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Industrial Relations (Voting Procedures)

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit strike action in the emergency and transport service sectors unless a majority of employees in the unionised workforce has voted in favour of such action; to make procedural provision in relation to balloting for industrial action; and for connected purposes.

The right to peaceful protest and collective action are inextricably linked to, and bound up with, this country’s struggle for liberty, democracy and basic rights. The House will recall that it was a criminal offence to strike in Britain until 1875 and the Administration of Benjamin Disraeli. We should never forget the sacrifices made by those who went before, including the Chartists, social reformers and the early union movement, those who campaigned against child labour in the poor house and virtual slave labour under the poor laws, and those who campaigned for greater democratic representation.

Industrial action played its part in securing reform, from Annie Besant’s match girls union striking against the use of yellow phosphorous in match-making, which caused bone cancer, to the 1889 dockers’ strike in east London against the mercenary exploitation that pitted desperate workers against one another in competition for casual labour on the very harshest terms. I wonder what those heroic campaigners would have made of recent strikes over travel perks, annual bonuses and the right to retire at 50.

Despite a massive expansion of health and safety regulation, employment law and various other social protections, Britain is still episodically held hostage by a vocal minority led by militant union bosses. The damage to the British economy and jobs is immense. In 2002 and 2007, we lost more than 1 million working days because of strike action—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may find that a laughing matter, but the tax-paying public do not.

In 2009—a comparatively quiet year—we lost almost 0.5 million days, which is way more than in Germany, Italy, the US and Australia, and the last tube strike cost the capital £50 million each day, disrupting more than 1 million commuters. What is worse still is the way in which union bosses frequently rely on a minority of members to corral and coerce the majority into strike action. That is what the Bill addresses.

The number of strike ballots carried on a minority of members is increasing at a rapid rate. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, led by Bob Crow, is one of the worst offenders. A third of members supported his tube strikes in the autumn of 2010. The current ballot, for which results are due tomorrow, seeks to escalate previous strike action on the Bakerloo and Northern lines and carried just 35% and 20% of support from members.

In 2010, the Public and Commercial Services Union, claimed legitimacy for a strike ballot on redundancy pay that carried the support of only 20% of its members. Unite and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union have also recently led strikes with minority support.

My Bill will address that by amending the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 to require the support of a majority of members—not simply a majority of those voting—for strike action in the emergency services and the transport sector to be lawful.

Let me be absolutely clear: the Bill would have stopped not the majority of recent strikes, but just those not supported by a majority of union members. Some will say, “Yes, but politicians are elected only by those who turn out to vote,” but strike ballots and political elections are fundamentally different—[Hon. Members: “Why?”] I am coming to that very point. Strike action takes advantage of an express immunity created by an exemption to the law. Without that exemption, unions could be sued in contract and tort law for the damage that they do, just like everybody else.

Strike action based on minority support allows union bosses to corral, cajole and sometimes even bully the majority of union members into supporting strike action and losing pay, when actually they want to get on with their work and their job. Guidance issued by many unions instructs all members to support strike action regardless of whether they voted for it. Then there are the widespread reports of bullying. When British Airways sacked and suspended almost 100 workers after the 2010 strike, it stated that they were mostly for allegations of bullying or intimidation made by other colleagues. The pending RMT ballot was called by Mr Crow in defence of a tube striker sacked after being accused of abusing another tube worker during a strike in 2010, and just last month his right-hand man at RMT, Mr Steve Hedley, was convicted of assault after attacking a fellow worker who crossed the picket line to work. It speaks volumes that the RMT leadership backed Hedley over the victim of that assault.

This kind of bullying is bad enough in any circumstances, but it is particularly reprehensible during strikes that cannot command a majority of support among a union’s own members. Why should a militant minority coerce, intimidate and bully the silent majority? [Interruption.] I think we are hearing the answer from the mutterings from Labour Members. Nor should the same militant minority be licensed to disrupt the wider public and damage the UK economy. This Bill will focus on strikes in the emergency services and the transport sector, where the scope for such disruption is particularly acute. The CBI, Policy Exchange and the London Mayor have all called for a threshold for strike action. Other countries, such as Denmark and the Czech Republic, have a threshold, and the Prime Minister has agreed to consider the case for reform in this area.

In truth, this is just one of the changes we need. However, the Bill is framed in terms that would at least allow for a wider debate, if Labour Members can stomach it, particularly on, for example, the case for a requirement that strike ballots specify the grievance, so that—God forbid—members are actually told what they are being asked to strike for, and so that union bosses cannot exploit a successful ballot on a specific grievance in pursuit of their own wider vested interests. Likewise, there is a case for requiring individual ballots for strikes against each legal public sector employer, so that nationwide strikes cannot be instigated on the thin pretext of some localised dispute.

The main aim of the Bill, however, is to give strikes greater democratic legitimacy. Union bosses on six-figure salaries, some elected by a small fraction of their membership, have grown out of touch with their members and with reality. The number of minority strikes shows that they are often less interested in representing all their members, and more interested in pursuing their own political agendas. Our law gives them too much power, and they are abusing it, not just to blackmail the Government, but to coerce their own members and inflict maximum damage on the wider taxpaying public. The question for the House, therefore, is: who is prepared to stand up for the hard-working majority in this country? These proposals will support the silent majority struggling and striving across both the public and private sectors. I commend the Bill to the House.

Obviously, I rise to oppose the Bill. Let me be honest: it was not just the sight of the salivating rants of Tory MPs and their Lib Dem friends that got me to my feet; it was probably this sense of déjà vu, this groundhog day. I was looking round for Lord Tebbit—I have been in the House a long time—because this proposal is cast very much in the mould of what we have seen before. [Interruption.] Those same old Tories indeed.

The beginning of the speech by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) was interesting, because he invoked some of the great industrial disputes of the past, when people fought for their basic legitimate rights and the kind of things that people are now fighting for in Egypt, Syria and wherever else. However, the instinct of the parties of Government is to crush exactly that right of people to proper demonstration against injustices imposed on them whether by employers or someone else. That is what is so sad. Once again, we have a rewind of history.

I know that the hon. Member for Esher and Walton does not have the opportunity to reply to this debate, but there are some serious points that I hope he will consider. He did not mention where else our national legislation sets out such a terrifically high threshold. Not even the advocates of AV propose such a high threshold. The bizarre thing in all this is that any election with a turnout of 70% where 70% of those voting supported a proposition would fail the test for legitimacy under the hon. Gentleman’s Bill. A turnout of 70% with 70% in favour would be seen as an overwhelming victory for the proponents of a particular course of action, whether a politician standing for elected office or anyone else.

I will make an offer to Government Members. If they accepted the same concept—a 50% threshold among all those available to vote—as a means of determining the 2010 general election, when the coalition parties got under 40% of the vote between them, and if on that basis we reverted to the status quo of a Labour Government, then many people in this country would accept the legitimacy of that threshold. What they would not do, however, is accept that the Bill has anything to do with modern industrial relations.

It is interesting that in proposing the Bill, the hon. Gentleman failed to mention the fact that in many cases bad employers are involved. Bad employers have consequences for the work force. They lead to increases in, for example, absenteeism, sickness and, of course, the capacity of the work force to think about taking industrial action. The other thing that the hon. Gentleman did not mention is the fact that in many disputes the turnout would pass his threshold—a threshold that I do not think he managed to pass in his general election results. He did not get 50% of eligible voters voting for him in the general election. [Interruption.] I am told that he did. Will all Government Members who got the support of 50% of those eligible to vote put their hands up? [Interruption.] We see three—a very poor test of democracy among representatives of the governing coalition.

The important point is that this Bill has nothing to do with modern industrial relations or ensuring that we bring parties in dispute to the negotiating table. At no point did the hon. Gentleman mention the fact that we need an industrial framework that involves ACAS at an early stage, and includes a capacity for arbitration, and give and take on both sides. Instead, for Government Members, this issue is about domination—one side being the victor under all circumstances—but that is not the modern world that Britain wants. That mentality is why, when the Conservatives and their friends were in government in the ’80s, more than 1 million days were lost every year in industrial action. That dropped by a third when a Labour Government took office, because the industrial relations climate was very different.

Members in all parts of the House—even on those on the Government Benches—should pause and ask whether this Bill is really the direction of travel that modern Britain wants to take. I have been in this House for quite a long time, and I remember the days when rather bizarre ideas were thrown up by Back Benchers in ten-minute rule Bills, early-day motions and so on. We dismissed them and laughed at them as the fancies of the rabid right-wing of the Conservative party—and now its Lib Dem friends—but the problem was that quickly afterwards those ideas were translated by those on the Front Bench into Government policies. That is why it is so important that the House and the country should recognise the irrelevance of this Bill when it comes to having any practical impact on modern Britain or addressing its need for improved industrial relations.

I invite the hon. Gentleman to get out a little more and to talk to people who work and who are not bullied by trade union bosses but who cast their vote in secret. That is the nature of the balloting process for trade unions; it is a secret ballot in which individual members cast their own votes. Those members are sovereign. Most aspects of the balloting process for industrial action are widely accepted by trade unions and by employers as the legitimate way of doing this. Very few of them are arguing that we should increase the height of the hurdles to make it difficult for legitimate industrial action to take place.

The reality is that when we restrict the capacity for people to register this kind of protest, we do not improve industrial relations. There might be short-term gains, but in the end, such action merely entrenches the disaffection of those employees who feel that they have been badly treated and increases the arrogance of the bad employers. That is exactly what we had in the 1980s: an arrogant management culture; attempts by the Government to support arrogant managers; the de-industrialisation of Britain; an increase in the number of days lost through industrial action; and the very shameful record of previous Conservative Governments on industrial relations.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should come over and talk to some of the people on the Opposition Benches who know employers and employees, and who know what good industrial relations look like. Perhaps we could give him a quick crash course on how to move forward with a measure that makes sense in modern Britain. If his Bill is not defeated today, perhaps he could gracefully withdraw it and say, “Yes, I admit that I got this wrong. I was influenced by those around me who simply wanted to turn the clock back to the 1980s. On that basis, I withdraw my Bill and we will start again with a better concept and a way of looking at industrial relations as something that involves the employer and the employee in partnership, rather than in permanent conflict.” I urge hon. Members to oppose the Bill.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23)