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Public Sector Strikes: Union Support

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are proposing to ensure that public sector strikes have the full support of union members.

My Lords, public sector strikes undoubtedly have a very considerable impact on the public at large and the economy but, between now and Dissolution, the Government will not be bringing forward any further proposals.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that public sector trade union bosses should not be able to hold working people to ransom over industrial disputes that have nothing to do with them? Should not public sector trade unions be required to demonstrate a balloted majority of more than 50% of their membership before being able to call a strike?

My Lords, we are very much committed to ensuring that people have the right to strike but it is important that this is balanced, so that everyone else’s right to get on with their daily lives is understood as well. The concept of thresholds is very interesting. There are certain public sector strikes where 11% of the membership have caused a strike, with very considerable inconvenience to the public.

My Lords, in the interests of balance, does the Minister agree that the legislation governing trade unions is already some of the tightest in Europe and that the level of strikes in this country is, I am glad to say, comparatively low? Does he agree that any further tightening of the noose of that legislation might lead to a growth in unofficial action?

My Lords, any responsible Government should look at a situation from time to time, certainly if we were to have strikes where the percentage of the membership voting in favour was 11% or 12%. We have a possible RMT strike coming up with under 25% of the union membership voting for strike action. This is a matter of concern for the public, and, I have no doubt, for the 75% of the union members who did not vote.

My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that when I was undertaking the changes to industrial relations law which brought about the most enormous change in our industrial relations, from the worst in Europe to the best, I resiled from putting in a requirement of the sort that is now being discussed because I could not believe that trade union leaders would be so irresponsible as to pull a strike on tiny numbers of their members voting for it? Therefore, while I agree that we should not act immediately, trade union leaders should take into account that it will become necessary to do so if they persist in this extraordinary behaviour in the public sector.

My Lords, I have the figures of 11% to 12% before me. These are very low figures. They show very often that we have strikes and inconvenience to the public when a huge majority of union members have decided either not to vote for the strike or not to vote at all. These are things that we should think about. We have a responsibility for the public sector—of course we do—but public sector workers have to remember that they are working on behalf of everyone. I think that large numbers of members of unions should be voting for strike action, rather than minorities.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the hallmark of a democratic society is the right to strike, however inconvenient that might be from time to time? British unions—my eye catches the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit—are already among the most restricted in the western world in legal terms. The real problem with turnouts is the insistence on postal ballots to the exclusion of all other possible measures. As we just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, young people in particular tend to vote online more comfortably than by post nowadays. Rather than engaging in yet another rather tribal round of union bashing in the pre-election period, will the Conservative Party apply its mind to thinking about other means of balloting, rather than simply postal balloting?

My Lords, I certainly do not approach this as a political matter. We have in the public sector people who are very important to us all. It is not reasonable for a strike that causes huge inconvenience to people to be on the back of 11% of a union’s membership. Postal votes are increasingly popular. It is one of the ways forward for many people and I encourage it.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that there is not society-wide support for trade unions. Does he agree that this is as a result of many individual unions affiliating themselves to one political party? Does he think that it may be beneficial to the membership levels of those unions if they appeal to a wider section of society away and apart from the traditional political groupings?

My Lords, unlikely though it may seem to noble Lords opposite, I think that trade unions and the trade union movement have a very strong place in our national life. There have been difficulties, but I think that trade unions are institutions that have had many responsible members—of course I do. The whole issue is whether they have reasonable and responsible leadership on occasion; leadership should be shown. We could be about to have bus strikes where 21% of the union membership have voted for that strike.

My Lords, if a turnout of 21% in a trade union postal ballot is unacceptable, can the Minister explain why we are told that a turnout of 8% in an election for a police and crime commissioner is perfectly okay?

My Lords, there is a very big difference. One is offering public service and one is withdrawing public service.

My Lords, I point out that the settlement put in place by my noble friend Lord Tebbit— my good friend—has substantially stayed throughout many years of opposition and government. I hope that the leaders of the trade union movement will take note that strikes on very low turnouts are increasingly unacceptable. I also ask the Minister to look positively at ways in which voting could be extended beyond the postal ballot to reflect the modern age that we are in.

My Lords, all issues should be looked at, and I very much encourage all trade union leaders to think of their broad membership, most of which often does not vote for strike action.