BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.02.02

Interview: JOHN WHITTINGDALE, Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary.

Reveals that the Conservatives are considering new curbs on the right of public service workers to strike.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Iain Watson reporting there. As he said, any increase in trade union militancy that affects the public services is bound to be embarrassing for the Labour Government. Naturally enough, the Tories are trying to add to that embarrassment. But wasn't Margaret Thatcher supposed to have curbed union power for ever. Their Trade and Industry Spokesman, is John Whittingdale. And I will get to that particular question in a minute, Mr Whittingdale, but you are getting rather steamed up about all of this, aren't you, and it's quite hard in some ways to see why. I mean looking at...doing some of the figures, last year, there were half a million days lost in this country to strikes, rather fewer than that. In 1979, there were twenty-nine million days lost through strikes, are you getting a bit over worked up? JOHN WHITTINGDALE: Well, I think you're right that we need to keep it in perspective. We are not seeing another winter of discontent of the kind that we had in the late '70s. But I do think that we are beginning to see an upsurge in union militancy and we are now seeing strikes, we've seen strikes being held on the trains, which have caused huge distress and problems for commuters. We've had a strike ballot now, approving industrial action in the Post Office. We've got strikes going on at benefit offices, we've got talk of strikes on the London Underground, and there just seems to be that we are slowly slipping back to a position of industrial conflict, which it looked as if we'd left long, long behind. HUMPHRYS: But if talks break down, unions have a right to do something about it, to take industrial action, to go on strike if it comes to that. That should be their right, shouldn't it? WHITTINGDALE: Yes, I think in the main, unions do have the right to strike, but management also have the right to respond to a strike and I think one of our principle complaints would be that the balance has been tipped in the last few years, towards the unions. When the Conservative Party left office, we had carried out a number of trade union reforms and as a result, we had probably the best state of industrial relations that we'd had for many years, strikes had been reduced hugely. Now, the Labour Government have carried out one or two measures, for instance they have introduced a new requirement whereby employers are no longer able to dismiss strikers for eight weeks, at the beginning of a dispute. They have also introduced a statutory recognition of trade unions, so employers are forced to recognise trade unions. There is also a new measure coming in to recognise the new kind of union official, the union learning representative. All these things taken together, are beginning to tip the balance back in favour of the trade unions, and as a result you are seeing growth in trade union membership and also growth in strike action. That is exactly what we said would happen if they did this. HUMPHRYS: So, would you scrap them, or not bring them in, all of those things? WHITTINGDALE: Well, obviously we will need to look at the position when we take office once again. But, to give a specific example, the measure I referred to, the eight week limit during which employers can't take action against strikers, that was a new innovation, it had never existed in law before until this government took office. The government is now under pressure to extend it further. There is a debate taking place this coming Tuesday where the Chairman of the Trade Union Group of Labour MPs, is moving an amendment to make that an indefinite period, it's to extend the eight week period.. HUMPHRYS: But that wouldn't go through. I mean would you get rid of the eight week thing?. WHITTINGDALE: I don't know whether or not it will go through... HUMPHRYS: Well, alright, whether it would or not, would you get rid of the eight week thing? WHITTINGDALE: Well, we will be tabling an amendment on Tuesday to remove the eight week limit and restore the position to what it was when we left office. HUMPHRYS: Theresa May - you say unions are allowed to strike, you could hardly say anything else I imagine to a broad question like that. But Theresa May wants a no strike agreement on the London Underground. How do you get that, if the unions don't buy into it? WHITTINGDALE: Well, I think the London Underground is a special case. It is a monopoly service, owned by the public sector, where there is very little alternative and we've seen with the strikes that have recently taken place, the enormous misery that has been inflicted on London commuters. So, I think we are entitled to look at it slightly differently. The government has come forward with its own proposals which involve a huge amount of public money over the next few years and I think we are entitled to say that there should be some kind of return for that public money. So we have criticised what the government have come up with because it doesn't have these requirements that we would like to see, requirements for safety, for reliability, but also a no strike agreement, because I think that, some of the other alternatives which we might look at and are not available in the London Underground and we've seen that it can cause huge damage to London and therefore, we would be looking for some kind of no strike agreement. HUMPHRYS: Well, you better read Norman Tebbit's book in that case because...his autobiography, the one he wrote himself, because he looked at it, he told us in that book, while when he was in power, Norman Tebbit, not exactly, I think you'd have to agree, a softie, where the trade unions were concerned, and he said, it would be, and I quote "wildly expensive and unenforceable". WHITTINGDALE: Well, there are disadvantages to most... HUMPHRYS: ...pretty big disadvantages...unenforceable... WHITTINGDALE ....previous Conservative governments have looked at this in the past and haven't done it but I think that the kind of action that we have seen in recent times, particularly in the London Underground, has caused such disruption..... HUMPHRYS: ....strikes always do.. WHITTINGDALE: ...that are able to look at this again. Will I think the London Underground is a particular case because there is no alternative for most commuters. HUMPHRYS: But Tebbit says unenforceable, can't be done. WHITTINGDALE: Well I think in the main he is right to point to disadvantages and obviously that is something we are going to have to look at. HUMPHRYS: That's not just a disadvantage, that kills it stone dead. WHITTINGDALE: I don't think it is enforceable. I mean actually in the case of the Underground, if you look at the experience in America, in New York, they have a no strike agreement on the New York Underground. HUMPHRYS: They agreed to it. WHITTINGDALE: Well, and I hope that they would agree to it in this case as well. Obviously, the first thing that we will be looking to do, is to try and achieve agreement to have some kind of no strike understanding and certainly during the film we've just seen, Ken Jackson, for instance, seemed to be willing to at least consider something like that. HUMPHRYS: Right, but if they wouldn't, you'd be prepared to enforce it, or try to enforce it. WHITTINGDALE: I think ultimately, if agreement is impossible, then obviously we have to keep the option of legislation as a fall-back, but I hope it wouldn't be necessary, and we would be investing a lot of money into the tube in return for it, and it would need some kind of arrangement like arbitration, perhaps pendulum arbitration, but these are things that we will need to look at, but what I think is important is that the kind of experience that we've had unfortunately only too recently, something has to be done to give protection to London commuters. HUMPHRYS: Iain Duncan Smith wants, apparently, to go even further that. He said that strikes in certain essential services should be banned altogether. WHITTINGDALE: Well, a ban on strikes in essential services is one option. There are a number of different options and Iain actually mentions several of those in his recent comments. I think where it comes to essential services, we are entitled to look again at the law and examine a number of these options. To give you an example, perhaps one way of addressing it might be to have some kind of minimum service requirements, so that yes, unions would be entitled to take strike action, but they would be required to still maintain a minimum service. Now that happens in a number of other European countries.... HUMPHRYS: would still be a ban on striking though, wouldn't it, therefore... WHITTINGDALE: ...well it would a ban on all out total strike, but that is a, that is one particular option, but it's also another... HUMPHRYS: ...but it's the bans on all out total strikes that work isn't it, because there's no point on having a ban on everything when people don't want to travel at any particular time so we can have the services, there'd be no point in that, would there? WHITTINGDALE: Well I think a requirement to maintain a minimum service would still allow a union obviously to take action and to put considerable pressure on the management, but it would provide some kind of protection to the commuter or to the London tube passenger, or to the person who's going to suffer as a result. HUMPHRYS: So you're looking at that seriously are you? Just to deal with that before you move onto another... WHITTINGDALE: It is certainly an option that we would wish to look at alongside various other options, perhaps a 'cooling off' period in between a strike ballot taking place and an all out strike starting, so I mean, what I'm not in a position to do is come and give you a detailed .... HUMPHRYS:, I understand that. WHITTINGDALE: ...but obviously, when you have cases overseas in Europe, where we have something like minimum service requirements, or in America where we have 'no strike' agreements in the tube, those are things we're going to look at to see whether or not we could apply them in this country too. HUMPHRYS: Tony Blair says, indeed he said it I think on Sky Television this morning, 'taking away the right to strike wouldn't work, it causes more problems than it cures.' WHITTINGDALE: Well it is something that we would only look at in very specific cases, and you would need to judge this on a case-by-case basis, but the government I believe are at least in part responsible for the position that we are now in, and we have to look at what is happening now, not what's going to be happening in four years time, and we are seeing this growing level of union militancy, which is causing great suffering to the people who are most affected, that's the passengers, the commuters, and I think the government has contributed to that, because they have given additional powers to the trade unions and it is hardly surprising that if you give more power to trade unions, then they will use it. HUMPHRYS: Why is all this necessary, in this sense. You've been saying for many years, boasting some might say, that Margaret Thatcher sorted out the unions all those years ago, and she made, she did other things. She made the link, the funding link, the relationship between the unions and Labour transparent, she did all sorts of things and sorted them out. Why is it necessary to revisit all of this now? WHITTINGDALE: Because I think of the changes that have been made which are beginning to tip the balance back towards the unions. I would entirely agree, I think the trade union reforms which Margaret Thatcher brought in, did usher in a period of very good industrial relations, but the government have begun to give more powers back to the unions and as a result we're seeing growing strike action. And you're right to identify the point about funding as well, one has to look at the fact that in the last year the Labour Party received nine million pounds from the trade unions, now at a time when their membership is falling, when they're finding it harder to raise money, nine-million pounds delivers a huge amount of influence, and there is I think a concern that the unions are now demanding their payback, and that a lot of these measures that we're seeing the government come forward with, to give more power to the trade unions, are in a sense the payback to the unions for the finance that they give the Labour Party. HUMPHRYS: ...except that they have been cutting the amount they get from trade unions and they've been going to business as well, or rather instead of, in some cases, and you've attacked them for that as well? WHITTINGDALE: Nobody would attack the Labour Party or the Conservative Party for seeking donations. I think where our concern lies is what happens as a result of those donations, and we have seen a number of stories about government policy being changed in favour of companies or individuals who have given money to the Labour Party and there is one in the newspapers this morning, the story in the Sunday Telegraph about the letter that the Prime Minister sent to the Romanian Government about a bid from a individual living in this country who was also a major Labour Party contributor, and I think that that does raise serious questions which need to be examined. HUMPHRYS: John Whittingdale, thanks very much indeed. WHITTINGDALE: Thank you.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.