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Column 101the union hears about such an unofficial strike is when the district officer is rung up by the employer, who asks him to get the lads and lasses back to work. They frequently return to work on the understanding that the status quo will be reintroduced.
The Green Paper has said that unofficial strikes take place because the proper procedures are not followed. Frequently it is the employer who has not proceeded with the official disputes procedure. What do the Government propose to do in those circumstances? They seek to clobber not the employer but the employee who is seeking to defend himself and his terms and conditions.
If the Bill goes through, clause 7 will be worse than anything that now applies in eastern Europe. The Bill will be condemned by the International Labour Organisation because it contravenes its statutes, but it will almost certainly be condemned by eastern European countries as they move towards greater democratisation.
An employee who is sacked for taking unofficial action will have no right to go before an industrial tribunal. The Bill goes further, however, as the trade union or the work force will be denied the right to take any action to protect that sacked employee. A number of my hon. Friends have already said that that is tantamount to slavery.
If an employer physically or verbally abuses one of his work force, that person and the rest of the work force might respond by walking out. If one of those workers is a shop steward, the employer could demand that the trade union should refuse to acknowledge that action. That power effectively denies workers the right to take such action, because, should they do so, the employer may take his employees to court. A worker who lost his job through the actions of his employer will have no right of recourse to an industrial tribunal, and his union will have no right to take action on his behalf. The union will have no right to protect that worker or his colleagues. Many of my hon. Friends have already said that, as a result of the Bill, our workers will have fewer rights than the workers in any other EEC country. Our work force will be entirely exposed to the actions of the employers.
Mrs. Mahon : My hon. Friend has talked about fairness and about how workers are treated. Two of my constituents have just lost a case for unfair dismissal on the basis that they were casual employees. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill would give them the dubious rights that he has just outlined? Does he further agree that such workers will be treated unfairly, having extra duties imposed on them on the one hand, while on the other hand they will not be able to go to an industrial tribunal and to win?
We shall pursue every element of the Bill in Committee. We shall test the Government's integrity, because we intend to seek to table many amendments to ensure once and for all that the Government will be seen by everyone to be an anti-trade union Government.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : The debate has been like many of our previous debates on trade unions. Many of my hon. Friends' speeches have been based on their experience, whereas all that we have heard from
Column 102Conservative Members has been the usual massaging of prejudices and the lunatic fringe-- [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but we know full well that the Government were running short of Members willing to speak this evening. Indeed, those who spoke in the debate were, even by the Government's standards, those who urge the Secretary of State to go just that little bit further.
We also know that the Bill has almost no role in terms of the industrial relations framework of Britain in the 1990s. Ironically, the former Secretary of State for Employment, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) virtually said as much. Having been the author of the Bill--I shall explain a little later why he was the author--he then sought to explain why he had handed to his right hon. and learned Friend the present Secretary of State perhaps not a poisoned chalice but a slightly leaky chalice, which has little merit in terms of the realities.
Tonight the former Secretary of State began to address some of the issues that he so signally failed to address when he was in government. I welcome him to the Back Benches because perhaps we can now begin to have the kind of meaningful debate with him that was not possible over the Dispatch Box. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to serve on the Committee, Opposition Members will certainly give him a great and sincere welcome.
The Bill owes its existence to two factors. The first is the fact that the Prime Minister, ever spiteful, was faced with a massive deficit in the opinion polls and said to herself and to the former Secretary of State for Employment, "I'm in a hole, Secretary of State, can we not knock the unions once again? We have tried it before in the past 10 years. Can we rattle the same old skeleton once again?" The second factor was the summer of discontent and the belief that political gains could be made from the Government's promises to reform industrial relations, which had begun to come unstuck at the seams last year.
It is interesting that even a magazine such as The Economist has advised the Government :
"The government's achievement to date has probably captured most of the gains available through the courts."
I must emphasise that I do not agree with that first sentence, which relates to industrial relations. The article then states : "Going further could be to sail close to the invisible line where the loss of individual freedom outweighs the good for the economy and society."
I charge the Government on that latter point. Under the Bill, the individual freedoms of our citizens will be so undermined that the Bill cannot be regarded simply as an extension of the previous legislation. In its own right, it is a particularly obnoxious, nasty and vindictive piece of legislation which will do real damage. It was only when my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) made it quite clear where Labour stood on this piece of legislation that the Government realised that they could not possibly justify being seen to penalise people at their place of work simply because they were members of a trade union. At that point, the Government were bounced into trying to bring in some form of equity. I congratulate my hon. Friend on that achievement. We have already won the first argument in the battle on the Bill.
Mr. Lloyd : In that case the right hon. Gentleman must tell the House why this was not in the Green Paper and why it was only after my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield had made his announcement that the then Secretary of State leapt to his feet, metaphorically speaking, to tell the world--he even advertised it in the Employment Gazette --that the Government were falling into line with the social charter.
Sir Norman Fowler : If the hon. Gentleman reads my intervention on the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) he will see that the hon. Gentleman put himself on the hook of abolishing the closed shop. The hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) has said something totally untrue. The House wants to know whether the Opposition are saying that they are opposed to the closed shop and will remain so.
Mr. Lloyd : The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we are saying that we shall live in conformity with the social charter--the Government are not prepared to do that. They are not prepared, for example, to live with a regime that guarantees people rights at work because they are trade unionists. The Secretary of State was repeatedly challenged in the debate to say whether he would take action against blacklists ; he declined to do so. He knows that the ILO has condemned the Government for their unfair practices perpetrated on GCHQ.
Mr. Howard : Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw that allegation? The ILO has not condemned the Government. Indeed, the latest complaint that the TUC put to it has been withdrawn by the TUC. Does he not know that?
Mr. Lloyd : If the right hon. and learned Gentleman reads the ILO's "Observation 1989" he will see that the organisation roundly condemns the Government's action on GCHQ, and on secondary action. I have no doubt that the ILO will also condemn this Bill, especially its provisions on secondary industrial action.
The Bill is even-handed neither on the right to be a trade unionist nor in its treatment of employer and employee. I remind the Secretary of State that one of his predecessors, Lord Prior, made it clear that he thought it necessary to leave in the law what he described as a gateway to legality. If the freedom to strike was not to be rendered illusory, he said, trade union members should have the right to take strike action. Tonight, the Government are trying to close that gateway.
I listened carefully to the Secretary of State's speech and I hope that the Minister of State will tell us what has changed. We have heard no justification-- [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State want to intervene? I thought I heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman mutter a defence. I shall educate him a little in industrial relations law.
The Bill is not necessary to achieve what the Secretary of State claimed it would achieve. The Government's previous legislation has already clarified the legality or otherwise of these provisions. This legislation is a fraud if the Minister claims that it has been brought in for these reasons.
The nastiest part of the Bill concerns unofficial action, and we are entitled to ask why it was introduced. My hon. Friends have already pointed out that the Government referred in several ways to the great problem of unofficial action. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North
Column 104(Mr. Evans) has just told us that the Government's claims were bogus. The Green Paper suggested that unofficial action was a uniquely British practice, but neither the Secretary of State, nor his predecessor, nor the Minister of State will tell the House why unofficial action in this country is a different proposition : it is because we have a completely different legal framework. The German legal framework encourages official action, but in this country the legal framework increasingly makes official action more and more difficult. The Government were warned of that. If anything, the surprise is that unofficial action is not more widespread. The Government may claim that clause 1 gives an individual the right to be a trade union member. What will happen to a trade unionist, perhaps the only one at a place of work, when unofficial action takes place and he is sacked? Will he have any rights under clause 1 to maintain his place as an employee there? The Minister looks puzzled. I hope that he will address that question because we will return to it until we receive an adequate answer.
In the Green Paper the Government argue :
"The unofficial strike action earlier this year by steel erectors on construction sites in London was not only damaging in itself ; it also threatened to undermine the industrial agreement in the engineering construction industry."
Presumably that is the view of Ministers. I talked to the Amalgamated Engineering Union, which organises steel erectors, about the dispute. The union made it clear to me that on each and every occasion it had done exactly what the Government seek to provide in the Bill : the union made it clear to its members that the action was unofficial and not approved of by the union. Its members were under no illusions. The Government prayed in aid that dispute, but what difference will clause 6 make to such a dispute? The answer is none. During the dispute on London Underground earlier this year, the management said :
"The management made more mistakes when the first unofficial one-day strikes began in April. Tunnicliffe announced there would be no attempt to punish the ringleaders because he did not want to create martyrs."
Most sensible employers will recognise that the creation of martyrs is ridiculous, but that is far from a universal view.
Mr. Brian Ward Lilley, director of the Institute of Personnel Management, warned the Government that some employers might misuse the legislation. He said :
"I hate to say this, but there are some managers who could use this as a way of avoiding redundancies : by provoking a strike, dismissing some people then hiring back the ones they wanted, thus getting rid of the few too many."
I challenge the Minister to tell us how the Bill will prevent such action by unscrupulous employers.
I have already challenged the Secretary of State once on this next matter, but I do not think that he understood. I hope that he will reply this time. My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) raised the important issue of health and safety. Under German legislation, for example, it is not necessary to take unofficial action when equipment is defective or unsafe, because regulations protect employees and allow them not to work until it has been inspected and declared safe or declared unsafe and corrected. In Britain there is no parallel right.
I hope that Ministers understand that : if employees stopped working because equipment was unsafe, it would count as unofficial action. Under the Bill employers are likely to say to the instigators of such unofficial strike, "I
Column 105am sacking the troublemakers who brought their colleagues out on strike." Those workers would have no right of appeal.
The Under-Secretary of State was challenged late last year during the construction safety campaign about the rights of employees working on unsafe construction sites. His advice was clear. He told construction workers that they had the right to walk off the job. He incited them to take unofficial action, and I applaud his decision. I challenge the Minister to say whether my interpretation is correct. If I am not correct, I shall withdraw my charge. However, if I am correct I expect the Minister to say that he will accept amendments that will take away that nasty, vindictive and spiteful part of the Bill that will do so much damage not only to individuals at their place of work but to the whole concept of health and safety in our society.
The Bill is not simply a step beyond what has gone before. It has a number of nasty features that will damage industrial relations. Above all, it has nasty features that, in the final analysis, may kill people at the workplace.
The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Mr. Tim Eggar) : It has been an enjoyable and interesting debate, not least because of the separate debate on the Opposition Benches, not only between Front-Bench and Back-Bench Members, but between Back Bencher and Back Bencher. The speeches of the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) represented different attitudes to the whole question of industrial relations legislation. That added to the interest of the debate.
I much enjoyed listening once again to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will not take it amiss if I say that it was a pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend's dulcet tones. However, the highlight of the debate was the vintage voice of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). During a fascinating perambulation of a speech, he announced that he had been on official strike only once, and that any other industrial action, as a union official, was on the basis of something that we are now making illegal. I was not entirely sure whether he was recommending or opposing the Bill. But it was an interesting comment.
The Bill is our latest stage in our reform of industrial relations legislation. It places the last nail in the coffin of the tyrannical closed shop practices that were actively promoted by the last Labour Government. It is a further reinforcement of the rights of the individual. The Bill will remove legal protection from all forms of secondary action, and so will protect jobs. It will bring unofficial action within the scope of the law, and so improve the climate of industrial relations.
No one seriously doubts that, finally, there is a wide consensus to end the closed shop. As recently as 1984, Tony Dubbins, the general secretary of the National Graphical Association, said :
"To us a closed shop is as natural as getting up in the morning and having breakfast."
The reality is much less homely. In fact, the closed shop is a euphamism for a blatant and outrageous denial of individual rights. It is wholly indefensible in a free society.
The Government have reduced the scope of the closed shop, through successive pieces of legislation. We have already made the post-entry closed shop unenforceable,
Column 106and now is the time to deny the closed shop any legal status. The Bill's provisions on the closed shop are entirely even-handed. Clause 1 makes it unlawful to deny someone a job because he is not a member of a trade union, and it represents a major step forward for civil liberties.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) adduced two reasons for his concern about clause 1. First, he said that it had a conclusive presumption. The fact is that conclusive presumptions can be made only in two particular sets of circumstances--they do not apply right across the board. Both sets of circumstances apply to the position of an employer. I must say that I welcome the hon. Gentleman's concern for the position of an employer. In both sets of circumstances, the remedy is in the employer's own hands.
The hon. Member for Sedgefield considered the sanctions in these two instances to be extreme--I think "extreme" is the word that he used. I do not deny for a moment that they are severe. They need to be severe, because we must bring an end to the most blatant and most extreme of the closed shop practices. That subsection refers to blatantly discriminatory advertisements and to union-controlled recruitment, such as that at Smithfield market. I cannot see why the hon. Gentleman is concerned about that. If he is genuinely opposed to the closed shop, why is he not opposed to strong action being taken in those two sets of circumstances?
Then the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) referred to the problem--they saw it as a problem--of the Economic League. The hon. Gentlemen know full well that the Economic League does not submit candidates for employment and that employers do not agree to employ only persons that the Economic League puts forward. The Economic League simply supplies information to employers on request from them. If, acting on that information, an employer were to turn an applicant down because of his union membership, the Bill would catch that employer.
The claim that the Bill is not even-handed because it has no effect on the activities of the Economic League is therefore simply nonsense, and unsustainable. The hon. Gentleman's expression of concern about those two provisions is nothing more than a cop-out. He wants to find an excuse for not supporting clauses 1 to 3, despite the fact that he claims to support abolition of the closed shop.
Mr. Blair : Let me repeat something that I said earlier : if the two points that I have made are so small and so feeble, let the Minister deal with them and we will support the provision. Now, will he deal with them?
Mr. Eggar : The hon. Gentleman has simply not understood the provisions of the Bill, and has misconstrued the relevant clauses. I very much look forward to debating this matter with him in Committee. Undoubtedly I shall be able to explain to him in considerable detail why he is wrong.
The Bill will close the last remaining loopholes that might permit secondary action. Of course, we know from the Leader of the Opposition--
Mr. Heffer rose --
Column 107We know from the Leader of the Opposition that he believes that secondary picketing is "a right that should be enjoyed". The hon. Member for Sedgefield, and the Leader of the Opposition, should recall that there was precious little to enjoy in the 1970s, when secondary picketing prevented food deliveries, blocked hospital treatment, and left the dead unburied. Those were the effects of secondary picketing.
There was precious little for the people of Dundee to enjoy when they lost 1,000 jobs and £40 million of investment because of threats from the Transport and General Workers' Union. The Labour party has never condemned the threat by Mr. Ron Todd. I am sure that it was an oversight on the part of the hon. Member for Sedgefield, who, of course, is sponsored by the TGWU, that he should fail to condemn that union for the disgraceful action that prevented jobs and investment from going to Dundee.
Mr. Heffer : I return to my point concerning the Economic League and similar agencies. The Minister says that they supply names only if requested to do so by employers. If an employer decides not to appoint an applicant, giving a reason other than his trade union activities, but if that is the real reason for his non-appointment, how will the applicant ever know? Such agencies will stop people being employed, and that is not something that the Bill or any other measure can deal with.
Mr. Eggar : I know that the hon. Member for Walton is totally opposed to the position of his hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, and I understand his concerns about the Bill's provisions. The hon. Member for Walton opposes not only those subsections that worry the hon. Member for Sedgefield but clauses 1 to 3 overall, because he is in favour of keeping closed shops.
Mr. Robert Hughes rose
Mr. Blair rose
Mr. Eggar : The third main plank of the Bill is the provision that brings unofficial strike action within the scope of the law. All too often, unofficial and unballoted industrial action causes damage and disruption to British employers. The Bill removes the anomaly whereby a union is protected by statutory immunities when a shop steward organises unofficial action even if no ballot has been held. The Bill will make unions responsible for industrial action caused by any of its officials down to and including shop stewards. No longer will union leaders be able to give tacit encouragement to unofficial strikes caused by any of their officials. The unions will be required to repudiate unofficial action effectively and speedily if they wish to retain their legal immunities. They will retain the option to ballot for an official and legally protected strike. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South-West (Mr. Madel) that the Bill's provisions do not in any way prevent a union from adding words to the notice of official repudiation, provided that those words do not undermine the effect of the repudiation.
Employers will be permitted selectively to dismiss anyone taking official action, and that will be an important and necessary deterrent--as the CBI has recognised.
The Bill will mark a further major advance for industrial relations. The hon. Member for Sedgefield, with no little effrontery, suggested that the Bill shows that the Government are seeking to refight the battles of the past, but the opposite is true. The Bill is designed to ensure that this country never revisits the industrial battlefields of the 1960s and 1970s. Still less do we want to revisit the trade unionism and attitudes of the 1930s so well described by the hon. Member for Walton. It is clear that it is the Labour party that is stuck in a time warp, for it wants to take us straight back to the rampant trade union power, widespread strikes and industrial chaos of the late 1970s.
When the hon. Member for Sedgefield reads his speech tomorrow morning, he should feel a little embarrassed, because it was all about making it easier to strike and to bring about the industrial disruption that has caused this country so much harm. The hon. Gentleman's message was clear. His message from Labour's Front Bench was, strike long and strike often. He was propounding a strikers' charter. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to deny that, why did he not take up the challenge laid down by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State? Why has he not clearly denied the statement made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)--who has been conspicuous by his absence--who said that Labour would repeal all the Government's employment laws? The reason for the hon. Gentleman's silence is clear : he will not deny his hon. Friend's proposition, because he knows that what his hon. Friend says represents the true voice of the Labour party. If he does not believe me, let him look behind him at all the stern faces of the 35 hon. Members who signed the early-day motion in favour of the closed shop. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East is clearly right : Labour would get rid of all the Government's employment legislation--it would "get rid of the lot".
I sat patiently through the speech of the hon. Member for Sedgefield, but he did not deny that Labour would repeal every last one of the union reforms of the past 10 years. Let me give him another opportunity. Will he now deny that the Labour party will repeal our legislation? Clearly he has not sorted out his little internal differences with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East.
The fact is that Labour never condemns any strike, however much damage it does to the public. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. Howells) had the courage to recognise that not all strikes are good strikes ; I wish that the hon. Member for Sedgefield would show the same courage. Whatever a strike may put at risk--the rail network, export orders, energy supplies or even the Health Service--the Labour party will always endorse it, encourage it and wish it effective success.
There has been one exception during the past 10 years : Labour's leaders have condemned one strike. You may be as surprised as I am by that information, Mr. Speaker, and I see Labour Front Benchers furrowing their brows, wondering what on earth that strike could be. They did condemn a strike, however ; they even--let me whisper it
Column 109--supported a management that threatened to suspend striking staff without pay. Who was that ruthless employer? Yes, it was the Labour party at Walworth road, which engaged in a bitter dispute with its own staff from the National Union of Journalists only last August. According to the Labour party, only one employer in Britain should be allowed protection against industrial action : itself. That is the only occasion in the past 10 years when Labour Front Benchers have condemned a strike : what an appalling record.
I have some sympathy for the hon. Member for Sedgefield : he has sat through the debate with little company on the Opposition Front Bench. Where were his shadow Cabinet colleagues? I think that we have a right to know-- or at least the hon. Gentleman has a right to know--which of those colleagues told Tribune that his policy was a "gross mistake" and "totally unnecessary". For the hon. Gentleman's sake, will the author of those remarks stand up and be counted? Was it the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East? Was it the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who seems reluctant to relinquish his old habits and responsibilities? Was it the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who looks thoroughly puzzled? Was it perhaps the Leader of the Opposition himself? Answer comes there none : no one is prepared to own up.
According to the terms of its policy review, the Labour party has ducked the challenge and faked the change. The Opposition oppose the Bill because they do not want union leaders to be responsible for their members. To Labour, a trade union ballot is either an administrative inconvenience or a means of compelling employers to concede to union demands. To us the ballot is an essential democratic right to protect members against abuses of union power.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived. Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order (Amendment on Second or Third Reading :
The House divided : Ayes 255, Noes 198.
Division No. 53] [10 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buck, Sir Antony
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)