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Rade Unions (Postal Voting)

Volume 80: debated on Tuesday 11 June 1985

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asked the Secretary of State for Employment if he will now introduce legislation to make compulsory the use of postal voting in ballots for trade union political funds.

If the Secretary of State will not go so far as legislation, will he at least authorise the certification officer to grant exemption from postal balloting based on the case put to him by individual unions?

The rules have been agreed by the House and the ballots are now taking place. One has been a fully postal ballot; two have been conducted on a part workplace and part postal basis. I am encouraged by reports of the efforts being made to conduct the ballots in the appropriate way. The House will remember this in the future and will expect the same standards to be observed by all unions.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that irregular and corrupt practices regularly take place in union elections, not just in relation to political funds, but in the election of union officers and when strike decisions are taken at mass meetings? Does he agree that it is time those practices were brought to a halt in the interests of the average union member?

My hon. Friend helpfully supported legislation which has effectively outlawed mass meetings and removed immunity from them. We welcome the procedure increasingly being followed in any question of strike or industrial action whereby there must be a secret ballot if immunity is to be retained. That is a most important and successful reform.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the ballots on political funds that have taken place so far have been extremely successful, not just in their results, but in the way in which they have been conducted? Is he further aware that more discussion and interest is shown by trade union members in workplace ballots than in postal ballots, as the turnout figures show?

I confirm that my information is that in the one fully postal ballot the turnout was 20 per cent., whereas in the two part workplace and part postal ballots the figures were 57 per cent. and 67 per cent. Despite all the opposition from Labour Members about monstrous and impossible impositions on trade unions, I note and welcome the observance of our legislation by the unions. We shall note the efforts made to ensure fair balloting, and we shall expect that to be the practice in all future ballots in the interests of union members.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that far too much money is donated to and by trade unions without ballots and proper consultation? Was that not illustrated last weekend by the unfortunate donation of £16,000 by the rock star, Bruce Springsteen, to support miners who were sacked during the strike, which probably also illustrates a lack of proper consideration and advice?

With regard to the legislation and the steps that are being taken, I welcome the important development that if a ballot for political funds is conducted, and is successful, it is the duty of that union to notify each of its members under the 1930 legislation, which was repeated in the 1984 Act, of their right to contract out of that political fund. If the ballots are to be correctly conducted, the House would expect that step to be implemented.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we do not want lectures from Conservative Members of Parliament, who get money from companies which are members of the CBI—which would not know a ballot if it stared them in the face — and that we do not need hypocrisy from the Liberal party, which has just received the biggest-ever political donation of £188,000 from the British School of Motoring and for which no ballot was conducted? Would it not be a good idea if everyone who has paid through the nose for lessons at the British School of Motoring were given the chance of a ballot to decide whether the Liberal party should have received that money? Is it not the height of hypocrisy?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has still not learnt the important lesson. As a Member sponsored by a union that must bitterly regret the fact that it did not dare to consult its members before embarking on such a disastrous strike, I should have thought that even he might have begun to understand the merits of ballots.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that postal balloting must be evaluated in the much wider context of an improvement in the general industrial climate? Therefore, will he join me in welcoming the recent decision by British Rail to end the closed shop?

I noted that announcement. My impression was that the closed shop in British Rail ended about two years ago, and I am surprised at the excitement about the announcement. Following our legislation, the British Gas Corporation, the Post Office, British Telecommunications and all the water authorities have notified all their unions that the closed shop is ended.

Will the Secretary of State make it clear that he rejects the scurrilous charges that are made about irregularities in ballots without the production of evidence? If no such evidence is available, we should treat those charges with the contempt that they deserve. Does the Secretary of State accept, after three political fund ballots, that a combination of workplace and postal ballots produces twice as many participants as does a pure postal ballot? Will he make that clear to the Prime Minister, who is considering new legislation for the trade unions in pursuit of her vendetta against them?

It is incredible that, so recently after the serious events in the Transport and General Workers Union, the hon. Gentleman can allege that there are no malpractices in trade union elections. If anything could clearly underline the importance of our legislation and of the emphasis that we have given to fair and secret ballots, those recent events have done so.