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The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, is the Minister implying that, if the Government were to accept the amendment, it would inhibit progress on international legislation? That leads me on to ask whether, if there were no such international legislation, the Government would accept the amendment.
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, I thought that I had answered them. If there are any specific points, I shall be happy to answer them. Perhaps the noble Lord will write to me, and I shall write back to him.
The Minister drew attention to the importance of international co-operation. I agree with that, but it does not prevent the UK Government from taking action in advance, as they have already done, and leading the way.
The Minister told us that the Government had the power to introduce controls. Indeed they do. What worries us is the dummy legislation and the proposed controls, which provide that any arms dealer who manages to get outside the country to conduct his or her activities will be behaving legally. I am unpersuaded by the Minister's response, but I will have the opportunity to consider what he said and, perhaps, propose the amendment again at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question raises the general case as to whether any action should be taken and, if so, what action? Should it take place before or after the general election? It is an essentially political decision that is worthy of your Lordships' attention. As I have no other opportunity in this dinner-hour debate, I want to thank the distinguished noble Lords from all parties who have attended this exploratory debate. We will discuss the matter, but we will not divide, and we may change some of our opinions.
Should an effective framework of law be introduced to contain disproportionate disruption of our public services by collective industrial action carried out at the behest of trade unions? That would be the last putative step to be taken in the step-by-step approach adopted by my noble friend Lady Thatcher. It was never takenrightly, if I may say so in the presence of my noble friend Lord Tebbit. Some 20 years ago, when my noble friend was Secretary of State, it was his opinion that there was no need to take it. I agree that that was right at the time. However, the situation today more or less demands consideration of the question whether the symbiotic relationship between the trade unions and a Labour Government should continue to erode the entitlement of any government to govern under due parliamentary process. Should some framework of law be introduced to meet the concerns of the vast majority of Her Majesty's subjects, many of whom no longer bother to vote?
The Public Services (Disruption) Bill was given its First Reading last Tuesday. It is a tentative proposal for a resolution of the issue. I make it plain that the purpose of this debate is not to pre-empt critical examination of that Bill on its passage through your Lordships' House. We are concerned with the essence of the question, which is whether there is a general case for the introduction of a new framework of law, in whatever form your Lordships may think fit. That is the scope of the debate; it is not limited to my Bill.
The proposals set out in the Green PaperCommand Paper 3470in November 1996, when there was disruption to the Royal Mail and the London Underground, were strongly opposed by Labour. The way in which they were opposed is irrelevant: the fact is that they were. On 3rd July, after a change of government, when there was disruption againthis time to British Airways and Connexthe noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said at the Dispatch Box:
The scenario today is that we have to suffer disruption of our public services, and the continuing threat of such disruption, at the behest of trade unions that oppose government policy on public services reforms. For example, the General Secretary of the General and Municipal Workersthe GMBthreatened to withdraw union support for Labour council candidates due to the proposed private finance initiative in hospitals.
There has also been the threat of strike action over proposed job cuts at Consignia. Reports have suggested that militant elements within the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workersthe RMTare attempting to use industrial action to force re-nationalisation of the rail system. The TUC conference, individual union conferences, and the Labour Party conferences put across their opposition and reservations over public services reforms. The GMB, UNISON and TUC websites set out how and why the unions are opposing reform of the public services if it involves the introduction of private services.
I turn to figures for 1994-2000 from the Office for National Statisticspapers that are in the Library of the Housewhich were taken on a different basis. It is difficult to assimilate both; indeed, one can draw only a broad picture. According to those figures, on a total of 1,303,000 lost days in 1996, 874,000 were attributed to transport, storage and communications; 158,000 days were lost in public administration and defence; 120,000 were lost in education; and 8,000 were lost in the health and social work fields.
The figures regarding days lost for the year 2000 show that, from a total of 499,000, 97,000again, the lion's sharerelated to transport, storage and communications; 50,000 days were lost in public administration; 50,000 also in the education field; and, in the health and social work sector, 122,000 days were lost compared with 8,000 in 1996. In my Question for Written Answer tabled on 10th of this month, the percentage is sought for transport, post services and telecommunications, which are the main ingredients of disruption. I make no complaint that such figures have not yet been provided.
However, using a broad brush, is it not wholly apparent to your Lordships that this presentation affords cogent support for the general case that some steps must be taken to contain disruption in the public services? It is right also in this context to acknowledge again, as I have acknowledged previously, that both right honourable gentlementhe Prime Minister and the Leader of my partyagree that something must be done.
In conclusion, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that, on last St Valentine's Day, The Times leader told its readers that cuckoos had now returned to the crows nests of the trade unions whose members are employed in the public services: and said that something must now be done to contain disruptionthe subject matter of this Question. My Lords, what shall now be done?
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for intervening at this point. Although I put down my name to speak in this debateas I thought, through the usual channelsit does not appear on the speakers' list. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for giving way.
It seemed to me thenand that is still the case nowthat to deny a worker the right to withdraw his labour simply because he is employed by, say, a water company, as opposed to a retailer, would have to be balanced by some quid pro quo, such as binding arbitration in the case of trade disputes. That I did not welcome.
Furthermore, I shuddered at the task of legislating to define an essential service. It would probably be even more complex today. And some public services are not essentialat any rate, not in the short term. For example, about 20 years ago I guessed that Royal Mail would have been seen as essential and that telecoms probably would not. I believe that today we would take precisely the opposite point of view. Would railways now be regarded as essential? Our recent experience has been such as to persuade us that railways are not essentialwe have been managing almost without them for some time. Moreover, are they a public service or are they an essential service? What about the employees of subcontractors to water or power companies or the railways? The questions appear to me to be endless and the ethics dubious of legislating in that area.
My argument was that if I got my legislation right, it would work in the essential and the public services just as well as in the non-essential services. And so it did. Across the board, the insane industrial disruption which had tipped both the Callaghan and Heath governments out of office subsided and this kingdom became a paragon of good industrial relations.
However, my noble friend Lord Campbell is right to express concern at the deterioration in industrial relations in what are not so much the essential services as the quasi-public sector and the public sector and the regulated sectors. What is more, the contagion which we see in those sectors is likely to spread to the mainstream private sector in a mirror image of what happened in the spread of peaceful industrial relations in the 1980s.
However, if I was right 20 years agoand events would suggest that I waswhat has changed now to bring about the deteriorating tendency in the past few years to which my noble friend Lord Campbell referred? Certainly public sector unions are today in an ugly mood. They have been paying their subscriptions to the Labour Party, just like the Hindujas, Mr Mittal, Mr Ecclestone and the chap who is the proprietor of some firm which makes vaccines against smallpox. They expected the same kind of favours that all those
However, that cannot be the whole story. Union leaders were, after all, far from gruntled when I was Secretary of State, but despite that industrial relations improved. The fact is that although my legislation has not been repealed or openly amended, and nor has that of my successors, it has all been severely undermined by human rights legislation and employment protection legislation conceived in Brussels. Although it has not been tested in the courts, there is a consensus among lawyers in the field that the provisions I madefor example, to allow those breaking their contracts of employment by striking to be dismissed and for an employer then to recruit new labour or selectively to re-employ strikerswould now fall foul of European law.
My conclusion, therefore, is that we do not need to enact any new provisions. If we want to restore the good relations of the 1980s and 1990s, two things are necessary: first, that new Labour should not revert to old Labour by doing favours to its trades union financiers; secondly, that human rights legislation and the employment protection legislation of recent years, which has undermined the legislation of the 1980s that made Britain a country of excellent labour relations, should now be repealed. In my view, it is far better that we should deal with the causes of the problem of the deteriorating industrial relations in the public sector and in the essential services than that we should now legislate any complex laws to make fish and fowl of workers according to the nature of their work.
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