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Mr. Shepherd : That is why I approached the subject fairly diffidently. Until 1984, the same judgment applied to GCHQ. I understand the matter of principle that the Opposition have identified, which dominated the thrust of the attack on the Bill--attack is probably the wrong word. However, when the Government identify what they believe to be the essential interest for defence, although the right hon. Gentleman and I might disagree with the particular, the Government have a right to act. They must justify their actions to the Chamber and to the country.
I must contradict the new clause. I recognise that, where national security or organisations such as the Army are concerned--as the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a seeming contradiction--and the Government cites that, for example, GCHQ should not have the benefit of trade unions, but should work through staff organisations, that is a right of Government.
The Opposition are right to challenge the decision if they feel strongly about it. They have made it clear that if they form a Government they will restore the right. That is a respectable argument. I am saying that both arguments are respectable. However, the judgment falls to the Government and I will back them on it because I think that it is acceptable. It is the Government's perception that, although 10,000 hours lost in one day is not significant, they cannot be in that position again and they have made arrangements to that effect.
Mr. Winnick : If we do not carry the hon. Gentleman with us on the issue of civil liberties, we can reasonably assume that no other Conservative Member will vote with us in the Lobby. Does the hon. Gentleman accept, however, that the Government should give strong and compelling reasons for taking away a basic right ?
All those employees were highly praised for their role in the Falklands campaign in 1982 and, furthermore, no one has argued that their capabilities were not at full strength during the cold war when they were trade union members. For the hon. Gentleman to prove his case he would have to say that the Government argued that GCHQ's capabilities had been undermined, but no such argument has been put forward.
Mr. Shepherd : I guess that I implicitly accepted that point. The resurrection of details of GCHQ's history obviously informs our views on the subject. I accept that the Opposition take an entirely different standpoint. I reiterate that the Opposition Front-Bench team have stated that, when they have the opportunity of being in government, they will restore the right.
I am merely arguing that, as a matter of principle, each Government responsible for national security must make decisions and judgments about it. The strike might not have had consequences for national security at the time, but we must all look forward and decide how we would meet such a contingency in the future. The trade union's offer of a no-strike bargain was a subsequent undertaking.
The Government made a judgment in 1984 and it is no secret that I was not happy with it. I may have taken a different judgment, but that is not the point. The nation commissions the Government to look after our national security and accepts that GCHQ is an integral part of it. The Government can therefore argue, and feel strongly
Column 265justified in doing so, that it is part of the country's defence forces and as such should be inhibited from forming unions and striking.
Mr. Rogers : I cannot follow the hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he saying that the Government have the right to override the international conventions and treaties that they have subscribed to ? If he is saying that they can do so willy-nilly, it is a pretty awful state of affairs. The Government have subscribed to conventions laid down by the International Labour Organisation, which is an arm of the United Nations. We cannot subscribe to an international treaty that acknowledges that people have a right to join an organisation of their choosing and then decide to override it. If that is the case, why do not the Government withdraw from those international agreements ? After all, the ILO was set up to safeguard workers' rights. It was originally thought that it would be necessary only in third-world countries, but that is just about the level that we are getting to in this country under this Government.
Mr. Shepherd : I am trying to illustrate the distinction of principle. I notice that the Opposition do not suggest for one moment that when they come into office they will allow the armed forces to have the right to join a trade union.
Mr. Kilfoyle : The hon. Gentleman is telling the House that he is trying to make a distinction of principle. May I ask him the question that I asked the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) ? Is he saying that he regards members of GCHQ as members of the military establishment and in a separate category in terms of national security and membership of trade unions ? How does he square that view with the fact that employees of a private firm who might be maintaining aircraft engines--I gave the example of bomber command--might be union members ? Is it not contradictory to say, as the right hon. Member said, that they can belong to a union when employees at GCHQ cannot because their membership somehow affects our national security ? Does not the hon. Gentleman see the inconsistency in his argument ?
Mr. Shepherd : Yes, but life is full of inconsistencies. That is not meant to be a glib response. The Government directly employ a huge establishment at GCHQ who are dedicated, as hon. Members on both sides of the House accept, to the defence of our nation. I attended the Standing Committee and carefully read the reports. I know that that is accepted and common ground.
I am merely saying that there is a distinction of principle and that the Government adopted a reasonable position. I am not saying that it is unreasonable for the Labour party, which was founded by the trade union movement, to stand staunchly by the right of those 13 GCHQ employees. That is perfectly honourable. I understand why a future Government might take an alternative or a contrary view. That is the distinction that I am acknowledging. I do not think that it is the major issue in the Intelligence Services Bill ; that is the essence of my remarks.
Mr. Rogers : Will the hon. Gentleman then follow the logic of his argument and ask the Government to ban trade unions in atomic weapons establishments, for instance ? Due to the contractorisation of atomic weapons establishments to private companies, civil servants are involved only in monitoring certain situations and the
Column 266general work force are now not Government servants. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government could, in the interests of national security, ban trade unions in that industry ?
Mr. Shepherd : We are going round in a circle. I am saying that the Government of the day--whether Labour or Conservative--have a right to determine which matters affect directly the national security of the nation and they stand accountable to the electorate and to the House. That Governments may have different views about different organisations at different times is wholly appropriate and consistent with the argument that I am mounting.
However, I find it slightly curious that this is the dominating debate about the Intelligence Services Bill which is linked to the security services legislation. I accept that it is a major cause celebre, but it is not the essence of the debate about the Bill.
Mr. Kilfoyle : Is not the whole purpose of the intelligence service to protect the very liberties which are being undermined in the case of those people who, under an international convention, have an established right to belong to a trade union at Government communications headquarters ? What is the point of having an intelligence service if those liberties are not protected in this of all places ?
Mr. Shepherd : That is a powerful argument and I treat it with respect. That is why I think that the remit is very important. That is why I think that national security, in definition, is very important and why I think that the Committee of parliamentarians and its remit is important. That is why I think that the tribunal is important. I have lots of views about the Bill, but I do not see this as the crucial issue in it.
I understand the passion that is expressed about the matter. I think that it is legitimate and fair. But I also think that the counter view is legitimate and fair. If Opposition Members wish, they may implement recognition of trade unions at GCHQ when they come to government. I think that I have made my point in my small contribution to the debate.
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West) : I am one of those who believe that we must always maintain the security of our nation. We debated the main security services--the intelligence service, Government communications headquarters and the military--during the Second Reading of the Bill. We have to make sure that they work well.
When I was 15 years old I joined the shipyard at Devonport and I have been a member of a trade union ever since. Frankly, I cannot understand what Conservative Members are going on about. I cannot see any conflict whatsoever regarding national security and membership of trade unions. I say to the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) that I do not think that we can bridge the gap between us on this issue. The Government must take action to resolve the problem with the rights of staff at GCHQ. They should be able to become members of a union of their choice which can be regarded as being an independent union. They are the key points of convention 87 : the ability to choose which union to join and the recognition of a union as being independent.
Column 267The Government could be censured by the International Labour Organisation. The ILO is scheduled to meet again in the autumn and I would be ashamed if it were to censure this country. The censure could take the form of awarding a "special paragraph". That is very serious as it is the ILO's highest form of censure. In practice, it would mean that Britain would be seen to be in breach of an ILO convention--in this case, convention 87, which deals with the rights of individuals to be members of trade unions of their choice. The ILO is an international organisation of great repute and, in my view, it would be very damaging to Britain's interests if we were seen to disregard or belittle in any way the rulings or advocacy of that organisation.
The awarding of a special paragraph is used very rarely by the ILO. Therefore, when it is used we can assume that the ILO views the breaching of the convention very seriously. In the past, special paragraphs have been issued over such violations as slavery in the Sudan, forced labour in Brazil and the murder of trade unionists in El Salvador. If the ILO censures us in that way, Britain will be seen as ignoring human rights. Additionally, it will be seen as flouting an important international convention to which it is a signatory. What therefore is the current position ? A censure in the form of the special paragraph was proposed by the ILO in 1992, but it was withdrawn when the Government declared their intention to reach a solution that was satisfactory to all parties. They said that they hoped for
"a substantive, frank and constructive dialogue carried out in good faith."
The Government agreed to undertake such dialogue following the statement in 1992 by an important ILO committee. It said three things : first, the committee was unanimous about the need for a renewal of dialogue between the Government and trade unions ; secondly, it deplored the fact that it was unable to note any tangible progress on the question of the breach of convention 87, or even a resumption of discussions ; and, thirdly, it urged the Government to resume in the very near future
"constructive discussions calculated to lead, through genuine dialogue, to a compromise acceptable to both sides."
The Government have agreed to create such a compromise. But what are they doing now ? In 1992 they said that they would take action to resolve the problem--they are committed to doing that. In January, in a parliamentary answer, the Prime Minister said that the overriding concern was the maintenance of the continuing operation of GCHQ--we all agree with that--in order to protect national security. However, there is no evidence that the industrial action taken between 1979 and 1981 damaged national security. We have already heard the quotes from Sir John Nott, so I will not repeat them. But, essentially, no operational activity was affected in any area during the dispute. I estimate that about 15 people per year did not work during the period. If one calculates that there are 300 working days a year, only a tiny number of people were involved in industrial action.
In this context, the Prime Minister said that the Government Communications Staff Federation--the registered union for GCHQ staff--should become affiliated with the Council of Civil Service Unions. The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) also referred to that suggestion in his speech. It was rejected by the trade
Column 268unions for one key reason--it was absolutely irrelevant because, even if it were regarded as a solution, convention 87 would still be violated. There was no way in which the trade unions could accept that offer. The Prime Minister went on to say that there were no plans at that time to hold further meetings.
What the Government are doing--seemingly via the office of the Lord Chancellor--is creating all sorts of legal arguments. They are wriggling by saying that convention 87 cannot be applied directly to the GCHQ case and that it is necessary to consider the words of convention 152. It is clear that they are raking in all sorts of legal arguments. I do not believe that such arguing and that kind of court stuff will enhance the esteem of Britain.
I shall ask the Minister three questions. First, do the Government fully support the principles laid down in convention 87 ? It is rumoured that the Government might even withdraw from the ILO. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can confirm whether that is true. Does he agree that people should be free to choose to which union they want to belong and that those unions can be independent ? I should like to know the Government's thinking on that.
Secondly, will the Minister tell the House exactly under what circumstances the Government could allow staff at GCHQ to join independent unions of their choice ? I am sure that the House will wait to hear the Minister's replies because we need some help from the Government to see if we can break the logjam.
Thirdly, I hope that the Minister will admit that progress is slow. Is it the Government's intention to put forward some proposals to form the basis for constructive dialogue ?
I should like the answers to those three simple little questions, because I am one of those people who genuinely believes that the argument about trade union membership was a political mistake created a number of years ago. It has nothing to do with national security and it is completely fallacious to rake in such an argument. What we are talking about has nothing to do with the security services ; we are talking about basic individual rights. For that reason I support the new clause.
I see no conflict between trade union membership and national security. I have seen no evidence and heard nothing today to suggest that being a member of a trade union affects national security. That is a load of old rubbish. The mistake was made by Lord Howe, who was probably being pushed at the time by a certain lady. The Government now cannot dig themselves out of the great hole into which they have got themselves.
One thing is clear : the ILO will consider the matter again this autumn and it will be up for consideration at next year's conference. We therefore have a year in which to sort the whole thing out. I ask the Government to get stuck in, have some discussions and come up with a sensible solution to the problem. We can then put it to bed once and for all.
Will the Minister please answer my three questions ?
Mr. French : There is a striking contrast between the posture adopted by the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr Cunningham), who opened the debate--it was reinforced by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall)--and the views held by the current employees at GCHQ. Many of them are my constituents ;
Column 269they live in Gloucester and work at GCHQ in Cheltenham. Very few of those employees have any complaints about the prevailing situation at GCHQ.
The attitude of the Labour party, and, to an extent, that of the Liberal party, is yet another example of an attempt to whip up this issue into a major problem, some years after it has ceased to be a major problem locally. That was well illustrated by the recent demonstration on the 10th anniversary of the trade union ban. Several Opposition Members have referred to that demonstration and any of them who witnessed it would have noticed two things. First, the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), was at its head and spoke to the assembled multitude. Secondly, if those witnesses had looked more carefully, however, they would have noted that the number of local people and, particularly, the number of local employees of GCHQ who attended the demonstration was very small.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) will no doubt repeat the point that he made in Committee that those employees were not at the demonstration because, as they are not permitted to be members of a trade union, they should not have been there. I cannot see that membership of a trade union would or should have prevented them from expressing their views by taking part in that demonstration. I must emphasise, however, that the majority of people who attended that demonstration were drafted in from other parts of the country. Some were drafted in at the behest of certain members of the Labour party, who wished to give the impression and convey a national message that GCHQ is still a matter of great concern locally and, therefore, nationally. That was a false message, because it did not represent local views accurately.
Mr. Rogers : May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, if he quotes what I said in Committee, he should make use of the relevant column in the Official Report ? I do not recall saying what he claimed I said in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Copeland should understand that approximately half of the current employees at GCHQ joined it some time after the ban had come into effect. They joined in the full knowledge of the conditions of service to which they had to agree. Those people are not complaining, because they joined in the full knowledge that they would be unable to join a trade union. That ban has not prevented them from taking up their employment. That fact, too, reveals that there is a yawning gap between views held locally and those expressed by the Opposition today and in Committee. The Opposion are trying to foist their views on the House and the nation.
Mr. Rogers : For the purpose of the exercise, I accept the argument that the hon. Gentleman has put forward--the wishes of the employees at GCHQ should be paramount. In that case, why would he object to a ballot being held there on whether employees wanted to join a trade union ? That could be held according to the law that the Government have prescribed. Why not allow the workers at GCHQ the right to a ballot under the rules and regulations drawn up by the Government ?
Mr. French : As the hon. Gentleman knows, those employees are eligible to join the staff federation, which I shall discuss later. I am arguing that the views of those people, as represented by the Labour party, purporting to express views held locally, are being grossly and seriously distorted. From local knowledge and from constant contact with employees at GCHQ in a local context, I am confident that my argument is sound.
Several Opposition Members have ridiculed Conservative Members for, they claim, holding the view that trade unions at GCHQ would constitute a threat to security. It very much depends on what one understands by a threat to security. It is not a threat to security in the sense that Conservative Members are speaking about something equivalent to reds under the bed. Anyone who understands the procedures in GCHQ will realise that there is a possibility of a threat to national security.
Mr. Kilfoyle rose
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon) rose
Mr. French : Before I am interrupted, perhaps I could be allowed to explain why and how I can substantiate that remark. Then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman--to both hon. Gentlemen, if necessary. We have heard comments by the Opposition that there never has been any interruption to the data collection. The data collection is a vital part of what GCHQ does, although it performs many other services. The continuity and non- interruption of that data collection is vital. If one is involved, as people are in GCHQ, in gathering a continuous collection of information, which, having been gathered, is subject to code-breaking and interpretation, it becomes clear that an interruption of any type in that data collection can completely destroy the capacity to interpret the rest of the information that is collected.
If I may give a simple illustration, if data has been collected continuously for seven days but there is then an interruption for as much as seven minutes, that can render the interpretation of the seven days' data difficult, if not impossible or invalid.
Mr. Kilfoyle : If it is so important to maintain the continuity of the collection and interpretation of data, why was one of the people who were dismissed so summarily as a result of the attitude of the Government towards trade unions at GCHQ the only Chinese technical expert available to GCHQ, and why, subsequently, was the body of expertise that had been built up around that individual allowed to be dissipated ? The department was closed. If it was so important to maintain that data, why did the Government act so vindictively ?
Mr. French : I am speaking about the continuity of collection of data. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has fully understood that. I am fairly sure that the task of the gentleman to whom he refers was interpreting data, not collecting it. That is all the difference in the world. Even the best interpreter of data cannot interpret correctly if the collection is not complete.
Mr. McWilliam : May I tell the hon. Gentleman, as a sponsored member of the National Communications Union, and someone who has worked on national security and defence communications over the years and has never broken the Official Secrets Act 1911, first, that I do not
Column 271know where he gets the basis for the statements that he has just made. Secondly, there has been no break in the continuity of data at GCHQ during the strike.
Thirdly, people such as me who have worked in national security and defence communications for all these years who are active trade unionists find the attitude of the Government of the previous right hon. Member for Finchley, now Baroness Thatcher, and others towards trade unionists deeply and personally objectionable. The only traitors that we have had, and the ones that have been prosecuted, are not trade unionists, active trade unionists, socialists or members of the Labour party. They have been members of the classes represented by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.
Several Opposition Members--the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) has added to that--have argued that there has been no breakdown in the collection of data. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) pointed out earlier that the fact that no harm had been done as a result of any
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde) rose
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery pointed out to us that no harm had allegedly been done as a result of any interruption, and a reference was made to the remarks allegedly made by the then Defence Secretary, Sir John Nott, quoted recently in debate. The argument that Sir John Nott made at the time was not that there had been no damage done as a result. It was made clear in Committee and made clear by the then Prime Minister, commenting on Sir John Nott's remarks, that he
"was referring only to military operations"
"GCHQ did not come under his then Department and does not now."--[ Official Report , 31 January 1984 ; Vol. 53, c. 136.]
Therefore, the comments of Sir John Nott do not support the argument that no damage was done at the time.
Mr. Graham rose
Mr. Rogers rose
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) has intervened a great many times and, if the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) is not giving way, he must respect that.
Mr. French : I have given way to a large number of Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Rhondda and I want to answer an argument that he made earlier before giving way to yet a further intervention from him.
Column 272The hon. Member for Rhondda and other Opposition Members referred to the fact that, if 10,000 days were lost and there are 6,500 employees, that amounts to only 1 days per employee. They seem to pray in aid, as an argument, that that is not serious and could not have done very much damage. Continuing my argument about the interruption of data, the loss of 1 days by one employee is a lot. It is not a little, as the Opposition Members seemed to argue.
It is a large, serious interruption, and to interpret it as 1 days instead of the 10,000 days that it was gives a misleading picture.
Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the point about days. I wonder whether he would tell the House whether 1 days lost as a result of strike action is better or worse than 1 weeks lost as a result of illness.
Mr. French : The fundamental difference is that proper cover can be given when 1 weeks are lost as a result of illness, to ensure the continuation of the collection of data, for the simple reason that a large proportion of the work force is not ill simultaneously. Those 10,000 lost days represented a significant number of employees--not all, but a significant number--not working at the same time. That is what makes it potentially very damaging.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery is not present, but no doubt he is ably represented by the hon. Lady. He said that it must be accepted that all lawful trade disputes militated against someone's interests. This is why the comparison made earlier between GCHQ employees and members of the military is so important. If we indeed accept the hon. and learned Gentleman's proposition--as his party seems to--the "someone" referred to is, in this instance, the nation's security. That places his argument on a different level from some of the other arguments that may be advanced in an understandable attempt to justify legitimate trade union action.
I said earlier that I wished to deal with the question of the staff federation, whose role has been significantly underestimated in the debate so far. It has been in existence for nearly 10 years, having been established in 1985 ; in 1988, it was granted sole recognition in regard to the representation of staff. All the local evidence suggests that it represents their interests very satisfactorily.
Mr. French : No ; I want to continue with what I am saying. The federation is, after all, completely democratic. Its officers and members of the general executive council are elected by secret ballot, and it is a representative organisation. Since 1985 it has been listed as a trade union, with the certification officer, under the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974. It operates independently, and is elected independently ; it fulfils the task that it was set up to fulfil--the representation of employees. The only requirement involved is that it must not be affiliated to a political organisation, and there is nothing so unreasonable
Column 273about that stipulation. Those who do not agree with it must present an argument against it, and there is no sound argument to that effect.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Hon. Members seem to be forgetting some of the courtesies of the House. When it is clear that an hon. Member is not going to give way, there is no point in other hon. Members' continually shouting "Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?" across the Chamber. On this occasion, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) is clearly not going to give way.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If an hon. Member is making statements that need to be clarified, is it not beneficial for him to give way so that another hon. Member can correct them if necessary ?
Mr. French : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Let me place on record that I have already given way five or six times, as Hansard will show. I consider that perfectly reasonable, and I do not think that I should be forced to give way further by misconduct on the part of Opposition Members.
My final point relates to comments made by the right hon. Member for Copeland and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall). Both were extremely dismissive about the Prime Minister's efforts. It is obvious from all the available information that the Prime Minister has made strenuous attempts to reach an accommodation with those who want full trade union representation, and that he has done so for a long time.
First, Sir Robin Butler was authorised to hold discussions to try to find a way out of the problem. A good many discussions were held with national unions in the attempt to find a formula ; they began in 1992, and continued in 1993. Meetings were held with the general secretaries of a number of national unions, and various possibilities were considered. The main issue remained the same, however : the national unions' desire for the right to recruit at GCHQ could not be reconciled with the Prime Minister's understandable view that the overriding desire should be for the continuity of data collection. I very much hope that Opposition Members will come to appreciate--given all the available facts--that that is essential to national security.
Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley) : I have a good deal in common with the views of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). My wartime experience of contacts with the intelligence services persuaded me that there were wide variations in both the scope and the status of the different sectors, but, like nearly every other hon. Member who is present, I am constrained in what I can say publicly.
In present-day Northern Ireland, an increasing number of the functions of the armed forces and the police are being civilianised or privatised. The right hon. Member for
Column 274Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) mentioned civilians employed in sensitive posts in Whitehall. Very few such civilians, either in Whitehall or on our island, have betrayed their trust as servants of the Crown ; I believe that the vast majority of trade unionists are loyal to the Crown, and to their country.
Indeed, that is not in dispute. This is not a question of loyalty ; it is not really a question of security in the broader sense, that people cannot be trusted. The problem for my party is the fact that the continuity and smooth working of the establishment at GCHQ are essential.
It has been said that hours lost through sickness vastly outnumbered those lost through industrial action ; but, as has also been said, that is not the point. Even a flu epidemic would not immobilise GCHQ at one fell swoop. Admittedly there might be some reduction in efficiency, a backlog in decoding and a delay in the provision of transcriptions ; but there would not be a complete closedown.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick)--who sometimes agrees with me--assured us that the 10,000 staff days lost during the strike between 1979 and 1981 did not fatally damage operations : he provided written evidence whose validity I accept. The potential for damage remains, however. Presumably a complete closure was avoided in 1981 by the existence of--I hesitate to use the term--strike breakers : not every member of staff joined in. We must ask, however, whether we can be certain that such disunity within the unions will not be repeated.
I accept the Opposition's assurances that industrial action is a thing of the distant past ; I think that they honestly believe that. None the less, I have a niggling reservation. Whatever the cause of the 1981 stoppage--we have not been greatly enlightened about that cause today ; there is some mystery about it--some such cause could surface again, with the best will in the world. Next time there could be a complete stoppage. I accept what the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. French) said, and we all know that an effective stoppage, for even a few hours, could do serious damage which it would be impossible to retrieve.