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Employment Policies

Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the compatibility of their employment policies with the International Labour Organisation’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

My Lords, the Government are proud to uphold our high, internationally recognised labour standards. The UK continues to be committed to enhancing labour standards globally by negotiating and implementing International Labour Organization standards, having raised domestic standards over recent years to make them some of the highest in the world. To date, the UK has ratified 89 ILO conventions, most recently the violence and harassment convention, which was ratified in March this year.

My Lords, I only wish that the Government were indeed honouring their international obligations, as the Minister suggests. Since 2010, the Government have reneged on ILO commitments time and again, as he knows, most recently by allowing unscrupulous bosses to break strikes with agency staff, which is a clear breach of Convention No. 87 on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise. Now, they are proposing to do so again with their disgraceful minimum service levels Bill, which is another violation of Convention No. 87. Are these anti-union attacks intended to deprive workers of the only means they have to protect themselves against the greatest fall in living standards in over 100 years?

The noble Lord will be unsurprised to know that I completely disagree with him. The Government are confident that all our measures are in full compliance with our international obligations. We remain in full compliance with ILO conventions. We are trying to balance the understandable right to strike, which I know that the noble Lord is very proud of—but I also want to support the right of people to go to work, if they wish to do so.

My Lords, there is another area that the Minister could address for your Lordships’ House. I had a meeting this morning with about 20 representatives of manufacturing businesses, and one thing that they were anxious to highlight was the failure of the apprenticeship levy. When the levy was brought in, 150,000 young people were going in to become apprentices; that number is now below 50,000. The first way in which to solve a problem is to admit that you have a problem. Will the Minister admit that there is a problem, and will he undertake to solve it?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. It is slightly unrelated to the point under discussion, but I would be happy to get back to him in writing.

My Lords, could my noble friend tell me whether it is consistent with the International Labour Organization’s declaration on fundamental principles and rights of work to have Ministers in this House one-third of whom are unpaid?

The ingenuity of my noble friend in seeking to ask his questions knows no bounds. As far as I am aware, Ministers do not have employment contracts. We serve at the behest of the Prime Minister and sovereign, and I am sure that most Ministers are happy to continue doing so.

My Lords, in September, the TUC reported the UK Government to the ILO, saying that they had taken steps to infringe the right to strike. As the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, said, that was done, first, by passing a law to use agency workers to break legitimate strike action and, secondly, by proposing a minimum service level of transport. What consideration have the Government given to the substance of this complaint in how they progress the Transport Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill?

Forgive me for taking everything that the TUC says with a little pinch of salt but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, we are very confident that all our measures do not infringe the right to strike. They seek to provide a balance between, on the one hand, allowing trade unions to take legitimate strike action but, on the other hand, trying to ensure some level of minimum service for the public. I hope that the Labour Party will take the opportunity to condemn the disgraceful tactics of the RMT recently in seeking to deny people their essential travel at Christmas.

My Lords, I declare an interest as life president of RoSPA. This year, the ILO declared that a safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental right for all workers. Can the Government confirm that this fundamental right will be included in their proposed Bill of Rights, when that comes forward? Will they also confirm that all the protections afforded by Britain’s present health and safety at work Acts will be guaranteed to anyone who is given permission to work from home?

I am proud to say that the UK has one of the highest rates of employment practice in the world. We have one of the safest working environments in the world, and it is our full intention that that should continue.

My Lords, the Minister said that the UK is in compliance with ILO standards. The problem for him is that the supervisory bodies of the ILO have consistently said that the United Kingdom is in breach of numerous ILO conventions. Not only that but the Council of Europe has also found that the United Kingdom is in breach of various articles and provisions of the European Social Charter, which the UK has ratified.

The European Social Charter no longer applies to us, as we are not in the European Union any longer. The noble Lord may have noticed that we had a referendum on the subject.

As I said, we had a referendum on the subject, and we are no longer members of the EU. The Social Charter no longer applies to the UK. As I further said, we have some of the highest labour standards in the world, way in excess of the minimum standards of many states of the European Union. Many other member states of the European Union also have minimum service levels in their law—this is not unprecedented.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the European Social Charter, to which my noble friend referred, is an instrument of the Council of Europe and not the European Union, so still applies to this country?

Of course, the UK is proud of its membership of the Council of Europe, but we have left the European Union.

My Lords, the Minister blames train unions for the dispute. Would it not be more effective if he and the Government stopped interfering in those negotiations and allowed a fair settlement, then we could get back to normal business on our transport and our rail systems?

I agree with the noble Lord: I do blame the train unions for the strike, because they are the ones who are taking strike action and depriving people of the right to go and see their relatives and loved ones at Christmas.

The Government’s plan to introduce a minimum service level for transport workers on strike, which reports in the media suggest may be extended to the whole public sector, is clearly a direct violation of Convention No. 87 and more, so how can the Minister claim that the Government are keeping the UK’s international obligations when they plan such egregious attacks on workers’ rights?

The noble Baroness states that something is clearly in contravention; we do not agree with that advice. If she were right, then France, that bastion of liberalism, would not have minimum service level provisions in its domestic law, which it does.

My Lords, so does Spain. Does my noble friend not agree that the rail unions are holding this country to ransom in an entirely unnecessary and very selfish way? They deserve any unpopularity that accrues to them for taking this action.

I agree completely with my noble friend. It is almost as if the action that the trade unions are taking is designed to cause as much inconvenience as possible to the travelling public. I know that there is a dispute and they are entitled to take their action, but they have been offered a very generous pay rise, and the taxpayer has been extremely generous in supporting the rail industry throughout the pandemic. It is about time some of those workers saw just how well off they really were.

My Lords, the Minister has repeatedly said, apparently with approval, that Britain has some of the highest labour standards in the world. I assume he is referring to such things as the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, trade union recognition legislation and minimum wage legislation. Can he remind the House, as some memories are short, which party was in power when all these procedures were put in place?

Indeed, but the national living wage has been raised to one of the highest levels in Europe under this Government. For those who wish to compare our record with those of European member states, I remind Members that maternity leave provisions in the UK are one year; the minimum standard in Europe is 14 weeks.

Does my noble friend agree that those who support the right to strike should be careful about seeming to be enthusiastic about all strikes? Does he agree that the current train strike is not simply against workers who want to get to work by train to support their families and pay their mortgages but against sick people who want to get to their hospital appointments and against young people who want to get to their colleges and schools? Is it not about time that we accepted that there are some strikes where the balance shifts from a right to strike to holding the whole country—the weak, the sick, the needy —to ransom, which is increasingly the case with this train strike?

My noble friend puts it extremely well and I agree with him completely. It is almost as if this action is designed to punish the travelling public. With the way they are targeting the Christmas period, when a lot of essential engineering work was due to take place to improve the service for the travelling public, and with the way that they are targeting the weeks before Christmas, when they know that many people travel to see their friends and loved ones, it almost seems as if they are positively enjoying the right to inflict damage on the public.