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Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to make progress. However, would his proposal not be divisive for the small business man who knows every one of his 20 or 25 employees? Would it not create two different authorities inside a company?

Mr. Welsh: There is recognition of small companies, and they would not be involved.

Mr. Page: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Welsh: No, I want to make progress.

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1179

A review of the 40 per cent. threshold was promised in the White Paper of May 1998, which stated:

Whether such a review will come to pass remains to be seen.

The amendments would settle the matter by abolishing the 40 per cent. threshold rule, especially because employment relations and trade union law remain reserved to Westminster and are not to be devolved to a Scottish Parliament. Hon. Members should understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) and I are justifiably wary of any 40 per cent. voting threshold, having lived through a similar rigged referendum method in Scotland in the 1970s.

In any 40 per cent. rule, the dead, those who are ill and those who abstain are all considered to have been against the proposition and to have voted no. All of them will add to the 40 per cent. barrier, whether or not that was their true intention. Even if a majority yes vote is obtained, it can be nullified by a 40 per cent. rule. Under such a rule, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) would have failed in the Labour party leadership election. He would not even have met a 20 per cent. threshold. If a 40 per cent. rule had been set, London would not have its own government, even though that proposal got a 72 per cent. yes vote.

It is better to let the decision rest with the democratic majority of those who bother to vote, and a maximum turnout should be encouraged to ascertain the true wishes of the work force.

Our amendments have the support of the GMB, Unison, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the TUC. Given past experience, I hope that the amendments will be supported.

Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Member for Angus(Mr. Welsh) made interesting points, but I should like to pose a question to the House, particularly the Secretary of State.

The presumption in the hon. Gentleman's argument is that a ballot for the selection of a union to represent a work force is in all cases and in all ways the same as the election of a democratic representative to the Government of a country or an area. There are different philosophical views about whether that is correct. Will the Secretary of State clarify for me and my colleagues why he believes that it is correct and fair to impose a threshold for the selection of union representation and not to have a full, democratic election among those who decide to vote, as would be the case in elections for representation to a Government or local councils?

9.15 pm

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): I support amendments Nos. 37 and 38. The 40 per cent. hurdle was included in the Bill simply because of pressure from the Confederation of British Industry and other employers organisations. It has nothing to do with industrial democracy or democratic principles. It is intended to make trade union recognition that bit more difficult to obtain.

It is a well-established part of this country's democratic tradition that those who participate in a democratic process such as a ballot should determine its outcome.

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1180

However, if the 40 per cent. hurdle is allowed to stand, those who do not participate will also be taken into account in determining the result because that threshold relates not to those who participate but to those who are eligible to participate, whether they vote or not.

We could have a scenario in which, for example, 66 per cent., or nearly two thirds, of the relevant work force could participate in a ballot, and 60 per cent. of them could be in favour of trade union recognition, yet that would not pass the 40 per cent. hurdle. Alternatively, 60 per cent. of the relevant work force could participate in the ballot, and 66 per cent., or nearly two thirds, of that 60 per cent. could vote for trade union recognition, yet they would fail to reach the 40 per cent. hurdle.

To my mind, that makes a mockery of democracy. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) pointed out, if that were applied to parliamentary elections, it would make parliamentary democracy virtually unworkable. Even this Government, with their massive majority inthe House, cannot say that they have the support of 40 per cent. of all those eligible to vote in the UK. If the 40 per cent. hurdle were applied to parliamentary constituencies, many hon. Members would not be in the House today.

There was an unhappy precedent in Scotland exactly 20 years ago this month, when we had a referendum on the then Labour Government's proposal to set up a Scottish Assembly, as it was called at that time. George Cunningham, a Labour Member of Parliament, had tabled a 40 per cent. wrecking amendment, the effect of which was similar to what is proposed in the Bill. In that referendum, the majority of people who participated in the ballot voted in favour of a Scottish Assembly, but the people of Scotland were denied it because of the 40 per cent. wrecking amendment. That led to 18 years of bitterness and caused much ill feeling in Scotland and elsewhere.

If we translate that situation into the sphere of industrial relations, and if we had a similar situation as a result of an industrial ballot, it would be a recipe for conflict and could lead to bitterness for some time between employers and employees until another ballot was held. I hope that the Government can be persuaded to think again and will learn from past mistakes.

I never thought that I would see the day when any Labour Government would be resisting a pro-trade union amendment tabled by the Scottish National party. More than 20 years ago, when I was already a Member of Parliament, I remember a Scottish trade unionist sending telegrams to hon. Members. There were no e-mails, faxes or other sophisticated methods of communication at that time. Indeed, the most sophisticated was the telegram. The Scottish trade union movement sent telegrams to Scottish Members of Parliament of various parties, pleading with them to vote for the Bill to save the aircraft and shipbuilding industries in Scotland. I remember the disdain with which those telegrams were treated by some members of the SNP. I think that it was Hamish Watt--[Interruption.] It was not the hon. Members for Angus or for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), but Hamish Watt who made a point of tearing up the telegrams on the Floor of the House.

As I say, I never thought that I would live to see the day when a Labour Government would refuse to listen to the voice of the trade union movement of Scotland or anywhere else. The Scottish Trades Union Congress is certainly in favour of the amendments.

31 Mar 1999 : Column 1181

When Ron Hayward was general secretary of the Labour party, one of his favourite sayings was, "Never forget whence you came." He was referring to the fact that the Labour party was born out of the trade union movement. I wonder sometimes what has happened. I think that sometimes the present lot have forgotten whence they came. More seriously, I think that there is growing concern in Scotland and elsewhere about where they are going.

I hope that the Minister will bear my points in mind and think again. If the amendments were agreed to, that would lead to greater recognition of the trade union movement and its democratic rights.

Mr. Page: Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), I shall not delay the House with a one-hour speech. I found the speech of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) interesting, and it was obviously supported by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey).

Those people who have responsibility for these matters have no idea how small business operates. They are in a dream world. In small businesses there are no management messages, metaphorically carved in stone, which are sent down from the boardroom to the deputy manager and to the foreman, to be put on the office notice board. Nor are such messages sent through the wage packet.

In a small business, the manager knows everyone by name. Management and staff work together, theyknow their problems and they know their individual requirements. The various figures and percentages that are presented in this part of the Bill will not be helpful for small businesses. Indeed, they could be damaging or harmful to them. As unemployment starts to climb, we all know that we shall need small businesses to create jobs for the future. I have to exhibit and state to the House my concern over this part of the Bill as it will affect small businesses.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) and others have eloquently explained the ambiguities, inconsistencies and lack of principle in the Government's policies in this part of the Bill. It will be obvious to the House that amendment No. 9 would work in the opposite sense by taking one of the two ambiguous interpretations of the Labour party manifesto and requiring a higher hurdle rate. I would say that for that purpose it is defensible. We are seeing the imposition by statute of collective bargaining. If that is to happen, it should have the widest possible consent. It is for the Minister now to answer our observations.

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