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Session 2007 - 08
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Employment Bill [Lords]

Employment Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Martin Caton, John Bercow
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Burt, Lorely (Solihull) (LD)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan (Huntingdon) (Con)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)
Gardiner, Barry (Brent, North) (Lab)
Hemming, John (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
McFadden, Mr. Pat (Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Ward, Claire (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Hannah Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 16 October 2008

[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Employment Bill [Lords]

Clause 18

Exclusion or expulsion from trade union for membership of political party
1 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 17, line 41, at end add—
‘(4) In section 177 (interpretation and other supplementary provisions) after subsection (2) there is inserted—
“(2A) For the purposes of section 174 an individual will only be considered to be a member of a political party if within the 12 months prior to the date of an individual’s application for membership of the trade union that individual was registered with the political party as a member.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 18, in page 17, line 41, at end add—
‘(4) In section 177 (interpretation and other supplementary provisions) after subsection (2) there is inserted—
“(2A) For the purposes of section 174 a group will be considered to be a political party only where it has been registered with the Electoral Commission under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41) or any foreign equivalent, and at the time of the individual’s application for membership of the trade union the party remains on such a register.’.
Mr. Djanogly: We are still on clause 18 and we are looking at ways in which more security can be put into the clause to protect the rights of employees. Amendment No. 17 aims to limit how far back into a member’s past a trade union is entitled to look to find reasons to exclude or expel. I accept that this is a question of balancing interests proportionately and in a common-sense fashion. However, the views and opinions that we hold in our youth are often bred of some degree of naivety and optimism for the world and those who inhabit it. Likewise, youthful ideals may have made some of us intolerant of others, but with time, some people change. Their views change and actions are adapted.
For instance, we must all accept that membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as a student in the 1960s should not automatically enable a 50-year-old to be expelled from a trade union that represents workers in the nuclear industry. Without great caution, it seems that this could be extended further. What happens if an over-zealous parent had a teenage child signed up to an extreme party membership? Should the beliefs of the parent be used to punish the son? Of course not.
This provision seems at odds with a person’s human rights. The amendment seeks to address the wrong by saying that the party membership must have been within the last 12 months. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South made a powerful case, albeit slightly earlier than he was meant to, as to how unacceptable it would be for his party membership some years ago to be taken into account now. He may wish to come back and finish his remarks.
Amendment No. 18 goes to the definition of a political party. I have previously stated how we view this clause as an attack on civil liberties in many ways, but that we recognise the need to address the issue by virtue of the European convention on human rights. As things stand there is no definition of a political party in the Bill, so we need to ask at what point a person’s political views constitute membership of a political party. If someone votes for the Socialist Workers party, or strongly or openly espouses some of its views, but is not a member of that party, could that person be banned from union membership? This is why we see the key issue as being conduct, not party membership. This whole area could be a recipe for disaster.
Furthermore, to all hon. Members who are worried about the British National party today—I agree that we all need to be worried—I say that they are missing the wood for the trees. We should keep in mind that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) supported the original legislation here in order to protect communists and their fellow travellers from being hounded out of unions. The hon. Member for Broxtowe made the same point in relation to a German union.
We can talk about countering the BNP but we should not think that this legislation is necessarily the format to use. Many other organisations could be caught in the net. Given the position we find ourselves in, we need to regulate carefully who will be caught in the definition of political party. That is why we suggest that we limit the expulsion right to members of political parties that are registered. When a similar amendment was moved in another place, the Minister noted that the employee may belong to a foreign party. The amendment now caters for that eventuality.
Perhaps the amendment’s drafting is not perfect, but I find it difficult to believe that the Government will be unable to draft an appropriate definition of a political party. When we come within the wide parameters of democracy, the spectrum of beliefs is very broad and the question is where we draw the line and who draws it. While exclusion for membership of the BNP may seem reasonable, at what point do we stop? Baroness Miller said:
“Could, for example, a union involved with workers in the nuclear or coal-mining industry exclude a member of the Green Party?”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 January 2008; Vol. 697, c. 671.]
I fear that we may end up with trade union witch hunts in which hon. Members who show even the slightest diversion from a party line find themselves out on their ear. The Orwellian undertones are frighteningly apparent in their potential.
Secondly, once splits appear along political lines, how soon will it be before we see the internal fragmentation of trade union membership? What will stop those with differing political leanings from creating their own splinter groups? Increasingly, politics is an issue-driven playing field. The traditional affiliations of parties have been blurred and the electorate has become a more homogenised group as the parties head to the middle ground. That will present further problems should trade unions be able to bar membership on the basis of membership of the Countryside Alliance, Greenpeace or Amnesty International. How are we to categorise such groups? Are they political parties for the purposes of this Bill? As the fractures materialise, there could be further claims. We will then end up back here debating the same points after another slap on the wrist from Strasbourg. For those reasons, I am happy to move the amendment.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I want to raise a few points on the amendments. First, we have a briefing from Thompsons Solicitors, which acted for ASLEF in the court case that has given rise to this particular piece of legislation. It is critical of clause 18 as a whole, but its argument is slightly different from the ones mentioned so far. I will relate it to the amendment under discussion. Its concern is that even if a union could exclude members of the BNP, the party could change its name or have a slightly different variant every year to evade the exclusion. I am not sure how realistic that is because in practice, any serious political party would find it very difficult to change its name every year.
The same difficulty arises with amendment No. 18 in which the hon. Gentleman seeks to limit the exclusion to parties that are officially registered. However, the overtly neo-Nazi group Combat 18, which seeks to prepare for racial war, is not a registered political party. It stretches tolerance to the point of insanity if we say that we should force trade unions to associate with members of a group that is preparing for racial war. The issue is not really whether it is a political party as defined in the amendment, but whether we should enable trade unions to draw the line somewhere in a reasonable manner.
With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s point about limiting the period of membership to 12 months, I have to declare an interest. I was a communist when I was young, although I was not a party member. I was quite open about it. I can imagine a situation in which that could be used against me professionally—outside my current profession perhaps.
The provision about fairness is relevant. Proposed new subsection (4G)(b) requires that any decision be taken fairly. In my case, the involvement was 40 years ago. Reference was made to the possibility of the parents being involved. Any court would rule in practice that such an association had long lapsed and that it was not fair within the meaning of the common law to use it against the individual.
In today’s society, trade unions are voluntary associations of people who come together for a common cause. It is open to anyone to form a separate trade union. The hon. Gentleman suggested that there was a danger that someone might do so under the Bill. Well, the BNP has already set up the trade union, Solidarity, for people who do not wish to be part of the TUC. It has a right to do that. As long as the party is legal, I do not have a problem with it setting up its own trade union. It is a reasonable solution to the problem.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): The principle in amendment No. 17, which is that only trade union membership in the immediate year before or during the membership period should matter, is reasonable. It is the drafting that is problematic. I understood the amendment to apply only to membership of a political party during the 12-month period prior to applying to be a member of a union, so if someone was a member of the union and then joined the party that would disqualify them, that would not count. I cannot back the drafting of the amendment, but its principle is good.
Amendment No. 18 is also good because that again refers to a form of conduct, but membership of a political party or standing for a party is a definable act. The Committee knows that I am sympathetic with the underlying principle of freedom of association. I have no problem with that. As the hon. Member for Broxtowe explained, people can take other routes if they do not like that one. The principle of amendment No. 17 is good, even if the wording needs to be sorted out. Amendment No. 18 is very good.
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I am sure that some of my lawyerly friends will speak more about the matter, but an arbitrary 12-month period in which lawyers will have to prove that someone has been a member of a political party for 12 months prior to applying to be a member of a trade union seems completely unenforceable. It would take for ever to prove how long someone has been a member. Was it from when they filled in the application form? Was it from when the application form arrived? It seems completely mad to have something so specific, when we are talking about much broader principles in respect of freedom of association, and membership of political organisations and trade unions. I should like an explanation of the provision.
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I support the clause wholeheartedly. I wish that it went further. It does not, so I shall speak to the amendment itself. I do not like the fact of making decisions that are based on a person’s association, particularly with a political party. Parties are broad churches and for a trade union to be able to assume that it can take such action, be it to take into account membership of a political party for 12 months or otherwise, seems to be a dangerous premise.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman noted the wideness of the BNP’s policies? I have not noted them to be in any way integrationary or prepared to consider having members of different creeds unless they maintain the white supremacy rule. That is not the sort of party that most trade unions want to have in their path.
1.15 pm
Mr. Binley: I will be delighted to answer that. My record of standing up against the BNP is second to none. I do not like any implication that it might not be, and I will not accept it.
Michael Jabez Foster: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Binley: Hang on. I will finish the answer to the question, which I found frankly offensive. Many good people in this country—this point has been raised—were members of the Communist party at a time when Stalin was killing 16 million people. Are we to say that, because of that association, they should not be members of the Law Society, of a trade union or indeed of any organisation with an impact on employment? I would argue that that is not the case, but my point is that we should be dealing with the individual and the individual’s characteristics, not with what might be said about the people with whom they associate. Freedom of association is an important factor in that respect too, and it seems to me that the balance struck has not taken that perspective into account. I argue for all our freedoms in that respect, and I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would see that to be the case.
I am also concerned that the amendment, which I will support as the lesser of evils, recognises that when dealing with such membership, a person’s association can be noted rather than their own standing and beliefs, recognising that political parties are broad churches. That could swing round and hit all of us where it hurts if we are not careful. The thin end of the wedge, in that respect, is dangerous. Before I am questioned again, I repeat that I have stood alongside my colleague the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) when we were threatened with a BNP march, waiting for them to come to the station. The whole ethos of the British National party horrifies me, as does much of the ethos of the Communist party.
My point is about judging an individual on his own worth, not on the basis of association, which we all choose for good or bad. There are a number of things that I do not like about the Conservative party, but I make a decision. I am sure that there are lots of things that the hon. Gentleman does not like about the Labour party, but one makes a decision. Let us judge a person on his individual character and views, not on the groups with which, for one reason or another, he might associate himself.
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Prepared 17 October 2008