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Ashford Hospital

10.27 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I have a petition from my Spelthorne constituents, opposing the savaging of services at Ashford hospital. It is signed by 25,000 local people and it was backed by all three main political parties--that means that my local Labour party does not support its own Government.

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The petition opposes the cuts of £20 million demanded by the Government; it opposes the closure of the accident and emergency department at Ashford hospital and of all its intensive care unit beds. It calls for proper Government funding of local health services in my constituency and for the scrapping of the cuts proposed by West Surrey health authority.

What is happening to the national health service in my constituency is a disgrace. This petition proves the depth of anger felt by my constituents.

To lie upon the Table.

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Electrical Contracting Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

10.28 pm

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): The subject of the debate is Government policy towards the joint industry board for the electrical contracting industry--the JIB. When I first became involved with the JIB 10 years ago, I was approached by my constituent, Mr. Frank Graham. He is an electrician and, at that time, he was amember of the EETPU--the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union--and a JIB-graded employee. Initially, his concerns centred on a dispute that took place at Aldermaston in 1989 and which was handled by the JIB. Frank was one of 129 men who were sacked during the dispute. Subsequently, he was most unhappy with the way in which the JIB handled the dispute and he sought the assistance of his local Member of Parliament--that is the reason for my involvement.

Over the years, my concern over the JIB--and that of Frank Graham--has grown wider and deeper than the board's handling of that dispute in 1989. Together, Frank Graham and I have entered into a massive correspondence with the JIB itself, the Electrical Contractors Association, the EETPU, successive Ministers, the certification officer for trade unions, the commissioner for the rights of trade unions, the then Select Committee on Education and Employment, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and the parliamentary ombudsman.

There is not enough time to go into all that correspondence in detail. I shall focus on what I believe to be the big issues affecting Government policy, but I must first put the JIB into a political and historical context.

The 1950s and early 1960s were a time of great stress and bitter strife within the electrical contracting industry. At that time, the union with sole negotiating rights in the sector was the ETU, which later became the EETPU. That union was riven by internal battles between right and left, which culminated in the infamous ballot-rigging case that led to the takeover of the union by its leading right-wing members, particularly Mr. Frank Chapple and his close ally, Mr. Eric Hammond.

The new leadership was determined to consolidate right-wing control of the union and to end what it believed to be confrontation between employers and employees. Militant action was discouraged and strikes were reduced from 36,800 man days lost in 1962 to just 9,900 days lost in 1966. Building upon the new moderate approach, the leadership resolved to import from the United States a new system for running the electrical contracting industry. The new model was called the joint industry board, and it had been operating in New York for more than 20 years.

Essentially, the New York JIB was a sweetheart deal between employers and the union to regulate and control the electrical contracting industry in the city. In return for the union's disciplining its members, improving productivity and eliminating strikes, the employers delivered an agreed package of pay, welfare benefits and training. The EETPU and the ECA signed a legally binding agreement in 1967 which introduced the JIB into British industrial relations for the first time. At the time, Eric Hammond boasted that it was his "first revolution" in the operation of trade unions in Britain.

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The JIB has only two permanent or true members: the respective executive committees of the EETPU and the ECA. Each of them appoint the members of the ruling body of the JIB: its national board. The executive committees of the EETPU and the ECA are effectively the JIB. They control an impressive bureaucracy and have their own chief executive, secretary, industrial relations officer and other specialist staff. In the late 1960s, they had an annual income of more than £1 million and annual running costs of £100,000. With inflation, those figures would be much higher today. They also own buildings and assets and have their own employment agency. They control and regulate one of the most important industrial sectors in the British economy. The JIB matters, and that is why I have sought this debate tonight.

What has this to do with Government policy? From its inception, the JIB was registered as a trade union, but the legality of such registration was always in doubt. When it was first registered in 1967, the chief registrar noted in his annual report that it was an unusual type of registered trade union as it included representatives of both employees and employers. As I understand it, employment legislation has never allowed for the registration of a hybrid body such as the JIB.

The JIB was conscious of the doubtful legal basis of its registration as a trade union. When Frank Graham and I challenged it about its registration, it claimed initially to have received special dispensation to register in 1968 from the then Minister for Labour, Mr. Ray Gunter. The JIB made that claim in letters to the certification officer and to the Chairman of the Employment Sub-Committee, but the claim is bogus. The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who was then Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, told me in a letter in 1996 that he could find no reference to such dispensation in the Department's records. He added that he could find no statutory basis--past or present--under which anyone in any Government could have given such a dispensation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), then a Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry, later confirmed to me in writing that the Department

If successive Tory and Labour Ministers are to be believed, we must conclude that the JIB misled the Chairman of the Employment Sub-Committee and the certification officer in claiming special ministerial dispensation to register as a trade union. I believe that the time has come for someone in Government to hold the JIB to account for seriously misleading senior Members of the House.

There are other concerns over the JIB's registration as a trade union. Why did successive registrars of friendly societies and certification officers allow an organisation that was clearly not a trade union to register as a trade union? Let me refer to some of the extensive correspondence that I have had with the certification officer. In a letter dated 23 October 1990, he writes of the JIB that

Another letter to me dated 10 January 1991 says:

    "I have no reason to doubt the status of the JIB as a listed trade union."

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The certification officer based those views on information supplied to him by the JIB. I have correspondence in which it claims to have three categories of member: the constituent parties to the JIB--effectively the executive committees of the ECA and the EETPU; more than 2,000 employer participant members; and more than 30,000 employee participant members. On the basis of those figures, he ruled that the JIB was a body mainly consisting of workers and therefore eligible to be listed as a trade union.

Right up to May 1991, that line was defended solidly by the JIB and the certification officer, but in June 1991 Frank Graham complained to him that, as a listed trade union, the JIB was in breach of the Trade Union Act 1984, which requires trade unions to elect their principal executive committees. The JIB's principal executive committee--the national board--is appointed, not elected by the members.

The certification officer, because of Frank's complaint, was required to write to the JIB to ask why its 30,000 employee participant members had not been allowed their legal right to elect the principal executive committee of the union to which they belonged. In its reply dated 17 June 1991, the JIB was forced to come clean and it was made clear that only the two constituent members--the ECA and the EETPU--were permanent or true members of the JIB. In its own words, the employee and employer members were not full members. Their participation in the JIB was in the nature of

That statement changed everything. On 23 July 1991, the certification officer wrote that, based on the JIB's own admission, it followed that the JIB was not a trade union and would have to be deregistered. More importantly, he informed the JIB that he intended to hold a public hearing on Frank Graham's complaint. Within a month of receiving that letter, the JIB threw in the towel and asked to be removed from the list of trade unions. It simply was not prepared to appear at any public hearing to defend its status as a registered trade union.

We must remember that only three months previously, the JIB and the certification officer had resolutely defended the JIB's status as a trade union; not any more, under the pressure of a public hearing. In a later letter, the certification officer wrote to Frank Graham:

Why does any of this matter? Is it not a matter of concern for the Government that between 1967 and 1972, and again between 1974 and 1991, an organisation that was clearly not a trade union was allowed to register as a trade union without challenge from anyone in authority? There was no challenge from the registrar of friendly societies, certification officers or any Minister, despite the fact that Ministers and certification officers had been made aware of Frank Graham's concerns on this issue. Now that we know the JIB to have been illegally registered for so long, will no one in the Government hold it to account for that illegal registration? Is no one in the Government even interested in serious breaches of employment legislation by such important organisations? If they are not interested, they should be.

The JIB gained considerable material benefits from being registered as a trade union. The research division of the Commons Library wrote to me in 1996 and said that

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registration as a trade union with a certification officer is one of the requirements for attaining certain tax exemptions. This year, the Inland Revenue wrote to me admitting that the JIB had set up a provident fund on 1 October 1977 and that payments out of that fund were allowable as a deduction against tax. That concession stopped only when the JIB deregistered as a trade union in 1991. Thus for at least 14 years, the JIB was receiving tax allowances to which it was legally not entitled. If the Government are not interested in investigating that, I suggest that they should be.

There are other serious concerns about the JIB. There has only ever been one instance when a Secretary of State substituted a dismissals procedure agreement between employers and trade unions for the statutory provision of unfair dismissals. That instance was the substitute agreement between the ECA and the EETPU, relating to the electrical contracting industry--the dismissals procedure agreement run by the JIB. That substitute agreement was allowed by the Secretary of State only on the premise that workers in the industry would have the right to independent arbitration.

Frank Graham has produced evidence that, although on paper the JIB dismissals procedure allows for access to independent arbitration, in reality that access is blocked. The JIB's procedure, as set out in its handbook, makes it clear that any appellant must give good reason to the JIB national board to justify reference to independent arbitration. Clearly, if the JIB national board does not accept those reasons, there will be no reference to independent arbitration for that appellant.

Frank Graham's claim is contested by the JIB, but to the best of my knowledge, the dispute between him and the JIB on this issue has never been independently investigated. Given the unique nature of the substitute agreement run by the JIB, should not Ministers mount just such an investigation?

On the current legal status of the JIB, we know that it is no longer a registered trade union. I have correspondence from the certification officer, in which he admits that neither is it an employers' association. The JIB itself now claims to be an unincorporated association. According to the Library, legal controls preventlarge organisations from operating as unincorporated corporations of association. Should not those controls apply to the JIB, which, by any standards, is a very large organisation?

I have also seen annual returns from Companies House for a company called JIB Ltd.--a private company limited by shares, which has the same address and the same secretary as the old JIB trade union, but which retains no record of holding any of the old trade union's assets. Who now controls those large assets, which once belonged to the JIB trade union?

This state of affairs is totally unsatisfactory. We simply do not know the current legal status of the JIB. If it is an unincorporated association, it has no legal personality of its own. We do not know who is legally responsible for registering it, to whom it makes returns, or who holds it to account. For a large and wealthy organisation that exercises tight control over one of our most important industrial sectors, that is entirely unacceptable.

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There are any number of outstanding questions. For example, why was the JIB ever allowed to register as a trade union? Why did those in authority support such registration until such time as the lone campaign by my constituent forced them to do a U-turn? Why have claims about special ministerial dispensation by the JIB never been investigated? Why has no one in the JIB ever been held to account for the misleading statements that they made about it? Why were tax concessions, which are available only to registered trade unions, paid out to an organisation that was never a registered trade union? Has the Inland Revenue attempted to reclaim any of the moneys given out in those tax concessions?

Those and many other questions need to be answered. That is why I am asking the Minister to undertake a comprehensive investigation into the operation of the JIB from its inception in 1967 to the present day. Most importantly, that is why I am asking him, once he has carried out that investigation, to report back to the House on the outcome of his inquiries.

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