Blair on the spot as Hague displays flexibility on unions

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WILLIAM HAGUE is to signal another major shift in Tory policy towards the Government's proposed employment legislation with tacit backing for a law on union recognition.

On Monday in the Commons the Conservative leader will call for a stringent test of support before recognition is granted, rather than register his implacable opposition to the whole policy.

Mr Hague will urge that half of the total workforce should vote for union representation before it is granted, rather than half of those who vote in a ballot.

His call echoes a argument made by the Confederation of British Industry in its submission to ministers, and places Tony Blair in a difficult position.

While the Prime Minister may favour placing relatively high barriers in the way of recognition - and will not be discomforted by siding with the CBI - he might draw the line at agreeing with the Opposition. An intense debate over the precise nature of the majority required has been carried on in private between union leaders and ministers.

Mr Hague's change of tack follows his comments recently that, while he opposed the introduction of a national minimum wage, he would not seek to repeal the law in government. His return to the theme of employment policy will come on Monday, when the Tories have chosen to debate union recognition.

Ken Jackson, leader of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, accused the Tory leader of a retreat. "The road to Damascus is becoming congested. If this is the latest Tory U-turn, I welcome it."

His organisation is currently threatening strike action in a recognition dispute at ADT Fire and Security in the run-up to the publication of the "Fairness at Work" White Paper, which will contain proposals for a union representation law.

The newly merged ADT has decided to withdraw recognition from the engineering union on the basis that it only covers 7 per cent of the new group's 4,400 workforce.

The union however claimed that it represented 90 per cent of the engineers at one of the constituent companies and still has more than half at the new group.

The AEEU's dispute illustrates one of the other principal concerns expressed by trade unionists over the planned law. It is thought the Government might favour the CBI's contention that employers should be able to draw up the "constituencies" for ballots on recognition.

In the ADT case the union believes the constituency should simply consist of engineers, but managers argue that it should involve the whole workforce. Unions are also concerned the Government may exclude small firms from the legislation and allow companies to lure employees away from collective agreements through personal contracts.