Previous Section Home Page

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Watts, John

Wheeler, Sir John

Whitney, Ray

Widdecombe, Ann

Wilkinson, John

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann

Winterton, Nicholas

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Woodcock, Dr. Mike

Column 838

Yeo, Tim

Young, Sir George (Acton)

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. John M. Taylor and

Mr. Nicholas Baker.

Amendment accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.


That this House approves the Autumn Statement presented by Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer on 15th November 1989 ; welcomes the continuing reduction in the share of national income taken by public expenditure, and the provision of substantial extra resources for priority areas ; congratulates Her Majesty's Government on its policies of sound financial discipline and supply side improvement which have been the foundation of record growth of employment, investment, and business formation ; and commends the Government's determination to maintain downward pressure on inflation and to bring further improvements in economic performance.

10.14 pm

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. First, have Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry asked permission to make a statement to the House on the complete and forecast collapse of its largest ever insider dealing case at Southwark Crown court today? More than £500,000 of public money has been wasted as a result of slipshod legislation which has allowed a coach and four to be driven through an important case. It is important that we should have a statement before we proceed on further trade union legislation.

Secondly, can we have a statement from the Attorney-General on the position in which the Crown Prosecution Service has been placed as a result of that case? It was passed the case by the Department of Trade and Industry, a case which the Department knew could never be won because the legislation that it forced through the House required total disclosure in such cases and the Department today refused the judge's order to make such total disclosure.

That own goal requires you, Mr. Speaker, to rule tonight on whether it is right that we should proceed without a statement from the Government when the conduct of public administration has fallen to rock bottom in the Department of Trade and Industry, giving a green light to City slickers to make a fortune at the expense of ordinary investors.

It cannot be right to have no statement from the Dispatch Box when such a major case has been withdrawn after half a day in court and two years' preparation, and when almost £1 million of public money has gone down the drain.

Mr. Speaker : I know nothing about the case. I understand from the news that a case has been dropped. I have had no representations from the Government that they wish to make a statement on this tonight.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This afternoon at 4.15 pm the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments considered the Code of Practice for Trade Union Ballots for Industrial Action, which we are about to debate. We had a memorandum from the Department of Employment and we concluded our consideration but, because of the pressure of time, it has not been possible to include a notification on today's Order Paper that there is a report from the Joint

Column 839

Committee on Statutory Instruments which includes a memorandum on a relatively minor point which the Committee wishes to draw to the attention of the House.

As you will appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that is unsatisfactory, but we have made every endeavour to fulfil the Standing Order and copies of the report can be obtained from the Vote Office.

Mr. Speaker : I thank the Chairman of the Committee for that helpful advice to the House.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) has given us a helpful explanation, but it does not help those Back Bench Members trying to represent their constituents in the matter. Not for the first time, the Government have brought before the House a statutory instrument which has not gone through its formal proceedings before the Committee. Only now have hon. Members been advised that the Committee has dealt with the matter. It is important for the integrity of the House that the Government should not continue to ride roughshod over the interests of hon. Members. The Government should be asked to bring the matter back on another day together with the Select Committee's opinion so that hon. Members can give it proper consideration.

Mr. Speaker : The motion has been on the Order Paper for some time. The Chairman of the Select Committee has already said that the comments on it are of a reasonably minor nature. We should get on with the debate.

Column 840

Trade Union Ballots

10.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Patrick Nicholls) : I beg to move

That the draft Code of Practice for Trade Union Ballots for Industrial Action, which was laid before this House on 17th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

No trade union should call on its members to take industrial action without first getting their approval to do so from a proper secret ballot. Yet until the Trade Union Act 1984 the law gave unions freedom to call members out on strike without any such democratic process. It is true that some had rules requiring ballots in one form or another, but union members could not rely on those rules, as was vividly demonstrated by the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-85. The Government's step-by-step reform of industrial relations and trade union law has helped to correct the imbalances of power between unions and employers, and between unions and their members, which were among the fundamental causes of the industrial problems of the 1970s.

Requiring trade unions to ballot their members as a condition for retaining the protection which the law gives to what would otherwise be civil wrongs has been one of the major steps in the process of reform. It has been popular among the public and union members alike.

Perhaps one of the greatest tributes has been the dawning of awareness in the Labour party that even it must at least give the impression of going along with the principle of strike ballots. True, it does not tell us exactly how it will ensure that union members have an effective means of making sure that they are not called to take industrial action without a ballot ; that can be applied swiftly, where necessary, and will carry a sanction which will ensure that the union does not ride roughshod over their rights. Nor, for that matter, does it tell us what sort of ballot will be required, or when and how it must be held. However, instructive though it may be to debate Labour party policy, that is not the purpose of the motion. Section 3 of the Employment Act 1980, as amended by the Employment Act 1988, gives the Secretary of State power to

"issue Codes of Practice containing such practical guidance for the purpose of promoting desirable practices in relation to the conduct by trade unions of ballots and elections".

Ballots by unions of their own members asking whether those members are willing to take part in, or continue with, industrial action which their union may authorise or endorse are the subject of this draft code. Its essential purpose is to promote good practice in the conduct of such ballots.

The Government believe that union members should have sufficient opportunity to indicate whether they are prepared to take part in industrial action before their union proceeds to go out and organise it. We also believe--and this is an equally important principle--that proper standards of democratic conduct should be applied to that balloting process.

Section 3(8) sets out the legal status of a code once it has been approved by Parliament and has been brought into operation. It provides that the code will be admissible in evidence, which means that it can be used in evidence by a party to any proceedings and that it can be taken into account by courts where they think that it is relevant in any

Column 841

proceedings. It is, of course, entirely up to the courts to decide whether a code is relevant and the weight to be attached to any of its recommendations. No one will be able to bring legal proceedings against a union--or anyone else for that matter--solely on the basis that it has failed to observe any provision in such a code. The House should be quite clear about that. A code such as this would not--and indeed could not--add a single ground for legal action to what the law already contains. As with the highway code, it merely explains the law and gives guidance on what is good practice. I emphasise this point to make clear the distinction between this sort of statutory code, which describes and recommends good practice, and the relevant primary legislation which imposes what can properly be called requirements. The code does not--and could not--change primary legislation.

My Department first published a draft code for consultation in November 1988. In the light of representations made during the consultation period, the Secretary of State decided that it should be modified and presented for approval in its present form. The modified draft is now considerably shorter--only 56 paragraphs, plus one annex, as opposed to 103 paragraphs, plus four annexes--despite the fact that it contains some new material.

Four principles have been followed in deciding on the content of the draft code. First, the code would be of most value if it contained within the same set of covers information about both the relevant law and good practice. The passages on blue background are re-statements of the relevant provisions of primary legislation. Secondly, the detailed recommendations on good practice should take account of existing non-statutory guidance. Hence, for example, account has been taken of the Industrial Society's publication "Conducting Ballots".

Thirdly, we drew on particular ideas put to us once the proposal to take power to issue such a code became known. The Engineering Employers' Federation booklet, "Proposal for a Code on Industrial Action Balloting", was therefore taken into account.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : As the Minister mentioned good practice in relation to ballots for trade unions, can he speculate about the kind of good practice or bad practice that was operated by the Tory party when it had its recent ballot in the leadership contest between the Prime Minister and the challenger, the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer)? Is he aware that the conduct of that ballot would not have met the terms of any code because when I went into the Committee Room, although Tory Members were taking part in the ballot, there was not a single polling booth and they were filling in their voting papers on the window ledges? We do not need any lessons from the Government on ballots.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I call Mr. Nicholls.

Mr. Nicholls : The only thing that is more boring than an old record is a boring old cracked record. We have heard those comments so many times before from the hon. Gentleman that we do not need to give them any more credence this evening.

Column 842

Finally, we also had regard to what is known about how unions actually conduct industrial action ballots. A good many of the recommendations in the draft code do little more than illustrate, in the form of principles and procedures, aspects of what some unions have done and continue to do.

We hope that the code can help raise the standards of all to achieve those of the best.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Can an employer cite the code when seeking an ex parte injunction if he has a complaint about the way in which a ballot was conducted?

Mr. Nicholls : If the employer in the hon. Gentleman's example is alleging a breach of primary legislation and substantive law, it would obviously be open to him to produce the code. It would then be up to the court to attach such weight to its recommendations as the court saw fit. The employer will not be able to go to the court to complain that the code itself has been breached per se. We hope that the code can help raise the standards of all to achieve the standards of the best.

Section A explains the scope and legal status of the code, its intended purpose and the assistance that it can provide to unions, their members and others.

Section B makes recommendations about observing procedure agreements, and other considerations, which should be taken into account before a ballot is held.

Section C restates the law on establishment of entitlement to vote and on reviewing of the "balloting constituency" if the union proposes to aggregate votes across different places of work. Recommendations are made about responsibility for determining such matters within the union and the process of review ; the choice between balloting methods ; the use and format of voting papers ; independent scrutiny ; and provision of information to voters. Section D restates the relevant law on the method of voting ; entitlement to vote without interference or constraint ; and entitlement to vote in secrecy and without direct cost. It makes recommendations about arrangements to enable those entitled to vote to do so ; minimum periods for postal or semi-postal balloting ; procedures for checking voting papers for return by post ; and arrangements for workplace balloting. Recommendations are then made about arrangements to ensure secrecy of voting.

Finally, section E restates the law on ensuring that votes are accurately and fairly counted and on the notification of details of the ballot result. Recommendations are made about procedures to ensure accurate and fair counting of votes ; systems to help ensure that statutory requirements about notification of the result are fully satisfied ; notifying details of ballot results ; and matters which a union should take into account before deciding to organise industrial action.

The draft code, if approved, will be a valuable source of reference for unions, union members and others. Taking account of its recommendations can only help improve the conduct of ballots, and that can only help continue the improvement to this country's industrial relations that has been such a feature of this decade.

Dr. Kim Howells (Pontypridd) : I congratulate the Minister on an admirably set out document. However, one thing seems to be missing from the draft document and

Column 843

from the clear way in which he has introduced it. What happens when all the procedures have been followed to the letter but the trade union and the body of trade unionists involved-- who have properly carried out all the draft agreements--find that the employer has decided, unilaterally, that the procedures are worth nothing and completely rejects any decisions that the men have made and informs them that it is null and void? What will happen to the employer? Why is there no section in the draft to deal with precisely that question?

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman must understand what the draft is all about--which is the proper conduct of industrial action ballots. Many of the recommendations are based on what a great many trade unions already do. If those who wish to strike do so--and that is their decision--equally the employer can decide whether to accept that decision. That has been a feature of employment legislation under both Labour and Conservative Administrations.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : What happens if the trade union carries out all that is suggested in the code? I attended a meeting last weekend where a decision was taken to hold a ballot. The rules were followed. However, the employer has said that, even if the ballot is unanimously in favour of a 24-hour strike, the workers will all be looking for new jobs. What sort of protection will the Minister give those workers?

Mr. Nicholls : In launching an attack on the Government's legislation, it appears that the hon. Gentleman is,

uncharacteristically, launching an attack also on the previous Labour Government's legislation. Under both Labour and Conservative employment legislation, the employer has had the ability to dismiss strikers. It would be a high watermark, even for the Labour party, if it said that an employer faced with a withdrawal of labour should not be entitled to consider the dismissal of those on strike. When considering any particular recommendations in the draft code, there are three principal questions to ask. First, would following the recommendation be likely to help ensure that union members have a proper democratic voice in the decision whether their union should call on them to take industrial action? Secondly, would following or taking account of the recommendation be likely to avoid industrial relations problems and, in particular, the breakdown in such relations that a strike or other industrial action undoubtedly represents? Thirdly, is the guidance in the code helpful in explaining the requirements of the relevant law and thereby playing its part in ensuring that the law is observed?

By those tests--and they are relevant tests--the draft code deserves the approval of the House. However, we all keenly await the reaction of the Labour Front Bench spokesman. Sweet words and elegant phrases come ten-a- penny to Members such as the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). What everyone really wants to know is whether the Labour party is prepared to do the deeds that would make a reality of its new-found rhetoric. Even more to the point, can it persuade its union paymasters to co-operate with real industrial democracy, to which the continued existence of, for example, the pre-entry closed shop is such a standing and visible reproach?

Column 844

I am pleased to say that the Labour party has that opportunity tonight. By its frank and unequivocal support of the code, it could show--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that the debate will be confined to the motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Nicholls : By the Labour party's frank and unequivocal support tonight, it would have an opportunity to show that it supports the principle of industrial democracy and that it is not a new-found conversion. Obviously, the hon. Member for Sedgefield has the support of Conservative Members in his struggle to carry forward that principle, but we shall be interested to discover whether the same can be said of other Labour Members. The code can only assist the practice of good industrial relations conduct, and for that reason it demands the support of both sides of the House.

10.33 pm

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : I congratulate the Minister on reading his brief well, even if not with much conviction or sincerity. He was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes), who rightly said that the code was of no value if the employer, having watched every word of it being put into practice, simply said, "I care not at all for that and I shall sack you all."

I challenge the Minister to say whether he accepts the situation of the Tilbury dockers, for example, who were sacked by the Port of London Authority recently after having followed the balloting procedure to the letter and having had a secret ballot that was above any kind of reproach or condemnation, even in terms of this code of practice. The Port of London Authority nevertheless sacked people such as two British Empire Medallists, Tommy Lane and Georgie Lake, both of whom had many years of service. Georgie Lake in particular was even nominated for the British Empire Medal by the Port of London Authority, which eventually sacked him.

Can the Minister tell us--I will give way to him on this point if he wants- -whether he will condemn the actions of the Port of London Authority in failing to abide by this code of practice?

Mr. Nicholls : If the hon. Gentleman would like me to intervene, I am happy to oblige. I will not pass judgment on the actions of any employer in a particular situation. The hon. Gentleman should read the policy documents of his own party and some of the legislation of the Labour Government all those years ago. The hon. Gentleman is apparently saying that once a ballot has been properly conducted according to the law and the code the employer should have no alternative but to agree to all the demands made, and that should be an end of it. That is an extreme position. I have always thought that the Labour party adopted extreme positions, but I would have thought that that was too extreme even for Labour Members. However, I am more than happy to be proved wrong.

Mr. Lloyd : That was very helpful. We now have the rationale behind the Government's argument. The Minister is not prepared to comment on an employer, but he is prepared to comment on every single trade union involved in any industrial dispute. He is prepared to comment adversely on every trade union whether it takes

Column 845

the code of practice in hand or whether it finds that it is, as I will put to the House tonight, so onerous as to make industrial relations a matter of great difficulty.

The problem is that, as with most of the Government's legislation on industrial relations over the years, their motivation has been to arm one side at the expense of the other. There is no notion of conciliation in the Government's approach or in this code of practice--except ironically, of course, where the Government suggest to the trade unions that they should go to ACAS and seek some kind of ordered settlement. There is no conciliation at all when it comes to advice to the employers. No advice whatsoever in this document applies to employers.

Is that any surprise when, in the present dispute with the ambulance workers, with the ambulance workers wanting to go down the recommended road of arbitration by ACAS, the Government have said, "No ; we believe in the code of practice for the trade unions but we do not believe in a code of practice or arbitration for employers, particularly when the employer is central Government." That shows the partiality of this Government.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : Surely the hon. Gentleman has not even read the title of this document, which states clearly "Trade union ballots on industrial action". Employers do not have any role in trade union ballots. This code of practice, which the Opposition have just condemned, is designated to support the rights and privileges of the membership of the unions and every individual member of a union. That is what it is about.

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman may say that I have not read the title, but I have certainly read the entire document and I refer him to the footnote on page 9 where it refers to the role of the employer in terms of the balloting procedure. The Government suggest that it might be helpful if the employer would make premises available, but there is no suggestion of anything else. It says :

"It does not require the employer to do anything more than permit premises to be used ; there is no obligation, for example, to allow employers time off work to vote in a workplace (or any other) ballot."

That is how much interest employers really have. Of course, they have an interest in the ballot. But the Government do not propose any course of action for employers, just for trade unions. Did my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson) wish to intervene on that point?

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central) : My hon. Friend has covered precisely the point that I wanted to make.

Mr. Lloyd : The secret ballot is now the norm in industrial relations. ACAS, not the trade union movement, reported not long ago that about 90 per cent. of ballots went in favour of trade union recommendations, and that sticks in the Government's throat. That has made the Government take action, because faced with the fact that their electoral system was not working, they decided, Ceausescu-like, to change the rules. Like outmoded east European dictatorships, they decided to change the electoral system so that eventually they would get the answer right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) questioned the Minister about democracy in the Conservative party. Does the Minister believe that the type

Column 846

of democracy necessary under this code of practice would have applied in recent elections in, say, Clwyd, North-West or Meirionnydd Nant Conwy? I will gladly give way to enable the Minister to answer because his answer is central to the type of democratic processes that we have in society. Does any other institution, private or public, have a code of practice as difficult to operate as that which we are debating?

Mr. Nicholls : The hon. Gentleman obviously needs help with his speech and I make my next observation in a helpful way. I would not have thought these provisions would have had any effect in Clwyd, North-West, but from my understanding of the Labour party's position, they might have been of considerable use in Birkenhead.

Mr. Lloyd : It is interesting that the Minister does not seem to feel that there is any value in codes of practice for secret ballots in the Conservative party. But that will not surprise my hon. Friends. It will surprise Conservative Members even less, for they know what the Government are doing in terms of extracting vengeance, and in industrial relations their vengeance is even more vicious. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) rose--

Mr. Lloyd : I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way. I must make progress with my remarks.

We are entitled to ask why we even have this code of practice. The Minister claims that it will not change primary legislation, and he is right ; it cannot make such a change. But he admitted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) that this code, as with other codes of practice, could become the rule through the process of case law. That is why it is of the utmost importance. This code of practice carries with it a big stick. If the trade union movement says that it is unworkable, further legislation will be introduced. The previous Secretary of State said that the Government would consider carefully any evidence to show that trade unions were failing to take proper account of the code's recommendations and that the Government did not rule out further legislation should that prove necessary. In other words, the Government threat is that further legislation will be on the way if the trade unions do not accept this effectively as the law of the land.

Further, the code seeks to extend the law, just as the code of practice on picket numbers extended the law so that, through case law, it is now common for courts to rule that six is an acceptable number of pickets on a picket line. That is what case law, through that code of practice, has come to mean.

In the same way, this code of practice will extend the law in terms of postal voting and independent scrutiny. After all, the Minister could not say where mandatory postal voting or independent scrutiny exists in the primary legislation. Paragraph 20 of the code says : " Fully postal' balloting should be the preferred choice wherever the ballot is about the authorisation of industrial action by a union".

The Government are clear that that is the preferred choice. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East asked about the possibility of injunctions and touched on the Government's raw nerve. Judges in the middle of the night--the Minister knows more about judges in the middle of the night than I do--would be taken in not only

Column 847

by the seductive words of the Government's lawyers, but by the code of practice and would accept that postal voting was mandatory, de facto, under the law.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lloyd : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I shall not.

The Confederation of British Industry, when commenting on the original draft, made the point on postal voting that a code should "allow a greater element of discretion to trade union officials about how the principles of law should be applied."

The CBI seems to have been mollified, as the Minister put some colour coding in the draft, and seems to believe that its recommendations had been fully taken on board. The CBI now seems not to be critical, although its substantive point still remains as a difficulty of the code of practice.

The code of practice is a long way from the reality of industrial relations in Britain in 1990. It may exist somewhere in the fantasy world of Ministers and their even more fantastic Back-Bench Members, but it bears no relation to what takes place on the shop floor or in other places where trade unionists organise. A postal vote is not always the most appropriate means of balloting. Not only the labour movement, but the British Institute of Management, which made the point forcefully in its submission on the present code of practice, believes that. It said that workplace balloting was as valid as postal balloting under the law and had its own advantages. The Minister chooses to ignore what a responsible body of management believes on the issue.

Even the Government's own primary legislation accepts that semi-postal voting methods are allowable for refunded moneys. I hope that the Minister will explain later why that is the case, although the Government insist that postal voting is the only legitimate way forward under the code of practice.

The danger of all this is that we have a recipe for unofficial action. The Government have so hemmed in the trade union movement that trade unionists will have no choice but to look not to official but to unofficial action as the quickest and easiest way to solve their problems. Next week, we shall discuss the Employment Bill under which the Government will again seek to plug the loophole that they have created and to act against unofficial action. This charter for unofficial action will mean that the Government will render employers unable even to enter serious negotiations with the trade unions, although the trade unions would be able to get their own members back to work in the interests of the members and of the employers. The code of practice is riddled with impracticalities. Paragraph 11, for example, insists that the trade unions should "inform every employer" about the balloting process. In the present dispute in the engineering industry over the 35-hour week, does the Minister seriously intend that every engineering employer should be informed of the proposals to ballot?

The Government also insist that every employee should be informed well in advance of where, when and how balloting will take place. Will the Minister tell us exactly

Next Section

  Home Page