Previous Section Index Home Page

14 July 2008 : Column 53

The Employment Relations Act 2004 introduced measures to allow trade unions to expel members with extreme political views. The then Minister with responsibility for employment relations, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), hailed the new provisions as striking the right balance between workers, trade unions and employers. He argued that they would provide “protections for workers” and said that he believed that successful workplaces are founded on partnerships between employers, workers and their representatives. That is all well and good—how different, though, from the position of the Government today. The current Minister seems to have no qualms about throwing the interests of the aforementioned workers and employers out with the bath water in order to allow the trade unions to sit at the top table and call the shots. These, of course, are the same trade unions that now provide more than 90 per cent. of the Labour party’s donations, as opposed to the 55 per cent. they provided when the earlier provisions were on the table. I agree that it is appropriate to respond to the ASLEF decision, but we have concerns about clause 18.

We are pleased that the Government have accepted the much-debated amendment to clause 18, first proposed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and introduced by the Liberal Democrat Lord Lester of Herne Hill in the other place on 13 March. The decision to expel a trade union member will be unlawful if

or established procedures, or if the exclusion or expulsion would prejudice the individual’s livelihood or conditions of employment. That is a fair starting point for dealing with the sometimes conflicting rights of trade unions and their own members. It should ensure that a heavy-handed union boss cannot usurp the internal rules to which members sign up. It prevents trade unions from throwing out members purely on the basis that the opinions of the member differ from the union’s own ideals. It should also prevent unions from exerting power beyond their remit, thereby protecting the employment status of union members expelled under the clause. However, in order to protect union members from over-bearing union officials who may wish to impose their will unfairly, it would be preferable for stronger boundaries to be drawn around the clause.

Clause 18 is silent on determining the organisations that are classified as political parties. That could allow trade unions to flex their muscles and evict individuals who are members of organisations with which the union clashes. Is it truly the intention of the ASLEF decision that membership of politically active organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International should be grounds for eviction from a trade union? I do not think that that is intended. More thought needs to be put into the drafting of clause 18 if we are to prevent unions from imposing their political biases on their members.

I also find the application of the clause to former membership of a political party somewhat worrying. Why should a 40-year-old employee, for instance, face the possibility of being evicted from a trade union on the basis that he was a member of a certain political party for a short time when he was a student? That aspect of the clause represents a one-size-fits-all approach typical of much of the union legislation of the old days, and maintains a definite air of retrospective punishment.
14 July 2008 : Column 54
Lord Bach argued that tighter wording in clause 18 was not necessary, as disgruntled expelled trade union members can make a complaint to the certification officer. I met the certification officer recently to discuss his role and the powers that he has been given, and on the basis of what he reported in that meeting I do not think that the Government’s argument holds much sway. By his own admission, the certification officer has very weak powers of inspection, and is not able to issue penalties to unions. That regulator is a relic of the trade union settlement of the 1940s and 1950s, rather than an effective, modern-day regulator, and it requires reform. The situation shows how little the Government think about the protection of individual trade union members as opposed to the unions themselves.

Finally, we may be looking at the response to ASLEF from the wrong perspective. All in the House today would agree that many, if not most, of the BNP’s policies are abhorrent, but it is still classified as a political party, membership of which is not, per se, illegal. Should not eviction from a trade union still essentially be for reasons of improper conduct, rather than based on a blanket, one-size-fits-all attitude towards membership of a particular political party? On the final day of Grand Committee in the other place, Baroness Perry of Southwark said that the Minister remained open-minded on clause 18, and Lord Bach said that the Government remain open to others’ views on the clause. I hope that that is truly the case, and that the Government take full account of the arguments made today.

Looking at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform legislative programme, I find increasingly that we are on some kind of merry-go-round, with Ministers calling for fewer laws, but doing the exact opposite. Ministers try to give the impression that they know where their party is heading, while in reality their union-led Back Benchers are not only calling the shots but regularly rebelling when they do not get what they want. At a time when British business is entering difficult waters, the last thing it needs is a Government who say one thing and then cannot deliver.

5.29 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): This is the first time that I have been accused of calling the shots on Government legislation. [ Interruption. ] I know, although I will try to get through this speech without any further references to by-elections in Glasgow.

My entry into this debate comes from my promotion last year of the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill, which not only was supported by the TUC unanimously at congress, but received the support of action required by the Labour party conference. My Bill resulted from our experience in my constituency with Gate Gourmet. A large number of my constituents, largely Asian women, who were working for Gate Gourmet, a company that received contracts outsourced from British Airways, went to work one morning and were herded into a shed. A manager then came forward and sacked them by megaphone for refusing to sign up to new terms of work that would undermine their conditions, cut their pay and even threaten their pension status.

At that time, we were looking for new legislation that would provide protection to those workers. However, some hon. Members will also recall that other members
14 July 2008 : Column 55
of the Transport and General Workers Union at the airport spontaneously came out on strike in solidarity. The airport is like a mining village. People work in different sections of the airport and for different companies. Many worked for companies to which contracts had been outsourced by British Airways and had worked with each other in the past. Indeed, many were members of the same family working in different areas, so there was a natural feeling of spontaneous support for the workers, largely women, who had been sacked so brutally by Gate Gourmet.

The workers therefore came out on strike. As a result, the TGWU was threatened with tens of millions of pounds—the figure quoted was about £42 million—in fines by the aviation industry, which threatened to break the union. Eventually, the workers had to go back to work. Although the union did its best, some individuals suffered severe detriment, in both wages and conditions. Indeed, some of them are still not even back at work, despite all the union’s hard work and best endeavours.

It was in that climate that I expected the Employment Bill to reflect the concerns of trade union members, as well as members of the community throughout, and to reflect the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill, which we sought to promote last year, because such incidents continue. Only last week we had a debate with the Minister present—I am grateful for his help in the discussions that we are having—because the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union had come forward about the Lyndale group. For three years, Lyndale had been planning to restructure, but without consultation with the trade unions. Lyndale went into administration, but within hours established itself as a new company trading in exactly the same way, laid off 700 workers, avoided its responsibilities for redundancy payments and, again, frogmarched some workers off its site.

That is no way in which to treat workers in this day and age. The reason why companies can treat workers so is that we have fewer trade union rights now than we had in 1906, after the Taff Vale judgment. We still do not have the right to strike embedded in law and we no longer have the right to solidarity action. As a result, the reality of work for many people is that they are exploited and feel unprotected, so I was hoping for a more ambitious Bill than this one.

I would like to set out those areas in which some of us will seek to amend the Bill in Committee and on Report to improve the situation, so that people can be represented properly by their trade unions, and so that industrial harmony can break out. Respect for trade union rights has been fundamental for co-operation between workers and employers for two centuries now, and has produced an industrial climate that has been beneficial to both sides of the industry, as well as to the community overall. I would like to go through those elements of the Bill that I would like to be amended and which I hope will form the agenda for later debate. Other Members on our Benches have issues that they would like to raise for amendment, too.

The first issue that I want to discuss is industrial action. There is currently no right to strike in law in this country, although we have the right to be protected for a limited period from employers’ attempts to threaten actions on breach of contract. In their most recent
14 July 2008 : Column 56
legislation on the issue, the Government improved the situation by extending the period of protection from eight to 12 weeks, but the right to strike is still not embedded in law, as it is across Europe. Furthermore, no protection is provided after 12 weeks, and I would like the Bill to be amended so that employees are given protection for an indefinite period when they go on strike. They should also have the right to take action if an employer takes action against them, unless the employer can prove that the detriment to, or the sacking of, a member of staff is not related to the industrial action.

Even though people are protected for 12 weeks and action can be taken if they are sacked or suffer detriment, the Bill also fails to amend current law under which there is no effective way for them to ensure that they are reinstated. Their trade union may introduce a reinstatement order on their behalf following action by their employer, but such orders are made in only 0.2 per cent. of the cases that are brought, and few are implemented. I would therefore like the Bill to be amended to make effective the protection that people have when they take industrial action.

The Bill also relates to agencies. We successfully introduced legislation to prevent agencies from being used to bring in workers to break strikes, but a loophole continues to exist, and agencies are still used to bring in strike-breaking workers. Indeed, in the Gate Gourmet case, the employer prepared well in advance by recruiting agency workers. I would like us to use a provision from the Trade Union Rights and Freedoms Bill to amend this Bill by placing a duty on the employer to inform the agency when a dispute takes place. At the moment, agencies often argue that they are unaware of such disputes.

Unfortunately, the Bill also fails to consider ballot arrangements. The balloting process that trade unions currently have to undertake is complex and in many ways invites litigation and injunctions from employers. The Government need to examine a simplified notice system, which would benefit all sides. The employer should be given notice of future industrial action, but the amount of information required should be significantly reduced. For example, we have seen a number of disputes in which injunctions have been taken out against individual trade unions for not giving full information regarding the number, names and addresses of employees or the places where they work. Such requirements no longer reflect the modern workplace, where employees are moved from time to time, making it difficult to keep track of them, particularly when there is an element of outsourcing and contracts have been delegated to individual companies. I would like the Government to reconsider the issue, because it is in everyone’s interests that we introduce a simplified procedure for giving notice to the employer, which requires less information about the number of employees who will participate in the dispute. In that way, we would overcome the unnecessary difficulties and, often, conflicts that embitter disputes as a result of the notice requirements in existing legislation.

We recently had an extensive debate in Westminster Hall on the minimum wage at which the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was present. We hoped that the Bill would address a range of the issues that were raised, and although I welcome the fact that it addresses some of them, there are many outstanding ones. I still have a number of concerns—other hon. Members
14 July 2008 : Column 57
mentioned them during that Westminster Hall debate—including the Government’s failure to reconsider the youth rate of the minimum wage. It is perplexing for many of us that the youth rate discriminates against younger workers. There are currently three national minimum wage rates based on age; workers between the ages of 16 and 17 receive £3.40 an hour, workers between the ages of 18 and 21 get £4.60 and workers aged over 22 get £5.52 an hour. What that means for the 16 to 17-year-olds is an annual wage of £6,630; and for the 18 to 21-year-olds, it is £8,970. I believe that those are poverty wages, and I find it almost impossible to understand how anyone, particularly an 18 to 20-year-old, could survive on a wage of £8,970 a year. Even for the over-22s, the annual minimum wage is only £10,764. These are poverty pay rates.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) laid early-day motion 329 before the House on the issue of the national minimum wage for young workers, and it was signed by more than 100 Labour Members. It called on the Government

I regret that that principle has not been embodied in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred to seafarers—again, in the recent Westminster Hall debate, we also asked that the Bill consider their position. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran will also dwell on that subject. Speaking as someone who has steered debates on seafarers through the House for the past five years or longer, I have to say that I am extremely disappointed that the Bill does not even look at the current problem. I have discussed the issue with the Clerks, however, and found out that it will be in order to amend the Bill to deal with the matter later.

Some Members will know the background to that debate because they have participated in it with me over the years. For a number of years, the Race Relations Act 1976 exempted shipping, so shipowners were able to discriminate in the payment of their workers on the basis of race. The European Union asked the Government to look again at the matter and there was a long campaign, organised by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, in response to which the Government committed themselves to review the issue of discrimination on racial grounds, which meant that two seafarers doing exactly the same job on a British flagship were being paid differential rates based on their race. Most of us found that morally abhorrent, as it was dramatically perpetuating the exploitation of workers on low rates of pay.

We campaigned and the Government responded, telling us that they would reform the law, but the reform that they introduced was unacceptable—the Government amended the legislation so that it could no longer discriminate on grounds of race, but discrimination on grounds of nationality continued. Most of us find that distinction almost impossible to fathom. We thought we had gained at least one concession when a former Minister gave a commitment to the Regulatory Reform Committee that all workers on UK flagships and ships working in British waters would be paid the minimum
14 July 2008 : Column 58
wage. I felt that that was a breakthrough, a concession and a victory that had resulted from our long-standing campaign.

What we did not know then was that British waters would be defined not as territorial waters, as is generally accepted, but as Britain’s internal waters. As a result, large numbers of workers—even on ferries, which we would usually consider to be within British waters—are not being paid the minimum wage, as employers continue to discriminate on the basis of nationality. I hope that in later stages of our consideration, we will be able to amend the Bill in order to secure fairness and equity for all workers, who should get the rate for the job, based on the nature of the job itself, not on their country of origin.

In his introduction, the Minister spoke about the enforcement of the minimum wage. Many of us welcomed the statements made some time ago by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, now the Prime Minister, about the allocation of additional funding of £3 million for the purpose of enforcement, but as we said in the Westminster Hall debate, it does not look as though much of that money has actually filtered through to the appointment of staff. I would welcome the Minister’s pledge to reconsider that matter and the powers given to individual officers working for the enforcement team.

Third-party actions also warrant further examination. At present, enforcement takes place when individuals demonstrate that they are being paid less than the minimum wage. In some circumstances that requires an act of courage, especially when exploitative employers seek to intimidate their work forces. Perhaps the Minister will consider tabling an amendment allowing third-party actions. That would enable trade unions and other organisations to represent individuals or groups of workers and bring cases relating to failure to pay the minimum wage, so that the system would no longer need to rely on individuals who can so easily be victimised and intimidated.

The Minister mentioned voluntary workers and cadet force adult volunteers, but I believe that the Bill may allow us to look beyond those groups. We have received representations from the National Union of Journalists and the Performers Alliance, which includes Equity, the Musicians’ Union and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. According to the NUJ, many people, mostly in newspapers but across the media, are required to work voluntarily not just for a few hours a week or a few weeks but, in some cases, for between six and 12 months in order to get on to the ladder even to be considered for a permanent position. As a result, they fall outside any legislation that would protect them from exploitation and ensure that they were paid the minimum wage at some stage in their careers. I hope that the Minister will examine the issue of volunteers in those sectors and propose amendments, because we may not have another opportunity to tackle it for some time.

The Performers Alliance unions also raised the issue of agency fees and their effect on the minimum wage. We know that the Government have helped greatly through their moves to protect workers from an agency which, at one point, was charging high fees and deducting them from wages, with the result that many workers’ pay fell below the level of the minimum wage. However, there is still a loophole. Some agents have reconstructed themselves as publishers, so that workers can be charged a publication fee simply to be listed in a directory. They
14 July 2008 : Column 59
are being exploited by having to pay a fee upfront, which is deducted from their pay so that, again, it falls below the minimum wage. Perhaps that too could be amended in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), who is no longer present, mentioned tips. We have been promised movement on that for a long time. A private Member’s Bill was drafted in the hope that the Government could incorporate its provisions in future legislation. I think the time has come to give full protection to workers who depend on gratuities, so that those amounts are not deducted from their minimum wage. At present there are a number of ways in which employers can avoid the current legislation, with the result that workers do not receive the full reward for their good service. That too was raised in the Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, and again we hope that the Minister will be able to incorporate provisions from the private Member’s Bill in this legislation.

I hope that another issue raised by Members will be incorporated. The Bill provides powers of enforcement in regard to non-payment of the minimum wage, but we believe that the provision for the exchange of information between agencies should include the opportunity to deal with non-payment of holiday money, and with other payments not made by employers. The Bill should contain a right of protection, so that those officers who deal with the enforcement of the minimum wage can also deal with the non-payment of holiday pay and other payments that employees should have received but the employer has avoided paying.

I also hope the Minister will consider the representations we have received from a number of unions—I am thinking in particular of the civil service union, the Public and Commercial Services Union—on workplace environmental representatives. We were hoping that the role that such representatives play in their companies and their work sectors would be recognised in this Bill. Environmental representatives are like health and safety representatives in that they want to participate in the development of the policy of their company—or agency, or Government Department—with regard to improving the environmental standards of their workplace. At present, they undertake that role while some employers, including Government Departments, recognise them and some do not. They play a vital role in identifying areas where the environmental standards and performance of their employers can be improved, but they gain no statutory recognition and as a result no facilities in assisting them other than those that have been acquired voluntarily by representations to their employers. I would like the Government to look at the formal recognition of workplace environmental representatives, particularly on the day when we have received an Environmental Audit Committee report on the lack of progress, to put it diplomatically, especially of Government Departments in achieving the Government’s own environmental targets.

Next Section Index Home Page