face any great problems, yet it was moved out of Liverpool and the building left derelict. Families had worked there for generations, but were put out of work. Does my hon. Friend recall what happened at Birds Eye in Kirkby? The factory was moved to another area. Again, there was no industrial dispute. There was no consultation and the anouncement was made on a Friday afternoon. Does my hon. Friend agree that Tory Members should consider that?
Column 55Mr. Blair : Surely hon. Members can see what a grotesque position the proposition leaves us in.
Mr. Eggar : Before the hon. Gentleman replies to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), will he reflect on the way in which he announced the Labour party's policy change on the closed shop? Did he consult his hon. Friends and the trade unions? Was the announcement in accord with the provisions of the social charter that he is enunciating now?
Mr. Blair : We have heard it all now--when a Minister has to get up and ask me about the internal democracy of the Labour party. It is touching to see Tory Members displaying their grief. There they were, all togged up in their party best for the party, and they put their hands into the magician's hat, hoping to pull out a nice white, bright, sprightly, lively rabbit, but instead find that they are holding a very dead fox. That is the truth of the matter. When, during a discussion on secondary action, a Minister has to refer to an earlier debate, we know how weak the Government feel their position to be.
The Minister has consistently said that he wishes Europe and Britain to be the same on issues such as these. Indeed, the Green Paper makes great play of what happens in Europe. In France, sympathy action is allowed where there is a common professional interest between employees. In Italy, it is allowed where there is a "sufficient community of interest" either of an economic or contractual nature. In Denmark, a reasonable and fair interest between employees justifies sympathy action in law. In West Germany, where the position is complicated because of collective bargaining agreements that cover virtually an entire industry, making the position more restrictive, sympathy action is allowed where the employer who is the subject of sympathy action is doing the work of those on strike or where companies are associated. In Belgium, sympathy action is permitted where there is a direct interest, and in Holland it is allowed unless it is manifestly unreasonable. In Spain, it is allowed where those taking part share the same professional interests.
In other words, in every other part of the EEC jurisdiction, sympathy action is permitted, although it is limited ; the labour court is given wide discretion when applying those limits ; and workers have broader rights in other respects, not least the right not to be dismissed when lawfully on strike. In some jurisdictions, such as West Germany and Italy, an employer, not a union, can be injuncted for his importation of strike- breaking labour into an official dispute. The rights that are given abroad are infinitely more wide-ranging than those in the Bill.
The Government are also moving way out of line with the rest of Europe on unofficial action.
Mr. Blair : If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to know the Labour party's policy, he can read the policy review. The only question that is relevant to the Bill is whether we support the Government in abolishing secondary action. We do not.
Mr. Howard : The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the policy review talks about making secondary action lawful where there is a "genuine interest" and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) in a letter to The Independent published on 19 October asked for a definition of the phrase "genuine interest". We are still waiting for an answer. Why does the hon. Gentleman not take this opportunity to enlighten us?
It is against the background of our being right out of line with Europe on secondary action that we come to unofficial action. In the Bill the Government do not merely seek to extend the procedures whereby a union is liable for unofficial action : they extend them to circumstances involving any official or committee of the union. An official, no matter how low, and any member of any part of any committee of the union will be able to make the union liable to action. That is wholly out of line with the normal agency rules for companies. The union will have to go through arduous procedures to dissociate itself. If a company claims that a union is conniving in unofficial action, it can already take the union to court. Worst and most obnoxious of all are the provisions that would allow the selective dismissal of people on site without any recourse to an industrial tribunal. The Secretary of State ducked that in his speech and I shall explain why. In particular, I shall explain why he would not give way to me a second time. [ Hon. Members-- : "Only a second time?"] I shall let him intervene in my speech in a moment. January's Employment Gazette carried an official statement about what the Government wish to do in this area. It stated :
"The Government believes that employers in this country should have the same freedom to respond to unofficial action as employers in West Germany."
That is the test that the Government proposed for this legislation.
At present employees who are on strike officially or unofficially can be dismissed if they are all dismissed and there is no jurisdiction on the part of the tribunal. In other words, an individual has no right to strike, even where a union has immunity, and there is no right of appeal, even to an industrial tribunal. If an employer dismisses employees selectively, as the Government propose he should be able to do, contrary to a common
misunderstanding, the dismissal is not automatically unfair ; it is simply that the employee then has a right to
Column 57have the fairness of that dismissal tested before an industrial tribunal. In other words, he cannot be dismissed without the right of appeal. This is for perfectly understandable reasons : there may be circumstances in which such unofficial action is justified. The proposal in the Bill is to allow selective dismissal, but without any right for employees to go to an industrial tribunal, no matter what the circumstances of the dismissal are. We are told that the justification for that is the position in West Germany and elsewhere. There is no clear rule about that in other countries. Many, such as France and Italy, allow the right to strike, even where the action is unofficial.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made West Germany the test--yet in that country, where an employer can dismiss when unofficial action is taken, the works council must first give its consent and, more important, the employee has the right of recourse to a labour court to claim that his dismissal was unjustified in all the circumstances. In other words, the position in West Germany is the same as it is in Britain today and not as the right hon. and learned Gentleman intends it to be. If the proposed changes are made, the law will be quite unfair.
I issue a challenge to the right hon. and learned Gentleman : if we can show that the law in West Germany is as I have stated it to be, and given that the test that he has formulated is that Britain must be equivalent to West Germany, will he agree to include provisions to that effect in the Bill?
Mr. Howard : The justice and the legitimacy of the proposed provisions stand by themselves. I justified them during my speech and I shall justify them further in Committee. There is no question of their requiring justification by reference to what happens in any other country.
Mr. Blair : We now know why the right hon. and learned Gentleman dealt with this issue so quickly during his speech. He says that the provisions are self-standing and are not influenced by what happens in other countries. Why, in his Green Paper "Unofficial Action and the Law", did he specifically cite the practice in other countries as justification for this legislation? There is the right to go to a tribunal in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Japan and Australia. The Government claim to rely on the practice in other countries, but Britain will be the only country that does not allow that right.
The Employment Gazette is the official newspaper of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Department. It said :
"The Government believes that employers in this country should have the same freedom to respond to unofficial action as employers in West Germany."
Why are we not allowed that same freedom, when that was the test which the Government set? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that under the Bill an employer could provoke a walk-out--perhaps by wholly unreasonable behaviour--and sack the trade union officials for reasons wholly extraneous to the unofficial dispute--simply because he does not want trade unionists--yet there will be no right even to claim that a dismissal was unfair? The Government cannot claim that such a provision is fair or even-handed. It is a typical Government measure. They take an idea- -we know that it comes from No. 10 Downing street, as everything else does- -push it beyond
Column 58the bounds of any external validity, carry it to the furthest extreme and end up justifying it no matter what the arguments against it.
This is a shabby, ill-thought-out and bigoted measure. Most of all, it is wrong because it looks back, not forward. We cannot address the challenges of the future through the prejudices of the past. It is the right hon. Gentleman's Government who are reburnishing their prejudices, as Lord Prior put it, in this Bill. A new decade should require a new settlement in industrial relations law, and part of the principles of that settlement should be first, that it is fair and even-handed between employers and unions ; secondly, that it contains certain basic individual rights guaranteed by law ; thirdly, that it marches in step and moves with the grain of what is happening elsewhere in Europe, especially as we approach 1992 ; and fourthly, that it should aim for stability in industrial relations, which is the vital prerequisite of the national effort that we require to put this country back on its feet.
If we are serious about the gap between Britain and its competitors--in training and skills, research and development, and technology and innovation--we cannot allow measures that will do nothing to assist the promotion of that stability. The Bill is unfair, it curtails certain individual basic rights, it moves us further out of line with Europe, it will provoke industrial conflict and, frankly, it is a Bill too far. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that ; it was evident in his speech. The Bill is irrelevant in the issues it concerns. It is dangerous in much of what it proposes and we shall vote against it.
Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield) : I shall be brief. I do not accept what the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said. His speech was most notable for its omission of any reference to the vast improvement in industrial relations--for example, the reduction in the number of strikes and in the number of days lost. From my entirely independent point of view, the Bill appears to be a piece of legislation that has been brilliantly conceived and excellently put together. It was, of course, magnificently introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.
My only sorrow is that the conversion of the hon. Member for Sedgefield-- and conversion it was--came too late to enable him to become a sponsor of the Bill. However, I was more convinced about his conversion before he began his speech than I was as I listened to it. He rather skated over the closed shop issue. Indeed, it appeared to come as a shock and a surprise to many of his hon. Friends to be told that that was the Labour party's new policy.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is right in his approach. This Bill will go down in the history books as the Bill that brought to an end the closed shop in Britain--and by any standards that is a significant achievement. It is made doubly significant because it has been accepted by the Opposition. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sedgefield accepted it even before the Bill was published. There is now as broad a consensus as we are ever likely to have in the politics of industrial relations, and it is that the closed shop should be brought to an end. That is a significant political step. In the 1970s, the Labour party spent a great deal of time seeking to legislate to extend and strengthen the closed shop. There is no clearer
Column 59example of the revolution in industrial relations law in Britain than the attitude that the Labour party now takes and the policy that it now holds.
The Bill is significant for human rights. There was never any justification for men and women being forced to join a trade union if that was not their wish. That was the finding of the European Court, and I do not think that anyone would now challenge it. Above all, the Bill is significant for the future of trade unions because it marks a new era for them. It means that they will have to persuade people into membership rather than force them, as was previously the case. So often, the closed shop has been a recruiting sergeant for the unions. It was not that people necessarily wanted to join a union, but that they knew only too well that that was the price that was put on the job. That price was sometimes paid willingly and sometimes reluctantly. Sometimes people refused to pay it, and they lost their jobs. That was the inexcusable consequence of the closed shop legislation.
Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the respectability, validity and credibility of the trade union movement are enhanced when unions operate on the basis of voluntary membership rather than on the basis of coercing people into becoming members?
Sir Norman Fowler : I agree entirely. It is healthy for trade unions and for the trade union movement. Indeed, I think that some good trade unions--not just the electricians union--have already adopted this practice.
When I worked on Fleet street in the 1960s, a reporter from one of the subsidiaries of The Times had an offer from another Fleet street newspaper. That offer was withdrawn for no reason other than that the reporter was not a member of the requisite trade union. Today, Fleet street is no longer the centre of the newspaper industry. Thanks to the action of a number of brave people, the situation in that industry has changed out of all recognition. But we should not forget that that was the closed shop in operation : no union card, no job. That is why the closed shop is being abolished.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lancashire Publications Ltd., which publishes one of our local newspapers and has for years negotiated with the National Union of Journalists, is now offering a pay rise dependent on there being no trade union activity? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is just as important that people should be entitled to belong to trade unions as to ensure that they may refrain from so doing?
Sir Norman Fowler : Yes. Indeed, that is one of the points of this Bill. As my right hon. Friend so rightly said, it provides that right for the first time. For the first time, people have the right to belong to a trade union. They cannot be excluded from membership. Since the early 1960s, I myself have been a member of the union to which my hon. Friend has referred.
Mr. John Evans : Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, throughout the length and breadth of Britain, there have been thousands of recorded cases of people being denied employment because they were trade unionists? Under this Bill, the onus is still on the individual
Column 60to prove conclusively that an employer's reason for not giving him a job is that he is a member of a trade union. Providing that proof is virtually impossible.
Sir Norman Fowler : I believe that, when the hon. Gentleman goes through the Bill in Committee, he will cease to hold that view. This is the normal way of setting out industrial relations legislation. I am sure that everyone will want to do everything in his power to ensure that a person who is a member of a trade union is not excluded from employment by virtue of that membership. That is the purpose of the legislation. The approach is an even-handed one. This Bill brings the closed shop to an end. The post- entry closed shop and the pre-entry closed shop are both now ended. Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, I hope that unions and employers up and down the country will not wait until this legislation has gone through all its stages in this House and in another place before starting to dismantle the closed shop arrangements.
I hope also that the change will be noted in the public service. I hope that in this regard the Government, as an employer, will take the lead. I do not know what arrangements exist in organisations such as Her Majesty's Stationery Office. I hope that the Minister of State will tell us--if he knows--the extent of the closed shop in that field. But I hope even more that he will assure this House that any closed shop arrangements in the public service will be brought to an end immediately. That is important. The end of the closed shop is a challenge to sensible trade union leaders in this country. In future, unions will have to attract members by offering services and by taking up issues such as training and pensions--issues about which their members are concerned. Unions that ignore that message will find their members drifting away and will find recruits hard to come by. Whether there is a future for a trade union will be a matter entirely for that union. In this regard, I certainly have no prejudice--as, perhaps, my union membership indicates. This Bill gives new rights in respect of union membership.
Nor am I at all concerned that the Bill's proposals in respect of unofficial action may have the side effect of strengthening the position of official unions in this country. It is ludicrous that we should have suffered such damage from unofficial strikes. What sets us apart from the rest of Europe and other countries is not the particular procedure but the amount of damage that is done to industry by unofficial disputes. It is ludicrous that it should be easier to take unofficial action than to take official action. Obviously I should prefer a situation in which there was no strike action whatsoever, but it seems to me that where there is strike action it should be taken by unions operating in the context of the law and subject to legal restraints such as the secret ballot. In my view, the reform of industrial relations law is one of the great successes of this Government's period of office. We have seen a reduction in the number of strikes and a reduction in the number of days lost. We have seen union members--as, recently, at Ford's--not simply following their leaders into strike action. Opinion poll after opinion poll has shown that the public in this country support the reforms in industrial action that this Government has seen through. The hon. Member for Sedgefield referred to my legacy to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State.
Column 61But the hon. Gentleman, too, has come into a legacy--a legacy from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). It is just possible, of course, that that was not the most welcome gift he received in 1989. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's position on the closed shop, as would anyone with any common sense. However, I say to him in all seriousness that he will have to answer the serious, important and crucial questions that my right hon. and learned Friend has put to him.
The current position of the Opposition is that they would allow secondary action where a genuine striker has had a genuine interest in the dispute. The Opposition would get rid of injunctions and sequestration. It seems to me that that all adds up to a set of proposals that would make striking very much easier. It is very much in the public interest that it should be known where precisely the Labour party stands on these issues. This is not simply a party political issue ; it is an issue on which the public will want to have answers.
Above all--here I have some sympathy with one of the points that the hon. Gentleman made--the question now is, what are the real industrial relations issues in the 1990s? There is no doubt that reform of industrial relations law was the issue of the 1980s, but the process may not be at an end, even after the passage of this Bill. The whole advantage of the step-by-step approach is that abuses can be corrected, but I should be surprised if the reform of the law were to have such dominating importance in our affairs over the next 10 years as it had over the last 10 years. It seems to me that the 1990s are much more likely to be--indeed, should be--about involving the work force more thoroughly than ever before. That is an issue that goes way beyond the issues of worker directors and worker councils. It goes into employee share ownership and profit sharing ; it goes into team working, and all the rest.
The 1990s will also be about using the human resources at our disposal ; about providing careers, not just jobs, for women ; about providing opportunities for ethnic minorities and for unemployed people. But, above all, the 1990s--here I take up exactly the point that the hon. Member for Sedgefield made--will be about making our work force as professional, as skilled, as good, as it conceivably can be.
The 1990s will be about not only initial training but retraining--training through life. Every right hon. and hon. Member must understand and recognise that both are long-standing issues that go back way beyond this Government and the preceding Labour Government. Training has been a problem for the whole of this century.
Our experience of industrial relations shows that it is possible to tackle long-standing problems successfully. Ten years ago, no problem was seen as more intractable than bad industrial relations, which were said to be too difficult an area to tackle. However, our experience over the past 10 years shows that, over a relatively sort period, British industrial relations can be not only changed but transformed.
If our industrial relations had not improved, Britain would not have attracted the kind of inward investment that it has. We would not be enjoying the attractive jobs record that we have. Inward investment also proves--this is an objective test--that other countries recognise the great skills inherent in the British work force. Otherwise, they would not want to base operations in this country.
Column 62For the 1990s, we must aim at developing to the full extent the skills of our work force. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on his speech, but at the same time I look forward to his efforts in other areas of importance to our nation.
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : The Bill is completely unnecessary and has no relevance to the real needs of British commerce and industry. It is not as though the Bill addresses great abuses. Once again, the Government are churning our anti-union legislation. Every two years a new Bill is introduced proving that the Government still think of the unions as the enemy within. Whereas other countries throughout the world co -operate in industry, the present British Goverment believe that there is some electoral advantage in attacking unions and in union bashing.
I refer first to the reason why the closed shop has persisted in many areas of British industry. As many impartial observers have noted, there is an inherent imbalance between the bargaining power of an individual worker and that of a large employer. Combination and union and collective bargaining offer a countervailing force that can redress the balance. For that reason, many workers seek 100 per cent. union membership, and it is legitimate for them to do so. In some sectors of industry, such as printing, 100 per cent. union membership is traditional and can be traced back to the guilds. In other trades, craftsmen are reluctant to work alongside those not having the required qualifications, of which union membership is often the hallmark. The question of safety arises in industries such as mining, where men live and work closely together for long periods in dangerous conditions. They may be reluctant to go down in a cage with someone who is not a union member.
It has never been the ark of the covenant of Labour party policy that everyone must be coerced into union membership, whether or not they like it. Instead, Labour has historically recognised that the closed shop is a traditional element of industrial relations practice in many areas of employment. It has therefore adhered to the voluntary principle that the operation of a closed shop is a matter best left to management and workers- -specially when one has been operated flexibly and tolerantly in the past, taking account of people having conscientious objections. The fact that the closed shop has lasted is proof that it meets the needs of both employers and employees.
That was graphically proved to be the case by the Industrial Relations Act 1971, introduced by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), which made closed shops null and void. I was not a Member of Parliament at that time but was still working in industry, as a member of a closed shop. I can assure the House that the 1971 legislation had absolutely no effect. During the Committee proceedings of the Employment Bill in 1980, the then Secretary of State for Employment, now Lord Prior, said, "The fact of the matter is, it did not work"--and I know of not one employer who used its closed shop provisions.
When the present Government came to office in 1979, they tried again. The Employment Act 1980 said that it would be unfair to dismiss anyone having a conscientious objection to union membership. It also required all new
Column 63closed shops to have the support of 80 per cent. of those balloted. The Employment Act 1982 stipulated that any dismissals would be unfair unless the closed shop had received the support of 85 per cent. of those balloted and eligible.
Almost every ballot was in favour of a closed shop, proving its popularity among those most closely concerned. The Employment Act 1988 made post-entry closed shops unenforceable. The former Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), will recall that it outlawed all dismissals even where a ballot had been in favour of the closed shop. The Government said that, even if there had been ballots, they did not intend to take any notice of them ; immunity would be withdrawn from actions to establish or maintain a closed shop, whether pre- entry or post-entry.
What has been the effect of 10 years of the closed shop being outlawed by the present Government? The astonishing answer is, very little. In February and March 1989, the Department of Employment undertook a survey, which the former Secretary of State may have commissioned, whose results were published in the October 1989 issue of Employment Gazette. It revealed 1,300,000 workers in pre-entry closed shops and another 1,300,000 in post- entry closed shops. In other words, 2,600,000 workers remained in what are known to the Government as closed shops--that is, 10 per cent. of male workers, 3 per cent. of full-time women workers, and 1 per cent. of part- time women workers. The Employment Gazette article concluded : "More importantly perhaps, it has shown the closed shop to be more persistent and widespread than had previously been thought." Passing a law making closed shops null and void does not prevent one from continuing with the agreement of all those concerned. The closed shop was outlawed--otherwise the former Secretary of State and his colleagues would have been wasting their time for the past 10 years--yet it is still as strong as ever. One reason for that is that many employers support the closed shop because it spares them from splinter groups who would disrupt accepted representational arrangements. It spares them also from fragmented industrial relations and inter-union disputes. The simple truth is that the Tories' long offensive against the closed shop has failed in practice. The closed shop, which is rooted in certain industries, remains--and it has become ingrained because those concerned want it.