ANOTHER VIEW; Junk these union junkets

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The Independent Online
When the cry goes up that "something must be done!" the easiest step for politicians is to form an international organisation which smacks of clear purpose and good intentions. No doubt the International Labour Organisation was founded in 1919 with the best will in the world.

Ann Widdecombe, the employment minister, today flies to Geneva to challenge the ILO's plans to criticise the ban on trade unions at the government's telecommunications listening post GCHQ. She will threaten to pull out altogether. We must face the fact that the ILO's ideals have turned to dust. Its main purpose has become self-perpetuation. Its achievements are questionable. Its cost is exorbitant.

Its most prominent activity is the holding of an annual conference to give public expression to its ideals. By 1994, 175 conventions and 182 recommendations had been adopted covering every aspect of labour-related issues. To any well-trained bureaucrat, this is a triumphant track record.

This year's ILO conference has just begun, and will continue for three weeks. Its other structures include its governing body, supervisory bodies, committees of experts, conference committees, an applications committee, and for all we know a committee of committees. It can resolve and recommend, deratify and denounce.

The UK has recently become a target for Britain's trade unionists who choose to criticise their country from abroad. Margaret Thatcher banned the unions from GCHQ over 10 years ago. This sort of job, vital to national security, is in most countries staffed by military personnel who would enjoy no right to join a trade union.

Yet because of the ban the ILO is threatening to brand the UK by including a "special paragraph" in the conference conclusions, a sanction normally reserved for military dictatorships. The ILO has lost its sense of perspective.

As a result of parliamentary questions which I tabled just before the Whitsun recess, some facts have emerged which question any justification for our continuing membership of this unwieldy body. Its total budget now stands at pounds 176m, of which Britain contributes nearly pounds 8m. The ILO's conference will cost pounds 5.5m this year, and British taxpayers will spend pounds 18,000 on sending trade unionists to attend.

The benefits to the UK are far from clear, although the UK-based consultants who last year received pounds 2.25m worth of financial benefit will no doubt be suitably grateful. If the Labour Party wants to defend an international quango which requires the taxpayer to finance union freebies, then let it say so. The ILO has outlived its usefulness. Its objectivity has evaporated. The UK can better achieve the same aims through the European Community. If the ILO is unable convincingly to re-establish quite what it is "for", then the UK should seriously consider withdrawing from it forthwith.

The writer is Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton.

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