Critics, including a former Conservative employment minister, claimed the Government was preparing to legislate away an inconvenient court ruling that the practice was illegal.
Joining the clamour of opposition from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the TUC, Peter Bottomley, an employment minister from 1984 to 1986, gave notice that he would vote against the proposal, to be debated today as a new clause in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill. Mr Bottomley's opposition is unlikely to spark a wider backbench rebellion, but the clause evoked a welter of criticism yesterday.
Its likely effect would be to encourage more employers to abandon collective bargaining while, according to its opponents, discouraging employees to remain in unions or remain active members.
Coming within weeks of a Court of Appeal ruling that penalising staff for failing to accept personal contracts was unlawful anti-union activity, the clause was hurriedly inserted at the Bill's Third Reading stage in the Lords last month as a 'clarification' measure, to the discomfort of some Tory peers.
Lord Rippon of Hexham said at the time: 'I cannot see any justification for legislating in this way.'
The convoluted clause appears to introduce a presumption that action, such as withholding pay rises, should not be viewed by courts as discrimination on union membership grounds. Mr Bottomley and Frank Dobson, Labour's employment spokesman, condemned it as a move to allow employers to 'bribe' people into giving up the right to belong to an independent trade union.
The appeal was the latest development in legal hearings beginning in 1990 after Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, abandoned collective bargaining and the annual pay round. Staff who refused to sign new personal contracts were told they would not get a pay increase. A similar move against Southampton dock workers, also ruled illegal by the appeal court, was made by Associated British Ports. Both employers have filed appeal petitions to the Law Lords.
Mr Bottomley's claim that the clause was an undemocratic attack on freedom of association was dismissed as 'poppycock' by Michael Forsyth, the Minister for Employment. 'Discrimination against individual workers on grounds of trade union membership will remain illegal,' he said.
But Mr Bottomley said the question was: 'Is it right for people in trade unions to be paid less than people who are not members of trade unions?'
Opponents also emphasised the more subtle knock-on effects. Alex Carlile, the Liberal Democrat employment spokesman, said: 'For people who have left trade unions it will be difficult to rejoin because of the unwritten consequences.'
Leading article, page 19
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