Employment Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Djanogly: The judgment was certainly about membership of a political party. Amendment No. 18 defines what constitutes a political party. Would anyone who heard this debate have a clear idea as to what constitutes or is likely to constitute a political party? I do not think so. I submit that there will be court cases based on what constitutes a political party.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe gave a thoughtful speech, using the example of Combat 18. We have to ask whether that is a political party or just a movement. That is highly debateable. Does hanging out with the same group of people in a particular place without a membership card make one a member of a political party? Does a group all wearing a T-shirt saying “Combat 18” constitute a political party? On what basis is a member of Combat 18 a member of a political party? Another example that comes to mind is the Militant Tendency, which it called itself a newspaper rather than a political party. That was a highly debateable point. We could debate it again today.
My point is that we are creating legislation that will lead not to less review and fewer court cases, but to more. We have seen that organisations such as the BNP are quite prepared to go to court and test this kind of thing. Do not think that this will be the end of it. Our suggestion is that we must tie the matter down.
Mr. McFadden: The point about the potential for litigation is important and valid. My point is that the kind of extra conditions contained in the amendments would be likely to give more grounds for litigation to the people that the hon. Gentleman is worried about.
Mr. Djanogly: I disagree. If someone is a member of a registered political party, that is a lot more certain than anything else that we have discussed. I appreciate that the amendments might not be perfect. If the Minister were to come up with other suggestions, we would be prepared to discuss them.
As the hon. Member for Broxtowe said, a party could change its name, but that is unlikely. The more popular political parties are unlikely to want to change their names regularly. He also said that one of the advantages could be that BNP members would end up going into their own unions. I do not wholly agree with that as a valid course of action. It smacks of the Italian fascist corporatist unions. Although this is not directly relevant to the debate, I do not think that that would be an effective way to negate BNP or fascist action in this country.
On the arbitrary 12-month period, if the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire thinks that it should be two or three years, we are prepared to discuss that. In principle, the idea that someone can be excluded from a union or anything else because of something that they were involved in 20, 30 or 40 years ago is conceptually wrong and unfair.
Natascha Engel: The hon. Gentleman is trying to legislate for something that I do not think will ever happen. The idea that a trade union might be purely vindictive and get rid of somebody because 40 years ago they were a member of such-and-such an organisation just will not happen.
Mr. Djanogly: I assure the hon. Lady that in Nazi Germany a person’s membership of the Communist party 20 or 30 years previously may well have been taken into account in deciding how they were dealt with. Such treatment is therefore conceptually possible. As to whether it has happened in this country, I do not have any proof. Is it conceptually possible? Is it a fear that as legislators we should be looking at? I think it is.
Natascha Engel: The point is that we do not live in Nazi Germany. If we are legislating on the basis that we are living in Nazi Germany, we should start all over again.
Mr. Djanogly: I see myself as a guardian of democracy in this country, and I hope that all of us do to some extent.
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Michael Jabez Foster: Is it not the case that Nazi Germany did not have proposed new subsection (4H), which will impose reasonableness? With respect to the hon. Gentleman, any of those bizarre examples, such as someone who was a member 20 or 30 years ago, would be unreasonable unless their conduct had been different in the meantime.
Mr. Djanogly: I think that I have made my point.
Mr. Binley: Does my hon. Friend agree from his history lessons—I lived through it—that vindictiveness occurred in the union movement consistently in the 1970s? Before saying that it did not, one should talk to many of my friends who fought that battle in Nottinghamshire and other parts of the country. It may happen again, and we need to be aware of that when we are writing law. We are not writing law for a week or a month; we assume that we are writing law for a long time indeed, and we must take that into account.
Mr. Djanogly: I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
John Hemming: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that our role is to ensure that the laws operate properly and protect people against vindictive actions? Although I would disagree with him on this occasion in valuing the right of voluntary association where a person does not suffer any disadvantage as an important issue to be taken account of, it is our responsibility as hon. Members to protect the freedoms of the people of this country.
Mr. Djanogly: I agree that eternal vigilance is certainly one of our duties as legislators. The ban is based on being a member of a political party—we are agreed on that.
Another thing came to mind as the Minister was making his remarks. I argued, as others have been arguing, that a person’s views may change over time, but there is another aspect: over 20 or 30 years, the political party’s views may change as well. The Conservative party of 30 or 40 years ago is not the Conservative party of today, so it is not only people’s views but parties’ views that change. What might have been a racist party might not be after 30 or 40 years, and vice versa.
The more we look at the legislation, the more we see holes in it and ways in which it will be challenged. What we have seen in the other place and what we will, I hope, see today is an Opposition who say, “Yes, we appreciate that the legislation is necessary, but we are not quite happy with where we are at the moment,” or “What we have is not going to work,” and we have been producing different ways forward. It would be helpful if the Government gave some thought to how such points could be firmed up, so that we could return to it at a later stage.
Dr. Palmer: The hon. Gentleman has gone some way to persuading me that there is a difficulty in the political party definition. I am not sure whether he is raising it as a practical objection or as part of a wish to constrain the activity of trade unions. My conclusion is that we should perhaps replace the term with “political association or movement”—in other words, draw the definition more widely. His approach of limiting it to parties defined in the Bill would work.
Mr. Djanogly: I have said openly, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay—the Minister tried to create some sort of difference between us on this—that conceptually, we do not like the legislation. We do not like the clause; we are concerned about its overall impact on civil liberties. However, we respect the ECHR and realise that it is our starting point. We are not trying to overturn the ECHR decision and certainly not the convention, which was the extra world that we got into. We are where we are, and we have made our point. I will go away, look through the Hansard report of today’s debate and think again about how we can review the amendments before the Bill is considered on Report, because we will certainly want to raise that issue again. In the meantime, we are willing to discuss it with the Minister and hope that there will be movement on it before Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Michael Jabez Foster: I must confess a prejudice. My prejudice is against the BNP—there are some other political parties that I do not like either, but I forgive them. The BNP are an obnoxious bunch, and many hon. Members agree. Fascists, like chameleons, change their appearances. My first concern is how unions can clearly define the sorts of organisations that are contrary to their purpose, although my hon. Friend the Minister has dealt with this point to some extent. I am grateful to him for defining the point about the term “political party” being wide enough so as not to be too prescriptive in excluding or including groups that are contrary to the purpose of trade unions.
I do not understand why trade unions should not be able, in the main, to do as they want—political parties do. If one cannot join political parties in some parts of the country—that is not so much the case these days but certainly was in the past—that creates detriment. As political parties, we can decide who we want in our membership, and if someone has already joined a party whose views are inconsistent with ours, we do not have to take them on. Even the Fabian Society states that one must not be ineligible for membership of the Labour party, which means that one cannot be a Tory, because one cannot be a member of the Labour party if one is a Tory party member. Those sorts of thing seem to be obvious.
It seems perfectly proper that voluntary organisations should be able to exclude people who are not their fellow travellers. My worry is that that might still be too restrictive. We now know that the ECHR has decided that the right to association by the unions will, in all but one situation, lead to that having prominence over the human rights of the individual. The exception to that is laid out in proposed new subsection (4G), to which the Minister referred this morning, in cases where
“the individual would lose his livelihood or suffer other exceptional hardship”.
The loss of livelihood could never occur now because there are no longer such things as closed shops, so I am not sure what the exceptional hardship could be. I cannot think of an example in which exceptional hardship could be imposed on anyone simply because they could not join the club. This morning we heard all sorts of examples of inconvenience, such as not being able to go on holiday in the west country and losing the right to free legal advice, but exceptional hardship seems to be such a test that it is almost inconceivable that simply losing one’s union membership could be so described, and we discussed that earlier.
Furthermore, the other issues set out in the new clauses that the House of Lords suggests are imposed make me worry about the possibility of significant litigation on some issues. An example is the business of the reasonable practicality of knowledge. What is the reasonable practicality of knowing whether the union had brought a policy that the new member did not know about? The test in proposed new subsection (4D) creates a test of reasonable practicality in the knowing of the objectives—it looks like a minefield. A BNP member might well find a fellow traveller who is happy to come along and say that he did not know about the objectives of the union. What will happen? Is the trade union to bring a bus-load of shop stewards and say that everybody should know about it if they turn up to their branch meetings? I just do not know why it is all necessary.
I have not tabled an amendment this afternoon. The Minister has worked really hard to strike the right balance in the Bill, and whatever he does, there will be people who will disagree with him—he has a tough job and I congratulate him on his efforts. As far as I can see, however, the bottom line is that the ECHR has made clear its point that under very rare circumstances only—exceptional hardship, for example—a trade union might be unable to expel someone. Unless he knows of other such circumstances and if all the other provisions are simply window dressing designed to comply with what the House of Lords said, will he reconsider whether the provisions are necessary? Would it not be just as simple to return to the drafting in the original Bill? Might that not serve his purposes well and do what he has been trying to do throughout the Bill, which is to simplify and clarify employment legislation, so that the employee—the union member, in this case—knows precisely what is intended? Perhaps the BNP will not even bother to join unions in which they are not welcome.
John Hemming: Most of my points have been dealt with during the discussion on the amendment. The debate is primarily about freedom of association, voluntary association and people’s right to decide not to associate with certain other people. I would share hon. Members concerns if we tried to legislate on that within statutory organisations.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): On the hon. Lady’s point about trade unions being broad churches, is that not borne out by the fact that the majority of trade union members voted Conservative in 1983, 1987 and, I think, at the last election?
Natascha Engel: I cannot comment on that, because I do not know the facts. Trade union members are members of lots of different political parties, and everybody who calls themselves a democrat should support that. Although I would say that a working person’s rights are much better represented by the Labour party than by any other party, I would still die in a ditch for their right to join any other political party, if that is what they wanted to do. We are overlooking that important fact. Trade unions are very broad churches. The circumstances that we are legislating for are very rare.
Mr. Binley: Having been a trade unionist, I understand the hon. Lady’s point. I was a member the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and worked for the co-operative movement in the bank, as I have said before. However, although the unions are very reasonable at the moment, they have not been in the past—for example, when a specific group took hold of a region or branch and caused havoc. Havoc was caused to members of the Labour party, let alone to members of other parties, whether Conservative or Liberal. Does she recognise that we must write law with that possibility in mind? That is what the debate is about.
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