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Public and Commercial Services Union: Strike Action

Volume 739: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Public and Commercial Services Union about the proposed strike on the day before the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games.

My Lords, the Public and Commercial Services Union’s decision to call this strike on the eve of the Games is opportunistic and wholly unjustified. The Home Secretary has written to the PCS to express her concern and to make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government are totally opposed to the strike.

Is it correct that only 21% of the union members balloted actually voted at all and that only a very small majority of those who did vote voted in favour? In those circumstances, and given that lukewarm support, is there any responsible person in this country who supports this squalid little exercise that threatens the good name of this country?

My Lords, I cannot believe that there is anyone who will support a strike of this sort other than that 12% of PCS members who voted for the strike. We are currently checking the legality of the strike and, if satisfied that it is illegal, we will take the appropriate remedies in the courts.

Is the Minister aware that the PCS has at least my full support? The reason is that every union in the public sector has been provoked beyond endurance by the present Government. The unions are fully justified in negotiating with the Government and it is the Government’s duty to settle.

I am interested that one person is prepared to put his head above the parapet on this matter and I note that the noble Lord’s leader, Mr Ed Miliband, was in Durham at the Durham Miners’ Gala speaking on the same platform as the PCS, presumably in support of this strike. It would be very interesting to hear his views on this matter.

My Lords, the action proposed by the PCS is a serious matter, particularly when the world’s attention is focused on the United Kingdom in matters relating to the entry, security and safety of travellers coming to this country. Although it is right not to interfere with any negotiations that may be going on, does my noble friend accept that, as tomorrow is the last day on which this House will be sitting, we are entitled to know what contingency plans exist if the situation were to deteriorate?

As my noble friend will be well aware, we have full contingency plans in place, just as we did on the other four occasions on which the PCS has called one-day strikes. On all those occasions we managed not only to secure the border appropriately but to prevent excessive queues. We hope to do that again tomorrow, but we hope that the PCS will see reason. Our doors remain open to negotiations until the last minute but, as I said, we are also taking legal advice on this matter.

My Lords, although we would all support an Olympic truce between the Government and the unions, I think the Minister does this House a disservice when he tries to imply that the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, supports the strike when he has made it quite clear, as the Minister and other noble Lords will know, that he does not support the strike. We also recognise that there are real long-term issues about queues at border controls, particularly for non-EEA visitors. Yesterday the National Audit Office blamed the Government for cutting too many staff—more than even the Government planned—far too quickly. We now have a Bermuda Triangle of lost asylum cases being written off, mounting casework backlogs, and even fewer foreign criminals being deported. I appreciate that there are shorter queues at border controls for the Olympics, but can the Minister guarantee that, following the NAO report, the Government will treat this issue as a priority and ensure that there are enough staff and resources to do the job in the long term?

My Lords, if that was support for the Government’s position, it was very strange support. What we want to hear is a thorough condemnation from the party opposite of the PCS’s action, and I am not sure that I have quite heard that. The strike is due to happen tomorrow. As I said, it is opportunistic and unnecessary. Our doors are open and we continue to negotiate, as the noble Baroness knows full well. However, I want to make it clear that we will take appropriate legal action if it is possible, and that is why we are checking the legality of the strike that has been called with the support of some 12% of PCS members.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a pensioner of PCS. I do not support the strike; neither does my party. However, is the Minister aware that there is a serious problem with staffing within the border agency? Is he further aware that last week some of us met Deutsche Bahn, the railway firm, which has delayed introducing trains and competition into the Eurotunnel because of the problems over immigration and the inadequate number of staff being engaged by the Government to carry out the necessary border controls? This is losing business for the country and losing business for London, and it is time that the Government got to grips with it.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s question goes slightly beyond that on the Order Paper. As he knows full well, it is not simply the problems relating to border force but also the problems relating to the layout of St Pancras Station. Those matters can be resolved between now and 2015, which is the earliest possible date that Deutsche Bahn is likely to bring trains in there. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s condemnation of this strike.