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Trade Unions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:40 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:40 pm, 18th July 2019

My Lords, I echo two of the tributes paid to former Members of the House. First, I pick up what the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said about his late noble friend Baroness Turner. I sat opposite her far more years ago than I care to remember when I was a Social Security Minister in this House. I always admired her expertise and the good trade union negotiating skills that she brought to that side of things.

Secondly, and partly to clear his name, I refer to the late Bill Brett, whom the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, mentioned, as did the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who shared an office with him, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who referred to the fact that the late Lord Brett was a friend and neighbour of mine up in the north-west, where he lived for the last few years of his life. But the noble Lord then said that we had “an association”. I want to clear his name of any suggestion that there was a political association between him and myself, if that was implied. We were good friends and exchanged things across the Floor of the House, but the Chief Whips need not have worried any further than that. He was a great man in the international side of the labour movement.

We have had a very good debate, with a whole range of questions, which I will try to address in some part, and a whole series of challenges has been put before us. If I think again about what the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Adonis and Lord Lea, said, many of the challenges posed are for the union movement itself. I do not think they are for the Government to address, though I will make it clear that we welcome and value our relationship with the unions. We also value our relationship with the ILO, and I will make that clear as well.

We have had much history, going back over the last 100 years. This happens quite often in this House. For much of it, particularly the part of history familiar to most of us, the 1970s and 1980s—here I excuse the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, who is younger than many Members of this House—I suspect that there was a degree of rewriting, as often happens. After the passage of time, we all have our rather different views of those years. I certainly remember the 1970s and the 1980s. I remember voting for much of the trade union legislation at that time. Much of it—all of it—was very necessary, and I do not remember the incoming Labour Government repealing it in 1997. I almost wish that I had asked my noble friend Lord Tebbit to come along and take part in this debate, because it might have added to the jollity of the occasion. I will certainly pass on details of the debate to my noble friend, who I am sure will find opportunities in due course to take up the subject with those who have spoken.

More importantly, the debate has allowed us to consider the future of trade unions and wider industry representation. On behalf of the Government, I am pleased to recognise the important contribution that trade unions make to our society and to restate our commitment to continue working closely with the TUC—a commitment that I made in the debate we had a year ago to mark the 150th anniversary of the TUC, and which has been repeated by my right honourable friend Greg Clark and the Prime Minister. This year, as has been made clear on a number of occasions, we are marking the 100th anniversary of the ILO, founded at the end of the First World War, with its mission to end “injustice, hardship and privation” in the workplace.

The noble Lord, Lord Monks, asked what we thought of the ILO. I can only go back to the speech that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made recently at the ILO centenary conference in Switzerland. I will make that speech available to the noble Lord, so he can then read it in full, if he has not already done so. She said that,

“the ILO can look back with pride at what it has achieved”,

over the last century, by working,

“with employers, trade unions and governments”.

The ILO has been instrumental in achieving safer workplaces, fairer conditions and better pay; it has been 100 years of steady progress.

Looking to the future, the UK took an active part in negotiations on the ILO’s centenary declaration on the future of work, which sets out its priorities going forward, in the context of the changing world of work. It is right that we look at the future of work, as touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and others. The changes in technology and culture that we face are already transforming workplaces. That is why, some years ago, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor’s independent review of employment practices. In response to the review’s findings, we are delivering the biggest improvement in UK workers’ rights for 20 years, including ensuring that agency workers are not paid less than permanent staff, improving the enforcement of holiday pay and quadrupling the fines for employers who break the rules.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, quite rightly pressed me on the question of enforcement of labour standards. We recognise the importance of that, which is why we have increased resources for enforcement over recent years. Today, we spend some £33 million on enforcing the national minimum wage, regulating employment agencies, licensing to supply temporary labour in high-risk sectors, and pressing down on exploitation and modern slavery. I assure the noble Lord that we have committed to do more, including extending state enforcement of holiday pay for vulnerable workers and regulating umbrella companies. We are committed to providing adequate funding for enforcement. We understand the importance of that, although the noble Lord will have to wait for the spending review. We will also consider the need for a single enforcement body.

That brings me to the national minimum wage. It was introduced by the party opposite when it was in government and was improved by the coalition Government and this Government. With the national minimum wage, we are delivering an increase in average earnings of some £690 for a full-time worker, and some 1.8 million workers are expected to benefit from that in due course. There are changes: they are happening and we want to press on with them.

The future of work means that it is important that we invest today in the skills that our people will need for the future. In England, we have created millions of new, high-quality apprenticeships for school leavers and are launching new advanced technical qualifications for young people.

I am pleased that the Government were successful in ensuring that UK priorities, such as the eradication of modern slavery and creating more good jobs worldwide, were reflected in the ILO centenary declaration.

Before I turn to the future of trade unions and wider industry representation, it is important that I say a few words on the important role that trade unions can play in our economy and society. Trade unions have always represented their members and lobbied for wider changes in society. They have campaigned on issues such as modern slavery, tackling child poverty and equality for all. Over the past century, they have improved the working lives of their members, and long may this continue. I shall follow what the noble Lords, Lord Goddard and Lord McKenzie, said about health and safety in the workplace. Throughout the country, trade union health and safety representatives have made our workplaces safer. This has benefitted workers and the United Kingdom economy by reducing the number of accidents in the workplace. We now have an enviable safety record, of which we should all be proud. I thank the unions for their involvement in achieving that and I particularly pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for his tireless work on safety issues.

Unions have played a large part in developing the skills of their members and those working in industry. Through Unionlearn, there are some 600 union learning centres, where trade union representatives help those with low literacy and numeracy. Unionlearn projects have also helped to recruit and support thousands of apprentices.

Obviously, the issue goes far wider. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke about the importance of addressing the skills we are lacking in the new digital era in which we live. I assure her that within government we are providing additional investment, particularly in maths and digital and technical education. We are providing more money and a new national training scheme to support people to reskill and move on. This is an area where we want to work closely with the TUC. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that we will continue to have that close relationship with the TUC and will work with it, not just in training but in all matters, and listen to its advice and that of the wider union movement on a range of issues.

Although there have been and will continue to be disagreements, to go back to the Matthew Taylor review, I believe that the TUC has played a key role in helping us shape our good work plan. I hope it will continue to play a role as we bring it forward and bring parts of it into play.