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Trade Union Act 1984 (Amendment)

Volume 76: debated on Wednesday 3 April 1985

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4.29 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Trade Union Act 1984 to replace contracting out with contracting in to trade unions' political funds.

When the House considered the Trade Union Bill a year ago, it failed to deal adequately with one of the features of trade union law that has fallen most into disrepute—the system by which many trade unions are assumed to be willing to pay a political levy to the Labour party unless they take active steps to contract out of that levy. My Bill seeks to put right that omission by making subscription to political funds dependent upon contracting in — [Interruption] —so that every trade unionist who contributed to a political fund would be doing so with his own explicit consent. That basic principle seems so eminently reasonable — [Interruption]— that anyone unfamiliar with the background to the issue, or, indeed, unfamiliar with the Labour Members who seek to deny me a hearing, would expect it to be accepted in the House without question or dissent. I shall refer to that background in a moment.

My Bill also includes another provision designed to improve the 1984 Act by ensuring that the ballots that are about to take place in the unions on the whole principle of having political funds are counted independently. Several unions already use independent counting facilities for internal elections and ballots, but some do not, and there have been some rare but appalling examples in previous years of interference with ballots. Fresh allegations of that sort have come to light recently in relation to the Transport and General Workers Union and have led my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) to call for a Trades Union Congress inquiry. It is clearly desirable that the political fund ballots, in which there is much money at stake, should be seen to be independently counted.

The main provisions in my Bill, which concern contracting out of the political levy, are also relevant to the current round of ballots. If my Bill were passed and political funds became genuinely voluntary, the argument for voting no in the ballots would not be so strong. As long as the political levy is a way of exacting involuntary donations for a political party from people who do not support that party, any trade unionist who wants to preserve his right to decide what political use is made of his own money has no alternative but to vote against the political funds. That is what will happen in several unions, and that is why the Labour party is campaigning to save the political funds. The theory is that it will be a softly, softly campaign—unless the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) get in on the act—

There will be no mention of the fact that the real destination of the political funds is the Labour party. If Labour Members supported my Bill, it would be a different story. Many trade unionists who will vote against the present Labour levy might be persuaded to accept that their union could have a political fund if that fund was genuinely voluntary.

Some argue that since it is possible to contract out under the present law and should be easier to do so under the new TUC statement of guidance, the system is really voluntary. If it is, what are Labour Members worried about? The change to contracting in should not make any difference. The figures tell a different story. In two of the largest unions, the TGWU and the National Union of Public Employees, 98 per cent. of members pay the political levy. In the last election just over a quarter of the electorate voted for the Labour party. That makes it unlikely that even half of TGWU members voted for the party to which they are contributing on a supposedly voluntary basis. That 98 per cent. figure has all the ring of a Soviet Union election. What is more, the MORI — "Union World" poll showed that at least half the members of NUPE and TGWU were against having a political fund at all.

It is obvious that the practical obstacles to opting out and the fear of being singled out in the branch or workplace lead to far more people paying the levy than would choose to do so. On the question of principle, as the Government's 1983 White Paper put it:
"It is objectionable in principle that anyone should have to indicate his dissent from the political alignment of his union to avoid contributing to political activities or to a political party to which he is opposed."
The Government have not followed through that logic.

I believe that my proposal will be widely supported by members of trade unions because it is part of the process of getting the unions back under the members' control. It will help to focus the attention of trade union leaders on the need to put the case on behalf of their members to politicians of all parties instead of concentrating on affiliating Labour party conference votes by the million and writing the cheques for Labour's election campaign.

However, there are also good reasons why a thoughtful Labour supporter should support my Bill. There have been a few within the Labour party who have questioned the desirability of the financial hold that the unions have over their party, and who have questioned the ability of trade union leaders to wield votes by the million at Labour party conferences. Labour Members might also reflect that with truly voluntary funds at least some union money might come their way, whereas under the present arrangements it is all or nothing. I think that many union members would vote not to have the funds at all.

Perhaps most interesting of all will be the attitude of Conservative Members to my Bill. During the passage of the 1984 Bill, just over 40 of their number stood firm and voted for the voluntary principle of contracting in. However, Ministers trooped through the Lobby with the Labour party to hang on to the contracting out system that they had so long criticised. Why? There are two reasons, which are well summarised in The Guardian:
"The Conservatives … are playing a cool and surprisingly 'clever clever' game. Their aim is to weaken Labour but not to destroy it. For destroying Labour would turn the Alliance into the main party opposition."
The other reason that is advanced is that
"the Conservatives do not want to draw attention to their own, equally undemocratic source of finance —company cheques doled out at the whim of company chairmen and company boards, (No question of shareholders' ballots …)."
On the second issue, that of company donations, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) could help us. I do not see why we could not work as a partnership.

He has before the House a Bill designed to regulate company donations to political parties. I am happy to support his Bill and I believe that he should be happy to support mine. They would work together. It is a good pair of measures. The hon. Gentleman should do that instead of opposing my Bill.

However, when it comes to the desire of some Conservatives to protect, feather-bed and prop up the Labour party, there can be no doubt that that was the motive that led Ministers to oppose their Conservative colleagues and join Labour in the Lobby. What they are thinking is: better the devil they know, and know cannot win, than the devil they really fear can beat them. [Interruption.] Labour Members can laugh, but the same feeling underlies today's announcement that six Conservative and five Labour peers and one alliance peer are to be appointed. It is the same thing. Conservatives are saying, "For heaven's sake, help poor Neil out and prop up the Labour party a little longer".

I invite Conservatives to put aside those considerations and vote for what they believe — that union political contributions should be on a genuinely voluntary basis. Those who join us in the Lobby to support that principle will be supporting the best interests of trade unions and the health of British politics. Those who oppose us will be those who want to freeze British politics in the pattern of half a century ago, without regard to the wishes of the people.

4.38 pm


The speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) will rate high in terms of hypocrisy. When one looks at Social Democratic party members, one sees people who have accepted donations from political trade union funds. Now they seek to move in an alternative direction. Later I shall refer to the attempts of the Liberal party to seek funds from trade unions. I should like to hear their reaction to that.

The hon. Gentleman's proposition depends on two arguments. First, the argument goes that trade unionists are not allowed to opt out of paying the political levy. The hon. Gentleman said that it was involuntary; he said that there is a compulsory political levy. I wonder how far one can stretch reality. The truth is that over 2 million trade unionists opt out of paying the political levy. Therefore, those who opt out of paying the political levy are no secret society. They are no exclusive group of people. They are widely advertised. Let us look at the evidence — [Interruption.] Alliance Members do not agree with democracy because they are not prepared to listen to the debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If the public saw this display, they would realise why certain people left the Labour party. We do not tolerate such tactics.

The argument about people not having the right to opt out has been considered on several occasions. For example, the Donovan Commission in the 1960s, the most thorough piece of research into industrial relations, came up with the conclusion that there was no evidence that people were forced to pay the political levy if they did not want to. At that stage only 1 million were opting out; now the figure is more than 2 million.

We have had many occasions such as this when people have come forward with this argument and one innuendo and one smear after another, but no concrete evidence. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to bring concrete evidence. In front of the Employment Select Committee two years ago, the director general of the Engineering Employers' Federation, Dr. James McFarlane — not, I suspect, a supporter of the Labour party — said that he would provide the Select Committee with evidence. When he was challenged on the point, he replied that he had
"Not anything that I think you would recognise as evidence".
I think that what we have heard from the hon. Gentleman in his speech this afternoon is exactly the same — not anything that could be called evidence. It is typical of the Members of the alliance that they run a smear a day without providing any policy or any information.

As the first proposition falls, so does the second. The hon. Gentleman says that more people pay the political levy than vote Labour. We recognise that fact. We also recognise the fact that according to the latest opinion polls more than half the trade unionists intend to vote Labour at the next election. But we recognise too—and it is about time that the alliance did so—that political funds are not used just for affiliation to the Labour party; they are also used for political campaigning by trade unionists. If the hon. Gentleman had quoted other figures from the MORI poll he would have seen that the overwhelming majority of trade unionists support the right of the trade union to organise political campaigns. The hon. Gentleman wants to stop that happening.

The hon. Gentleman made a passing reference to the £3 million a year that the Conservative party receives in company political donations — without a ballot and without the shareholders having the right to opt out. He then very kindly referred to my own Bill and said that we could form a partnership, and that he was prepared to support my Bill. May I let the House into a secret before we do the deal? When I introduced the Bill on a Friday in February I looked around and did not see one member of the alliance in the Chamber. That is the sort of support that I would get from them. When it comes to voting against company donations to the Tory party and some donations that members of the alliance may want to benefit from, they are not here. They were not here on that occasion. So the evidence suggests that we have a one-sided case from the Liberals.

I want to refer again to the Liberals' attempts to get money from trade union organisations. I am lucky enough to have a letter in my possession addressed to the general secretary of the Post Office Engineering Union. It is dated 13 June 1969—[Interruption.] Members of the alliance might want to listen to this. It was written by the then Member of Parliament for Cornwall, North, Mr. John Pardoe, and it still has relevance, because the leader of the Liberal party was a member of the parliamentary Liberal party at that stage and presumably supported the sending of this letter, from which I shall quote one or two sections:
"The time has come to resurrect those links which bound many of the early Trade Unionists to the Liberal party so that we can work more closely together."
The letter then goes on to say—and this is certainly true if this afternoon's performance is anything to go by:
"I have to admit that many Liberals are deplorably ignorant of the workings of the Trades Union Movement … This ignorance is largely a result of the lack of a full-time Industrial Relations Officer within the Party organisation. This in its turn has been due to lack of cash and I should like to suggest that your Union might contribute to the cost of a Trade Union Liaison Department at Liberal Party Headquarters."
It is interesting, is it not, that in 1969 the begging bowl was going round to trade unions? I suspect that if the Liberals could get a penny in the begging bowl now this Bill would not be here. The reality is that trade unions have rejected the Liberal party, although companies may support it as an alternative capitalist party.

We have had from the alliance this afternoon a typical exhibition of an excess of hypocrisy and opportunism. By contrast, the letter shows a lack of consistent principle. A party that can beg the unions for money at one stage and then try to cut off contributions at another is not worth further consideration, and I hope that the House will reject the Bill.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 68, Noes 139.

Division No. 181]

[4.45 pm


Aspinwall, JackKennedy, Charles
Batiste, SpencerKilfedder, James A.
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyKing, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Beith, A. J.Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Bendall, VivianKnight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Best, KeithLilley, Peter
Bevan, David GilroyMcCusker, Harold
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnMaclennan, Robert
Blackburn, JohnMeyer, Sir Anthony
Body, RichardMorris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Murphy, Christopher
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardNeale, Gerrard
Bruce, MalcolmOsborn, Sir John
Buck, Sir AntonyPenhaligon, David
Chapman, SydneyProctor, K. Harvey
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Cockeram, EricShelton, William (Streatham)
Conway, DerekSpence, John
Cormack, PatrickStanbrook, Ivor
Currie, Mrs EdwinaSteel, Rt Hon David
Dickens, GeoffreyStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Farr, Sir JohnStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Forth, EricTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Fry, PeterWainwright, R.
Galley, RoyWalden, George
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Wallace, James
Gorst, JohnWells, Bowen (Hertford)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Wilson, Gordon
Hancock, Mr. MichaelWolfson, Mark
Harvey, RobertWood, Timothy
Hawkins, C. (High Peak)Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Yeo, Tim
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Johnston, RussellTellers for the Ayes:
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Mr. John Cartwright and
Jones, Robert (W Herts)Mr. Archy Kirkwood.


Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Barnett, Guy
Anderson, DonaldBarron, Kevin
Archer, Rt Hon PeterBenn, Tony
Ashton, JoeBidwell, Sydney
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Boothroyd, Miss Betty

Boyes, RolandLitherland, Robert
Bray, Dr JeremyLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Loyden, Edward
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)McCartney, Hugh
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Buchan, NormanMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Caborn, RichardMcKelvey, William
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Campbell-Savours, DaleMcTaggart, Robert
Canavan, DennisMcWilliam, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Madden, Max
Clarke, ThomasMarek, Dr John
Clay, RobertMartin, Michael
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMason, Rt Hon Roy
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Maxton, John
Cohen, HarryMaynard, Miss Joan
Coleman, DonaldMeacher, Michael
Conlan, BernardMichie, William
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)Miller, DrM. S. (E Kilbride)
Corbett, RobinMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe,
Corbyn, JeremyNellist, David
Cowans, HarryOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Craigen, J. M.O'Brien, William
Crowther, StanOrme, Rt Hon Stanley
Cunningham, Dr JohnPark, George
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)Parry, Robert
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)Patchett, Terry
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Pavitt, Laurie
Deakins, EricPike, Peter
Dixon, DonaldPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Dormand, JackPrescott, John
Dubs, AlfredRadice, Giles
Duffy, A. E. P.Randall, Stuart
Eadie, AlexRedmond, M.
Eastham, KenRees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)Richardson, Ms Jo
Fatchett, DerekRoberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Faulds, AndrewRobertson, George
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Rowlands, Ted
Flannery, MartinSedgemore, Brian
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelSheldon, Rt Hon R.
Forrester, JohnShore, Rt Hon Peter
Foster, DerekShort, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Fraser, J. (Norwood)Skinner, Dennis
Garrett, W. E.Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Soley, Clive
Hardy, PeterSpearing, Nigel
Harman, Ms HarrietStrang, Gavin
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterStraw, Jack
Healey, Rt Hon DenisThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth,)
Heffer, Eric S.Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Home Robertson, JohnThorne, Stan (Preston)
Hoyle, DouglasTinn, James
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Torney, Tom
Hughes, Roy (Newport East)Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Hume, JohnWareing, Robert
John, BrynmorWeetch, Ken
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Welsh, Michael
Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldWilliams, Rt Hon A.
Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Lamond, JamesTellers for the Noes:
Leighton, RonaldMr. Frank Haynes and
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Mr. David Winnick.
Lewis, Terence (Worsley)

Question accordingly negatived.