With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on trade unions and their members.
Since 1979 we have proceeded step by step to introduce a succession of measures which, together, have helped achieve the least number of working days lost to industrial action for a generation. We have sought to restore a proper balance of bargaining power between trade unions and employers. We have also sought to establish democraticrights for individual members within their unions. Above all, we have sought to promote an environment in which both sides of industry can work together to generate the wealth the country needs.
We have observed closely the impact of our legislation. In general, progress has been marked and encouraging. However, some unions have declined the opportunity to put their house in order, and union members have not always felt able to take a stand and ensure that abuses are corrected. It is therefore clear that we need now to take another step both to strengthen the rights of individuals within a union and to reinforce their ability to exercise those rights. That is why we are today publishing a Green Paper "Trade Unions and their Members" which sets out a number of possible changes, on which comments are invited, as a basis for further legislation.
The Government have always believed that individuals should be able to choose for themselves whether to belong to a trade union. We also object strongly to attempts to coerce an employer into putting someone out of work on the ground that the person does not belong to any union or to a particular union. Our earlier measures have certainly reduced the scope for the worst excesses of the closed shop. However, I am afraid that in some industries the power of the closed shop still remains. We therefore propose measures which will end the legal protection of a post entry closed shop in any circumstances.
The present law allows a closed shop to be enforced if a weighted majority of employees votes for it in a ballot. Few major employers have yet been affected by this provision, but in the cases where ballots have produced a lawful closed shop the rights of many individuals to choose whether to join a union or not have been extinguished. Experience has shown that unions' legitimate interests are not seriously weakened where the closed shop is not protected by law. The repeal of balloting provisions for t he closed shop would give any individual dismissed for not belonging to a union the right to compensation for unfair dismissal. We also propose to end all legal immunity for industrial action designed to force an employer to create or maintain any closed shop In short, we are proposing to end completely the use of the law in any circumstances to sustain the closed shop.
The most important feature of democracy within a trade union must be the right of the members to a secret vote in the direct election and re-election of their union leaders. The Trade Union Act 1984 established such a right for the election of the voting members of union executives and created a presumption that postal ballots would be used. However, a large number of trade unions have retained workplace ballots, and the conduct of such ballots continues to give rise to controversy. Now is the time to act against these abuses. When we legislated in 1984, many trade unions did not have lists of membership of sufficient quality to serve as electoral rolls. Since 1984 they have been required to have such lists and they have now had the time and opportunity to draw them up. There is, therefore, no longer any reason why we should not move to the most secure method of balloting available—the secret postal vote under independent supervision.
The process of election is intended to ensure that the leadership of a union is, and remains, responsible to its members. In practice, not all trade union leaders have been required to be elected. We now propose to make presidents, general secretaries and any others with seats on the executive subject to direct democratic election.
The right to choose to go to work during industrial action is an essential freedom. We believe that union members are entitled to a vote on whether their union should call them out on strike in the first place. We also believe that they are entitled to continue to go to work and honour their contract of employment if they disagree with their union's call. At the moment, legislation does not give union members any right to take action to restrain their unions from calling a strike without a ballot. Nor do they have any statutory protection against disciplinary action by their union if they cross a picket line or carry on working during a dispute. We proprose to give them both.
Recent events have thrown light on the unusual ways in which some unions run their financial affairs. Union members ought to be seriously concerned about some of the manoeuvres that have been used to evade or circumvent the jurisdiction of the courts when unions find themselves in conflict with the law. The Green Paper considers possible safeguards that might be enacted in legislation, of which the most fundamental is a right of access for every member, accompanied by a professional adviser, to current union accounting records.
It is not enough to provide rights and protection for individual citizens if, in practice, they find it too daunting to claim them. As things stand, trade union members need to be exceptionally determined and courageous if they are to embark on the process of enforcing the full rights that the law now gives them. Parliament has provided agencies to help employees to complain against employers about discrimination on grounds of race or sex. It is clear that there is now a need for a new commissioner for trade union affairs to advise and support union members who need to make a formal complaint and perhaps take legal action against unions and their officials who appear to be failing to comply with statutory duties. The new commissioner would help to make sure that trade unionists can defend both their existing rights and the new rights we propose giving them in this Green Paper.
The next steps that I am announcing today are wholly consistent with our approach to trade union reform through the period of office of this Government. We believe that trade unions behave more responsibly when they are in close touch with the views of their members and take steps to ensure that their actions command members' support. We have watched closely developments since 1984 and the Green Paper is based on our experience of events since the last legislation. Its proposals frame sensible solutions to specific problems that can be expected to work in practice. Consultation has, of course, always been an important part of our process of law reform in this area and the Government will welcome informed comment on these latest proposals.
May I first draw attention to the usual iniquitous practice of Government Ministers issuing statements to the press, as witnessed in the headline in the new London Daily News"Tory assault on unions", before the statement was issued to the House.
Today's announcement is a further petty, vindictive and miserable attack upon the rights of millions of working trade unionists. It is an extension of the blacklegs' charter that has been introduced by successive Secretaries of State over the past eight awful years of this Government. It is savagely ironic that this statement has been introduced by a Secretary of State who sits in the other place and has not been elected to anything by anybody. However, he is discussing the democratic rights of trade unionists and that is hypocrisy of the highest order.
Once again we have heard the usual weasel words from the Department of Employment. When that Department is not fiddling the unemployment statistics it turns away for a moment to attack, once again, the trade unions. The Minister's statement informs us that fewer working days are now lost than for a generation. The fact is that, per thousand workers employed, there is more time lost now than there ever was under a Labour Government. I certainly suggest that the statement in the Green Paper—if I cannot use the word lie—was a perversion of the truth.
The statement informs us that the Government intend to extend the rights of trade union members. That is from a Government who have, over the past eight years, successively and repeatedly destroyed the employment rights of millions of workers. That is from a Government who even vetoed the modest Vredling proposals to give rights to part-time workers. That is from a Government who are currently abolishing the rights of teachers to have any sort of trade union rights, free collective bargaining or the right to discuss their prospects with their employers.
The Minister's statement informs us that he proposes to insist upon postal ballots. Can the Minister inform the House why there is nothing in the Green Paper that forces employers to provide workplace facilities for employees to carry out their trade union activities? If workers could participate in their trade union activities at their workplace it would represent the greatest single extension of trade union democracy. Perhaps the Minister can inform the House why it is that every study suggests that there are far more people participating in workplace ballots than there are participating in postal ballots. My union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, can confirm that.
Why have the Government not said something about the Murdochs of this world? They have used the Government's legislation in the worst possible fashion to create companies, which have denied workers their basic human rights in relation to their contracts of employment.
Why have the Government said nothing about the miners who lost their jobs, who have been declared innocent by industrial tribunals, but who are still denied the right of employment by British Coal? Why is there nothing about those rights in the Green Paper?
The Minister's statement informs us that we shall have an Eastern European style commissar for trade union affairs. Why are we to have a commissar for trade union affairs, yet there is to be self-regulation for the City of London, where some of the biggest crooks in the world are currently operating? It is the height of hypocrisy for the Government, who talk about self-regulation for business, to seek to shackle the trade union movement.
What is the period of consultation? The Minister has not informed us. My hon. Friends and I suspect that the statement is part of the election manifesto of the Tory party. We welcome that. Millions of trade unionists will see through this miserable exercise and will rally to the support of the Labour party at the next election.
On the question of present industrial harmony we lost 1·9 million working days through industrial action in 1986. That is the lowest yearly total for 20 years. I believe that the process of reform that we have introduced in the trade union movement will help to improve the harmony in industry that we require for economic recovery.
I have listened to his diatribe and I am astonished that the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) has produced this explosion of rage and a confusion of slogans, such as the "blacklegs' charter" as a description for proposals that confer on individual members of trade unions the rights to a secret, well-organised ballot for the leadership of the union and to insist that their union calls a ballot before they go on strike, and provides that the unions should allow their members to know how they spend members' funds. I believe that the hon. Member will have difficulty in sustaining his attack in the face of such propositions.
On the question of postal ballots and workplace ballots, and the suggestion that there may be a higher turnout at workplace ballots, I accept that turnout is a relevant consideration. However, the main thing that people want when they take part in an election is some guarantee about the integrity of the election and the efficiency with which it is organised. Workplace ballots may produce a higher turnout because more ballot papers are generally available for various people to cast. An independently supervised postal ballot is better. [Interruption]The reason we did not do it under the Trade Union Act 1984 was that unions did not have up-to-date lists of members. Therefore, they did not have an electoral register and that was one of the objections put forward by the unions. They have had two years in which to produce those lists of members and we propose to make this change.
The hon. Member for St. Helens, North asked about the position of Mr. Rupert Murdoch, the recent strike, and the impact of the Green Paper. The main two changes that the proposals in the Green Paper would have had, if they had been in force at time of the News International dispute, would have been, first, that any individual SOGAT wholesale worker could have obtained an order restraining his union from calling a strike without balloting the wholesale workers. As the law stands it was left to News International to seek compensation and seek sequestration of the union's assets. As a result of the proposals in the Green Paper any union member may have stopped his union from committing suicide and pulled it back from the sequestration by insisting there was no call for industrial action until a ballot was held.
The other change would have been that no disciplinary action could have been so lightly entertained by the National Union of Journalists against its journalists, and by the Transport and General Workers Union against its lorry drivers for taking action during that dispute. On both scores, the proposals in the Green paper are adequately supported by the experience of News International.
The idea of describing the commissioner for trade union affairs as a kind of eastern European commissar, when his duty is to assist the individual to protect the rights which Parliament gives him in existing or future legislation, is absurd. The commissioner is modelled closely on the Race Relations Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission. I very much doubt whether the hon. Gentleman would denounce those commissions as having eastern European-type commissars. I suspect that he heavily supports them.
We have named a date, early in May, and there will be two months' consultation. We are, of course, looking forward to comments on, and constructive criticism of, these proposals to ensure that we consider how best to put them into practical effect.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many Conservative Members believe that the right to work ought to depend not on whether a man is or is not a member of a trade union but only on a person's suitability and willingness to work? Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in response to his proposals in the Green Paper, he will be prepared to consider making it unlawful for there to be a closed shop arrangement in the United Kingdom?
In effect, any post entry closed shop will be devoid of legal protection under our proposals. Anybody who is dismissed for not belonging to the "right" trade union—in the opinion of his employer or of trade union officials who pressurise the employer — will be entitled to compensation at a punitive level to compensate him for what I agree is a serious infringement of individual liberty and personal choice in the workplace.
Is the Minister aware that I find myself in the rather surprising position of welcoming the Government's conversion to substantial tracts of alliance policy?
On the issue of postal ballots and the selection of office bearers in trade unions, why did the Government resist amendments to legislation to this effect when they were moved by David Penhaligon two years ago? Of course, I welcome the fact that the Minister is now saying to the House that what he told us then was not Government policy and was impossible is now to be introduced in the form of a pre-election proposal for reforming the trade unions. To that extent, I obviously welcome the statement. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that it would be better if he proceeded with industrial reform in the context of extending industrial democracy in general? That would be a fair-minded and even-handed approach.
If we are indeed moving closer together, of course, I welcome that. The more support for these measures, the better. I recollect that the voting pattern of the alliance parties on the three previous stages of industrial relations reform was singularly confused. On the second of the Bills, they voted on both sides in differing numbers at different stages of the debate. It is clear that the process of reform would never have got under way if alliance Members had been in any position to block it. As I understand it, the latest alliance proposals suggest that we should make it easier to establish a closed shop by reducing the weight of the majorities required by the present legislation. I fear that we are going in diametrically opposite directions on that proposition.
As for independently supervised postal ballots, we are now in agreement with the alliance. The difference between us is that, two years ago, it would have been impractical to propose such a thing to unions that did not have lists of members and could not produce an electoral register. Now that we have given them two years during which they have been required to produce an electoral register, it is practical to take that step. The only difference between the alliance and the Government on that proposition, I am glad to say, is that the alliance proposed it when it was unrealistic and we took steps to ensure that it would be realistic before we put it forward.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the most discouraging and cynical operations at the moment is the battle that goes on between trade unions for membership in which the rights and aspirations of their members are very much ignored? Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure us that these proposals will go some way towards ensuring that, in competition between unions for membership, the quality of service and not the political aspirations of general secretaries will make the difference?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the further we go down that road, the better. I believe, as, I feel sure, does my hon. Friend, that it is entirely a matter of individual choice whether a person joins a particular union or decides to change his union. No person should be at the risk of losing his job because he falls out with his union. Unions should be voluntary associations of people who are brought together in a properly run democratic institution.
Does this mean that the Government are revising their attitude towards ballots? Under previous Conservative legislation introduced by the chairman of the Conservative party, there could be closed shops, provided that the workers voted for them, as they did with unprecedentedly high majorities. Now that the workers have voted in favour of those closed shops, the Minister proposes to abolish the ballots. Are we to understand that he is in favour of ballots only when they go his way but, when the ballots go the other way, he wants to abolish them? Is that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying? Does this mean that the police will no longer have to join the Police Federation, whether they like it or not? Since the right hon. and learned Gentleman has this tender concern for private organisations and is intervening so that they can put their own house in order, does this mean that there will be a ballot for the chairmanship of the Conservative party? Does it mean that individuals can inspect the Conservative party's accounts?
With the experience of recent years, we have seen that, in those industries where the closed shop has come to an end, this has not fatally wounded the trade union movement, as people said it would. We have also found that, where the closed shop has been retained and lawfully protected, the individual's right to choose, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) defended, was extinguished. There have been cases—notably that of the tugboat men at Bristol — where people have lost their jobs during the past two or three years because they were not in the correct union. We believe that that is wrong. The post entry closed shop will be effectively finished because it will not be legally protected in any particular employment.
The position of the chairman of the Conservative party is not remotely analogous with the organisations about which we are talking. The leadership of a trade union should be answerable to its membership. It takes decisions which can affect the livelihood of its members. Whatever power my right hon. Friend the chairman of the Conservative party has, he cannot put remotely at risk — certainly not directly — the livelihood of my hon. Friends and those who follow our policies.
I welcome the Green Paper introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend. I am sure that it will bring a further note of democracy into the trade union movement as has happened with the right to buy under housing legislation introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend's colleagues. I ask him to extend an invitation to the nationalised industries since, with hindsight, they are forced into a closed shop. A great number of my constituents in York and elsewhere have said that, by sheer coercion, they are forced to join a trade union which is totally unrepresentative of them. They will certainly welcome the opportunity of commenting on the Green Paper.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I trust that the changes which we are making will have their effect on the nationalised industries, as elsewhere. It is significant that we shall effectively give a remedy to those railwaymen who have been disciplined for refusing to take part in industrial action. I think that in 1982 both railway unions went in for disciplinary action against spectacular numbers of their members simply because their members chose to continue working and providing a service to the public.
Since the Minister talks about the rights of individuals not to belong to a trade union, will he reflect on what has happened under trade union legislation over the past six years? Trade union members in the midlands coalfield have been sacked for being active members of the National Union of Mineworkers. While the right hon. and learned Gentleman reflects on that, will he reflect on the workplace ballots which have been held for many years under the guidance of the NUM, which have been a classic example of how to run private ballots, whereby individuals can take decisions without ballot papers going to the homes of people who have left trade unions? I experienced that when I changed homes many years ago.
If anybody is dismissed because of his union membership, that is unfair dismissal. It that is the sole cause of dismissal, he is entitled to compensation. Our proposals are to make that equal in both directions. The idea that the hon. Gentleman should cite the midlands coalfields as an example of good practice is a little inappropriate. It is not so long ago that the coalfields had a call to strike in which no ballot took place before the strike was called. It succeeded in severing the union. That preceded my right hon. Friend's legislation. Since that time, all that we have done has been to make sure that the law guarantees the right to a ballot, which the NUM's rule was supposed to do until it was flouted by the present leadership a few years ago.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that most people accept that trade unions must belong to their members, and, therefore, that the extension of voting must be acceptable in terms of industrial democracy? Does he have any knowledge of whether the TUC and individual unions are prepared to consult on this matter? [Interruption.]They might get an invitation to Downing street for beer and sandwiches. Will the matter require one Bill or two Bills? When is the first Bill expected?
I have sent invitations to the TUC inviting it to give its comments and to meet me if it wishes. I am sure that the TUC, together with many individual trade unions, will take up that matter. It will be interesting to see whether, in fact, the reactions of Opposition Members have run ahead of the trade unions.
My right hon. Friend said that unions should belong to their members. I wait to hear whether the various general secretaries — for example, Clive Jenkins, Rodney Bickerstaffe and Arthur Scargill — will argue that it is wrong to make them stand for re-election at the hands of their own members. I am not sure how they will argue that point in public. I have no doubt that it will come out in the course of consultation.
The next step is to consult and reflect on what we get in response. On past form, of course, having consulted, we shall move to a White Paper and eventually to a Bill, but all kinds of events may supervene before we get to the legislative chain.
The right is not confined. On each day, an individual should be free to decide whether he or she wishes to continue to go to work or to cross a picket line. That is the kind of choice that we have, particularly in situations in which the individual faces two conflicting calls -one from the trade union calling for industrial action, and the other from the employer insisting that the individual carry out the contract of employment and show some loyalty to the firm. In the end, it is an individual choice. It is wrong that people should be disciplined if they take a view that is not shared by the leadership or even the majority of their trade union.
The role of the ballot is still important. As long as the union ballots and gets a majority of its members, it has total immunity as a union against actions that could otherwise be brought by the employer in tort, contract and so on. The ballot has legitimacy, but it does not mean that individuals who want to work should be coerced by the rest of those involved into not crossing picket lines.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, and so will my constituents who were subjected to 12 months of tyranny by people who had never heard of the word "democracy". For their own protection, they had to set up their own Union of Democratic Mineworkers. The Government's proposals will give the remaining members of the NUM the opportunity to remove the man who brought their own great union into disrepute.
My hon. Friend's constituents and my constituents in the Union of Democratic Mineworkers have every reason to remember how deep the commitment to democracy was or was not in the case of the trade unions, the Labour movement and the National Union of Mineworkers. Our experience in Nottinghamshire certainly reinforces the need for continuing law reform of the kind we described today.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the seven major changes already outlined in the Green Paper, if they are followed up by the Government's proposals, will add up to one thing only, and that is industrial slavery for the mass of ordinary workers? The Government have gone out of their way to undermine and destroy the rights of the trade union movement in the interests of capital and employers. I give notice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, sooner or later — certainly under a Labour Government — the measures will be destroyed because the workers will not stand for them for ever. Ultimately, they will get rid of the anti-trade union legislation brought in by the Government in the interests of employers.
The general public would not agree with the hon. Gentleman's description of a modern, democratically based union as tantamount to introducing industrial slavery. A union that is led by people who command the genuine support of its members and take care to consult and to take them with them if they contemplate action tend to be more powerful as well as more responsible than those led by narrowly elected little caucuses that seek to lead their members on political grounds and use the discipline of the closed shop, and so on, to get support for such actions.
The hon. Gentleman is totally out of touch with the times, let alone with the current political mood and the current economic climate. We are seeing the emergence of the kind of trade unionism that is much more useful to its members but, of course, quite redundant to the political aims of the hon. Gentleman.
I welcome the Green Paper, particularly the provisions for postal balloting for the election of union officers. As one who rebelled on that issue, I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to think carefully before the Government should ever be tempted to vote in the same Lobby as Opposition Members on such an issue.
I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend has not changed his mind and that we are in total agreement on supervised postal balloting. I congratulate him on his prescience.
The Minister has made it clear that the Green Paper is ostensibly concerned with individual rights and democracy. How does he reconcile those sentiments with the fact that the Government are denying the whole teaching profession the right to joint collective bargaining with employers on a national basis? Does it not show that there is great inconsistency between the Green Paper and the statutes? Does it not suggest also that the Government are concerned with forcing down rates of pay for ordinary people?
The issue to which the hon. Gentleman has referred had its background in a totally collapsed bargaining process between rival and warring trade unions on the one side and politically divided employers on the other. It has failed, unfortunately, to come to a negotiated conclusion for over two years. Obviously, questions about the way in which we have decided to resolve the problem should be addressed to my right hon. Friend. He advocates a temporary arrangement which will enable us to consult the parties, reach a settlement and then work towards reestablishing some workable procedure and machinery for this vital national service.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that rank and file trade unionists and the general public will recognise the justice in measures that enable individuals to continue to work with impunity, even though the majority of their union colleagues decide to go on strike, and in measures that enable them to examine precisely what has happened to the proceeds of their union subscriptions?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the judgment that the public will make about the reaction of Opposition Members to that measure as a blacklegs' charter, with the occasional call of "scab" from the Opposition, as my hon. Friend defends the undoubted right of someone to decide whether he or she wants to go to work. I agree also with my hon. Friend that most trade union members will not see why on earth there is opposition to the suggestion that they should have access to the current accounts of their trade unions. In fact, they had such rights for 100 years until the last Labour Government repealed them.
Does the Paymaster General not understand that a great many trade unionists resent being lectured about democracy by Ministers representing the Conservative party? Does he also not understand that, rather than embarking upon another round of trade union bashing, the vast majority of the public want him to create genuine, well-paid jobs for people who are desperately seeking work? Finally, if the Paymaster General cares about industrial democracy, will he have a word with the Secretary of State for Defence, who told the House earlier this afternoon that those whose jobs are being sold are not even to have the right to look at the contract for selling their jobs and livelihoods?
I agree with one small phrase that the hon. Gentleman used. I think that there are some trade union leaders who resent being talked to about democracy, but they would resent that from whatever quarter it came. Fortunately, there is emerging a number of trade union leaders who are democratic, who know how to live with democracy and who are also very powerful figures, as they command support in their unions and take care to consult their members before they take action. The difference between those trade union members and the kind whom the hon. Gentleman defends is that the more modern trade unionists are more responsible vis-à-vis their industries and the companies in which their members work. They may be powerful figures, but they use their power in a way that pays regard to the long-term interests of their members.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the proposals he has announced this afternoon will be widely welcomed among rank and file trade unionists across the country, none more so than by those in the NUM, a union that has been brought to the verge of bankruptcy and that has denied access to financial information and whose president is able to use loopholes in the law to avoid re-election? Will he ensure that these important provisions are brought into law to protect rank and file trade unionists at the earliest possible opportunity?
The NUM is indeed a shining example of the worst of problems, with its rules having been changed to make sure that its president does not have to stand for re-election by its members, with attempts having been made to change the rule book to exclude members from the right of access to the law courts and with attempts having been made to provide wide immunity for officials who have acted in breach of the law. Most members of the NUM—let alone ex-members of the NUM, who now, in despair, have gone to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers—will welcome any attempt to bring back democracy and proper accountability to that trade union.
If the Paymaster General is really sincere in saying that this proposal is about the extension of democracy and the rights of the majority and that it is not about the rights of capital, will he tell the House how these measures would have helped the National Graphical Association and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades members at Wapping to get rid of Rupert Murdoch?
It would not have helped them to get rid of Rupert Murdoch, but it would have helped them to have a proper say in the activities of their own trade unions. [Interruption.] I shall try to avoid a lengthy repetition of what I said earlier. The funds of SOGAT were sequestered because it did not carry out a ballot of its wholesale members. It called out on strike its wholesale members but it did not ballot those members. The result was that SOGAT lost its immunity. Rupert Murdoch's News International took action against it and was awarded compensation, and eventually had the union's funds sequestered. If these proposals had been in force, it would have been open to an individual member of SOGAT being called out on strike to seek an order restraining his union from commencing strike action until a ballot had been held. That would have enabled the members of the union to save the union from itself and to pull back from the unlawful action that brought it near to ruin.
My right hon. and learned Friend is seeking to introduce welcome rights and safeguards for ordinary, individual trade union members. Will my right hon. and learned Friend write to the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) in the absence of his more moderate hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), and ask him urgently to tell us which of those rights he intends to oppose, because there are millions of trade union members who would like to know the answer to that question fairly quickly?
That is a worthwhile suggestion that I shall certainly act on. Three years ago the Labour party fought tooth and nail against the introduction of pre-strike ballots and the direct election of executives. Since then, it has committed itself to the total repeal of what we have achieved so far, so I am afraid that I regard its reaction to our present Green Paper as wholly predictable and consistent with its opposition to genuine democracy inside the trade union movement for the last 10 years or more.
Does the Paymaster General not recognise that most trade union members will regard this as a blatant attack on the trade union movement and as an attempt to shackle the trade union movement and weaken its ability to negotiate fair pay and working conditions? Is it not a fact that trade union members already within the democracy of the trade union movement have the right to change the rules if they wish? Does he not recognise that many trade unionists will regard it as complete hypocrisy if the law outlined in this Green Paper has to be approved by a House that is not democratically elected and by the other place that is unrepresentative?
First, I do not accept that unions such as the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, or the AUEW, which will have no difficulty complying with this as the last step, are in any way shackled or inhibited from looking after the interests of their members. In fact, they are far more powerful unions to face across the negotiating table than many of the old dinosaur unions with unrepresentative leadership and shaky command over their own followers. Also I do not accept that we can just leave it to the members to exercise their rights by getting the rule books changed. Simply to rely on the rule books involves going through a process of branch meetings, rules conferences, and so on, and that is not a secure, democratic route for the ordinary trade union member to follow. Therefore, I do not think that this proposal will be opposed by most trade unionists, as the hon. Gentleman declares. Most trade unionists will see this as an attempt to give them individually a greater say in whatever action their unions want to take.
My right hon. and learned Friend's Green Paper will be both apt and timely and he is heartily to be congratulated on bringing forward proposals that will have the rare distinction of being both popular and just. Will he also consider that it may now be timely to take the first steps towards restricting the right to strike for those who carry out essential services and who, by their strikes, disadvantage most those who are in greatest need? Should we not consider tempering the right to strike of workers in vital public services with a sense of responsibility to the wider community?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I agree with him in disapproving most strongly of people taking strike action that adversely affects patients and pupils in hospitals and schools. I do not think that any of us support strike action in essential services, taken against members of the public who are not parties to the dispute. On the other hand, we have no present intention of legislating on the matter because in practice it is extremely difficult to formulate proposals that would be effective and enforceable. However, we shall continue to keep the matter under review. At the moment, thanks to all the other legislative changes that we have made, 1 am glad to say that industrial peace is more or less restored in most of the essential services. The problem will arise again only if there is a fresh outburst of industrial action in the essential services.
It was interesting to hear the Paymaster General speak on behalf of the AUEW. As a member of the AUEW, I think that these proposals are extremely undemocratic and that, if anything, this proposed legislation will tilt matters clearly in favour of employers. That is not democracy; it is turning democracy on its head. There can be a ballot on the shop floor, but those who participate in it and vote against the majority decision can continue to work. It is ironic that this Government should be putting this type of legislation on the statute book. They have broken more international conventions than any other previous Government. This Government prevented the Vredeling proposals and the fifth directive from reaching the statute book.
I noted the Paymaster General's attitude towards the teachers. I presume that his own profession — the barristers — will not be affected by the legislation. On the one hand, we take rights off workers; on the other, we allow absolute immunity to the legal and other professions because of the closed shop.
The effect of the strike ballot is to give a trade union total immunity against action that might otherwise be taken against it by employers or by the employer's customers or suppliers. The effect of a strike ballot should not be that individual members who still want to go to work should be coerced, intimidated or subjected to disciplinary action, or that they should not be allowed to cross picket lines. Democracy does not entail the right to intimidate or coerce individuals or to take unfair action against them. They are perfectly entitled to exercise their right to go to work.
As for the Bar, this legislation will apply to the Bar Council as much as to any other trade union. In the days when I practised at the Bar, we did not have a closed shop and, as far as I am aware, there is no closed shop at the moment. I should certainly vote against the establishment of a closed shop.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, especially as it concerns free, secret and democratic postal ballots. Is he aware that this will be of particular importance to those members of the Civil and Public Services Association who, before the elections for the general secretary, faced massive intimidation and, I believe, election-rigging, which explains why John Macreadie won the election rather than John Ellis? Is he further aware that, after the teachers' surveys and elections for future industrial unrest, ballot papers were hanging around classrooms? My right hon. and learned Friend's announcement today will ensure that we have true, free and proper elections. That is good for the interests of all union members throughout the country.
My hon. Friend is right to recall the shambles that surrounded the CPSA elections. A re-run also had to be ordered in the Transport and General Workers Union and apparently there is some controversy in the National Union of Seamen. That may explain the absence of one of the more prominent members of that union from the Chamber this afternoon.
Given that we want to see the executive elected properly and directly, it is essential that we ensure that elections are organised fairly, supervised properly and conducted with great secrecy.
If this Green Paper is so good, and if those institutions which have not already adopted such systems are to be regarded as dinosaurs, why did not the Prime Minister tell the Institute of Directors that it, too, should come under the aegis of the Green Paper? Why should not the Green Paper apply also to the CBI? Why should it not apply to the medical profession, and the legal profession to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred? Why in all this talk about self-regulation for the City could not the Paymaster General take another step-by-step approach and tell his friends in the Cabinet that they ought to apply the provisions to the stock exchange and other areas of the City of London where swindlers proliferate and support the Tory party? Is not the truth of the matter that, just prior to the next general election, the Government are taking another step-by-step approach with a view, eventually, if they are successful in the election, to abolishing the right to strike?
First, the new proposals will apply to absolutely any organisation that is a trade union and, so far as I am aware, that includes, and always has included, the British Medical Association and similar bodies.
With regard to the City, we have just introduced regulatory arrangements and they are subject to legal restrictions. The self-regulatory mechanism is backed up by legal penalties for those who depart from it. It is pointless to make broad-brush comparisons with other parts of our way of life in order to try to evade the crucial point which faces the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and his colleagues. The Opposition must determine why they are so opposed to simple concepts such as the direct election of the executive by the members and of giving the members the right to decide whether they will be called out on strike.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his statement will be greatly welcomed by some of my constituents who are, regrettably, still having problems in terms of ballots, closed shops and many related matters? Will he look especially at the role of the certification officer and the ease of access that ordinary union members have to that officer in his capacity to supervise the regularity and correctness of ballots? Will he, in particular, consider the holding of hearings by the certification officer and the payment of expenses for ordinary union members to allow them easy and effective access to the certification officer?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The certification officer tries to provide a reasonably informal route for complaint. However, there is no doubt that he can take up to six months to hear complaints. That can involve a member facing the certification officer with the union and its lawyers ranged against him and there may be a great deal of procedural argument. Nevertheless, the certification officer has made a number of orders, but unfortunately he lacks the powers to enforce them. At least one union, the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Section, appears to have implied recently that it will not comply with the declaration of the certification officer who claimed that the election rules should be brought in line with present legislation. For that reason, we believe that a commissioner is required to give support to individual complainants in proper cases and to ensure that someone is not overawed or intimidated and that the law is not just ignored.
Why do the Government spend so much time extolling free trade unionism in countries such as Poland and so much time trying to destroy free trade unionism in this country? How can the Minister refer, as he does in paragraph 2.10 of the Green Paper, to the right to work despite a strike, yet not extend the right to work to the 4 million unemployed people in this country? As he said earlier that the unions should belong to their members, what would be the Government's attitude to these proposals if the unions, through balloting and consultation of the members, told the Government to stick the Green Paper?
My idea of a free trade union is one that elects its own leadership and consults its membership about the way in which it behaves. The hon. Gentleman's idea of a free trade union may be one in which the leadership emerges from some small political caucus, where some leaders are appointed for life and where members are not entitled to be consulted before a strike is held. I believe that the Government's reaction to the activities and events in Poland is wholly consistent with our attempt to have free and democratic unions in this country.
Is the Minister aware that I am the vice-president of a trade union which, since 1890, has always belonged to its members and has never needed any lectures in democracy from a political party which did not get around to electing its leader until 1965 and which even now, as I told the Prime Minister, does not subject the party chairman to any form of election? Is it not a form of political corruption for a party which receives fairly substantial sums of money from big business to use its political power to undermine the rights of working people at their places of employment?
I am delighted to learn that the hon. Gentleman's trade union has always complied with the type of measures that we are now suggesting should be prescribed by law. Undoubtedly it will have ease in complying with our provisions. He should welcome our attempt to spread good practice to the likes of the National Union of Mineworkers, the Confederation of Health Service Employees, the National and Local Government Officers Association, TASS and other trade unions which would not have got anywhere near internal democracy unless the law had intervened to look after the members' interests.
I want to take this opportunity to inform the Paymaster General and his right hon. and hon. Friends that the Labour movement welcomes the opportunity to take on the Tory party and the alliance at the next election on the basis of free trade unionism and the right to strike.
Will the Paymaster General now answer the question that he has been evading all afternoon? Why is it that one side of industry — the workers — must be regulated by Government diktat while the other side of industry—big business and the City — is allowed to practise self-regulation?
I look forward to the challenge that we should argue these points before the electorate, given the nature of the Labour party's commitment to repeal everything that we have done and to return to a position in which indirectly elected leaders of trade unions will tell their members to rely on the rule book as a remedy.
On the imbalance to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there are strict constraints on the behaviour of companies and employers, and there always have been. There are strong protections for workers who have been unfairly dismissed, including people unfairly dismissed for exercising their right to belong to a trade union. It is simply absurd to suggest that there is any reason why trade unions should be outside a basic regulatory system which will not weaken the unions in any way, but will ensure that their membership and workers at the workplace will be the real holders of power in the trade union rather than the unelected, irresponsible minorities.