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The hon. Gentleman is being extremely ingenious, and it sounds as though he is being rather defensive on the Government's behalf. Clearly the purpose of a postal ballot is to ensure that one is sent the ballot paper and can deal with it in the privacy of one's home. The number of workers at a given workplace who would take the initiative to ensure that ballot papers were sent to them at the workplace would be negligible, although I suppose that technically it may be an option. The hon. Gentleman should not use jesuitical arguments to wriggle out of the Government's clear intentions in the clause.
Quite apart from the number of members participating, there are real practical difficulties in requiring large unions to conduct postal ballots. Let me give an example. The largest union — the Transport and General Workers Union—has an extremely diverse membership employed in various trades by literally tens of thousands of employers. There are about 1.3 million members in 8,500 to 9,000 branches. The members are employed not only in travelling occupations these include long-distance lorry drivers, coach drivers, air crew and travelling construction and agricultural workers—but at sea, in trawlers and lighthouses and on oil rigs and construction sites.
Furthermore, the union has a membership turnover —and I say this in answer to the question of the hon. Member for Lancaster about the post—of about 20 per cent. a year, or about 25,000 members a month. That is why the TGWU would have difficulties with postal ballots. —[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady wishes to make a speech on the matter, she can. I see the Minister pulling a face at the suggestion that his hon. Friend might make a speech, and I can understand that.
The co-ordination of elections, even with the central register of members that unions are required to collect under the Trade Union Act 1984, is a complex matter for large unions such as the TGWU. They require at least the degree of flexibility afforded by the Government's own previous anti-trade union Act—the 1984 Act—which is being taken away by the clause, if they are to ensure that every member is given a reasonable opportunity to take part in the democratic life of the union. Clause 13 as drafted will make that impossible. Perhaps that is what the Government intend, and that is precisely why we strongly oppose the clause.
Our case is simple. In our view, the participation rate is probably the single most important democratic criterion for a ballot. Workplace ballots fulfil that criterion to a far higher degree than postal ballots. That is why trade unions should be given the choice to adopt the most suitable ballot for them.