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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour 6:07 pm, 11th January 2016

(Maiden Speech) My Lords, I start my maiden speech by thanking the staff and officials of the House of Lords, and my fellow Peers from all sides of this Chamber for the warm welcome that I have received since I entered this establishment on 3 December. Having spent 20 years in local government and 18 years in the other place, it is somewhat of a shock to receive such kindness. When I first started my political career as a working-class boy from Liverpool, I had no idea that I would end up as the leader of my local authority, one of the town’s local MPs for 18 years, chairman of the PLP and now an appointed Member of this House.

I came to politics by accident after becoming active in the trade union movement in my teens. During the time that I was involved in my union, I came to understand that trade unions can protect workers and promote equality only up to a point. Working people needed a political party to represent them in Parliament. I believe that that principle was correct then and that it remains correct today.

If noble Lords consider every progressive change taken over the last 100 years, they will see that the Labour Party and the trade unions together have made this country a more just society. This includes the creation of the NHS, the welfare state, equal pay, the minimum wage, the Race Relations Act, the introduction of tax credits, and equality in the workplace and the home. The list goes on and on.

Despite being active in politics for nearly 40 years, I feel that I have failed in my main aims. I wanted to work towards a fairer and a more equal and just society. But I have to say that, despite my many years in politics, I believe that we have been moving backwards over the last five years. It is still the case today that a child’s life chances have more to do with where they are born rather than their own talents and abilities; it is still the case that the best schools and universities are kept for the rich and powerful; it is still the case that people’s job security depends on their class; and it is still the case that people will live longer in rich communities than in poorer towns and cities. It is impossible for many young people from poorer backgrounds to own their own homes.

This problem is not exclusively a British one: all around the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in relative terms. I believe that rejection of mainstream political parties is a direct consequence of many people feeling that their Governments around the world are on the side of the powerful, not ordinary families such as theirs.

I ask myself one question: will the Bill make the present situation better or worse? In my view it will make it worse. It will further empower poor employers and disadvantage millions of workers. The Trade Union Bill is a solution looking for a problem. It is not the case that trade unions are presently too powerful; in fact, it is the reverse. Employers are already in a powerful position. The legislation will simply make poor employers even more determined to enforce their will on employees and drive down wages and conditions.

There is simply no evidence to support the Bill: strikes are already at a very low historic level; wages have fallen in real terms over the last five years; and workers are already reluctant to take strike action because they fear the financial loss that they would incur. Millions of workers are no longer unionised and workers feel insecure and vulnerable. The balance between employers and employees has already dramatically shifted in favour of the employer in recent years. If the Government really wanted to help working people they would provide more security in the workplace. They would make it easier for trade unions to represent working people in the workplace who are currently being abused by 17th-century employers, such as Mike Ashley in Sports Direct, who seems to treat his employees like a character out of a Charles Dickens novel.

I will deviate for one second from my main speech and the main point I wish to make. I say to my own party leadership that last week was disastrous for us. When we should have been concentrating on holding the Government to account for the floods and for this Bill, we involved ourselves in an unnecessary reshuffle. We lost two of our best communicators, Michael Dugher and Kevan Jones. My advice to my own party leadership is that they should take less notice of the London-centric, hard-left political class who sit around in their £1 million mansions, eating their croissants at breakfast and seeking to lay the foundations for a socialist revolution. It is not the job of the Parliamentary Labour Party to sit around developing ultra-left-wing policies that make it feel good; it is its job and responsibility to come forward with policies that will help us to win the next general election. For those who do not want to take on that task, can I suggest that they join a society in which they can enjoy sitting around having a philosophical debate about the meaning of socialism? Working people need a practical Labour Party and trade union movement that will address their practical, day-to-day issues.

The Bill, along with other government Bills, shifts the political balance away from the party that represents working people’s interests to already powerful groups. It seeks to reduce funding to the only party that truly represents working people. It also builds on other government policies aimed at weakening the trade union movement, the Labour Party and other opposition parties, such as cutting the Short money to opposition parties, instructing the Boundary Commission to follow a political agenda for the first time in our history, and measures that will reduce the level of funding to trade unions. These will make it much more difficult for the Labour Party and the trade unions to oppose unfair and unjust policies. It will make it much more difficult for trade unions to represent working people and it will hand massive powers to bureaucrats who will have the power to bankrupt trade unions. It will allow employers to recruit temporary workers to break strikes and provide them with the time to do so. Such policies are unfair and unjust, and will leave millions of workers feeling that all political parties now represent the powerful and rich, not ordinary working families.

The Bill will concentrate power in the hands of one political party, poor employers, and the powerful and rich. It will not make it our county for one second a more fair and just place to live. Thank you, my Lords.