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New Clause 5

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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Change In Terms And Conditions Of Employment

'Every trade union shall be given sufficient time to ballot its members on whether or not they wish to take industrial action if their employer seeks to change any of the terms and conditions of his employees' contract of employment.'.— [Mr. John Evans.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 9—

Notice Of Change In Terms And Conditions Of Employment

'Section 15 of the Employment Act 1982 (liability of trade unions in certain actions in tort) will remain in force if an employer changes or attempts to change, without giving at least 14 days notice to the trade union concerned, any of the terms and conditions of his empoloyees' contract of employment.'.

Time is pressing, and I shall be brief.

The purpose of the new clauses is to attempt to retain the status quo in what are frequently difficult industrial situations where the work force is at loggerheads with the employer. The specific purpose is to seek to prevent a vicious employer from using clause 6 of the Bill for whatever nefarious ends he may have. Clause 6 would outlaw all unofficial action, not just strikes. If workers take unofficial action—frequently it is taken because an employer procrastinates on some particular problem—their union must "without delay" repudiate the action of its members using the following abrupt and callous words:
"Your union has repudiated any call for industrial action to which this notice relates and will give no support to such action. If you are dismissed while taking unofficial industrial action, you will have no right to complain of unfair dismissal."
If the Government insist on going ahead with this monstrous legislation, they must find a better form of words than that.

The point at issue is that, if the union does not repudiate the action of its members, and if any union official, paid or unpaid, down to the lowliest shop steward, has been in any way involved in the industrial action, the union's funds are placed in jeopardy because the employer or customer of the employer is able to sue the trade union. I will not repeat the instances that I gave in Committee, but the vast majority of actions occur when an employer upsets the status quo.

New clause 5 would give trade unions time to ballot their members when such situations arise. New clause 9 would allow the status quo to remain in place for 14 days. In other words, it would allow the union to go into the place where the dispute was taking place and seek to resolve it without bringing in the whole panoply of the law.

There is any amount of evidence that the overwhelming majority of unofficial actions in Great Britain have been brought about by employers unilaterally altering the status quo at the place of work. The Minister has already accepted the spirit of one of my amendments. I hope that, in the same spirit, he will accept the two new clauses and recognise that they will assist in difficult industrial situations.

9.30 pm

I can certainly understand why the hon. Gentleman is concerned, but I cannot go as far as accepting the spirit of the amendments. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not like the Bill at all. He does not like repudiation structures and looks at a case where he imagines unofficial action breaking out—where an employer unilaterally alters the terms of contract. The hon. Gentleman will know that there are remedies in the civil courts for employers who try to behave in that way. Is there something so special about that type of employer abuse that the repudiation structures in the Bill should be set to one side? I do not see it that way. No extra time needs to be given, because the matter is not time-limited. As the hon. Gentleman says, the repudiation has to be carried out without delay and even then the union has only to do its best. I understand the hon. Gentleman's motives. He is returning to a matter which he feels strongly about, but I do not agree with him.

The Minister is a lawyer and to say that there is a civil remedy in such cases demonstrates that he does not live in the world of ordinary working people. It is monstrous to make such a suggestion. I hope that my noble Friends in another place will have more time to deal with this matter than I have. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.