Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the role of trade unions in a democracy and their contribution to the general economic wellbeing of the nation.
My Lords, I first declare an interest as a member of the GMB union, although I must confess that I am now, very appropriately, in the “retired workers” category. I very much look forward to the debate, but particularly to the contributions of the two maiden speakers, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, whom I know from the other place and whom I know will make excellent contributions. However, I also look forward to the contributions from the many former trade union leaders—I was going to say “trade union barons”, but perhaps that is not the right phrase to use here—who know so much more about this matter than I do. We are in for a very well informed debate.
Labour’s contribution to the debate on the Trade Union Bill in the other place has of necessity been somewhat defensive, because that Bill represents such a fundamental and, frankly, malign attack on trade unions. However, on behalf of Labour, I sought this debate today so that we can be much more positive and praise the work of the trade unions over the years and the contributions they have made and continue to make to our democracy and economy, as well as to protecting the well-being of the workers they represent.
Trade unions, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1387—not many Members will remember too much about that—
I remember that.
—although my noble friend Lord Lea does; through to the industrial age, when, I am proud to say, the weavers in Ayrshire led the way, workers got together to challenge the injustices and abuse they faced. The state was controlled by an unrepresentative minority of wealthy people—in fact, a minority of wealthy men—
My noble friend Lord Grocott says that it has not changed completely. They were intent on increasing their wealth, and ordinary workers were excluded and exploited.
The Chartists, founded by the London Working Men’s Association, agitated for political rights for ordinary people and set in train the long series of events that, by 1928—only then—led Britain to become a full democracy. When we take time to look back at the achievements of the unions, we begin to appreciate how different life would be now for ordinary working people without them. I will give a few examples.
First, on workplace safety, workplaces with union safety representatives have half the serious injuries of non-unionised workplaces. In particular, the London Olympics of 2012 were the first Olympic Games ever in which nobody was killed while constructing the venues. It is not accidental that for the 2012 Games there was strong union representation on both the London Olympic committee and the Olympic Delivery Authority. In comparison, at last year’s Winter Olympics at Sochi in Russia, 60 people died.
Secondly, there is the minimum wage. Unions were among the early supporters of what was arguably—it is a view I hold—new Labour’s most successful achievement: lifting the purchasing power of low-wage workers, particularly women, without negatively impacting on unemployment and, incidentally, thereby helping economic growth.
Thirdly, on equal pay, as we all recall, the female trade unionists at Ford’s Dagenham and Halewood plants forced the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which was a key step in the battle for gender equality in the United Kingdom. However, we are not all the way there yet. Since last week until the end of the year, women will on average be working for nothing in comparison with men in equivalent jobs.
Tremendous advantages have been won by the trade union movement, including full statutory maternity leave since 1993, and there are all those achievements without even mentioning the insurance cover, the legal representation and the other services that we ordinary union members receive from our trade unions.
Our economy also benefits hugely from the presence of trade unions at both the micro and the macro levels. At the level of individual workers within the economy, unions have had a positive effect for every type of worker. In relation to salaries and holidays, unionised British workers earn 8% more than non-members on average, and they have 29 days’ annual leave as opposed to 23 for non-members. For young people, workers between the ages of 16 and 24 earn on average 39% more when they are union members. That is a huge and significant difference. Women in a union earn 30% more on average. The gender pay gap among unionised workers is 6% compared with 22% among non-unionised workers. Finally, workplaces with recognised unions are 24% more likely to offer training to their workers, and training in skills is vital to developing our economy if we are to make progress.
Unions also impact positively on the macroeconomy in three major ways. First, although some people claim that unions inhibit productivity growth, the opposite is true—our economy is more productive where there are trade unions. Productivity growth since the recession has been disappointing across the economy as a whole. However, a recent study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that this productivity gap is connected to the decline of trade unions and that, in reality, high union density is associated with stronger productivity growth. The sectors of the British economy that are experiencing strong productivity growth, such as aerospace and engineering, tend to be those with stronger union representation, where employers actively encourage and engage with the trade unions in their workplace. Professor Kim Hoque of Warwick Business School has found that workplace productivity in the public sector is improved by union representation, and he has raised concerns about the effect on productivity of the Government’s impending Bill—an issue we need to return to when we debate that legislation.
Research by the New Economics Foundation found that high union membership boosts GDP by redirecting a larger share of capital to consumers or purchasers, thus expanding the domestic market for goods. Therefore, increasing the level of unionisation to that of the early 1980s, for example, could add nearly £23 billion to GDP. For every 1% reduction in the proportion of the workforce in unions, GDP is reduced by more than £2 billion.
As an active trade unionist all my life, I agree with what my noble friend says, but some trade unions are not affiliated to the Labour Party and they do an enormously valuable job. My noble friend Lord Monks and I have been presidents of BALPA for a long time. Would my noble friend say something about trade unions such as the National Union of Teachers and my own union, BALPA?
My noble friend has a very distinguished record as president of the British Airline Pilots Association. Naturally, I would like all trade unions to affiliate to the Labour Party—of course I would. But I recognise that that is not likely always to be the case, and there may be very good reasons why they feel unable to do so. Part of our democracy is that they should have the right to make that decision.
If I may, I will move on to the point I was going to make about income equality. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada union membership has been strongly linked to greater income equality. Research has found that the more rapid rate of de-unionisation in America, for example, accounts for two-thirds of the greater income inequality compared with the United Kingdom.
I turn now to the unions’ contribution to democracy. As we all know, in a democracy, it is not enough just to cast your vote every four—now every five—years; that is only part of our democratic system. Real democracy demands civic engagement from people through churches, as the Bishops will testify, charities—I am proud to be a trustee of Age Scotland and many noble Lords are involved in charities—political parties and other parts of civil society. But the trade union movement is perhaps the single strongest embodiment of such civic engagement, critical not just as a way for employees to engage with employers on equal terms but as bodies representing and lobbying for wider changes in society on behalf of ordinary working people. We have seen trade unions do that. They serve as a vital conduit for the interests of millions to be heard here at Westminster, at Holyrood, at the Welsh Assembly and at Stormont, and in local government. They keep actively promoting the interests of working people in these areas where decisions are made. They promote the interests of a huge number of people—over 6 million British citizens—and are therefore essential to our democracy.
Trade unions also promote political participation by the citizens. According to figures from the OECD and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the 10 most unionised countries have an average voter turnout of 78%, while the 10 least unionised have a turnout of 62%. That is a remarkable difference and there must be some correlation.
Trade unions do not just help democratic participation; they also campaign and impact on a wide range of social issues. They fight not only for their members in the narrow confines of the workplace but also for a better society for their members. For example, on child poverty and opportunity, greater trade union membership is associated with lower rates of child poverty and significantly better economic mobility. On equality, the Trade Union Share Owners, controlling £1 billion of shares, has openly used this financial clout to pressure for more women on FTSE 100 boards. Such power could be used even further and more effectively, and I would certainly encourage it so to do. On anti-slavery, trade unions in this country have lobbied DfID, the ILO and the Home Office to fund anti-slavery programs for the benefit of people working in slave conditions, both abroad and at home.
Trade unions are sometimes cast as an anachronism, and some people say that they are redundant. But in spite of the tremendous advancement of workers’ rights, the coming years point towards severe challenges that British workers will face. It is critical that we in Parliament work with employers and trade unions to mitigate and reverse some of these threats. The Trade Union Bill, which we will come to later, is one such threat.
The experience of the United States is a dire warning. Safety in the workplace is worse in the United Sates and wages are lower, particularly in states where there is anti-union legislation. If we compare those states with the others, we see a very significant difference.
In conclusion, the essence of a successful democracy is that the country works for the benefit of all the people. The Labour Party, which we recognise was born of the trade union movement, embodies that ideal. We are here to make the case for a more just and a more equitable society, to give voice to those who would otherwise be silent and to champion the continued journey of a nation towards our democratic ideal. Our trade unions should be a vital and valuable partner as we make this journey. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for putting down this Motion. I am sure that we welcome this debate at this important time. Perhaps I, too, could begin with a few declarations. I am the parliamentary adviser to BALPA, the pilots’ union, a majority of whose members I am pleased to say vote for the Conservative Party. I am also the president of the British Dietetic Association, a TUC-affiliated union, and I believe that the majority of its members do not vote for the Labour Party. In neither of those instances was this a matter for my being appointed to the role. Both those unions wanted to demonstrate that they were not dominated by one political party.
I should declare another interest. Since the age of 16, I have been a member of a TUC-affiliated union. For a good portion of that time, I was a member of AUEW-TASS, which I still think of as one of the finest unions that this country ever had. I am now a member of the Unite retired members section—like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, we are most of us, I suspect, in retired members sections—but I still look back with fondness to AUEW-TASS and in particular to its leader, my good friend Ken Gill, who would not have found a place on the Benches opposite for reasons that we will not go into.
Some 30% of trade union members vote for the Conservative Party. We have increasing evidence of this; we have done surveys and we have looked at polls. I was for five years the envoy of the now Prime Minister and then leader of the Opposition to the trade union movement, from the end of 2007 through the election to 2012. Indeed, when I came to this place, he said to me, “This has nothing to do with your distinguished service in the European Parliament; it is your service on behalf of the party”.
When the noble Lord was in the European Parliament, did he hold those views at that time? Have they rather altered in recent days?
Like anyone who has known me for many years—of course, I knew the noble Lord when he was the Member for Hackney in the other House and as a distinguished commissioner—he will know that I have always had a wide range of views, which is why I was such a good friend of Ken Gill. Those views have evolved, as have all views, but they have not fundamentally changed: I am still standing here today on these Conservative Benches saying that I am proud to have been a lifelong member of a TUC-affiliated trade union.
I make the point about the Conservative Party—it is no secret; it is nothing new. The members of unions have always voted in large part for the Labour Party but in significant minority for other parties. Many of them do not vote at all; they actually mirror the population remarkably closely—much more closely than we might like to think. I am pleased that the Conservative Party has recently appointed Rob Halfon, its deputy chairman, to resuscitate the official trade union body within the party.
So we are at a bit of a crossroads, but one positive point that I want to repeat for the Minister is that one of the great achievements of the trade union movement has been the Unionlearn programme. It was recognised many years ago that active trade unionists are often the first people who are in touch with people, particularly migrants who have come to this country, who have first-class skills but who often lack English language skills and sometimes numeracy skills.
I was very impressed when visiting one or two of the Unionlearn projects to find out that while there was a problem with English as a foreign language, there was often no problem with numerical skills. I was told by one or two of the tutors that the people they were tutoring were much better mathematicians than the person who was doing the tutoring. Of course, mathematics is an international language, unlike written and spoken languages. There are now some 30,000 Unionlearn reps in this country and almost a quarter of a million people in work are benefiting from the Unionlearn scheme. It is to the great credit of the Government that they have continued to support this scheme and I would like the Minister in her response to mention and endorse the fact that they will continue to support the scheme.
I saw the noble Lord, Lord Monks, frowning slightly. Of course the scheme has evolved, but the basic support for the principles of scheme is still there. It is there because the scheme benefits employers as well as employees. It is to the advantage of an employer to have a workforce that can read the health and safety notices; to have a workforce that has a sufficient command of the language to talk to other people on the shop floor who may also not be of a UK/English background but need to communicate in a common language. Courses in English, maths and technical studies are the backbone of the Unionlearn programme, and they have been extremely useful.
There is also a pay-off in economic return. If you improve the efficiency of workers, you improve their earnings, you improve the tax take and you improve the profits for the firms. It is not a charitable institution but one that is useful for benefiting the economy.
I have good news. Just under eight years after I first asked to meet Len McCluskey’s predecessor as secretary of the T&G, I received an email yesterday saying that Mr McCluskey would very much like to meet the Lord Balfe. I have of course replied and said that I would be delighted to meet him. I wonder what that can be about.
It is totally self-defeating for the Labour Party to try to monopolise the unions, because unions need friends on both sides of the House. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, unions play an important part in the economy. It is important for them to have friends across the political spectrum. If I was to give them one message it would be to stop backing just one horse because occasionally that horse might not win the race. You need friends on all sides of the House. My challenge to the unions is to settle down, to stop being totally dominated by one political party and to look across the House. Then they might find that they have more friends when they have difficulties with impending legislation.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for bringing the positive role of trade unions to the attention of the House and for doing so in such an interesting and powerful way. I too look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Robathan.
This debate is a timely curtain-raiser to the debates we are about to have on the Trade Union Bill, which will come to the House before Christmas. It is a trailer for some of the positive features of trade unions which I fear, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, are being ignored by the Government at present. I too should declare my interests as a former general secretary of the TUC and of the European Trade Union Confederation, and currently president of BALPA. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and I form a sort of odd couple in that particular union, but a very fine union it is too.
I wonder how many Members of the House have recently been through Westminster Hall, where there is an exhibition of the progress towards democracy that we have made in Britain since Magna Carta. Perhaps some have noticed that one of the banners hanging there pays tribute to the positive role of the trade union movement, and the particular role played by the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I invite the Minister and perhaps some of her colleagues to take a trip through the hall—I would be very happy to accompany them—and to take a look and remind themselves of the debt this country owes to trade unions in times of both peace and war.
I am very proud to have a strong connection to the world of trade unionism. Along with my family it is the central purpose of my life. I believe that trade unions have been, are and will be a tremendous force for good in the country, and I accept the stricture of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we need friends across the political spectrum. I just wish that our friends over there were a bit more powerful in the Conservative Party than currently seems to be the case, because they are failing lamentably to have any influence at the moment, if the Trade Union Bill is anything to go by.
Just last week, Sir John Major lamented the lack of equality in Britain. He called on employers to pay more and acknowledged that the state alone was not rich enough to rescue all those left behind. In a remarkable speech, he called for a crusade and echoed similar sentiments that have been expressed by President Obama, Christine Lagarde and Mark Carney. But what Sir John omitted to mention is that the rise in inequality has been in inverse proportion to the fall in the coverage of collective bargaining. In the 1980s it was more than 70%, but has fallen to around 30% today. Strong unions pressed and even crusaded for higher pay, but by their very presence they imposed a degree of discipline on the way managements did things and on the reward packages they constructed for the people at the top. After all, it is not easy to help yourself when your employees are watching and may well be seeking some measure of comparability. As that pressure has eased, we have seen what has happened to boardroom pay.
I recognise that other countries with wider collective bargaining coverage are displaying some similar trends in inequality to ours, but the harsh fact is that the UK is the European leader in the inequality stakes, the front-runner setting the pace for others to follow. I usually like it when the UK is the front-runner and I wish we were in the lead on skills, productivity, innovation and investment, but alas we are not; only in inequality are we way out in front. The combination of an overpriced corporate elite and weakened unions has not only fostered inequality, it has been a brake on our economic growth as the purchasing power of many of those who are worse off has been strongly squeezed.
I acknowledge that the Chancellor has made moves on the living wage, even if currently it is really a rebranding of the minimum wage, and at anything like its current levels it is certainly not a justification for slashing in-work benefits. I believe that a more fundamental approach is necessary, and that is to alter the way Britain does its business. It was President Roosevelt in the 1930s who persuaded much of US business that it was the trustee of all the economy, not just individual firms, not just the next quarterly results and not just the next takeover bid. He also strengthened trade unions and collective bargaining as a countervailing force. The historians on the other side of the House might remember that Stanley Baldwin, a Conservative Prime Minister, tried to do the same thing. With the then Minister of Labour, he promoted collective bargaining, and there was support for that across the political spectrum in the late 1920s and 1930s. I think that we need to do the same again. We need to promote mechanisms that do not involve taxpayers’ money, but which provide for proper negotiations between employers and unions at the sectoral level so that we can iron out some of the inequalities and shine a light into the dark corners of the British labour market where exploitation is still rife.
However, that is not the way the Government are going. They are not going the Baldwin route; they are going a Thatcher route. Other Conservative Governments have had Bills on trade unions so it is a rite of passage for us to have ours as well. The barrel has been well and truly scraped of all the possible options in BIS. I will not debate the Trade Union Bill today; there will be plenty of opportunities to do that. We are being demonised. Blemishes here and there are seen through a prism which exaggerates them to give an impression of trade unionism that somehow we are the enemy of the state, when nothing could be further from the truth. We are a sword of justice. We wish we were a more powerful sword of justice to try and ensure that people get a fair deal.
The Trade Union Bill is to come and I hope that Members on all sides of the House will take an interest in it. I shall not go through any of the particular measures today—no doubt others will touch on them. Let us remember this: trade unions are not clapped out; they are not finished. Trade unionism is the norm in companies with more than 500 employees. It spans important sectors, such as aerospace, cars, chemicals, utilities, banking, transport and supermarkets. It would be good for equality if it spanned rather more sectors.
Will the Minister revisit the programmes of the present Government and look back a little at what Baldwin was trying to do in the 1920s and 1930s, and see trade unionism as an ally in what the Chancellor said he is trying to achieve, and what we are all trying to achieve: a fair deal for the people of this country? That is what this debate today should be about. It was unions that brought us the weekend and many other things that we take for granted. My plea today is: work with us not against us.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for this timely and important debate, and for his introduction to it. I want to say a little about the context in which we are having the debate and then make one or two points about the future of the trade union movement. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, hinted, the trade union movement as we know it came out of chapels and churches and concern for the welfare of human beings in the world of work. We face similar challenges. If I may, I shall name some of the challenges that face not just churches but trade unions.
We live in what I call a non-joining culture. People want their rights and services in their lives but there is less energy to join and put your back to the wheel to make it happen. As people do not join and our numbers go down, there are fewer people to take up this important work. That is a real challenge for the trade union movement, as it is for the church, not least as the world of work gets more complex. We need more energy, more wisdom and more contribution from the experience of those in the world of work.
A second part of the context that intrigued me and which I want to name is that, in researching this, I discovered that the trade unions are relatively strong in their base in middle-income employees and in the professions. That is very much like the Church of England, if I may say so. We face a similar task in terms of people on the front line of the world of work in poor conditions—how to be alongside, encourage and support them.
The last bit of the context is about public perception. People think the church is about pitching up to a building on a Sunday. They think that trade unions are about having a fight about wages through strikes that cripple everybody else’s lifestyle. The public perception is very wrong. In Derby, where I work, trade unions are involved in some of the most creative and important work in the community, supporting and paying for community workers in deprived areas. They have been involved in helping churches and other voluntary groups respond to the food crisis on the ground, using their resources, contacts and expertise in partnership to make a difference to people in need in deprived areas. That story needs talking up. That is the base to build on and to encourage.
I will name two things that trade unions are and have been about, which should be the pillars on which their future health depends. The first is interest. Trade unions have always represented the interests of their members, but, as I said, the method is often perceived to be confrontational. When there were strikes in the 1860s the Guardian, which was not a left-wing paper but a church paper in those days, had a very interesting article pointing out that strikes and confrontation were in the interests of nobody. They were not in the interest of the employer, the employee or the public. If unions are to represent the interests of people, it has to be done by way of partnership, where people from different angles and views can participate and make a difference together. There is a responsibility on the unions as well as on employers, and on the public in our attitude, to challenge too simple a view of confrontation and to look for common ground. There is a shared interest that unions have to explore and step into with businesses and the public.
The second area in which unions have developed concerns identity. Historically, workers were hands—that was the word, “hands”, just a bit of a hand to help something happen. I was privileged to be part of the Joint Committee on modern slavery, examining where human beings are still commodities today. Actually, zero-hours contracts are not too different from people being in slavery, in a sense. There is a terrible way in which people are being treated as hands and commodities now, not just historically.
When the Government helped shape the then Modern Slavery Bill, the Minister’s argument was rightly that businesses have to take a lead in shaping a business culture that is accountable through its auditing to ensuring that human beings are treated not like commodities but as part of the business in a responsible way. For that to happen, the workers and people in work need representation in the process of what the business audit is about, how it works, how it operates and what it is trying to achieve. Some noble Lords may have noticed that the Pope produced an encyclical earlier this year, Laudato Si’, which brings together the issue of slavery and sustainable economic and environmental development—that is, we are commodifying not just the planet but people. We need joined-up practices to audit business practice to see where not just the planet and the environment but people are being commodified, what that experience is about and how to challenge and change it. That can be done only through partnership—through different voices being in the mix—not through confrontation.
The Modern Slavery Act produced the anti-slavery commissioner. I am privileged to chair his reference group. Some noble Lords may have received his first strategic plan, which was published this autumn. It calls on businesses and trade unions to work together to challenge the commodification of human beings in the workplace. That cannot be done by business alone. It needs the representation and all the skills that unions have to get alongside people, to hear what is happening to them, to articulate it and to put it into the mix. As we develop better business audit systems, we must have the voice of those in work.
The Gangmasters Licensing Authority makes the same plea for businesses and unions to work together. It highlights specific areas of economic activity that have a desperate need for this partnership. It highlights agriculture, construction and hospitality, where there is not only a lot of technical slavery and a lot of very unsupportive work practices. We desperately need unions to help some of the most vulnerable in the workforce to have a voice and to make a contribution to business audit, business planning and business performance.
There is an enormous, vital and necessary future for the historical trade union movement to be alongside people in work and to be in partnership with business. We are at a stage where businesses are looking at a social and sustainable audit practice, trying to be socially responsible. Business needs the contribution of those who represent people in the workplace. I invite the Minister to comment not only on how we encourage businesses to have sustainable audit, but on how the Government can encourage the participation of those who listen to and represent the workers, and help the far from satisfactory experience of many in the workforce at the lower end of the scale, to be taken seriously and tackled creatively.
My Lords, I, too, welcome very much this debate from my noble friend Lord Foulkes. Quite frankly, it is almost sad that it has been necessary to hold it and to put forward the positive contribution that trade unions have made. I look forward very much to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. Her experience in personnel will be very helpful.
We have just heard from the right reverend Prelate about history. Historical credentials are important in this House. I declare that I am a member of a trade union. I have been for more than 50 years and will continue to be until I die, because I believe in trade unions and in the rights of working people. History comes into it, in that I was elected general secretary of one of the printing unions, which was more than 200 years old—much older than any political party in this Chamber. It was formed out of hardship by people who were deported to Australia because they had the audacity to try to band together because they could not live on their wages, and if they threatened to do something about it their homes were taken off them because they lived in tied cottages.
We have come a long way. The record of the positive contribution of trade unions to this nation goes without question, in my view. I just hope that when we come to the Trade Union Bill that list of positives will be taken in the balance, because the Government pushing forward that Bill have a pretty poor record of looking after the ordinary man and woman in this nation. The party pushing forward this anti-trade union legislation—it is anti-trade union—opposed the formation of the health service. It opposed the Equal Pay Act when Barbara Castle brought it forward to try to help women. It opposed the Sex Discrimination Act. It opposed the minimum wage. If noble Lords look at the balance of where the positive contributions have been, it is a very hard argument from the Government that they are for working people.
I remind the noble Baroness, since we are in a history lesson, that the Labour Party opposed all the Thatcher trade union reforms but repealed none of them.
I take that point, but I am talking about the positive contribution for working people in Britain, not just members of trade unions. The policies that trade unions put forward benefited those in work, both within and outside trade unions.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I am someone who has no particular knowledge of trade unions. I have never been a member of one and I have never seen them as particularly relevant in most of the places I have worked. Does she accept that the Bill we will debate is not anti-trade union but pro-consumer? Many of us who have no connection with trade unions get very irritated with the role of many trade unions as, first of all, they spend all their time campaigning against my party, so why should we have any respect for what they do? Secondly, they get in the way of many of us who want to go about our daily business.
I thank the noble Lord for that contribution. It is on the record and we will be able to remember it. I am a trade unionist; I am also a consumer, as were all my members. When I was in the trade union movement I learned a big lesson. I had 220,000 members who I was privileged to be elected to represent. Some 4% of them worked in Fleet Street. Noble Lords might have thought my union’s members were Fleet Street. Yes, they were the screaming child and they did not bring a good reputation to my union, but the other 200,000-odd members were decent men and women at work, trying to get on with a decent job. They were good, decent trade unionists, yet the union’s reputation was based on Fleet Street.
That is the very point I am trying to make on the Trade Union Bill, which, in seeking to deal with an issue that certainly exists, will take away the rights of a whole organisation representing decent working men and women. That organisation has more members than all the political parties put together and of any other organisation in the UK. Its members can join voluntarily. They do not have to join but choose to do so. One of the reasons they choose to join is that an employer who runs a workshop, for example, will probably have a full-time HR person, or someone he can refer to, and a lawyer to represent him. However, the individual worker has very little impact as an individual. Therefore, the right to combine with others is in my view one of the most important points of any civilised, free society. To do anything that damages that would damage our democracy and would take away the rights of working people.
I believe in industrial partnership and I tried to practise it as a trade unionist, as do most trade union representatives. We have heard reference to the Thatcher years. I recall Mrs Thatcher calling the trade unions “the enemy within”, giving a label to nearly 12 million working people in Britain. That was a nonsense. I see Members across the Chamber shaking their heads. I was a trade union official when that statement was made. It did not help me in my work but rather hindered me in trying to develop partnerships.
The contribution that trade unions make to this country depends on the freedom of individuals. Any economy that does not allow free trade unions is not successful. If the Government argue that their proposals will help our economy, I will challenge that—and it will be challenged in debate.
I will end with two points. Legislating to tackle a small but important problem in a way that penalises a whole sector of people in Britain is wrong and will not work. Secondly, I would like to accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, to make friends as trade unionists across the Chamber. I look forward to working with him to achieve a balanced outcome when the legislation arrives in this House.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I feel enormously privileged to be here and hope to make a productive and positive contribution to this House. I am grateful also for the welcome I received from noble Lords at my introduction and for the enormous support, courtesy and patience of parliamentary staff in the way they have helped this particular “new girl”. I have found the politeness and helpfulness of all the staff in this place without parallel. However, I am sure that it will take me a while to get used to the ways and customs here, so I feel that now is a good opportunity to apologise in advance for any faux pas I am likely to make as I feel my way.
I have been told that one’s maiden speech should be relatively non-controversial. I will try. I have been bruised and battered many times in the fray in the other place and have been impressed by the politeness and civility I have witnessed in this Chamber. It is refreshing, and I aspire to measure up to the standards that noble Lords maintain here.
Politics, in my past experience, has been a brutal game. I have served in local as well as national elected chambers, as a local councillor in Dudley—Lenny Henry country—and for 10 years as MP in the rather more genteel Solihull, overturning a 9,400 majority in 2005. This result came as an enormous surprise not only to the party that lost but also to many in my own party. At least one colleague on election duty with the media that night asked them to double-check the result before they discussed it on air. But although it was the street fighter from Dudley who originally won that seat, I chose Solihull for my peerage title because today I am a Silhillian—I live there, love it and love the people I have served for the last 10 years.
Before I discovered politics, my career was in public service—the Prison Service, in fact—in commercial business and then as an entrepreneur with my own businesses. I have spoken up for business large and small throughout my parliamentary career, so this short debate today seemed ideal for my maiden speech. My party, the Liberal Democrats, is a pro-business party. We feel a special affinity to small businesses; that independence of thinking, preparedness to back up your beliefs with actions and working hard are all traits we share with the entrepreneur. Indeed, many party members are entrepreneurs, but many also are trade union members, a lot of them in the public sector, selflessly serving in health, education and other services.
We all recognise that businesses and public services are nothing without the people who staff them, put their energy, time and creativity into making businesses grow, deliver the best service they possibly can, take pride in seeing the success they have helped to create and rightly expect to share in that success. Business is a partnership between those tasked with managing the business and those who put energy and effort into making that business or that service the best it can possibly be. Here I cannot help being a little bit controversial. I think that anyone who seeks to profit at the expense of one side or the other will only defeat themselves. Taking sides is counterproductive—and I am sad to say that we see this all too clearly in politics at the moment.
The Trade Union Bill, to which several noble Lords have already alluded, in my view seeks to diminish union power when there is no evidence that strikes are on the increase and the number of trade union members is at its lowest for 20 years. Having said that, however, trade unions have a big responsibility, too. They serve their members poorly if they seek to push management too far, protect unproductive working practices and hamper the ability of employers to create wealth for all. That is why Liberal Democrats favour employee ownership so strongly. It is sad that many unions do little to support mutual and shared ownership when their own roots come from the co-operative movement. So, we welcome the constructive role that trade unions can play in the partnership that enables everyone to benefit from their labours.
In case anyone is thinking that I am unrealistic in my description of the working partnership I have outlined, I point noble Lords to an example of what happened in Solihull when Jaguar Land Rover fell on difficult times and we feared that either the Solihull or the Castle Bromwich plant would have to close, spelling disaster for our area and affecting the wider West Midlands. Management and unions worked together to agree a plan to reduce workers’ hours and pay, thereby enabling more skilled staff to remain in work so that the skills would not be lost when the hoped for upturn arrived—and, boy, did it arrive. Since that terrible time, JLR has become one of the most successful manufacturing companies in the UK, investing and building a long-term future to guarantee the success and prosperity of all the partners involved. That is the way to do it. Successful, long-term businesses are built on firm and committed partnerships between owners and staff.
I commend the spirit of this Motion and thank all noble Lords for listening so patiently.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Baroness on the occasion of her maiden speech. It was a speech of content, passion and, of course, authority. The House warmly congratulates her on that speech and looks forward to many more contributions in the future.
When considering today’s debate, I was tempted to reflect on my 12 years as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. But in order to avoid being labelled a “trade union baron”, as I anticipated, I decided instead to share my thoughts based on my 18 years as an employee and workplace representative at Hardy Spicer Ltd, subsequently a member of the GKN group.
As a believer in the values of a fair and just society, I have no difficulty in rationalising my role as a trade unionist. Today’s debate seeks to explore the role of unions in a democracy and their contribution to the wider economy. I take the view that a free, independent trade union movement goes hand in hand with a fair and just society. But without playing devil’s advocate, I would like to put exactly the same question to the employers: what is the role of employers in a democracy and their contribution to an economy that is fair and equitable? What are they doing that could not be done by other agents or, indeed, the state?
What I am seeking to establish is that there is an interdependence between capital on the one hand and labour on the other. Both working together, and working well, benefits society for the common good. It is clear that production and consumption are two sides of the same coin. The debate is about not the acquisition of ownership but equitable distribution. Trade unions provide a mechanism for dialogue between workers and employers, helping to build trust and commitment among the workforce. They ensure that problems can be identified and resolved quickly and fairly, bringing significant productivity benefits.
Many employers and employer bodies such as the EEF and the CBI have recognised the positive role that trade unions have played in supporting employer-led issues such as training and health and safety. Employers have long recognised the contribution that unions make in implementing organisational changes. They offer a mechanism for the effective negotiations and consultations that are generally needed to make significant change to programmes within the workplace. Trade unions are ambassadors, both at home and abroad.
In addition, trade unions have long worked alongside companies, business organisations and their communities in supporting national infrastructure projects. We have heard about projects such as the fifth terminal at Heathrow and of course the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As we speak, these groups are working together to build the case for other projects, yet some politicians and newspapers talk of trade unions as the scourge of economic well-being, in the past even describing us as the “enemy within”. These claims are made even when workers seek health and safety protection for themselves and, more importantly, the general public.
A recent report produced by the independent think tank the New Economics Foundation and the University of Greenwich points out that the number of days lost per year to industrial action has fallen dramatically over the past 30 years and has today reached an historic low. The report concludes:
“The UK has paid a heavy economic price for three decades of anti-union policy and law”,
“If the recovery from the recession is to be placed on a secure footing, the status of trade unions as an essential part of sound economic policymaking must be restored”.
The report argues that the UK economy is wage-led, not profit-led, and that increasing wages would kick-start spending and increase GDP by 1.6%. The collective strength of trade unions’ negotiation means that on average union members take home higher pay and have better sickness and pension benefits, more holidays and more flexible working—all of which benefit the economy.
The World Bank agrees that unions are good for the economy. In a report based on more than 1,000 studies of trade unions and the performance of national economies, the World Bank found that high rates of unionisation led to less inequality of earnings, lower unemployment, lower inflation, higher productivity, and speedier adjustment to economic shocks.
So far I have looked only at the contribution of trade unions to the economy. What of their role in a democracy? I take the view that free, independent trade unions go hand in hand with a just and fair society—locally, nationally and globally. On a basic level, trade unions are agents for change and will always strive to protect and advance the interests of those they represent, including those without a voice. A major ILO study found that countries in which income inequality was on average lower tended to be those in which a greater proportion of workers were members of trade unions. It also found that higher rates of union density had a positive impact on the range of social rights afforded to citizens.
It is no coincidence that in countries in which there are free and active trade unions, there are more democratic, transparent and representative forms of government. In countries where there are no trade unions or where the movement is not visible, the vast majority of citizens continue to be trapped in poverty. It is in these conditions that instability and extremism thrive at the expense of democracy. Therefore, by pressing for better social, economic and environmental policies, trade unions are good for the economy and for society, and make democracy work better.
My Lords, I add my tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, who spoke earlier. Like my noble friend, I look forward very much to hearing more from her in the future. I was also delighted to hear the tone with which my noble friend Lord Foulkes introduced this debate. There is a Bill coming and we will have the opportunity to say things about it, but it is not a bad thing to remember that the trade unions are a part of our national life—not sectoral, not subdivisional but an integral part of our national life—and it is good that we hear the positive news.
I am therefore encouraged by my noble friend to bring up something that comes from a rather personal angle. I was 10 when my grandfather died. He had been a coal miner all his life and used to tell me, until I could tell the story off by heart, of how in 1910 at Penygraig in the Rhondda valleys he was one of those miners who came out on strike after there had been a lock-out. The miners were asking for 1 shilling and ninepence for mining a ton of coal. They were protesting that the price was not quite enough and the owners shut them out, so the workers came out on strike. My grandfather told me so graphically about Samuel Rhys, who died of a fractured skull right alongside him in the crowd. I am absolutely certain that every one of the 12,000 miners on strike that day told their grandchildren that they were next to Samuel Rhys. At the same time, at that very incident, the then Home Secretary ordered the British troops to move into the valleys. The Riot Act was read and bayonets were fixed. My grandfather could tell that story pretty graphically. I was only 10, but I remember it to its last detail.
The mining industry has gone. Traditional heavy industries are no more. The injustices—let us be honest, that is what they were—under which workers went down those mines continue to exist, but they have morphed into other places. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby mentioned some of those areas. If it is a matter of justice, the fight has to go on. The champions who are behind the standard that they raise in the name of justice must not be vilified because they are doing that.
I want to go on to pay tribute to one of my personal political heroes, who is almost never mentioned in Parliament but deserves to be recognised much more. He was Jim Griffiths—no relative of mine, although he lived in Burry Port where I grew up. As a coalminer himself, Jim Griffiths came up to become president of the federation of miners in South Wales and, in that way, he became Member of Parliament for Llanelli in the 1930s. With the Labour victory in 1945, Clement Attlee invited Jim Griffiths to take up office in the Foreign Office but he refused. Clem Attlee was a little surprised: “Well, what do you want?”, he said. “I want to do something for my people”, said this former trade union leader, and so he took on the job of Minister for National Insurance. Under his leadership, four of the six parts of the welfare state as envisaged by Beveridge were put into place. He implemented the Family Allowances Act and brought the Industrial Injuries Act, National Insurance Act and National Assistance Act on to the statute book. We know about Nye Bevan and 1948; we know about Rab Butler and 1944; but nobody knows about Jim Griffiths, who did all four of the other Acts, so I pay my tribute to him here.
However, let us remember that the welfare state was itself created to address those evils that are called poverty, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. Let nobody in this House pretend that that battle has been won. All of us who have our feet on the ground and visit people in their homes and neighbourhoods can point to places where the scourges of those particular enemies continue to have their place. We rejoice, however, that we have had 60 years of benefiting from the implementation of those measures to address those enemies, and we stand fearfully on the threshold of the dismantling of those measures in our own day—woe to all of us. Of course they need reform and can no longer hold up in the way that they were envisaged originally but, my goodness, we are going to be a fragmented society if we lose hold of that.
I then want to pay tribute to another Jim Griffiths: my brother, who was an area organiser for the GMB. He did not live long enough to get into the retired GMB members and join my noble friend but my brother, who failed the 11-plus and did hard work on a factory floor, managed to impress the union by his ability to communicate with fellow workers. He soon became a shop steward. I have been with him many times at 6 am, when the shift ended, as he tried to recruit new members for the union. I saw my younger brother stand on a soap-box and arraign them with his oratory: Griffiths the preacher listening to Griffiths the soap-box orator. He was so persuasive in helping the people coming through those factory gates to understand what the real benefits of joining a union were. He became an area organiser and this failure at school used to phone me to ask what I thought about John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant or Aristotle and Plato. He was offered a place at Ruskin College. We must not underestimate the contribution to the social fabric and leadership skills of this country that has come through the trade unions. They must not be typified and thought of exclusively in terms of certain well-rehearsed and well-publicised confrontational moments in our national life. There is far more to trade unions than that, and they ought to be honoured for it.
Finally, I pay my tribute to a Member of this House, Lord Murray of Epping Forest, a very close friend of mine. He attempted to work out something that he called pragmatic socialism in the social contract, which he played his part in establishing, and in attempts with the CBI to see that, across the employers/employees divide, there should be joint ways of solving our national problems. He had to endure the winter of discontent and understand how the new Prime Minister of 1979 had her own way of doing things. ACAS was formed in his time, but confrontation came out of the new political realities.
By paying tribute in this way to people who have touched my life, I should have added myself as a Methodist minister. Goodness me, where would the trade unions be without Methodists? One after another, they gave the public-speaking skills, organisational skills and self-confidence in public to working-class people who went on to found the Agricultural Labourers Union, the stonemasons union and, in Durham in 1832, the mineworkers union. All these things and so much more came from the Methodist Church—not Wesleyan Methodism, the posh bit that was going through a long mahogany phase, but the primitive Methodists who were out there doing their stuff in the highways and byways of the land. I owe to Methodism my self-confidence—I would not be standing here now without it—and Labour owes more to Methodism than to Marx, having come down the ILP route rather than the SDF route.
So, my friends, I just wanted to say how much I owe to the trade union movement, even though I was in it officially only as a junior member, aged 21. I was in the Association of University Teachers when I had a cameo career in that part of our life. I pay tribute to the trade unions and say that they must, in their stance for justice, continue to be approved, wanted and helped to morph into the modern realities that they face. God bless the trade unions and God bless this House, if it can see the good side of them.
My Lords, this is my second parliamentary maiden speech. The first was made some 23 years ago, when I introduced a debate on recycling down the corridor. These are rather grander surroundings. Nevertheless, I approach this speech with some trepidation.
After my first speech, people were remarkably nice about it. It was not bad but probably did not deserve the praise that it received, if the truth be known. I particularly remember that Tam Dalyell, then the Labour MP for Linlithgow and now Sir Thomas Dalyell of the Binns, Baronet, was very complimentary. He particularly said that I was a great improvement on my predecessor in Blaby, about whom he went on to say some very disobliging things. Now, first, it was not true that I was a great improvement on my predecessor, and, secondly, I was somewhat shocked by the quite vicious attacks made on him. Here in the House of Lords, I already find that there are far better manners, much greater courtesy and real friendliness from all parts of the Chamber. For that I am very grateful; it is not always in evidence in the House of Commons.
I have been told that I should say something about myself, which of course is an irresistible invitation to any preening politician. Briefly, I was elected with the previous majority Conservative Government 23 years ago, after serving 18 years in Her Majesty’s Forces, and I stood down as this majority Conservative Government were elected. I spent some four years in the previous Parliament as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. The truth is that it was time to move on, and I think that those who have been in the House of Commons would agree that 23 years is a pretty long sentence.
It is genuinely an honour to be here. Of course, there are issues and arguments about the future of this House, but I do not think there is any disagreement about its remarkable history. I would like to thank everybody across the Chamber for being so welcoming: my sponsors, my noble friends Lord Astor of Hever and Lord Spicer, my mentor, my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, and everybody for the advice and assistance that they have given me—not least the staff of the House. In particular, I should like to mention the Principal Doorkeeper, Mr Keith Phipps. For a couple of years in the late 1980s, he and I worked together in the Army in Hong Kong and Northern Ireland. He tried to steer me in the right direction—well, usually in the right direction. As you may have guessed, he was not that keen on my emphasis on physical fitness and fitness training, but he was usually right about most matters, and I expect that he will try to put me right in this place, as well. Lastly, because old habits die hard, I would like to thank the Prime Minister for nominating me.
Turning to the substance of the debate, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for calling this debate. We have known each other over the years and have always got on in a relatively civilised manner, I hope. I was told to be uncontroversial, which is to break the habit of a lifetime. As a frightful, dyed-in-the-wool old Tory, just my speaking on trade unions might be thought to be partisan, but I hope to avoid so being. I wish to approach this debate from an historic, discursive perspective in a genuine spirit of inquiry, because I think that there is a place for discussion on this matter. I would like to look also, only briefly, at the future of organised labour.
I say at the outset that, along with other noble Lords who have spoken, I absolutely believe in the right—indeed, the need—for any workforce to have representation. Twenty years and more ago, when I was on the Employment Committee in the House of Commons, I was astonished when chief executive officers would come to tell us with pride that they had started having regular discussions with their workforce. Surely they always consulted their employees—but this was not the case. In the Army, paradoxically, I always knew what my soldiers thought, and I listened to them. In the SAS, we used to have things called Chinese parliaments. In a Chinese parliament, anybody and everybody had their say and said what they thought. Very often, it was extremely helpful.
As we have heard, the trade unions have hugely improved the lot of the workforces of this country over the years, from pensions to statutory sick pay and other matters. They have been assisted by the party of labour; I state that absolutely. Others here, particularly on the Opposition Benches, know the history of the labour movement much better than I: Keir Hardie, the Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party, born out of organised labour. However, in my lifetime, I recall the 1960s: the seamen’s strike of 1966, I think, and Jack Dash, who was of course a communist, leading the dockers on strike in London, which contributed toward the demise of the London docks. This, of course, was all under a Labour Government led by Harold Wilson, and it led Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle to produce In Place of Strife. Others on the Opposition Benches will know more about that than I, but it was not very popular.
At university, I remember, under the Heath Government, attempting to study by candlelight. I recall the electricians’ strike, the postal workers’ strike, and, finally, Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers creating the three-day week under Heath and Heath then calling the election on “Who Governs Britain?”. We know what answer was given. Then the Callaghan Labour Government struggled with Red Robbo and British Leyland and were finally fatally undermined by the winter of discontent, led by some trade unionists.
I will gloss over the Thatcher reforms, because that would be controversial, but, in the second decade of the 21st century, what did my former constituents in South Leicestershire think of trade unions? It was a prosperous area, I agree, but generally, the larger proportion of younger people were not attracted by trade unions and felt that they were somewhat irrelevant to them—except, of course, when they needed their assistance in a dispute. More relevant than any anecdotal evidence that I produce is the decline in membership of the trade unions from 13 million in the year of the winter of discontent to now fewer than 7 million members. That is partly why some unions have amalgamated.
Of course I deprecate strikes on the transport system and in the public sector, but trade unions still do good work. As a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I chaired meetings with trade union representatives. They were very honest and told me at the start that they would have preferred to have had a Minister from a different party, but they were generally good people who stood up for their membership. That was their role and I applaud them for it. Noble Lords may be surprised to know that we almost invariably parted on amicable terms.
I think that we would all agree that there has been a huge impact of technology, health and safety legislation, automation, globalisation and different ways of working, all of which have affected trade unions and led in part to their decline in membership. While I believe that representatives of organised labour have an important role to play, I pose a question to everybody in the House: does the current structure of trade unions and having a party of organised labour still best serve the interests of the workforce—of workers? Indeed, will trade unions and the TUC as currently constituted remain? Why, in the 21st century, is there still a party of organised labour? I pose that question in a genuine spirit of inquiry.
Especially now, when—I do not think it is controversial to say—we have a somewhat divided Labour Party, should those on the left of centre in politics still want to be a party of organised labour? The world has changed dramatically since the matters that I and other people have mentioned—since the 1906 creation of the Labour Party. I regret to say that even the Conservative Party has changed. Romantic views of past struggles may not best serve either those who are currently union members or an opposition party that covets power. I can see a time when the Labour Party parts from organised labour. Tony Blair and Ed Miliband enacted changes and distanced the party to a certain extent from trade unions. I would not presume to advise political opponents on what they should do, but I can see a possible realignment of those who support views that are broadly left of centre—and that would include the Liberal Democrats as well. The world has moved on and parties must move on, as indeed the Conservative Party—now caring, compassionate, et cetera—has also moved on. By the way, perhaps I may also say that whoever forms the Government, our country needs an effective Opposition. As I said, those comments are made in a genuine spirit of inquiry and for discussion, and I hope that they are taken as such.
In conclusion, I am told that people may be complimentary about my speech, probably along the lines of, “Frightfully good. Jolly good speech. Pity you were talking complete rubbish”.
My Lords, perhaps I may start by congratulating my noble friend on a fine maiden performance; we look forward to many more. Taking over the constituency of South Leicestershire, formerly Blaby, in 1992, my noble friend had a rather large pair of boots to fill. He had had a distinguished career in the Coldstream Guards and the Special Forces. He then moved to the world of big business, only to volunteer to return to the colours for the first Gulf War, so he was the natural choice for the Prime Minister to ask to go to the Ministry of Defence, after service as Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, on the formation of a new Government in 2010, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Welfare and Veterans. Subsequently, of course, he became a Minister of State and served both in the MoD and, as he said, at the Northern Ireland Office. We all look forward to his future contributions in your Lordships’ House—as we do to those of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, for bringing this debate on this very important subject. I might start by saying that, when I was at Defra, I enjoyed a highly constructive relationship with the trade unions, especially—and I was going to say “most strikingly”, but perhaps “most significantly” would be a better phrase—in the case of making amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act to improve the level of protection for postal workers and many other workers going about their jobs every day. The Communication Workers Union was extremely helpful—an ally, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Monks—as was Royal Mail. Together we improved the situation quite markedly, and I thank them for that.
Trade unions have done and continue to do brilliant work for their Members—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, explained some of that—and long may that work continue. However, cases continue to occur where there is abuse of the system and it is reasonable to think about making changes to the law. I am aware that we will get into that in detail in your Lordships’ House over the next few weeks so, there being limited time, I shall confine myself to a few general points today.
First, I am concerned about the effects on inoffensive and uninvolved members of the public, whose efforts to get to and from work or education become severely hampered by industrial action. The public sector strikes in 2011 closed 62% of England’s schools, while the NHS cancelled tens of thousands of operations, yet the turnout for both the ATL teachers’ union ballot and for Unison’s was only about 25%. Does my noble friend the Minister think that that is fair or right? I do not think that many people would disagree with me in thinking that it is not. Indeed, the majority has indicated in polls that it strongly agrees that strike action should be undertaken only as the last resort.
My second point is that I am concerned that the number of days lost to industrial action in the public sector has doubled over 15 years, whereas in the private sector it has halved. There is a need to tackle that.
Thirdly, it must be unreasonable that industrial action can take place based on a mandate that is, for example, more than a year old. The NUT strike in 2014 led to the full or part closure of almost 1,500 educational establishments across England on a mandate almost two years old, on which there was an alleged voting turnout of just 27%. This surely has to change.
Those are some of the issues that the Bill that we are about to get into debating seeks to tackle. Other matters include bullying and harassment, check-off and transparency about facility time. The public gave the Government a mandate at the general election, and the public are looking to the Government to fulfil it.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a long- serving official of the TUC. Indeed, I am a lifetime member of what was the Transport and General Workers’ Union and, subsequently, Unite, having organised membership in the Economist Intelligence Unit in 1963.
Many of us are aware of the range of unions in the TUC; we do not need to be reminded of it, perhaps, but nevertheless it is an interesting and important point that people in professional occupations are now more likely to be in a trade union than those in the other half of the economy. Likewise, many unions with that sort of membership know very well that many of their members vote Conservative. I do not think that the TUC in its day-to-day work is working with a particular relationship with a political party—but let us put that the other way around and look for just one moment at the political connotations, as mentioned by two or three speakers on the other side of the House.
In any democracy one needs pluralism—in terms of political parties, unlike Russia, and in terms of people’s right to belong to a trade union, in this case. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, nods his head, but it so happens that the £20 million or £30 million raised for an election on the part of the Conservative Party comes from somewhere, and that is the sort of money that the Labour Party cannot compete with, or even get near to, unless some considerable contribution is made through the trade unions. I make that point in passing without wanting to start a great debate about political funding.
Unity is strength for workers and seems also to be strength for capital. I was going to say “capitalism”, but that is a word that suggests that one belongs to a particular sort of analysis. But it is a fact that what drives capital in the City of London is very much mergers and acquisitions. In the multinational corporations of today, it is very difficult to get any sort of countervailing power if you think that capital and labour should be on the basis of some degree of equality. That is a much bigger debate than we can have at the moment, but capital is organised in a developing way that has a lot to do with the difficulties of trade unions in recent years. As my noble friend Lord Monks pointed out, the difficulty of organising in recent years has been associated with an increase in inequality—and that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby pointed out in a very interesting speech, has in its turn produced a non-joining culture in a society of individualism. That has lots of downsides in society.
I shall briefly come back to that point if I may, but not before I congratulate the two maiden speakers. I am delighted to hear from a very strong friend of the trade union movement on the Liberal Benches, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt—and I wish her well for her future contributions. Then there was the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, whom I know to be a not particularly strong friend of the trade unions. We have had conversations in the past where the word “TUC” was treated, if not as a term of abuse, then as something along those lines—as I recall, and he will recall as well.
You know each other.
Yes, we know each other.
The question of how we redress the balance of these forces, which go against trade union interest and tradition, is a very thorny one indeed. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, made the point, which allows me to make the response—although he is not in his place at the moment. The noble Lord intervened from the opposite Benches on, I think, my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, and said, “Of course, these organised producers are just against the consumer”. I think I am not paraphrasing him; I think that was right. Having thrown that hand grenade, he retired from the Chamber—well, it was quite soon afterwards. Somebody must have put something on his seat, but it was not me. That is a very interesting idea, precept or fallacy to spend a couple of minutes on. We are all consumers, and that is why we want low prices and everything hunky-dory as far as consumers are concerned—but that is nothing to do with what we get paid as producers, presumably, and nothing to do with the health and safety conditions of people producing tea, lychees or textiles in Bangladesh or wherever.
I shall make this comparison: I suspect that even the Chinese economy, as it evolves over the coming period, will find that it needs a degree of pluralism in its structure, and I think that that will be the development of the trade union principle in China. It is one to watch because it will give the lie to those people who think that the future of the world will be successful in relation to increasing gross national product without any reference to the degree of inequality that might be associated with it. Does the Minister agree that there is a model of the future where producers and consumers are opposed to each other and that the problem of inequality is not associated with that fallacy?
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, a doughty parliamentary fighter for parliamentary rights and trade union rights, for initiating this debate. Most of the speakers have been from the other side for fairly self-evident reasons, but that has been very valuable for people on other Benches. I wish there had been more Tory Peers present today to listen to the authentic voice of trade unions and long-standing experience.
It is a great pleasure and honour to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Burt of Solihull, on an excellent maiden speech. We used to liaise on a number of issues when I had the pleasure of being in the Liberal Democrat group. She had a reputation for being an extremely hard-working MP as well as a very distinguished chairman of the parliamentary party. We welcome her here with great warmth and look forward to her contributions.
I have known the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, less, but none the less I congratulate him warmly on his speech. It verged on the quasi-fierce at stages, but none the less it was very gentlemanly, not quite one-nation Tory but trying to get there a bit. We thank him very much and look forward to his contributions. As someone quite rightly said, taking over in Blaby was no mean task, but he did it very well indeed.
I well remember going to the office of the noble Lord, Lord Monks, when one newspaper called me the most left-wing Tory MP—I was a Conservative MP in those days—in the 1980s. The noble Lord, Lord Lea, was in the office as his deputy. I tried to reassure him that there were Conservative MPs who were not anti-trade union. That was the position we had reached in those days, and it was tragic, agonising and painful, particularly with the manifestation of the miners’ strike and the use of the police. I was therefore credited equally with being far too avant garde and out of line with conventional policy in those days. When I was MP for Harrow, a subeditor on my local newspaper, the Harrow Observer, wrote “Dykes lashes Thatcherism” because it was at the same time.
Although I have had a City and financial background for many years, what worries me is that if you create a society where the only thing that matters is making money, that society gradually disintegrates. You can see that in America now. The latest manifestations in American society show that effect: an insecure, neurotic society based on medieval inequalities, not just the developing inequalities in this country that John Major rightly referred to last week, but huge savage inequalities and the despair of poor citizens in the United States who feel that they have no support. Now there is a threat from the Republican Party to dismantle even the modest Medicare system that Barack Obama brought in. I hope we will not get to that. I will not get to the Americanisation of British economics and society. I would call it the “Bullingdonisation” of society as well. That is just as bad as Americanisation from the present Government.
We have to thank the Library, as usual, for its masterly research and briefing in the pack it did for this debate. I am glad the debate was extended to give us a bit more time. We thank the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for achieving that. When I think of the latest Conservative manifesto, I look at page 18 of the briefing pack. It states:
“We will protect you from disruptive and undemocratic strike action. Strikes should only ever be the result of a clear, positive decision based on a ballot in which at least half the workforce has voted”.
This comes from a Government who were elected by 37% of those people who turned out to vote—I think roughly 24% of the electorate. No Government without a real majority has a right to introduce such obnoxious legislation without the authority and support of the people as a whole. That is the problem with our political system, with exclusion and one party again winning with no genuine majority. Mrs Thatcher had a majority that went down on each vote and was much less than 50%. In other European countries, that is not possible. You must have at least 50%, with a coalition arrangement if necessary, otherwise you cannot govern. The only possible exception is the other country I live in, which is France, where you must have 50% on the first round but there can still be huge discrepancies between seats and popular votes. A Government need real authority to introduce legislation like that. I hope the Lords will be meticulous in looking at the various provisions coming from the Commons in this legislation to make sure that it is fair for working people. Above all now, they need fairness in a society of zero-hours contracts and wages that are still very low despite some improvements in the minimum wage figures and the so-called living wage. There are now grim prospects for ordinary working families. John Major was quite right to refer to those dangers. I remember that it is all linked together.
The more I think about it, the more I think it is a great weakness that we do not have a written constitution because the parties can never get together to agree on fundamental matters. One of the glaring absences is the leaders of the main parties agreeing on a funding system for political parties. Mr Cameron originally proposed that there should be a limit of £5,000 on individual donations. That fell by the wayside. Ed Miliband, to his credit, started the opting-out, opting-in system to reduce the amount of support automatically, allowing people not to opt in or not to be compulsorily included, and he got no credit for that in the increasingly right-wing newspapers in this country. I think six out of nine of our hapless newspapers, with their declining circulations, belong to owners who do not pay United Kingdom personal taxes, live in tax havens, write long, boring editorials about the need for us all to be keen on work, even if it is low paid, and are very patriotic as well. I wish they would come to live in this country and pay taxes. We would be more impressed.
I go to Germany frequently and see the difference there in the trade union picture with the Government of the day. Angela Merkel regularly attends the equivalent of the TUC conference, the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund, to make a speech as the Chancellor or Prime Minister. Here, our divisions are so massive that that is impossible. The antagonism continues. There is no leadership of the correct kind to make sure that people come together. The overwhelming evidence I have from studying entrepreneurs, business and financial matters at very close quarters over many years is that if you have a happy employer-union relationship in any company of whatever size, that company usually works successfully if the market is strong enough and the demand for the products and services is strong enough. I have seen no exception to that. Occasionally you get tough guys—more guys than ladies, of course, because if there were more lady entrepreneurs, there would be less strife in industry as we know—saying, “I’m not going to have unions here”, and keeping them out and that kind of thing. Sometime employers become very benevolent, like Branson, in return for agreeing not to have unions, but that is very rare, and usually, with the inequalities we have now, you are undermining the consumption function all the time and depriving people of the opportunity of spending money or, indeed, saving money, which also contributes to the economy through the banking and investment system. That is a recipe for disaster. I hope the Government will be enlightened enough to change their mind and think again about some clauses of the Bill.
I also must declare an interest: previously I was president of ASTMS, which became MSF when we merged with TASS. The noble Lord, Lord Monk, referred to his friend Ken Gill. Along with another colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Wall, I worked closely with Ken in taking that union forward.
I must thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for tabling this Motion because it gives us a chance, as has been said, to show trade unionism in a positive light. At a later date we will deal with the Trade Union Bill, which makes it more difficult for trade unions to operate and protect their members. It is important that we remember what has been achieved by trade unions and employers working in partnership. When they come together, that benefits not only employees but employers and, in the case of the public sector, if there are good working relationships they benefit the public at large as well.
An important point that I want to make is that in unionised companies, support for women is greater than in those that are not unionised. The unions that represent them make it easier for them to work—and indeed to return to work—through flexible working, job-sharing, sensible hours for people with families, and enhanced maternity pay. It is important to establish a relationship between unions and employers so that both take an interest in people who are on maternity leave, keep in contact with them and ensure that they get training when they return to work.
We are seeing a higher proportion of disabled workers joining trade unions. I think the House will generally agree that it is not a satisfactory position when at least 50% of people who are disabled are seeking employment. The trade unions play an invaluable role in ensuring that these people are protected, and in achieving the conditions and providing the necessary facilities to enable them to do their work. That not only makes their working lives easier but, I would hope, paves the way for more people who are disabled to come into work. Similarly, a greater proportion of black and ethnic minority workers join trade unions because they also need that extra protection in the workplace, which is very important.
The valuable role that health and safety representatives play has also been emphasised. Not only do they make life safer, in that there are fewer accidents; there is also a benefit to the company in preventing accidents. People take less time off work and work in safer conditions, which in itself makes for a stable workforce, which is of benefit to all. Another valuable role that trade unions play is pressing for better training conditions. Better training conditions mean a better, more skilled and more satisfied workforce who, if they have the qualifications, can advance within the company or leave and join another one. That is very helpful.
Moreover, where companies are in difficulties, trade unions, working together, can bring about positive results. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby referred to Derby. It is important that we look at the example of Derby because, a few years ago, Bombardier—I notice he is nodding his head—was in terrible difficulties and it appeared that the plant was going to close. Fortunately, thanks to good working relations between the management and the trade union representatives, who met regularly, worked together and looked for other opportunities, the plant was saved and redundancies were kept to a minimum. Having suffered a difficult and dangerous blow that could have closed it down, Bombardier is now in a much stronger position, thanks to co-operation between the employers and trade unions. Surely we want to see more of that.
Reference was made to Jaguar Land Rover. Here again, we see the benefits of employers and trade unions working together. I think people in this House, throughout the country and indeed throughout the world will agree that this country is now producing first-class vehicles. Again, that just shows what can be achieved when employers and trade unions co-operate. It is a fact that we get value for money, as I said earlier, from workplace training. It has been established that for every pound the Government spend on it, there is an economic return of £9 and, as I say, it leads to enhanced qualifications.
This has been positive debate that takes us forward. It is good that it has emphasised the positive role trade unions can play in co-operation with employers, which benefits not only the company concerned but the economy at large, because there is more spending power. Improved conditions and communication between unions and employers are for the benefit of all. There is a greater need for trade unions than ever before. At a time of economic uncertainty and a lack of job security, I certainly believe, as I think do most people, that there is a great benefit to be derived from people belonging to the trade union movement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for securing this debate. Despite working in business for some 50 years, I have never had a unionised workforce, but I have been supplied by, and dealt with, many of them. I can therefore appreciate how they have improved workers’ rights and secured fair pay for those they represent. Indeed, the Labour movement that they led has sired one of the great modern parties of government. It is true that in countries where unions are allowed to operate, wages are higher and workers’ rights are better protected. Nevertheless, in too many cases overly militant unions are damaging to society.
Unlike some noble Lords, I am old enough to remember the winter of discontent. Rubbish was piled to the shoulder in the West End, there was no petrol in the pumps and ambulances were grounded. Of course, this is the most extreme example of unions using their power for bad, but we can see examples of the same militancy today. Speaking as a Londoner, Tube strikes lose this great city up to £10 million a day. The TSSA, the RMT and Unite are not fulfilling their important duty to preserve workers’ freedoms so much as acting as pay lobbies to further raise the wages of their members, which are already far out of step with the restrained rises other workers have seen.
The majority of unions I remember in the 1980s and 1990s were led by sensible moderates, the sort of men and women who helped drag the Labour Party to the political centre and win three elections in a row. Now, they are led by a small elite of self-proclaimed communists, funding parties and activities such as TUSC, to which their members have not consented. Of course, unions have a place in providing a counterbalance to big business and, of course, they should serve as vehicles for progress in the labour market, but they should never be allowed to hold the public to ransom for wage rises way out of kilter with the public and private sectors.
The Trade Union Bill that is being steered through by the Business Secretary will go some way to addressing these problems; it will redirect unions to perform their historical functions, rather than seeing themselves as the Official Opposition.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Foulkes on a tour de force—I mean that genuinely. He gave us the historical sweep of the trade union movement and I am truly grateful. I am also grateful for the maiden speeches. I must confess to a slight bias towards that of the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and her attitude towards industrial relations, rather than the SAS approach of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. I am grateful to the noble Baroness because she was the first speaker to remind us of a really important example of the British trade union movement: when we needed careful, thoughtful action in that recession period, they negotiated not just a three-day week but an opportunity to retrain and reskill. It was a first-class example. Too often, we forget about that role.
I was thinking about this speech as I walked my dog this morning. The dog did not make a powerful contribution, but he gave me time to think about it. I sometimes wish the history of the trade union movement would be a bit more balanced. Unfortunately, it often focuses on the great struggles, and that is understandable, but in doing so it does not give enough credit, sometimes, to the solid, day-to-day work. I was a young lad of 16 when I managed to get into the General Post Office as a telecom apprentice. One of the first things that happened to me was that I was recruited into the union and I signed a form to join the pension scheme; both took place. I have been involved with trade unions for most of my life, from being what we called a local representative—what this House would know as a shop steward—until I managed, much to my surprise and that of a few others, to be elected general secretary of what was then the National Communications Union in 1989.
Trade unions do a huge amount of work. I did not agree with all his analysis, but I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for reminding us of the importance of Unionlearn. Of course, trade unions were heavily involved in education before Unionlearn. In fact, as someone who was dragged out of school at 15, I would say that the trade union movement completed my education. My mentor, although he was a member of the Communist Party, gave me a very solid grounding in how to run a branch, how to negotiate and how to write letters to management. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to him and to the trade union movement. Noble Lords may think that the education could have been a bit better, but I am what I am as a result of that involvement in the trade union movement.
I am glad that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby is back in his seat, because, in talking about modern slavery, he reminded me of my involvement, until very recently, with the Ethical Trading Initiative. Trade unions play a very big role in that, not just highlighting conditions for workers in this country but for workers throughout the world, in supply chains. That is the role of the international trade union movement as well. Trade unions play a very important role in trying to ensure fairness and justice for workers, not just in this country but throughout the world.
I could not help but smile when I listened to my noble friend Lord Griffiths. I am glad he is here. I must admit that my first attraction to the Methodist Church was not quite as pure as the examples he gave. If I recall, it ran the local youth club and my attraction was to table tennis and girls, I have to confess. Nevertheless, it played a role in society; my noble friend’s recollection of the importance of the Methodist Church in the origins of trade unionism is something I recognise.
I fear that the forthcoming Trade Union Bill will be a lost opportunity. What should the Government be encouraging? Surely, they should be encouraging more industrial partnership. If we want to improve productivity, improve the skills base in this country and get more apprenticeships, that kind of working together will make a huge contribution. If employers always got it right, why did the Government—I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised—reintroduce a training levy? If all employers were convinced of the benefits of training their workforce, presumably we would not have had to do that. Trade unions can and do play a key role in that area. I urge the Government to think very carefully about what they are doing with this forthcoming Bill. I hope we can encourage some positive things.
I do not pretend that everything the trade unions do has been perfect or that our history has been one long progression of simply fighting injustice. There are examples of where we had to reform our organisations. If I am honest, the union that I first participated in, the Post Office Engineering Union, was a very male-dominated union. It was not until we had a large influx of women members—my noble friend Lady Drake is not here—as a result of an amalgamation that we started to mend our ways. Nevertheless, we have been at the forefront of fighting for equality. We have been at the forefront, also, of fighting against racism; remember the anti-apartheid campaign. We have always been a very positive force in society.
As a trade union movement, we face a challenge. If you look at the demographics of the trade union movement, it is clear that it is skewed towards the older members of our society. We face a challenge in encouraging young people to understand the importance of the benefits of trade unions. Therefore, I will end by saying that I still believe that the role trade unions play is far and away a positive and constructive one, and I urge the Government to utilise that in their legislation. I hope that in that debate we will be able to arrive at a constructive engagement.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes for putting this debate down. It is both important and hugely timely.
It has already been mentioned that we in the United Kingdom are an unequal society, and that inequality is getting wider. In fact, according to the book The Spirit Level, an academic study of the western world, we are second only to the United States in inequality. As that book points out, that inequality brings with it a society which is out of balance, out of kilter and not happy or cohesive. I fear that the forthcoming Trade Union Bill, should it go through in the way in which it is currently envisaged, will only make matters very much worse.
The debate thus far has pointed out a lot of the things about trade unions which we never hear about. If you believed everything we read in the press or watched on the television, you would think that the trade union movement was a proscribed organisation. It has already been mentioned that we have been insulted in the past, and therefore an opportunity to demonstrate the hugely useful and valuable role that unions have played over the years is very welcome.
I will touch on three aspects: education and training, which has already been mentioned quite widely; the international work of unions; and equalities. My noble friend Lord Griffiths put it very succinctly in talking about the work of trade unions as an educator, describing their contribution to the social fabric of society. In the 20 years that I was employed by the Transport and General Workers’ Union as was, I must have seen thousands upon thousands of examples of people going through the union education programme and coming out at the end of it more confident and competent. Of course, that education covered such things as learning about health and safety, legislation which covers workplaces, equalities, how to be a good shop steward or branch secretary—all of that. Also, however, to correct something the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, the trade union education hugely covers the whole area of literacy and numeracy. That was started by NUPE, long before Unionlearn came into being. That programme patched up the education gaps suffered by so many people in our society and enabled those older workers to learn and to catch up with their learning in a comfortable and supportive environment.
I can give many examples of the huge number of people I have come across who have moved on up through education, but I will mention just two. A woman who sat on the national women’s committee of the old T&G came from Bristol, worked in Bristol University as a cleaner, and was a single parent. She lost her job because she injured her back. She had already participated in a lot of trade union education and therefore after she had lost her work had the confidence to go on and learn further, and ended up going back to Bristol University as a lecturer. Another woman worked in Pendleton Ice Cream outside Liverpool; she was our convenor there and was made redundant when the factory closed. She was another example of someone who rebuilt her confidence on union learning and education; she also went on to become a lecturer. Those are just two tiny examples of my experience of union members who have the capacity and the ability but have never had the opportunity, and the trade union movement is the organisation that gives that opportunity to them.
Unionlearn, as has been said, is a massively successful experiment. It is an organisation funded by government and it pays back to government in spades, as has been mentioned, because of the greater earning power of the workers whom it trains and educates, because of the ability of those workers to participate in increased productivity, and by their spending power. Yet the funding for Unionlearn has been diminished and diminished. It is now hardly able to operate, despite being hugely popular with employers as well as employees. Clearly, however, it is not overly popular with the Government.
The second area I will touch on, very quickly, is international work. For 11 years I was chair of the women’s committee of the International Chemical & Energy Workers’ Union. The British TUC is the most respected trade union organisation worldwide. It has given training, assistance and confidence to newer organisations that have been set up around the world. The TUC sent massive numbers out to east European countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain, training those workers and union reps on the whole question of democratic structures, how to be a good steward and a good representative. Solidarity, the Polish trade union which of course helped to bring about the fall of the Iron Curtain, was then seen as a great hero—admiration that is ironic from a Government who have always taken a less-than-encouraging approach to the UK trade union movement. After the dreadful tragic collapse of Rana Plaza, who was first on the scene? IndustriALL, the international union, was out there, taking evidence, gathering information to ensure that those damaged workers were able to gain some recompense for what had happened to them.
Finally, I will comment on the whole question of equalities. Unions were the first organisations to identify the use of targets, use reserved seats—when I first joined the TUC in the early 1980s we already had reserved seats for women—and get proportionality on committees, and they work with companies up and down the land enabling those companies to use positive action to bring forward underrepresented groups within their workforces.
I think the word “partnership” has been mentioned only once in this debate, but that is what it is—a partnership between representatives of the workers and the employers, and in good workplaces that partnership brings benefits to all sides. Sometimes unions are described as greedy. As JB Priestley said, there is nothing wrong in asking for the moon, but it is very wrong to just take it.
My Lords, I have always had a great admiration for the political antennae of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I congratulate him on this debate ahead of what will be quite an interesting debate on the trade union reform Bill. It is therefore useful to have this general debate on the contribution of trade unions in our democracy.
I also congratulate the two maiden speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, and in particular my noble friend Lady Burt. She is a legend in our party, the Liberal Democrats, for her victory in Solihull and for the 10 years during which she held that seat against all the odds. It is appropriate that this steely Midlander, who is the business spokesman for our party nationally, represents that part of the country which symbolises both the potential and achievement of industrial renaissance in this country with the turnaround of Jaguar Land Rover. We certainly look forward to her contributions in this House.
As a social democrat, I spent a career grappling with change in industry. I also frequently worked for a trade union so I, and these Benches, remain committed to sustaining, improving and supporting the work of trade unions in this country. I pay particular tribute to the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, which supported the values of trade unions. I agreed with every single word that he said.
Given that we will be debating the Trade Union Bill, I do not think that this is the moment to go into detail on it, but I will say that these Benches are opposed to the Bill, as we opposed its measures when they were proposed in the coalition. Fundamentally we are opposed to it because we see it as a partisan Bill, both industrially and politically, and because it seeks to further weaken the influence of trade unions when, frankly, they are no longer in a strong position. We think that it is irrelevant to the main economic issues of raising productivity and enhancing the country’s competitive advantage. The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, challenged the Labour Benches on why they had not reformed the Thatcher measures, but I say to him that the very fact that the Labour Government did not change those measures is an argument for now leaving this field well alone.
Trade unions are not perfect—voluntary bodies never are—and I, for one, am deeply depressed by the political and industrial path being taken by the union for which I worked, the National Union of Railwaymen, although I do not think that it is fully representative of the movement. I went to work for that union inspired by what I regard as the most remarkable and brave political speech ever made by a trade union leader. It was made by Sid Weighell at the Labour Party conference in 1978, when he warned the Labour movement of the dangers of not supporting the Labour Government’s pay policy at that time. I was not the most obvious person to go and work for a trade union but I did it because I wanted to do it and because, as somebody who believed in changing management and industry in Britain, I had to understand where they came from.
On freedom of speech, we say that we may not like what people say but we will defend their right to say it, and so it is with trade unions. Despite the frustrations and the disagreements with them that we sometimes have, we will fight to maintain freedom of association to ensure that the rights and interests of employees are properly represented. Indeed, I believe that society will benefit if we do so. In this debate we have heard a number of arguments for trade unions and examples of their benefits to democracy. I will not go through them all again but I should like to draw out a few, some of which have already been mentioned.
Historically, trade unions have improved the terms and conditions of their members. I say to the House that one of the problems that we now have is that our trade unions are in a weakened position. We are now in a position where the Government have to intervene to try to arrange the living wage so that the state does not subsidise the wages paid by employers. That we are in that position is not a sign of strong trade unionism; it is a sign of weak trade unionism.
I also want to emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monks, about boardroom pay and differentials in industry. I worked in a company which was very conscious of what it paid the board and the managers. In fact, I negotiated with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. Frankly, I could not have faced trade union representatives if I had had a huge bonus or a huge salary increase at a time when we were announcing redundancies. That was how we behaved. It was a counterbalance which, to be frank, is lacking in much of industry and employment today, and I think that we miss it.
Historically, trade unions have made a big impact on health and safety. In debates on health and safety, too often we have concerns about regulation. People say that regulation of health and safety is completely impossible. I say that if we had more representatives on the ground, there would be less need for regulation; it would be automatic in industry, and that is a role that trade unions have played in that field.
The noble Lord, Lord Young, said—very potently, I felt—that trade unions have played a huge role in skills and education in this country. They have been very committed to self-education in their own ranks but they have also fought for equality for their members and employees in respect of apprenticeships and training. We are missing that in industry, and we are missing it in terms of the social mobility that trade unions used to produce in their ranks—and still do to a degree, although obviously the numbers have reduced—by bringing people through training and education processes.
Trade unions have also played a very important part in social cohesiveness. Obviously they have been an avenue for grievances and protests, but the involvement of local representatives in the workplace is an important act of citizenship and of commitment to the community and the broader appeal of man. We are missing that with the reduction in the number of those representatives in our workplaces.
It might also be appropriate for somebody outside the Labour Party to comment on the huge role that trade unions have played in various aspects of life—certainly in my generation. First, they saved the Labour Party in the 1980s. I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in his place, because he was assisted by that. But for them, the Labour Party would not have been transformed. Secondly—here, I give due credit to the noble Lord, Lord Monks—trade unions changed the view on Europe inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. But for the commitment to the Social Charter, countering the idea that the EU was a capitalist club, we would not be in the position we are in today with the Labour Party supporting Europe and the Conservative ranks now split. Maybe the Government can learn from that experience—indeed, I think they are doing.
Finally, unions act as a check on management in industry. I worked in the print industry and at times I would complain. We were sometimes too slow to make changes. However, we as management had to work harder, do better and be more progressive to get those changes. Eventually, we did—and we did so in my company by agreement. Similarly, things are now happening in the motor industry. Fifteen years ago, I visited Nissan when it was in its early days, and now it is the most productive plant in Europe. We heard the story of Jaguar Land Rover. None of that would have been possible without the contribution or leadership of the trade unions in those areas. We need to build better, more confident management in dealing with trade unions.
I do not accept that there is not room for the trade unions to modernise and to reach out more. I did not find the turnout of 4.4% in the GMB’s leadership election very encouraging, but falling membership will not make unions more representative. Indeed, as the membership falls and unions turn into silos, we will find—unless we try to reverse it—that the unions will be less representative.
Unions have to examine their role but so, too, does management. We have given too much attention to short-term decision-making and there has been an overemphasis on shareholder value. This is a time for the employee stakeholder to have a much more determining role. Trade unions are an essential part of a progressive social democracy and, for the foreseeable future, they will be central to progressive politics in this country.
It is a real pleasure to respond to this debate. First, I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan—I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, was not here to hear it—as well as that of one of the sisters, the noble Baroness, Lady Burt. As the first female chair of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party and the Government’s ambassador for women in enterprise, she knows well the strength of solidarity and support for others. Secondly, it is a pleasure because we have heard from former leading trade unionists at national and international level with a range of experience. Thirdly, I am pleased to respond to the debate because of the role that unions have played in society for well over a century.
Together with my noble friend Lord Howarth, who is in his place, I produced a book Men Who Made Labour in 2006, the centenary of the parliamentary Labour Party, which was formed by 29 Labour MPs. What was exceptional about those 29 self-educated men, most having left school by the age of 14, was how they found their confidence, their voice, their passion and their ability to speak for others through the union movement. Indeed, some 27 were active trade unionists, and eight were general secretaries of their union. It was their union experience that provided their education but also helped their apprenticeship in forming policy, explaining, negotiating, compromising, taking responsibility, understanding the positions of others and, most of all, seeing that advancing the interests of their members could not be done in the workplace alone but needed political change, whether that was through the introduction of health and safety legislation, school meals, pensions or sick pay. They learned that they could not rely on other parties but needed their own voice in Parliament—hence the Labour Representation Committee, created by the unions in 1900, and then the parliamentary Labour Party in 1906.
The contribution of these trade unionists—at the Versailles peace talks, in establishing the ILO, as Home Secretary or Prime Minister—to our democracy, to creating one of our great political parties and to the well-being of the nation and further afield was astonishing. Immediately after the 1906 election, which saw these trade unionists elected to Parliament, the Archbishop of York, in St Paul’s Cathedral, proclaimed:
“The great … mass of our working folk … has found its voice … Here are the men … who have worked in pit and factory … among the dwellers in our overcrowded cities … These men will bring first hand knowledge of the facts of life to … these problems. They will take care that amid all the business of politics ‘the poor shall not always be forgotten’”.
They lived up to that prediction, as did later trade unionists such as Jim Griffiths, the Minister.
Today, we similarly pay tribute to the movement, which really does constitute “the big society”, with over 6 million members plus the wider trade union family made up of their dependants, and also retired members, many of whom serve their community as magistrates, on health or school boards, in charities, as we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, and of course here in your Lordships’ House, particularly perhaps by my noble friend Lord Foulkes today.
Interestingly, from my standpoint and, I am sure, that of the noble Baronesses, Lady Burt and Lady Neville-Rolfe, as well as that of my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lady Dean, women now make up the majority of union members. That is vital in an economy where women’s earnings still lag behind men’s, but where the wages of women union members are, on average, 30% higher than those of non-unionised women. As my noble friend Lord Hoyle said, union membership is proportionately higher among black and ethnic-minority workers. When discrimination, and often worse, is faced by these groups, especially at this time, it is a tribute to the trade union movement that it has embraced and incorporated minority groups into this oldest of voluntary organisations. Union organisation has helped women, the disabled and ethnic minorities get a better deal at work.
But union membership is good not just for individuals and their workmates, who also benefit from union organisation, as my noble friend Lady Dean said; the economy also benefits. As with the CBI and the employers’ organisations, as my noble friend Lord Morris said, many employers are supportive of a unionised workforce, particularly with its ability to collaborate on health and safety, productivity and training. Union workplaces are safer, largely due to the thousands of union health and safety reps. As BIS itself has demonstrated, by reducing time lost due to occupational injuries and illnesses, safety reps save taxpayers up to £0.5 billion a year. As we have heard, the motor industry improved as a result of union-employer negotiations over innovation and change, with unions playing a positive role in promoting skills and training. ACAS found that union reps play an important role in improving workforce engagement and morale, which improves productivity and quality of output, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, suggested.
So this is not about romantic nostalgia. It is about a modern economy and today’s politics. It is hard to understand why this Government want to shackle trade unions. They will not let them use electronic balloting, even while digital by default is being swept through government service and our welfare state. They want to outlaw good employer-union relations, often established through check-off, by effectively outlawing this in the public sector. Politically, they want to undermine the long-standing, organic relationship that the unions have with the Labour Party, by undermining the political fund system, a system not of secret donations or big money from rich companies or individuals, but a system which grew from the very origin of the party. Set up to give a voice in Parliament to working people, it is a system which allows millions of union members to make their small contribution—pennies rather than pounds a week—to keep our democracy vibrant, healthy and representative. Shame on a Government who fear that they cannot defeat their opponents politically and therefore seek to clobber them.
Anyone who believed in a pluralistic, open, big society would champion and cheer on independent workers’ organisations and facilitate the effective and efficient operation of this vital part of civic society. Clearly, the Government have other objectives. We have an opportunity today to champion, pay tribute to and thank the millions of trade unionists who volunteer their time to help their fellow workers, but we also have an opportunity to say to the Government that the unions are not an add-on to society but are part of our civic society. We should be supporting them, not undermining them.
My Lords, before I respond, I join the House in congratulating my noble friend Lord Robathan and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, on their excellent maiden speeches. I will not repeat the tributes, in the interests of time, but I am very excited by the wealth of experience that they bring. We know from today that they will hugely improve the quality of discussion in our House.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for initiating this debate. I am aware that he has a deep interest in the performance of our economy. I much enjoyed his speech, including his historical perspective. Of course, that was picked up on by so many noble Lords that it would take too long to list them all. However, I should say that I did medieval history for A-level, and I then did industrial relations as my special subject at university. Therefore, I have to say that I am a bit sceptical about some of the comments he made on productivity—the sorts of things he mentioned can actually increase costs and slow necessary change—but it is good to have a debate on these issues in this House.
I should also respond to the noble Lord, Lord Monks. As a south-westerner, I am looking forward to visiting the Tolpuddle flag with him—I suppose that going to see a Tolpuddle flag is the Labour equivalent of seeing etchings.
I am pleased also to talk about unions and their role in the modern economy. We have heard many examples of how unions help working people prosper in our society, in particular in an excellent speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. I was struck by the parallel that he sought to draw with the church, including the challenge of the non-joining culture. He talked also of good partnership and the importance of stamping out modern slavery. That is an area where the Government, with the help of this House, have made radical changes. From October, the Modern Slavery Act has provided law enforcers with additional tools, including the two new civil orders, and the anti-slavery commissioner. I commend the right reverend Prelate’s own contribution in this area, and I was glad to hear also from the noble Lord, Lord Young, on the subject.
This is a free country. Everybody has the right to belong to a trade union. Equally, there is no compulsion in the workplace to do so. Closed shops are a thing of the past. I was glad to hear from my noble friend Lord Balfe about trade unionism in the Conservative Party. I agree with him that there can be value in backing more than one horse. The Government also recognise that trade unions can play a constructive role in developing the economy and, as I know only too well from my experience, in supporting employers in upskilling their staff.
On economic well-being, I should perhaps say to the noble Lord, Lord Monks, that, although he and I are often in agreement—I pay great tribute to the work that he has done in Europe over the years, as well as in the UK—I do not agree with his summary of the position of the UK today. We were the fastest-growing G7 economy in 2014. Our employment rate and our small business creation are the envy of other member states, and we are number two in the INSEAD-WIPO Global Innovation Index.
I turn to the point made so well by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt: the trade unions have played a very important part where industrial restructuring has had to be done. She spoke rightly about the role that they played during Jaguar’s difficulties in Solihull, and the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, was right to talk about how the success of the modern car industry owes much to good industrial relations. I suppose that it is right to reflect that the current steel crisis is another example of good engagement by the trade unions. Their input in Redcar, in Scunthorpe and in Scotland before, during and after the steel summit in Rotherham last month has been invaluable.
I commend the point made by my noble friend Lord Robathan about his work with the unions in the Ministry of Defence, as I do the efforts of my noble friend Lord De Mauley and the good relations that he had with the trade unions in Defra, using that relationship to solve the perennial problem of dangerous dogs and postal workers. I know that, if he were here, my noble friend Lord Maude would pay tribute to the positive role played by the unions over public sector pension reforms and in the public services forum.
I agree about the long history of unions providing learning for their members. This is important, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, explained so well in a very thoughtful speech. My noble friend Lord Balfe talked about Unionlearn, the learning and skills organisation of the TUC, which is an excellent example of how unions help their members, employers and the country with skills development. Unionlearn has helped engage more than 53 trade unions in more than 700 workplaces. It has helped establish 600 union learning centres, where Unionlearn representatives help those with low literacy. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, said, it also helps older workers, which is a very important point. In the past two years, Unionlearn projects have also helped to recruit and support nearly 15,000 apprentices. My noble friend asked about the Government’s support for Unionlearn. We provided the TUC with a grant of £14 million in 2015. It is an important area, and any decision on funding beyond that will of course be subject to the outcome of the spending review.
We have a target of 3 million apprenticeships during this Parliament. Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, whom I was lucky enough to meet yesterday, has already said that she sees a role for unions in ensuring the quality of apprenticeships. We welcome this, and the input from the TUC and from the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, on the new levy—the noble Lord and I have had many discussions about apprenticeships over the years and the new levy provides opportunities for all of us to contribute.
There are many important examples of where the unions have played a role beyond the direct well-being of their members. I know from experience of retail of the important cultural role that they play in health and safety. That was rightly mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth. Health and safety is very important, and it has improved hugely in my lifetime. I remember health and safety on farms as a young lass; some of it was fairly hairy.
Trade union members also participate in the many voluntary roles which help create cohesive communities—a point that was brought out so well by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby.
The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, spoke of the gender pay gap and the work of unions over the years in this area. Although there is more to do, it was good to see that the recent 2015 survey of hours and earnings showed that the gender pay gap is at an all-time low. There is now a record number of women-led businesses and, partly as a result of the excellent, business-led work under the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, there are now no all-male boards in the FTSE 100. More generally, we are seeking to tackle the root causes that prevent women prospering in the workplace by providing a wider programme of support, introducing 30 hours of free childcare and giving nearly 21 million employees the ability to benefit from flexible working. Our approach is producing results, with an increase of nearly 1 million women in work between May 2010 and August 2015.
On current trade union reform, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, and others were right to say that this debate is a calm curtain-raiser to the Trade Union Bill, which was recently given its First Reading in our House. My noble friend Lord Callanan was right to talk about the consumer view and point to the problems that can be caused by the trade unions.
Before the Minister leaves that point, does she agree with her noble friend Lord Callanan, who said that trade unions by their nature are against the consumer interest by being producers? That is exactly what he said.
My Lords, I was about to turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, on this issue. He referred, I believe, to a model of balance between consumer, producer and union interests and I share that general aspiration. I believe strongly in the power of well-run businesses, with good workforces, to do good, to serve consumers and to provide the taxes we need to pay for the schools, hospitals and everything else that a modern society requires.
As a parent and a grandparent, I know that when teachers go on strike, children’s education is disrupted and parents need to take time off work to look after their children. When healthcare workers strike, appointments are cancelled and patients do not get the service they deserve. When train, bus or underground workers strike, commuters cannot get to work. Even so, this Government are not seeking to ban strikes. We are introducing thresholds to require a minimum 50% turnout for all strikes, and the support of at least 40% of those entitled to strike in important public services.
I do not agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. We must ensure that when strikes take place, particularly strikes that impact on the working families to which he referred, the strikers have the support of a reasonable number of the workforce. As my noble friend Lord de Mauley said, the public sector strikes in 2011 closed 62% of schools in England, and the NHS—I am not sure that he said this—cancelled up to 30,000 routine operations. The Treasury estimated the total impact of these strikes to be some £500 million. So, in reply to the question asked by my noble friend, that is not fair and it is not right.
Nor is it right that in 2014, the NUT closed or partly closed almost 1,500 schools; or that a strike among NHS workers was called by Unite on the basis of the support of only 12% of its members. Similarly, we have examples of strikes called on the basis of out-of-date ballots. For example, a strike undertaken by the NASUWT in October 2013 was based on a ballot mandate from November 2011. That is a difference of almost two years. It cannot be right.
That is why we have introduced the Trade Union Bill, which we will debate shortly. As others have not sought to run through the detail, I shall not do so either. However, I emphasise that the Bill seeks to strike a fair and effective balance between the rights of unions, the needs of employers and the interests of the majority of people who rely on important public services. Our aim is to provide a modern industrial relations framework to better support an effective, collaborative approach—which has been the sense of today’s debate and my own experience—and to resolve industrial disputes.
The Government recognise that trade unions have a valuable role to play in developing our workforce and in ensuring that the vulnerable are able to participate in work. We have heard many good examples of this today. I have stressed the importance of trade unions and why I believe it is right that the legislative framework needs reform. We are seeking through the Trade Union Bill to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members and to redress the balance between the rights of trade unions and the rights of the general public. These are moderate, necessary and welcome reforms. They do not ban the right to strike and do not weaken the voice of working people or their ability to join trade unions.
We pledged to undertake these reforms in our manifesto and we have brought the Bill forward as a party that believes in trade unions. We are, as my noble friend Lord Balfe said, proud to win the support of many trade union members at elections. We want trade unions to carry on doing their excellent work in so many areas.
My Lords, the debate has been much more effective than I had expected—or even hoped—and it has been a pleasure to sit through all of it. Particularly effective were the two contrasting maiden speeches. I would hesitate to question the noble Baroness, Lady Burt—her having been deputy governor of Holloway among her many achievements—but I can assure her that the trade unions are now strongly supportive of mutuals and the Co-operative movement. Apart from that, it was a wonderful speech and we look forward to hearing from her many more times. My old friend, even though he is on the other side of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan—whom my noble friend Lord Young described as having SAS views on the trade union movement—was equally effective. Again, we look forward to many more exciting and interesting contributions from him.
It was interesting that so few Tories participated in the debate. The noble Lords, Lord De Mauley and Lord Suri, did their duty by the Whips and will no doubt be suitably thanked for that. Apart from that, the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was interesting, as usual. He has had an interesting political journey, and it shows. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, made an excellent contribution. He has had an even more exciting journey. He has moved right around the Chamber but always seems to be in the right place at the end. He certainly was today.
As expected, we had the most magnificent tours de force from the trade union Barons and from the Baronesses. It was interesting that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, managed to elicit, in an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, the real stark face of the Tories as far as this issue is concerned. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, rightly reminded us that I had forgotten to mention the wonderful international work of the trade union movement that I know so well. I remember talking to some old friends, trade union activists, who served in the International Brigade in Spain and did a wonderful job. We know what they did in Chile and elsewhere, and that must not be forgotten.
However, with no disrespect to all the other speakers, the first of my two highlights was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who said that it was his brother who was the soapbox orator. I think of Leslie as the soapbox orator, who was really good at it, as well. The noble Lord made a fantastic, enthusiastic and positive contribution, which I expected. However, what was unexpected was that I, as a heathen, agreed with everything that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby said. It was an encouraging speech—one of the best in the debate. I have many times spoken about partnership and there is an interesting comparison between the church and the trade union movement. He raised the interesting issue of the non-joining culture, from which all organisations suffer. I am hinting to him that that might in itself might be the subject for a debate, because it is a worry for all who are trying to build up democracy.
Overwhelmingly what came through was a recognition of the value of the trade union movement and its positive contribution. As to productivity, which I have studied, there is no doubt that you get better productivity from a happy, contented and organised workforce. I can guarantee that. Many examples and studies that show that.
I welcome the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham—it was encouraging to hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches their wholehearted support for the trade union movement—together with what my noble friend Lady Hayter said in her restrained but strong way.
I say this to the Minister: I hope she will acknowledge the sincere strength of feeling on the issue of the Trade Union Bill. I hope also she will say to her government colleagues that they are not going to have an easy time in this House when the Bill comes here. Sometimes in this House, we get the feeling that we should ask, “What are we doing here, when all the decisions seem to be made elsewhere?”. I hope she will take back to the people who make the decisions that there is a strong feeling in this place about the value and importance of the trade union movement. As I say, she will not have an easy time of it with the Bill.
I shall finish as I started, by talking about the positive role of the trade union movement within our democracy and our economy. That has been celebrated in this debate. It has been acknowledged time after time in speech after speech from all parts of the House. The trade union movement should be proud of the House of Lords for giving it such a warm welcome and such a great endorsement.