Workers' Rights

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:15 am on 15th February 2007.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 9:15 am, 15th February 2007

Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S2M-5581, in the name of Rosemary Byrne, on workers' rights.

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG

This Solidarity debate is about improving workers' rights and strengthening trade unions throughout Scotland and the United Kingdom.

The context for the debate is the experience of workers at Simclar Ayrshire Ltd. The Simclar Group has a history of locking out workers: workers were locked out in Dundee and Preston and now they have been locked out in Ayrshire. Simclar also has a history of receiving funding through regional financial assistance: it received £750,000 on 6 August 2002, £1 million on 30 July 2003, and £500,000 on 17 August 2004. The workers want to know how that money was spent and who monitored the spending. I want answers, too. Simclar takes from our communities and then leaves them, without taking financial or practical responsibility for the workers who have been loyal to it.

As we make every possible effort to bring Simclar and Sam Russell to account, it is also vital that everything possible is done to support the Simclar Ayrshire workers. Community, the trade union that represents the majority of the workforce, is doing an excellent job in the face of many difficulties, but support from agencies through the partnership action for continuing employment initiative has so far been inadequate, which has caused much distress to an already demoralised workforce—despite the fact that the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Allan Wilson, has said:

"As soon as the announcement was made, full and immediate support swung into operation through the well-established PACE (Partnership Action for Continuing Employment) framework."

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG

I need to make progress; I have to cover a lot of ground.

I seek an assurance from the minister that the situation will be rectified immediately, so that PACE carries out its functions properly and provides the assistance that the workers require. I also ask the minister how many full-time, sustainable jobs will be created through the Irvine Bay Urban Regeneration Company. I remind him that North Ayrshire has the highest unemployment in Scotland—after 10 years of new Labour in Government.

The Scottish Trades Union Congress said:

"in the context of ... recent job losses, we have to ask why other European countries with wage costs comparable to Scotland and more robust regulatory environments have succeeded in retaining and, in some instances, growing their manufacturing base."

It is paramount that the Department of Trade and Industry undertake an investigation into the workings of Simclar, which has a history of asset stripping, moving companies, setting up satellite companies and closing the gates on workers without adhering to its obligations. Simclar has dispensed with the 90-day consultation period and failed to make appropriate financial provision for its workforce three times, as I said. The minister told me that he had received a verbal assurance that there would be an investigation, but I ask him to secure written confirmation of that as soon as possible. I look forward to the investigation and call for the greatest scrutiny to ascertain whether there has been criminal wrongdoing.

Why must we fight for workers' rights in the 21st century? A Simclar Ayrshire worker who was made redundant on 29 January was, like many of her colleagues, being made redundant for the second time. The first time she was made redundant, 15 years ago, she received enhanced redundancy pay, six months' notice, access to retraining through the company and all moneys in lieu of notice. This time, she was locked out of her workplace and given statutory redundancy pay—paid for by the taxpayer, although Sam Russell is the eighth richest man in Scotland—and there was no cushion of six months' notice or commensurate moneys. Her pay with Simclar Ayrshire had never reached the level of her previous salary. Fifteen years on, she had less money and appalling conditions—that is the situation that our workers find themselves in.

That is why we need a trade union freedom bill. In 2005, the Trades Union Congress conference passed a resolution to repeal anti-trade union laws by introducing such a bill. In recent years, the UK labour market has changed. Privatisation, outsourcing and the restructuring of companies and services have become widespread, and workers' rights have been eroded. Our legal framework requires urgent changes. During the recent years of industrial change, employers such as Gate Gourmet have adopted increasingly aggressive cost-cutting tactics to win subcontracted work from transnational companies. Gate Gourmet is just one example; there are too many other examples of employers who have cut pay, slashed pensions and announced mass redundancies in the name of competition. Under existing legislation, unions feel powerless to protect the interests of the workers they represent.

The time is right for a trade union freedom bill. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, which protected unions from sequestration of funds and imprisonment. In 1893, Hull dockers who had been striking for seven weeks were defeated when strikebreakers were brought in by the police and the military. The 1906 act reversed laws that enabled bosses and the establishment to ride roughshod over workers. It is ironic that 100 years later, workers have fewer freedoms and rights. On 31 March 1997, Tony Blair said that even after the changes that Labour proposed, Britain would have

"the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world."

Our workers see the evidence of that daily.

A trade union freedom bill, with support from the unions and Labour members in Westminster, would make a difference. It should appeal to all trade unionists and the Solidarity motion should be supported by all right-thinking members.

As a lifelong trade unionist, I move,

That the Parliament supports the Simclar workers and calls for an appropriate redundancy package for them; welcomes the DTI investigation into the circumstances surrounding the closure of the Ayrshire plants; condemns poor employment practices that result in workers being sacked via text messages, video conferences and factory gate notices and denied real and proper consultation and appropriate redundancy payments, illustrated by the recent examples at Simclar Ayrshire, NCR Dundee and Young's in Annan; recognises the need to improve workers' rights and the existence of the Trade Union Freedom Bill in the Westminster Parliament last session which attracted cross-party support from 187 MPs and the re-lodged bill in the current term; recognises that this Trade Union Freedom Bill is supported and promoted by most trade unions, including the RMT and TGWU, and agrees to endorse and encourage support throughout Scotland for this necessary bill.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 9:22 am, 15th February 2007

I am a lifelong trade unionist, too, and the subject matter of the debate is close to my heart. I thank Rosemary Byrne and Solidarity for giving us the opportunity to debate workers' rights.

The motion mentions Simclar Ayrshire. I think that I can express on behalf of all members our disappointment—indeed devastation—at the closure of the Ayrshire factories and the impact on employees and their families. We extend our sympathy to the 420 workers who have lost their jobs. I have met Rosemary Byrne and other local politicians, such as Irene Oldfather, as well as the unions involved and the administrator, to discuss the position and offer whatever support and assistance we can to the people who are directly affected. I have announced that full and immediate support is being made available through the well-established PACE framework. As a result of two recent PACE meetings in Ayrshire, a draft action plan has been produced, which I am happy to make available to members.

Photo of Ms Rosemary Byrne Ms Rosemary Byrne SG

Does the minister agree that up to now the PACE initiative has been disappointing and that there is a need to press for improvements as quickly as possible?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

In the context of PACE, there is an issue when an employer refuses to co-operate with public agencies that deliver services, as has happened in the case that we are talking about. That gives us pause for thought about how we respond to such situations. I would not criticise the public agencies that have been striving with great difficulty to cope with the situation that they inherited from an employer who was less than considerate of the interests of the staff that it sacked.

The wide range of support, advice and assistance that I have mentioned will be available to those Simclar Ayrshire employees who have been affected by the redundancies, and we will step up that response as far as we can to help them secure alternative employment or the necessary retraining or upskilling that might be required for them to move on. Substantial funding—in the region of £1 million—will be available to assist with that work, and that sum has been quantified by PACE this week. The various agencies involved are putting considerable effort into ensuring that the affected staff can engage fully with the range of services and support being offered. It is worth pointing out that PACE has a very good record in this context, with high levels of retraining and alternative employment being offered in similar circumstances, at rates of 97 per cent at Longannet and 96 per cent at BP in Grangemouth.

There have been calls—not least from me—for a DTI investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Simclar closure. There have been allegations of asset stripping and questions about why Simclar Ayrshire went from having a 90-day redundancy consultation period, which was not due to end until 26 February, to being a company that went into administration and closed overnight.

It would clearly be unwise and inappropriate for me to make any further comment on those matters, other than to say that I have written to the appropriate DTI minister on two separate occasions now. As a matter of principle, change and restructuring must be managed well. To my mind, that means treating the employees involved in the change and restructuring with the appropriate consideration and respect—which has been sadly lacking in this instance.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour

Has the minister had any advice from officials about any way in which the closure might contravene the European information and consultation directive? Would it be appropriate for him to refer that point to UK colleagues, and presumably the trade union, so that they can establish whether action can be taken through an industrial tribunal?

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

You now have one minute left, Mr Wilson.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer—although that is not a long time in which to deal with what are fairly complex matters. I will perhaps come back to some of those issues in my closing remarks, but suffice it to say at this juncture that I have raised the issue that Irene Oldfather highlights directly with DTI ministers, together with a number of other issues that have been raised directly with me by some of the workers concerned—they are my constituents, and some are friends and colleagues—by the trade union and in discussion with the administrator. I have included all the issues that have been raised with me in two separate communications to the appropriate DTI minister.

I suggest to members and others that information about the events that led to the Simclar closure may be sent by post to the companies investigation branch of the Department of Trade and Industry, PO Box 447, London SW1H 0WU. If people have concerns, such as have been expressed by Irene Oldfather and others, that is the appropriate place for them to be sent, as an investigation is under way.

I move amendment S2M-5581.4, to leave out from "supports" to end and insert:

"believes that the right to work is a fundamental human right; supports the objective of full employment and welcomes the 150,000 new jobs created in Scotland since devolution in 1999; further supports the Simclar workers and calls for an appropriate redundancy package for them; supports the Scottish Executive's call for a DTI investigation into the circumstances surrounding the closure of the Ayrshire plants; condemns poor employment practices that result in workers being sacked via text messages and factory gate notices and denied real and proper consultation and appropriate redundancy payments, illustrated by the recent example at Simclar Ayrshire; recognises the need to further improve workers' rights and entitlements and agrees that the Parliament supports the enhancement of employee rights on consultation in a redundancy situation; reaffirms its commitment to providing appropriate resources to meet the costs of retraining and upskilling workers affected, and recognises the role that the Irvine Bay Urban Regeneration Company will have in creating new job opportunities for the workforce."

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party 9:29 am, 15th February 2007

We are whole-heartedly in favour of workers' rights, and we are grateful to Solidarity for creating this opportunity to debate the subject. We believe that, when properly addressed, workers' rights will help to achieve economic resurgence in Scotland.

From experience, I know that good employment conditions, mutual respect and job security boost business viability and customer satisfaction, creating more robust businesses. Ignoring and disregarding workers' rights is increasingly a recipe for disaster, as can be seen elsewhere. The fact is that competitiveness can be achieved and built up only through co-operation with employees and suppliers. The good news is that, in the long term, monopolies are unsustainable and damage the monopolists themselves, and the abuse of workers' rights is unsustainable and damages the perpetrators themselves; the bad news is that monopolies and the abuse of rights can cause real pain and damage for our people and our economy in the interim.

I believe that Government needs to create the conditions that produce more socially responsible behaviour by business leaders in the interests of the wider common good. That was wonderfully described recently in a book by Don Young and Pat Scott, "Having Their Cake". They discuss the tendency towards mergers rarely benefiting employees, customers, suppliers or even the shareholders, but mainly benefiting the current management, market makers, stockbrokers, corporate accountants, lawyers and bankers, who need the churn of such transactions.

We believe that it is the job of Government to act as honest broker between companies, which want to maximise profit and viability, and employees and trade unions, which—properly—want to maximise the employment terms and conditions of working people.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Jim Mather has talked about the Government's position. I wonder what the Scottish National Party's position is on the proposed bill to reform the trade unions. Would they support it?

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

We will give it due consideration. Today, I am calling for a proper and full debate in which we learn from other places. There is a difficult blend to be achieved. It is important to achieve sustainable long-term growth, to maximise the number of people in work, to maximise national competitiveness and to maximise Government revenues. That blend must be achieved. It is the job of Government to maximise the effectiveness of the economic system. To do so, it must bind together businesses, unions and employees in a system that works and that is consistent with everyone's objectives.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I agree. Would the member agree with me that the UK has been spectacularly successful in that context? It is one of only three EU countries that have surpassed the Lisbon agenda target for full employment.

Photo of Jim Mather Jim Mather Scottish National Party

There has been an element of success but, if we consider countries such as Denmark, we find that they have achieved that better. We are currently facing the challenges of globalisation, which are similar to the challenges that we felt 100 years ago. There is a widening gap between rich and poor in the United States of America, Britain and Canada, but that gap has not opened up so much in France, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. There are clearly numerous factors involved in that but, as The Economist said this week,

"It is easy to assume, with globalisation, that a rising tide lifts all boats. And most people do gain, even if the improvement in their way of life can sometimes be hard to discern. But workers whose factories are shut are unlikely to see it that way. For them, it must seem these days that a rising tide lifts only all yachts."

We have to change that in Scotland. That is particularly the case where there is a branch economy, and where the branches are frequently cut to save the roots and protect activity in home economies.

We need a proper debate and to examine the effectiveness of what Denmark has in place. We should also look closer to home at what is happening in Ireland, where the national development plan for 2007 to 2013 has just been announced. That involves spending €184 billion in building up the economy. Entwined with that is a new national agreement, "Towards 2016: Ten-Year Framework Social Partnership Agreement 2006-2015". That social partnership has been embedded all the way through. We should examine that—we need to consider what works elsewhere. We have got to learn—I will leave it at that.

I move amendment S2M-5581.2, to leave out from "existence of" to end and insert:

"need to create a new era of social cohesion where employers, employees and the state work together to ensure that Scotland achieves new higher levels of competitiveness and co-operation in the workplace so that we achieve increased economic vibrancy, better terms and conditions in the workplace and an improved safety net for redundant employees."

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 9:33 am, 15th February 2007

Rosemary Byrne's speech was wide-ranging and time is a constraining factor in the debate, so I will not seek to make interventions and I will not take any during my speech. I congratulate Rosemary Byrne on giving us the opportunity to discuss the issues around Simclar Ayrshire. I do not go along with her motion entirely, as my amendment suggests, but it is great that we have it before us to debate. I would like to think that the Parliament can finish by taking a unified decision on the motion or an amendment so that the debate will have an outcome.

Simclar Ayrshire is an absolute disgrace in terms of the ethics of business behaviour. Barefaced asset stripping has taken place and there has been a manipulation—legal or illegal—of company law. That is why I welcome Allan Wilson's move to involve the DTI, which will determine whether the behaviour is legal. If it is legal, there is room for Government action and change somewhere along the line. If it is illegal, I want the sternest steps to be taken against Sam Russell and the company that he has operated.

The fact is that Simclar had a loyal, well behaved and diligent workforce. Overnight, the individuals in the workforce found themselves out of a job. People who were to work the night shift were locked out and separated from their possessions. That cannot be right in today's world, whichever way we approach the issue.

Families were left without any income whatever and a big question mark still hangs over where money will come from. As well as assets—or so-called assets—of the company, employer records and other information that allow people to claim benefits have been locked up. That is a disgrace. The Conservatives—and, I feel, members around the chamber—want those matters to be addressed.

I am concerned about the movement of goods since Simclar was locked up and about what could be seen as a relationship between Sam Russell and the administrator. The DTI will examine and determine that.

Sam Russell said that Jack McConnell did not understand business behaviour. I do not always agree with Jack McConnell, but if Sam Russell means that what he has done is to be interpreted as business behaviour, I do not go along with that.

I congratulate Allan Wilson on his actions and I go along with Rosemary Byrne on the idea that perhaps a bit more PACE should be injected. However, as for the motion, we will support our amendment to it. We will not support the SNP's amendment, because it retains the reference to Young's of Annan, which is trying to address the business situation that has arisen. We will not support Rosemary Byrne's motion, because it goes too far. We will not support Allan Wilson's amendment, but if—as I suspect—Parliament agrees to his amendment, we will support the amended motion.

For a range of reasons, we Conservatives consider that what has happened is contrary to everything that we believe about trade union law. We make no apology for the changes that we made to trade union law and we acknowledge that the Labour Government that was long awaited after 18 years did not reverse the elements that it opposed vigorously when in opposition. However, the balance must be right. The workforce must be treated well. Every businessman depends on the people who work for him to provide profits and income. Such matters are important to Conservatives.

I move amendment S2M-5581.1, to leave out from "and factory" to end and insert:

"or factory gate notices and denied real and proper consultation and appropriate redundancy payments, as illustrated by the recent example of Simclar Ayrshire."

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 9:38 am, 15th February 2007

I apologise to the Presiding Officer and to Rosemary Byrne for being late. One is subject to the vagaries of the taxi service, such as it is.

It may surprise members to learn that I was once upon a time a member of the Transport and General Workers Union.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

I thank Jackie Baillie for that.

Having worked in the oil fabrication sector and in the drilling sector for some years, I understand exactly the fear that has been described of being made redundant and the terror of the P45 coming one's way.

In a way, this speech is an opening and a closing speech, so if the Presiding Officer does not mind, I will comment on other members' speeches. I was pleased by what I heard of what Rosemary Byrne said and I applaud her for lodging the motion.

Here we are in the closing stages of the session and running into an election. What has been raised is one of the biggest of the issues that lie before us. I pay tribute to Phil Gallie for his speech—it was well said. I for one will miss him in the next session and I am sad that he is leaving us.

What Allan Wilson said about the DTI is very good. I hope that, in his ministerial role, he will pursue the issue all the way.

I have believed in my working life that management co-ordination with the workforce has been and remains an issue. I have been there right at the bottom, on the shop floor, getting my hands dirty. I have seen bad management.

The point about Young's is that it is offshoring its processing of scampi to Thailand. I pay tribute to Christine May and to Alex Neil, who is not with us this morning, for agreeing—in their capacities not as deputy convener and convener of the Enterprise and Culture Committee but as back benchers—to meet workforce representatives to discuss that issue. Surely a greater issue is not before us. Does it make any sense whatever to take fish from Scotland all the way to Thailand for processing before bringing them back here? That is utter nonsense. It is not for the Enterprise and Culture Committee, of which I am a member, to dictate what the next session's enterprise committee—if that is what it is called—should examine. However, given the carbon footprint, such a move to globalisation is entirely wrong and should be examined.

I have seen asset stripping in my constituency. Members may be familiar with Brown and Root Highlands Fabricators at Nigg, where I worked for several years on the shop floor, as I said. I am covered by parliamentary privilege, so I may say that in the closing years of that operation, there was some evidence that the management was shutting down the yard and, I contend, not bidding for orders. We could see tools being removed from the yard and sold on to the international market. That is surely a sin against good management.

Presiding Officer, I am sorry for an al fresco contribution to the debate, and for being late. I applaud Rosemary Byrne for introducing the debate and I congratulate her. Workers' rights affect us all and the debate is important.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

I thank the member for being brief. Such short debates always mean truncated speeches and few interventions. They are not particularly satisfactory in that respect, but I must ask members to keep to four minutes and the Greens to keep to two minutes.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green 9:42 am, 15th February 2007

I will stick to my two minutes. The motion is excellent and it is important to debate such issues. It is positive that all members—in the motion and the amendments—accept that the state of affairs at Simclar is unacceptable. The tragedy is that we appear to be impotent. We can argue for a DTI inquiry, for closer scrutiny of how such companies spend large amounts of public money and against asset stripping, but we cannot stop such events happening and we cannot protect the workforce.

All that underlines the importance of the call for extra protection for workforces and for the trade union rights and freedoms bill, which is mentioned in Solidarity's motion.

I strongly wish to mention a part of Rosemary Byrne's motion that did not feature in her speech. In Annan, a globalisation absurdity has meant that we are losing Scottish jobs to Thailand, where workers are paid perhaps 25p an hour for similar work, where health and safety standards are poorer and where production standards are poorer. The environmental absurdity of shipping those jobs 17,000 miles away beggars belief yet, again, we can do absolutely nothing. The Parliament is impotent. That underlines the need for stronger workers' rights.

The strength and loyalty of the workforces of the companies that are involved have all been praised and I echo my colleagues' praise. I just wish that I could say more.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 9:44 am, 15th February 2007

I acknowledge the difficulties that have been experienced by workers in Simclar, NCR Dundee and Young's, and in Methode Electronics Europe in my constituency, where workers' rights were swept aside. Other members have addressed and will address those issues eloquently, so I will focus on the general issue of workers' rights.

Let me share with the chamber some headlines that I have read over the past year: "Betrayal of their workers", "Collective agreements—ripped up", "Contracts—unilaterally broken" and "Riding roughshod over pay and conditions of staff". Is this some reactionary employer—a multinational, perhaps—with scant regard for its employees? Here is another quote, which calls on the employers concerned to

"put aside petty political squabbles and honour their agreed contract with the workers. Workers are suffering as a consequence of their intransigence. It is ironic that the two MSP boast about their support for trade unions and workers in struggle when they are riding roughshod over the pay and conditions of trade union members."

I am talking not about some reactionary, right-wing business that cares nothing for its workers, but about two members of the Parliament: Rosemary Byrne and Tommy Sheridan. It is worth pointing out that the words that I quoted are not mine: they come from the National Union of Journalists—Mr Sheridan's trade union—and the Industrial Workers of the World, whose members are affectionately known as the wobblies. They come from people who were friends of Mr Sheridan.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

Will the member confirm the truth to the chamber—that the quotes that she read out come from the NUJ chapel that happens to be the Scottish Socialist Party chapel of the NUJ, and not from the official union? The member should get her facts straight when trying to get involved in a petty squabble.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

A member has responded to Mr Sheridan's point from a sedentary position. I understand that both the organisations to which I referred are in formal dispute with Solidarity over its treatment of members' staff. I was astonished by the fact that before Christmas there was a demonstration on the issue at the very door of the Parliament. The irony was not lost on some of us that Solidarity members, who speak at every passing protest, were strangely absent, perhaps because they were the subject of the protest. If there is one lesson for the chamber to learn from the matter, it is that consistency is important—members cannot do one thing privately and another publicly and expect to get away with it.

Labour has a strong record of improving workers' rights. Mr Sheridan may laugh, but one of our first actions was to sign the European social chapter, which was resisted by the Tories. We have increased maternity leave, increased paternity leave, increased holidays, provided a better work-family balance, provided rights to trade union membership, and—I hesitate to invite Mr Sheridan to laugh at this—we have restored rights of trade union membership to workers at Government Communications Headquarters.

We have ended the two-tier workforce in the national health service and introduced the national minimum wage, which was articulated as a demand by Keir Hardie more than 100 years ago and delivered by a Labour Government. At the time, unsurprisingly, the Tories were unashamed in their opposition to improving employment rights. The Scottish National Party slept through the vote and was absent for it. Jim Mather's claims to be concerned about workers' rights ring hollow—we should look at the SNP's actions. I hate to say this to Jamie Stone, an acknowledged member of the Transport and General Workers Union, but the Liberals thought that the introduction of the minimum wage was too dangerous. Workers' rights are safe only with Labour.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 9:48 am, 15th February 2007

I deplore Jackie Baillie's rather petty contribution to this morning's debate. It did not set the right tone, especially for the Simclar workers who are looking to the Parliament for leadership.

I congratulate Rosemary Byrne on securing the debate, at a time when the rights of a loyal workforce at Simclar Group plants in Ayrshire are being brutally trampled on. Thirty-odd years ago, Ted Heath coined the phrase "the unacceptable face of capitalism" to describe the behaviour of the Lonrho group and its boss, Tiny Rowland. That description applies equally well to Simclar boss Sam Russell—one of the richest men in Scotland, as Rosemary Byrne mentioned. Surely it is unacceptable in this day and age for any group of workers and fellow citizens to be treated with such disrespect and disregard by an employer.

Rosemary Byrne has outlined the callous way in which the plants were shut without forewarning. I assume that Irene Oldfather will say more about that later. People were barely able to retrieve their personal belongings, such was the suddenness of the owner's announcement and the deployment of security staff. The closure process had the smack of a paramilitary operation, with both factories being stripped of their machinery in the middle of the night. Presumably, it was transferred to Dunfermline, where the group is based. The ruthlessness of the action is beyond belief and must be condemned by the whole chamber, especially because 420 workers have been dumped on the scrapheap without so much as a penny from Mr Russell in the form of redundancy payment. As Allan Wilson mentioned, employment services have been left struggling to cope with the demands of the situation.

I have two questions for the minister, which I hope he will address when he sums up the debate. First, what is he doing to help to bring Mr Russell and the Simclar Group to book for their behaviour, which may be legal but is both politically and morally unacceptable? Secondly, what urgent action is he taking to fulfil his promise to pull out all the stops to support this betrayed workforce back into employment? At the moment, there is a great deal of confusion and despair among the workforce—people need to know what help they can expect and when they will get it.

The closure of Simclar (Ayrshire) Ltd has been a shameful episode in Scotland's industrial history. Although I recognise that the Parliament does not have the powers to ensure that that kind of employer behaviour does not continue to go unpunished—I welcome Chris Ballance's remarks on that issue—we have a duty to press those who have such powers to exercise them. I echo Phil Gallie's demands for any investigation by the DTI to leave no stone unturned in bringing Simclar and Sam Russell to book.

Photo of Frances Curran Frances Curran SSP 9:52 am, 15th February 2007

I welcome this debate on workers' rights, which is long overdue. I regret the fact that the chamber has been spurred into action on the matter by the Simclar factory closure because, since the Thatcher Governments, power and protection has been moving consistently towards employers. The balance of power is heavily in favour of employers, and workers' rights have been eroded enormously. The lack of workers' rights is all too clear in this debate, because the main avenue that is being pursued to deal with the disgusting position in which the Simclar management has left workers is a DTI inquiry. It seems that the trade unions are powerless to pursue Sam Russell and Simclar. There have also been the closures of NCR and Motorola and all the other situations in which employers have behaved in such a way. We are dealing with an employer who has absconded with wages and redundancy payments. We do not know about the pension situation, because we are waiting for the liquidator to tell us what is in the pension fund.

The amendment that the SSP lodged, which was not selected, highlights the need for a legal framework to ensure that it costs employers to up sticks, to move jobs to China, to close factories, to asset strip and to use all the other procedures that we have seen them use. They should face penalties if they take such actions, and there should be big, legally enforceable compensation for the workforce. There should be legal redress and reparations—not just for workers but for Government—from companies that have received regional or national grants of taxpayers' money. We know that in Germany and France legislation is much harsher and more protective. If we are serious about the issue, that is the type of legal framework that we need.

When employers, regardless of who they are—today there is some hypocrisy in the chamber on the issue—steal wages, pensions or redundancy money, it should not be just a civil matter. Theft is theft. The money that has been taken by Simclar belongs to its workers, just as money that was taken by other employers belonged to the workers in their factories. There should be criminal legislation in the area—the trade unions and the workforce should be able to take employers to court to recover the money. In my opinion, if Sam Russell steals money from pensions, redundancy payments and wages, he should be put in jail. That should be a criminal act—we need more than just civil legislation.

We need more than words. The big problem is that no proposal for legislation is on the agenda of the minister or the Government parties. I realise that some of the issues are reserved, but there has been no probing to examine what the Scottish Parliament could do and whether legislation could be introduced to bring back protection for workers. We need legislation.

Politics is about power—who is in power and who they represent. It is clear that Labour, both in Westminster and here, is not representing the workforce or trade unions. There should be an automatic right to be a member of a trade union and to be represented by a union. Because the anti-trade union laws have not been repealed, workers have been put in a precarious position.

Finally, I put on record that I have not stolen or absconded with anybody's wages, and I am an employer in this Parliament.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour 9:56 am, 15th February 2007

First, I apologise to the chamber—I have had laryngitis this week, but I thought that it was important to come here today to make the case that the Simclar workers have been making to me as a local constituency MSP.

Since I first raised the matter two weeks ago at First Minister's question time, a sorry and disgraceful tale of injustice has emerged. I put a point to the First Minister about asset stripping, and that very afternoon Sam Russell put out a press release calling the First Minister, me and other politicians who had responded "ill-informed". Having listened to what the workforce has had to say—some of which I want to put in the public domain today—I think that members can draw their own conclusions about that.

This is a tale of a company that has demonstrated no regard for its workforce, employment obligations or the communities affected by the closure. It is a company that, as far as I can see, is motivated by profit. It is not working in partnership with the workforce, but operating and closing at the expense of the workforce and the local community.

I want to take a moment to say that I am very proud of how the workers and their families have behaved even though they have been struggling with no income in the past few weeks. They have behaved with dignity and in an orderly manner at public meetings and within the local community, despite much provocation. I know that members who have attended some of those meetings will acknowledge and agree with that.

No matter which part of the political spectrum members come from, they all see that an injustice has been done. Questions have to be asked about how the closure has taken place and about the ethics of a company that is transferring or selling—we are not sure which yet—capital assets within weeks of closure. For those who know the local situation, I speak of the B building in Kilwinning. Not only was that asset transferred to the parent company, Simclar International, but for the past few weeks the parent company has been charging Simclar Ayrshire rent. While the plant sits empty with no workers and no work, Simclar International continues to take rent. That is an outrageous situation. With no commercial activity taking place, the company is taking money out of the workers' pockets and what should have been their redundancy payments.

Questions have to be asked about how the company could simply close the doors and call in the administrators when it had orders on the books. I am told that there was work for at least six months, and in the communities that I represent such a timescale is not to be sneezed at. Six months of work in Irvine and Kilwinning is important. However, the company simply transferred the contracts to the parent company while telling us that it had no assets.

That brings me to the question of the millions of pounds of stock and assets that are held outwith Simclar Ayrshire, in the United States and elsewhere. They belong to Simclar Ayrshire, but the company appeared to forget about them until a redundant manager brought them to my attention and I passed the information on to the administrators.

Furthermore, pension contributions were deducted every week from employees' salaries until 29 January, but they were not paid to the pension company. One employee confirmed that the last payment to his pension company was on 14 December while the last deduction from his salary was 29 January. I say to Mr Russell that six weeks of pension payments is a lot of money to the families, because they have survived on nothing in the past two weeks. I call on Mr Russell, even now, to do the right thing and pay the money back.

At a recent meeting, the administrators said that there were buyers for much of the plant and machinery—Mr Gallie mentioned the movement of goods in and out. Who were the buyers? Simclar International, the parent company. We have to ask ourselves why it needs that additional equipment if there has been such a downturn in the market. The reason is that the contracts have been transferred. The highly skilled workers in my constituency who are turning up at the job centre desperate for work are being told that there is a company looking for their skills. It is called Flexible Recruitment Services, and the workers would have to be willing to travel to Dunfermline. Guess who the principal owner of the contract agency FRS is—Simclar International.

Questions have to be asked and answered. I am grateful to the minister, who responded quickly and came to the constituency on the Monday following the closure and called for a DTI investigation, which was the right thing to do. I have not had the opportunity to speak about the upskilling, retraining and regeneration of the area, which are important to me as the local MSP, but I hope that there will be opportunities to do that in future.

I support the amendment in the name of the minister.

Photo of Campbell Martin Campbell Martin Independent 10:01 am, 15th February 2007

I congratulate Rosemary Byrne and Solidarity on bringing the issue of workers' rights to the Parliament, and I acknowledge the immense amount of work that Rosemary Byrne and Irene Oldfather have put in to support the Simclar workers. The treatment of those workers has been an absolute disgrace, and the behaviour of Mr Sam Russell has been little short of capitalist gangsterism. The man is doing it because he thinks that he can get away with it—and he thinks that because of current legislation.

We would do well to learn from history. I come from Ardrossan in Ayrshire. I am proud of the fact that my father was an Ardrossan docker and lay official of the Transport and General Workers Union. Because of his involvement in the docks and in that movement, I am aware of the crucial role that was played by the dockers in Ardrossan in 1912, when they asked for an extra ha'penny a ton for shovelling coal. The employers—the Ardrossan dock labour board—considered that unreasonable and refused to pay it, so the dockers went on strike. Within a week, every worker in every company in the port had come out on strike in support of their comrades. That would not be allowed today, because legislation states that people cannot support other workers. Back then, however, it was crucial that the workers were allowed to support their fellow workers in industrial action.

Although the strike was ostensibly about ha'penny a ton, in reality it was orchestrated by the employers to try to break the unions on the Clyde. That is why Ardrossan became crucial in the fight. We know that it was orchestrated because, on the very day that the Ardrossan dockers went on strike, the employers brought in scab labour—it had been arranged beforehand. The police moved into the port on the same day, taking control on the side of the employers and ensuring that the scab labour could get in. They attacked the workers on strike and members of the Ardrossan public who were supporting the workers. That is reminiscent of more recent industrial action in 1984, when the miners faced the same situation. Perhaps if we had learned from history and the Ardrossan dock strike in 1912 we would not repeat the same mistakes and we would not have the current anti-trade union legislation.

If members are interested, I should say that the Ardrossan dock strike is well recorded in a book that was written in the early 1990s by a Saltcoats man called Billy Kenefick, who is now Dr Billy Kenefick, and he lectures in history at the University of Dundee. It is well worth a read.

I have said that, because of current legislation, today's trade unions are not allowed to support their fellow workers, but back in 1912 the UK trade unions supported the Ardrossan dockers. A man called Ben Tillett came up from London to speak to the Ardrossan dockers and to support their fight for workers' rights. In Billy Kenefick's book, he is described as a man who was disillusioned with the parliamentary route to social change, and is quoted as saying that he was disillusioned with it

"due to the failure of the parliamentary Labour Party to promote political and economic reform to the benefit of the working classes."

That was almost 100 years ago. New Labour seems to have been with us for much longer than we thought.

It is a disgrace that workers have had to fight so long and so hard for their rights and that they must still fight hard for basic rights. That they must do so has happened not by chance but because there are exploitative employers and because legislation lets those employers get away with exploiting. We must scrap the anti-trade union laws and scrap the Government that supports them.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 10:06 am, 15th February 2007

This has been an extremely unhappy debate. I have never been a trade unionist, but I have been made redundant—it happened six months before the Parliament came on stream, so there were no real issues for me. However, I compare and contrast my employers before I was made redundant with Simclar. When I was being made redundant, people were given every possible chance to relocate, generous payments were made and a lot of money was spent on enabling people to get counselling and to consult employment practitioners to find out how their problems could be sorted out. By contrast, Simclar's conduct has been little short of disgraceful. It has shown callous disregard for its employees at every stage in the process and has failed to realise the damage that its actions can cause to wider industrial relations. It is hardly surprising that there is bitterness in the Irvine area. Once that bitterness is allowed to fester, it will make moderate people militant and militant people more militant.

For once, Conservative members have no criticisms to make of the Scottish Executive's handling of matters. Allan Wilson deserves great credit for moving into action effectively and for demanding a DTI inquiry, the results of which we await with considerable interest. We should consider the direction in which to go when we receive those results, not before. The First Minister's comments on what has happened have been moderate and sensible; indeed, they contrast starkly with the comments of Simclar's chairman, whose language has been extravagant and counterproductive, to say the least.

A way forward must be considered. Everyone accepts that it is not easy for 430-odd people in an area such as North Ayrshire to go down the road, but the Executive is due credit for its endeavours in trying to obtain a constructive solution for those who have been most affected by what has happened.

Adam Ingram correctly said that Ted Heath coined the phrase "the unacceptable face of capitalism" in somewhat different circumstances. The unhappy episode that we are considering demonstrates how things can go very wrong when businesses behave irresponsibly, but what has happened is not typical, so we should not overreact. I have talked about my experiences in that respect.

Let us await the outcome of the DTI inquiry. Campbell Martin's arguments were interesting, but, they are, with respect, for another day. They would provide good debating material for a future parliamentary debate. We must consider the plight of the Simclar workers and find constructive solutions to individuals' problems. When the DTI report is published, we can consider whether the Parliament and the Executive can do anything to avoid a repeat of this shoddy affair.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Scottish National Party 10:10 am, 15th February 2007

This has been an excellent debate; indeed, it has been one of the few debates on workers' rights in which uniform views have been expressed by members of Solidarity right through to members of the Conservative party. Members recognise the importance of the issue and the manifest injustices to which the Simclar workers in particular have been subject.

Redundancies and workers' rights have been a theme in the debate, but the situation at Simclar in Ayrshire is at its heart. Irene Oldfather's speech was one of the best speeches that I have heard for a long time in the chamber—indeed, the Presiding Officer was correct to be rather indulgent in the time that he gave her. If Mrs Oldfather had spoken for considerably longer, members would have been equally interested and captivated. She encapsulated the manifest wrongs that have occurred and must be remedied.

I hope that the minister will answer the questions that my colleague Adam Ingram asked. We accept that the minister is limited and constrained in what he can say—quasi-judicial matters to do with the DTI, for example, are involved—but we have been heartened by his quick actions in meeting representatives and ensuring that there is communication with the DTI. We ask him to clarify the issues that Adam Ingram raised, but also to take on board the uniformity of members' views and the unity in the chamber. Members believe that the actions of Mr Russell and Simclar are unacceptable, and the minister has our full backing for taking whatever action he can take. Even with an election looming, we should not indulge in petty point scoring. We should sort out a fundamental injustice and address actions that besmirch employers in Scotland. I agree with Bill Aitken in that respect. What has happened is not a normal course of action for employers in Scotland. It is unacceptable, but—thankfully—unusual.

Redundancies frequently happen, but they are a blow to people. Sometimes we forget the pain that they bring. They bring periods of employment to an end. We must recognise that employment is important to people, and its importance lies not simply in its defining who a person is or in letting people bring home money that enables them to look after themselves and their families; its socialisation aspects are also important. If a person has contributed a great part of their life to a job, irrespective of how humble that job is, losing that job can be a serious body blow. Statutory redundancy payments in this country are not kings' ransoms. The golden farewells that may occur in the City of London are not the norm for those who are made redundant in country areas or in Scotland. We must recognise that workers' dignity is affected by redundancies and that they must be treated with dignity.

Sacking workers by text message is unacceptable. Local authorities have sent redundancy notices by taxi, which is an equally unacceptable way of treating people who have contributed a great part of their lives to an employer. They will have received pay, but they will have contributed a lot.

Members have spoken about workers' rights. The Scottish National Party's position is that part of the problem in the United Kingdom is that we have not sought to codify and enshrine what workers' rights are. We have considered giving people legal immunities in a piecemeal way. We must consider the European model at some stage, which is not to give various people legal immunities but to clarify what the rights of workers are. We must take a pan-European approach and seek to reach the same levels that Denmark has reached. As someone who supports the European Union, I say that if the European Union spent more time promoting the rights of workers than the rights of prisoners, it would receive more support and there would be a greater understanding of its social and economic importance.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 10:14 am, 15th February 2007

I welcome the comments that have been made by Kenny MacAskill, Bill Aitken and Phil Gallie and hope that, at decision time this evening, the Parliament will send out a clear, fundamental message to employers that certain practices are completely unacceptable to the people of Scotland, whom this elected Parliament represents.

I agree with Kenny MacAskill and Bill Aitken when they say that this incident is not typical of employment practice or employers in Scotland. Employers, trade unions and employees take a much more enlightened approach across the board than this incident has shown. It is to our nation's shame that such an event should have taken place in such a manner at those factories.

I hope that I have given Adam Ingram and the whole chamber the assurances that have been sought. We acted quickly when the matter was brought to our attention, and all the unanswered questions that Irene Oldfather raised during her commendable speech today—and when she first raised the matter at First Minister's questions last week—have been put to the DTI. The issues are under investigation and I hope to speak to DTI ministers on Monday next week to pursue them further.

Kenny MacAskill also made important points about our living in a wider European market. The impacts and effects of globalisation have been mentioned. They affect the whole world, as the global supply chain stretches around the world.

It is not true to say, as some have said today, that workers in the United Kingdom are any less protected than are workers anywhere else in Europe. In some respects, blue-collar workers have more protection in the UK than they have in many other EU member states. Employers in the UK, as in other member states, are under a statutory obligation to consult employee representatives about proposed collective redundancies. The consultation must cover ways of avoiding redundancies, reducing their number or mitigating their effects—none of which took place in the case of Simclar.

I know a bit about the subject because, like Bill Aitken, I was once made redundant: I was sacked for having the temerity to join a trade union and go on strike. Employee representatives or employees who believe that their rights under the provisions that I mentioned have been infringed may seek a protective award of compensation from an employment tribunal. If the tribunal finds in the applicant's favour, it may award up to 90 days' pay to each affected employee. I understand that the trade union Community is currently pursuing those issues, and I wish it well in its endeavours. As has been mentioned, and as I understand the situation, those unfortunate workers received absolutely no redundancy payments, although many of them were hard-working employees who had given, in some cases, in excess of 20 years' service to their employer.

In an insolvency situation, as was the case with Simclar, employees have preferential status in insolvency proceedings. In effect, that gives their claims priority over the company's general creditors, and over creditors who have taken security over the assets by way of a floating charge. Preferential status does not extend priority over the status of creditors who have taken fixed-charge security. However, actions can be taken under the provisions of schedule 6 to the Insolvency Act 1986 to ensure preferential status for employees' claims for holiday pay, wages up to £800 in the four months immediately preceding the date of insolvency and certain occupational pension contributions that have been deducted from employees' pay in the four months preceding the date of insolvency. Again, I hope that all reasonable efforts will be made to ensure that whatever rights and entitlements the Simclar workers have are secured and that appropriate moneys are paid to them.

I do not have enough time to go into the detail, but I assure Phil Gallie that employers and trade unions in this country have agreed that entitlement to redundancy payments should be reviewed. The Government is currently engaged in that review and, as part of the Warwick agreement with trade unions, there was a manifesto commitment to increase the fixed payment. Therefore, these entitlements are under review with a view to strengthening workers' rights and ensuring that the employer's voice is also heard in the process.

I hope that we can unite at decision time this evening and send a clear message to Simclar that such practice and procedure are not acceptable in modern Scotland.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG 10:20 am, 15th February 2007

First, I want to indicate that the Solidarity motion has wide support outside the chamber. I have a letter here from Bob Crow, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which reads:

"Dear Tommy

Thank you for contacting me to advise me of the motion being put forward by Rosemary Byrne to the Scottish Parliament on 15th February.

If enacted, the Trade Union Freedom Bill will significantly enhance the ability of Trade Unions to protect the interests of millions of working people.

The RMT has been actively involved in the campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Bill as an important step to strengthening trade union rights and as such we fully support the motion."

Another letter from Bill Hayes, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, states:

"I am pleased to offer the full support of the CWU for your motion on workers' rights and the Trade Union Freedom Bill to be debated by the Scottish Parliament on 15th February 2007.

CWU has actively supported the development of the Bill and the campaign to have it made law."

A letter from Mark Serwotka of the Public and Commercial Services Union says

"I am very pleased to offer the full support of PCS for your motion on workers' rights and the Trade Union Freedom Bill to be debated by the Scottish Parliament on 15 February 2007. PCS has actively supported the development of the Bill and the campaign to have it made law.

I hope your important motion is carried."

It is important that that wider support is recognised here.

I welcome the consensus that has been generated around the specific treatment of the Simclar workers. We all welcome the condemnation of Mr Russell and the way in which he has treated his workers with total and utter disregard, despite their loyalty during many years. However, such treatment is not as isolated as some members would have us believe. The workers at Selectron would argue about that, and the workers at NCR in Dundee were gathered into the canteen to be shown a video message from America telling them that they were being sacked. Incidents of poor employment practice in Scotland are not isolated: there is a growing and general pattern of employers not treating their workers with dignity.

If we accept the Executive's amendment, we condemn the Simclar experience, and that is right. However, accepting it would delete from the motion all reference to the trade union freedom bill. In other words, we would delete any idea of putting into legislation the necessary framework to prevent Simclar from being repeated over and over again.

During Jackie Baillie's speech, which exposed her high quality as an MSP, she asked the SNP whether it supports the trade union freedom bill. It is unfortunate that, as yet, the SNP does not seem to be willing to say that it supports the bill. Of course, the problem is that the amendment from Jackie Baillie's party would delete from the motion any reference to the trade union freedom bill.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

I thank the member, but I do not have time.

The bill, which was supported by the last Labour Party conference at which motions could be discussed—in 2005—is Labour Party policy. It is also Trades Union Congress policy. Our motion has the support not just of general secretaries of major UK-wide unions, but of the TUC and the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat

It is a pity that Mr Sheridan did not give way to Jackie Baillie. Would he like to address the point that she raised about his treatment of employees in the Parliament?

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

We have no problem with our party's treatment of employees. I have to say that the matter is none of Mr Stone's business because it is about personal relations within a party. I give him this commitment: whatever the National Union of Journalists decides we should do, we will do. We will not take part in petty political squabbling when we have important issues to decide.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

No.

Mr Stone and Ms Baillie have refused to support the trade union freedom bill, the establishment of workers' rights—

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

Ms Baillie has already had her turn; she should sit down.

That Jackie Baillie has refused to support the trade union freedom bill exposes the scant regard that she has for real workers' rights. She can talk a right good game. She can come to the aid of former SSP workers—it is an interesting alliance, if Jackie Baillie is speaking up for them—but the fact is that she refuses to support the trade union freedom bill despite the measure being Labour Party policy and TUC policy. It is sad that the Executive seeks to delete reference to the bill from our motion.

Campbell Martin made an excellent speech in which he referred to the industrial dispute of 1912. On Monday night, I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with Ricky Tomlinson, who spoke on behalf of the campaign for justice for the Shrewsbury 24, who were criminalised for their part in picketing strikes in 1973 in the context of the abusive practices of employers on construction sites across Britain. At that meeting—a packed meeting in Liverpool—the point was made that workers had more rights in 1972-73 under a Tory Government than they have today under a new Labour Government. It was also pointed out that workers had more rights in 1906 than in 2006, because the Trades Disputes Act 1906 gave workers the right to strike and the right to withdraw their labour; workers do not have that right under new Labour. Labour has refused to repeal the blitzkrieg of anti-trade union legislation that the Tories introduced and enacted throughout the 1980s. After 10 years in office, Labour still refuses to repeal that legislation.

The trade union freedom bill has attracted cross-party support from 187 MPs, including 170 MPs from the Labour Party alone.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

The member is in his last minute.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

By agreeing to the motion, the Scottish Parliament could send a message to Westminster about the trade union freedom bill, which will have its second reading in two weeks' time on 2 March. We have the opportunity to say to Westminster that we in the Scottish Parliament support the trade union freedom bill and the fundamental right of workers to withdraw their labour.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

As Tony Woodley, of the Transport and General Workers Union, has said,

"If workers do not have the right to withdraw their own labour then they are serfs not citizens at work."

We need to establish not just the right to work but the right to withdraw labour. That is why the trade union freedom bill is so important and that is why I appeal to members not to allow the deletion of the reference to the bill in the motion that we will agree to today. With regret and sadness, I remind members that Allan Wilson, a former trade union official, has moved an amendment to the motion that would delete reference to our support for that bill.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

Unfortunately, the Labour Party says some things before it enters office and does the opposite once it is in office. We need workers' rights—

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Wind up, please, Mr Sheridan.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SG

That is why we need the trade union freedom bill to be supported.

I support the motion—in Solidarity's name.