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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Do you have any information about an impending statement from the Prime Minister about his answer to me contained in Monday's edition of the Official Report, at column 433, that Downing street office costs have trebled since 1981? What sort of example is that to the old and those on invalidity--

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman must not raise arguments with me. The answer is no, I have not received any such information. That was a most bogus point of order, and I hope that other hon. Members will not follow that example, because the House is getting very weary of such points of order.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Given that the Department of Transport has today published its plan for the first private toll road, the northern Birmingham relief road, will you make inquiries about the circumstances under which the environmental assessment, which goes with the statement of plans, could be placed in the Library of the House so that hon. Members could have an opportunity to take on board the environmental considerations, which are most important?

Madam Speaker : I think that the hon. Lady might take that up with the Department herself.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I suspect that this is a genuine point of order. Will you please rule that, when the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) is standing to your right, with his back up against the Box where the civil servants sit, he should not participate in the debate by

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haranguing and shouting at Members on the Front Bench or anyone else in the House, since he is outside the confines of the House and, as a Government Whip, he should, of course, not say anything?

Madam Speaker : That is almost a genuine point of order, because I find that many hon. Members, who are outside the confines of the Chamber, are also doing a lot of shouting when Front Bench spokesmen are at the Dispatch Box. I hope that that will cease from now.

Statutory Instruments, &c.

Madam Speaker : With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to statutory instruments.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.).

Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning

That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 3) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1476) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1483) be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

Drug Trafficking (Proceeds)

That the draft Confiscation of the Proceeds of Drug Trafficking (Designated Countries and Territories) (Scotland) Amendment Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

Overseas Forfeiture Orders

That the draft Criminal Justice (International Co-operation) Act 1990 (Enforcement of Overseas Forfeiture Orders) (Scotland) Amendment Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Wood.]

Question agreed to.

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National Health Services (Amendment)

3.33 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision as to the functions of Family Health Services Authorities in relation to the rights of general practitioners' patients ; and to amend section 20 of and Schedule 7 to the National Health Service Act 1977 to ensure that such patients are consulted by Family Health Services Authorities when substantial variations are proposed to their medical services.

The need for the Bill arose because of recent events that took place on the Windmill Hill estate in the Runcorn part of my constituency. Those events demonstrate the ineffectiveness of both the Department of Health and the patients charter to protect the interests of the general public.

On 29 April 1993, the doctor's surgery that serves the Windmill Hill estate district of my constituency was closed, and 703 patients of Dr. O'Connor were given only five days' notice of the decision. They were confronted by the news that they had only five days to find another general practitioner.

A number of my constituents in that district are elderly, a number of them are disabled and some of them are both. The district contains many families with young children who live on the estate. The decision to close the local doctor's surgery meant that they would now have to travel even further to the nearest general practitioner. It will be a difficult journey for a number of my constituents, for a number of reasons. First, there is an inadequate bus service to the next doctor's surgery, and many of my constituents are not car owners, which means that they will have to walk the two miles to the doctor's surgery through open park land, which, when the climate is bad, will mean a difficult journey. It will mean that, every time that those constituents need to see a general practitioner, they will have to make the journey on foot to and from their doctor's surgery. The provision of locally based general practitioners and their surgeries is a fundamental and essential part of proper care in the community. Indeed, it is probably the starting point of care in the community, but my constituents have had the facilities at that starting point removed. My constituents' reaction to the decision was one of anger that they had not even been consulted by the family health services authority. They were anxious that the provision of services to them was to be removed, and they were concerned that the level of health service provision in that part of Runcorn would be diminished.

It is the role of the family health services authority to consult on such issues, but it did not consult my constituents. It did not even give them warning that the decision was on the way. It simply sent them a curt circular letter telling them to find themselves another general practitioner within five days. It gave a list of the surgeries which my constituents could use. My constituents were not asked whether or why--they were not consulted, but were told what they would have to do. The decision had an immediate impact on the services of the local hospital.

A number of my constituents said that they were unable to find a doctor's surgery within five days and that if something was wrong with them they would go to Halton general hospital for their medical needs. I was confronted

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by my constituents on the day that the decision was taken and I promised them that I would raise the matter in the House of Commons in any way I could.

I raised the issue during business questions, and asked for a statement, but was told that, as I had informed the Department of Health that day, I would be receiving a letter. I tried unsuccessfully to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, at Health questions, but was unable to do so. I now have the opportunity of the ten-minute Bill procedure to raise the issue on the Floor of the House. When I realised that my constituents had been presented with a fait accompli, I was not sure what to do, as I had already raised the issue with the Department of Health. I turned to that champion of citizens' rights, the citizens charter, published in July 1991. Page 5 states :

"The public sector should provide choice wherever practicable. The people affected by services should be consulted. Their views about the services they use should be sought regularly and systematically to inform decisions about what services should be provided". Page 10 of the document states :

"Health Authorities must seek local citizens' views on their services."

I also looked at the patients charter, as I thought that it might provide back-up and further instructions from the Government. In the foreword to the patients charter, the then Secretary of State for Health wrote :

"The Government is also firmly committed to improving the Service--to creating a better National Health Service. This means a Service that :

--always puts the patient first, providing services that meet clearly defined national and local standards, in ways that are responsive to people's views and needs."

I was encouraged by those words, which seemed to give me hope that the views of my constituents on the Windmill Hill estate, who had not then been consulted about the removal of their medical services, would be entitled to have their voices heard.

The Government's commitment in the citizens charter and the patients charter led me to contact the Department of Health to seek its intervention, even at such a late stage, to ensure that my constituents were provided with the adequate medical facilities that they wanted in their locality. It was their view that the surgery should stay open, and that view was in line with the views expressed in the citizens charter and with the supposed rights contained therein.

Unfortunately, I need to present the Bill because the response by the Department of Health was less than adequate. I was advised in writing by the Secretary of State for Health that the legal position on matters of this kind is that the Cheshire family health services authority should consult the Halton community health council about the proposed closure of the doctor's surgery on Windmill hill. The Minister further advised me that the decision about whether to replace the outgoing doctor rested with the medical practices committee, which is an independent public body. The Minister stated that that committee bases its decisions on reports from the family health services authority, following its consultation with the community health council. The letter stated :

"The decision of whether to dispense or advertise a vacancy is a matter entirely for the Medical Practices Committee and is not subject to Ministerial intervention."

The Minister said that the Cheshire family health services authority had been consulted about the closure of the doctor's surgery on Windmill hill, and that the legal procedures had been followed. That means that the hopes

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and aspirations contained in the citizens charter, which were said to be at the heart of Government policy in the 1990s, have not materialised, and that the views of my constituents have been totally ignored.

In terms of the National Health Service Act 1977, the promises in the citizens charter and the patients charter to consult people affected by services counts for nothing. Even if the Government wanted to act in this case, they would be prevented from doing so by current legislation. If that legislation remains unamended, the citizens charter and the patients charter are merely expensive paper tigers. They will remain a political gesture which, when put to the test, will be shown to have no teeth and no means of effecting the change that they desire.

That is another example of the Government failing to deliver their promises to the people and of people being misled into believing that the citizens charter is something that it is not.

The matter that I raise is not an isolated incident, because doctors' surgeries are being closed throughout constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) raised the problem 12 months ago in the House. He was told the legal position, which means that the citizens charter counts for nothing in such cases.

In the light of such events, the 1977 Act needs to be changed. My constituents in Windmill hill deserve to have their views heard, and they are entitled to the minimum consultation about their family needs for health service provision in Runcorn.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mike Hall, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Ms Ann Coffey, Mr. Colin Pickthall, Ms Estelle Morris, Mr. Jim Dowd, Mrs. Bridget Prentice, Mr. David Hanson, Mr. John Heppell, Mr. Greg Pope, Mr. Doug Hoyle and Ms Janet Anderson.

National Health Services (Amendment)

Mr. Mike Hall accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision as to the functions of Family Health Services Authorities in relation to the rights of general practitioners' patients ; and to amend section 20 of and Schedule 7 to the National Health Service Act 1977 to ensure that such patients are consulted by Family Health Services Authorities when substantial variations are proposed to their medical services ; And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a second time upon Friday 2 July, and to be printed. [Bill 203.]

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Orders of the Day

Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Lords amendments Nos. 1 to 7 agreed to.

New Clause

Action short of dismissal : non-infringing actions

Lords amendment : No. 8, before clause 13, to insert the following new Clause--

(". In section 148 of the 1992 Act (consideration of complaint of action short of dismissal), after subsection (2) there shall be inserted--

"(3) In determining what was the purpose for which action was taken by the employer against the complainant in a case where--

(a) there is evidence that the employer's purpose was to further a change in his relationship with all or any class of his employees, and

(b) there is also evidence that his purpose was one falling within section 146,

the tribunal shall regard the purpose mentioned in paragraph (a) (and not the purpose mentioned in paragraph (b)) as the purpose for which the employer took the action, unless it considers that the action was such as no reasonable employer would take having regard to the purpose mentioned in paragraph (a).

(4) Where the action which the tribunal determines to have been the action taken against the complainant was action taken in consequence of previous action by the employer paragraph (a) of subsection (3) is satisfied if the purpose mentioned in that paragraph was the purpose of the previous action.

(5) In subsection (3) "class", in relation to an employer and his employees, means those employed at a particular place of work, those employees of a particular grade, category or description or those of a particular grade, category or description employed at a particular place of work.".")

3.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. David Hunt) : I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

I shall commence by making two important points. First, I shall explain how the amendment will restore to the law the meaning that it was intended to have before two recent Court of Appeal cases. Secondly, I strongly reaffirm that the law must protect all employees from any action by their employer that is designed to force them to give up membership of, or to join, a trade union. Against the background of those two important points I shall seek to put the record straight, in the light of some recent comments, which were based on a number of misconceptions.

During the debate, it is important for all hon. Members to differentiate between the right to belong to a trade union and that of collective bargaining. Trade union membership must not be confused with the law and practice relating to collective bargaining, and I hope to explain why.

Amendment No. 8 concerns the law on action short of dismissal, which is contained in section 146 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, but dates back to the legislation of a previous Labour Government, and that aspect of the law has not been changed since 1975.

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Section 146 protects employees against action by their employer that is intended to deter or compel the employee either to become or to cease to be a trade union member. That is why I stressed at the outset that the Government believe that the decision whether to be a member of a trade union must be a matter of free choice for the employee. Once again, I reiterate that employees ought to be protected against any action by their employer that is designed to force them either to be, or not to be, union members.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, and wonder how he feels about having this as his first job. Does his logic apply to Government Communications Headquarters, Cheltenham and if not, why not?

Mr. Hunt : I am delighted to have this as my first job, because I am explaining why that principle lies at the heart of the Government's stance on trade union legislation. Indeed, an examination of the Government's step -by-step approach, which has been so successful in transforming industrial relations, reveals that that principle has consistently lain at the heart of the Government's legislation, and I am happy to reaffirm it. Government Communications Headquarters, Cheltenham is a very different set of circumstances. The greatest challenge is for the Labour party to give that principle the same unequivocal support.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Why does the Minister, who claims to be a Tory wet, not have the guts to admit that the Government are all about allowing people to be members of a trade union but not to be effective members, so that they are unable to join with others to negotiate with employers? The truth is that the Government rattle on about a classless society, but they are going to give the bosses a chance to deduct wages from people who are members of a trade union, while the blue-eyed boys and girls will get more money. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

Mr. Hunt : I am not prepared to join the hon. Gentleman in his own individual class war. Those days are fast and far behind us. What he looks back to are, in his words, the good old days ; in my words, they are the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s, when a few trade union leaders could dictate to the Government and we had the worst industrial relations record of any country in the world. The Government have transformed that bad industrial relations record into one in which everyone in the country can take pride. I am determined to stay wedded to the principles which brought that about.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the underlying point that has just been raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Is he not proposing a restriction of the exercise of the right of which he has just spoken--the right to be a member of a trade union? Will he explain to the House how it is not a breach of article 11 of the European convention on human rights to introduce that proposal?

Mr. Hunt : It is an interesting dimension to have Bolsover interpreted by Montgomeryshire. I do not think that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) needs any lessons from the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) on how to put his points.

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Mr. Carlile : Answer the question.

Mr. Hunt : I shall come to his question, but I do not think that the hon. Member for Bolsover needs any lessons from those on the Bench behind him. In my experience in the House, the hon. Member for Bolsover has given many lessons back the other way to those on that Bench.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery has once again confused the two issues that I tried to caution the House not to confuse right at the outset --the principle of collective bargaining and the issue whether an individual has the right to belong to a trade union. If one can separate those two issues-- [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to respond to his point, instead of trying to be a barrack-room Commons lawyer, which he does not do very well? It is very important not to confuse the issue of collective bargaining with that of trade union membership. That is why I can answer so vehemently the hon. and learned Gentleman's latter point. We are respecting the right of an individual to belong to a trade union of his or her choice and the right not to belong to a trade union.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : The Secretary of State may be aware that, in my constituency, an employer called Arrowsmith issued new contracts to its work force, all of whom were members of a trade union. The contract specifically required that they were not to be members of a trade union. When they refused to give up their trade union membership, the employer sacked all 120 of them. Will the Secretary of State suggest what action they should take against an employer who is breaching the principle that he said he adheres to--the right to choose to be a member of a trade union?

Mr. Hunt : Any action taken by an employer which is designed to force an individual employee not to join a trade union or to give up trade union membership is contrary to section 146. I am happy to look at all the details of the contracts, but I think that the hon. Lady must be mistaken in two important respects. She must not confuse the question of collective bargaining, but it has always been possible for employers, under the law as it stood--

Several hon. Members rose --

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem is that those self-same unions that he mentioned in reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover, which disrupted and undermined good industrial relations back in the 1960s and 1970s, are still the essential support and financial prop of the Labour party today, which may account for them wanting to take all the day on this one issue?

Mr. Hunt : I gave way to my hon. Friend because I knew that he would make a good point, and he did not neglect to do so. As I have explained on many occasions to many trade union colleagues of mine both now and in the past, it is important that the British trade union movement should give up its stranglehold on the Labour party. It undermines its case in industrial logic for seeking to cling on to its power over the Labour party.

It is important to recall that, as my hon. Friend's point bears out, it was not that long ago that Mr. John Edmonds, the leader of the GMB--Opposition Members

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may well shift uneasily in their seats when I remind them of this--said, "We pay for the Labour party, so we have a right to democracy in the Labour party." That point made by my hon. Friend is important. If the Labour party wishes to escape from the accusation--

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Hunt : I am answering the point. It may be embarrassing to hon. Members, but I am answering the point made by my hon. Friend. If the Labour party wishes to escape from the accusation that it is a fully paid-up subsidiary of the trade union movement, it must take steps on this point.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you rule whether a discussion on links between the Labour party and the trade union movement has anything to do with the amendment?

Madam Speaker : A number of hon. Members who are questioning the Secretary of State are leading him down that road. If that is the case, he must reply. I am sure that we shall soon return to the amendment, so that other hon. Members who wish to speak will be able to do so.

Mr. Hunt : I feel strongly that it is time that the trade union movement gave up shouting that he who pays the piper calls the tune. [Interruption.] I know that it is uncomfortable, but I make this point. Mr. John Edmonds let the rat out of the bag. What he said is the true state of affairs in the nation today. Opposition Members are indeed spokesmen, spokespeople, spokespersons and spokes for the trade union movement. It is about time that they started to represent the real interests of union members rather than some trade union leaders.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hunt : Of course I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, then I shall return to the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover.

Mr. Leighton : I know that this must be embarrassing for the Secretary of State, but will he please return to the point under discussion and not waffle round all these other matters? Let me try to clarify what he has said. Has he not said that he does not mind a worker holding a trade union card privately, but if that worker wants to use the facilities or good offices of the union--for example, by getting the branch secretary to write to his employer about wages or conditions--that worker can be penalised? Is that not the essence of the matter?

Mr. Hunt : I was trying to explain that that is not the case. For many years, I was a solicitor acting for a number of trade unions and for one in particular. I became aware of the importance of the trade union movement in areas other than collective bargaining. It has never been part of the trade union case that, without collective bargaining, there is no such thing as a trade union movment. The hon. Gentleman is confusing those two issues, which I pleaded with the House not to confuse in order to avoid a disjointed debate.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) : What is the difference between Lords amendment No. 8 and the Union

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of Democratic Mineworkers receiving a bigger wage increase than the National Union of Mineworkers a few years ago, which we had to go to court to stop?

Mr. Hunt : I am making a point relating to union membership. It has always been possible for an employer to give an employee an incentive to engage in individual contracts rather than to negotiate through collective bargaining. The amendment seeks to take the law back to where people believed it was before the Court of Appeal cases. It is perfectly in order for an employer to negotiate directly with individual employees and to offer them an additional pay increase if they will negotiate on an individual basis. I can produce a number of comments made by Labour Ministers which clearly show that this provision was never intended to affect collective bargaining, which is the issue before us today.

I emphasise that the cases that have made the amendment necessary do not concern union membership : they arise as a result of employers wanting to change the methods by which they negotiate their employees' pay. It has always been generally understood and accepted that the statutory provisions with which we are concerned do not extend beyond issues of union membership, and certainly were not intended to cover collective bargaining.

4 pm

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) : I welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him on his appointment. As to the distinction that he appears to be drawing between membership of a trade union and actually using the good offices of that trade union, the employment appeal tribunal, under Mr. Justice Knox, considered this question and rejected it with the following words :

"We find ourselves unconvinced of that distinction. In our judgement, the activities of a Trade Union officer in negotiating and elucidating terms of employment is, to use a prayer book expression, the outward and visible manifestation of Trade Union membership and we see no genuine distinction between membership of a Union on the one hand and making use of essential services of a Union on the other."

Would the Secretary of State care to comment on that?

Mr. Hunt : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words in welcoming me to the Dispatch Box.

The words that I would add are "not collective bargaining issues". I have already referred to this. In a debate in the other place on 23 September 1975, Lord Jacques, who was then a member of the Labour Government, when dealing with clause 45--which is now essentially clause 146--said :

"Clause 45 deals with individual rights of employees, not collective bargaining issues."

It is important that we should bear that difference in mind. It is clear that it was the intention of the Labour Government in 1975, in introducing the provision, that the clause should deal with individual rights of employees and in circumstances with collective bargaining issues.

Lord Jacques went on to explain :

unions, which have the incidental effect of restricting some employees' rights comparatively, do not infringe these rights." Nothing could be clearer. It was on the basis of that understanding of the law that two separate companies,

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