Inside Parliament: Claims of paying the piper strike a sour note: - Public disclosure of large donations to political parties rejected - Move on union members likened to fate of Tolpuddle Martyrs - Smith the Scottish barrister gets a law lecture

Click to follow
Indy Politics
Images of a political system bankrolled by Asil Nadir, the fugitive tycoon, and John Edmonds, the trade union leader, were set before the Commons yesterday as MPs slipped seamlessly from a Question Time clash over party funding to a debate on collective bargaining rights.

The Prime Minister rejected a call from John Smith, the Labour leader, for legislation to require public disclosure of all large donations to political parties. 'Donations to the Conservative Party are freely offered and they are accepted on that basis - unlike the way so much is donated to the Labour Party,' John Major said.

His new Secretary of State for Employment, David Hunt, mounted further retaliation during consideration of Lords' amendments to the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill, describing Labour as 'a fully paid-up subsidiary of the trade union movement'.

If Labour wished to escape that accusation, it should break the link, Mr Hunt said. 'It is not very long ago that John Edmonds (general secretary of the GMB general union) said, 'We pay for the Labour Party and therefore we have a right to democracy in the Labour Party'.

'It is time that the trade union movement gave up shouting, 'He who pays the piper calls the tune' . . . Mr Edmonds let the rat out of the bag. What he said is the true state of affairs.'

Mr Hunt's attack had two purposes, countering accusations over the Nadir affair and temporarily diverting attention from a controversial government amendment to the Bill allowing employers to pay workers more if they sign personal contracts and abandon collective bargaining. Peter Bottomley, a former Conservative employment minister, joined Labour and the Liberal Democrats in opposing the amendment, arguing that it negated the benefits of trade union membership and undermined the right to free association.

'If it gets through the House, I believe it will be reversed in the same way that the exportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 was reversed three years later.'

Mr Bottomley crossed swords with Patrick Nicholls, another ex-minister and now a Tory vice-chairman, who referred to him in an intervention as 'the honourable gentleman' rather than 'my honourable friend' as is customary between party colleagues. 'One chooses one's friends, I put the point in the way I wish to,' Mr Nicholls said when Labour MPs reacted to the lapse.

Mr Bottomley replied: 'It is very silly for people in the same party, when they have a disagreement, to resort to the sort of personal abuse which is uncharacteristic of members of this House. When I was a minister, Mr Nicholls was one of those who thought I was doing the wrong thing on wages councils (defending them). I don't think that as members of the Conservative Party we do the wrong things when we speak up for those who may want to band together for collective strength.'

Mr Bottomley followed his principle and voted against the amendment while his wife, Virginia, Secretary of State for Health, voted in favour. It was approved by 297 votes to 275.

Mr Hunt insisted that the amendment to the Bill was 'imperative' in order to clarify the law following two recent Appeal Court rulings. On 30 April the court ruled that Associated Newspapers and Associated British Ports had acted unlawfully when they changed their negotiating arrangements. The companies changed from collective bargaining to personal contracts, rewarding employees who agreed to accept personal contracts. To Labour MPs and Alex Carlile, for the Liberal Democrats, this was simply 'a bribe', and without collective bargaining, trade union membership was pointless.

Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said the whole thing 'stinks to high heaven. The truth is this government rattles on about a classless society but what they are doing today is to give the bosses a chance to be able to deduct wages from union members while the blue- eyed boys and girls get more money.'

But Mr Hunt maintained there was distinction between collective bargaining and the right to belong to a union, which was not affected. 'It has always been possible for an employer to give an incentive to an employee to engage in individual contracts rather than negotiate through collective bargaining . . . or to derecognise a trade union.'

Accusing the Government of 'introducing victimisation by Act of Parliament', Frank Dobson, Labour's employment spokesman, noted Mr Hunt's 'newspaper reputation for liberalism and decency' and looked forward to seeing some evidence of it. He declared his own interest as an MP sponsored by the RMT transport union, which made a 'substantial contribution' towards his election expenses and to the salary of his agent. 'It is only those who are ashamed of the sources of their funds who need to keep them secret.'

Mr Dobson said the Government wanted to make it lawful for employers to bribe employees to give up their right to union representation. 'This corrupt government wants to make corruption part of the law of the land.'

John Smith had pursued a similar theme at Question Time when he asked what changes in the law the Prime Minister was considering on the disclosure of secret donations to political parties - 'given the continuing scandal over the pounds 1.5m donated to the Conservative Party by Asil Nadir?'

To shouts of 'Maxwell' from Tory backbenchers, Mr Major said the Labour leader might occasionally care to comment on some of the people who might have donated money to his party. 'I have no proposals for present changes in the law.'

Mr Smith demanded: 'Why does the Prime Minister refuse to introduce legislation requiring public disclosure of all substantial donations paid to all political parties, so that political parties who receive them have to declare them?

'In addition to putting political contributions on an open and honest basis, would it not also prevent the breaches of company law which occurred in the case of Mr Nadir, whose companies apparently made seven illegal donations amounting to pounds 440,000 to the Conservative Party?'

In a law lecture to the Scottish barrister, Mr Major replied that under the Companies Act the requirement to declare donations to parties fell upon the company directors. Mr Smith was wrong, the payment itself would not be unlawful, only the failure to declare it the company accounts. 'And that is a matter for the company, not the recipients.'

But Mr Smith was not letting go. 'If the Conservative Party had had to disclose it, the breach would have been revealed when the company acted illegally,' he said.

'You cannot sweep this matter under the carpet. There are people in this country who believe that it is wrong that political parties should be financed in a furtive way or financed by excessively large donations from those who are not prepared to be publicly identified.'

Parliamentary custom allows Mr Smith three Question Time shots, and that was his last. Mr Major had only to block it with a swipe at donations to the Labour Party and then he was on to easy ground with a question from a friendly backbencher, Edward Garnier, the MP for Harborough, inviting him to welcome the forthcoming visit of the President of Azerbaijan.

(Photograph omitted)