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Second Reading

Part of Trade Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:59 pm on 11th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Suri Lord Suri Conservative 7:59 pm, 11th January 2016

My Lords, my research prior to this speech took me a long time back. Unlike those in the other place, most of us can remember the terrible industrial strife of the 1970s and 1980s. The unions bedevilled Labour and Conservative Governments alike. The three-day week and rubbish piled to the shoulder in the street—I remember it all. Trying to run a business in those times was fraught with difficulty. It seems amazing to younger businessmen that there was once a real risk that you might go to the office, flick a switch and remain in darkness.

The level of dispute has gone down, thankfully, but unions still reserve the power to cause immense disruption. As a Londoner, I know that every day that the Tube drivers go on strike we lose up to £40 million—and that I might be late in coming here, which I am sure all noble Lords would be very sad about. As a result, it seems to a lot of the people whom I meet that many unions are concerned not with what they can do for civil society but with what they can get from civil society—a view with which I strongly sympathise.

The political activities of the unions also trouble me. How is it fair that the unions can exert a political levy on their members to fund parties that many of them do not vote for? If union members want to fund the Labour Party, they are perfectly capable of signing up for direct debits. Of course, a big chunk of that money goes towards the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition—an attempt at a political party that managed to do even worse than the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. If I were a unionised worker seeing my hard-earned wages going towards this failed and ideologically motivated cause, I would be furious.

Trade unions serve a number of useful functions. As a boss, I have always endeavoured to treat my staff with the respect they deserve and to remunerate them fairly, but I would be naive to suggest that all bosses think the same. Employment law provides the checks but unions provide the balance. At their best, unions provide a way of shielding the worker from arbitrary harm, and some unions do this admirably.

I was impressed by the recent Unite campaign to stop restaurant workers’ tips being taken. It managed to get a number of restaurants to change their policy and forced the Government into a review of the law, helping both its members and the customers, who expect their tips to go to their waiters or waitresses. Sadly, far more unions seem less concerned about helping society and their members, preferring to focus on political campaigning. Ideologically motivated actions, urged on by the clique of hard leftists who run many unions, damage public trust in unions and damage society.

The fact that a strike can be called on a member turnout of less than 25% is clearly ridiculous, and I am glad that the Bill will put an end to the nonsense of national strikes on derisory turnouts, holding up people and businesses. It is a shame, because I remember some union leaders as sensible moderates—more social democrats than democratic socialists. They managed to drag the Labour Party back to electability with Kinnock, but they seem now to be pushing it as far as they can from the Overton window.

This Bill addresses the basic unfairness of the political levy and the increasing propensity of strikes. I congratulate the Business Secretary and his team on creating legislation that strikes the balance between regulating the pernicious aspects of union activity and maintaining their existence.