We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:19 pm on 18th July 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat 2:19 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I apologise to the House— and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, as I unfortunately missed part of his remarks—for my late arrival into the Chamber. I congratulate him on securing the debate. I thank the Deputy Speaker who was on the Woolsack at the time for being so understanding in the event of a genuine misunderstanding and for allowing me to speak.

Liberal Democrats value the role of trade unions and we are great advocates of collective action when those in power display intransigence in the face of injustice and when there is a strong desire for change. Being part of something brings many benefits. Achieving change together and just knowing that you feel the same as others is very comforting. That is kind of what political parties are for, is it not? Many Liberal Democrats are members of trade unions. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat Members of your Lordships’ House are or have been trade unionists. The noble Lord, Lord Glasman, mentioned Lloyd George in the context of the ILO. He, of course, was a Liberal. My membership of a trade union was restricted to a brief period with the NUJ, but my noble friend Lord Goddard talked movingly of his more involved experiences and outlined the crucial role of trade unions in health and safety. He was the first of several noble Lords to do so; the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made a particularly powerful argument in his remarks.

One of the first Bills I worked on when I came to this place was the Trade Union Bill. I remember the shock on reading it and what it proposed to do. I immediately recognised that it was designed to emaciate the trade union movement and take away much of its power and funding. This was something the Liberal Democrats had managed to prevent in coalition, but now we saw exactly what our not being in government was going to mean. Like my colleagues in coalition, I recognise the importance of balance in good, productive industrial relations.

Frankly, I have never understood why industrial relations should be a zero-sum game. Everybody wins when trade unions and employers work in partnership. Both should benefit from increased productivity, facing the future of their organisation together. This lesson was brought home to me when I was MP for Solihull and difficulties hit the Jaguar Land Rover plant around 2006 to 2007. We feared that either the Solihull or Castle Bromwich plants would need to be closed, but JLR did neither of these things. It came to an agreement with the trade unions that workers from both plants would go on short time and that some staff would take sabbaticals. Skills and jobs were not lost and JLR was ready for the upturn without incurring staff shortage problems and damaging extra costs that it could not afford. The upturn came and the company ploughed billions into investment. Everybody benefited.

Why am I telling your Lordships this? It is because the lesson for me is that to get the best for companies and their workforces there has to be partnership, understanding of each other’s point of view, sharing and giving of information, and a longer-term perspective. Most noble Lords in this House have been around long enough to look back to the winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to bring down the power of the unions and the suffering caused to us all. We cannot live in those days any more. But in the Trade Union Bill in 2016 I detected an echo of those old, tribal, almost visceral rivalries. We all know that that is no way to run a modern economy.

This year, we celebrate 100 years of the ILO. I did not know very much about the ILO before today, so I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for the history lesson and the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for his thesis on the nature of tripartism, which I shall read about again afterwards.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, spoke about how trade unions, through the ILO, participate in creating more democratic citizenship. That is a valuable lesson for us. Several noble Lords talked about the importance of the role that the ILO has played and continues to play today. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, talked about the importance of the enforcement of basic standards and how we fall far short of ILO standards. The ILO is not just about the past: it is about the future for us all, so I would like to wish the ILO a happy centenary and wish it on its way for the future.

What then should government companies and trade unions do to fit themselves for the future? Many noble Lords spoke about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, talked about how trade unions do not attract enough young people in a changing environment. Good luck to her in her work. Several noble Lords mentioned the image of trade unions putting many potential new members off. I hope that they will address that. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, talked about dramatic changes in the very nature of work—the poor pay and conditions endured by many in the gig economy and others. I hope that her wish to reinvigorate the trade union movement and to build digital skills will be heeded. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, talked about the need to help more people in the gig economy.

For what it is worth, here is my vision. I want a social contract between everyone in this arena. I want companies taking more responsibility, not just for involving their workforce as prescribed in the corporate governance code introduced last year and not just a mentality of “We’ve got a worker on the board, so we are compliant”. For a modern economy, it has to go far further than that. Companies need to have social contract with their workers, but also with the communities in which they operate. They are not independent entities operating outside the bounds of society. They are part of the fabric of our country and should be good neighbours, have respect for the environment in all senses and leave it richer not poorer for their contribution.

It is incumbent on those in government to create the framework in which companies operate fairly, pay fairly and treat people fairly. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, talked about the importance of the relationship between the Government and the trade unions and I hope that in this and future Governments that will heal and there will be a more co-operative approach.

Today is about trade unions. Trade unions need to abandon their old tribal rivalries. It is not about them and us. They are in danger of becoming an anachronism, with membership numbers nearly halving since their peak in 1979, despite a much higher number of people in work. Yet arguably the need for trade unions in some sectors has never been greater. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, spoke movingly about the plight of the working poor, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, described working conditions for a social worker who was not paid between calls. The Government have now legislated for that, so I am sure that the noble Lord had advised him or her accordingly. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, gave a great insight into workers in the gig economy. They will be hard work for trade unions to represent, as are other low-paid workers on precarious contracts. I hope that we see an important development after the growth of the gig economy and with developments in work. I sincerely hope they step up to the plate and embrace the challenges to come.