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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Goddard of Stockport Lord Goddard of Stockport Liberal Democrat 12:47 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, on this timely debate on the future of trade unions, at the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization. It is also appropriate to reflect on the history of some of the trade unions because, if you do not understand where you came from, it is difficult to understand where you are going.

I will spend a minute talking about the trade union I was a member of for 20 years, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union—or, to give it its modern name, the GMB. I would like to thank one person in particular: Will Thorne. Will Thorne was born in Birmingham in 1857. He lived in great poverty and began working in a brickyard at the age of six, working 12 hours a day. In 1882, he moved to London, found employment at the local gasworks and joined the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the Labour Party. He was taught to read and write by Karl Marx’s daughter, and then helped to form a new union, the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, later to become the GMB. The first success of that union was to get the 12-hour day reduced to eight hours. He moved steadily onwards and, in 1918, won the seat of Plaistow with 94.9% of the vote—a record for a Labour candidate that stands to this day. He retained that seat until his retirement at the 1945 general election, aged 87, and was the oldest sitting Member at the time.

My story is much less riveting. Having passed the City & Guilds exam in gas fitting, I became a shop steward fairly quickly. During that time, as a Lancashire region delegate, I had a strong relationship with the London region delegates at conferences. In the bars and conference centres, I met a young Paul Kenny; a delegate who would go on to become general-secretary of the union and be given a knighthood. I also met a certain Mary Turner, a firebrand London girl who was actually Irish. She eventually received the CBE. Those times helped to form my views on equality and fairness in the wider context of politics, and I could not have had better teachers.

Noble Lords might ask what the point of that small canter through history was, what its relevance is today in a modern, globalised world of work, and whether trade unions are still relevant. On the one hand, that union produced a CBE, a knight of the realm, the largest majority for a Labour MP and me, a humble Member of the House of Lords—not bad for a gasworkers’ union.

On the other hand, I did some research for today’s debate. When I was a shop steward, one of my main interests was health and safety, and so I came upon the most recent report published by the Health and Safety Executive, dated 3 July this year. It shows the following for fatal injuries at work: the headline figure is that 147 workers were killed in Great Britain last year. In basic terms, that is almost three deaths a week. If Members of the other place suffered anything like that mortality rate, something would be done to reduce dramatically those odds. The figure for fatal injuries in construction is the lowest, at 30, but that number has fluctuated over the last five years, ranging between 30 and 47. The point is that fatal injuries in the construction industry are four times higher than across other industries. Is it a coincidence that the construction industry is the least unionised in the country? That is a real example of the value of trade unions: they can save lives, protect workers and improve the quality of life of their members.

However, we need to do more. We need new employment models. Automation and zero-hours contracts have made many current forms of employment and future work prospects extremely unpredictable. People are in work, but they are not necessarily secure in their work. They are working in the gig economy, and the UK framework of employment rights, regulations and protections built up over decades through the trade union movement is now unfit for purpose.

There is a pressing need to maintain freedom of association and to ensure that the rights and interests of employees are properly represented. Indeed, we believe that society will benefit if we do that. We will build a more confident relationship between managers and employees. Liberal Democrats will continue to fight for those principles and to support the wider trade union movement.