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Trades Union Congress: Levelling Up

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the Prime Minister last met with representatives of the Trades Union Congress to discuss how trade unionists can work with the Government to level up the economy and build back better.

My Lords, the Prime Minister last had a meeting with the Trades Union Congress last December. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy works with trade unions, and positive relationships are essential to developing and delivering our policies. During the pandemic, engaging with the unions was important to our work supporting jobs and keeping workers safe. Continued engagement will support the Government’s ambitious levelling-up agenda.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As he will know, of the 6 million-plus trade unionists, a third vote for the Conservative Party. Indeed, the Labour Party has recently told its members not to go near picket lines, so it has made its position pretty clear. Can the Minister say whether he would consider—since the basic values of many trade unionists are at least small “c” conservative—that it is now opportune for us to make a pitch to them to show that this Government represent many of their core values? We should encourage them to work with us, because we occasionally will go on a picket line.

I will take that as a statement from my noble friend himself rather than the Front Bench. The Labour Party may indeed have told its members not to sit on picket lines, but it did not make any difference at the end of the day. My noble friend makes a serious point of course. Our policies, with record low levels of unemployment and the highest ever minimum wage, are good for workers and we should be proud to say so.

My Lords, it seems to me that the premise at the heart of this Question is the wrong way round. The Government should be supporting those 6 million trade unionists in this country who are really struggling to survive the cost of living crisis that is before us. They should not be undermining them by allowing bad bosses to break strikes with agency workers while, at the same time, the shareholders and directors are cleaning up. Does the Minister understand that the best way to build back better is to empower workers and trade unions so that they can hold unscrupulous employers to account?

I am sorry to tell the noble Lord that I just do not share this outdated methodology that, on the one hand, you have workers and, on the other, you have bosses. We are all working together for the good of the country. The thing about the trade unions in this country is that they are now a minority profession: only 13% of workers in the private sector and only half of those in the public sector are in trade unions. The reality is that they do not represent anybody.

[Inaudible]—responsibility for good industrial relations, which are of course vital for a successful economy. On the subject of levelling up, would the Minister have a word with the boss of Sainsbury’s, whose annual salary has trebled to £3.9 million while he denies a living wage to many of his hard-working employees?

Believe it or not, the pay levels in Sainsbury’s are nothing to do with the Government—it is a private sector company. If people like the service provided by Sainsbury’s, they will go to that supermarket; if they do not, they will go to others.

My Lords, in 2019, across the UK as a whole, one in five jobs were paid less than the real living wage. This figure excludes the self-employed, half of whom earn significantly less than the living wage. For levelling up to have meaning, the TUC has set out recommendations in a report snappily called Levelling Up at Work. Does the Minister agree that it is time that the Government stop fighting the trade unions and work with them to secure jobs across the UK, have decent pay levels and help families overcome the cost of living crisis in this fifth-largest economy in the world?

Of course we want to work with all employee representatives who are prepared to be constructive and who want to see a positive way forward for the country that does not hold the travelling public to ransom. No doubt the noble Lord will also be delighted to know that we raised the minimum wage again in April and put another £1,000 in the pocket of the lowest-paid workers.

My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on raising the minimum wage and I thank them for what they have done. There is, however, a really serious point here. As we are facing a serious range of strikes across many industries, the worry is that those people in positions of leadership and authority are not necessarily giving a lead. The question is: how can politicians and business leaders show that they are sharing in the big challenges, the financial challenges, that are coming up? Importantly, although modest rises among those in leadership will not make a huge difference to the overall financial package, it will send out a really strong signal that we are all in this together.

I am grateful that the right reverend Prelate recognises the increase in the minimum wage, which is good for so many of the lowest paid workers. It is important for those at the top of businesses to take a lead: they want to take their employees with them and to provide a good service to their customers, and all employers should bear that in mind.

My Lords, the Minister is of course quite right when he says that the trade unions are not as powerful as they were during the last period of inflation, but they are still a very important element in the economy, and if the Government are to be seen to be tackling the cost of living crisis effectively, they really need to be able to show that they are seeking the opinions, advice and support of all sections of the community, and that includes the trade unions.

My ministerial colleague, the Minister for Small Business, regularly meets with the trade unions. Another meeting is planned, I believe, in the next few weeks. So yes, of course it is important to gauge the opinion of trade unions, but I did not use the word “powerful”; I said they were a minority interest. I repeat: only 13% of workers in the private sector, the most productive sector of the economy, are now in trade unions.

My Lords, since the Minister says that relations between the Government and the TUC are positive, why does the Prime Minister not direct the Transport Secretary to convene a meeting between the rail unions and the rail employers in order to bring about a settlement to the railway dispute?

Because the responsibility for sitting down belongs to the employers—in this case, Network Rail and the train operating companies—and the trade unions. My understanding from listening to Network Rail is that it has set out a very positive agenda. At the end of the day, the taxpayer supported the railways to the tune of £16 billion over the last few years: that is £160,000 for every rail employee in this country. The taxpayer has been very generous; it is about time the unions reciprocated.

My Lords, last week the Chancellor met with oil and gas company directors to hear their concerns about energy policy. With that in mind, will the Minister explain why the Transport Secretary has not met the RMT? Which law prevents him doing so?

If the RMT were prepared to seek a more constructive relationship and to provide a service to the travelling public, maybe the Transport Secretary would be prepared to meet it.

My Lords, the Government are currently adding a large number of amendments to the procurement Bill already before this House. Have they thought that in the large number of procurement contracts they sign with private business, they could perhaps add, under the definition of “public benefit”, that companies that pay their chief executives vastly more than the average for their workers could have a black mark against gaining contracts from the Government? I am thinking in particular of some of the consultancies and auditing companies that have quite excessive salaries at the top.

I fear that I am not familiar with the provisions in the procurement Bill. It is not a Bill that I am responsible for, but I will certainly have a look at the point the noble Lord makes.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, might find that his voting figures are a bit shaky after last week’s by-election results. Why are the Government messing around with more antiunion legislation at a time when they are also lifting the cap on bonuses, doing absolutely nothing about inflation in boardrooms and in some parts of financial services, and ignoring their own experience of working closely with unions on the furlough scheme, which worked very well and was very successful? That experience should provide a blueprint for tackling the cost of living crisis, so will the Government make an effort, a proper effort, to find common ground in the current very difficult circumstances, instead of stoking conflict with the unions?

Nobody is stoking conflict with the unions. I do not know what antiunion legislation the noble Lord is referring to, but if he means the minimum strike guarantee, that was a manifesto commitment. I would have thought he would be in favour of a service being provided to the travelling public to enable other ordinary men and women to go to work when they want to do so.