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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 6:00 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in a debate with so many fine maiden speeches—namely, those of the noble Lord, Lord Livermore, and the noble Baroness, Lady Primarolo, and it is an honour to be the warm-up artist for the noble Lord, Lord Watts. I am sure we wish them all well.

I suppose that we are all hostages to our upbringing. If I had been born in a different age, I would have watched what happened to the Tolpuddle Martyrs with shame; I would have supported the match girls’ strike; and I like to think that I would have taken part in the hunger marches of the 1930s. Those were battles that needed fighting. I not only pay tribute to what many trade unions have achieved, I would have been proud to have been part of it.

However, for better or for worse, I was a baby boomer, so I remember the three-day week. That time is seared on my soul, because my mother was a worker. She went out to work despite having four kids. But, of course, that is why she went out to work—because she had four kids. Then the three-day weeks began. The power was cut, the heating failed and the lights dimmed, yet my mother still had to go out to work. She was sick that winter—although we did not know it, she was dying—but she still had to work. She put on two overcoats, a woollen hat and gloves, and sat shivering through the working day in order to provide for her family. My mother was earning much less than a miner, yet that did not stop her being used as a pawn in that dispute: she was collateral damage. The point I am trying to make is that workers’ rights do not exist in isolation. They stand alongside the rights of other workers and sometimes they compete, and on occasions conflict, with those other rights. One man’s strike can be another man’s misery.

Let us take the London Underground. How can it be that we are once again faced with even more Tube strikes? Apparently, the unions have problems with the work-life balance of their members. I just wonder about the work-life balance of those who rely on the Tube. What of them? What about the rights of the millions of workers who need the Tube to get to their own work or the innocent victims of what is still so strangely called industrial action?

The union leaders who gathered today to discuss yet more strikes are the same leaders who less than a year ago organised a strike in support of a driver who failed not one but two random breath tests. The London Underground carries 4 million passengers a day. That strike was backed by 299 votes to 221. More strikes have been agreed today. What absurd timing and what world do they live in? There is a right to strike, which is important, but there is also a right to work. Despite the Nelsonian blind eye of the noble Lord, Lord Monks, although perhaps it is more like the blind eye of Mr Arsene Wenger when one of his men handles the ball in the penalty area, these endless Tube strikes are not only futile but also a direct assault on the rights of millions of other workers who have families too.

The overall number of strikes has fallen dramatically. We have heard that, and thank goodness, but there are still those determined to deny any sense of fairness or balance. That is why we need to ensure that there is a sensible voting turnout before a strike and that votes are held within a reasonable time period—not in order to bash those who want to strike but in defence of those who want to work. The Bill contains much more, of course. It is about finding a balance between the rights of one set of workers and the rights of others. Perhaps the details need clarification. Without wishing to unduly excite noble Lords opposite, why not have electronic voting, for instance? Do designated picket supervisors really need armbands? This House, as always, will do its job on the details.

I, for one, do not want to see the impoverishment of the Labour Party. We need healthy, properly funded political parties and not a,

“bunch of far-left antiwar former communists”,

as one recently politically deceased member of the shadow Cabinet said over the weekend. It has already been a bad day, with more resignations, in a difficult month in a tormented year for the party opposite but I hope that the Opposition will find it possible to come forward with balanced suggestions for improving the effectiveness of this Bill. I hope that the Government will listen. This Government have the clear moral and political authority for this Bill and the backing of public opinion, which grows stronger with every ridiculous Tube strike. It is important that we as a party and a Government work hard to keep that support.

Last week, I spent some time talking with a very senior foreign ambassador. He said that there was something rather remarkable going on in this country. He very much admired how we are working our way out of the terrible economic mess in a more successful manner than almost any other country. This Bill is part of that effort. It is a Bill for ordinary workers, which ordinary people like my mother would have supported.