Burnsall's, Smethwick

– in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 11 March 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope]

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson , Hamilton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether it is possible for a Minister to tell the House why all the plans and arrangements that the Government made to sit—

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. The hon. Member knows that we are on the Adjournment. He is taking the time of the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds).

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

There has been some skulduggery over the past couple of years at No. 10 Downing street. I am talking, of course, about my constituency. Burnsall's is a small electroplating factory which is run by two Irish brothers of whom I shall have something further to say.

The metal finishing industry is characterised by small factory units employing unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Because of their working conditions at the Burnsall's factory, a number of workers—30—after talks with the health and safety advice centre in Birmingham approached the GMB in March of last year. They wanted the protection that only a union could give them. Their complaints were numerous. They were denied the use of the safety-protective clothing and equipment when it was needed. They worked with acids and phosphates, but gloves were not replaced when they gave no further protection. Goggles were not provided for workers who were exposed to fumes and splashing from acids. The necessary masks were not provided in the paint-spraying areas.

When the workers justifiably sought information about the chemicals and materials that they were working with, such information was, unbelievably, withheld. It is well known that chemicals used in electroplating are highly toxic.

The majority of the workers were Punjabi women. It was they who did most of the hard physical labour, yet they were paid £20 to £30 less per week than the men for a normal working week of 40 hours. In practice the work force frequently had to work imposed overtime of up to 56 hours. When the factory was operating seven days a week the workers were required to do 65 hours. The overtime hours, long and enforced, were paid not at any overtime or premium rate but at the same miserable rate as the normal 40 hours. Workers who declined to comply were given warnings and someone who did not turn up would be denied access to the toilets the following week.

On a particular bank holiday—paid at standard rate, of course—the brothers exhibited unusual generosity by presenting each of the Asian workers with a hot cross bun: something of an oddity, these two brothers. With the concurrence of the work force, Danny Parry, the regional organiser of the GMB, wrote to the company in March last year requesting recognition. On 1 May the management received individual requests from all workers for recognition of the union. The two brothers withdrew to their office, locked themselves in for four hours and pondered their tactics. Eventually—late that Friday afternoon—they emerged, walked up to the only white worker and told him that he would be doing overtime that Saturday. The worker protested and was summarily dismissed.

The rest of the work force—all non-white—were incensed by this, and were eager to show their solidarity. On 11 June the union balloted its members for strike action. The vote was unanimously in favour. The first action was a collective ban on all overtime on Saturday 13 June. Two days later—on the morning of Monday 15 June —two officers of the union, Danny Parry and Joe Quigley, met the management for the purpose of securing recognition and so averting the imminent strike. The management refused to discuss any of the workers' grievances. Jim O'Neil, supposedly the managing director, actually said, "We will only talk to you about health and safety when we recognise your union, and we will never recognise your union."

On the second day of the strike, 16 June, the management—if one can use such a term—sent letters to all the strikers demanding their return by Friday 19 June, or they would face dismissal. On 22 June, five health and safety inspectors, including the principal inspector, Peter Ward, and two employment medical advisory service doctors investigated conditions at the Burnsall premises. That very day, the two brothers went ahead and dismissed all those who were on strike.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation vindicated the workers' concerns and grievances, and a subsequent letter from the executive to Joe Quigley stated: We have decided to issue an improvement notice on the company which will require them to complete sufficient and suitable assessments on all hazardous substances used in the factory. Other measures we are requiring the company to take include the provision of adequate first-aid arrangements—in particular, the need to supply suitable eye wash facilities and a shower, the need to specify a policy with respect to the employment of pregnant women and the provision of improved arrangements for ensuring that toilet facilities are kept clean. Having discussed the situation with Joe Quigley, I wrote to the two wayward brothers on 2 July last year a very reasonable letter—as I am sure the House would expect—suggesting that, to resolve the dispute and terminate the strike, I, the local Roman Catholic priest, Father Byrne, and the president of the Sikh temple, the gurudwara, should meet the two brothers at any time convenient to them to discuss the problem. We were concerned at the divisions and tensions the dispute could cause, and we desired to foster good relations rather than exacerbate ethnic tensions.

This was, of course, Smethwick, where sanity and harmony were restored when I won the seat in that glorious victory of March 1966, after an unhappy and pretty disreputable interregnum. The brothers were probably ignorant of this history. They do not appear to be the most intelligent of gentleman in any case. They certainly do not seem to appreciate where their own best interests lie, and they did not have the courtesy to respond to my letter, then or since—in keeping, perhaps, with the general line of their conduct.

The GMB has performed with punctilious diligence throughout this dispute in the interests of its members. It has filed 53 industrial tribunal claims against the company, 12 equal pay claims, 20 unfair dismissal claims, 20 non-payment of holiday entitlement claims and one unlawful deduction of wages claim.

As the House will know, strikers, whatever the cause of the strike, are automatically barred from unemployment benefit and income support. However, last September the Department of Social Security upheld an appeal by the GMB against the non-payment of these benefits. It reasoned that the strikers had been involved in an industrial dispute only from 15 to 19 June. From that date, when the employers had demanded their return, the workers were no longer on strike but on unauthorised leave of absence. If that unauthorised leave of absence were not justified, it would be classed as misconduct and the workers barred from benefit for 26 weeks. However, after studying submissions from the GMB and the Health and Safety Executive, the DSS adjudication officer decided that the workers were justified in refusing to return to work. Consequently, they were paid unemployment benefit backdated to 19 June.

The Conservative Governments of recent years come out of all this appallingly badly. They claimed that their numerous interventions in industrial relations legislation were intended to replace shop-floor anarchy with a harmonious, legally binding negotiating structure.

The Burnsall's strike is a prime example of the total failure of the Conservative approach. It allows industrial cowboys like the O'Neils to get away with outrageous practices. "Cowboys" is perhaps too charitable a word with which to describe the O'Neils. Cowboys show more care for their horses than the two brothers showed for their Asian staff.

I have some hope that other industrial companies in the region will show their disapproval of the conduct of Burnsall's by considering whether they should handle any products of the factory and whether they should provide any work for it until the two brothers have the simple intelligence to recognise the GMB and work with it. The denial of the simple right of workers to have the union that they have freely elected to join recognised by their employer has led to a protracted, bitter and avoidable dispute.

It is essential that the Government re-examine some of the issues raised in this case. That industrial employers such as the O'Neil brothers could have reverted to the practices prevailing at the end of the last century is absolutely unsatisfactory. This is not an exercise late at night. It really is essential that the Ministers responsible for industrial relations reconsider some of the mistakes that they have made over the last few years and put them right, for the sake of industrial harmony in this country.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak 10:13, 11 March 1993

I congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) on securing this debate. It is high time that the appalling treatment meted out to the workers at the Burnsall's factory at 10 Downing street in Smethwick was given an airing in this Chamber.

We have recently seen the passage of the so-called Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill through the House. On 17 November, during the Second Reading, the Secretary of State was eloquent in her concern about the rights of employees. In fact, that Bill does nothing to secure the rights of employees, and what little it does to help women, for instance, on maternity leave has been forced on the Government by the European Community.

When, on 17 November, I raised very briefly the issue of the Burnsall's strike, the appalling wages paid to workers, the compulsory overtime, and, of course, the denial of the right to have their trade union recognised when 26 out of the 29 workers had voted to join the trade union, the Secretary of State's response was that trade union recognition and bargaining rights were different from membership.

The Secretary of State is not really concerned about workers' rights. Her remarks are indicative of the Government's attitude. They are not concerned about the appalling wages paid to workers such as those at Burnsall's mostly women workers. That is happening throughout the country. Workers, particularly women, are being forced to accept appalling wages and even to take cuts in their wages. That will get worse with the abolition of the wages councils.

In a written reply to a question by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) about the connection between minimum wages and employment, the Government quoted 26 references. I followed them up, to find that, of those 26 references, only 10 showed any positive correlation between minimum wages and employment. The summary of the notes from the House of Commons Library says that most of the reports were theoretical and did not give a positive response to the issue.

Week after week, the Government talk as though minimum wages are disadvantageous in terms of employment. They talk as if that were the accepted wisdom. In fact, their written reply to that questions shows that that is not the case. Sixteen of those 26 references show that there is no correlation between minimum wages set at a reasonable level in relation to the general levels of wages within the economy and employment. They are not detrimental and, in many cases, can have a positive effect on employment because of the increasing purchasing power that they bring into the market.

It is high time that the Government came clean about what is happening to employees. If they really are concerned about workers' rights, they should think again about their legislation. They should think again about introducing the right for workers who vote to be members of trade unions to have their union recognised. It is high time that No. 10 Downing street, London, took note of what is happening at No. 10 Downing street, Smethwick, learned from that experience, and acted accordingly.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment) 10:16, 11 March 1993

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) for bringing to the attention of the House a matter that they think of important interest to their constituency.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak has a short memory when it comes to the demand for recognition by employers. To refresh her memory, when the previous Labour Government tried to impose that on industry, it led to total chaos in industrial relations—so much so that even the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service said that what they had tried to do was impracticable and unworkable. Therefore, we cannot take too seriously the hon. Lady's strictures on recognition.

However, I accept that the hon. Member for Warley, East has brought what he thinks to be an important matter to the attention of the House, and I shall attempt to set out the employment law as it applies to this case.

Our consistent policy since 1979 has been to establish and maintain a framework of law which is appropriate to the needs of a modern economy. Such a framework must strike a proper balance between the rights that it gives to employers and to employees. But it must also be a framework of law which is apt for the industrial relations practices and traditions of this country. It has also been a crucial principle of our policy that the Government should not seek to intervene in matters such as industrial disputes which are best left to the parties directly involved to resolve. We do not believe that the Government know better than Burnsall's own management how to run the affairs of the company.

Similarly, we do not seek to condemn, or to praise, the lawful actions which employers may take to protect the interests of their businesses. Where an employer acts unlawfully, however, he puts himself at risk of penalties and sanctions. Thus, an employer cannot with impunity deny his workers equal pay rights, or break health and safety requirements.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Warley, East said about health and safety inspectors. Burnsall's was visited in June 1992, in response to a complaint. They issued an improvement notice requiring the company to undertake an assessment under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations. They made a number of additional recommendations. A follow-up visit confirmed that the improvement notice had been complied with and work undertaken to meet the remaining recommendations. There are no continuing matters of concern to the Health and Safety Executive at Burnsall's at present.

Inspectors can require an employer to obey the law where it has been broken, and the court can punish employers who flout their health and safety responsibilities. I believe that we have a very good record in bolstering the role of the Health and Safety Executive, and a number of companies would pay tribute to the way in which the executive works to further the health and safety of workers in their companies.

Similarly, under employment law, an employee has potential remedies for constructive dismissal, and breach of contract, when an employer unilaterally alters the employee's overall terms and conditions of employment to the employee's disadvantage. It is quite wrong to assume that employees faced with such unreasonable behaviour by their employer have no option but to take industrial action. It is equally wrong to believe that the Government have to intervene before these matters can be resolved.

We believe in balloting where that is necessary to ensure that union members have a proper say in the conduct of the union to which they belong.

An industrial action ballot is necessary, for example, to ensure that members want their union to call on them to take such action. The ballot is therefore a necessary condition if a union is to have the benefit of the protection which the law can give it to call on workers to take industrial action against their employer.

The workers' relationships with a company that has offered them work on terms which they have accepted is really rather different. To argue that, because there was a ballot in favour of recognition, Burnsall's should agree to that can only be founded on the completely unacceptable principle that recognition arrangements can properly be decided by workers alone. That cannot be correct, as it fails to take proper account of the employers' necessary freedom to decide the terms on which they will offer work.

An industrial action ballot can protect a union which wishes to organise industrial action. However, such a ballot, for such a purpose, cannot and should not afford any special protection for workers who choose—

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

The hon. Member says "Disgraceful." I wish that miners during that 12 months' strike had been given the chance of a ballot. It was signally denied to them, and I am grateful that the law now provides that right and that protection.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

The Minister is not answering the point. We are not dealing with the miners. Is he saying that it is entirely up to employers now to decide whether they will recognise the work force? The work force carry out a ballot with the result to which the Minister has referred. The Minister is saying, is he not, that regardless of a ballot by the work force, the decision on whether recognition will be given lies entirely with the employers? That is totally wrong.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

That was my point at the beginning of my speech when I explained about recognition. I said what a failure demand for recognition had turned out to be under the Government whom the hon. Member supported. It was brought in and was condemned by ACAS.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Minister said that it would be wrong for employees, by a ballot, to decide that they should be recognised, because it was not a matter that could be decided by one party, but the hon. Gentleman is saying that it is decided by one party because, if the employer will not agree to recognition, there is no machinery in law that can secure recognition for the employee.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

I am not sure what the hon. Member is saying. It is a fairly interesting concept that he might be developing. Is he saying that, irrespective of the outcome of a ballot, the employers have to abide by the result of that ballot, in which they have not taken part? It is a strange idea of what a ballot should be. As we have made clear, at the end of the day, there is special protection for workers to choose. It will be the individual's choice. It will be for employees to decide whether to take industrial action against their employers.

In the case of Burnsall's, it was not unlawful for the employer to respond to the decision of the workers to take industrial action in the way he did. The workers chose to take industrial action against the firm. Industrial action is one of a number of choices which employees have when faced with what they believe to be unreasonable behaviour by their employer.

However, the law has always allowed employers the necessary freedom to respond to strikes by imposing sanctions on those who take such action. That was the case even under the legislation enacted by the previous Labour Government, which allowed employers to dismiss all those taking industrial action without risking claims of unfair dismissal from any of them. The Labour Government did not believe it right to make it unlawful.

Employees who take industrial action will know that there may be damaging financial consequences for them, since they are unlikely to receive any pay if they withdraw their labour. They should also be aware that they are putting their jobs at risk, because the employer may decide that he has no option but to dismiss them.

Indeed, our legislation confirms that all employees have the right to belong to a union, and not to be discriminated against on grounds of their union membership and activities. All employees have the right not to be dismissed for being members of an independent union and not to have other action short of dismissal taken against them to prevent or deter them from belonging to such a union. They also have statutory rights to take part in trade union activities at an appropriate time.

If these union membership rights are denied, an employee can bring a complaint to an industrial tribunal— a system giving access to legal redress which compares well with any available in other countries. The rights apply regardless of the time during which an individual has worked for the employer. Accordingly, it is misleading to suggest that our law means that Burnsall's employees are being denied the right to belong to a union.

United Kingdom law does, of course, now leave employers free to decide for themselves, taking account of the circumstances and needs of their business, whether to recognise a union for collective bargaining purposes. This is an intentional, and entirely justifiable, result of the changes that we have made to the law since 1979. The law should recognise the fact that it is the employer who offers work and the employee who undertakes to do that work in accordance with the terms offered by the employer. Setting terms and conditions through collective bargaining is a choice which employers should have, and they should be free to operate those arrrangements where they believe they are appropriate or necessary.

But no employers should find themselves in a position where they must unwillingly, accept such arrangements because of some statutory requirement. After all, the employer has offered work not to the union, but to individuals. If he does not wish to bargain with a union about the terms and conditions under which work will be done, why on earth should the law require him to do so?

Moreover, experience during the 1970s demonstrated all too vividly, and at great cost to the country's industrial relations record and reputation, just what happens when the law attempts to enable unions to force recognition on unwilling employers. It is surprising that the hon. Member for Selly Oak has forgotten that the independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service itself concluded that the Labour Government's statutory recognition legislation proved "unworkable". Not only was that legislation unworkable, but it was highly disruptive. The Grunwick dispute, attempts by unions such as the United Kingdom Association of Professional Engineers and the Engineers and Managers Association to use the legislation to break up freely established recognition arrangements—

Photo of Mr Andrew Faulds Mr Andrew Faulds , Warley East

The Minister is rambling. Did he listen to a word of my speech? Is he trying to pretend that the conduct of the O'Neils was in any way satisfactory with a work force of about 30 Punjabi women who did not speak English, who had no knowledge of their rights and who had to get union recognition to protect them? Will he comment on that essential element in this case?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am rambling. His speech was rambling. If he does not like to listen to me setting out the position under the law, I am sorry, but I still intend to explain it. If he finds it embarrassing when I refer to the position under the previous Labour Government, I feel sorry for him. He should listen, because it is important to judge what industrial relations were like prior to 1979 and to recognise the substantial changes made by the Government, which have brought about a massive improvement in industrial relations. We will not take lectures from the Labour party about the role of trade unions because their record was lamentable.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Will not the Minister condemn the treatment of the workers by the employer?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

I am not in a position to know the full details and circumstances of the case. I am trying tonight to explain to the House exactly what the situation is and what the law makes available to individuals so that there is a balance between the rights of workers and employers. I regard that to be of fundamental importance.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Does the Minister reject Winston Churchill's view that parity of bargaining requires that there be an organisation on both sides?

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Employment)

There is an organisation on both sides in this case. It is up to individuals to decide whether to accept a contract of work with the company. That happens in the first instance, and then we move on to the wider question of union recognition. There is nothing to stop individuals belonging to a trade union. That does not mean that a trade union must be recognised by a company. I think that that is abundantly clear.

The hon. Member for Warley, East is rightly concerned to do what he can to resolve the problems involved. I accept that, and I accept that he has gone to great lengths to bring about a resolution of the problems and difficulties facing his constituents.

The Government must be prepared to take account of the way in which the law can affect industrial disputes and the conduct of companies such as Burnsall's. I hope I have explained why we believe that United Kingdom law contains an appropriate balance between the rights of workers and their employers, and certainly not the kind of imbalance that the hon. Member for Warley, East has claimed.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman must realise that it was the choice of Burnsall's workers to take industrial action. Just as they had freedom to make that choice, so their employer had certain freedoms to respond. Both sides were acting as free agents, and it is really not the proper role of this House to seek to probe behind their reasoning with the aim of arbitrating some kind of blame or praise for what they chose to do.

The hon. Member for Warley, East raised a number of points about health and safety. I have explained the situation regarding health and safety inspections, and I—[Interruption.] I think I hear the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) saying that the employer was in the wrong. As I pointed out, the health and safety orders were complied with. They were—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.