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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:34 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 12:34 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of the British Dietetic Association and, separately, as president of the pilots’ union BALPA. I do so to point out that Conservatives, too, can not only support but actively support trade unions and I pay tribute to the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, who was my predecessor at BALPA. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for initiating this most valuable debate. One cannot fill in all the history of the ILO but perhaps I can fill in a couple of bits that are missing.

First, it was in 1916 that David Lloyd George established the first Ministry of Labour, and George Barnes became the first such Minister. It was in that same year of 1916 that the TUC drew up and published the first statement of workers’ rights, to be included in the peace treaty at Versailles. That was a historic document because leading out of it came the ILO; there were of course a lot of other people who had input. In its early years the ILO had a difficult time, largely because of the United States’ refusal to endorse Versailles and the fact that the new Government in Russia—the Soviet Union, as it then was—decided that the ILO was a capitalist plot to undermine the workers. It was attacked vigorously from both sides but then saved by Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt came into power in 1933 the ILO took on a new life, not so much through him but very much with the assistance of Frances Perkins, his Labor Secretary. I shall stop my history lesson in a minute but John Winant, who later became the ambassador in London, was appointed by the Roosevelt Administration as the first senior American to serve in the ILO. He was followed by a series of Americans. I am in no way demeaning the contribution of the Brits but David Morse, who took over as secretary of the ILO in the immediate aftermath of the war and was Truman’s Labor Secretary, undoubtedly shaped it and carried it forward for a long time after that.

We have a lot to thank the ILO for. Even today, when you go to third-world countries such as Vietnam, where I was last year, the ILO plays a sterling role there in getting adherence to its conventions for workers, who are often exploited in that country. The ILO is the one independent voice that can put forward demands for decent working conditions, so full marks to the ILO.

The British trade union movement has problems. It is not that the Tory Government have got rid of trade unionism, but that demand has washed in a different direction. If you ask my children their view of trade unions, I am afraid it is based on Len McCluskey, which is not an attractive view. They do not look at Len McCluskey and say, “This is the sort of world we want to live in”, but you never see the word mentioned in the public prints without the trade union connection being made. The fact of the matter is that trade unions were overtaken by events.

I well recall that when I was David Cameron’s envoy to the trade union movement, he met the general secretary of a very large union—not the T&G, needless to say—and he said, somewhat mischievously, “I want to understand your concerns. Which one of the laws that Tony Blair has passed to help you would you be most reluctant to see me abolish?” There was rather an embarrassed silence. We have to face the fact that, from 1979 onwards, unions have had a pretty rough ride from both Governments, frankly, but that it is also up to them to bring themselves forward.

I commend the TUC because it has not fallen back into its laager. It has pioneered racial tolerance. It would have been very easy for the TUC to say, “British jobs for British workers”—as I remember someone once said—and for it to discriminate against people of colour, but it has not. In fact, it has gone the other way: it has led the public perception that trade unionists stand for equality and fairness, so it has a lot to commend it. I hope the TUC will continue for many years to come to pursue its very positive policies.

Speaking of which, I want to say something to our Minister. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe here. At the time of the 2016 Act, the matter of electronic balloting came up very vigorously. The Minister, as she then was, was able to promise that the matter would be carefully examined, and indeed it was. Sir Ken Knight, who carefully examined it, came out in favour of some trials—not the whole thing, but he was willing to try it. It appears that this recommendation has been forgotten, but we want to see it implemented. It is a matter of honour; the Government promised something. They have had the inquiry and, in many people’s view, if we are to have a level playing field and say that we all appreciate trade unions, which I believe both sides of the House do, we now need to see these trials put into operation. As reported at our party meeting the other day, people of 15 years of age are entitled to join the Young Conservatives and vote for the leader of our party by electronic ballot. If we can extend it to all of the members of the Conservative Party, stretching from those aged 15 to whatever age—a very old age—I think we can afford to have a few test ballots to see whether it will work with the trade union movement. I will not make a lot of requests, but I ask the Minister to look at operationalising that commitment, so generously given when we were passing the 2016 Act.