Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) - Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 65-78)


3 MARCH 2009

  Q65  Vice-Chairman: Welcome. I think you have already heard the previous discussion but obviously we have different questions which reflect your submission. Could you perhaps begin by introducing yourselves for the record.

  Ms Veale: I am Sarah Veale, Head of Equality and Employment Rights at the TUC.

  Ms Thiranagama: I am Narmada Thiranagama, TUC Women's Equality Officer.

  Q66  Mrs Cryer: Thank you for being here. I understand that the member unions of the TUC have taken steps to ensure that they are representative in various ways. Why did you do this and what difference does it make to policy and to the approach that the unions have? Did you have to change the way you carried out your work in order to encourage particular groups or individuals to become more involved? If so, what did you do?

  Ms Veale: Gosh, that is about five questions in one. You might have to prompt us if we do not address all the points that you want us to. It is always quite difficult to tell with the TUC, with trade unions, whether things are coming up from underneath and being responded to or whether they are being thought of up at the top and pushed down. With representation, it has been a mix of the two, and quite a lot of careful management. There has been a long tradition, certainly for women, of being organised in their trade unions and in fact I think the first TUC women's conference was over 70 years ago, so we were doing that quite a long time before some comparable organisations even thought about it. There has been a need to do that because women at work had particular issues that needed to be raised and, thanks to some very strong characters, I think, in some of our unions, they just pushed their way through fairly male-dominated structures and their voices were heard. Because they were massed in some parts of industry, if the women did not want something and the trade union was told the women did not want something, they really were forced to react to it. At the same time as all that was going on underneath, I think unions at the senior officials level were seeing changes in society and realising that, to appeal to an increasingly diverse society, they would have to start doing something to change their image and the way in which they organised themselves. Trade unions that hold all their branch meetings in the evening in a pub are going to alienate people from different backgrounds for all sorts of reasons, and people with responsibilities outside work. So a lot of it has been pushed by necessity but the self-organised groups in the TUC are very strong. There are a number of extraneous factors that pushed us as well. The TUC at head office level took the Stephen Lawrence inquiry extremely seriously. We looked rather painfully at our own unions. We made them look at themselves and say there is this proportion of BME people working in the industries in which we recruit. Are they in the union? Do you know what they are doing? Are they getting into official positions? Are they participating in unions' democratic structures? Often the case was that they were not. Then we get into the second part of your question, which is what the unions did to change, to make themselves accessible, friendly and representative. Again, it is quite a mixed picture. The equality audit that the TUC does under its own rules now every two years, which we circulated to Members, gives a very good illustration, I think, of what unions have done and how far they have come but also of how far some of them have to go. Clearly, it is quite difficult to generalise, because you get a union like USDAW, which is the shop workers' union, which is 90 per cent female, and obviously, it would be ridiculous if that union did not take up as matters of prime concern issues affecting part-time workers, because they have a lot of part-time women in their membership. For other unions, like ASLEF, the train drivers' union, it is an equally pressing issue because they have so few women train drivers and because of what the women train drivers have to go through to get their jobs and then to get anywhere in the union. So it is quite hard to generalise but they have all had to look at their own structures, at their own potential membership, and the industries they organise in. My final point on that, before Narmy might want to come in there, is that also unions are quite quick at reflecting social trends, I think, as well as sometimes leading them. Around 15 years ago some of our members started to say, "Actually, we think our union should take up issues that we feel affect us, as disabled members, and we want our voices to be heard. We don't want you telling us what you're going to do for us as disabled members. We'll tell you what we think you should be doing and you do it." Similarly, with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, where social moves have taken place and people are, not uniformly, but more confident in expressing their sexuality, or at least not being prepared to have offensive comments made on the basis of their supposed sexuality. So again, those movements outside the TUC came in and impacted on us, as it were, because we do not operate in a vacuum; we operate in society; we operate in the workplace, which is a microcosm of society. Those kinds of influences as well. I have to give full credit to Narmy for doing most of the work on this so I should let you speak now.

  Ms Thiranagama: That was very comprehensive. Just to add, one of the things that has influenced the way representation and participation issues have worked their way through the trade union movement is a recognition by under-represented groups that their fate and their experience in the workplace is inextricably linked to all other workers. These have influenced how this work has taken place within the movement historically, not only with other under-represented groups but also with all workers. Additionally, many black workers who came into the trade union movement as immigrants brought a history of trade unionism and organising with them, so it was a natural step for them to get organised in the trade union movement. So we have always had that mixture of external and internal pressures moving the trade union movement on in this work.

  Q67  Mrs Cryer: Do the unions that feed into the Trades Union Congress by and large have reserved places on their various committees or perhaps the National Executive Committee for possibly women, black and Asian people, disabled people, or has that not been needed? If it is needed, are they going to do it?

  Ms Veale: Most of them now do do it. Some do not. You would have to look at our equality audit to get more of a feel for which ones do and which ones do not. I do not want to get us into difficulty by having something on the record that is contradictory to trade union law, which is quite difficult on all this, but unions have managed within quite strict regulation—if you think small businesses are regulated, you should have a look at the trade unions' regulation—they have been quite creative within those parameters, and I think the majority of them would certainly have reserved seats for women, and a rapidly growing number for BME members, fewer for disabled and LGBT members but that is beginning to emerge as well. There are few I can think of, apart from very small ones, which do not have structures that have reserved places and special positive action measures to encourage people from under-represented groups to get to the top of the union. We do at the TUC. The General Council has reserved seats for women, black women, disabled members, LGBT, a young person—which is quite unusual on the TUC General Council—and so on. Yes, I think we are getting there with that.

  Q68  Mr Dhanda: Just to follow up, as someone who worked for a trade union at the time of the Macpherson Report, and the follow-up work the trade unions took on, would you say that there is institutionalised racism within political parties, within the trade unions? Later on we are going to be hearing from Trevor Phillips. It was interesting to hear what he said not so long ago about the nature of the relationship between the Labour Party and trade unions. Do you think that the trade unions have played a role at all in ownership of some constituencies in terms of keeping them white?

  Ms Veale: I do not think it is for the TUC to comment on political parties. We are not a party political organisation and I would not want to go on the record as making criticism, especially as I do not know enough about how different political parties organise themselves. I take your point about the impact of trade unions in the Labour Party in particular, and I hear what you say about trade unions representing particular constituencies within themselves that might unintentionally act as a barrier to greater participation by the groups that are under-represented. I know unions are slowly beginning to look at how they deal with that. Obviously, we have supported all-women shortlists, in as much as we have any particular direct role in that. I know unions who are affiliated to the Labour Party—because some unions affiliate to the Labour Party—have been supportive of that move. Are trade unions institutionally racist? Well, no more or no less than any other institutions. Different trade unions may still do things that unintentionally have the effect of excluding particular groups. They may have cultural aspects to the way in which they organise that does that. There have been huge moves made in unions to address it from the top, and any union felt that it was being accused of that would very quickly want to look into it and find out what it was that was giving that impression to its members or to anybody else. I would not want to put my hand on my heart and say no trade union is institutionally racist; I do not know but I know that huge efforts are being made to ensure that that is not the case.

  Q69  Ms Abbott: On the question of trade unions being institutionally racist, I have worked for a trade union in the past and I have worked with them closely over the years. Is not the problem though that many unions, although they have immaculate policies on equality at the very top, you will find unions where the majority of their membership, certainly in urban areas, is black and minority ethnic but their paid officials and their lay officials are predominantly white and male, and that leads to a dysfunction between stated policies and the practice of the union, particularly when it decides, in relation to unions affiliated to the Labour Party, who they will promote in constituencies where they have a lot of influence?

  Ms Thiranagama: I think if you look at the equality audit and the process by which unions have tried to take this on, and the improvements that are seen in the equality audits as the years go past, there is an acknowledgement by trade unions that there are serious imbalances in terms of representation, and that different unions have put in place different mechanisms by which they set targets and try to resolve this. If you look at the equality audits, the returns that unions are putting in, they actually are not saying, "We are doing really well"; they are saying, "We still have a problem in this area. We still have serious under-representation at national executive level", though, interestingly, in terms of employees and union officials, that is actually one area where we are seeing much greater improvement, much faster improvement, I think for reasons by which unions are able to put into effect more rigorous selection procedures and things that they actually have control over. Some unions, for example, have achieved proportionality in terms of their employees, some have even exceeded proportionality and some are getting very close to it. So in terms of things that they have more direct control over, we are seeing fast improvements and I hope that in equality audits to come we shall be able to measure more progress in some of the more difficult areas of increasing representation from different groups within the trade union movement.

  Q70  Jo Swinson: I know in your submission you say: "the TUC regrets the exclusion of the LGBT people from consideration within the scope of the inquiry." Can you just say what you think the dangers are of the Speaker's Conference focusing solely on the strands of women, BME and disability, and in particular what message that sends out about Parliament?

  Ms Thiranagama: I think that one of the serious issues facing LGBT people is the lack of awareness that they are actually present and exist, and are actually present in many different levels of the political and trade union world. This kind of silence about their existence actually has a serious effect on people being able to represent and say, "We actually take these issues seriously." It is not a matter of shame or silence. It is not inappropriate. It is not a private matter. It actually has a serious effect on public policy and on the lives of LGBT people in this country. So we do regret, for example, the lack of a question in the ONS survey, which means we cannot say we have X amount of LGBT people and they are not being represented. We cannot even measure what the lack of representation is. That was part of the reason why we regretted that and said that in our response.

  Ms Veale: I think if you are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, you live in a relentlessly heterosexual society, and unions as much as anyone else tend to be dominated by that, because statistics would indicate that, and it has been a real battle for LGBT people in the trade union movement and elsewhere to have their voices heard and to fit into a culture that does not really welcome them quite often.

  Q71  Jo Swinson: Following on from that, in paragraph 20 you talk quite a lot about women's caring responsibilities and the invisible barriers and unthinking and exclusionary habits, which applies equally to LGBT. Bearing in mind that, of the 100 plus women MPs that we have, there are actually relatively few with, say, young children, whereas if you look at male MPs, that is quite a different story, do you have any examples of the kinds of problems of the invisible barriers that you have found and how you have managed to tackle them within the TUC?

  Ms Thiranagama: Speaking generally, in terms of the kind of culture that can build up, we said "unthinking" because people are not aware that they exclude other people, sometimes because those people are not present, or they assume that they are not present. For example, in terms of disability, lots of impairment can be invisible, so joking or comments that can be prejudiced or discriminatory can often be said by people who are not aware that there are people around them in that room who may actually get the understanding that they are not welcome, that this is not for them, or that they cannot be open, for example, if they have any impairments or if they are of another sexual orientation. I also think that that kind of atmosphere affects lots of different kinds of people actually. It might be an unwelcoming atmosphere to everyone if certain kinds of banter and jokes make assumptions about who belongs and who does not, and that can go far beyond just belonging to a group; it can say something about the kind of politics you want to do or the kind of work you want to do and whether you fit in there or not.

  Ms Veale: There are also issues to do with caring responsibilities which still tend to impinge much more on women. We provide childcare facilities at our conferences and events and we find it is nearly always women delegates who are making use of them and appear to be taking the lead responsibility for ensuring that those facilities can be provided to allow them to participate. It is reasonable adjustments really, beyond disability, to make sure that there are not barriers there unintentionally that stop particular people from getting together, and having meetings in pubs is an absolute non-runner for some people with particular faith attitudes about alcohol. You cannot assume that everyone is happy to sit in a pub for three hours.

  Q72  Jo Swinson: Just to pin you down a little more, you have given some examples of tangible things in terms of not having meetings in pubs and providing childcare but to tackle some of the cultural issues that you were mentioning, the banter and so on, are there any examples of tangible things you have been able to put in place to address those cultural difficulties, which are perhaps more difficult to deal with?

  Ms Thiranagama: Creating cultural change is much slower and much more difficult and meets great resistance in some ways because things have to change from the very top down and from the bottom up as well. One of the things that the TUC did in terms of the equality audit in response to the Macpherson Report and the Stephen Lawrence Task Group was this model equality clause, which asked trade unions to insert into their constitution the promotion of equality and active opposition to discrimination within the objects of trade unions. Some unions already had those kinds of clauses in their constitutions but it has actually promoted discussion within trade unions. They have passed it at their conferences. Basically, there has to be a discussion in order to put that kind of constitutional change into the work of trade unions. So that happens at the top but also, if you look through the audit, there are increasing numbers of activities such as mainstreaming of equality issues within trade union training courses. So it is not just the equality clauses but actually putting issues for things like equal pay, reasonable adjustment, anti-discrimination, into the mainstream work of trade unions and on to their mainstream bargaining agenda. It is not something on the side but actually, if you want to respond to members, if you want to organise them, you have to respond to these issues. That has become accepted in the trade union movement now, and I think it is that kind of gradual change which will promote a greater awareness of how to be more inclusive of other people.

  Q73  John Bercow: Really, just picking up on something that was said a few moments ago, we have noted what you have said about the LGBT community, and I think it is fair to say that there has been some discussion within the Conference about that matter. You will also be aware, of course, that our terms of reference refer to a number of strands and then to associated matters. Although none of us is today going to say which witnesses might subsequently give oral evidence because that is a matter for the Conference as a whole, if we were, on top of a written submission, to hear oral evidence, with all the opportunities for exploring the issues that that would entail, from Stonewall, would that to some extent mitigate your unease?

  Ms Veale: It would certainly be a major step in the right direction, yes. It does not quite get away from the fact that it was not seen as an underpinning strand in its own right. I am irritated when things are tacked on and given special treatment. It should have been integral to the whole thing, in our view, but it is obviously a step in the right direction, yes.

  Q74  Mr Mahmood: What difference does it make to the way your affiliates perceive the TUC and its member unions?

  Ms Thiranagama: In terms of how the work has changed perceptions of trade unions? I think that, in terms of speaking on individual levels, I often go to equality meetings and conferences and meet ordinary members, and I think within those spaces there is a kind of welcoming of the kind of work that is being attempted. Sometimes when I go to trade union events some of the most enthusiastic, committed, and passionate responses I get are from under-represented groups, and it is not just about their own issues; it is not just about discrimination but actually about the trade union movement and what it can do for them. There is a sense in those spaces that it is something they want to take on and it is not just about someone sitting in an office somewhere enabling them to do this work but actually something they want to do. They know that it is difficult and that they will meet resistance, but that is their experience of day-to-day life at work anyway, so it is not something they think is not going to be an issue for them. So in the sense that the trade union movement is increasingly giving greater space to those members, I think it has actually created a great deal of change in the trade union movement in terms of how it looks to organise and recruit all members, and how it revitalises the trade union movement. In terms of outside perceptions, I think the trade union movement is now 50 per cent women. That is a huge change from the traditional stereotype of who a trade unionist was. The fact is our workforce is changing and our trade union movement has changed. The stereotypes may never have fitted anyway, and I think there is greater awareness of that.

  Q75  Mr Mahmood: Whilst that may be the case and whilst there might be individual members who feel elated at these meetings and gatherings, it goes back to Diane's question, that when you have party officials and lay officials who are predominantly white, and in some instances middle-aged, and not allowing the others to come through, will that still have an effect or not?

  Ms Veale: It does. One of the biggest challenges we have at the TUC is how to do something about our image. The average trade unionist now is a 47-year-old white man. We are a great believer that like attracts like and people will not join something if they think that it is for a completely different, alien species. Unions have started doing some very good pioneering work training up young black women to go out and do organising. The unions pay people to be organisers and to go into workplaces and say, "I can talk to you about the issues that you are interested in. Never mind what you see on the television with respect to our great and glorious leaders. I know, because I'm like you, that that is an issue, this is an issue, you are being harassed, you are not being promoted," whatever it is, and that is beginning to have some resonance but it takes an awful long time, as Narmy says. I do think we are trying at the TUC as well, not always to put up the General Secretary, who, with the greatest of respect, is a white middle-aged man. We try to make efforts to give other people a bit of a chance so the TUC is being seen as represented by someone who does not necessarily look like the sort of person you would expect to represent the TUC, but we are essentially a very democratic organisation so there is a limit to the amount we can push from the top. You have to allow what is happening at the bottom to reflect itself and for union members to go on controlling their unions, which is the essential principle of the trade union movement in the UK. It is quite a subtle and difficult process but we are absolutely determined to do what we can to get it there through our education programmes, through positive action and through training up special organisers from the under-represented groups, and getting them up into senior positions in the unions.

  Ms Thiranagama: And in terms of ordinary work places, most trade union members will have contact with their trade union, many local reps, and that maybe the contact that most trade union members have rather than the General Secretary of the TUC or the General Secretary of their union, and in that sense creating that chain and allowing a greater number of members to be more representative at the crucial place, at the workplace, where most trade unions aim to help their members. I think creating that chain is something the trade unions are definitely working on.

  Q76  Mr Dhanda: I was a bit disappointed with the answer to an earlier question when you said that you did not really feel it was your role to make judgments or have opinions around political parties. If there is one thing that this Conference has got to do it is actually to change the opinions and shape political parties; otherwise I do not think there is much point us actually being here. You talked about your equality audits. It sounds like that has gone really well. Is that something that you would urge political parties to do as well, if so, what difference do you think it could make and, if there was one other piece of advice you could give to political parties, if you were giving advice, what would it be?

  Ms Veale: On the easy one, which is the audits, yes, I would heartily recommend it to any political party, I think it is an essential tool, because you have got to actually be able to see where the problems are and really drill-down into who is doing what, where, what background they are from, how did they get there, what obstacles stand in the way of people from different backgrounds getting in; looking at the softer things, the things that are not specifically part of the structure but the cultural things in a political party and in an organisation. Political parties have their own baggage, just as the TUC does. People, the public, have preconceptions about what the Conservative Party is, what the Labour Party is, often wide of the mark these days, but I think an equality audit is something we would heartily recommend to political parties and any other institution that is serious about making some sort of radical changes or at least making sure, if it is not going to do that, that it has got justification for not doing things to make a difference. The much more difficult question about political parties: hopefully there is some material in our report about that, but, as I said earlier, some unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and I know they do play a very active role in the party.

  Q77  Mr Dhanda: It is not a question about the Labour Party, I am saying political parties full stop.

  Ms Veale: We can make comments, like anyone else can, about political parties. We do not have any particular locus to criticise them, and I am flattered that you think the TUC's views on how political parties should organise is crucial, but everyone else is telling you about it. We have not ever historically looked particularly into how they organise themselves, so in a sense it would be disingenuous for me to start criticising on the basis of an awful lot of ignorance. I might have personal knowledge—

  Q78  Mr Dhanda: I was actually looking for advice that you could provide rather than criticism?

  Ms Veale: Do the audits and introduce programmes of positive action. Political parties obviously have to appeal to the public to win elections and to get on to councils, and so on. So far more needs to be done to reach out to those parts of the community that you are not reflecting, and you are not going to do that properly, any political party, until you have got those people from those communities there speaking to those people about issues that they have told them are important. It is a sort of circular process, but I think that the appearance of a lot of political parties at the moment is simply, frankly, off-putting and alienating for a significant part of the population, so there is huge amount to do, I would say. My own children, for example, who have been very well brought up to be politicised, and so on, I have to say, are not terribly thrilled by any of the political parties. They think they are male, pale and stale, on the whole, all of them, and they do not see them reaching out to engage with them in the sort of areas that they are interested in, whether it is the environment, whether it is information technology, cultural things, whatever. They just find the whole thing uninteresting. They are not angry about it, in a sense they are angry about issues, but they just think these parties are fairly irrelevant really to what their concerns are. They have problems at school. They have problems at university. They will join the National Union of Students when they are at university, they will get politically involved, but whether that itself actually reflects or has proper input from political parties, I do not know. It is a very long time since Mr Bercow and myself were both around in NUS at about the same time. I do hesitate to insult you, but it is a little while ago, is it not? There was a lot of political activity a while ago, but I fear that a lot of that is now disappearing as well. Narmada, you are much younger than me, much more qualified to talk about that than I am.

  Ms Thiranagama: I think that one of the recommendations that the report, the one sort of conclusion of our response was that if a political party was serious about tackling this, to do a kind of audit which basically promoted transparency and had a look at the way the processes worked and see that imbalances were happening, that in itself would enable parties with different cultures and traditions to address them in a way they saw fit, and that is definitely right in the way it has worked for trade unions; it has enabled them to give them a mechanism for measuring where they are. I know that some unions set targets for themselves and they report to the TUC and to their own members even when there is not an audit happening in the years in between, because they want to show that they are serious about it, and I believe the same impetus exists for political parties. I think that was the way the TUC's recommendation was.

  Vice-Chairman: I am sorry, we do have other questions but, if you do not mind, we will address those in writing, as we are over time. Thank you very much for coming along today and thank you very much for your evidence.

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