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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:22 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Adebowale Lord Adebowale Crossbench 6:22 pm, 11th January 2016

Right. Well, I have drawn the short straw in that I am the 23rd speaker on the list and I follow the noble Lord, Lord Bragg. To be honest, I think that I should sit down now. The noble Lord made a cracking speech. I have listened to some 20 informative and incredible speeches containing a lot of detail, knowledge and history. My contribution is a modest one.

I thought about whether I should speak at all. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that I was encouraged to speak by the experience of my mother, who was a public sector nurse in the NHS. We sat through the three-day week and the strikes. She went to work in the cold but she supported the right to strike and to cause inconvenience. In fact, I am here because of the threat of inconvenience. During the Bristol bus strike of 1964, there was a boycott by BME groups in Bristol. At first they were not supported by the unions, but the unions subsequently got behind black and minority ethnic groups in Bristol who were being discriminated against by an employer who casually did not employ black people on the buses. The excuse given for not employing black men on the buses was the perfectly reasonable one to his mind that the daughters of white people would be at risk.

I think—and my mother would agree—that there are many incidents of poor behaviour on the part of the unions but, believe me, there is an equal number of incidents of appalling behaviour on the part of employers. In listening to the eloquent and emollient introduction of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, I wondered whether the intention of the Bill was matched by its process and content. I have read the Bill and its intention and the stuff presented by the TaxPayers’ Alliance and others. However, I am still concerned about the Bill’s content and whether it has an honest link to any intent to create an “and/and” society rather than an “either/or” society in which you are either a boss or a dastardly trade unionist, akin to a communist or a socialist—which is becoming something of an insult these days. However, I am a Cross-Bencher, so I guess that I can slag them all off.

The organisation for which I work employs 4,000 staff. It is a not-for-dividend organisation. I do not say not for profit: just because we are not for dividend does not mean that we are for deficit. I always take the opportunity—as I do now—to pay tribute to every single one of the employees, who do amazing work at the front line. We have a trade union, with which I have not always got on—after all, I am a boss. But I respect its right to cause inconvenience. I use public transport and suffer when there is a Tube strike.

When I talk to trade union members about what they are doing and why, I do not get the impression that they are doing it lightly or are doing so just to be bloody-minded and to make me walk or scoot to work. They are doing it because, by and large, they are forced to do so—just as my mum, as a public sector worker, had to use the weight of the union to fight the racist discrimination that existed in the NHS. I do not understand why there is one rule for the public sector and another for the private sector. That seems inherent in the Bill. It is as though racism, discrimination and bullying cannot take place in the public sector but somehow can take place in the private sector. That does not make sense. It needs to be explained and clarified in more detail by the Minister.

One of the privileges of speaking 23rd is that much has already been said, so there is no point in repeating it. But the electronic workplace ballot issue strikes me as rather odd. If ever there was evidence that the intention of the Bill is not entirely honourable, it is in the refusal to allow electronic workplace ballots by trade unions. I have spoken to the TUC, heaven forfend. I have spoken to its researchers and other organisations about whether they use electronic postal ballots. Frankly, the only organisation that I can see is banned from using them is the trade unions. That does not make sense.

The notion that the electronic ballot might be at risk of hacking, as the noble Lord, Lord King, said, does not stand up to scrutiny in an age when virtually every single one of us has an electronic bank account. I have certainly used electronic voting in many of the organisations with which I have been involved. As a litmus test of the evidence that this Bill is meant to create an “and/and” and more balanced relationship between workers and trade unions and between bosses and workers, doing something about electronic ballots would certainly indicate to me that there was a serious intent to do something useful.

As I listened to many of the contributions made today, including that of the noble Lord, Lord King, I wondered whether the Bill was about a battle that took place in the past, given the references to miners’ strikes, “Red Robbo”, the three-day week and even the Tube strike. I wonder whether this is about past battles between parties and old ideologies.

We need a Bill that looks to the future and that represents the people who are inconvenienced and those who would wish to put inconvenience upon them—in other words, the leaders and managers who have disrespect for the people who work for them. We should be creating a Bill that is about the future and put the past behind us. This country needs an “and/and” Bill.