Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:54 pm on 11th January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lennie Lord Lennie Labour 6:54 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, I add my congratulations on the three maiden speeches that we have heard from my noble friends on this side of the House. They are my noble friend Lady Primarolo, of whom I was a former constituent back in 1983; my noble friend Lord Livermore with whom I worked for many years in the Labour Party, campaigning from 1997 onwards; and my noble friend Lord Watts, from whose speech I gather he is not about to seek promotion to the shadow Cabinet any time soon. I might be wrong—who knows?

I want to share a story with your Lordships arising from what became the Trade Union Act 1984, which the noble Lord, Lord King, introduced under the Thatcher Government of that time. We seem to be trying to deal with the same problems all over again despite the fact that, as many people have said, they no longer exist in the industrial relations of modern Great Britain. The legislation introduced then by the noble Lord, Lord King, also introduced the notion of balloting among unions if they wished to retain political funding. I think he said that no piece of that legislation was not already being undertaken by one or other of the unions at that time. I do not think that balloting for political funds was being undertaken then but I may be wrong, and that is not the point of my story. The point is that we had a somewhat arrogant Tory Government at the height of their power. We had a much weakened Labour Party that had suffered two big defeats and was wrecked by infiltration from outside forces, which we managed to get rid of in the end. We also had the dear departed David Bowie, God rest his soul, riding high in the charts at that time with “Let’s Dance”—and let us listen to that more often.

My personal role at that time was as a lowly, newly-appointed trade union official. I had originally been recruited to the trade union movement up in the north-east of England by my noble friend Lord Sawyer. I was then appointed as an official to the then union NALGO, which looked after workers in the public sector and was very keen to retain its political fund. It was not sure whether its membership would vote to retain the fund but we were determined to do whatever we could to ensure that it happened. Dave Prentis, who is now the general secretary of Unison, was then the assistant general-secretary of NALGO and my boss, and I think Rita Donaghy, now my noble friend Lady Donaghy, was probably its president at that time. They had the modern answer—the campaigning tool that would win the argument among the membership. It was a video, a cutting-edge piece of campaigning kit which ensured that a consistent, clear message would be received by all the members of the union, wherever they were throughout the country.

The video was entitled “NALGO—the political fund explained”, and all the arguments were there. There was everything necessary to win the hearts and minds, and indeed the votes, of a sceptical membership. “Show it to win it” was the slogan. What could possibly go wrong? In modern terms, we had been weaponised with the use of the video and could not lose. I was a keen young official but I made a fatal mistake: I volunteered to be the guinea pig, the first to show the new video at the first mass meeting of members of the then union, which was the City of Newcastle NALGO branch. Sir Jeremy Beecham, now my noble friend Lord Beecham, was the leader of the council at the time. He gave us facility time for the meeting and the room to have the meeting in: the civic centre’s main hall. The campaign strategy was good. It was to get the big branches of the union convinced and persuaded first, and then to cascade out from them to the smaller branches. The momentum was unstoppable. We were going to win.

So there I was in Newcastle Civic Centre, setting up this cutting-edge technology, the video machine. There was a large screen behind me, and the video player was in front of me, awaiting the members’ arrival. They arrived in droves—a full house for the first showing of NALGO’s video explaining the political fund. People were rapt in anticipation. My fear, as I am sure noble Lords will recall with video machines, was that it would not work: the machinery or the video would let me down and the argument would be lost, or indeed the video might not arrive. It was being sent from the dispatch department in NALGO headquarters in London, up to Newcastle for this first ever showing. I do not know why they took the risk, but they did. However, the video arrived, despite my fear that it would not and I would be left high and dry.

My fear was overcome as the welcome sign of a green light came up on a button that said “Play” and a dispatch rider came in with the video in hand, wrapped up in its packaging, uninterfered with, ready for me to play to the massed ranks of the NALGO membership in Newcastle. I put the video in the machine, which did all the right things: it swallowed the video, a whirring sound started and the green light stayed on. I began to relax. I was pioneering the use of video technology as a campaign tool—the weapon, as we called it. But then a lot of the audience started to titter and snigger around the room. I turned round to look at the screen, and horror struck as I read the title page of the video that they were watching behind me to explain NALGO’s political fund: “The Kama Sutra Rides Again”. It was a full-colour cartoon of the famous book of love. They were hooked; I was mortified. It was not a deliberate attempt inspired by NALGO, Dave Prentis or Rita Donaghy—my noble friend Lady Donaghy—to set me down a little bit, but sabotage by the video distributors, having a laugh at my expense. They did not know me and I did not know them, but I am sure they were laughing as much as the rest of the audience. Your Lordships will be glad to know that we overcame the problem and the legislation, and won the ballot to retain NALGO’s political fund.

Here we are at the next attempt. I do not know what the technology will be this time, but we will probably have streaming—all kinds of stuff coming online—and all kinds of ways of combating, countering and overcoming the hurdles of the legislation. But there seem to be three particular problem areas with the legislation, which we need to get right but which we are getting very wrong.

First, there is DOCAS. We have heard this before and will hear it again, but there has been no call from any quarter for DOCAS to end. In her opening speech introducing the legislation, the Minister said it was an unnecessary part of the relationship between unions and their members. Unnecessary to whom? Employers think it is necessary, employees think it is necessary and the trade unions think it is necessary. I have heard of nobody who feels that this is an unnecessary facility to have. Deduction of contributions at source—check-off or whatever you want to call it—is an important part of the relationship to make sure that union membership is what it is in the public sector.

We heard from my noble friend Lord Hain the arguments about why this legislation should not apply in Wales, and I am sure that is probably true of Scotland, too. One of the explanations for this legislation covering both devolved areas of Scotland and Wales is that employers have to deal with members or workers in all the countries and would get confused—it would get too complicated for them—if they had to deal with possibly three different sets of legislative frameworks on deduction of contributions at source, or not as the case may be. I have to say that in the modern economy, companies have employees all over the world and deal with dozens of such issues without it apparently causing confusion, so I cannot see any logic for not excluding Wales and Scotland and letting them do their own thing under their devolved Administrations.

The second area is political funds. I was a part of the discussions about these and, as many people have said, it is true that there has been, if not quite a convention, a long-standing understanding between the parties that you do not move on the issue of funding political parties unless you have all-party agreement. The argument that this is not about the funding of political parties is simply hollow. It is not true. This is all about trying to hurt the Labour Party at the time when it is at its weakest in the cycle, in preparation for election campaigns to come. Many hours of discussions involving the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the right honourable Jack Straw when he was a Minister and Andrew Tyrie, who I think was the main spokesperson at that time for the Tories, sought to find agreement on these things. We came very close to agreement on many occasions, only for one or other of the parties to pull back from signing such an agreement, for reasons that are frankly beyond me. We came very close to it, and since then there have been independent reports, including the latest in 2011, warning that you do not move on these things unless you have all-party agreement. It is dangerous and undemocratic and will no doubt lead to future vengeful acts, to which I would not want to be a party, from this side of the House on that side of the House, should it choose to go in that direction.

The third area is time off for trade union duties: time off to promote health and safety issues, to represent members in difficulties, to advise people at work as to their rights, to represent people with grievances and those facing disciplinaries or other hearings, and all the rest of it. These are the day-to-day routines of trade union activity which keep industrial relations stable, good and modern in Britain. To limit such things by simply denying the right of time to do them seems wrong. If there is a problem with a particular employer, employee or union in a particular place in a particular part of the country, then deal with it. That is what managers are paid to do. We should not have a full-blown piece of legislation aimed at the heart of the trade union movement.

I look forward to future contributions, particularly to where the Government will move and make amendments, at the next stage of this piece of legislation.