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Anne Picking (East Lothian): Thank you, Mr. Cook, for the opportunity to begin this Adjournment debate on the relationship between the Government and trade unions. I have been a Member of this place for a little more than a year, Mr. Cook
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. I would be remiss in my duties were I not to remind hon. Members that the House, in its wisdom or otherwise, decided when establishing the parallel Chamber that the four senior members of the Chairmen's Panel would be addressed as Mr. Deputy Speaker when they occupied the Chair.
Anne Picking : Forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not know that because I have been in this place for only a little more than a year and this is my first Adjournment debate. Whoever advised me on the issue will feel my wrath later.
My securing the debate is poetic justice, because I would not be here to represent the good people of East Lothian were it not for the trade union movement. I come from a solid, committed and staunch trade union background. My family is steeped in the history of the principles of trade unionism, and I come from the dynasty of Moffats who founded the Scottish National Union of Mineworkers. Before I started work, my dad's advice was to join the union. The importance of those words strikes me only now. Then, I simply did as I was toldpeople did what their dads told themwithout realising the significance of the advice.
My dad knew, but I did not, that if I joined a union I would have protection, a safety net, pals, workmates and, most importantly, support. When someone becomes a worker, with no knowledge of the real world, they enter a new situation in life and become part of a new regime. They look for a friendly face and want to be part of something. They want to belong, so they join a club called a trade union. Then they learn about a collective voice and how it can influence change. All I want is a commitment from the Government to utilise the sheer effectiveness of that powerful and positive part of today's work force.
I dissociate myself from elements in the trade union movement, and the Labour movement as a whole, who choose to play games, refuse to move on and want to relinquish meaningful dialogue with the Government. However, I expect the Government to uphold the values of the trade union movement, the spirit in which it was formed and the fundamental role that it has achieved to influence society and government.
This place is the heartland of democracy, and it is bulging at the seams with the likes of lawyers and members of the intelligentsia. There is a place for such people here but, equally and arguably even more so, there should be a place for trade unionists such as me who have lived in the harsh front line. I was a nurse and I had to make decisions that affected people's lives. I have worked in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, the majority of those years during the Thatcher reign. I use that word because she reigned supreme, with contempt and no regard for the workers and their representatives, the trade unions.
I joined the Confederation of Health Service Employees as opposed to other unions because it represented all health workers, not only the supposed elitethe clinicians. All the workers were equally important in my union. I could not do my job effectively as a nurse if the wards were dirty or the patients were not fed, and the team element is crucial. We had to work collectively to succeed, and we did so during the dark days of Thatcher, who tried systematically to dismantle and destroy our movement.
It was divide and conquer, and Thatcher picked a few of us off, but she could never shut down the movement. The miners and steelworkers are almost gone, but their legacy remains intact. The workers still have rights, and employers and Governments must respect that. They should nurture and value the work force, who are their greatest commodity. It should not matter whether someone is a high flier with degrees and qualifications that they could paper the wall with; all members of working teams should be valued equally. It is unthinkable that workers under this Government should be treated differently or unfairly because of the job they do, and any two-tier work force scenario is unacceptable.
I applaud the concept of people being paid the right rate for the job, and it is just that they have the right to be rewarded for specialist knowledge, ability and skills. When workers' rights are determined by the job that they do, however, those responsible are guilty of gross discrimination. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will lay my concerns to rest in the interests of working together, true partnership and healthy relationships.
The trade union movement is at the core of this Government, and it founded the Labour party. As a member and past president of Unison, I ask the Government for fairness, not favours, and for an open door, and that they do not simply forget where they came from.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debate. This is a fortuitous time to discuss the partnership between Governments and trade unions, and I hope that few hon. Members think that there is no place for decent representation of the work force or for trade unions that look after their workers without becoming politically motivated. Similarly, I hope that we value everyone in the workplace. Whatever job they dohowever menial or high-poweredeveryone in society has a role, and I think that I speak for every member of my party when I say that.
I want to focus on the links between the Deputy Prime Minister and the RMT, which go back 47 yearsalmost half the life of the Labour party. Sadly, he resigned from the RMT last week because he was furious that it had attempted to dictate how MPs voted. It is reasonable, however, to ask how long it has been attempting to do that.
Jimmy Knapp, now sadly deceased, was head of the RMT for 15 years, and was very vocal in leading strikes on the railways in the 1980s. He was also very politically motivated against the Thatcher Government. He once wrote to meI do not know why, because I was not even a member of the Conservative party at the timethat it was important to have guards on trains. That was a union issue, and there are good reasons for having guards on trains. I had travelled to Kent the previous day, and the guard spent the entire journey with his feet up, reading the Beano. When I asked for his help, he looked at me as if I was mad, and went back to reading the Beano. Leaving that to one side, however[Interruption.] Labour Members' mutterings perhaps reflect their sympathies for the people with their feet up reading the Beano, which I have not read for many years.
I return to the close relationship between the Government and the RMT. In 1970, the Deputy Prime Minister moved into his flat at Clapham common. Naturally, the union wanted to support its sponsored Members and gave them subsidised accommodation in what is now Maritime houseit was then National Union of Seaman house.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the relationship between the RMT and the Deputy Prime Minister and the question of who receives money and who does not has come to light only because of legislation introduced by this Government? Tory Governments never introduced legislation to bring transparency and show who influenced the Tory party.
Mr. Robathan : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises that point about legislation, because he is factually incorrect. The requirement for declarations under the Register of Members' Interests goes back long before 1997. That is one of the points that I wish to discuss.
On the subject of legislation, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear that newspaper reports say that the Deputy Prime Minister stands to benefit by some £15,000 under the Rent Acts (Maximum Fair Rent) Order 1999. That is not bad for a relationship between the Deputy Prime Minister and the union that is supposed to have ended.
In 1974, the Deputy Prime Minister moved from the flat that he took in 1970. He has a controlled tenancy that costs £220 a month. He does not use that flat, but he retains it. I wonder sometimes, when Labour Members go on about homelessness, whether they think that someone who has grace and favour homes in Admiralty arch and in Dorneywood in Buckinghamshire
Mr. Deputy Speaker : That practice is the normal courtesy, but there is no rule in Standing Orders or in "Erskine May" requiring a Member so to do. It would be most unusual for reference to be made without prior notice being given, but it is not necessary for the Member to be present to hear that reference.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your ruling is informative, but may we ascertain from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) whether he took that step, which you describe as not obligatory, but usually followed as a matter of courtesy?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I must inform the House that it is not up to the Speaker or Deputy Speaker to tell Members what to say. However, I am sure that note has been taken of hon. Members' comments and that, if they are patient, they will hear something to that effect.
Mr. Robathan : I am happy to answer. On many occasions, I have let the Deputy Prime Minister know that I am raising the issue, but he has not attended when I have done so. When I met him in a corridor recently and said, "Good morning, John," his only response was to say, "You" I shall not say exactly what he said, because he was not particularly polite. In fact, I do not think that he is particularly interested in the fact that I have raised the issue. It is in the public domain, however, and it was in yesterday's newspapersand, I suspect, today's. The person involved is not a menial Back Bencher, but the Deputy Prime Minister. The issue is one of national interest.
Mr. Robathan : I do not have to answer that question, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that I have not done that. It is interesting that Labour Members are so sensitive to the issue. Perhaps they, too, feel extraordinary guilt
Mr. Robathan : Sit down. Perhaps Labour Members feel guilty that, while they rabbit on about homelessness, one among their number earns more than £100,000 a year, has two grace-and-favour residences and his own house in Hull, but still sees fit to accept a controlled tenancy from a trade union worth £15,000 a year.
John Robertson : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his contribution, which, so far, has lasted eight minutes, is a personal attack on the Deputy Prime Minister and has nothing to do with trade unions?
Mr. Robathan : The Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and others have resigned from the RMT because, they say, they were put under pressure to abide by rules dictated by Mr. Crow, the new leader of that union. What did Mr. Crow expect, when he asked them to pledge support on four issues: renationalising the railways, repeal of anti-union laws, scrapping of the part-privatisation of the London underground and actions to halt job losses in the shipping industry? He said that he would support 14 left wingers who pledged support for the RMT's manifesto, although I do not know whether any are present. Perhaps the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is one.
John McDonnell : If the hon. Gentleman is about to distort the process of the RMT's discussions with the Labour party and Labour MPs, I am happy to intervene and explain what went on. That might take a few minutes, if you are happy for me to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The relationship is not one in which any Member of Parliament has been browbeaten, threatened or bribed in any way. I also suggest that, as a matter of courtesy, the hon. Gentleman should have informed the RMT members who are part of that group that he wanted to raise the matter, so that they could be present and respond.
Mr. Robathan : I would have spent the past week writing to members of the Labour party. That is an absurd comment, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman telling us in his speech whether he has received RMT sponsorship.
In responding to interventions, I have made all my points except to say that it is extraordinary and bizarre that, under this particular Government, with their partnership with trade unions, a man who is paid well over £100,000 a year is able to accept such a benefit and that the Labour movement is not appalled by such behaviour.
I draw the analogy with the Conservative Government allowing people to buy council houses. What would have been the response if the Minister involved lived in a council house and was able to buy it at a knockdown price? Yet, the Rent Acts (Maximum Fair Rent) Order 1999, introduced by the Deputy Prime Minister, has allowed him to benefit from the controlled tenancy of his flat to the tune of some £15,000 per year. One or two Labour Members look a little wry. Perhaps
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I have no wish to restrict the tone or the extent of the debate, so long as comments are kept within its title. However, a number of hon. Members have written in about catching my eye. Time is limited. It is now 19 minutes after 11 o'clock and we normally allow the three Front Benchers 30 minutes before we conclude. I ask all hon. Members to restrict their comments and make them pertinent, and to resist the urge to allow meaningless interventions, although, as they will not know that an intervention is meaningless until they hear it, they should resist taking any.
Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): I welcome this Adjournment debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) for introducing it. I want to focus on partnership working in the United Kingdom in the private and public sectors; it is more relevant to employees than the partnership between the leaders of the Labour party and of the trade unions. People are interested in what partnership means to them in their place of work and they want to know how effective it can be.
Partnership has brought positive achievements in industrial relations: it has been very successful in such a short time, its strength lies in the fact that it embraces employers and employees, it has mutuality at its centre, it relies on trust and it is embraced by employers' organisations as well as the Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Wales Trades Union Congress, so it has the broad support of trade unions and industry.
The objective of partnership working is to improve industrial relations, and we would all welcome that, irrespective of where it happened. Partnership is about trying to develop a workplace culture; it is about learning and about facing issues jointly rather than trade unions and employers working against each other. I compliment the Department for Trade and Industry on its efforts to encourage employers and trade unions to work together on the many issues faced by British workers in the private and public sectors. People want to discuss the issues that affect themthe balance between work and life, flexible working, hours of work, pay, and everything else that would normally be on the agenda for discussion between trade unions and employers. They welcome the fact that the Department of Trade and Industry is prepared to fund employer and trade union efforts to confront such issues.
Partnership working is a step change from the industrial relationships of the 1980s and 1990s, and it has allowed us to move away from the struggle and mayhem that characterised industrial relations in the 1980s. I welcome that change.
Mr. Lyons : I welcome that decision, and I welcome the fact that trade unions can challenge such infringements throughout the UK, and not only legally. Yesterday, in a debate in this Chamber, we heard about workers being forced against their religious or individual beliefs to work on Sundays. It is important that we counter that in parallel, both in legal terms and in the workplace.
I am interested in partnership working because it moves on from the jargon of human resource management and the agenda of the 1980s and 1990s. It secures mutuality between trade unions and employerseach should recognise the other, which is the key to partnership working. The evidence so far confirms that major benefits will be available in the private and public sectors for those who use partnership working. It can be used in the private sector, and a range of public sector employers are involved, such as local government, the health service and even the voluntary sector. That is to be encouraged.
I would never come to such a debate claiming that partnership working faces no problems. The opposite is true. A new system of industrial relations will of course have problems, but it should not be rejected because of them. The problems should be examined and investigated to clarify how systems can be improved.
A survey on partnership working in the health service was conducted in the Greater Glasgow area at a hospital in a constituency neighbouring my own. A lot of my constituents work there and it is probably typical of large acute hospitals in major UK towns and cities. The survey found several positive features: it confirmed that staff enjoy working in the health service, that they like the work that they do and that they enjoy the atmosphere of the hospital. It also confirmed that they are happy, overall, with communication, which is the key to partnership working.
We must not fall into the trap of working from the top down and saying to people, "That's your instruction, now get on with it." Managers must listen to employeesthere needs to be a reverse system through which information can flow from the bottom to the top, so that managers can be told where things go right and where they go wrong. It is good that that has been highlighted and that there is a focus on it.
Staff referred to partnership working, as they do not just want memos every other day about what the employer would like to happen. They want face to face meetings with managers so that there can be a two-way process and genuine dialogue between employees and employers and between trade unions and employers. Through such dialogue, managers can listen to the views of those who are to some extent the expertsthe people who deliver the service or the product. That must be taken on board.
The health service is in good fettle, because partnership working is increasing every day, every week and every month and there is a secure work force situation. However, the survey points not just to successes, but to difficulties. Staff are critical, saying that there is not enough training and development in most hospitals, and that training and development seem to revolve around people's expertise and knowledge of a particular job. The survey confirms that people want a much broader approach to education in the work force. They believe that lifelong learning should be not just jargon for managers, but realistic for everyone in the health service.
Partnership working is being employed across the UK in every part of the health service and of local government and in major parts of the private sector. People want greater awareness of it. There is no point establishing forums in either the public or the private sector and expecting people to sign up to them. People have an expectation, which they want confirmed by their employer, that partnership is essentially about listening and mutuality between employer and employee.
Under partnership working, nothing is imposedthere is discussion and agreement. People will feel much safer in that situation. The fact that the TUC, the STUC and the WTUC have signed up to partnership working is its greatest strength, and I shall continue to support it. The DTI should come to the House and brief Members about partnership working so that they can tell their constituents how important and valuable it is.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : At the risk of displaying my anxiety, I remind the House that there are only 32 minutes left before I must move to the Front-Bench winding-up speeches. Hon. Members should bear that in mind in determining the length of their contributions and the number of interventions that they permit.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will try to be brief. I begin by declaring an interest, as a former member of the National and Local Government Officers Association, the National Union of Public Employees and Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon CymruI must make that clear for Hansard. My family has a tradition of union membership. My grandfather was a shop steward at the quarry of Chwarel Carreg y Llam, and, in the way that we do such things in Wales, he was known not by his proper name of John Williams, but as John yr UndebJohn the Union. I take particular pride in that.
During this and other debates, we shall hear hon. Members sitting to my right say that new Labour is in hock to the unions. May I leap to new Labour's defence and make it completely clear that new Labour is in no way the unions' special friend? That was confirmed by no lesser a personage than the Chancellor, when he spoke about vested interests on the Today programme on 26 June. He said that he would take on
I find it odd that the Chancellor groups unions with other restrictive practices, but I am sure that he can explain himself. I hope that those few points have put an end to the reprehensible accusation that new Labour is the friend of the unions, and I now turn to more serious matters.
To illustrate my argument, I shall refer briefly to new Labour's Employment Relations Act 1999 and its operation in respect of an industrial dispute at Friction Dynamex in my constituency. I understand that this is the first time that new and welcome provisions in the Act relating to the protection of employees in a legitimate dispute have been put to a practical test. I say "welcome", and that is entirely the case in general, but the particular issue here, which the sacked workers have had to face, is the rule in the 1999 Act that allows an employer to sack workers in dispute after eight weeksthe so-called eight-week rule.
I do not intend to go into detail about the case, especially as it is the subject of investigation by an industrial tribunal, but after lengthy, fruitless and, some would say, pointless negotiation with the employer, the workers went on a legal strikeone week out, one week in. The workers are not hot-headed extremists. I know many of them personally and they are responsible people, some of whom have been employed at the factory for as long as 35 years. The union was always ready to negotiate seriously, but when the workers returned to workI accompanied them early that morning when they decided to go backthe employer came to the gate to lock them out personally. The strike continued and the union continued to press the case and tried to negotiate, but got no serious response, and the workers were all sacked after eight weeks. That is how the situation stands after 63 weeks on the picket line.
The workers are out. They have the overwhelming support of the community and of others from trade unions and political parties far and wide. They are waiting for their case to be heard by the tribunal, but that will not happen until October, so the practical effect of the eight-week rule, introduced by new Labour, is 63 weeks on the picket line and a wait until October.
In other words, the particular circumstances of the case should not be taken into account. The CBI proposed that employers should be able to put their employees on notice of, say, 28 days, but that further participation in the strike would lead to dismissal. That proposal is the first mention of a time limit in relation to industrial action. The TUC, however, argued that dismissing a striking employee should be automatically unfair. Which side prevailed?
The Secretary of State's statement is the first available confirmation that we have found that the Government have adopted the eight-week timetable for unfair dismissal. Although he gave no reasons for their decision, and although there was little debate in the Chamber or in the other place in 1998, the timetable is one component of the White Paper on which the Government requested views. As I have outlined, we knew who was in favour of a time limit, and it was certainly not the unions.
David Hamilton (Midlothian): I, too, shall be brief. I may be one of the 16 Labour Members mentioned by the RMT, but I still have not been informed about that and, like most people, I have only read about recent events in the papers. The differences between various trade unions and the leadership of the Labour party and the Government will continue, because that is how things will be. The unions are there to a do a job and to protect the interests of the people they represent, and that is as it should be. Let us go back a bit, however, and think about the trade union movement.
I come from a mining background, and I spent 20 years in the coal industry. I came through a national dispute and was sacked for my troubles. It is laughable for Opposition Members to talk about trade unions being political, because the Conservatives took political decisions to take out trade unions. When the Conservatives were in opposition in 1979, the Ridley report said that they would have to take one or two trade unions out to defeat the trade union movement, and they knew that opposition in the House would not be enough. They had to take the trade union and labour movements out because they saw them as the real offenders.
The Ridley report made it clear that the dockers' union posed a problem because it could stifle the country, and the Conservatives realised that legislation would have to be changed so that it could not do so. The miners were identified as the vanguard of the movement, and unfortunately for meor perhaps not, given that I am here in this placeI was one of the casualties.
In fact, the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), or perhaps it is Blabby[Hon. Members: "Blaby."] Perhaps it is Blether, but never mind. The hon. Gentleman said that trade unions should deal with the workplace and nothing else. Let us consider four issueshealth and safety, wages, better hours and better pensions, and workers' rights. With the exception of wages, every one has been and must be debated in the House. Indeed, some hon. Members used yesterday's pensions debate to focus on workers' rights, workplace pensions, wages and conditions. The House will always be inextricably linked with the rights of ordinary working people.
On health and safety, hon. Members may recall the Samuel commission of 1926. The House had to legislate for miners to work shifts of seven and a quarter hours, because employers were making them work much longer. Even in the 1970s, however, miners were killed at Markham Main colliery. They were not even being paid a penny some of the time, because their terms and conditions made it clear that the walking time and winding time involved in going down the pit belonged to the employer, not the employee.
Mr. Robathan : I entirely agree that trade unions should have a role in representing their members on matters such as health and safety, but the hon. Gentleman seemed to defend a position in which dockers could stifle the country and override a democratically elected Government. That is a strange position to take.
David Hamilton : It is not a strange position, and the matter is clear. Employees are entitled to be represented, and the people they elect represent their interests. If the conditions that they work under are so bad that they feel it necessary to go into dispute, that is their right. The
I have mentioned better hours, conditions and pensions, but workers' rights are instrumental in establishing how fast the movement can work. The Government still have a long way to go, although they are showing signs that they will consider other necessary changes. The relationship between trade unions and the Government will survive, even though trade union leaders and Ministers come and go, as will politicians, sometimes quicker than they think. The 6 million trade unionists in the movement are what matter. We should never forget that Labour Members at least are here to represent those people's interests outside the workplace, which are as important as their rights in it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : I advise hon. Members to disregard the times on the Annunciator, which I understand are normally controlled by radio signals from Rugby. For some reason, those Rugby signals must be offside, so we should go by the times on the other clock.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on initiating this important debate. Many issues in our society come down to the basic rights of individuals to be members of trade unions, and to work collectively with their fellow workers.
Before I come to the meat and drink of my speech, I want to say to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that his constituency has a rather appropriate name, as it could be pronounced "Blabby". I do not think that it would be out of order for me to say that his speech was contemptiblebut that will be a matter of opinion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) referred to yesterday's decision of the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that judgment in his winding-up speech. The court held that it was an erosion and a breach of the human rights of individual workers for employers to insist on negotiating individually and buying out the right to collective bargaining.
That judgment is important, as it establishes at the highest legal level the legitimacy of collective bargaining as a way to promote the rights of individuals. They are better served not by negotiating on an individual basis, but by operating collectively. I hope that the Minister will suggest what the Government intend to do about that, as legislation is needed if we are to bring our law into shape to match the judgment.
I want to pick up part of the good speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton). It is absolutely legitimate for trade unions and trade unionists to campaign politically. It would be an outrageous abuse of their rights in a free society if that position were eroded. It is right and proper that everything that the trade union movement does that
Health and safety is a fundamental example of why that has to happen. A Labour Government introduced the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, which was a pioneering piece of legislation. It established a basis for partnership and the roles of the safety representative and the safety committee. Where it has been put into operation, it has been possible to measure the reduction in accidents and injuries in the workplace as a result of that partnership working. In a company that has both safety representatives and a safety committee, the accident rate is something like half of that in equivalent organisations without such a system.
Partnership works. When trade unions are trusted and are seen as part of the process, not only health and safety but many other areas become manageable. Work-related injury and illness cost the country some £19 billion. We have a huge motivation to make sure that the health and safety partnership works not just wellas it does in many casesbut better, so that we can reduce both the human tragedy and the economic cost.
Other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall curtail my remarks. The Government have introduced a statutory role for union learning representatives. That sensible decision was resisted by the official Opposition, which saw it as a terrible thing. The brutal truth is that unless trade unions are part of the process of upskilling the country, we shall suffer from the malaise of a low-skilled work force. One in five of the British work force have serious problems in that they lack basic educational skills. Previous Conservative Governments deserve a lot of condemnation for the way in which they eroded standards in our schools, and more for the fact that they are not prepared to support the role of the union learning representative in upskilling and building the educational skills base of the work force.
Mr. Hammond : To be fair, the hon. Gentleman should remind the Chamber that the position of the official Opposition is that we acknowledge the value of union learning representatives where they are appointed by consensus between the employer and the unions. What we doubt is the efficacy of imposing them by legislation.
The Government still have a lot to do if they are to provide a level playing field for employers and employees. The review of the Employment Relations Act 1999 and the implementation of the draft directive on information and consultation must be meaningful and give real rights to people at work. If they do not, the Government will be failing people who deserve better
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on having secured this important debate. We have a track record of representing workers in the workplace, particularly in difficult times. Trade unions are like democratically elected Governmentsthey are the legitimate voice of workers in Britain. If we did not have trade unions, we should be looking for a way of inventing them. I am proud to say, as a member of the Transport and General Workers Union
I am proud to say, as a member of the TGWU, that no organisation other than the trade union movement would have survived the pernicious attacks on it by the Conservative Government, which are the reason why there are only 6.6 million union members in Britain.
I, too, come from a manufacturing background, and I am proud of it. I was fortunate to work for a company that recognised the benefits of working with a responsible trade union. That company came through difficult times and worked along with the trade union to ensure its long-term security, and I am proud to say that it still exists and is growing.
The benefits of trade unions are collectiveness and, most importantly, unity in strength and numbers. After the pernicious attacks by Conservative Governments, even today there is anecdotal evidence of companies continuing to discourage people from joining a legitimate trade union. Current employment legislation is welcome, but it should be enhanced.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned the case of Friction Dynamex. That is a disgraceful dispute; what those workers have been put through should be highlighted at every opportunity, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that on board.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the situation on many merchant ships that are coming under the red ensign as a result of the tax benefits that the Government have introduced? Workers on merchant ships and ferries work under contracts that exclude the right to join a union. Does he not think it ironic that a Labour Government should give tax breaks to bring in shipping, but not protect workers' rights?
The Government have created an environment in which people are happy to join a trade union provided that they do not get the sack for doing so, but it is still important that the Government give some thought to what the trade unions are saying. Trade unions should influence the Government by argument, not through how much money they give the Government, the party or individual Members of Parliament.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was beginning to think that I was going to miss the opportunity to say what a pleasure it was to participate in the debate. Now that I have that opportunity, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing this important debate. The Official Report record of the debate should be essential reading for every trade unionist in the country, because it puts into context the difference in viewpoint between the Opposition parties and the Labour party.
There is a need for partnership between the trade unions and the Government. I make no apologies for having been a member of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, as it then wasit is now Amicussince 1964. During that time I have been a shop steward, a convenor of a large factory and a full-time union official. I know better than most the need for trade unionism for the people of this country. I was a full-time union official during the dark years of Thatcherism, and I welcome the fact that the Labour Government treat workers with fairness, after the vindictiveness with which Tory Governments treated them. Conservative Members may smirk, but I can give them an example.
I remember a small factory called Craven Tasker Trailers in Cumbernauld, in which the union had many membersI sympathise with the constituents of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) in this regard. Most employees in the plant had worked there for 30 to 35 years. They were affected by the legislation passed by the Tory Government. I do not blame Thatcher, I blame the Tory Government for the legislation, because it was very vindictive towards ordinary peoplenot the union leaders, as was alleged. It affected the conditions in which ordinary people worked. They often found themselves under pressure to accept a standstill in wages or a deterioration in conditions. They also had to accept, if they were trade union representatives, that they could be targeted by the Government or their employer. That was the tragedy and unfairness of that time.
The employees of that small company decided to go for a wage increase, and were put in a position where they had no alternative but to take strike action. We went through the tortuous process of giving the name of
The employees were on strike for 12 months. I went to the picket line every day and I remember the despair in their faces. We should think about that when we consider the fairness of the relationship between work forces and the Government. I am delighted with what has been done, and with the progress that this Government have delivered; I have a list of 19 points, but I do not have time to go through them all. However, it is important to recognise what has been done. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian said that there was more to be done to ensure that the people of this country and their conditions of work are protected, and I think that we can do that.
However, I do not believe that any trade union has the right to dictate to Members of Parliament what they should support. Unions should have the right to campaign on their issues, on wages and conditionsbut to tell an MP that he or she must support a particular line is the wrong way for a trade union to act, and I deplore it.
There is a need for partnership between the Government and trade unions, and in the workplace. That happens in many workplaces, but there are still bad employers who abuse their work forces. Those work forces need our support and our help. It is essential that we recognise that fact, and that trade unions are given an opportunity to defend their members and the weapons to do so, because they need weapons on occasion.
It is essential for those on the Front Bench to make it clear exactly where the Labour party stands on this issue. We need to go further with trade union legislation, but that should be done on a fair basis, recognising people's need for membership of trade unions and the potential for partnership.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking), not merely on introducing an important subject but on the way in which she did so. I have sat through many debates in this Chamber in which the opening speaker has gone on for 35 or 40 minutes. She said what she had to say in six minutes, which is an example to us all.
There are two debates going on here. One is a practical debate about modern trade unionism and employment rights, which is where we should be concentrating our energy. The other is a separate, parallel debate about the politics of the matter, and what I think is still called the Labour movement. The British structure has been in place for a century, since the break up of the Liberal party in the first part of the 20th century. The unique link between the trade union movement and one political party is very odd. That is not how unions operate in the rest of Europe, where
The trade union movement has changed out of all recognition during the past 20 years, for two basic reasons: first, as a result of a process of legislative reform, which started under the late Barbara Castle and was carried through by Conservative Governments. As in many other areas, the Conservatives went to excess, but many of the reforms had to happenas most trade unionists privately acknowledge. Secondly, and probably more important than legislative reform, is the change in the economy. Less than 20 per cent of the labour force is now employed in manufacturing industry and mining, and most people now work in the service sector. There is hardly any manufacturing in my constituency. Everyone works in services, especially information-based services, so trade unions have had to come to terms with a very different environment and make themselves relevant in that environment. The more forward-looking trade unions and the TUC are doing that.
Trade unions now perform three key roles. The first, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons), is the development of the concept of partnership working, initiated in the 1980s by the engineering unions, when they were trying to make sense of conflicts in the car industry and other engineering industries by trying to adopt a more positive approach to productivity improvements. That helped to turn round the car industry. It is the new philosophy on the manufacturing side of the trade union movement, and it is very welcome.
Trade unions are also beginning to realise that their real role is defending individuals in the workplace, because in most companies, even fairly well-managed companies, there will be unfair dismissal, abuse and discrimination. At my surgery last Friday I heard about a typical case, in which the employer at an American-owned factory in the nearby constituency of Brentford and Isleworth disowned its final salary pension scheme. It closed the scheme to existing members and then, when they retired, their entitlements were halved. That basically amounts to stealing, and it is an appalling situation, but the employees were not unionised. They were relying on their trustees, who were ineffective. That is precisely the sort of situation in which a trade union, with proper professional back-up, can help workers.
The third positive advance, which has been led by the TUC, is understandingthis was not understood 20 years agothat economic stability and a low inflation environment are in the interests of trade unions. We now have lower unemployment than we have had for a generation, partly because we have low and predictable inflation. The trade unions have supported the policies that produced that situation. They have also supported the principle of Britain being part of an open economy within Europe and the rest of the world. That is very different from the attitude of many French or American
In certain areas, trade unions have achieved significant advances in the past few years. The most important of those is the introduction of the minimum wage. I admit that I was critical of that concept, having seen how it operates in other countries, such as France, where a high minimum wage is applied rigidly, undoubtedly causing relatively high rates of unemployment, especially among younger workers. Many of us feared that if that system were transplanted to Britain, it would cause considerable damage, but the minimum wage has been introduced in a consensual way, taking into account the economic consequences, and has been positive. We want the minimum wage to be extended to younger workers, but the way in which it has been introduced is a credit to all the three partners involved.
There has also been a welcome advance in relation to parental leave and recognition of the need for flexibility for families. I welcome that change. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) emphasised, the trade unions have been increasingly involved in learning and skills activities, which is also welcome. Evidence shows that trade union officials are now much more actively involved in supporting individuals with grievance procedures. They now have that right, which is an important advance.
In several respects, the Liberal Democrats would like employment rights to be enhanced. The first, which the hon. Gentleman also touched on, is consultation. Many of us were shocked last year by how the Vauxhall redundancies were announced. There was no warning or consultation, and people heard about losing their jobs over the radio. That was unacceptable. Clearly, we have to fashion a British solution, not merely some Europe-imposed general practice. An entitlement to consultation seems an essential employment right, and we strongly support that principle.
Similarly, more can be done to enhance labour rights in connection with work flexibility. That may come through in statutory instruments following the Enterprise Bill, but the principle of workers being entitled to flexibility and being able to pursue through an arbitration procedure cases in which an employer is unreasonable seems a necessary extension of workers' rights.
The old unionism is still around, and it is a problem in two regards. We experienced the first last yearit has now died downthrough the action taken in public services, especially on the railways. I do not apportion blame to Stagecoach or the RMTthey were probably both responsiblebut the action almost brought the rail system to a halt. The fact that a relatively small group of people can bring the infrastructure of the country to a halt is wrong. I support the principle of legislation to deal with public sector strikes through compulsory arbitration. That would not lean to one side or the other, but would prevent such disruption on a large scale. On that issue, we disagree with some of the more militant trade unions.
That is not in the interests of the Government or the public. We want comprehensive reform of the system of political donations, so that parties are state funded, topped up by small private donations without any vested interests involved. If that system was cleaned up, there would be an end to the acrimonious and unhelpful debate about political influence, and the trade unions could get on better with the job of defending their members, which they are increasingly showing that they can do in a modern economy.
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I too congratulate the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) on securing the debatebut I am not entirely sure that her success will have been greeted with such glee in the Treasury, the Department of Trade and Industry and No. 10.
Some of the debate has struck me as taking place in a time warp. The hon. Lady spoke of the Government having the trade union movement at their very core, and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) regaled us with stories of picket lines. However, it has been an interesting debate. At first glance, there is a temptation for the Opposition to treat the debate as a bit of private grief between the Labour party and the trade unionsa lovers' tiff, as the Labour party tries to face both ways at once, with the Liberal Democrats snapping at its heels, hoping perhaps to pick up some titbits.
The Government have performed a rather cynical balancing act as they have attempted to extract money from both sides, but that has inevitably started to alienate both sides. The trade unions, unsurprisingly, feel that they have substantially funded the Labour party's remarkable electoral success, and they expect a commensurate influence on policy. Business people believe that they have bent over backwards to nurture a relationship with the Government over the past five years, but they have finally realised that there is nothing in it for them. That was illustrated by the Chancellor's lack of consultation with business before the Budget blow on national insurance contributions was announced.
We could treat this matter as a private grief, and I could recite the litany of embarrassments that the Government have suffered recently. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has already referred to the Deputy Prime Minister's problems, and to the RMT's blatant attempts to control the behaviour of Members whose constituency parties are receiving financial support. A few days ago, even the secretary general of the TUC described the Prime Minister as "bloody stupid"a view that Conservative Members share. Something is afoot when even a moderate TUC secretary general makes such a comment about a Labour Prime Minister.
People who take £9 million of funding from an organisation to fight an election, and win it, should, if they are sensible, expect the organisation to come knocking at their doorand also expect that, whatever they do, it will be hard to satisfy entirely.
Mr. Lloyd : The relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour party has always been crystal clear, because it has always been published. The unions take part in Labour's conference and any money given is recorded. In the context of his example, can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the Conservative Government gave to the foreign shipowners, or to others whose records have never been published, who contributed to the Tory party when it was in government? Does he agree that we should publish those records to answer that question?
Mr. Robathan : The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is incorrect: agreements between constituency parties and trade unions do not have to be declared. That is how the Deputy Prime Minister managed not to declare his links with RMT even while he was Transport Secretary.
My point is that a party that takes £9 million from an organisation to win an election, which it then wins, should expect the organisation to have demands and to want to influence policy. One can also expect that one demand will lead to another. The Communication Workers Union forced the Government to back down on the threshold value for liberalisation of postal services after a confrontation at the 1999 Labour party conference. Earlier this year, a disenchanted CWU worker wrote to the The Guardian:
Unfortunately, we cannot treat the matter simply as private grief because when the Labour party decides, for whatever reason, to bend to the demands of its trade union paymasters, British business and British working people will pay Labour's election debts. As the support for the Labour party from business and the middle England floating voter erodes, Labour will clearly be driven back into the arms of its traditional supporters in the trade unions.
Jim Sheridan : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address the problem that workers are concerned about in Britain. In the unlikely event of a Tory Government being re-elected, what changes would he make to current employment legislation? Would he change it or would he keep it?
Mr. Hammond : That is an interesting point. If the hon. Gentleman had been a member of the Committee considering the Employment Bill and had listened to what employer and business organisations are saying, he would have a sense that the measures that have been introduced are just about tolerable for business to carry on functioning effectively and competitively with our European neighbours. We have reached the point at which the imposition of further inflexibilities in the labour market will take us down a route that leads to a substantial loss of competitiveness, which will ultimately lead to job losses. That would not do anybody in this country any good.
I want to step back and talk about the two distinct groups that I perceive in the trade union movement. We often talk about the unions, but it seems to me that there are two distinct groups. I am happy to agree with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who said that private sector unions have, for the most part, changed the way in which they operate. They engage constructively with employers in most cases, and play a constructive and important role in the workplace on issues such as education and health and safety. That part of the equation is generally working well. Nowadays, private sector unions seek to create, through pressure in Brussels and Westminster, a legislative and regulatory environment that moves the framework within which they negotiate at workplace level with employers further and further in their favour. That is a legitimate political objective for organised labour and that is the way in which they go about it. The problem, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, is that that movement is associated with a single political party in this country.
The Employment Relations Act 1999 has barely bedded in. The Employment Bill, which gives further concessions to the trade union agenda, has not even finished its passage through the House, yet the Government are trumpeting their review of workers' rights. We need to know whether that is simply a sham to silence dissent from the Government's trade union supporters, whether the Government are simply stalling for time, or whether their serious intention is to impose further burdens on business that will have long-term damaging effects on the UK economy. Given the Government's position, I was not surprised to hear John Monks saying that the unions were back in business.
I would never suggest that unions do not have a legitimate role to play, and I have had that debate with the hon. Member for Manchester, Central, who is an expert on those matters, during the progress of the Employment Bill. I should also like to state, for the record, that abuse does go on in the workplace. I have said to the hon. Gentleman before that where abuse is taking place we will support measures to deal with it. We are not in the business of defending abuse, but we are in the business of defending British businessand, ultimately, British workers' jobsagainst the
It will be said, and has been said, that many of the measures that have been introduced are simply "catching us up" with the situation in our European competitor countries. Labour practices are quite different in many European countries, and Germany has 4 million people unemployed. The hon. Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) spoke about miners and dockers, but where are those jobs now? They have gone, because they were priced out of the market by uncompetitive practices and labour inflexibility.
By contrast, the public sector unions have a different agenda, of attempting direct control of Government policy. Having got the Government elected in 2001, while keeping very quiet during the election campaign, they immediately popped up demanding what was, effectively, a veto over Government policy. I do not know which is more serious, the threat to British business and jobs from the relentless pressure to pursue the unions' costly agenda of employment protection legislation, or the threat to British democracy posed by their demands to have a veto over the policy of an elected democratic Government. What is certainly true beyond doubt is that as the Government's honeymoon with the middle England floating voter and with the business community comes to an end, they will be driven increasingly back into the arms of their traditional paymasters in the trades unions.
The trade union movement continues to pay for the Labour party. It paid for the election victory in 2001, and now British business, consumers, public service usersand, ultimately, workerswill pay Labour's election debts.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Picking) and pay tribute to her work in the public sector, which underpins so much of the quality of life that we enjoy in this country. She set a high standard with her contribution, which my hon. Friends followed. They spoke with deep knowledge, experience and conviction on this important issue. I am a lifelong trade unionist and a member of the T and G and of Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and I welcome the many constructive comments made by my hon. Friends and other hon. Members.
The Government need good, effective and mature partnerships. We must work effectively with all our stakeholders if we are to work effectively for them. The fruits of co-operation are the 1.5 million jobs that have been created since 1997. The casualties of conflict were the 3 million-plus people unemployed in the 1980s. As my hon. Friend pointed out in her opening remarks, partnerships are emphatically not about favours to friends or to any of the stakeholders, but about fairness; otherwise, partnerships will not work.
Our vision at the Department of Trade and Industry is prosperity for all through successful business, world-class science and innovation and labour markets that promote fairness and flexibility. Every month, I visit world-class UK firms. Last week I was at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers awards presentation. I gave a keynote speech and met the winners of the manufacturing excellence awards for 2002. We work in partnership with business, employees and consumers to make the UK the most prosperous place in the world.
We already have the fastest growing economy of the G8 countries. To achieve our economic prosperity, we must drive up UK productivity and competitiveness and close the gap with our international competitors. Only in that way can we create more of the high-wage, high-skill, value-added jobs that we want. We know that that is a big task, because we know that our competitors are not standing still.
There are ever more challenges in the world in which we work. It is changing faster and more, with new technologies, ways of working, competitors and ideas. I saw new exciting ideas at Elvingston science centre in East Lothian, which I visited with my hon. Friend a short time ago. It is a showcase science park for micro businesses.
If we are to succeed in our aim of improving prosperity for all, we must face the challenge in partnership with business, workers, trade unions, investors, educators and many others. In that way, the partnerships can benefit all of us. They all have a crucial role in raising productivity and competitiveness individually and collectively. As a Department, we must focus on areas where we can make the greatest difference.
My hon. Friend spoke of her concern about a two-tier work force, and I am informed that if staff must transfer, the national health service private finance initiative schemes will not be approved unless the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 are fully applied and staff are offered broadly comparable pension terms, which must be approved and certified by the Government Actuary's Department. The Department of Health is involved in discussions about the possible wider effects of contracting out, and a work programme to take that forward has been agreed by the Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) and other colleagues referred to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The initial reading of the judgment suggests that it does little direct damage to the law on union recognition, but it strongly suggests that the law providing protection against detriment on grounds of trade union membership needs to be tightened. The Secretary of State will shortly launch a review of the Employment Relations Act 1999, which will allow us to consult on the appropriate response to that judgment.
We the DTI realise that we must ensure that there is fairness in the workplace. Trade unions, business and other stakeholders realise that we must raise our game. We must work harder at the key relationships, including those with trade unions, to deliver the increased productivity and competitiveness to which I referred earlier. That does not mean handing the DTI over to business interests. It means ensuring that everyone who can make a positive contribution is given the chance to do so.
Improvements in productivity and competitiveness are not an arid, mechanical exercise to raise industrial efficiency. We know that people's lives are improved by providing social and economic opportunities. For the Labour Government, the labour market is the point where our two overriding ambitions meet most starkly: our ambition for a dynamic, successful economy and our questindeed, our passionfor social justice.
The Government are often accused of being obsessed with the work ethic. As a Scot, I make no apology for that. The Labour party was created, with no small help from the trade union movement, to lift people out of poverty through the provision of work. I have seen at first hand in my constituency, as have other hon. Members, how unemployment destroys people's health, undermines their families and destroys community cohesion. I have no doubt that jobs are vital to social inclusion and social justice.
When we came into government, we were clear about our policy towards the unions. It was not to turn the clock back to the 1970s. We knew, and I believe that most unions knew, that some of the reforms of the 1980s were necessary. The unions had to modernise and reform to meet the challenges of a changing economic environment, just as individuals in business had to change. Some of the key reformsfor example, pre-strike ballots and the outlawing of secondary actionwere supported in the trade union movement, and some unions had the option of a pre-strike ballot written into their rule books before legislation was introduced. However, we all know about aspects of the Conservatives' reforms that were vindictive and counter-productive. Some of my hon. Friends have spoken with deep and personal knowledge about them.
The Conservatives sought to marginalise the unions and to deny legitimate workplace representation. This Government recognise that unions have a valuable role to play in the economy and in society. That is why this Government have done more in five years to protect workers' rights through legislation than any other Government. We restored the right to join a trade union