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Clause 5

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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Minor Amendments Relating To Ballots

Amendments made: No. 3, in page 5, line 10, leave out 'section 10' and insert 'Part II'.

No. 4, in page 5, line 13, at end insert

'; and related expressions shall be construed accordingly.'.

No. 5, in page 5, line 25, leave out

'137 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978'

and insert

'127 of the Employment Protection Act 1975'.—[Mr. Nicholls.]

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 5, line 30, at end insert—

'(4) In section 4(1B) of the Trade Union Act 1913 and section 2(5) of the Trade Union Act 1984 (requirements with respect to voting papers in political fund ballot or ballot for union office), in paragraph (a) after "must", insert "state the name of the independent scrutineer and".
(5) In section 15(2) of the Employment Act 1988 (duties of trade union with respect to independent scrutineer in case of political fund ballot or ballot for union office), after paragraph (b) insert—
"(bb) must, before the scrutineer begins to carry out his functions, either—
  • (i) send a notice stating the name of the scrutineer to every member of the union to whom it is reasonably practicable to send such a notice, or
  • (ii) take all such other steps for notifying members of the name of the scrutineer as it is the practice of the union to take when matters of general interest to all its members need to be brought to their attention;".'.
  • With this, it will be convenient to take amendment (a), leave out lines paragraph (bb) and insert—

    '(bb) must supply any member of the union, upon demand, with the name of the scrutineer and the address at which he may be contacted.'.

    Amendment No. 6 springs directly from the recent ballot rigging in the election for the executive of the Transport and General Workers Union.

    The House will recall that, on 9 February this year, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union announced that, because of irregularities in the voting for the executive, he had suspended the ballot and was ordering the election to be held all over again. It subsequently emerged that up to 10,000 voting forms had been forged, affecting the elections for 11 of the 39 seats on the union's executive.

    The law requires that an independent scrutineer be appointed to oversee union executive elections, but the ballot rigging was apparently discovered by the Electoral Reform Society, which had been engaged to count the votes and not to act as independent scrutineer for the ballot. The scrutineer appointed by the union was someone entirely different.

    9.45 pm

    No doubt Mr. Todd, the union's general secretary, had reasons for this arrangement. It was, of course, entirely proper for him to appoint one organisation to count the votes and someone else to act as scrutineer. What was curious and, for reasons I will explain, disturbing was that very few people appeared to know about that arrangement. According to newspaper reports, not even the candidates in the election knew the scrutineer's identity.

    There was a natural assumption that the Electoral Reform Society was acting as scrutineer. The society is, after all, one of only three organisations specified by name in a statutory instrument as eligible to undertake independent scrutiny of such ballots. The society has a long and honourable record and has been used in that way by a number of other trade unions.

    Furthermore, I understand that the members of the union were asked to return their completed voting forms to
    "The Scrutineer, c/o the Electoral Reform Society".
    In all the circumstances, therefore, it was natural for members of the union to assume that the society was indeed the appointed scrutineer for the election.

    Clearly, that was a profoundly unsatisfactory situation. Parliament has laid down that unions must appoint independent scrutineers to oversee union elections. The Employment Act 1988 makes it clear that an independent scrutineer must be someone whom the union has no reason to believe will carry out his functions incompetently, or who could reasonably have his independence in relation to the union or the election called into question. In addition, the qualifications that must be satisfied to be eligible as an independent scrutineer of trade union elections are set out in some detail in an order made by my predecessor.

    If the scrutineer appointed by a trade union does not meet those qualifications, the law allows the members of that union to challenge the validity of that election. But, of course, those rights are worthless if the union members do not know who the scrutineer is. Nor is it likely to occur to any of them to challenge the appointment if, as in this case, there is a widespread impression that the scrutineer is an organisation as widely respected as the Electoral Reform Society.

    As the House will recall, when the identity of the scrutineer became known, there were reports of considerable concern within the union. Allegations were made—and strongly denied—about the role that the scrutineer himself had played in the first, invalid, election. Any such allegations are properly a matter for the police investigation that is now taking place.

    Under the 1988 Act, the scrutineer has a clear and specific duty to supervise the production and distribution of all the voting papers. What is abundantly clear in this case is that, whatever arrangements were made for producing and distributing the voting papers, they were not proof against activities so serious that Mr. Todd felt obliged to order the elections for all 39 seats—not just the 11 directly affected—to be held all over again. As a result of the controversy within the union over his role in the first election, the scrutineer resigned before the second ballot took place.

    Those are the facts as they have emerged since Mr. Todd's announcement on 9 February. It is a great pity that those responsible have not been identified. Calling in the police was delayed for a total of six weeks while an internal investigation was carried out under the personal supervision of the union's general secretary. It has been widely reported that the internal investigation 'Was unable to establish who was responsible. If that is the case, the delay in calling in the police is all the more unfortunate.

    What concerns us here is not so much the irregularity involved in the ballot—serious as that clearly was—as the fact that the members of the TGWU were kept in ignorance of the identity of the scrutineer appointed by their union to oversee the election, and were thus denied the right to challenge his appointment—had they wished to do so—until after the ballot rigging had been discovered.

    In Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste)—who cannot be present this evening as a result of a long-standing engagement—moved an amendment designed to meet that problem. His amendment was technically defective, but amendment No. 6 deals directly with the problem. It adds a new requirement to the duties of trade unions with respect to the independent scrutiny of ballots and elections that are set out in section 15(2) of the Employment Act 1988.

    Amendment No. 6 requires a union to notify its members of the identity of the scrutineer before he begins to carry out his functions. That can be done in whatever way the union normally communicates matters of general interest to its members, but the amendment also requires the union to include the name on each voting paper, so that every member of the union knows, before he casts his vote, who is the scrutineer. That is an entirely reasonable addition to the rights of union members. There can be no justification for a union to withhold the name of the scrutineer, especially in circumstances where union members may be misled into thinking that an entirely different organisation, such as the Electoral Reform Society, has been appointed to do the job.

    Have the Minister and his Department any estimate of the likely cost to unions, for example to the Transport and General Workers Union, if they were to implement the new statutory requirements?

    Since all they would have to do is to specify the name of the scrutineer on the ballot paper, I cannot believe that there would be any significant cost.

    We all want fairness in ballots; that is clear. Does the Minister want the same for companies' shareholders? Does he want their ballots to be accurate and checked on carefully?

    I have never before heard it alleged that shareholders are deprived of any information about any matter on which they have the right to cast their vote. If they have that right, they are given all the information that they require.

    This is not a minor matter. If union members do not know who the scrutineer is, they are effectively denied the rights that they were given by the Employment Act 1988 to challenge the scrutineer's competence and qualifications to do the job. As a result, the validity of a whole election may be cast in doubt. Therefore, I hope that—contrary to some of the indications that we have been given tonight—we can look to the whole House to support the amendment.

    We have heard an interesting speech from the Secretary of State. How many times have hon. Members and the Chair heard Ministers refuse to commit themselves or take any action on an issue, pending the outcome of an inquiry? Today, however, the Secretary of State is jumping the gun. The amendment does not seem to add much to what is already in the Bill, but the Minister seems to want to make some cheap points at the expense of the Transport and General Workers Union. So far as I can tell, the general secretary of that union took a responsible course of action and called the police in to investigate. The Minister could have had the decency to wait for the investigation to take place before coming up with proposals which do not add up to very much.

    If I have misunderstood the position, I would not insist on pressing the amendment in my name, but as I understand it, the Government's amendment uses the words:
    "must, before the scrutineer begins to carry out his functions".
    That might mean that things have to be done in advance of the ballot. Notice will have to be given of the identity and address of the scrutineer. It was for that reason, to avoid possible expense and unnecessary time-wasting, that I suggest that any union member who wished to find out the name and address of the scrutineer or where he or she or the body concerned could be contacted could simply ask and the union would be obliged to tell them. That seems to me a simple way to achieve much the same end.

    As the Secretary of State is one of the better-paid Members of the House, I should have thought he had better things to do with his time than waste it on such a ridiculous amendment. But for the fact that the Secretary of State has clearly decided to put trade unions back on the political agenda to appease the Prime Minister or the lunatic right of his party, he would recognise that the amendment is totally irrelevant.

    The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) made the valid point that a police investigation is under way. In other circumstances, Ministers would come to the Dispatch Box to say that it would be premature to take any action before the investigation is concluded. At best, the amendment is premature—at worst, it is totally irrelevant to trade union members and to the Government.

    Tory Members talk a great deal of humbug about the election of trade union officials. When the Tory leadership election took place, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) went into the Committee Room where the Tories were conducting their ballot and discovered that there was no protective cover for Tory Members voting in that election—they had to mark their ballot papers in front of the scrutineer. Yet they criticise trade union ballots.

    My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. As the Secretary of State is paying attention to the fine details, I have no doubt that he will wish to respond to it.

    If the Secretary of State has nothing better to do than spend his time on this kind of amendment, he ought to look for something else to do.

    In the election for the leader of the Conservative party, there was no doubt about who the scrutineers were. The purpose of the amendment is to make clear to trade union members who the scrutineer is when they exercise their vote. The Opposition's reaction is truly astonishing. This modest measure simply ensures that trade union members have the information that they require so that they can complain if anything goes wrong. It does not prejudice the inquiry. These general procedures will lead to an improvement in the rights of trade union members. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) has proved once again that his party is the party of trade union officials, not trade union members.

    Amendment agreed to.