Prescott enters fray over rights for unions

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THE Deputy Prime Minister intervened last night to try to get the TUC and the CBI to reach agreement over trade-union recognition. John Prescott is understood to have called for more time to be given to the two sides to see if they could strike a deal, even if it means delaying a Cabinet decision.

The Deputy Prime Minister was furious over a report that an deal had been reached between Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, and Tony Blair that 40 per cent of any workforce would have to back recognition before it was granted, not just a majority of those voting in a ballot.

With unions offering a compromise of 30 per cent, Mr Prescott was keen to see more time being given to try to get the two sides to reach an accommodation. Given his close association with the unions, he is anxious that the Government is not accused of overriding the views of the TUC.

"It's an important issue for him," said a source at Westminster.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said the meeting with Mrs Beckett was one of a series and there would be more individually and collectively, before agreement was reached.

Mr Blair told the TUC leadership that, while publication of a white paper on "fairness at work" was imminent, key decisions on union recognition remained to be taken.

Despite attempts to calm speculation, union leaders insisted they had been told by ministerial sources that the Government was hell-bent on introducing a law which would present substantial hurdles to collective- bargaining rights. Downing Street denied ministers had already opted for the 40-per-cent formula, although senior union figures believe that such a proposal will be part of the White Paper.

After the meeting yesterday with John Monks, the TUC general secretary, Mr Blair met representatives of the CBI, which originally wanted more than half of a workforce to endorse recognition, but has apparently accepted the 40-per- cent proportion.

The activity in Downing Street means the proposals could be presented to the Cabinet tomorrow, with a view to publishing the white paper next week.

Some slippage looked likely last night after the intervention of Mr Prescott. Ian Davidson, secretary of the trade-union group of MPs, said he was unable to identify anyone in the Parliamentary Labour Party who backed the 40- per-cent formula.

"We think the Government should be sticking to its manifesto commitment. It shouldn't be doing favours for the CBI."

A 100-strong meeting of the group yesterday decided that while they would avert confrontation, they would not "lie down" and acquiesce over decisions with which they disagreed.

Trade unionists who harboured doubts that the Government had any intention of introducing a law on recognition, were cheered by a comment from the Prime Minister's spokesman who said the Government would be fulfilling its manifesto pledge. That in itself would be a "big step", the spokesman said.