Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the future of trade unions; and of wider industry representation, solidarity and collective action; and of the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization.
My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate. The original purpose in seeking this debate was to allow this House to acknowledge and record the social progress brought to workers throughout the world by the creation of the International Labour Organization since it was created a century ago, and to show the part played by trade unions in that achievement. But in doing that, I suppose it is impossible for us not to wonder what changes the next 100 years will impose on the world of work, and in turn to consider what laws—and changes in the ways we represent and defend people at work—we will need here in the UK and internationally if we are to maintain and build on the advances that have been achieved for workers and their families.
The International Labour Organization first met in 1920, with Britain as a founding member. It was part of the Treaty of Versailles, created in the wake of the horrors of World War I. Its driving force was the belief that universal and lasting peace can be accomplished only if it is based on social justice. It heralded a unique international tripartite system of decision-making, where Governments, employers and trade unions were tasked with making the world of work a better place—a ground-breaking event at a time when there were no accepted “workers’ rights”.
The ILO’s agenda was a set of principles, among which was the right to freedom of association for working people to form and join trade unions. Its early years are not remembered as years of social progress, as that period was dominated by the great depression and culminated in the even more devastating calamity of the Second World War, but the ILO’s considerable contribution to the development of social justice was acknowledged when in 1946 its role was strengthened as it became the first specialised agency of the United Nations.
In 1969 the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, reinforcing the truth in its founding message of the immutable link between peace and social justice. Over the years the great and the good—popes, presidents, statesmen and kings—have addressed its conferences, all testifying to the powerful force for good the ILO has proved to be. In the post-war years, the ILO has grown in reputation by leading in the fight against great social injustices, such as apartheid, child labour and modern slavery. By its adoption of a comprehensive range of international labour standards it has created a floor of rights for the working world and become the world’s standard bearer for what it defines as decent work.
There are many Members of this House, past and present, who have contributed to the work of the ILO and many who have in addition served the trade union movement with distinction here and abroad. I had the honour of being the president of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union in this country, but it was in my role as general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions that I first started to work with the ILO and understand the value of its crucial work. My job with the ICFTU was to represent trade unions across the world, whose combined membership at that time was 165 million. The firefighting part of the job was taking solidarity and support to trade union movements in individual countries, particularly those where trade unions were facing repression, such as Colombia where hundreds of trade unionists were being murdered every year; and helping to organise and lead demonstrations against severe social injustices, such as the march through Moscow against the prolonged non-payment of 20 million workers in Putin’s Russia.
The “building the future” part of the job was taking the social justice aims of the world’s trade unions and turning them into international labour standards through the ILO. There was an urgency at that time to see them embedded as social clauses within the programmes of United Nations institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, because, as the globalisation of trade unfolded, the programmes of those institutions were having disastrous consequences for millions of workers and their families in developing countries.
The International Trade Union Confederation, which was formerly the ICFTU, works to ensure that worker delegates at the ILO are organised to vote for new standards and in turn are encouraged to lobby their national Governments and employers for support. It is a tough assignment, and when I was tasked with it, the job was made a lot easier by the formidable presence of the late Lord Brett, who was chairman of the ILO workers group. That game plan continues and has produced excellent results. It is helped by the fact that the ILO has significantly raised its profile and performance under the impressive leadership of its present director-general Mr Guy Ryder, a former British trade unionist.
Trade unions in all countries are now facing new challenges and seemingly intractable problems. The past 40 years have seen a maelstrom of change that has radically impacted on people’s working lives everywhere, starting with the globalisation of trade which saw 2 billion people brought into the competitive rat race they call world trade. When combined with the dramatic advances in science and technology and, in particular, information technology, that became a catalyst for a chain reaction of change that has totally altered the working world that many of us in this House stepped into. Gone are the jobs for life that we expected, the predictable tools that our fathers—and sometimes our grandfathers—used and the regular hours of work. It is change that is not slowing but accelerating.
They say we are entering the fourth industrial revolution. Who can doubt it, when coming to a workplace near you are artificial intelligence, the internet of things, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, 5G and, just around the corner, quantum computing? This whirlwind of disruption has taken its toll on worker representation in most countries, and nowhere more so than here in Britain, the birthplace of trade unionism.
In 1979, with more than 13 million members, the British trade unions were more powerful than any trade union movement has ever been before or since. They used that power to significantly advance the standard of life of this country’s workers and their families. Yes, there were some abuses of that exceptional power, but always with the connivance of pusillanimous employers. Contrary to popular folklore, it was not Mrs Thatcher’s anti-union laws that destroyed the trade union’s big battalions; it was her catastrophic economic policy which was responsible for the dismantling of Britain’s wealth-creating manufacturing industry and, with it, the destruction of millions of jobs. However, the damage to trade union membership was severe and saw the start of a longer-term decline.
For employees in this country now, the world of work has never been more precarious or the need for strong trade union representation more urgent. The British TUC has done an excellent job not only in stemming the long-term decline in trade union membership but in starting to reverse it. However, the long-term trend in trade union membership density now demands even more radical ideas on recruitment and the servicing of members. Let there be no illusions about the magnitude of that challenge.
We were told in this Chamber earlier this week that there are 5.7 million small businesses in this country and that 96% of businesses employed fewer than 10 people. That is not fertile recruitment ground with our present trade union structures. We cannot change business structures, so we must change the way we do things. New technology, particularly communication technology, is shaping the world employees work in. That same technology can and must be used to enable trade unions to talk to them, recruit them and even serve them. Some might say it is impossible. I ask them to look again at the world of modern technology. It is delivering the impossible every year.
Even when British trade unionism is rebuilt—and it will be—there is another dimension that must be part of that rebuilding: the strengthening of the working relationships between national and international trade unions. Trade unions at national level do not always see the relevance of the work of international trade unions to the local struggles they face. I tell them, as I tell this House, that the relentless rise in the size and power of modern multinationals means that not even European laws will offer protection. These companies will move a successful company to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye if there is a penny more profit. Today’s multinationals are trading nomads and predators that can and do run rings around all Governments. Only when there is no country they can move to that does not have a floor of international workers’ rights will the rights we have won be safe. The ILO has spelled out that floor of rights in its centenary declaration on the future of work. It includes ensuring that all workers, regardless of status, enjoy fundamental workers’ rights: maximum working time limits; an adequate minimum wage; occupational health and safety; full gender equality at work; and equality for people with disabilities. Here are the civilising restraints that must bind the multinationals’ capricious activities.
This debate is about the real value that trade unionism has brought and can still bring to society. We live in a world where more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, where 60% of the world’s workers are stuck in the informal economy, where there are more than 200 million child labourers, where 2.8 million people die every year due to work-related sickness and accidents and about 40 deadly conflicts are being played out at any one time. The ILO was created 100 years ago in a world that desperately needed the labour standards it went on to set. The world still needs them now. Britain became the birthplace of trade unionism because they were needed then. The future of work tells us that we still need strong trade unions. When do we need them? What other answer is there to that but “now”. I hope that the Minister agrees.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend Lord Jordan and I congratulate him on his enterprise in initiating this debate. In so doing I also congratulate the ILO on its 100th anniversary. During that century, as the last surviving League of Nations institution, the ILO, as my noble friend said, has been fundamental in establishing the concept and details of human rights in the workplace and upholding the dignity of people at work. Its core conventions, with commitments to eradicating forced labour, child labour and unfair discrimination have been important influences in many countries—unfortunately, not all—and also influential has been the continuous campaign to promote trade union rights and decent work as part of the UN human rights framework. The ILO has been able to hold Governments who breach these rights to public account, and so expose abuses. It did this famously in Poland when Solidarność was carrying the torch of freedom in the Soviet era, and did it on a more modest scale in the UK, criticising aspects of the Thatcher era anti-trade union legislation. The ILO also works to secure labour rights in trade agreements: that is likely to be crucial in any post-Brexit free trade agreements that are to be negotiated.
The ILO is run on tripartite principles—unions, Governments and employers working together and, historically, coming up with plans that command consent among the three parties. These principles of tripartism became the basis of post-war reconstruction in most of western Europe after the Second World War. It is a proud achievement of the ILO that the European social model, as it is called, is rooted in the ILO conventions and principles. The approval this year of a convention on preventing violence and harassment at work shows that its system still works to help transform workers’ lives. I thank the ILO for all its work and I will be interested to hear the Government’s current view and how they are helping it, I hope, go from strength to strength for the next century.
Of course, the ILO has been affected by the pressures on trade unions in the last 40 years or so. My noble friend Lord Jordan spelled those out well and very interestingly in his contribution. It is clear that the rise of inequality from the early 1980s onwards has coincided with, and in part was caused by, the decline in trade union membership, and, more particularly, in the coverage of collective bargaining. Today in the UK only about one in four workers has their pay set by trade union negotiations. This retreat has meant that worker influence in companies has lessened. One result has been excessive pay levels in many boardrooms, as they have adopted a help-yourself, self-service practice, often unrelated to performance. The Conservative Government, through their anti-union laws restricting trade union freedoms, from the 1980s through to the Trade Union Act 2016, opened the door to unsavoury and unfair practices by unscrupulous, greedy employers—not all employers, but too many.
Conservative Governments ignored the fact that trade unions play a vital role in ensuring fair play at work. Union workplaces are safer, offer better training, provide more flexible working arrangements and are often more innovative. Their role in creating more equal societies has been endorsed by unlikely allies, such as the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and some central banks, which have come to recognise that strong unions can share out the productivity gains rather more fairly than if they do not exist. There has been some welcome recognition of this from Secretary of State Greg Clark in recent times, with the good work initiative, and plans on information and consultation to make it easier for workers to operate that. I wish him well in the future, and hope that in doing so, I do not seal his fate next week, when he faces his new boss in Downing Street.
What of the future? The UK needs a new settlement, which must involve progressive and responsible trade unionism, committed to raising productivity and performance, promoting long-termism and ensuring that the benefits of growth and the new digital technologies are distributed more fairly. The new settlement must promote a collaborative approach to work cultures, with a new emphasis on respect for workers and valuing their skills. I would like to see a concept of professionalism apply right through the labour force, not restricted to those with degrees and people with significant higher education experience.
I believe, as does the Labour Party, that to do this requires a reform in Whitehall, and the unification of labour market policy into a new, powerful department of work and employment, which would, among its other jobs, promote collective bargaining, a voice for working people and a high-skills, high-productivity agenda. A project of this kind will attract powerful enemies, but it will also attract wide support, including from the better employers. The cause is a great one. British workers must not be treated as second-class citizens. Already they are more vulnerable to job insecurity than those in some other advanced EU countries. Britain led the way in 1919-20 in establishing the ILO. We should take pride in its achievements. As my noble friend Lord Jordan said, many British trade unionists, as well as employers and government officials, have played a significant part in the organisation, going back to Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine in the early days, and latterly, as my noble friend said, the late Bill Brett, chair of the workers’ group. In the TUC, we take particular pride in the fact that the current director-general, Guy Ryder, is a former member of the TUC staff. This shows that Britain can lead the way. It needs to do so in a whole range of issues on the labour market as the ILO enters its second century.
My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of the British Dietetic Association and, separately, as president of the pilots’ union BALPA. I do so to point out that Conservatives, too, can not only support but actively support trade unions and I pay tribute to the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, who was my predecessor at BALPA. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for initiating this most valuable debate. One cannot fill in all the history of the ILO but perhaps I can fill in a couple of bits that are missing.
First, it was in 1916 that David Lloyd George established the first Ministry of Labour, and George Barnes became the first such Minister. It was in that same year of 1916 that the TUC drew up and published the first statement of workers’ rights, to be included in the peace treaty at Versailles. That was a historic document because leading out of it came the ILO; there were of course a lot of other people who had input. In its early years the ILO had a difficult time, largely because of the United States’ refusal to endorse Versailles and the fact that the new Government in Russia—the Soviet Union, as it then was—decided that the ILO was a capitalist plot to undermine the workers. It was attacked vigorously from both sides but then saved by Roosevelt.
When Roosevelt came into power in 1933 the ILO took on a new life, not so much through him but very much with the assistance of Frances Perkins, his Labor Secretary. I shall stop my history lesson in a minute but John Winant, who later became the ambassador in London, was appointed by the Roosevelt Administration as the first senior American to serve in the ILO. He was followed by a series of Americans. I am in no way demeaning the contribution of the Brits but David Morse, who took over as secretary of the ILO in the immediate aftermath of the war and was Truman’s Labor Secretary, undoubtedly shaped it and carried it forward for a long time after that.
We have a lot to thank the ILO for. Even today, when you go to third-world countries such as Vietnam, where I was last year, the ILO plays a sterling role there in getting adherence to its conventions for workers, who are often exploited in that country. The ILO is the one independent voice that can put forward demands for decent working conditions, so full marks to the ILO.
The British trade union movement has problems. It is not that the Tory Government have got rid of trade unionism, but that demand has washed in a different direction. If you ask my children their view of trade unions, I am afraid it is based on Len McCluskey, which is not an attractive view. They do not look at Len McCluskey and say, “This is the sort of world we want to live in”, but you never see the word mentioned in the public prints without the trade union connection being made. The fact of the matter is that trade unions were overtaken by events.
I well recall that when I was David Cameron’s envoy to the trade union movement, he met the general secretary of a very large union—not the T&G, needless to say—and he said, somewhat mischievously, “I want to understand your concerns. Which one of the laws that Tony Blair has passed to help you would you be most reluctant to see me abolish?” There was rather an embarrassed silence. We have to face the fact that, from 1979 onwards, unions have had a pretty rough ride from both Governments, frankly, but that it is also up to them to bring themselves forward.
I commend the TUC because it has not fallen back into its laager. It has pioneered racial tolerance. It would have been very easy for the TUC to say, “British jobs for British workers”—as I remember someone once said—and for it to discriminate against people of colour, but it has not. In fact, it has gone the other way: it has led the public perception that trade unionists stand for equality and fairness, so it has a lot to commend it. I hope the TUC will continue for many years to come to pursue its very positive policies.
Speaking of which, I want to say something to our Minister. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe here. At the time of the 2016 Act, the matter of electronic balloting came up very vigorously. The Minister, as she then was, was able to promise that the matter would be carefully examined, and indeed it was. Sir Ken Knight, who carefully examined it, came out in favour of some trials—not the whole thing, but he was willing to try it. It appears that this recommendation has been forgotten, but we want to see it implemented. It is a matter of honour; the Government promised something. They have had the inquiry and, in many people’s view, if we are to have a level playing field and say that we all appreciate trade unions, which I believe both sides of the House do, we now need to see these trials put into operation. As reported at our party meeting the other day, people of 15 years of age are entitled to join the Young Conservatives and vote for the leader of our party by electronic ballot. If we can extend it to all of the members of the Conservative Party, stretching from those aged 15 to whatever age—a very old age—I think we can afford to have a few test ballots to see whether it will work with the trade union movement. I will not make a lot of requests, but I ask the Minister to look at operationalising that commitment, so generously given when we were passing the 2016 Act.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for securing this debate and for his panoramic introduction, which really set the scene for the contributions to follow.
Trade unions are not only good for their members and for workers in general; they are good for the country. There is very strong evidence of the positive link between union-organised workplaces and improved productivity, for example. It is also worth remembering that, with more than 6 million members, the trade union movement is the largest voluntary membership organisation in the country.
I start by declaring my membership of Unite the Union, which also pays me a regular pension. TUC figures, as of May 2019, show an increase in union membership over the last year of 102,000. As the TUC has said to those who dismiss the unions as old hat or irrelevant, any newspaper proprietor who increased circulation by 100,000 in a year would be pinning on a gold medal. The increase, however, masks a problem. Membership in the public sector increased by 149,000, while membership in the private sector went down by 47,000; but the public sector is decreasing while the private sector grows. Some 85% of all employment is now in the private sector, with 15% in the public sector.
There are other issues to consider. Young workers move jobs more frequently than their older colleagues. Only 14.1% of workers who have been with their employer for two years or less are in a trade union. In contrast, 44% of those who have been with the same employer for 20 years or more are in trade unions. This causes not only the problem of an ageing or dying-out membership, but the disproportionate influence of one group against another skews union policies and priorities.
Recently, I spent some time working with Unions 21, a loose affiliation of trade unions that work together to build ideas for increased membership, improve involvement of members and increase their influence, impact and effectiveness within the world of work. I chair a group of union leaders and academics, looking particularly at employee engagement and the employee voice. We have been speaking with trade unions from other countries and looking at some of their actions and research. A big message has been the need to develop a positive agenda. Most workers want to enjoy their work; they do not want to consider it in a negative way. They prioritise access to training and to information; they want to be able to speak up for themselves but understand little of the value of collective bargaining; and they want to be more involved than has been the tradition in many union-organised workplaces.
Over half of young workers across the European Union are on temporary contracts, which is close to an all-time high, according to an article in the Financial Times. Far from being hostile towards the trade union movement—most noble Lords will remember the Government’s Trade Union Bill with a great deal of distaste—there should be a welcome and encouragement of organised workplaces, with their knowledge, experience and proven track record on improved rates of productivity.
The British trade union movement—and in particular the TUC—is renowned globally. We have contributed to the development of unions and people’s organisations around the world. We have helped workers in developing countries to receive training, which in turn has helped companies and businesses to develop and grow. After the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, the first organisation on the scene was the International Trade Union Confederation. It managed to develop order out of chaos, so that the families of the dead and injured were not forgotten or left destitute. It was the international trade union movement that kick-started the fall of the Soviet Union. The trade union movement in the UK is part of civil society and deserves to be better understood and treated with more respect.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, on this timely debate on the future of trade unions, at the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization. It is also appropriate to reflect on the history of some of the trade unions because, if you do not understand where you came from, it is difficult to understand where you are going.
I will spend a minute talking about the trade union I was a member of for 20 years, the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union—or, to give it its modern name, the GMB. I would like to thank one person in particular: Will Thorne. Will Thorne was born in Birmingham in 1857. He lived in great poverty and began working in a brickyard at the age of six, working 12 hours a day. In 1882, he moved to London, found employment at the local gasworks and joined the Social Democratic Federation, a forerunner of the Labour Party. He was taught to read and write by Karl Marx’s daughter, and then helped to form a new union, the Gas Workers and General Labourers Union, later to become the GMB. The first success of that union was to get the 12-hour day reduced to eight hours. He moved steadily onwards and, in 1918, won the seat of Plaistow with 94.9% of the vote—a record for a Labour candidate that stands to this day. He retained that seat until his retirement at the 1945 general election, aged 87, and was the oldest sitting Member at the time.
My story is much less riveting. Having passed the City & Guilds exam in gas fitting, I became a shop steward fairly quickly. During that time, as a Lancashire region delegate, I had a strong relationship with the London region delegates at conferences. In the bars and conference centres, I met a young Paul Kenny; a delegate who would go on to become general-secretary of the union and be given a knighthood. I also met a certain Mary Turner, a firebrand London girl who was actually Irish. She eventually received the CBE. Those times helped to form my views on equality and fairness in the wider context of politics, and I could not have had better teachers.
Noble Lords might ask what the point of that small canter through history was, what its relevance is today in a modern, globalised world of work, and whether trade unions are still relevant. On the one hand, that union produced a CBE, a knight of the realm, the largest majority for a Labour MP and me, a humble Member of the House of Lords—not bad for a gasworkers’ union.
On the other hand, I did some research for today’s debate. When I was a shop steward, one of my main interests was health and safety, and so I came upon the most recent report published by the Health and Safety Executive, dated 3 July this year. It shows the following for fatal injuries at work: the headline figure is that 147 workers were killed in Great Britain last year. In basic terms, that is almost three deaths a week. If Members of the other place suffered anything like that mortality rate, something would be done to reduce dramatically those odds. The figure for fatal injuries in construction is the lowest, at 30, but that number has fluctuated over the last five years, ranging between 30 and 47. The point is that fatal injuries in the construction industry are four times higher than across other industries. Is it a coincidence that the construction industry is the least unionised in the country? That is a real example of the value of trade unions: they can save lives, protect workers and improve the quality of life of their members.
However, we need to do more. We need new employment models. Automation and zero-hours contracts have made many current forms of employment and future work prospects extremely unpredictable. People are in work, but they are not necessarily secure in their work. They are working in the gig economy, and the UK framework of employment rights, regulations and protections built up over decades through the trade union movement is now unfit for purpose.
There is a pressing need to maintain freedom of association and to ensure that the rights and interests of employees are properly represented. Indeed, we believe that society will benefit if we do that. We will build a more confident relationship between managers and employees. Liberal Democrats will continue to fight for those principles and to support the wider trade union movement.
My Lords, today we pay tribute to the ILO for its contribution to our social and economic development over the past 100 years. On a personal note, I pay tribute to the late Ernest Bevin, one of my predecessors at the T&G. As Minister of Labour, he contributed much to the development of the ILO and other institutions.
Although there were trade unions as far back as the early 17th century, the TUC celebrated its 150th anniversary last year. During that time, trade unions have provided advice at work and fought to improve pay and conditions, and they have been a force for fairness and social justice. Although membership increased in 2017, it is reported that just 23% of employees are now members of a trade union. There is a growing power imbalance at work, contributing to the massive rise in inequality throughout our society. It should surprise no one that people feel a lack of influence and control at work and in society generally. We are now experiencing public anger and fear for the future at a higher level than I can ever remember.
In a speech in 2017, Andy Haldane, the chief economist at the Bank of England, said that the decline in union density had contributed to the slowest period of wealth growth in over a century. He evidenced a clear wage premium associated with trade union membership, possibly as a result of the greater bargaining power of union membership. He suggested that estimates of the aggregate wage premium in the UK are typically centred in the range of 10% to 15%. Therefore, trade unions are good for workers and good for the economy, with decent pay bringing higher spending and higher tax income. What Chancellor would reject that?
Yet it is reported that the UK is now the fifth most unequal country in Europe and that more than one-fifth of its population live on incomes below the poverty line. The irony is that most of these households are in work, yet every time there is a debate on poverty, inequality and austerity, we hear from the Government that everything is fine because employment is rising. Trade unions can tell the Government why austerity bites, even though you are employed. Among the causes are zero-hours contracts, under which, the TUC states, workers typically earn one-third less than average employees; the gig economy, with workers often waiting to hear whether there will be work that day and for how long; contract work—such workers do not get a job if they do not agree to become self-employed; and outsourced working, including working in some government departments, I am told. Meanwhile the Living Wage Foundation has said that workers paid the national living wage are struggling to keep their heads above water. The Low Pay Commission reported earlier this year that tens of thousands of workers are, illegally, not being paid the national living wage. One is bound to ask what stopped them joining a trade union.
There has been a small increase in trade union membership, and the benefits of joining are attractive. Trade unions offer a full range of services and benefits, wage negotiation, legal representation, insurance, healthcare and more. That is a decent package. Clearly, non-union workers are not getting that message, nor the message that trade union membership is likely to lead to higher wages and better conditions. People are fearful of the future and worry about job prospects for them and their families. The prospect of leaving the European Union has caused considerable unease, as have the new technologies and automation, which are seen to induce and promote low pay in many instances. The isolation that many of these problems brings is the cause of much unrest, yet, as I found when I first joined my union in the 1950s, membership is a community in which we can share problems and work to overcome them, and strength in numbers is important.
Trade unions must find ways to inform the country as a whole—workers and their families, employees, shareholders and government—that trade unions are not their enemy. They are, and should be recognised as, contributors. We have to challenge some of the right-wing press and demonstrate that trade unions can be an asset, not a liability, and that they are essential to business not only as workers but as consumers. Let me repeat a story I heard a long time ago which demonstrates the reality of the workplace. The late Henry Ford was visiting one of his factories in Detroit. His guest for the day was the late Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers. Henry Ford was describing how he had automated the factory and boasted that the robots would not be asking for a pay rise and that he could rely on their accuracy. Walter Reuther, the trade union leader, replied, “Yes, Henry, but they won’t be buying any of your damn cars either”. My message to trade unions is clear: we have inherited the past, and now you must build the future.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and to commend the introduction to this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Jordan. On a personal basis, I was particularly touched that he mentioned Bill Brett’s contribution to the ILO. In the last few weeks of his life, Bill Brett was my roommate in Fielden House and I much respected him.
I declare my interests: I have been a member of the GMB for nearly 50 years—a bit longer than the noble Lord, Lord Goddard. I also share a role with the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in relation to BALPA at this disappointing time.
This weekend, in my adopted county of Dorset, I shall be in Tolpuddle recalling the day nearly 200 years ago when a group of agricultural workers were imprisoned and deported for the simple reason that they had combined to discuss their wages. Regrettably, in some parts of the world, there are trade unionists and workers who are faced with even more stringent sanctions in this day and age. That is where the ILO and the international trade union movement need to play their role. In a globalised world, workers need to reach across frontiers, but so do institutions, such as the ILO, which support those workers. Over the two centuries since Tolpuddle, workers’ conditions and rights have not advanced in a straight line. Indeed, I would contend that here and in several other countries there has been a setback in recent years.
By the end of the 19th century, trade union and workers’ rights had prospered in a number of industrialised countries. At the end of the First World War, it was an important plank of the post-war settlement that the ILO was established and that workers’ rights were seen as part of that settlement to minimise conflict between the nations. A key part of this were the rules that governed not only the standards for workers but their right to associate and, at least to a limited extent, to withdraw their labour. Regrettably, almost immediately after that came a period of setback. In some countries, such as Germany and Spain, which had had strong trade unions, the fascist regimes suppressed them. In so-called workers’ states such as the Soviet Union, they were incorporated into the state and party apparatus. It took till after the Second World War for us to begin to rebuild an international trade union movement; for example, the British trade unions and the TUC helped rebuild the structure of trade unions in Germany and other countries on the continent.
Trade unions grew in strength in almost every industrialised country from the end of the Second World War until the 1980s. Since then, as others have said, there has been a decline; we need to examine the reasons for it, which I see as fourfold. First, there was a changing labour market, as has been referred to. The large places of work were destroyed in the 1980s, in this country and others, by technological change as well as political decisions. That made life for trade unions more difficult because not only is it harder to recruit in smaller workplaces but not having large bases can prevent them establishing their own local lay memberships and shop stewards on which they used to depend.
Secondly, more recently, we have had the move towards the gig economy, with irregular patterns of work, individualisation of contracts—if indeed there are any contracts—zero hours, minimum pay and so forth. For those workers, particularly the younger workers, the benefits of collective bargaining and trade union membership are not that obvious. This has been compounded by the outsourcing by large companies and the public sector of so much of their routine work, in particular. For example, just this morning I spoke to a social worker two miles away who is employed by a private company for Westminster Council. He works for 13 hours because he has to move between appointments but is actually paid for only six hours. That is the nature of the labour market in this country for millions of our workers. At the very rough end—we have just been talking about modern slavery—we saw only last week the impact in this country of European workers being gangmastered totally and utterly illegally, an increasing feature of parts of the labour market.
The third reason is, of course, globalisation, which has its benefits but also its setbacks. Here I focus on the situation in other countries as well: in the same way that we have exported carbon emissions, we have exported some of our bad labour practices. We have responsibilities as consumers here, because the cheap clothes and cheap food we get, which used to be produced in Europe, are now often made by those suffering appalling conditions in, for example, Bangladesh and China, yet we continue to buy them. Within multinational companies, which often pride themselves on standards, their own supply chains and sourcing also make use of those very poor workplaces.
However, there is a fourth reason: the failure of the unions themselves to successfully adapt. We must adapt to new technology and to some of the aspects of the changing labour market. Looking back in history, in the 1880s and the 1890s we saw the growth of new unionism, which created both my noble friend Lord Morris’s union and my own. It organised the manual workers who had largely been ignored by the craft unions. The unions needed to change and operate differently. They needed to accept different employment patterns and attitudes by the employers. We need a new unionism today. I hope the existing unions can adopt it but, if not, different organisations might have to do so.
The back-up to this is the role of the ILO and international standards. As we move away from the EU, with all its failings, we move away from an international labour standard-setting organisation. The ILO is the most important international one. It has its drawbacks and slowness, but it is vital. As we move to new trade arrangements around the world as so-called global Britain, the standards written into those trade agreements ought to be, as a minimum, those of the International Labour Organization, but they also need rather better enforcement. In this day and age it is quite difficult for the workers of the world to unite, and they need some support in uniting. The ILO has, for 100 years now, been that main support.
My Lords, I declare my interests as noted in the register, most particularly as founder and chair of Doteveryone, a small charity championing responsible technology, and as a board member of Twitter. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for his fantastic introduction. I was so delighted that technology played such a central role in the way he expressed the past and future of the trade union movement.
As with everything, the world of digital is blowing apart with a tidal wave the ways of working and the sectors in which we have operated in the past. Some of this is miraculous. I am sure that many in the Chamber have enjoyed the extraordinary services of Deliveroo to their front door. I bet many noble Lords have jumped in an Uber, and, considering the quality of the speeches this morning, I think many might put their work on freelancewriting.com, where you can get cheap speeches written for you by experts. We have seen many gains as a society and as consumers from the fantastic pace of change and the flexible and independent nature of work today. But, as I hope to argue in my short remarks, there are many perils. We underestimate them at our very grave risk.
Some 4.5 million people are employed in the so-called gig economy right now. That is one in 10 workers. This is a huge number of people without the stability of employment. While this can be fantastically empowering if you can work on the terms you wish for, it can also be fantastically stressful and make you feel insecure and anxious. Often these barriers fall on the most vulnerable people already; I particularly think of women and those with children or in solo care of a parent, child or other relation. These are complex challenges. I am 46. People of my generation will have around 12 careers in their lifetimes. My first cousin is 25. She is more likely to have 22 careers in her lifetime. If you are 10, half the jobs that will be open to you have not even been invented yet. This is a dramatically changing world, as many noble Lords have highlighted, a world in which it is hard to reflect on how we should help and protect people who want to work in new ways and who face the challenges of the dramatic shifts in workplace.
This is why we face a huge hotchpotch of regulations and attempts by unions, not just here but all over the world, to come to terms with these brave new ways of working. I am sure noble Lords are aware of some of the changes in Scandinavia, where there is no minimum wage but where individual collectives have negotiated with employers—a different model, but one that perhaps reflects more easily the changing nature of work.
Here we have struggled deeply to come to terms with some of these new and extremely powerful organisations. I pick Uber as an example. I have mixed feelings about this company. My own charity, Doteveryone, did some research on how consumers felt about some of the new platform-based businesses. One woman told us that she had been punched in the face twice by Uber drivers, yet continues to use the service nearly every week, for me a profound metaphor for where our relationship with technology sits. We seem to have a reactive view of this company in particular. They are taxed massively, even though most of the fleet are electric cars, while diesel taxis parade around London with no barrier to the exhaust fumes they let off into society. At the same time, we know that an Uber driver’s average wage is about £5 an hour, yet we seem unable to enforce the minimum wage for its hundreds of thousands of workers.
I say this not just to pick on Uber, but as an example of the complexity around how we unpick some of these new ways of working and new businesses. It is not just the so-called gig economy. Even in the main technology sector, the fastest-growing bit of our economy relies deeply on freelance and temporary workers. I have to reflect on Twitter—a company whose board I sit on—Facebook, YouTube and many other content-driven businesses that use a huge number of contractors, not full-time employees, to do the essential work of content moderation. As was exposed most recently by some journalists in the US, their work is often done in unfathomably bad conditions. They are exposed to content that none of us would want to see once in a lifetime, let alone many times an hour.
Again, these are complex problems to unpick. I would like to raise three challenges for the Minister and suggest three small solutions. First—and I am afraid that if you have heard me speak before, I will sound like a cracked record—we desperately need to build the digital skills and understanding of the most vulnerable in our society. This has not happened at the pace we need to build resilience in a strong economy in the future. Many millions of adults still cannot use any technology at all, or have no access to it or ability to pay for it; there are also several million more who do not have the next level of understanding and literacy to be able to look for work and find the opportunities that many of us take for granted. Some 90% of jobs are advertised only online, yet we still have many millions of adults who do not have access to the internet or the ability to use it. We have to keep fighting to build digital skills among our entire working population. I would love to hear the Minister’s thoughts on this.
Secondly, there are specific things that I believe we can do to help the workers in the so-called gig economy. One of the things that Doteveryone looked at was the portability of data. It may sound technical but is actually very important. If I work for one or other of the platform-based services, such as Rated People, as a builder, a plumber or whatever—a fantasy if you look at me, I know, but if I were able to be that skilled—I have no ability to take with me my working history. I can walk out of here and get a reference; none of the people in these platform-based businesses can do that. We argue that it is essential to think of exciting new ways to legislate around how people can move between these different jobs, especially if you think about the number of times people will have to shift careers in future. There need to be specific pieces of legislation, and not everyone has ideas about that.
Finally, as mentioned here many times before, we need to reinvigorate the trade union movement, build its digital skills and understanding and come up with creative new ways to help empower people. I believe deeply that the UK has an enormous global opportunity here. While I salute many people in our Government who stand up and say that we are going to have the biggest AI sector in the world or that this will be the best place to start a digital business, I am afraid I do not believe it. We have to look for other opportunities. We are a small country with a relatively challenging level of digitisation in our society. Protection of workers, clear frameworks of legislation and forward-thinking, digital-based legislation are where I believe we can triumph in the new world.
It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who made a wonderfully relevant and important contribution to this debate—as did my noble friend Lord Jordan when he opened this debate with a very important speech. He referred particularly to the ILO, and by chance I was in Versailles yesterday. I had forgotten that, as well as the peace settlement in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles set up the ILO. It is quite fitting that we should commemorate that great body today.
I have been a member of a trade union all my life —for 47 years I have been a member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, now Unite, as well as other unions: USDAW, NATFHE and the National Association of Co-operative Officials, which is now long gone. I came from the industrial valleys of south Wales, where being a member or supporter of a trade union was part of life; everybody was. My father was a member of the South Wales Miners’ Federation and later the T&G. Some 250,000 men worked in the pits and tens of thousands in the steelworks. Eventually they went, followed by the big factories such as—in my former constituency in south Wales, for example—Lucas Girling, the great car manufacturer, and ICI Fibres, which had started life as British Nylon Spinners. My noble friend Lord Morris is of course aware of those two great industries there. Between them, in a relatively small Welsh valley, those two industries had nearly 10,000 members of a trade union, nearly all in the Transport and General but in others as well. That has changed dramatically.
What has come through in this debate today is the changing face of work. Listen carefully to what my noble friend Lord Whitty told us: there are still people in this country who live on not just a minimum wage but a poverty wage. There are people who still need what trade unions give in protecting their pay, conditions of work, pensions, holidays—all the things the trade unions were originally formed to do and did extremely well when we had the big industries and great solidarity between workers. But it is different, and much more difficult to organise, in the current situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, told us how difficult it was; others will as well. The task—the challenge—is as great today as when the trade unions were originally formed.
The other issue I raise with your Lordships is the importance of the trade unions in shaping our society over the past 100 years. When I first joined the Labour Party in the 1960s, many of our councillors, our Members of Parliament and our Ministers were long-standing members of trade unions. They brought huge wisdom and experience with them to their respective representative roles. As a consequence of that, and of the trade unions being part of the 1945 Labour Government 20 years earlier, the world was changed.
The Labour Party would have been nothing without that link with the trade union movement and as a result we had great figures, two of them, by chance, Welshmen: Jim Griffiths, who introduced the welfare state, and Aneurin Bevan, who introduced the National Health Service, both leading members of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Of course, we also had the work of Ernest Bevin, who my noble friend Lord Morris referred to, not just as Minister of Labour but as Foreign Secretary. He is widely regarded as one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country ever had. He came from poverty in the West Country and effectively ensured that NATO was introduced: he was a founder of NATO, with the United States, and a great Foreign Secretary. We forget the role of the trade unions in improving our world and improving our country at our peril.
I do not know what Mr Boris Johnson thinks of trade unions—we will soon find out, I am sure—but I hope he will reflect that it is better to have trade unions on your side, it is better for a big company to have a good working relationship with trade unions, because it works, and it is better to have government working in tandem with the trade union movement. I point to just one example, in Wales. For 21 years now in that country, which has had its own devolved Administration—its own Government—there has been a regular working relationship with the trade union movement, the Wales TUC, and with the big trade unions, and the smaller ones, for that matter. There have been no strikes and no public sector disputes, because of the significant link in that country between the trade unions and the Government. It is not a party link, far from it, but a link that meant the Government saw trade unions as part of the social fabric, not as enemies of the people. I sincerely hope Mr Johnson will take the same view. He might also, by the way, tell us what the Government intend to do with the report Matthew Taylor produced two years ago. The Taylor report came up with some very interesting suggestions, the Government responded and then nothing happened. We live in interesting times, but these times will still be shaped by the trade union movement’s huge significance for our people.
My Lords, my father was a postman for 30 years and the two great heroes of his life were two leaders of what is now the Communication Workers Union, my good friend Alan Johnson and my noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead, whose memoirs have just been published. I recommend them to noble Lords; they are an excellent read.
I agree with every word said in this debate so far about how the crisis of social inequality and alienation gripping our societies at the moment is partly rooted in the weakness of trade unions and the growing weakness of unions in the workplace. The remarks of my noble friend Lord Monks, who was a very distinguished general secretary of the TUC, were absolutely apposite. A generation ago, nine out of 10 workers were covered by collective bargaining, largely organised through wages councils. Now, as my noble friend said, it is two and a half out of 10, and that change underpins what has been a dramatic increase in inequality. The work done in this area by Andy Haldane, deputy governor of the Bank of England, has been deeply illuminating. The labour share of national income, which was two-thirds a generation ago, is now barely more than half and workers have been seriously short-changed by many of the developments in the gig economy, as mentioned in a brilliant speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox.
The great question that ought always to face us as practical politicians is what we are going to do about it. The thing that comes through loud and clear is that obviously we need to strengthen the unions. If I may make a comment on the debate so far, the unions need to do more to help themselves. Unions are very poorly organised in the gig economy.
The establishment of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain is one of the most positive developments of recent years. It seeks to organise in the gig economy but it needs a great deal more support from the TUC, if I may say so. Jason Moyer-Lee is doing a great job, but it is a tiny union in comparison with the established unions. We need a new unionism for the next generation, just as unionism has repeatedly renewed itself in the past 150 years when facing new challenges. Given the weakness of the union movement at the moment, but also irrespective of it, because it is a duty of the state, we face a massive problem of lack of enforcement of basic labour standards, which significantly exacerbates the problems caused by weak trade unions. I hope that the Minister will address himself to the biting criticisms made by Sir David Metcalf, the outgoing director of Labour Market Enforcement, on the Government’s poor enforcement record. I will say something about how poor it is and then the steps being taken, so that the Minister can comment on that.
The fundamental fact before the House is that the ILO benchmark for enforcement of labour market standards is that there should be one inspector per 10,000 workers. At the moment, in the United Kingdom there is one inspector per 20,000 workers, despite improvements in recent years, which I recognise. As a rule of thumb, we have roughly half the level of enforcement that we should have. That goes to the heart of our problem with lack of respect for the minimum wage and for basic workers’ rights.
The figures Sir David Metcalf highlights are shocking. Last year, there were 2,600 inspections for the minimum wage out of 1.3 million firms with employees. That means a typical company can expect a minimum wage inspection once every 500 years. This is simply unacceptable as a basis of the state regulating the labour market and enforcing basic standards, which is why minimum wage regulations are so widely ignored. At the moment, we have a complete patchwork quilt of regulators in this area. We have HMRC, employment agencies, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and the HSE. There is no clear demarcation between them. In fundamental areas, no one is responsible for enforcing basic standards.
One of the biggest issues at the moment—a bigger problem than minimum wage regulation—is the non-payment of holiday pay. There is no one whose primary responsibility is to see that firms pay holiday pay. Penalties are hugely important in ensuring compliance, but whereas we have draconian fines for breaches of the Immigration Rules—rightly so—which act as a big deterrent on employers, penalties for minimum wage breaches, even when identified, are paltry. At the moment, the civil penalty for breaching minimum wage law is only twice the wage arrears in question. In the very few inspections carried out last year, the average minimum wage arrear identified was £76 per person. That means that the average fine has been only £150. There is practically no incentive, apart from being good corporate citizens, for companies to observe minimum wage law and regulations at the moment.
As the Minister will know, this is a long-running issue. Why are the fines not larger? Why are there not more inspectors? Why is breach of minimum wage regulations not a criminal penalty, just a civil one?
As in so many of these areas, the Government are moving, but at a snail’s pace. Yesterday, Greg Clark published a consultation paper, the Good Work Plan: Establishing a New Single Enforcement Body for Employment Rights, which is welcome and would bring a lot of the regulatory agencies together. It also highlights that part of the remit would be to enforce holiday pay. I hope the Minister will say more about this in his concluding remarks. The consultation document published yesterday makes no commitment at all to enhancing resources. On the contrary, it says that this new body,
“would not be an exercise to reduce costs”.
That is a great relief, because it is not talking about reducing enforcement. It goes on to say that,
“resource for enforcement would be maintained, but used more effectively”.
Many of us have heard those weasel words in government consultation documents in the past. It is not good enough simply to say that they will be maintained. If this new body is to be anything other than a deckchair moving operation, the resources need to be significantly enhanced. Does the Minister recognise that our enforcement regime at the moment is far too weak, and that this new body, if it is set up, will need significant additional resources and powers?
Finally, on the gig economy, I give some comparative figures to set the debate going. It is estimated that the gig economy, as the noble Baroness said, embraces about 4.5 million workers, which is a huge part of the workforce. To give some comparison, the transport industries, which I am very familiar with, are highly unionised and have 1.6 million workers, so it is three times the size—it is the new frontier of employment. However, the total number of members in the IWGB, the new union for this sector, is 2,500. For comparison, Unite has 1.27 million members and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—the RMT—has 80,000.
To end on a challenging note for the union movement, I think that trade unionism in the next generation will stand or fall by its capacity to organise effectively in the gig economy. At the moment, it is only just starting.
My Lords, I am really honoured to be part of this debate and am deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Jordan, not only for his work throughout his life for the trade unions, but particularly for his work with the international trade union movement, and initiating this wonderful debate, which has been excellent and very moving.
It is worth the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, remembering—if he would like to go into the history lessons—that the ILO was negotiated while the First World War was in progress. While the biggest bloodbath in our history was happening, the trade union movements in Germany —and Britain in particular—negotiated this. It is important to say to the Benches opposite that it was not just David Lloyd George who supported it; Winston Churchill also supported this as a pillar of the international order. Noble Lords need only look at Harold Macmillan’s third way, which was very far to the left of my noble friend Lord Giddens’ third way, to see that the ILO was a central feature of this global order that, as my noble friend Lord Jordan said, would create a floor—but not only a floor. William Appleton, head of the General Federation of Trade Unions in 1919, said that the ILO and the Treaty of Versailles was the first time in history that working people had a place at the table, where the peace treaty was not only about the protection of private property, national borders and the rights of capital but workers had a place in it; it was a very noble thing.
It is wonderful that my noble friend initiated this debate. It has unleashed many ghosts that we should remember who have been Members of this House, such as Ernest Bevin. It was the British occupation force in North Rhine-Westphalia that initiated the tripartite system in German industry. We did not do it here—that is our tragedy—but we did it there. It was all those people in the trade unions who initiated the representation of workforce on boards, the vocational economy and the regional banks. All of this was the work of the British occupation force.
The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, has reminded us of Paul Kenny. I have an anecdote about Paul Kenny—
I have plenty.
We all have plenty. Soon after I was elevated to this House, I was invited to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis and to give a talk about the dignity of work and Catholic social thought. I told Paul Kenny that I was going and he said, “Well, that’s not right. You have never done a day’s work in your life, and you’re not a Catholic”. So I took him with me. He spoke at the Vatican and shook its walls with what he said about the gig economy and the way that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government had denounced three aspects of the ILO: in 1982, the public works and the labour setting; in 1983, the minimum wage mechanism; and in 1985, the concept of a minimum wage. It is interesting that the Labour Government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did not recommit to those: they remained undenounced. When Paul Kenny gave his talk, the people in the room at the Vatican were very worried except for one person—Pope Francis—who was beaming and smiling. He came up to him at the end and said, “That was wonderful. Do you have any questions for me?”. Paul Kenny responded, “Yes. Who the hell is Len McCluskey?”.
At the heart of this is that the ILO represents an international framework of law, not a globalised one. We have been too quick to accept globalisation as the only rule. If globalisation just means that capital wins —that there is free movement of labour and capital—it limits the capacity of national democracies to set limits. The ILO opened up those possibilities and offers an inspirational framework through which, when we leave the European Union, we can think about an international order in which labour has an important and primary role.
I thank my noble friend Lord Jordan again. I hope that this is the beginning, not the end, of the debate. The ILO represents a great future. Will the Minister commit to rejoining those conventions that Margaret Thatcher denounced? It is vital that we establish a framework of labour relations in our country that respects the dignity of labour. When we talk about labour, and labour markets, we are talking about human beings. Labour is just another word for human beings. They cannot be moved around, exploited and discarded as they have been. The discontents of our times are rooted in what happened under Margaret Thatcher’s Government, when labour was despised and money and capital were worshipped.
My second question for the Minister is whether the Government can put in to all their trade agreements the right of free and democratic trade unions to be established and organised. That is the very heart of an internationalist, not globalised, foreign policy. I sincerely hope that the Government commit to that and that our party honours the debate today and begins to have a proper discussion about the international order we wish to see.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Jordan on introducing this debate and on the powerful way in which he expressed the issues. It is welcome to hear about trade union matters in this Chamber; they do not feature enough in our deliberations. I declare my interest as a member of the GMB—although I confess that Price Waterhouse did not have many shop stewards from that union. I shall speak today about health and safety and the vital role which trade unions play in its functioning. I have another confession: it was not until I had the role of Minister for Health and Safety that I really engaged with trade unions for the first time and better understood what they were about.
As our briefing describes, and as other noble Lords have said, health and safety is one of a range of issues where the ILO sets international standards which should be agreed by representatives of the world’s Governments, employers and workers. However, these are basic minimum labour standards—a floor of rights, as my noble friend said. They can be distinguished from EU regulations, which must apply to all EU member states and can be enforced by the Commission. There is an expectation that countries such as Britain should have no difficulty in meeting the ILO requirements and should seek to go beyond them. Unfortunately, I understand that this is not the case and we have refused to ratify a number of conventions which, according to the TUC, include ones relating to asbestos, home workers and occupational health. Will the Government itemise all the conventions not yet ratified, together with the reasons why not? To what extent are these covered by EU regs or other provisions?
The engagement of trade unions on health and safety is of course focused on occupational safety. There is a wider agenda concerning road safety, accidents in the home and leisure pursuits. I am aware that my noble friend is also strongly committed to addressing these matters through his distinguished service with RoSPA.
Great Britain can point to a strong record on occupational safety—we have heard some of the statistics—which is in many ways the envy of the world. Workplace fatalities have fallen by over three-quarters in recent years, but there is still much to do, which is why we continue to need strong trade union engagement. The stats are: 147 workers killed at work; 1.4 million people at work last year suffering from a work-related illness; 2,523 people died from mesothelioma, and thousands more from other occupational cancers; some 70,000 injuries reportable under RIDDOR; 30.7 million days lost due to work-related ill-health; and £15 billion as the estimated cost of injuries and ill-health from current working conditions—so there is much to do. Of course, these matters must be measured not only in terms of pounds or euros but in terms of individual lives blighted and aspirations dashed. However good things are in comparison, we should hold in our minds that 147 people who left home for work last year did not return to their family and friends at the end of their shift.
Since the Factories Act 1937, there has been a general consensus on the need for robust health and safety legislation. Indeed, when Lord Robens produced his seminal report on health and safety, one of its key underpinning tenets was the belief that the involvement of the workforce was crucial to achieving good standards of health and safety. This was reflected in the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which gave legal backing to union safety reps. Numerous studies have demonstrated that worker participation, supported by trade unions, is a major factor in reducing injuries and disease at work. In the late 1990s, a group of researchers identified that employers with trade union health and safety committees had half the injury rates of employers who managed their own.
One of the reasons why unions make a difference is that they seek to ensure that safety reps are properly trained, as they do for member-nominated pension trustees. This is sometimes provided on a joint basis with employers. Concerns have been expressed, however, about ineffective consultation processes which miss out on opportunities to draw on the practical expertise of trade unions.
Trade union facility time and facilities are, as we know, negotiated with employers so that trade unions can carry out their duties. Union reps have had a statutory right to reasonable paid time off since 1975; this is governed by the ACAS code of practice. However, in recent times this became a bone of contention as part of the increasing negativity towards trade unions coming from sections of the Conservative Party. We had a Prime Minister, no less—David Cameron—who talked about health and safety as an albatross around the neck of business, although the reality clearly belies this. The Department of Business, as it was then called, assessed the contribution of union reps to improved business performance. It found that savings to employers and the Exchequer from reducing the number of employment tribunal cases ensued; that fewer working days were lost because of workplace injury and work-related illness; and that there were reduced recruitment costs and an increased take-up of training. A TUC survey found that over half of responding HR professionals considered trade unions an essential part of modern employer-employee relations.
The knowledge of trade unions and their members has been brought to bear in developing approaches to some of our more dangerous industries such as construction, agriculture and waste management. My noble friend Lady Donaghy made a significant contribution to the first of those, which has stood the test of time.
Trade unions are not just about ensuring that regulations are in good order. They are nothing if not campaigning organisations: campaigning to expose risks of asbestos, particularly in schools; joining with others to highlight the continuing risks of carbon monoxide; and seeking to ensure that proper compensation is available where harm is otherwise going uncompensated, including effective tracing of employer liability insurance policies. It took too long but, eventually, with the help of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, a proper payment scheme for sufferers of mesothelioma was established.
Trade unions have been practical universities, which has given an opportunity to countless individuals to play a part and serve over the years beyond their union, on a wider platform, whether nationally, in Europe or sometimes in periods of great national crisis. We should value this service and the organisations that enabled it.
My Lords, I am greatly indebted to my noble friend Lord Jordan for introducing this debate and to the contributions of other colleagues, including my noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Monks, and many other distinguished former colleagues in the TUC. The more the contributions have gone on, the more it has become apparent that we do not have a model of a company, in the private sector in this country, that accommodates where society needs to go. I will come back to that and ask the Minister some questions for consideration, but, in my first few minutes, I will first point out the nature of tripartism.
The ILO was invented 100 years ago. Anyone would think it was at the time of Ted Heath and then dumped at the time of Tony Blair or somebody else, but it was not; the ILO began in 1919 and is going strong in 2019. There is a microcosm of this and the dilemmas it faces in international and smaller companies, and the arrangements described by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, in her interesting contribution. How does the representation of the workforce fit in to these different models? Otherwise, we will see a continuing decline in labour’s share of national outcome and the atomisation of society, rather than a collective consciousness—what some socialists have called “false consciousness”—and a bitter, xenophobic society based on the appeal of nationalism. I do not need to say more about how far that fits in with the present state of public discourse in this country.
I was very interested when I listened to my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, giving his accolade to Ernest Bevin. I vividly remember an afternoon in 1976 in Bonn, when Helmut Schmidt met Jim Callaghan with, it so happens, Jack Jones, Alan Bullock and me. The Bullock committee was visiting Germany to study both the origins and workings of the codetermination system. He said, “Look, Helmut Schmidt, I want to show you something”. There was a note initialled by Ernest Bevin giving authority to Field Marshal Montgomery and Marshal Rokossovsky to set up the first coal and steel tripartite codetermination system. Of course, it was not done in the Soviet zone, but that was the nature of how different zones were run at that time.
German society has benefited. It is not without difficulties now, but it did benefit—and the world benefited—from that initiative. Ernest Bevin was, above all, the great innovator. Alan Bullock identified three periods of his life in his three volumes: first, the trade unions—the creation of the Transport and General Workers’ Union—then his vital role as Minister of Labour during the war and then as Foreign Secretary from 1945 to 1951.
That is perhaps a good place to go from, because in his bones Bevin believed that socialism was not just to do with the state—and I would say to my noble friend Lord Adonis that this is a debate about the role of the trade unions. It is important that the state gets its role right, but we are looking at the dilemma of how we do the jigsaw between voluntary action in the trade union or workers’ organisation, the role of the employers, who are in some respects part of great multinationals, as well as small clusters organised in collectives—I think the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, expressed something along those lines; she will correct me if I am wrong. This is the cultural range that we are now trying to get our thinking around.
Back in 1995, when my noble friend Lord Morris was chairman of a group in the TUC, of which I was a secretary, we were looking to produce a report called I think Your Voice at Work. We were starting to present three tiers of representation—I am moving on to what we do about this, because we have been light on that in this debate, with respect to all noble Lords. First, think in tiers. Three tiers are an oversimplification, but give us something to think about. One is the individual right of representation. The second is an intermediate right of collective representation in various spheres. If you look at any classic text on trade unionism, you will find that its methods are varied; they are not just collective bargaining. The third has to link with the first, individual representation, and the second, information and consultation—or works councils, if you like. How do you fit this within the third one—collective bargaining—or even a fourth one such as board representation and so on?
Lower establishment size, with small bargaining units of 100, has produced a situation in which our model of 20 years ago is broken. You cannot make progress on trade union recognition with the Central Arbitration Committee, of which I was a member at one stage, looking at bargaining units of 100. It just does not go anywhere. So we need to think about a universal system of some sort of consultation body which can underpin the structure of board representation, because I have no doubt at all that we need a multistakeholder company.
None of this has been flavour of the month in Victoria Street for about 30 years—but Victoria Street has some contribution to make in putting a bit of intellectual firepower behind the rethink of where we are going. One immediate thing to think about is how the new 2% threshold on information and consultation bodies, replacing the 10% requirement, can lead to our being able in the next 12 months to have a big campaign so that we can succeed, with government support, in going in that particular direction, and then see how it fits in with a new structure of company law and organisation for stakeholder involvement.
My Lords, it is a privilege and honour to speak in this debate, secured by my noble friend Lord Jordan, which marks the centenary of the International Labour Organization. While I am here today as a Labour Party Peer, in truth I would not have been here had it not been for the trade union movement.
Earlier this month, the Government published the UK voluntary national review of progress towards the UN sustainable development goals, or SDGs. The 17 SDGs were adopted by 193 member states in 2015 and are part of the United Nations 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Trade unions recognise the adoption of the SDGs as an historical landmark to uphold a universal agenda based on rights and encompassing the three dimensions of sustainable development.
My statement here will focus on the most crucial goal for working people: goal 8, which is about Governments promoting,
“sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.
Key targets within that goal include:
“Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment”.
Achieving goal 8 is key to meeting several other SDGs, such as goal 5, on gender equality, goal 10, on reducing inequalities, and goal 16, on peace, justice and strong institutions.
My discussions with comrades in the trade union movement have identified considerable concern that the Government’s review of the SDGs lacks both an understanding of what decent work entails and the motivation to achieve it. In particular, it fails to acknowledge the central role that trade unions must play if we are to reduce labour market inequalities and precarious employment, and meet the SDGs, achieving decent work for all.
The voluntary national review is full of familiar claims of high levels of employment and of pay “stability”, albeit over short timeframes. But there is no acknowledgement of the scourge of insecure work and the lack of training opportunities for many workers. An honest account of working life in the UK would note that: real pay remains lower than it was before the recession and is not expected to get back to that pre-crisis level until 2023; a quarter of workers are offered no training other than a new starter induction; workers report crippling insecurity caused by the widespread use of zero-hours or short-hours contracts, and the failure of employers to honour sick pay or holiday entitlements; and the UK still has one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe, at 17.9%.
Work should provide people with security and fulfilment, but for too many people it is insecure and does not make ends meet. While the Conservatives boast about the recovery of employment, in truth our labour market is failing. Real-terms pay is still lower than it was before the global banking crisis in 2008, and jobs are increasingly low-skilled and insecure.
The Minister will be aware that the Labour Party has promised to establish a new ministry of Labour to ensure that there is a focus on training, reskilling and productivity. We will guarantee the right of every worker to access a union representative in their workplace, and we will turn case law into legislation by ensuring that workers in the gig economy receive the same rights as other employees. We will also make sure that our redundancy laws are in line with those in the rest of Europe, ensuring that British workers are a priority for international investors who want to do business in our country. Perhaps the Minister could confirm to the House that the Government will review their report to the UN to reflect the concerns I have raised on behalf of the trade union movement.
I have already spoken for some time but it would be remiss of me not to touch on SDGs 5 and 10—namely, the obligation on our Government to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender or ethnic background, feels an equal sense of belonging in the workplace. From my 40 years of representation and from recent conversations with comrades around the country, I know the critical role that our trade union representatives play in promoting equality in the workplace. These are our guardians of equality legislation. They negotiate with employers to put in place policies and procedures that advance equality and diversity. They challenge examples of discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace, ensuring that complaints are dealt with effectively and promptly by management and human resources teams. They also provide leadership and act as role models in their treatment of others.
Those in this House who have ever had a real job will be aware that equalities and other labour relations legislation can translate into action on the ground only when workers have access to people with the knowledge, skills and time to provide them with representation during times of difficulty—people who can pick up their cause and use the law to fight for their right to fair and equal treatment in the workplace.
This Government have often communicated their commitment to addressing inequalities and disparities in the workplace, including the introduction of gender pay reporting and the hotly anticipated introduction of race pay reporting legislation. Given that it is the primary role of trade unions to ensure that the legislation passed in these Houses is translated into action on the ground, can the Minister please tell the House, first, why the Government are doing so little to respond to the Taylor review proposals to support the trade union movement; and, secondly, if trade unions continue to decline, who will act as the guardians of equalities legislation in the workplace?
Finally, as one of the founding member states of the ILO, the United Kingdom has been a valued partner of the ILO since 1919. It has ratified 89 conventions, including the eight fundamental ILO conventions, and two protocols. A Labour Government will ensure that Britain abides by the global labour standards of the ILO conventions. I hope that this House will join all the workers of planet Earth in wishing the ILO a very happy centenary.
My Lords, it is obvious that trade union membership has been steadily declining since the 1980s, for all kinds of reasons. There has been a decline in large-scale manufacturing industries, the privatisation of public services, the difficulty in recruiting young workers, a tendency to rely on the work of those who are already employed, and government legislation, which in many cases has been hostile. For all those reasons, trade union membership has been declining, and the question that I want to ask is: what are trade unions for?
Some might say that the fact that trade union membership is declining is good—it is what Mrs Thatcher and others would have said. What are we missing and what role do trade unions play in the life of a society? That is the theoretical question that I want to ask about British society and the role of trade unions. A lot of speakers have said a lot of interesting things about British society, in which I am simply a beginner.
If one asks oneself what the trade unions are for, there are three different answers, historically. First, they are there to mitigate the evil effects of capitalism and provide a safety net. Secondly, they are expected to humanise capitalism, enter its very structure and ensure equal rights and opportunities for everyone. The first is simply the law of capitalist society, and trade unions can simply play the capitalist game. The second is a liberal view, but there is a third view, which is that trade unions represent a new civilisation. They are based on the principle of co-operation, as opposed to competition, upon which capitalism is based. Trade unions are there as a harbinger of a new society structured on co-operative principles. I share that view, but not everybody does. Therefore, the question is: how can we ensure that we have a trade union movement which does not simply struggle to get workers higher wages—important though that is—or to guarantee an equal system of rights and humanised capitalism, but which has a genuine, serious, historical role in creating a new kind of society based on new principles?
The International Labour Organization is based on the second principle. The ILO and its literature make no reference to creating a new civilisation or society. It is largely about providing social justice, equal rights and equal opportunities. On its 101st anniversary, which we are celebrating today, I very much hope our efforts will be directed towards restructuring the ILO so that it does not forget the larger goal of a trade union movement, which no other movement can achieve.
Given this, there is a further question. As a harbinger of a new, co-operative society, trade unions are schools of citizenship and democracy. They are places where workers debate, deliberate on their affairs, make a significant input into how industry should be run, and help create a sensible, balanced economy. Trade unions are very important as schools of democracy. Therefore, the question is: how can trade unions play that democratic role of developing citizenship? Obviously, they can do this by extending democracy to the economic sphere rather than limiting it to the political one, so that democracy does not become merely a form of government but a form of collective living—a kind of society where we organise our affairs through deliberation and discussion.
As a democratic body, trade unions also provide a new kind of leadership. One of the regrettable features of modern society, in the absence of trade unions, is the way in which the pool of political talent and leadership which dominated this country 20, 30 or 40 years ago is no longer available. Political leaders move from university to PhDs and roles in research departments or helping Ministers—including my students. The kind of leadership previously provided by people who worked with workers and knew how to manage equals, resolve differences and propagate a common policy is no longer available, because trade unions are no longer available, or if they are, they do not play the role of democratic citizenship.
Lastly, by virtue of the role I have just described, trade unions cannot be simply economic organisations. They inevitably have a political orientation. They are not simply concerned with providing their members with work opportunities. They are also concerned with creating a society in which these opportunities come easily to everybody. In other words, as institutions which are concerned with not just the economy but the larger political framework within which the economy is embedded, they have an inevitable political orientation. Therefore, they come closer to political parties, especially the parties of the left, because these are the parties which are committed to transforming society.
That raises a tricky question which not many trade union movements have been able to face: as trade unions come closer to political parties by virtue of their own internal logic, how are the two related? Political parties would be tempted to use trade unions for their own purposes, but by contrast trade unions would like to use political parties for their own purposes. How can the alignment recognise the different points of orientation while at the same time recognising the points of co-operation? That is where, I am afraid, things in our own country have not always worked out well. Sometimes parties have forced trade unions to behave in a way that is not acceptable to them. Sometimes the unions have tried to lobby or bully the parties into doing certain things, whether it is anti-Semitism or whatever. Creating a space where the two can be aligned to mutual benefit without either being exploited by the other is a very important task which politically oriented trade unions will have to discharge.
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Jordan for promoting this debate and for the powerful introduction which he gave to it. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken because we have covered a wide range of topics today, not just the ILO but British society, its trade unions and the future.
I was very grateful to be reminded of Lord Brett and the great contribution he made to the trade union movement in the UK and, in particular, on the international organisation front. My noble friend Lady Symons and I introduced Lord Brett to the House; he is a great loss to us. I know the Minister was a neighbour of Lord Brett in the north-west and that they had an association. I congratulate the ILO and all those who have worked for more than a century to make it an effective organisation.
I want to express my thanks to the House of Lords Library for a very comprehensive briefing. If there is any weakness in it, it might be in the area which has just been picked up by my noble friend Lord Parekh and which was spoken to earlier by my noble friend Lord Murphy. The trade union movement is not simply about working to protect its members’ wages and prospects and to keep them secure. It has made a much wider contribution over the past two centuries.
In Westminster Hall, there is a worthwhile exhibition on the Peterloo massacre and the fight for greater democracy in this country. It was led by many workers—by women, but mainly by men—who became leaders of the workers and formed the British trade union movement going back over 200 years. Many of them were killed fighting for democratic rights. There is a long history there that we should not ignore.
Even today, although the movement is not on the scale that it was, it still makes a significant wider contribution to the fabric of our democratic society, not simply at national level but at regional level, and particularly at local level where trade unionists discharge a host of different functions in communities which go beyond their immediate activities in the workplace. That continues and needs to be encouraged; without it, our society will be weaker.
At international level, the ILO is perhaps perceived as being not quite as strong as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, some countries made efforts to undermine its functions when they felt that it was not responding to particular national interests. If we look at what is happening in the world, it can be argued—as the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, did—that we need stronger international organisations than we currently have. As identified by other speakers, we see the power of multinational corporations and companies, especially in the digital field; many of these companies have gross earnings higher than those of nation states, and they are much less accountable. They need to be called to account. The ILO is one body that can, wherever possible, exercise efforts to try to do that; we should give it our full support.
Regrettably, as we see the growth of nationalism, there appears to be little appetite for such initiatives, for new international organisations or for international co-operation; but we need it. I anticipate that, as night follows day, the pendulum will swing the other way—I am mixing my metaphors now—and we will see pressure start to grow for unaccountable bodies that exercise such influence to have their overbearing and abusive approaches in certain areas brought to an end. They have been given far too much freedom; for the good of us all, that has to be limited.
There are some healthy signs that grass-roots movements are starting to respond and grow. My noble friend Lord Adonis referred to some of the grass-roots movements within the trade union movement. I have been told that the big industrial relations and employment rights campaigns are often advanced by the grass-roots trade unions that have developed over the last five to eight years. The Uber test case on workers’ status and the case on the rights of Deliveroo riders to seek recognition for collective bargaining have been co-ordinated by a union of just 5,000 members. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, mentioned also by my noble friend, began as the cleaners’ branch of UNISON at the University of London. It remains in dispute with the university, calling for its security guards, cleaning and catering members to be brought in-house. United Voices of the World is a union of just 2,500 migrant cleaners and hospitality workers. The growth of these small, grass-roots trade unions should be supported by the trade union movement; they should not be “put in their place” in the way that we in the movement have been apt to do. They should be encouraged.
What are they doing? They are embracing the digital opportunities available to them. I share the view of others who have spoken, particularly my noble friend Lord Whitty, that much more has to be done by the trade union movement to embrace the opportunities of IT. Artificial intelligence and other technological changes present big, new challenges to employers and jobs, but they also present opportunities. The trade unions must try to move these to their workers’ advantage, for recruiting, training, communicating with and involving workers in better controlling their lives, so that together we can reduce the inequalities that we see in our society. In particular, we need to raise low-paid workers out of in-work poverty, which is a modern scourge and the source of so much discontent in UK workplaces.
If Brexit exacerbates this—we hear all the talk of moving, as some want, to a Singapore-style economy—do not be surprised if the anger around us becomes uncontrolled and we start to see reactions that none of us would wish to encounter. There are concerns here that have to be worked through. I conclude by congratulating the ILO on its last century of work and looking forward to another century of that work.
My Lords, I apologise to the House— and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, as I unfortunately missed part of his remarks—for my late arrival into the Chamber. I congratulate him on securing the debate. I thank the Deputy Speaker who was on the Woolsack at the time for being so understanding in the event of a genuine misunderstanding and for allowing me to speak.
Liberal Democrats value the role of trade unions and we are great advocates of collective action when those in power display intransigence in the face of injustice and when there is a strong desire for change. Being part of something brings many benefits. Achieving change together and just knowing that you feel the same as others is very comforting. That is kind of what political parties are for, is it not? Many Liberal Democrats are members of trade unions. Indeed, many Liberal Democrat Members of your Lordships’ House are or have been trade unionists. The noble Lord, Lord Glasman, mentioned Lloyd George in the context of the ILO. He, of course, was a Liberal. My membership of a trade union was restricted to a brief period with the NUJ, but my noble friend Lord Goddard talked movingly of his more involved experiences and outlined the crucial role of trade unions in health and safety. He was the first of several noble Lords to do so; the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, made a particularly powerful argument in his remarks.
One of the first Bills I worked on when I came to this place was the Trade Union Bill. I remember the shock on reading it and what it proposed to do. I immediately recognised that it was designed to emaciate the trade union movement and take away much of its power and funding. This was something the Liberal Democrats had managed to prevent in coalition, but now we saw exactly what our not being in government was going to mean. Like my colleagues in coalition, I recognise the importance of balance in good, productive industrial relations.
Frankly, I have never understood why industrial relations should be a zero-sum game. Everybody wins when trade unions and employers work in partnership. Both should benefit from increased productivity, facing the future of their organisation together. This lesson was brought home to me when I was MP for Solihull and difficulties hit the Jaguar Land Rover plant around 2006 to 2007. We feared that either the Solihull or Castle Bromwich plants would need to be closed, but JLR did neither of these things. It came to an agreement with the trade unions that workers from both plants would go on short time and that some staff would take sabbaticals. Skills and jobs were not lost and JLR was ready for the upturn without incurring staff shortage problems and damaging extra costs that it could not afford. The upturn came and the company ploughed billions into investment. Everybody benefited.
Why am I telling your Lordships this? It is because the lesson for me is that to get the best for companies and their workforces there has to be partnership, understanding of each other’s point of view, sharing and giving of information, and a longer-term perspective. Most noble Lords in this House have been around long enough to look back to the winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to bring down the power of the unions and the suffering caused to us all. We cannot live in those days any more. But in the Trade Union Bill in 2016 I detected an echo of those old, tribal, almost visceral rivalries. We all know that that is no way to run a modern economy.
This year, we celebrate 100 years of the ILO. I did not know very much about the ILO before today, so I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, for the history lesson and the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for his thesis on the nature of tripartism, which I shall read about again afterwards.
The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, spoke about how trade unions, through the ILO, participate in creating more democratic citizenship. That is a valuable lesson for us. Several noble Lords talked about the importance of the role that the ILO has played and continues to play today. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, talked about the importance of the enforcement of basic standards and how we fall far short of ILO standards. The ILO is not just about the past: it is about the future for us all, so I would like to wish the ILO a happy centenary and wish it on its way for the future.
What then should government companies and trade unions do to fit themselves for the future? Many noble Lords spoke about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, talked about how trade unions do not attract enough young people in a changing environment. Good luck to her in her work. Several noble Lords mentioned the image of trade unions putting many potential new members off. I hope that they will address that. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, talked about dramatic changes in the very nature of work—the poor pay and conditions endured by many in the gig economy and others. I hope that her wish to reinvigorate the trade union movement and to build digital skills will be heeded. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, talked about the need to help more people in the gig economy.
For what it is worth, here is my vision. I want a social contract between everyone in this arena. I want companies taking more responsibility, not just for involving their workforce as prescribed in the corporate governance code introduced last year and not just a mentality of “We’ve got a worker on the board, so we are compliant”. For a modern economy, it has to go far further than that. Companies need to have social contract with their workers, but also with the communities in which they operate. They are not independent entities operating outside the bounds of society. They are part of the fabric of our country and should be good neighbours, have respect for the environment in all senses and leave it richer not poorer for their contribution.
It is incumbent on those in government to create the framework in which companies operate fairly, pay fairly and treat people fairly. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, talked about the importance of the relationship between the Government and the trade unions and I hope that in this and future Governments that will heal and there will be a more co-operative approach.
Today is about trade unions. Trade unions need to abandon their old tribal rivalries. It is not about them and us. They are in danger of becoming an anachronism, with membership numbers nearly halving since their peak in 1979, despite a much higher number of people in work. Yet arguably the need for trade unions in some sectors has never been greater. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, spoke movingly about the plight of the working poor, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, described working conditions for a social worker who was not paid between calls. The Government have now legislated for that, so I am sure that the noble Lord had advised him or her accordingly. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, gave a great insight into workers in the gig economy. They will be hard work for trade unions to represent, as are other low-paid workers on precarious contracts. I hope that we see an important development after the growth of the gig economy and with developments in work. I sincerely hope they step up to the plate and embrace the challenges to come.
My Lords, if anyone had told me when I was a young trade union officer in the early 2000s that I would be responding from the Front Bench in your Lordships’ House, after speeches by eminent trade unionists and trade union leaders, I would have said that they were dreaming. But here we are and here I am. I follow the introductory speech from my noble friend Lord Jordan, a tour de force on the ILO, the trade union movement and some of its challenges. We look at the future of trade unions and celebrate 100 years of the ILO. I declare my interest as a member of the GMB, but I am not receiving a pension from the union yet, unfortunately.
In touching on the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, about Will Thorne, one of the founding fathers of the GMB and Labour Party, I will bring it more up to date and touch on Sir Paul Kenny, the general secretary who I came in under, and Mary Turner. Mary Turner is unfortunately no longer with us, but she was the epitome of what a trade unionist should be, as well as a fantastic human being. It did not matter who she met, in whichever walk of life; she treated everyone with the same respect. When I was a GMB trade union officer, I saw time and again what a trade union could do—not at the senior political levels, in this House and the other place, and in working with government, but on a day-to-day level, in looking after and supporting individual members, often in dire straits and difficult situations. Helping and supporting those members is probably one of the best things that I have done in my career.
As we mark the centenary of the ILO with this important debate, it does no harm to remember the progress that has been made in the UK in the past 100 years. Annual leave, parental leave, health and safety legislation, the minimum wage, the right to equal treatment and the right to be represented are just a few of the benefits, changes and progresses across the UK. They are almost entirely to the credit and at the behest of the trade unions and their engagement and involvement in politics, pushing and changing government policies, and within the Labour Party. Trade unions are the collective voice of the workers. They play a vital role in representing their members, but also in securing individual workplace rights and, as we heard from my noble friend Lord McKenzie, ensuring health and safety and better working conditions.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go in many regards. Compared with some other developed nations, especially many in the EU, workers in the UK face longer working hours, more unequal pay and less time off for childcare, and are less likely to have occupational pensions. Unions in the UK have made many gains but also have much more to achieve in the coming years—but, as we have heard, only if the unions themselves rise to those challenges. The trade unions are best placed to campaign on these issues. Therefore, it is a matter of deep regret that, as a result of years of market deregulation and, as my noble friend Lord Whitty touched on earlier, the changing nature of work and some anti-union policies, we have seen one of the worst declines in union density in Europe since the 1980s. As my noble friend Lady Prosser said earlier, union density in the UK has fallen from 49% in the early 1980s to around 23% now.
However, there are some glimmers of hope and some opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of a number of individual unions in 2017-18—most notably UNISON and my union, the GMB—the number of trade union members has now risen by more than 100,000. But challenges of recruitment remain, and the TUC has identified two in particular. First, there has been great difficulty in recruiting young members. Almost 77% of employees who carry a union card are over 35, and just one in 10 workers aged 20 to 24 is in a union. Secondly, membership in the private sector remains stubbornly lower than in the public sector.
In response to those issues, the TUC has campaigned and taken steps to strengthen unions in the UK, and those actions should be highlighted and commended. They have included promoting policies of expanding collective bargaining and removing the unfair and unnecessary obstacles placed in the way of unions organising in the private sector. With its Digital Lab, the TUC is working with unions to utilise new forms of organising. In addition, TUC Education and the Organising Academy have an outstanding record of providing support by training reps, activists, officers and organisers. If trade unions are to overcome the barriers they face in representing workers in the UK, they can do no better than to work with and take up those examples, led by the TUC.
I should like to discuss the future of trade unions and their work—after all, the Motion before the House explicitly mentions the former. To consider the future of trade unions, we must, first, consider the future of work. Technology is changing the face of work, be it self-checkouts replacing retail workers or ticket barriers replacing ticket collectors. Many jobs are disappearing from the economy and will do so permanently. That in itself is not a bad thing. In the coming years we could see taxi drivers replaced by driverless cars, bricklayers replaced by crane systems, and, if you believe some of the most adventurous prophecies, even nurses replaced by robotics.
The short-term impact of automation has been, and will continue to be, devastating for individual workers, but there are opportunities. The unions must adapt and play their role in the development of policies to make sure that, with different and new forms of work, workers benefit from that new technology rather than become victims of it, as we heard in the eloquent contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox. As work for many has become more unreliable and inconsistent, the unions must offer a voice. Thankfully, be it the GMB, with its deal with Hermes drivers and deliverers, or UNISON supporting social care workers to secure the national minimum wage, unions are continuing to step up to the job.
I remember meeting, in my previous role, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who was the Prime Minister’s envoy for trade unions. The one thing I never understood was: why an “envoy”? It sounded as if trade unions were a foreign country. I am sure there could have been a better way forward, but I appreciated that the then Prime Minister was attempting to reach out.
As I finish, it is worth turning back to the ILO, because we are here to celebrate its 100 years. The ILO itself is looking forward to the future. The challenges of globalisation have made international labour standards more relevant than ever. It is worth reading the document. I will not read it out, but it has set out a path to full and productive employment and decent work for all, and 2030 goals. A collective voice will always be stronger than an individual one. In the century since the formation of the ILO, trade unions have time and again acted as the catalyst for change. In the century which follows they will have to adapt and find new ways of organising and campaigning. Fortunately, I have every faith that they will be able to do so.
My Lords, I echo two of the tributes paid to former Members of the House. First, I pick up what the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, said about his late noble friend Baroness Turner. I sat opposite her far more years ago than I care to remember when I was a Social Security Minister in this House. I always admired her expertise and the good trade union negotiating skills that she brought to that side of things.
Secondly, and partly to clear his name, I refer to the late Bill Brett, whom the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, mentioned, as did the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who shared an office with him, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who referred to the fact that the late Lord Brett was a friend and neighbour of mine up in the north-west, where he lived for the last few years of his life. But the noble Lord then said that we had “an association”. I want to clear his name of any suggestion that there was a political association between him and myself, if that was implied. We were good friends and exchanged things across the Floor of the House, but the Chief Whips need not have worried any further than that. He was a great man in the international side of the labour movement.
We have had a very good debate, with a whole range of questions, which I will try to address in some part, and a whole series of challenges has been put before us. If I think again about what the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Adonis and Lord Lea, said, many of the challenges posed are for the union movement itself. I do not think they are for the Government to address, though I will make it clear that we welcome and value our relationship with the unions. We also value our relationship with the ILO, and I will make that clear as well.
We have had much history, going back over the last 100 years. This happens quite often in this House. For much of it, particularly the part of history familiar to most of us, the 1970s and 1980s—here I excuse the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, who is younger than many Members of this House—I suspect that there was a degree of rewriting, as often happens. After the passage of time, we all have our rather different views of those years. I certainly remember the 1970s and the 1980s. I remember voting for much of the trade union legislation at that time. Much of it—all of it—was very necessary, and I do not remember the incoming Labour Government repealing it in 1997. I almost wish that I had asked my noble friend Lord Tebbit to come along and take part in this debate, because it might have added to the jollity of the occasion. I will certainly pass on details of the debate to my noble friend, who I am sure will find opportunities in due course to take up the subject with those who have spoken.
More importantly, the debate has allowed us to consider the future of trade unions and wider industry representation. On behalf of the Government, I am pleased to recognise the important contribution that trade unions make to our society and to restate our commitment to continue working closely with the TUC—a commitment that I made in the debate we had a year ago to mark the 150th anniversary of the TUC, and which has been repeated by my right honourable friend Greg Clark and the Prime Minister. This year, as has been made clear on a number of occasions, we are marking the 100th anniversary of the ILO, founded at the end of the First World War, with its mission to end “injustice, hardship and privation” in the workplace.
The noble Lord, Lord Monks, asked what we thought of the ILO. I can only go back to the speech that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made recently at the ILO centenary conference in Switzerland. I will make that speech available to the noble Lord, so he can then read it in full, if he has not already done so. She said that,
“the ILO can look back with pride at what it has achieved”,
over the last century, by working,
“with employers, trade unions and governments”.
The ILO has been instrumental in achieving safer workplaces, fairer conditions and better pay; it has been 100 years of steady progress.
Looking to the future, the UK took an active part in negotiations on the ILO’s centenary declaration on the future of work, which sets out its priorities going forward, in the context of the changing world of work. It is right that we look at the future of work, as touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and others. The changes in technology and culture that we face are already transforming workplaces. That is why, some years ago, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister commissioned Matthew Taylor’s independent review of employment practices. In response to the review’s findings, we are delivering the biggest improvement in UK workers’ rights for 20 years, including ensuring that agency workers are not paid less than permanent staff, improving the enforcement of holiday pay and quadrupling the fines for employers who break the rules.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, quite rightly pressed me on the question of enforcement of labour standards. We recognise the importance of that, which is why we have increased resources for enforcement over recent years. Today, we spend some £33 million on enforcing the national minimum wage, regulating employment agencies, licensing to supply temporary labour in high-risk sectors, and pressing down on exploitation and modern slavery. I assure the noble Lord that we have committed to do more, including extending state enforcement of holiday pay for vulnerable workers and regulating umbrella companies. We are committed to providing adequate funding for enforcement. We understand the importance of that, although the noble Lord will have to wait for the spending review. We will also consider the need for a single enforcement body.
That brings me to the national minimum wage. It was introduced by the party opposite when it was in government and was improved by the coalition Government and this Government. With the national minimum wage, we are delivering an increase in average earnings of some £690 for a full-time worker, and some 1.8 million workers are expected to benefit from that in due course. There are changes: they are happening and we want to press on with them.
The future of work means that it is important that we invest today in the skills that our people will need for the future. In England, we have created millions of new, high-quality apprenticeships for school leavers and are launching new advanced technical qualifications for young people.
I am pleased that the Government were successful in ensuring that UK priorities, such as the eradication of modern slavery and creating more good jobs worldwide, were reflected in the ILO centenary declaration.
Before I turn to the future of trade unions and wider industry representation, it is important that I say a few words on the important role that trade unions can play in our economy and society. Trade unions have always represented their members and lobbied for wider changes in society. They have campaigned on issues such as modern slavery, tackling child poverty and equality for all. Over the past century, they have improved the working lives of their members, and long may this continue. I shall follow what the noble Lords, Lord Goddard and Lord McKenzie, said about health and safety in the workplace. Throughout the country, trade union health and safety representatives have made our workplaces safer. This has benefitted workers and the United Kingdom economy by reducing the number of accidents in the workplace. We now have an enviable safety record, of which we should all be proud. I thank the unions for their involvement in achieving that and I particularly pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Jordan, for his tireless work on safety issues.
Unions have played a large part in developing the skills of their members and those working in industry. Through Unionlearn, there are some 600 union learning centres, where trade union representatives help those with low literacy and numeracy. Unionlearn projects have also helped to recruit and support thousands of apprentices.
Obviously, the issue goes far wider. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, spoke about the importance of addressing the skills we are lacking in the new digital era in which we live. I assure her that within government we are providing additional investment, particularly in maths and digital and technical education. We are providing more money and a new national training scheme to support people to reskill and move on. This is an area where we want to work closely with the TUC. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, that we will continue to have that close relationship with the TUC and will work with it, not just in training but in all matters, and listen to its advice and that of the wider union movement on a range of issues.
Although there have been and will continue to be disagreements, to go back to the Matthew Taylor review, I believe that the TUC has played a key role in helping us shape our good work plan. I hope it will continue to play a role as we bring it forward and bring parts of it into play.
Does the Minister not acknowledge that I made a highly pertinent point—namely, that the future stakeholder model of the company is an alternative to the idea that a company is only the shareholders and that the workers are not members of the company? This debate is huge, and we must have it. Is the Minister not ready to say anything about that at the moment? It is absolutely central to the role of workers’ representatives in the future of the company.
Dare I say to the noble Lord that I was in only the 13th minute of my speech; I think that I have 20 minutes. He was being a bit premature if he was asking whether I was going to sit down. I have a large bundle of answers for the noble Lord; I will try to get on to them but he will understand that I also want to respond to a number of other speakers. I might have to write to him, but I was not about to sit down. It might be that the rest of the House wanted me to but that is another matter.
I want to move on and say a word or two about the legislative position. First, the noble Lord, Lord Monks, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, mentioned the Trade Union Act. I do not believe that it is about attacking workers’ rights or preventing strike action; that Act is about making sure that industrial action is taken only where there is clear support for it among union members. It therefore modernises the United Kingdom’s industrial relations framework to support better the effective approach to resolving industrial disputes.
For that reason, I want to say a word or two to my noble friend Lord Balfe about the e-balloting proposals and provide him with an assurance, since he put it to me and, indirectly, to my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe that they had been forgotten about. Recently, we held round-table discussions with experts, organisations and professionals—the TUC was also invited to the meeting—to discuss that matter further. We will reflect further on Sir Ken Knight’s recommendations and, again, once we have consulted the trade unions, we will issue a response in—dare I say it—due course.
We have heard many views on the future of trade unions and wider industry representation. We have also heard suggestions of what more the Government can do. I think it would be helpful if I set out our legislative position at the moment. Workers have the right to join a trade union; that right is protected under our trade union law. All union members have the right to participate in union activities; that includes members who are union officials. The right to be active in the affairs of a trade union is enhanced where the union is an independent trade union that has been recognised by the employer for collective bargaining purposes. Officials of such a union may seek time off work with pay to discharge certain union duties. Individual workers can enforce these rights at an employment tribunal. In effect, these rights amount to a right for the union, through its individual members and officials, to recruit and organise in the workplace.
Furthermore, I should add that the United Kingdom Government take the view that they should adopt a voluntarist approach to collective issues. Collective bargaining is largely a matter for individual employers, their employees and their trade unions. Most collective bargaining in this country takes place because employers have voluntarily agreed to recognise a trade union and to bargain with it. The Government do not believe that we should be in the business of forcing employers or their workers to enter into collective bargaining arrangements if they do not wish to do so. Instead, we prefer a voluntarist and democratic approach. However, where an employer refuses to recognise a trade union voluntarily, our legislation provides for a statutory recognition procedure. Unions that wish to obtain statutory recognition can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee, which has dealt with over 1,000 cases since the statutory procedure was brought in in 1999. My key point is that, if a majority of workers in a workplace want to organise and be represented by a trade union, they have the right, and the practical means, to secure trade union recognition. That is why the Government do not believe that primary legislation needs to change in this area at the moment.
As many noble Lords made clear, our economy and society are constantly changing, and unions need to adapt to maintain their relevance. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, asked what trade unions were for. By taking the right approach, by following the TUC’s constructive engagement with employers and government, I have every confidence that the trade union movement can rise to this challenge. If unions can take this approach, I am sure that we will be celebrating their influence for another century to come.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate for their exceptional contributions —some encyclopaedic—which added up to a fitting tribute to the ILO’s work. They also produced a wealth of knowledge about what is happening in Britain’s workplaces, showing clearly that, as trade union representation declined, so did the standards and security of workers in this country. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, gave a graphic description of the new intangible work patterns. Other noble Lords reminded the House of ever-multiplying miniature workplaces. Trying to recruit in a small workplace is very difficult. For one brief period in my life, I worked at a very small engineering place in London. One January morning, standing by the lathe with iced puddles on the floor, I said to the man next to me, “We shouldn’t put up with this; we should do something about it”. He said: “Yes, we should. I will tell the boss when he gets back; he’s my uncle”.
However incredible, however difficult, recruit we must. It is not going to be a job for old men. We must look to the youngsters—the younger generation whose inventions are creating this brave new, but not necessarily secure, world—to show us how we can connect with those who will help us to rebuild trade union strength. In doing that, we will restore ourselves to a position where we can make Britain a place where decent work is the norm, not the exception.