It would be helpful it I were to give some indication as to the scope of this debate. I have considered the rules relating to debates on the Adjournment as stated in "Erskine May" at pages 356–7. Only incidental reference to legislative action is permissible on motions for the Adjournment. Therefore extended argument for legislation regarding the system of holding ballots for trade union appointments would be out of order. In particular, it would not be in order under the rules on anticipation to propose including legislation on this matter in a Bill at present before the House. I understand that amendments have been discussed in Standing Committee F to the Employment Protection Bill. It would not be in order in this debate to refer to the debate in the Standing Committee or to discuss possible amendments to that Bill.That means, in effect, that the debate on the matter must be in general terms, on the general principle.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that everyone must now recognise that the House is put to great inconvenience through having a debate on this subject when the confines of the debate are so narrow. Perhaps you would assist the House further by saying what would be in order.
I think a debate on the general principle as opposed to particular amendments to legislation.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your ruling. I do not believe that it will present any difficulties on the Conservative side of the House. I hope that the Government will not shelter behind your ruling to avoid discussing this matter properly.I begin by commenting on what the right hon. Gentleman said in answer to questions about the railway dispute. I wonder what he would have said if on the Thursday before there was any agreement or settlement in that dispute the Opposition had notified the House of their intention to have a Supply Day debate on the railway industry this afternoon. The Secretary of State would have been the first person to say that such a debate, in the middle of difficult negotiations, was an attempt to sabotage any arrangements that might be made. I hope that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman will think it fitting to withdraw his accusation. Perhaps he can also find Government time for a discussion about what has just happened in the railway industry settlement and in other settlements which have far exceeded the social contract guidelines laid down by the Government. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) pointed out, we cannot expect one section of society to settle readily when other sections are seen to be getting a lot more. That underlines the problems into which the Government have got themselves. I want to start the debate in a quiet manner—suitable for a debate that is taking place on the Adjournment—in which a general discussion can take place and in which all hon. Members will feel free to put their points of view without the fear that there is to be a Division at the end or that a motion is before the House. Experience has taught me that the House of Commons is at its best when it is discussing matters of general importance without the fear of a Division at the end. On a matter of this sort the House should seek the maximum amount of agreement possible. There is no doubt that all hon. Members believe that maximum democratic participation in union elections is desirable and that everyone should be encouraged to take part. There is a motion, which deals with trade union postal ballots, signed mostly by Labour Members:
I am quite certain that that motion reflects the overwhelming view of all hon. Members. It must be right to make it easier for people to take part in union elections. Labour Members, quite rightly, insist on management being accountable to the public for every tiny exercise in decision-making, but they insist on the unions alone being excused from public accountability. It is not my purpose to show the inadequacy of such a view. However, if unions insist on being responsible only to their members, there should be fuller opportunity for all their members to take part in the decisions they have to take. In recent years there has been a steady decline in those taking part in union elections. I quote figures from the Amalagamated Union of Engineering Workers. A total of 8·6 per cent. took part in the last election for a general secretary before postal balloting was introduced and in the last election when Mr. Boyd was elected 30·1 per cent. took part. That is not a very high figure, but it is an enormous improvement on what had gone before. Methods which were appropriate when unions were small bands of keen volunteers do not suffice in times of the closed shop and the enormous numbers of people now involved in the unions. Members are not free to attend branch meetings on all occasions, because of shift work, and inconvenient times and places. Most branches do not expect very large attendances from their union members. If more than a very small percentage of union members turned up at a branch meeting, it would be impossible to hold that meeting in the room generally used for that purpose. Therefore, no one expects a great number of people to turn up at a branch union meeting. I should like to quote—and it will be the only quotation of the afternoon—from Lord Donovan's report. He said:"That this House, in the interests of maximum democratic participation, urges the Government to introduce legislation to ensure the provision of financial aid for postal ballots in trade union elections."
"However, a very low level of participation runs the risk of placing power in the hands of unrepresentative minorities and weakening the authority of elected officers.
In many unions polls are low because voting in all elections continues to take place at branch meetings, although the focus of union activity has now shifted from the branch to the workplace. To conduct elections at branch meetings in such circumstances is virtually to ensure a low poll. Some alternative method must be found by these unions if more members are to be persuaded to vote.
That makes extremely good sense. I understand that the leadership of the unions wishes to be representative. It is not my purpose to make life more difficult possibly by having legal sanctions against trade unions. The fewer legal sanctions there are, the better. However, a method which would enable postal balloting to take place if a union so wished would be of great help.One such method is the postal vote. In several unions ballot papers are sent to every member by post. This means that an impending election is brought to the attention of each member and provides him with an opportunity of voting with the minimum of personal inconvenience."
Is it the view of the Opposition that every union official should be elected by a total ballot of the membership, or is it their view that, perhaps, some trade union officials could be appointed, or elected by annual conferences, as at present?
I shall deal with that point later in my remarks, but if I do not answer the hon. Gentleman's question perhaps he would remind me of it. If the leadership of the unions wishes to be representative—and I think it does—it has to recognise that at present there is, according to some people, widespread public hostility, and, according to others, just public hostility against unions as a whole.A recent Opinion Research Centre poll—and I do not always go by such polls, but they are tolerably accurate—showed that only 18 per cent. of the public had a great deal of confidence in the way unions are run. Therefore, with the great power that unions wield, it is important that they should be seen to be representative. For example, of the 345 members of the executives of our 13 largest unions, 50 are Communists, yet we know that about 0·1 per cent. of the trade unions vote Communist. There are no Tories. I hope very much that the Tories can improve that record and I am encouraging every Tory not only to belong to a union but to play a part in the union. That would help us get our fair share of people on the executives, considering that about 30 per cent. of trade unionists vote Conservative. I do not think that anyone can say that at present the executives of the unions are representative of the people by whom they are elected. It is not my purpose to prove that the unions would necessarily be less Left-wing if we had postal votes. It is only the protestations of some of the Left-wing that make me believe that this must be the case. When I recently heard the deeply moving plea by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that postal voting would cost a great deal of public money and, therefore, he was against it because it would increase public expenditure too much, I realised only too well that his motives were much deeper than the cost of the public money involved.
Is the right hon. Gentleman now advocating increased public expenditure? That is not the view that his party repeatedly puts forward.
I shall come to that matter as well, but in this case I am certainly advocating increased public expenditure. For the sum involved, this would be the best possible way to help this country get out of some difficulties. I recognise as well that we do not get democracy by the post alone. I want to enlarge on one or two other ideas in this respect.Certainly cost has been an important factor with certain unions in deciding whether to continue or to move to a system of postal balloting. No one can now underestimate the fact that if the post goes up to lop or 11p, there will be a considerable addition to union expenses. But at the moment, judged on the 5½p stamp, a postal ballot every 12 months for all unions, and for just the election of their national officials, would cost, I am told, £1·1 million if everyone voted. That is a small price to pay for greater participation by the membership. It is not easy for a union in these inflationary times——
The right hon. Gentleman has quoted only a ballot for leading officials. If we extended democratic procedures to the election of district officials, which we should if the principle is correct, would not that £1 million be an insignificant part of the total cost?
The cost then would obviously be more significant. We should be prepared to discuss figures, which the Secretary of State can no doubt produce, but I do not believe that, whether the cost was £1 million or £5 million, that sum of money could not be saved by the Government. One of the last times that I stood at this Box was to attack the £10 million that the Government decided to refund to the trade unions under the Finance (No. 2) Act 1974. That money would have been better used for this purpose. So Labour Members should not get too touchy, on grounds of cost at any rate. It is not easy for a union——
Would the right hon. Gentleman allow me?
No, I will not give way to the right hon. Gentleman. Why he cannot keep quiet for a few minutes I cannot understand. I see no reason at this stage why I should give way to him.
The right hon. Gentleman knows why. The last time, he gave figures that were wrong.
It is not easy for a union in these inflationary times to decide to have a postal ballot. What we want to do is help the leaders to find a representative point of view and to take away from the minority the excuse that their unions would be democratic if they could afford it.
Would the right hon. Gentleman give way to me for a moment? He could greatly assist the House by some simple clarification of his aim. Does he seek to impose upon the unions a system of postal ballots or is he simply advising that the Government should make finance available for such unions as might decide through their normal executive decisions to take advantage of such Government finance if it were offered to them? Would he clarify that point, so that we know which direction the debate is taking?
I am coming to that. The hon. Member's patience would have been rewarded in a short while. Of course our view is that the facilities should be made available to unions which wanted them. There is no element of compulsion in the proposal that we put forward in another place at another time and in our election manifesto of October 1974.Another constant objection is that it is the activists who attend branch meetings and that therefore they have a right to decide who should be elected, and that it is up to everyone to go to a branch meeting if he wishes to vote. Nowadays, people have many other things to do, and not everyone wishes to go to meettings. The argument that one should be allowed to vote only if one takes part in the activities was advanced in the eighteenth century against the extension of the franchise. No one should put forward that argument today. We are concerned to try to get more people to take part. There may be strong arguments for holding meetings for union elections in employers' time and on their premises. I like to think of this as a twin exercise. We should enable those unions which wish to take advantage of the postal ballot to take the chance of having those expenses paid. Where we are talking about branch elections or shop floor elections where a branch is not confined to one establishment, it would be right for the employer to provide a place for the meeting and to allow it to take place in his time. The combined effect would be a remarkable help to greater participation in elections for union office. I hope that the Secretary of State will not argue that Parliament cannot attempt to tell a union by statute how to conduct its affairs and what rules it should have. We are not saying what unions must or must not do. We would simply give the union the right to organise its affairs in that way if it wished. That would meet the views of the enormous majority of people. Of course all these things are much better done by consultation and agreement. I do not agree that the Conservative Party should not put this forward. We have had similar proposals in our last two election manifestos and we have a perfect right to put this proposal forward. Some Labour Members seem to find it almost impossible to believe that the Conservative Party could make any constructive suggestion about the trade unions. In the light of the present economic situation, and what has happened in recent months, many people might be wishing that the Conservative Party were still able to put their views into effect. So what are we asking the Government to do? I repeat that there would be no compulsion but, we would hope, encouragement, and I believe that the vast majority of the House of Commons agree with that. The strange thing about the House is that it has proved time and time again that it is not as unrepresentative of views outside it as some people would have us believe. The referendum was a very good example of that. The power of the unions is immense, in relation both to the public generally and to their own members. The closed shop has increased it. It has made many people join who have had no particular interest in joining a union. It is all the more important that in the election of officials the greatest possible number of members should be encouraged to take part.
The right hon. Gentleman has often referred to the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and percentage figures. For the benefit of the House, will he state which national trade unions other than the AUEW elect all their officers?
That would take some considerable time. In my experience, nearly every union adopts a different method of selecting or electing its union officers. In fairness to the AUEW, it has one of the most democratic constitutions of all the unions and I would not in any way want people to get the impression that I was attacking the AUEW on this point. All I have tried to do is to point out that since the AUEW adopted the postal ballot system the number of people taking part in elections has risen from about 6 per cent. or 7 per cent. to 30 per cent. or 40 per cent., and I understand that at district level many of the close contests there have resulted in the numbers taking part amounting to 40 per cent. or 50 per cent.To sum up, we believe, first, that elections should be regular and should be contested; and secondly, that if they are by post the State should pay the cost of postage for the ballot. I go one stage further and say that I think that there should be one free post for the election address of candidates involved. If the election is not to take place by post—and many unions may decide that they do not wish to do it in that way—I believe that it would be right for it to take place on employers' premises and in employers' time. Voting, of course, should be secret and administered by an independent group such as the Electoral Reform Society. This means cash from State or employer. The principle of State subsidy finds much favour among hon. Members opposite, but not so far when applied to union democracy. We shall encourage them to see the light.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make it quite clear to the House whether in what he is saying he is dropping the proposal he raised in Standing Committee of involving the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, which many of us think would have been disastrous for this purpose?
I have purposely not mentioned the ACAS because, although I think that it would be a perfectly reasonable way of doing it, it meets with objections. The important thing in a matter of this sort is that the House of Commons should try to speak as a House of Commons and that we should look for the widest possible measure of agreement between the various sides of the House. For that reason, I have not mentioned that proposal, today.I want to see the Government come forward, after consultation with the TUC and other interested parties, with a proposal to put before the House. This is such a vital matter that we should not delay long in bringing it forward. The whole purpose of a debate on the Adjournment is to enable hon. Members to put their point of view without having to vote against or vote for a motion. We want action to be taken. The sooner it comes the better. We are not particularly worried as to what form it takes or how the body is set up which is to make certain that the money when allocated is properly spent. Whatever happens, we want to see action.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now answer my question, as he promised? Is the Tory Party advocating the abandonment of the appointment of officers or their indirect election in favour of the direct election of officers in each union? If he is not, is he aware that the appointment of officers is the practice in the moderate unions and the election of officers is the practice in the more militant unions?
I am suggesting to trade unions that if they wish to be truly representative of the people that they represent there is much to be said in 1975 for new systems of election, whether they be by post or whether they be on the shop floor in the employer's time. I am not trying to dictate to unions whether they should have elections. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to wave his hand, but a great many people believe that some new systems should at least be tried and the systems made available for them to take part. If unions do not take advantage of them, that is up to them. Our job in the House is to make it possible for those new systems to be used if unions wish to use them. That is the purpose of this debate. It will be of interest to the country outside to see how the House reacts to a suggestion of this nature.
If the House of Commons chooses to have a debate on the question of postal ballots in trade unions, I have no ground for complaint. It is evident that hon. Members in different parts of the House wish to discuss the subject and have thought it to be one of considerable importance. They have tabled a motion which has raised the matter and, therefore, I certainly have no complaint about a general discussion on the subject.However, I think that I am entitled to underline that this debate occurs in peculiar circumstances, to state it no higher. I always try to be as self-restrained as I can in these matters. I may be wrong, but in all my experience in the House I cannot recall a debate of this character which was proposed for discussion in the House as a whole in the middle of Committee proceedings elsewhere. It was for that reason that Mr. Speaker gave his ruling beforehand. It was a ruling which was in perfect accord with the rules of the House, and, if I may be impertinent enough to say so, they are very good rules of the House. People sometimes deride the rules of the House of Commons and sometimes the rules deserve to be derided. However, often the rules of the House have been devised on reasonable grounds. A rule of the House to the effect that there shall not be references in the House to Committee proceedings whilst the Committee proceedings are continuing, and in particular that there shall not be duplicated debates on the subject, is a very intelligent arrangement. It is designed to avoid duplication. It is designed to ensure that there shall not be one decision and one answer given in Committee and something else happening on the Floor of the House. It is designed to fit in with the whole of the Committee proceedings and Report proceedings in the House. Moreover, the Committee proceedings and Report proceedings, which I know are sometimes criticised in some quarters because of the slowness of the operation, are also designed to enable Governments to take account of what is said by the House of Commons and to return on Report and to give a reasoned comment, perhaps in the form of a fresh amendment, on what has been said in Committee. For all these reasons, on which I need not elaborate, the House of Commons has laid down as some of its rules that some separation shall be preserved between what happens in Committee and what happens on the Floor of the House. It is a very sensible arrangement. I believe that this debate, despite all the skilful efforts of the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) to avoid the difficulties, is a defiance of that commonsense principle. Debates in Committee are proceeding. All the arguments put forward by the right hon. Gentleman were rehearsed in Committee and replied to by Ministers and others who participated in the debates. The debate was left suspended. I am sure that everyone who is serving on the Committee will agree that there is no more skilful, knowledgeable and expert Minister than my hon. Friend the Minister of State. On neither side of the House of Commons is there anyone more capable of carrying the Bill through Committee than is my hon. Friend, and he made the position clear by saying that we would consider the matter. Therefore, it is strange for us to have a debate which disrupts that procedure. Moreover, it is no good the right hon. Gentleman's saying that he is merely following normal practice in this respect, because he is specifically asking for legislation. That is the whole point of the debate. What the right hon. Gentleman wants cannot be done by administration or by the Government deciding to administer the law in a different way, which is one of the functions of debates on the Adjournment. It can be done only if the Government bring in a new law, and we should have to debate how such a new law would operate and whether such a new law could be devised. I repeat that the procedures of the House of Commons are precisely designed for that purpose in Committee and on Report and not on the Adjournment of the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) has not been interrupted by the Chair nor fallen foul of the rules of the House, would it not be better to get on to the substance of the debate rather than objecting to the fact that it is taking place?
The hon. Gentleman has missed the point—I am not altogether surprised. If he examines the facts he will see that what I am saying is indisputable. The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to give an indication of the legislative reaction of the Government to what he proposes. Were I to do that, it would be an infringement of the rules which Mr. Speaker made clear at the beginning of the debate. If I am not to do that, and if I am not to be permitted to answer that question, it is difficult to see how the matter can be dealt with.
As the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), like myself, represents a fishing port, would it not have been more sensible to have used this valuable time to debate the state of the fishing industry?
Order. We are getting disorderly. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) knows that we like only one intervention at a time. Mr. Speaker listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, which obviously was in order. I advise the House that it is being asked to discuss the principle of postal ballots,
I assure the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) was merely pointing out that the debate, not being a fishing debate, was a red herring.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson), like the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan), is quite out of order.
During this Session there are five or six more Supply Days. I hope that very soon we shall be able to have a half-day debate on fishing, for which I have made the necessary representations.
We are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his assurance that he will do better next time. I shall now proceed as best I can to deal with the subject.I must insist that I cannot deal with the question of what the Government will do by legislation, because that would be out of order.
Come off it.
That is the fact of the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman should have found that out before he started the debate.I turn to what the right hon. Gentleman said about cost. Estimates have been given before on this subject, and our estimate of the cost of postal ballots as they are at present carried over in union elections is about £250,000. If postal ballots were to be extended on the scale suggested by the right hon. Gentleman to cover a whole series of unions—presumably the purpose of his proposal is to encourage unions to resort to this method—the cost would be greatly increased. If we were to go further and, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, arrange for free postage for candidates' election addresses, the cost would be greater still. As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) said, questions of public expense are involved. If we were to carry out the right hon. Gentleman's proposals in the way he described, the cost would be very considerable. There are other bodies which would be entitled to say "If the trade unions are to be given free postal facilities, we also should be considered for those facilities". A large number of bodies are already saying that special postal facilities should be made available to them—newspapers and others. That is not an infallible reason for not embarking on this course, but it is a reason for considering the matter, which is what the Government have said they are doing.
The Secretary of State is a member of an administration whose borrowing requirement is £9,000 million. Is he saying that the £1·1 million suggested by my right hon. Friend is relevant for discussion at all?
I was answering the question because I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was entitled to an answer on the specific point he raised. He asked me to comment on his figures, and I am doing so. I am saying that it is not even a question of £1,500,000 which he specified but a considerably greater figure. It is not easy to calculate the total figure but it is very much bigger than anything the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.
Will the Secretary of State inform the House whether there is a valid reason why, should there be postal voting, trade unions should not pay this charge themselves? They are stiff with money and quite rich.
That is a view which the hon. Gentleman takes, but it happens to conflict with the proposal put forward by his right hon. Friend on the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman's torpedo may have been aimed at me but it has hit his own Front Bench.Let me refer in more general terms to the whole idea of ballots. The right hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the public generally would favour such an extension of postal ballots and that there was a general sentiment amongst the public that ballots might be a successful method of dealing with strikes and other industrial troubles. Until a few years ago there was a widespread view amongst some sections of the public—how widespread no one can tell for certain, but there was a general feeling expressed in some newspapers—that ballots might be successful in making strikes less probable, that if a ballot were enforced before strike action occurred it would be revealed that leaders were more moderate than their followers, or the situation in various unions would be exposed. That was one of the arguments that were used. It has some plausibility if the view is taken that it might reveal more clearly the view of trade union members. I am not saying that there are not circumstances in which it is right and proper, advisable and necessary for there to be ballots. Of course, a number of unions have ballots. I am talking now about strike actions and not postal ballots for executive offices. None the less, a similar point is involved. I am not saying that ballots are wrong in all circumstances. There are some unions that lay down in their constitutions that there should be ballots. They have varying rules as to how it should be done. The National Union of Mineworkers has always operated a ballot system. It is difficult to determine whether that union would have had fewer strikes or more strikes if it had not used the ballot system. I am not making any judgment on the matter, but a few years ago there was a general feeling that one of the ways to ensure that strike action was never taken, unless fully backed by a union's members, was to ensure that there should be ballots. The Opposition, when they introduced the Industrial Relations Act, ensured that ballots should be enforced in certain circumstances. The Act provided that those circumstances should be determined in the end by the Secretary of State for Employment. We all remember well the occasion when that happened. It was decided by the Secretary of State for Employment that a ballot should be ordered in the case of the railway workers. I shall not be so sadistic as to recall in exact terms what happened. However, that event disproved the claim, or helped to do so, that ballots would make strikes less likely or that union leaders did not have their followers behind them. The ballot to which I have referred had exactly the opposite effect to what was intended. Certainly the right hon. Gentleman's administration never again resorted to that weapon. There may be some comparable situations as regards postal ballots. Again, I am not passing any judgment. There may be cases where it is better to have postal ballots for the election of officers. I am not criticising those unions which have such a procedure, nor am I criticising the unions that do not. I point out that it is a great mistake to think that in some way the postal ballot is a panacea for the ills that Conservative Members sometimes describe, or that it is likely to be successful in all cases. It is a mistake to think that we can apply the same system, or encourage the application of the same system, in many different unions and in many different circumstances. To say that shows a misunderstanding of how different unions conduct their business. In some respects, I sympathise with those unions which do not have postal ballots but elect their officers on a different basis which is conducted properly and democratically. Many unions conduct their affairs—and have done so for years—on a democratic basis without postal ballots and without anyone making accusations to the contrary. Now it seems that the quality, character or eligibility of their leaders is somehow suspect. That is the implication of what some people say when they talk of postal ballots providing a complete remedy. So that there is no misunderstanding, I repeat that what I have said does not mean that I am against postal ballots, and particularly in cases where it has been found by experience to be the most successful way in which unions can conduct their business. Equally, I am not saying that there is not a case for the extension of the postal ballot procedure. All I am saying is that it is much better for hon. Members to approach these matters without being so dogmatic and without thinking that the solution will have to be applied in all circumstances. There are some difficulties involved. If public money is to be provided to the unions it must be given under certain provisions. Certain rules would have to be laid down as to how it was to be supplied. I am not saying that means could not be devised by which that could be done without infringing the unions' rights, but we would have to be careful. Although I am not allowed to refer to the amendment tabled by the Opposition in Committee, I think that I am able to indicate my prejudice. I believe that the amendment provided a clumsy way of proceeding. We would have to ensure that we did not intervene in such a way as to infringe the rights of the unions or in a way that would exacerbate the problems that we are seeking to solve. Not merely is that necessary in the interests of justice and intelligence, but it is also part of our obligation under the ILO. I must draw that matter to the attention of the Opposition. I am not quite sure how enthusiastic they may be about the conventions laid down by the ILO, but I hope they will not care to repudiate them in any way. Before I go further, I must point out that I am not suggesting that this is the proposal put forward by the Opposition. All that we are discussing is the general principle. I must underline that one of the dangers to be avoided in an attempt to control by statute the election procedures of unions, either by requiring ballots to be held or by requiring that elections should be valid only if a certain proportion of members vote, is union resentment. I must point out that such an approach would be bitterly resented by many unions, and probably by most. It would also probably be contrary to ILO Convention No. 87, ratified by this country, which provides in Article 3 that
In practical terms, attempts to lay down minimum voting percentages might encourage the use of delegated or block voting procedures rather than secret ballots. Indeed, any interventions would have to be carefully designed so that they did not breach that ILO convention. I hope that Conservative Members would not wish to move in that direction. I do not say that they have always been great enthusiasts for ILO conventions. However, the convention to which I have referred was signed by one of my predecessors way back in 1948—namely, Mr. George Isaacs. If there had been anything wrong with the convention a number of Conservative Ministers could have intervened in the interim—for example, Lord Monckton, Mr. Iain Macleod, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), Lord Blakenham, the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Carr), the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber), the right hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Macmillan) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw). They have all been at the Department of Employment and they have accepted that ILO convention in their time. I dare say that some have even been to Geneva and given their general acclamation and support for it. I hope that they will not suggest now that we should depart from the excellent principle, in my opinion, that is laid down in the convention."workers' and employers' organisations shall have the right to draw up their constitutions and rules, to elect their representatives in full freedom…The public authorities shall refrain from any interferences which would restrict this right, or impede the lawful exercise thereof."
I must point out that not one word of what I had to say necessitated the right hon. Gentleman's having to read out of all this elaborate stuff.
I thought that the right hon. Gentleman, to keep himself in order, was discussing the general principle of postal ballots. I thought that he was determined to discuss the general principle. I am discussing the general principle because it happens to be impinged upon by the ILO convention. The convention deals precisely with one aspect of the matter. If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that what he is proposing is impinged upon by the convention his proposition may sound all the more sinister. That must be the result if he does not understand what he is proposing, or what might be the result of the proposition.Perhaps I should point out that what the right hon. Gentleman proposed in Committee could have had the result that I have suggested. Equally, some of the suggestions that have been made today could have that result. I shall quote one of the suggestions made by one of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends. I hope that it will not be considered too offensive to do so. I have the document with me, if I can find it. I refer to the speech that was made yesterday on this subject. It is rather difficult to follow the various speeches that come out from day to day. If I cannot find it, I shall have to paraphrase it. I must search a little further, because I am sure that nobody would be more disappointed than the right hon. Gentleman in question if I did not quote him. I am referring to a speech made by the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker). Therefore, I refer to his words with considerable diffidence. The right hon. Gentleman is caught between the two sides. I am not sure whether he is a Thatcherite or a Heathite. I do not know whether he would own up to being a Walkerite, but I can understand anybody who takes such an attitude. The right hon. Member for Worcester in a speech at the weekend referred to the subject of postal ballots, the principle of which we are now discussing. There is no doubt what he was saying—namely, that the Government should provide facilities whereby such an important area of British life can make its major decisions by properly conducted postal ballots. The implication of what he said was that it is improbable that this area of British public life could be properly conducted unless by means of postal ballot. That is a very dangerous implication for the reasons I have given. If Conservatives come to the House and say that the only way in which real democratic decisions can be made is by means of the postal ballot, they are saying that they know better than the individual unions themselves. Those Conservatives are saying that they wish to impose their wills upon the unions. If that is the case, we should once again be back to the nonsense of the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act 1971. Nobody is a greater authority on that legislation than the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival), to whom I shall now give way.
I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which I take as intended to be a compliment. However, he is in danger of turning what should be a useful discussion of a matter in which this House might assist those who are interested in the subject and wish to see greater democracy in our unions into something quite different. He is either deliberately or accidentally misunderstanding my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior). It is clear that we are not seeking to impose anything on anybody in any way. What is proposed springs from the suggestion by some people—and a good many trade unions are of this view—that postal ballots might be useful. The question is whether the House can do anything to assist those unions which wish to try such a suggestion. Surely this is a matter which we should discuss seriously rather than on the wrongful basis adopted by the Secretary of State for Employment, who is acting in this debate in a niggling way which ill-becomes the holder of so great an office.
I was not discussing the matter in a reprehensible way, but was quoting the right hon. Member for Worcester. I was fully entitled to do so. The right hon. Gentleman made a clear declaration on this subject—much clearer than anything said by other Conservatives. The right hon. Gentleman said in a speech made at the weekend that the way in which the country could be rescued from its present economic difficulties was by adopting the postal ballot system, which he thought should be spread much more widely over the whole field so as to he regarded as democratic. I know that all my hon. Friends, of whatever shades of opinion, take the view that it is nonsense to talk of a universal system which should be imposed. It is nonsense to suggest that unions by conducting elections under the present system, which may be non-postal, are adopting a less democratic system than that adopted by other unions. It is nonsense to raise the question of postal ballots as a way of handing out medals to the unions. It is nonsense to put forward the idea of postal ballots as a way in which unions must conduct their affairs in order to be democratic. Those who speak in that way—and I have quoted the right hon. Member for Worcester—do great damage to their cause. I do not believe that it is possible to conduct the matter fairly in that way.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the explanation is much simpler—namely, that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) heard this matter discussed elsewhere, picked up some ideas which met with general approval, and thought that this was a good thing to hitch his wagon to, so that we have been landed with this debate this afternoon?
I have studied carefully not only what was said by the right hon. Member for Lowestoft, but what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Park), and I recommend to the whole House that when those proceedings are reported to the House everybody should study my hon. Friend's words.I can add nothing to what has been indicated elsewhere since I am not entitled to refer to those matters in this debate. I should like to add one word in view of the terms in which this matter has sometimes been discussed. It is extremely dangerous to suggest that if elections are manipulated in this way it will give moderates a better chance to win elections. In the discussions on these matters there is one word which I should almost like to see banned from the dictionary. I refer to the word "moderates". I have always been very suspicious of the word "moderation" in politics. I have always tried to go back to the sources to see what it means. I was gratified to read the other day—I came across it entirely by accident—some words by William Hazlitt, the best journalist who ever sat in the Gallery of the House of Commons, who looked down on these matters and studied them with great care. Let me quote what he said about moderates:
Some of our difficulties can be traced back to that kind of effect. I hope that none of us will talk in terms of moderates or extremists. I do not believe that is the proper way to approach these matters. The proper approach is to see whether there is some facility that can be provided which does not infringe in any way the rights and independence of trade unions. That is the basis on which the Government are studying the matter. I think that we are dealing with the matter properly, and we shall report to the House after we have carried out the study. I think that the Government should abide by the Standing Orders and the rules of the House—namely, to make our declarations in Committee and then report according to the proper customs and traditions of the House."An affected moderation in politics is (nine times out of ten) a cloak for want of principle."
My right hon. Friend has quoted Hazlitt on moderation. There is not one of us who does not see in my right hon. Friend a very considerable democrat. Would he like to give us his views on extremism and what he would define as an extremist?
My hon. Friend tempts me to go further into the matter. Most of the great reforms in history have been carried through by people who originally were extremists. They were extremists when they started in a minority of one, they had to convert others, and then they became a little less extreme. That is how the world goes. I brought in the quotation from Hazlitt only because I believe that the word "moderates" has been used in a manner which has debased the currency of our politics. I have tried to put the matter right by insisting that the dictionary term should be used in a more sensible manner.I was saying that the House should deal with this matter according to its traditions and not by the method which the right hon. Member for Lowestoft and his Conservative colleagues have sought to advance—namely, by the interpolation of this debate in the normal proceedings of the House.
Before I call the next hon. Gentleman, it is wise to remind the House of what Mr. Speaker said earlier. It is not in order to refer to the debate in Standing Committee, nor is it in order to put forward an extended argument for legislation.
I am sorry that I canot compliment the Secretary of State on one of his best performances. I have certainly heard him on other occasions in better form. He spent the first 15 minutes arguing whether there should be a debate at all, and something like 10 of the last 15 minutes on matters which had nothing to do with the point at issue.The Liberal Party is in favour of the State encouraging unions—I stress "encouraging"—to have postal ballots for officers. I hope that the Secretary of State also read my speech, which simply supported the view that I am expressing now. My party would support any move by the Government which enabled the cost of the postage involved in such elections to be borne by the State. But I would envisage the State bearing only the cost of postage not the whole cost of the ballot. I do not advocate that the printing of ballot papers should be part of the State cost. That should be properly borne by a trade union, as it is at the present time. I do not, however, take the view that it should be mandatory upon a union to have a postal ballot. I would be totally opposed to any suggestion that a union must have a postal ballot. In my view it is for each union to decide for itself whether it would be in its interests to take advantage of any facility that the Government were able to put at its disposal. I think that this is the view that has been expressed from the Opposition Front Bench this afternoon. The rules prevent me from referring to what happens in other places, so I cannot comment on any change of atitude that may have occurred between one place and the other. As I understand the Opposition view this afternoon, it is that postal balloting should not be mandatory on unions. Neither I nor my party would be prepared to support a suggestion that each trade union must have a postal ballot—provided always that, when a union determines whether or not to have a postal ballot, that decision is taken legally and democratically. I see no reason for this House to be concerned with anything which may be done illegally by a union or by a union official. Recent events have proved quite conclusively that the courts have the power to deal with that situation already, and that no further action by this House is necessary. It would be ridiculous and ill-founded for this House to assume that all that is needed is to have postal ballots in unions and then all will be well with industrial relations and trade union activity. There is no guarantee that postal ballots will lead to a greater number of people voting. An examination, for example, of the experience of the National Union of Seamen would not seem necessarily to prove that postal ballots mean more people voting in elections. What we are trying to discuss this afternoon is much more fundamental, and the sooner this House gets down to the real issue, instead of shadow boxing, the better for it we shall be. What we are really discussing is how to ensure that trade union leaders properly project the views of their members, and how to ensure that power is where it should be, in the hands of Parliament, elected by the people—albeit by a crazy, out-dated electoral system—rather than, as it appears to be at present, in the hands of bodies outside this House. That really is the issue we are all trying to debate, but in a shadow-boxing way, instead of getting down to the real issue. If we can get down to the issue of where power is, and where it should be, then we get down to the very basis and survival of democracy itself. I do not believe that we can effect the change that is required and desired by taking on the unions, or by taking on onyone else—in other words, having a fight with them or legislating against them. I do not believe that that would achieve anything. Equally, I do not believe that merely by insisting on postal ballots we would effect the change that I suspect we are all trying to effect. I do not believe that we would effect that change in the country, or in Parliament, or in the unions. The change we are seeking to effect is to ensure that trade union leaders reflect the views of their members. I believe that, for example, there should be ballots for trade union officers on each factory floor, in working hours. In my view, that would ensure a much higher representative vote even than the introduction of a postal ballot. Workers should vote at their place of work, according to the union to which they belong, in whatever election is taking place. Employers should provide time for that kind of vote to take place on the factory floor. We need to design some sort of industrial system of worker participation in industry that ensures that workers have the power, rather than trade union bosses. There is much to be said for plant bargaining as opposed to national bargaining, certainly in the sphere of private industry, though again that can come about and be effective only when we have restructured the whole democratic process of industry itself—when workers and management can work together for their mutual good. This debate is nibbling at the real issue. It is not taking the bit between its teeth. It is not grasping the nettle. One thing is abundantly clear to any Member who mixes with his constituents, particularly in the industrial parts of this country. It is that the workers of this country do not want strikes. They are fed up with strikes. The sooner trade union leaders get this message the better it will be. If trade union leaders were more representative of the views of their members they would get that message. I had telephone calls last week, as the Secretary of State knows, from members of the NUR, telling me that they were not prepared to take part in a strike today, even if one had been called. I agree that they represent only a very minute part of the NUR in numbers, but nevertheless I believe that the workers of this country are genuinely seeking to evolve a better way of solving industrial problems than the method of striking. What we are anxious to do is to devise a system which makes sure that the trade union leaders of this country get that message, and to try to evolve methods that will do away with strike action. The question whether there should be postal ballots in unions, whether this might be a good thing, is really not in itself the issue before us. The issue is how to devise a system to make sure that trade union leaders properly reflect the views of union members, rather than their own particular views or the views of a very small number of union members, whether it is the national executive or any other group. I believe that the whole basis of our democratic structure should be reviewed; how candidates are selected for elections; our whole crazy electoral system; how Parliament works; worker participation in industry; and devolution of power. These are all parts of the same problem. It is part of the same cancer which is eating away at democracy itself, and any democrat, whatever his or her political persuasion, should be deeply concerned about the situation facing the country and the whole basis of our democratic structure. My Liberal colleagues and I want to see a radical reform of the system—not one dealing with postal ballots in unions as an issue in itself but a radical reform of the whole system. If this Government wish to uphold and to prove their belief in the maintenance of democracy, they will turn their attention to these matters urgently.
In addressing the House on this subject, those of us who served on the Standing Committee dealing with this matter are in considerable difficulty. As the House is aware, we have had a lengthy debate on the subject, so much so that it is almost imposible to say anything which is new.As the outset of my remarks, in the best traditions of this House, I have to declare an interest, in that I am a Member sponsored by the AUEW. Let us be frank with each other. This debate is about the AUEW alone, despite anything to the contrary said by Opposition Members. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) could not answer when I asked him how many national trade unions elected all their officials. The answer is simple. It is done by no other union than the AUEW, and it is about this that we are talking in this debate. But again I am in considerable difficulty because, unfortunately, I cannot prove that the right hon. Member for Lowestoft spent the first hour of the proceedings in Standing Committee berating the AUEW about its procedures. But there is no doubt what we are discussing today, and we all realise why. It is because of the events which occurred in the national committee of my union. I wish to make it clear that I am one of the few in this House with some experience of conducting ballots at branch level. For five years I was a branch teller of the AUEW. One of our greatest problems was to get our members to attend branch meetings in order to vote. If we succeeded in getting a 15 per cent. vote, we reckoned to have the support of 100 per cent. of those members who had turned out to attend the meeting. There are a number of reasons why trade union members do not attend branch meetings. We see increasingly the system whereby the employer deducts union subscriptions at source from a man's pay. For many years there has been a movement of population away from urban areas where branches held their meetings in pubs and clubs. There is the problem of shift work, which is widespread. One of the current arguments on all sides in the AUEW—not simply the extremist Left or the moderate Right—is how to conduct our affairs. Many of us in the union have always felt the branch to be the cornerstone of the union and of its policy making and philosophy. Others have felt that, because of the events which have occurred in past years, we should shift the rôle of the branch to the workshop floor. It is deeply divisive arguments of this kind which have been troubling my union colleagues for a number of years. Only recently we changed the system to one of balloting by post. It is very interesting to hear the Opposition insisting that they will not force unions to have ballots. Why, then, do they get their bowels into such tremendous uproar? It is not because the AUEW sought to abandon ballots. It is simply because it sought to change the method of voting. It would still leave the power in the hands of its members. I repeat that it is the only major trade union which elects all its officers. We simply decided to go for voting at branch level, and our decision was dictated by reasons of cost. I support the general principle of the Government making finance available to the trade union movement to conduct ballots, but whatever method is adopted it must be decided in consultation with the unions. They must decide whether to take advantage of Government assistance. Also, it must be left to the unions to decide whether to have postal ballots in the first instance or whether to change their methods. It ill-becomes the Opposition to get themselves into a tremendous uproar simply because the AUEW sought to change its method. I repeat that there was no attempt to do away with the ballot. The union simply wanted to change the method of voting. The right hon. Gentleman and the how Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) have made a great deal of play with proposals for voting at work and the fact that trade unionists should have a right to vote for their officers at the point of contact—the place of work itself. It is all very well for right hon. and hon. Members to state general principles with which everyone can agree, but what about an industry like shipbuilding and ship repairing, where there is a multiplicity of trade unions? An employer in that industry would spend more time assisting the trade union movement to conduct ballots than he would building or repairing ships, bearing in mind that there are between 15 and 20 unions involved. What about a union like ACAT, with members spread up and down the country on different building sites? How would it operate? It is easy to state broad principles and to make flowing speeches. Men and women on the factory floor are attempting to carry out their daily work, their political work and their trade union work. In many instances they work in the best interests of the people. They do not ask Parliament to intervene in their affairs. They look to Parliament at times for guidance, of course, but the general principle is that over the years the trade union movement has had to defend itself from attacks by this place. For that reason it is not surprising that the movement views with great suspicion any suggestion coming from the Opposition. It may be out of order to say so, but I suggest that this debate is a complete waste of parliamentary time. There are far more important issues which we could be debating. We should not be spending time today discussing this ridiculous motion.
I am sure that the House was interested to hear the middle part of the speech by the hon. Member for Newton (Mr. Evans), because he pointed to some of the practical difficulties in adopting a postal ballot system in certain of our trade unions. That was really the object of the Opposition in initiating this debate. It gives the House a chance to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the different methods. We were hoping for the assistance of Government supporters such as the hon. Member for Newton, who have experience in these matters.I do not see anything wrong in discussing general principles in this House from time to time. We spend enough time as it is on the nitty-gritty of clauses in legislation, so much so that the whole place is almost collapsing under the weight of legislation currently going through the House. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Member for Newton will agree that there is a purpose to be served by discussing general principles from time to time. We hoped to hear from the Secretary of State how far he had got in his consultations on these matters since they were raised earlier this year. On 17th March, my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Mr. Trotter) asked the Secretary of State whether he would introduce legislation to provide for free postal communications to be made available for union elections. In reply, the Secretary of State said that the matter was currently being considered. On 21st May, the Prime Minister said that he was in favour of postal ballots. Therefore, we looked for some indication from the Government about how their consultations with the unions were progressing. There has been public concern about the way that ballots are organised, and the Government would be taking that public concern on board if they could spell out more than they have so far how their consultations were progressing. There is nothing new in the general debate on and interest in union elections and associated topics. In paragraph 632 of the Report of the Donovan Commission we find:
I do not think that anyone in the House will dissent from that comment. We are trying to think of ways whereby each trade unionist will have a better opportunity to take part in his or her union elections. As my right hon. Friend said, the Opposition want to go a little further, after consultation, and to see whether something can be done to assist candidates for appointments in unions to be able to get across more clearly to those whose votes they seek those matters of which they are or are not in favour. Conservative Members accept that it is not easy to get a high turnout in union elections. I refer to paragraph 633 of the Donovan Report, which underlines our point when it says, that a constantly changing membership is one of the main reasons for a low poll in union elections. The question we should ask ourselves is: if we adopt or make available this system whereby unions can claim costs for postal ballots from the Government, will it result in an increase in the total number of people voting in elections? The Opposition believe that it probably will. That is why we think we should pursue this matter in greater detail. I accept straight away that there is difficulty over the cost. The cost of a postal ballot sometimes deters a trade union from introducing a postal ballot. The Donovan Report is very succinct about this matter when, in paragraph 635, it says:"The low polls typical of union elections are an unsatisfactory feature of union life."
The words "perseverance with postal voting" are very apt, because it is only by perseverance that one will be able to get a higher turnout for union elections. The Secretary of State for Employment mentioned the cost factor, and mention was also made of the estimate that appeared in the Economist of 24th May which said:"Unions considering introducing a postal vote might think that the cost is justifiable only when the election is for senior posts, or where there is some reason to believe that perseverance with postal voting will progressively increase the polls".
We look to the Secretary of State for Employment to tell us whether those figures are right, or whether his mathematicians and statisticians have come up with anything different. If we could have had more detailed figures from the Minister it would have added to our debate. There is a need, as the Donovan Report has said, for perseverance with regard to postal ballots. I can envisage that a union having tried this system for two years might find the cost enormous and that that may be a sufficient deterrent for the union to drop the scheme. It is for that reason that we believe Government money should be made available for such arrangements. The hon. Member for Newton mentioned the question of voting at the work place. Time off for union activities and facilities for union officials and trade union meetings during work time are all bound up with some of the aspects which have already been discussed—and some which have not—of the Employment Protection Bill, which I know we cannot go into in detail now. Conservatives want to stress that they have never said that there should be a compulsory postal balloting system. We accept that, very often, the right place to vote will be at the work place. However, when people are working shifts, and there are a number of unions within certain industries, there are practical difficulties which cannot necessarily be overcome by a postal ballot. Moreover, there is the further difficulty that if we have voting at the work place and there is a 24-hour shift system in operation, we do not expect the union easily to be able to provide people to—if I may use a colloquialism—"man the polling stations" throughout the whole of that time. Therefore, there could be a partial postal ballot by those working certain shifts, whilst others could vote at the place of work. I am not saying that that method is perfect, but it may have to be considered. The whole object of our debate is to try to get these practical difficulties brought out into the open and properly considered. We are not overdramatising the case. We are not saying that there is tremendous malpractice throughout the British trade union movement. We agree with The Times editorial of 19th May, which says:"Suppose all unions held a postal ballot every 12 months and all members voted … then the second-class postage cost would be £1·1 million. But the net resource cost would probably be under £100,000 (since it will be hardly necessary to open new post offices or employ extra postmen)".
I emphasise the words "from time to time". We are not saying that malpractices are rampant; they are not. We are merely saying that if we had a postal ballot system it would increase interest and remove a great deal of the doubt or suspicion that arises from time to time. The trade union movement is interested in discussing this matter with the Government. An article in the Observer of 25th May says:"British unions have been more free from scandal than many others, but there are disturbing reports from time to time of faked elections. It is essential for the good name of British trade unionism that there should be a lively awareness of this danger."
We are entitled to say that the TUC is never backward in coming forward with ideas about the way in which the Government could improve matters, or how we could improve many facets of our national life. Here is a case where the House of Commons is making a suggestion—not giving an order—that the adoption of postal ballots, in certain circumstances, and giving unions right to claim the money back from the Government would be a good thing for British trade unionism. In no sense is our motion an order to the British trade union movement. It is a suggestion. From time to time it is the duty of Parliament to make suggestions to the TUC just as it is inevitably the duty of the TUC to make suggestions to Parliament."The General Workers' general secretary, Mr. David Basnett, says carefully that if the Government wants to talk about postal ballots, the union will listen, though without enthusiasm."
I speak as an appointed union official of many years' standing. I was appointed by a national executive council which itself was elected at an annual conference of delegates directly elected from their branches. My appointment was subject to the ratification of that conference. I think that my brother officers and I in the Post Office Engineering Union are living examples of the virtues of that system.Having declared my interest, I listened with astonishment to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) advocating the democratic nature of postal ballots. The thought immediately came to me: was he adopted as the Conservative candidate for Lowestoft as a result of a postal ballot? I doubt it. My guess is that he was adopted in competition with other candidates at a convened meeting. I asked myself: was the right hon. Gentleman, in advocating the democratic basis of postal ballots, elected to Parliament by a postal ballot of all his constituents? I doubt it. I have reason to believe that only those who, by virtue of occupation, could not be present in the constituency, or those who were too disabled to attend the polling station, voted in a postal ballot in that election. I went further, and asked myself: was the right hon. Member speaking in this debate by virtue of a decision of the British people? No; he was speaking by virtue of the fact that he had been selected or nominated to speak on behalf of Conservative Members, by the leader of the party who, herself, had been appointed by an indirect method of election. Thinking of the way in which the right hon. Gentleman came to be speaking this afternoon, I could only conclude that if postal ballots were for the trade union movement, they were not for the Conservative Party. It has always been my view, as a union official, that the problems that those of us in the trade union movement present to the politicians arise out of the democratic nature of the trade union movement. These are problems about pressure of pay, disputes—including demarcation disputes—and protective practices. All these matters press upon us because of pressure from rank and file members. Therefore, it is because of the democracy of the trade union movement that we face difficulties. If we were trade union "bosses"—if we had the power that people attribute to us—we could more easily give Labour Governments, and other Governments, copper-bottomed guarantees. Our problem, as leaders, is that we lead truly democratic organisations and have to win consent from the rank and file before we can carry them with us. I think that each union should be free to choose the method of election, nomination or selection most suitable to its circumstances. The British trade union movement has within it a great variety of circumstances, institutions and conditions. It would be impossible to lay down guidelines to suit them all. That is why the Industrial Relations Act crumbled from the start. It is essential that each union should be allowed to pursue the method of recruitment that it wishes. It seems odd that the Conservative Party, if it is pressing for an extension of direct election, should be pressing for a method of trade union control which, over the years, has produced greater militancy than otherwise. The Opposition must face this situation. I am a moderate. I do not know whether or not Hazlitt, to whom my right hon. Friend referred, is a member of the NUJ. As a moderate, I appreciate that it is much easier for a union official to contain the pressures put upon him at a particular time by his members if he is not subject to election within two weeks. If the Opposition want the trade union movement to become more responsive to the pressures from the rank and tile from week to week, they must continue to campaign for the abandonment of representative democracy and methods of indirect election within the trade union movement and go along the road that they have chosen this afternoon. I refused to put my name to the motion which supported the Government's giving money to unions to assist with postal balloting. If a union wants to pursue that course, so be it. However, I refused to put my name to the motion because there are many better ways in which unions can use money at this time. As a union education officer, I used to teach students how trade union democracy could be improved. One fundamental truth that I tried to drum home was that it was no use giving people the right to vote if they did not know what they were voting for. In order to have a democratic institution there must be availability of information and discussion before the vote is cast—unless the Opposition are advocating a pure machine-type system of election. I believe that there is a great need for the development of trade union education and the improvement of research facilities. The general level of communication within unions is unadequate. In short, I believe that there is still a case, put by the Labour Government between 1969 and 1970, for a trade union development fund to make it possible for unions to improve the general effectiveness of their organisations. I certainly want the Government to bring out their own ideas on this subject at some time and reexamine them. I am certain that the payment of money—whether £500,000 or £1 million—for postal ballots would fall in priority below grants for research, educa- tion, and the improvement of communications. I certainly do not want the Government to take a decision on giving money for postal ballot purposes in isolation, without considering alternative uses to which the money could he put to improve the effectiveness of trade union organisations. I believe that the Opposition ought to get off that tack and think more seriously about the way in which we can improve industrial relations.
In his opening speech this afternoon the Secretary of State clearly intended to try to be impartial. I believe that he had come to the House determined to neither say "Yes" nor "No" to the idea of postal ballots. But the fence on which he was trying to sit—no doubt a little surprised at finding his presence upon it—eventually collapsed under his weight, since, by the time that he sat down, he gave the clear impression that if there were a race to bring in union postal ballots he would be content to be the last, or not to cross the finishing line.No Member of this House is better able to destroy an idea with faint praise than is the Secretary of State. Indeed, when he was quoting from Hazlitt, I could not help recalling the remaining words of Pope's famous comment upon Addison's attitude, which seemed so close to the right hon. Gentleman's attitude this afternoon:
"Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
The Secretary of State was really cautioning the House upon three points. The first was that as a House of Commons we should be chary about interfering in the internal affairs of trade unions. The right hon. Gentleman quoted at length from the ILO Conventions. That was an unreal attitude. We are not discussing the powers of some minor and irrelevant independent body like a village amateur dramatic society; we are discussing the powers of one of the great estates of the realm. The trade union movement, the great trade unions that make up that movement and the individual leaders who lead those unions have, individually and collectively over the last six years, decisively intervened in the economic and political affairs of this country. In June 1969 they broke the will of the previous Labour Government. In February 1974 they brought about the defeat of the Conservative Government. Over the last 18 months they have virtually determined the disastrous economic policy of this Government. Therefore, it seems to me that, when an estate of the realm has such influence and authority in our affairs, it is sensible that we, another estate of the realm, should take more than just a passing interest in their electoral procedures.And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer".
Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that we should abrogate our signature to the ILO Convention?
No. I am pointing out that the right hon. Gentleman must try to live a little closer to the real world. Indeed, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) made the same point. The institutions in our society have not yet recognised that there has been a significant shift of power. If we need any evidence of a decisive shift away from this House we have only to look at the events of this week. Our economic affairs will not be debated in this House. They were discussed this morning at Transport House, they will be discussed later in the week at No. 10, and probably over the weekend at Chequers with the CBI and TUC. I thought for a moment that we were back in 1972 and 1973. It all seemed to have a rather familiar ring. But the point which I make is that power has shifted, and shifted significantly.Second, the Secretary of State, somewhat elliptically, as I said, warned the House against seeking the solution of industrial relations problems by invoking the due processes of law. I think he said that he would not wish to be sadistic in reminding the Opposition where that course leads. I must remind him that if, on the other hand, the due processes of law were not available in our country, about 70,000 Welsh engineers would have been denied their rights—their rights would have been abrogated. Only by recourse to our courts of law were the rights of those engineers reasserted over a piece of quite unacceptable electoral malpractice. I believe, therefore, that there is limited scope for the law in these matters. The third matter upon which the Secretary of State touched, after it had been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), was the question of cost. Rightly, it was the first question dealt with, but the Secretary of State dismissed it because he realised that he was not on to a good point. It is fitting, perhaps, that a member of a Government whose epitaph when it is eventually inscribed on their tombstones will be "We were the last of the big spenders" should be chary about that, though it seems strange that a Secretary of State who is ready to find thousands of millions of pounds to nationalise the aircraft industry, shipbuilding and the docks should strain at the gnat of a few coppers to improve democracy. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, that his attempt to be even-handed was not successful, and his arguments were not convincing. In short, the case for allowing unions to conduct postal ballots if they wish, and for money to be found from the Exchequer for that purpose, rests simply on the desire to encourage greater participation by the members of unions in union affairs. I cannot understand why so many hon. Members on the Government side fight shy of that. For our part, we should like to take it even further. I should like time to be made available in working hours and premises to be made available in the factory or work place for meetings to be held, as already happens in some companies and some industries. If that were done, it would be far better to work along those lines than merely to go through the business of postal balloting. I agree that the introduction of trade union postal balloting would be no panacea, but at least it would provide opportunities for more to participate. The figures show that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Model) pointed out. When it was tried in the engineering union, the numbers participating in voting doubled, and in some cases, quadrupled. This must be good for democracy. It is good also for the moderate voice to be heard. I know that the Secretary of State is disdainful of this, and has been throughout his political career, but I should prefer to hear the moderate voice rather than the shrill and strident voice, and it seems to me that greater participation would produce that result. I wish to see the important affairs of this great estate of the realm handled in a more free and more open way, involving many thousands of trade unionists in its procedures instead of having them decided by a handful of men in a smoke-filled room.
I cannot allow to pass without comment the procedural morass into which the Opposition have put themselves, since this subject will be debated again very shortly on the Report stage of a Bill.It is touching that the Opposition should show such concern for democracy. I wish they would direct that concern to less politically controversial and opportunist causes. They might, for example, look at what goes on in the Palace of Westminster, where part of the legislative process is handled by people not elected but appointed, or who have inherited their position. Instead of directing their concern for democracy to the affairs of the engineers, the plumbers, the electricians and the lorry drivers, the Opposition would do well to elevate their eyes to somewhat higher planes and look at what goes on here. They might think that what is good enough for the vast mass of working people should apply also to the legislative process, and show some enthusiasm for advocating the replacement of the Upper House with some sort of democratically elected assembly, or even, if they thought that that might take power from this House, advocate its complete eradication. I think that that would be more to their credit. A cross on a piece of paper, which is what the Opposition are talking about in principle, is not the beginning and end of democracy. Trade union branches have an important part to play, and this should be recognised. The Opposition ought to acknowledge that if the postal ballot system were introduced widely the consequence would be that a lot of members who might otherwise go to their branches would stay at home, put a cross on a piece of paper, and regard that as their entire measure of involvement. The level of participation in branch activities now is not high enough, and I am sure that postal balloting, if foisted on trade unions against their wishes or in indifference to their wishes, would not improve the level of branch participation. If the Opposition are concerned about, say, unofficial strikes, they should realise that, by and large, strikes, official or unofficial, do not start with the national officers of a large trade union. Very often, they start at branch level, on the shop floor or in the work place, wherever it is, and they then go through the process of receiving official approval or not, as the case may be. Therefore, if we had an extension of postal balloting, the Opposition might well find developing a situation which, presumably, they would wholly oppose—a situation in which a tiny group of highly politically motivated men were in charge of a trade union branch because the vast majority of members stayed at home, having been satisfied with a postal vote. I should not imagine that right hon. and hon. Members opposite would be very keen on that. The Opposition ought to clothe with some flesh the skeleton which they have raised. We want to know, for instance, whether they are putting their idea forward in the best interests of the trade union movement or in the interests of their friends. I refer here to the tiny group of politically motivated people who control the Press. The AUEW, which has a postal ballot system, has rules about the amount of information and literature which may be circulated. If a candidate exceeds this rule, or if his friends exceed it, that candidate may be disqualified. This is done with a view to giving a balanced and fair picture upon which the voters may make their decision. I do not suppose that the Opposition would regard that as wrong. Yet if they simply put forward their idea in principle, with nothing more, what is to stop the Press running a campaign of vilification and abuse against candidates whom those who control the Press happen to dislike—perhaps a totally inaccurate campaign—while at the same time refusing to allow a decent amount of space for the opposite view to be presented? We have had a recent example of that. One of the non-elected but appointed people from the other place to whom I referred a few moments ago made some remarks in a newspaper which has always been devoted to the best principles of English life—the News of the World—and that newspaper would not give the trade unionists being thus abused by Lord George-Brown the right of reply. One cannot regard that as a democratic act in a democratic society. As I say, it is conceivable that some of our newspapers would present a prejudiced and partial view of candidates at a trade union election. If, therefore we were to have a fair election process, we should have to have rules to prevent that sort of abuse. The Opposition have not mentioned that, and their failure to mention it shows that they are prepared to hand over power to the tiny group of people who own or control the British Press—and that cannot be regarded as a laudable approach to the improvement of democracy. A number of Opposition Members have from time to time expressed surprise that I should be concerned about the level of public expenditure, the implication being that we on the Government side of the House regard public expenditure as some sort of bottomless pit, which we look at with glazed eyes, trusting that it will continue. On the contrary, we look at the priorities in public expenditure, which is not something that we can disregard. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) produced the figure of £5 million some time ago and the figure of £1½ million today. He is not terribly good at figures. He has got himself into trouble about them before. Nevertheless, we recognise that the sum would be several millions of pounds. I do not object to the principle of postal ballots where unions can afford them and elect to have them. But the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) looked a little askance at the idea of spending money on unions. The Conservatives had better get the matter sorted out among themselves. The hon. Gentleman had grave reservations about such a proposal. I, too, have grave reservations, but that is because I think that there are much more urgent priorities for public expenditure. For example, in my constitu- ency I have difficulty in getting telephones installed for the disabled, while the Bradford Metropolitan District Council—Tory controlled, unfortunately—is cutting down the capitation fee in order to save about £200,000. The result is that local children will have fewer books and less and poorer quality paper. The right hon. Gentleman's figures of £1½ million or £5 million make a situation such as that in my constituency an even more startling comparison. But that is the grim reality. We cannot turn a blind eye to it and say that only a small amount would be involved in assisting unions with postal balloting. The expenditure would be relatively high, in fact, and in the present economic situation we should examine such proposals very carefully. We could not possibly accept that the money should be handed over without some sort of supervision, but, in the present state of industrial relations, if even the present Government stated that a supervisory board would have to certify that the balloting system was satisfactory and that it would have power to remove such certification, the unions could be forgiven if they said "This is harking back to the old Industrial Relations Act, to the days when the Government wanted to interfere with our processes for reasons of their own." We are only a few months away from the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act—a measure which caused more days to be lost in strike action than in any year between 1926 and 1973—so it is certainly not the time to introduce legislation such as is suggested today, even if it were felt on the whole to be desirable. It is all very well for the Opposition to talk about occasional misdemeanours in union voting. An editorial in The Times has been mentioned, and it is worth pointing out that postal ballots lend themselves much more easily to corruption than do secret ballots. If one is going to corrupt a person in order to get his vote, one can see that payment is made if it is a postal ballot. One can ensure that the vote is put in the correct place. But where it is a secret ballot, one can only attempt to get the vote. One cannot necessarily get value for money. This aspect should be borne in mind. I am not saying that there is corruption in postal balloting. I am simply saying that there is a possibility. We accept that, in principle, postal voting can, in certain circumstances, be beneficial, providing the unions are left alone to make their own decisions about it, without Government interference. I think that trade unionists will view the debate with a degree of disdain, which it deserves, coming as it does from the Conservative and Liberal Parties. The Liberal Party talks about electoral reform but elects its leadership from among a tiny handful of political cronies, while the Conservative Party does not use a postal ballot to elect its leader but leaves it to the parliamentary branch. The Opposition do not even use postal balloting for the selection of their candidates. It far better to impress the trade union movement by giving it an example to follow than by political opportunism, which this motion represents.
The suspicion and hostility with which the debate has been greeted are a matter of great sadness, because it means that there is a complete misunderstanding of the spirit in which the motion has been put forward. It seemed that the Secretary of State was determined to raise every red herring rather than address himself to what had been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), and I think that the fading star of the Left-wing firmament has turned into a damp squib.The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying "Nothing I say should be taken as indicating that I have views on any subject whatever or, if I have, that I am conceivably going to be persuaded to disclose what they are". Perhaps I may follow the couplet cited by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) when the right hon. Gentleman was talking—when he could prevail upon himself to do so about the question of postal ballots,
The pathology with which the right hon. Gentleman faced this debate was quite remarkable. It was wholly unnecessary, because the debate was stimulated by a motion which was originally supported by Labour Members. That clearly indicated the genuine concern among Labour Members about the procedures of election in trade unions and a genuine desire to assist those procedures by the use of postal balloting. There is room for argument about the way in which this could be done. Indeed, the purpose of the debate is not to put a cut-and-dried scheme but to suggest that there is genuine need for debate about the precise way in which an idea which found so much support from Labour Members earlier might be implemented. Instead of telling us the ways in which the Government think the difficulties could be surmounted, the right hon. Gentleman insulted the House first by trying to avoid dealing with the subject at all and then falling back on bogus arguments. The right hon. Gentleman complained about the matter being debated at all. He seemed to suggest that it was in some sense improper to have the debate. Yet my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft had put forward a clear and succinct argument about what was being proposed without in any way falling foul of the Chair. Having, during the first half of his speech, criticised the Opposition for daring to raise the subject, which he thought should have been left for another time or another place, the Secretary of State spent the second half talking about the subject in only a cursory and inaccurate way. The right hon. Gentleman compared the suggestion that there should be assistance for balloting for trade union officers with the strike ballots introduced under the Industrial Relations Act. We, of course, realise that, when talking about a strike ballot, we are in a situation in which the average union member is presented with a choice between loyalty to his union leadership, which is calling for a strike, and the calls of, say, the media or—if one likes—of the men of moderation. In that situation it was hardly surprising—indeed, it was not surprising—that the vote should have gone as it did. But this is a very different situation and is not at all analogous. The situation that we are talking about is one in which in a free election the trade union member himself has to consider whom he wishes to have, a choice from within his own ranks. To compare that in any way with a strike ballot is a deliberate attempt to draw a red herring across the trail rather than to give serious consideration to what has been suggested."Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike, Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike".
What I was seeking to say was that it seemed to be a popular idea that strike ballots might be a way in which to make a strike more difficult, but when it was looked into and applied it was found that the popular impression was mistaken. All I was saying—and it is analogous only in this sense—was that in the same way the popular impression that postal ballots might be a kind of panacea for this problem could be mistaken—if that popular impression prevails.
The analogy is fallacious for two reasons. First, the reason that moderation did not prevail on the single test at the time of a postal ballot in relation to a strike was the reason that I have given; namely, the pull of loyalty prevailed. But that does not arise in a ballot for trade union election, because then it is a free choice between two members of a trade union each of whom is equally entitled to consideration by the members of the trade union. Secondly, the analogy does not stand because there is all the difference in the world between a ballot put at the head of the union by pistol point and a ballot freely chosen by a union and merely facilitated by any legislation that the Government choose to pass.This was a red herring, and it was followed by a herring that was even redder, even more inedible. The ILO convention was held before the House by the right hon. Gentleman in terrorem as being the ultimate deterrent that should prevent us from even considering, let alone supporting, this dangerous and subversive idea. It was not said to be a deterrent, but it was waved before us as being a big stick that had stood for 25 or 30 years, and a whole succession of holders of the office of Secretary of State for Employment were read out in sonorous tones to prevent us from even contemplating the idea. Yet I do not believe for a moment that there is anything in the ILO convention that in any way prevents or discourages the idea of postal ballots in trade union elections. It is certainly possible to construct a mandatory, compulsory method of postal ballots to be enforced with pains and penalties that the medieval monarchs themselves would not dare to impose, and so infringe the ILO convention. The only problem is that such a scheme infringing the ILO convention would bear not a shred of resemblance to anything suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft. What my right hon. Friend suggested was simply that if unions of their own free will chose to hold postal ballots, they should be given financial assistance for doing so. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman, whom I believe we may have the privilege of hearing a second time in the debate, to quote chapter and verse of the ILO convention provision that would stand in the way not of some imaginary scheme but of the ideas actually put forward by my right hon. Friend. There is none. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of interference that would restrict the rights of the unions. It is not interference that would restrict the rights of the unions. They do not have to have a postal ballot if they do not want it, and they do not have to take the money; they are merely offered the money in certain circumstances. The ILO convention is not something of which we should be scared, because we have allowed it to stand for a long time, and it has nothing to do with this debate. I turn to the right hon. Gentleman's weekend reading, which I hope he found very salutary and an assistance in the discharge of his onerous duties. It turned out to be the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker). Whether one agrees or disagrees with that speech and whether or not my right hon. Friend has proposed that there should be compulsory postal ballots for trade union elections, one thing is quite clear, and it is that the proposal for compulsory postal ballots which was extracted from that speech, whether it was found there or not, and which was presented as being a big stick with which to beat the Opposition is certainly not the proposal put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft, who leads for the Opposition in the debate today. Therefore, yet again that was a monstrous irrelevancy put forward solely for the purpose of avoiding the issue.
Is it improper for me to quote weekend speeches by the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker), particularly when he is referring to the subject of this debate? Is that monstrous?
The objection to the quotation was not that it was improper but that it was irrelevant. That is a very different objection. The right hon. Gentleman heard every word that my right hon. Friend said today and yet chose to ignore his proposal and instead set up the Aunt Sally of the proposal made in a speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that his right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) made a proposal for legislation?
The right hon. Gentleman is determined to avoid the debate by seeking to draw Opposition Members into something which they know would not be permitted. My right hon. Friend found it perfectly possible to deal with the subject in a constructive way without falling foul of any prohibition by the Chair.I am surprised to find the right hon. Gentleman, whom I learned in my infancy to regard as a lion in debate and one not afraid to face the issues, sheltering behind exaggerated fears about imaginary parliamentary rules when those responsible for the conduct of debate according to those rules have found it possible to allow the subject matter to be canvassed with a much greater degree of liberality than the right hon. Gentleman finds possible to tolerate. It does not do him justice for him to seek to shelter in this timid way. He has been in the House a great deal longer than I have, and I have always hoped that I would hear from him candid debate rather than a sheltering behind artificial rules. I do not wish to detain the House much longer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] What I have said appears to have struck home. The real reason for the objection to what has been said on this side of the House has nothing to do with any of the merits of the arguments of my right hon. Friend. There is room for debate as to whether this should be a first priority in public expenditure, and there is room for argument as to whether the variety of union rules permits a general application of the principle of postal ballots. But there is no room for the fears of hon. Members opposite, because the scheme that has been suggested and canvassed is wholly voluntary and it is entirely open to any union to reject it if it does not like it. The reason for their hostility, suspicion and fear is that Labour Members suspect the motives of those who put forward the scheme. I appreciate that the history of the trade union movement and the legislation relating to it have been fiercely controversial, but I hoped, and I still hope, that the fact that the Opposition had put forward for discussion a motion closely following the lines of a proposal put forward wholly by Labour Members would enable us to have a debate in which what was certainly intended as a constructive proposal could be treated in that sense. It is precisely for that reason, as my right hon. Friend said, that we are not seeking to divide the House and to form up on party lines. We do not seek to put forward proposals for legislation. We were hoping that the practical difficulties, advantages and disadvantages, of this suggestion might be hammered out in a non-controversial way so that if at some future time it commended itself to the right hon. Gentleman, when he was in a less combative mood, it would have been possible for the ground to have been cleared in a constructive way.
I do not so much suspect the motives of the hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) and his colleagues in putting forward this motion as I suspect their competence in trade union affairs and their lack of knowledge in industrial relations matters. The Secretary of State referred to the late Lord Monckton. I was reading the other day that the grand old master, Sir Winston Churchill, just before the Conservatives came into power in 1951, realised that he had very few people in the Tory leadership who knew anything at all about industrial relations. The more things change the more they seem to remain the same.With all respect to the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), I felt that we could have expected a great deal more from him. His concluding remarks gave the lie to what he said. He was really whistling in the dark, looking for something new to say about industrial relations. If this has been a debate about the general principle the one thing that has been clear is that we have been stumbling over the practicalities of the problem of introducing postal ballots for trade union appointments. I favour postal ballots as a system. But I am in no doubt that we cannot thrust postal ballots down the throats of trade unions and their members. It has been made clear that not all trade union posts are elective. The majority of trade union officers, and I was one, are appointed to posts. If we are talking about introducing postal ballots, are we saying that it should be done from top to bottom? Are we talking of postal ballots for the members of union national executive committees as well as regional committees, branch or district committees? I do not put that forward as an attempt to defeat the principle of postal ballots but to point out how complicated a procedure it could be. Moreover, it seems that we are not really debating who pays for the 5½p stamp for the postal vote. We are discussing the state of democracy in this country. There is no doubt that the trade unions exercise a considerable influence over our everyday lives. In some ways the decisions taken by the CBI and the TUC often transcend the importance of any debates we have in this place. We might say that the general secretaries of some unions are more important than individual Cabinet Ministers, and the same might be said of the chairmen of some companies, who are more often in the shade away from the public eye. It seems that only Parliament operates in the glass bowl where all our proceedings are open to public gaze. The decisions taken by trade union leaders and, to a much greater extent, by industrialists are frequently taken behind closed doors. Even if the trade unions decided en bloc to introduce postal ballots, do we really feel that this would involve the great mass of men and women who are members of trade unions? We have just come through a unique referendum. It is a tribute to the electors that in that referendum, which was not compulsory, two in every three people voted. The fact remains, however, that one in every three did not.
That is better than 92 out of 100.
The fact that it was a complex issue does not obscure the fact that a third of the electorate did not take part in the referendum.If resources are required they should be made available to those trade unions that wish to hold postal ballots. Pillar-box democracy is not enough. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft made an interesting observation when he said that no one expects a great number of people to turn up at branch meetings. What kind of democracy is it when people are not prepared to turn up at the point of decision-making when that point is close to them? Until trade unionists or electors realise that they have responsibilities as well as rights in this concept of participation, legislation will not produce any great effect.
I have listened with interest to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen). I want to return to some of his points a little later. One of the things which have interested me this afternoon has been the way in which a group of Labour Members who are not noted for their concern over public expenditure and the effect of grossly inflated public expenditure on our affairs have wheeled out the comparatively small sum which would be involved in conducting postal ballots as an excuse for not having them.The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), who cheerfully contemplates a borrowing requirement of £9 billion and calls on the Government to increase that requirement most of the time, pleads £5 million as an excuse for not taking action. The Secretary of State did exactly the same. Suddenly people who would spend money like water on objectives which they consider to be important plead comparatively small sums at the reason for not doing something which many other people consider to be most important. I will not develop the theme of the cost for too long but I would point out that the Post Office is a national utility owned by the community. I cannot imagine that a single additional postman would need to be employed to operate postal ballots. If I may use my accountancy terms we are talking in a marginal cost way. The marginal cost of having a postal ballot would be tiny. It is an extremely spurious argument to say that public expenditure should be a criterion. The Secretary of State, whose speeches I have admired and listened to with great interest since I came into this House, produced this argument in a most diffident way. It was a tribute to his judgment that he did so, because it is not a strong argument. I am sure that he would not want to place too much weight upon it.
Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to allocate this expenditure from cuts in defence expenditure?
We all appreciate that the hon. Gentleman does not understand finance very well. Perhaps I could take him to one side later and talk to him about marginal costing so that he can understand the point I am making. At present many of the costs of the Post Office are fixed, and the increased cost of having a postal ballot system would be very little indeed. I am not denying that there would be some costs, but they would be tiny and are no argument of any consequence against having postal ballots if those ballots are in the national interest. This is not an attempt by us to impose something on the unions which might be against their interest, nor should the costs be decisive.I began to be rather alarmed about the state of our trade unions when Mr. Bert Ramelson, the industrial organiser for the Communist Party, made the arrogant remark 18 months ago that the Communist Party had identified the trade unions as its sphere of influence. He went on to say that that party could float off an idea earlier in the year and, thanks to the trade unions and the block vote, by October it would be official Labour Party policy. There is no doubt that the Communist Party in Britain—and it knows that if it runs a candidate it does not have a hope of getting him elected—has identified the trade unions as a sphere where the tiny minority of activists can have an influence out of all proportion to their number.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell me whether there are more full-time Communist officers on the executives of unions where there are direct elections than in unions where officials are appointed?
I do not know, and I do not think that the point is particularly relevant. Mr. Ramelson has said that he identifies the trade union movement and the influence of Communists in it as a way of influencing the policies of one of our major parties. He may have been boasting—I hope he was—but the fact remains that he felt confident enough to declare that the Communist Party has identified the trade union movement as a vehicle for influencing events of one of our major parties.I have listened to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) explaining during industrial relations debates that about 3 per cent. or 4 per cent. of the membership of the National Union of Seamen vote in leadership elections, although the ballot is kept open for six months. These two matters together are an argument for encouraging more people to take part in union elections. I am saying not that the end result would be different but that we have identified trade union elections as having an influence far beyond the affairs of the trade union concerned. We know that a group of people who are politically motivated see trade unions as a source of power. All we are saying is that in that circumstance it is vitally important that what the leaders do represents the wishes of the majority of their members—no more than that. If that is the case, the community will have to live with it. However, we cannot allow such an important estate of the Realm, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) said, to be in the hands of politically motivated people if they are in the minority and if they use the power they gain for political ends. Let us find out, in any way open to us, whether this is the view of the majority. If it is, we must accept it. Many Conservative Members do not think that it is. Recently two instances have led us to have increasing doubts about it. The first was the Ford strike which took place about 18 months ago. A postal ballot was held and the Ford workers decided overwhelmingly that they did not want to strike. At that point the shop stewards said that a postal ballot was the abrogation of democracy and that the only way to take a decision was to have a public meeting and a show of hands. Those shop stewards tried very hard to overrule the results of the postal ballot and to have a public show of hands, because they knew that in that situation they had a tremendous influence. I thought that I was living in a strange world in which the private ballot could be described as the abrogation of democracy and where a mass meeting at which people could be manipulated could be regarded as desirable. The second and quite unrelated incident involved the National Union of Mineworkers. At the end of the phase 2 negotiations the executive put the vote to the members. The offer within phase 2 was accepted in April 1973. In November 1973 the leadership of the union was determined not to put the phase 3 offer to the members. The phase 3 offer was never put to the members. However, they were asked the question "Will you back your executive or side with the Government?" We know the result. The people who wanted trouble were scared of the result of the ballot. They simply did not like the prospect of having a ballot because they were not prepared to accept the result until they knew what it would be.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to a ballot decided upon by men who have been questioned. Does the hon. Gentleman always want to choose which question is put on the ballot paper himself?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, may I indicate that those hon. Members who have addressed the House are taking up the time of those who still wish to speak?
A question was put to the members of the National Union of Mineworkers which produced a result, and the net effect was a decision by the activists never to put a question again until they could be sure of the result. I believe that the extremist elements in certain unions are scared of the ballot. It is important to recognise the tremendous power of the trade union movement. We accept this. It is a fact. It is also a fact that the Government discuss the nation's affairs with the CBI and the TUC and from those discussions come results which are far more important than anything we may settle here. I do not approve of that, but it is a fact.In that circumstance the way in which this important element in our society organises its affairs is of general concern. I do not want to impose legislation on the members of any union which would impose a point of view on the members of the union. We should try to find a way in which the members can express their points of view. I am not sure that at present the trade union movement is being operated in the democratic way which we should all wish to see. I hope that the Secretary of State will speak with a little more conviction when he sums up the debate. I can understand his diffidence today. When I was a boy, we used to call an arrogant person "the great 'I am'". We could have described the Secretary of State today as "the big 'if'". He was not prepared to come down on either side, simply weaving and bobbing for the statutory half-hour. But I think that he knows that the present situation is not satisfactory, that at this critical time the Government or whoever else speaks to unions leaders should have the assurance that they are speaking with those who have the backing of their members and that they represent their views. I am not sure that under the present system they do.
It ill-behoves the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) to criticise the Secretary of State for indecisiveness when at least he spoke about the subject that we are discussing rather than the general rôle of balloting in union affairs. We are not debating what happened in pithead ballots of the NUM or secret ballots at the Ford Motor Company, or any other of a range of issues far divorced from this subject.
I related those things to what I was saying, that it is important that we use the ballot to find out what the members believe. That applies to appointments of leaders as to everything else.
My point is that great emphasis has been laid by some Conservative Members on voluntarism in progress towards postal balloting. I and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends go along with that. Early-Day Motion No. 492 is evidence that large numbers of Labour Members support Government encouragement for postal balloting. What we argue is that unions which have decided through their own democratic machinery on postal balloting and which are inhibited only by the cost should be indemnified by the Government——
Yes, if they want it.
I am prepared to accept that the hon. Member wants it, but anyone who has heard the whole debate will accept that many of the points raised have ranged far wider. Some hon. Members have talked about the need to test union opinion as if we would decide the circumstances in which that testing was done.The unanimity which exists across the House is only in the limited area of the Government using public funds to meet the cost of postal balloting where those ballots have been decided upon by the unions themselves. There is not much agreement beyond that, but that is a basis from which we can start. We should be ill-advised to claim that limited Government support for postal balloting would bring about a tremendous change in union affairs. The AUEW feels that the cost of postal balloting inhibits it from continuing that system, although participation increased from about 8 per cent. to nearly 30 per cent. Those who support the limited nature of Early-Day Motion No. 492 would say to such a union "If you wish to continue with postal balloting, there is a legitimate role for State finance. Then the increased participation of the postal balloting system, which no one forced on you, which emerged from your democratic machinery, can be continued if the only inhibition is cost." One cannot move on from that position to argue that postal balloting would be a counter-balance to what the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) called the shift of power to the unions when he was recounting the events of June 1969 and February 1974. I do not believe that such a shift has happened. One of the major problems with power in our society is that unions are too weak, not too strong. The right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) and I recently saw what was happening in Germany. I think that we would agree that trade union organisation there represented far greater power, if the unions wanted to use it, than exists in this country.
The hon. Gentleman misinterprets my argument. I was not suggesting that union postal ballots would correct what I believe to have been the significant drift of power to the trade union movement. I was saying that individual unions have such considerable powers as an estate of the Realm that it is in order for us to discuss their electoral procedures.
That is precisely where I disagree. This House should not debate union electoral procedures. That is a matter for the democratic procedures of the unions themselves. Where they take such a decision, we argue, they should be helped with the cost. But we are not saying how they should operate their democratic procedures. That is a matter for the autonomous, sovereign decision of each union in accordance with its own rules.Anyone who feels that this House could make a useful contribution by laying down a standard of union ballots should try to learn the lesson of the compulsory balloting which was operated under the Industrial Relations Act. The lesson was far more dramatic than the Secretary of State said. It is not just that the National Union of Railwaymen voted militantly when there was a compulsory ballot. The most impressive thing was that non-unionists voted 2 to 1 in favour of strike action when the ballot had been carved up to get four separate results. There is a general concern in the House about providing funds for this purpose. I hope that the Secretary of State does not associate those who signed Early-Day Motion No. 492 with the idea of imposing on unions something which would be alien to them if they were allowed to operate their rule books freely.
The backdrop for this debate is the country's deteriorating economic situation. At a time of rapidly rising unemployment, for which the Secretary of State bears a very specific and heavy personal responsibility, there is a desperate need for wage restraint so that inflationary wage settlements do not further damage employment prospects. Although there may be views and disagreements about how this can best be achieved, there seems to be a wide unanimity of view, certainly as expressed in the weekend speeches, that it is required.I dissent from the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) in that I think that the experience of the last decade has shown that trade unions have greater power within our society than they had before. However, the last decade has also been a decade in which we have seen militancy pay time after time. It has been a period in which the moderate shop steward has often had his position undercut because the militant shop steward with his colleagues has managed to get something which has not been available to those who have behaved moderately. With this backdrop, the character and nature of union leadership is of immense public importance, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) said. We know—we saw it in the referendum—that some of the most powerful people on the union scene get it totally and utterly wrong in what they suggest is the trade union view. When, having got it wrong, they then exercise the power of the block vote at, for example, the Special Conference of the Labour Party, it is reasonable that standing outside we should be very concerned at the fact that unrepresentative minorities can and do exert such power on behalf of the wide membership. This has been a central issue in the debate. It has been a debate about moderation and responsibility in trade union leadership. The Secretary of State made a very curious speech: he took 35 minutes to say nothing at all. He did not seem particularly interested in moderation and responsibility, but that is nothing new, because we know from his record that extremism and irresponsibility are more his cup of tea. The right hon. Gentleman gave us a long lecture about parliamentary procedure. I found in my experience of union meetings that those who began niggling over procedure were normally those who felt that their arguments were excessively weak, so they turned to procedural arguments to get them out of their difficulties. We saw something of this today in the Secretary of State's rambling and pedantic debating stuff about the manner of this debate. I suppose that if a motion had been put on the Order Paper it would have been perfectly in order for the debate to have been conducted without some of the inhibitions and restrictions which you, Mr. Speaker, advised us about at the beginning of the debate. However, the object of having this debate on the Adjournment was to enable hon. Members in all parts of the House to express a view without having to be tied to being in favour of or against a particular motion and it was the most neutral way in which the Opposition could put forward this subject for our debate today. What we are concerned about is that there should be financial assistance for those unions which themselves decide that they want to hold postal ballots for important elections. The decision about the type of ballot is for the unions themselves. This seems to be accepted in all parts of the House. The principle that we are discussing is whether the State in these circumstances, and in circumstances of rapidly rising postal charges, should not be prepared to give some assistance over the cost if the union itself decides that it wishes to hold a postal ballot. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) said, we also believe that, wherever possible, opportunities should be provided for union meetings at the place of work—the place where people are—rather than at the branch meeting, which often is much more difficult for people to get to. It would be sensible for employers to make time available in which union meetings could be held on the firm's premises. When this happens now, we know that much greater participation takes place. We know equally from the experience of the National Union of Mineworkers that ballots taken at the work place result in very high participation. That makes good sense. We are on this seeking to do what we can to encourage the greatest possible participation in these elections of people who wield great power within the community. The way in which they wield that power has very widespread effects within the community. There has been talk about the cost. I share the astonishment of some of my colleagues at those Labour Members who bring forward the cost argument, because they are not those Members whom one normally recognises as being particularly concerned at the level of public expenditure; they are not those who go round counting the candle ends on the national scene. Yet the cost argument is produced on this issue where the cost would be very small, I estimate, in relation to the possible advantage. The cost to the country of having an unrepresentative minority in control of one of the major unions could easily be so much more than any cost which would be involved in helping with the postal charges where the unions themselves decide to have postal ballots. At any rate, though estimates of £1 million or perhaps of £5 million have been given, this is a paper charge. In resource costs, the Economist gave us an estimate of £100,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) said, that is a paper transaction because the Government are subsidising the loss on the Post Office anyway. Therefore, in that sense it could be argued—I am sure that some hon. Members opposite, perhaps even the Secretary of State, would argue this; it would be a good argument; it is typical of the right hon. Gentleman, I suppose—that it would be no cost of any kind because of the arrangements there are for subsidising the Post Office. I do not think that this is an issue which can be determined purely on the issue of cost. If there is support in all parts of the House for the principle that something should be done to provide financial help for unions which themselves decide to hold postal ballots, cost should not be the decisive factor. It might even be that somewhere in the obscurities of what the Secretary of State was saying was agreement with that point of view, because he did not appear to produce the argument that cost would be decisive. It was merely part of the general puffs of smoke which were emerging in all directions at all times from him during his 35-minute speech. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who is a self-described moderate—I hope that will not get him into too much trouble with the Secretary of State—was not convinced of the value of postal votes as such. I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks from experience of having been an officer of the Post Office Engineering Union. His trade union experience led him to a view to which I think all hon. Members would want to give careful consideration. The hon. Gentleman's view was that there are other ways in which unions can be helped to a more responsible and more participatory method of conducting their affairs. The hon. Gentleman mentioned help with research and better communications within unions. I do not for a moment argue that help with postal ballots would automatically do away with extremists getting into senior positions in unions and guarantee that moderates were always there. Of course it would not. It is silly to make easy generalisations. What is clear is that if the cost argument is used within a union which wishes to hold a postal ballot to suggest that it cannot afford a postal ballot, it is right for the House to look at the principle and remove that element from the argument. Although the moderate hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme does not like the idea of postal ballots, he acknowledges that a substantial number of his hon. Friends—about 90—have signed Early-Day Motion No. 492 indicating broad support for such Government help. There is wide general agreement in the House in favour of the proposal. I am doubtful of the implications one can draw from that, save that it shows that it is not just the issue of membership of the European Community which draws support and assent from both sides of the House. It is right that something which on both sides of the House is acknowledged as helpful to the cause of representative democracy in powerful organisations within the State should be supported by both sides of the House. We have this afternoon heard over-tones of the argument that anything which is supported by the Opposition must be wrong. There speaks the authentic voice of the Tribune Group and the Left-wing of the Labour Party, which work on the principle of guilt by association and believe that anyone who sits on the wrong side of the House must be wrong whatever view he puts forward. That was part of the argument over the European issue. How wrong they were in their judgments then, and they are equally wrong in their judgments now. The Secretary of State has his soul mates amongst such people. The speech of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) perhaps commended itself more to the Secretary of State than it did to most of us. The hon. Gentleman repeated the old canard which used to be put around by the Secretary of State, that the Industrial Relations Act was responsible for a large number of days being lost in industrial disputes. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the answers to questions given by Ministers in the Department of Employment, he will find that that allegation is totally untrue. In 1972, the year which the Secretary of State used to make so much fun of, 24 million working days were lost as a result of industrial disputes, but his Department acknowledged that fewer than 400,000 of those days were lost as a direct result of the Industrial Relations Act. That is a phoney argument, and the more often it is stamped upon the better. Many other phoney arguments were used in the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) dealt with some of them. The Secretary of State should have been in receipt of the strictures of his hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) for introducing the notion that what we are discussing is tangled up with strike ballots. That suggestion first came from the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State referred to the ILO convention. We know that he spends night after night thumbing through the conventions and that they are compulsory bedtime reading for him, but the references he made to the ILO convention did not help our debate. If he is seeking seriously to say that implementing the principle that help should be given to unions which wish to hold postal ballots would run counter to the provisions of that convention, he should say so explicitly. If he said that, we should wish to give careful consideration to it, as I hope would his colleagues, to see whether a way can be found to deal with the matter without breaching the convention. I notice that he did not respond to the invitation to get up and say that the two were incompatible. We have also had an attack upon postal ballots from the Left-wing outside the House. In discussions within the AUEW the Left-wing opposed the continuation of postal ballots on the ground of cost. We should seek to put that matter right. When he answered a question off the cuff in the House last month, the Prime Minister came down fully in support of that, and, incidentally was rebuked by some of his hon. Friends on the back benches for doing so. Despite his somewhat long speech, the Secretary of State did not make clear his own views. I know that he wishes to make only a short reply to the debate, but I hope that he will have enough time to make absolutely clear that he gives his whole support to the principle. If he does not do that, he should make his position clear. I have no doubt of his literary erudition but my support for moderation was in no way affected by the Hazlitt quotation he dredged up from memory. Surely Mr. Hazlitt had the Secretary of State in mind when he wrote in his essay "On Prejudice":
How well the cap fits. So I throw back the quotation to the Secretary of State and in doing so ask him to come clean on the issue and say whether he agrees with the sentiments of the vast majority of hon. Members or whether, as so often in the past, he goes along with the views of the Tribune Group and the Left."The most fluent talkers or most plausible reasoners are not always the justest thinkers".
I ask the leave of the House to reply to the debate.I refer immediately to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson). I do so in case I am distracted by other events and thereby prevented from replying. I thought that my hon. Friend stated the matter most clearly. It is on the basis that he stated, and only on that basis, that the Government are considering the proposition now before the House. If the Government were to make any proposals on this matter I am sure that they would be within the terms stated by my hon. Friend. It is on that basis that we are making an examination. The Opposition claim that their proposal is no different from that put forward by my hon. Friend and that they should be treated more blandly, or more kindly, than I have sought to do so far. At the risk of stirring some animosity on the Opposition benches, I would point out that most of my 35 minutes were taken up—if, indeed, my speech was as long as that—in dealing with interruptions from others. If the debate has served a purpose it has underlined the approach of the Opposition and demonstrated that it is not the same as my hon. Friend's approach. The speech of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) illustrated that fact. Once again, I must refer briefly to the rules of the House. I know how offensive Conservative Members find such references. The hon. Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) talked about artificial rules, and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth talked about niggling matters of procedure. In my opinion, the rule whereby the House discriminates between what is proceeding in Committee and what is proceeding in the House, and when such discussions should take place, is not an artificial rule. The rule was designed for the benefit of the House and for orderly business. It is appropriate that we should seek to uphold these rules, however Conservative Members may seek to throw them to the wind when they think it suits their immediate parliamentary convenience. One of the major reasons why the approach of the Opposition to this subject is so different from that adopted by my hon. Friends—this was confirmed especially by the speech of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth, although it was illustrated in other speeches, and particularly by the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker)—is that they have the idea that trade union leaders are unrepresentative of their members in many respects. The Opposition suggest—although this was not set out in absolute terms—that the rank and file are much less militant than the leaders. Given that problem, they say that it is important that we should have postal ballots over a wide range. If Conservative hon. Members study recent industrial history I do not believe that they will find that argument borne out by the facts. The pressure for higher wages over recent years has certainly not been led by trade union leaders with their followers not pressing. That is not our experience. The evidence of unofficial strikes tells against that proposition. Most of the pressure over the past year or two has come from the rank and file. For example, we all remember the events that occurred in Scotland after the General Election. There was pressure from the rank and file for the greatest possible pressure to be exerted on the wages front. A whole variety of causes led to that situation. Anyone who considers the industrial scene and who tries to show that a militant leadership is dragging a slow-witted, apathetic and phlegmatic rank and file into industrial trouble is making a great mistake. I note the presence of the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). The hon. Gentleman has some interest in the position of journalists and in the National Union of Journalists. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to pretend that the leadership of the NUJ is the militant section of the union, whereas the rank and file takes the opposite view?
The Secretary of State is making a point which illustrates the fallacy of his own case. If there had been a postal ballot in the NUJ, the moderate majority would surely have voted to uphold the views of the union's executive.
The hon. Gentleman has not understood the point that has been made. Possibly he has failed to understand it because he was not here when it was made. If the hon. Gentleman had been present he might have understood what was said by his hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) clearly illustrated what is actually happening. It would be much wiser for right hon. and hon. Members to apply their minds to the facts than to try to provide remedies for dealing with a situation that they have not properly diagnosed in the first place. What they do by putting forward their case in these terms is to do considerable damage. They do not assist the process of getting a proper examination of the question whether assistance could be given on a limited basis, as some of my hon. Friends have proposed. Far from assisting that argument, they do it considerable damage.If the case for postal ballots and Government assistance for such ballots is put forward in the terms set out by the Opposition today, or if the proposition is put forward within the kind of framework that they have suggested in Committee, far from winning support in the trade union movement they will have exactly the opposite effect. If they wish to succeed the Opposition should confine their arguments to the kind of terms that have been used by some of my hon. Friends. However, if their arguments are confined to those terms they are forced back to some of the considerations that I put forward at the start of my remarks. I know that it is difficult for Conservative Members to appreciate the fact that this is not an easy argument. There is a balance of argument. I know that it is difficult for the Opposition to appreciate that postal ballots cannot solve every problem. I know that it is difficult for them to appreciate that different unions behave in different ways and that the unions should be left to choose for themselves. I know that such subtleties do not appeal to the Opposition. The Opposition want by some means to resuscitate parts of the 1971 Act. We are determined that that shall not occur. If the Opposition truly wish the case that has been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden to be soberly and sensibly considered within the trade union movement they should not have had this debate today. They should not have put their arguments forward in such a candid manner. They should not have let the cat out of the bag. They should have kept quiet, and left it to my hon. Friends, whether moderate or not. Of course, we can conduct the argument here, but it is the immoderate language that has been used by Conservative Members that has shocked us so deeply. They did not have a good case in the beginning, but I am sorry to say that they have ruined that case by the maner in which they presented it.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.