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Lord Grocott: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that the debate is limited to one hour. I am sure that we will move on as quickly as we can.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I hope that it is in order for me to speak for a couple of minutes in the gap. I do so in the light of the way in which the previous two speeches have gone. I remember the circumstances of the Green Paper issued by the Conservative government in 1996. Indeed, I remember it rather well. At that time, polling was carried out on how people saw the proposals in the Green Paper which were, inter alia, to give the government the right, with proportionality, to take action against strikes in certain industries.

The question was put by a polling organisation in the autumn of 1996:

It became obvious that funding was the overwhelming problem, with workers going on strike polling only 7 per cent of the votes. People were asked:

    "Do you think that the government has brought these proposals forward at this time because there is a growing problem of public sector strikes or because there is an election coming up?".

Fourteen per cent of voters said that it was due to public sector strikes and 79 per cent said that it was because there was an election coming up. Among

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Conservative voters, 26 per cent said that it was because of a growing problem of public sector strikes and 63 per cent said that it was because an election was coming up.

People were then asked:

    "Would these proposals make you more or less likely to vote Conservative at the next election?".

Four per cent said more likely, 20 per cent said less likely and 74 per cent said that it would make no difference. We therefore did not hear much more of those proposals.

Of course we hear the continuous chatter about trade unions and the Labour Party. During the 20th century, from the Osborne judgment onwards, there have been many opportunities to vary the system. It is not a question of trade unions giving money to the Labour Party—they do not do that. Members of trade unions which have political funds and which are affiliated to the Labour Party, and individuals who are not contracted out, are members of the Labour Party. They pay X as their subscription as members of the Labour Party.

In conclusion, I remind the House and the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, in particular—I imagine that he will remember it ruefully—that it was thought that it would be wildly unpopular for unions to carry on having political funds and it was made mandatory that they should ballot on whether they would continue to do so. One hundred per cent of the unions with political funds voted to continue with those funds and 17 additional unions voted to have political funds.

It cannot seriously be said that at this time we do not have a more co-operative trade union movement than we had 20 or 30 years ago, a period to which reference has been made. I believe that most people would accept that the degree of co-operation between the trade union movement and the government has improved. Clearly, there is in the minds of some people confusion about the role of the Government as the employer and their role as a government—

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. With the greatest respect, I should make the point that I am not criticising the trade unions. Because the leaders of two political parties, including the noble Lord's own, think that something should be done, I ask only that something should be done. I am not here either to criticise the trade unions or to suppose that the Green Paper proposals are the answer. I have done neither.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I shall say a few words in the final seconds of my intervention. What is happening at the moment in the debate about the public services is that understandings and negotiations are properly being carried out and concluded between the Government and the unions in the public services concerning the protection of the rights of the workers at the point at which they are transferred from the public service to the private sector, or on the introduction of PFIs and so forth. That is what in the main is happening at present.

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8.11 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, this debate has attracted attention as it has gone along. It is as though the noble Lords, Lord Lea of Crondall and Lord Tebbit, were passing an open bar door and said, "Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?". The debate has been the richer for seeing both noble Lords back in the saddle.

I shall try to get us back on tack because we are all eager to listen to the Minister's response to the interesting Question put before the House tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. The noble Lord said in his intervention that he is not attacking the trade unions. I do not wish to tempt a second intervention, but to a certain extent in his presentation, I thought that he almost suggested that the trade unions should not have a campaigning agenda. I see nothing wrong with the trade unions attempting to influence the government of the day through adverts, rallies and so forth. A few years ago I believe that it was Mr Stephen Byers who raised the question whether the direct link between the Labour Party and the trade unions was wholly healthy. As the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, with his usual pugnacity and effectiveness, demonstrated, it remains something that seems strange.

This is a timely debate and one that will focus Parliament and the country much more than perhaps has been the case tonight. There is a feeling that we are entering a rougher industrial relations climate. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, pointed out, rumblings of discontent can be heard throughout the public sector: teachers, the police, railway and Tube staff, health service workers, university teachers and postal workers. Almost every sector mentioned in the Bill introduced a couple of days ago by the noble Lord is expressing some kind of discontent.

Of course, even using the word "discontent" takes me back to an era with which I am very familiar. I worked in Downing Street as a political adviser to the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, during the winter of discontent in 1978-79. At that time, the labour movement, both political and trade union, got itself into a most unholy mess. I shall leave it to the judgment of history how we got into that mess, but it is worth recalling some of the clear lessons that came out of it.

First, it cannot be doubted that it is within the power of organised labour to summon the capability to inflict damage, disruption and discomfort on its fellow citizens. If we needed a recent reminder, then the disputes on the railways and the Tube demonstrated that it is possible for industrial action to hurt people who have no relationship whatever with the core dispute. The recent strikes by teachers did not hurt the education authorities. Those affected were working mums who had to make different provision for their children. As I have said, it is the hard-pressed commuter who suffers the pressure in the sandwich of the struggle between the unions and the employers. It was reported in today's Guardian that the Fire Brigades Union is to pull out of a no-strike agreement. Again, that is action which recalls the disputes of almost a quarter of a century ago.

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So the lessons of yesterday and today are clear: industrial action by the public sector can and does hit the wider public. But there are other lessons from the past which those who preach the new militancy should put into the equation. The militancy of 1978-79 did not bring about a breakthrough in the pay, status or job security of the workers involved. On the contrary, it produced a government which brought about a major reduction in trade union power—a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—oversaw an increase in unemployment from under 1 million to over 3 million and carried out a massive transfer of employment from the public sector to the private sector. A capacity to hurt does not inevitably lead to an ability to win.

We are told that the new breed of union leaders have risen to the top seeking a pattern of more confrontational industrial relations, particularly in the public services. All one can say in response to such militancy is that the lesson of 1979 is very simple. The public at large are fairly slow to anger and often sympathetic to individual union grievances. But if they see themselves being used as a political football by public service unions, if they see pain and discomfort being used as a weapon in industrial disputes in which they have no part, they will demand action and protection from the government of the day. If the government of the day cannot or will not provide such protection, then the public will replace the government of the day with one willing and able to do so.

I say that as a simple lesson of history which I hope that Tube workers, teachers and others do not have to learn the hard way. That does not mean that the Government should be passive in the face of a changing mood in the public services. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, that an holistic approach is needed. It may be that yesterday's Budget proved to be a genuine crossing of the Rubicon in terms of the Government's attitude to public service workers.

Earlier this week, in response to a question from myself, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, gave an assurance that the Government do not work on the basis of public sector bad, private sector good. I am not sure that that has always been made as clear over the past five years. Public servants need to be valued, not only in terms of pay, but also in terms of esteem, in their training and in the career prospects built into their chosen professions. For example, in a recent edition of the Public Service Magazine, an article stated that,

    "the NHS needs to prepare people for leadership roles. Here is where we will build and nurture talent. It may take a bit longer, but over time it will provide the NHS with sustainable solutions".

Quite so.

Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, pointed out that if the Post Office had been given the commercial freedom promised in the last Labour manifesto, and if it were properly funded and free of political interference, it would be safe to assume that it would be able to deliver its objectives. Almost every teacher will say that they need the freedom to escape an over-centralised bureaucracy that puts a mountain of form-filling between them and the children they want to teach.

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Two years ago, I served on a Select Committee of this House chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn of Hadley. We looked at the impact of the changes made in the 1980s and 1990s on the public service and public servants. We were amazed but encouraged to find that the commitment and dedication of our public servants, in all sectors, was still in place.

All three of my children go to state schools. For 51 weeks of the year I stand in awe of the dedication of our teachers. The one week of exception is when the National Union of Teachers comes together for its annual conference.

But the public service ethos is still there and needs to be encouraged by the Government as part of the holistic approach that I advocate. We have to restore quality and commitment to our public services. Of course they have to meet tests of efficiency, cost effectiveness and quality of delivery but they have to be convinced that they are not second class or second best services. That is the Government's side of the equation. I have tried to think of a phrase for it. I came up with the idea of a "social contract", but perhaps the Government would not want to go back to that.

There is a quid pro quo between demanding commitment and loyalty from public servants and being able to rely on them not to inflict damage on the wider community. Sometimes we must wonder what a profession such as nursing, which shows tremendous commitment, learns from the fact that its members are left on the pay ladder at a position where they cannot even afford social housing. So there is more to this matter than simply further legislation. It is a matter of providing the resources, training and a career structure to win the confidence of our public servants.

Nevertheless, within that context, one would hope that they will resist the siren voices for the short-term fix of a return to industrial militancy. There have been legitimate frustrations in our public services over the past few years that need to be addressed. Regardless of what the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said—although his experience is valid in this regard—there is a case for exploring whether compulsory and binding arbitration, certainly in some industries, is the best way forward.

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