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House of Lords

Thursday, 26th October 1995.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by The Lord Bishop of Birmingham.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Trade Unions: Strike Ballots

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied that trade unions are honouring their statutory obligations for secret ballots before strikes are called and whether they propose to take any steps to ensure that the results of ballots are publicised more widely.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie): My Lords, we are satisfied that trade unions are in the main meeting their statutory obligations and that current legislation provides for adequate publicity of ballot results.

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that Answer. Is he aware that only 45 per cent. of those eligible voted in the ballot on the future of the London tubes and that only 30 per cent. voted for the strike? That is not large enough to bring the whole of London to a standstill by a strike. It is highly desirable that the matter should be settled and I see from the mid-day newspaper that talks are continuing. It is important that we should have a system which will avoid the kind of strikes that we had in 1979. The figures were most remarkable; 512 working days were lost between 1975 and 1979 per 1,000 days and in 1990 to 1994 only 37 days per 1,000 were lost.

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Orr-Ewing: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that, out of 1,000 days, 512 days were lost through strikes? Now the figure is only 37 days, which is an enormous improvement; but we can still do better.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, my noble friend is correct in saying that as regards the recent strike ballot within the RMT only 45 per cent. of those eligible to vote did so. Two-thirds were in favour of a strike, which is 30 per cent. of those eligible to vote. It would be undesirable for me to say much more about that action because today's press indicates that talks are going on at the moment. I believe that the whole House will want those talks to be successful. My noble friend was right in saying that it would be a tragedy if, with only one-third of the members voting in favour of the strike, millions of Londoners were unable to get to work.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is the Minister aware that he is wise to say little about the matter because most Ministers opposite will be wanting a job on the London Underground after the next general election?

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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am sure that whatever the outcome of the general election the noble Lord will wish to share with me and my noble friend an appreciation of the fact that since 1979 there has been a 93 per cent. reduction in the number of strike days. That is why we are one of the most attractive countries in Europe for inward investment and whatever may be the outcome of the next election plenty of us have plenty of job prospects.

Lord Renton: My Lords, would it not be a wise precaution in the public interest for the Government to remind trade union leaders that if a secret ballot is not held as required by Act of Parliament and supported by the necessary number of members of the trade union the strike is illegal? That fact appears to be overlooked on some occasions. May I suggest that the Minister takes such a step?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, recent history has indicated that on the occasions on which trade unions have not observed the law employers have not been slow to take them to court. The outcome has not always been entirely favourable to the trade unions. It is important that trade unions should observe the draft guidance that we are proposing; that is, if they have held a ballot they should make as clear as possible to as wide a public as possible the exact details of the vote.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, would it not help if many employers took the same attitude as a minority of employers who work hard together with the unions? They wish to avoid strikes and therefore lean over backwards to meet the unions' points of view. The result has been that employers, colleagues and union members have not had to take any other action because they are satisfied that reasonable endeavours have been made to understand the views of the trade union movement.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, certainly we do not wish to return to the dreadful days of pre-1979 when so much time and effort was expended on strike action. I believe that that is clear to any objective observer. The fact that we are now the focus of more than half of the United States investment in Europe and the premier location for Japanese investment is because of the dramatic reduction in the number of working days lost and we have a strike rate that has been below the European Union average for nine years. That is why companies such as Siemens, Samsung, Gold Star, and many others, have made the United Kingdom the focus for their investment.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the major elements in the reduction in the number of disputes is that in recent years we have had a very high unemployment rate and that in such circumstances it is usual for the number of disputes to be reduced? Furthermore, is the Minister aware that his own legislation provides for a commissioner for the rights of trade union members and if there had been complaints that the law was not being complied with complaints would have been made to that commissioner? Can he say whether there have been any

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complaints and if, as I suspect, there have been very few is it not about time that we looked at the budget allocated to that particular public office?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, a number of factors have contributed to the dramatically improved economic performance but undoubtedly the reduction in the number of strikes has been one of them. The number is the lowest since records began 100 years ago and I cannot believe that the noble Baroness would wish to see the progress that we have made in that direction anything other than sustained. As regards the second part of the noble Baroness's question, of course, remedies are open to those who believe that the action taken is unlawful. As I indicated, the ultimate resort which is open to individual members, trade unions and employers is to the courts.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, will the Minister instruct his noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing on the nature of democracy and its operation? Is it not a fact that it is important, first, that all those who can take the decision should have the opportunity to vote and that those who trouble to vote should decide the issue by majority, no matter what the percentage of those voting may be? Will the Minister confirm that according to the noble Lord's submission this Government would not be governing because at the general election just over 30 per cent. of the total electorate went into the ballot box to put them in power?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, that is much more than the RMT got in its recent ballot. I understood my noble friend's objection to be that the headline over the strike ballot was that two out of three were in favour of strike action. If the public are to understand what is happening and be fully appreciative of the strength of concern among the workers it should be revealed that only 45 per cent. of those eligible to vote did so. That means that only one in three of the total workforce favoured strike action.

UK Human Rights: UN Report

3.10 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have taken any action in consequence of the suggestions and recommendations of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in response to their fourth periodic report pursuant to Article 40 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the Government have noted the observations of the Human Rights Committee following its oral examination of the United Kingdom delegation on our fourth periodic report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We do not plan any specific changes in our arrangements for the protection of human rights in the United Kingdom in light of the committee's views.

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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, does that Answer mean that the Government have no proposals for action other than telling the committee that it is wrong in every respect? In particular, do they see the need for any action on the right to silence; the provision of legal representation for asylum seekers; drawing the attention of private prison contractors to the standard minimum rules; and assessing the continuing need in Northern Ireland for the Prevention of Terrorism Act? Do the Government not consider it possible that they may be wrong or do they take the view that it is the committee which is out of step with them?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Government explained very carefully their position on all those issues during the oral hearing. The Government regret that the committee does not appear to have taken into account our long-standing cultural traditions and other particular circumstances which determine the way in which human rights are protected in this country nor the fact that the protection provided in the United Kingdom in relation to human rights is among the best in the world.


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