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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 September, 2004, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
Trades Unions
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

On Politics Show, Sunday 12 September, 2004, Jeremy Vine interviewed: Patricia Hewitt, MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

Patricia Hewitt, MP
Patricia Hewitt, MP, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

Jeremy Vine: The minister responsible for trades union legislation, the Trade & Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, joins us now.

Welcome to you.

Patricia Hewitt: Thank you.

Jeremy Vine: Should you not as a party be loving the unions just a bit more?

Patricia Hewitt: We work very closely with the trade unions, just as we work very closely with the CBI, The small business organisations, and so on.

Because we're here to govern for everybody, but we also know that strong modern trade unions, have a very important role to play in the modern work place, which is why we've encouraged them, by changing the law on trade union recognition.

Jeremy Vine: There were 12m union members under Margaret Thatcher as you know, it's almost been halved under this government, over time. What can you do about that?

Patricia Hewitt: Well excuse me, Jeremy, it has almost been halved over the last twenty years.

Jeremy Vine: True.

Patricia Hewitt: Yeah. And given that we've now got nearly two million more people in work than there were seven years ago, when we were elected, actually it ought to be a very good time for trade unions to recruit; particularly with the law that says, if a majority of the work force want it, then they can get union recognition. So, I think it comes down to how the unions can make themselves attractive and engaging to ordinary people at work.

Exactly the same challenge, of course, that we face as a political party. And that's about issues like helping people get more skills, better learning opportunities. It's about helping people get flexible working; all the things that really matter to people at work.

Jeremy Vine: But you can help can't you. As the government, you can say, If you're a worker, join a union, it's a great thing.

Patricia Hewitt: Well what we've said and we say it again in the policy document we're going to be discussing at the Labour Party Conference.

We want strong, modern trade unions, and we know very well that unionised work places, on average, have got better health and safety records, better training. You look at the work of the trade union - learning reps - something else that we created, an gave legal backing to.

Those learning reps are doing a wonderful job, helping people who perhaps didn't get much of a chance at school, to get the skills that are really going to help them get better jobs.

Jeremy Vine: In saying that you're talking about the whole environment. You're not talking to the individual worker, who just needs persuading to join a union, who maybe thinks it's not a very good idea.

And Roger Lyons was saying in Gillian's piece, the Prime Minister should come to the Trades Union Congress, give real support to working people to join relative unions. Why not do that?

Patricia Hewitt: That's exactly what we have been doing with the laws that we've been introducing.

We have said, I've just said it again to you Jeremy, strong modern trade unions have got a very important role, very important place in Britain's economy.

But I don't think it's the Government's job to be the sort of recruiting agent, if you like, for the unions. And I think it is very important that unions ...


Jeremy Vine: The party was born from the unions wasn't it?

Patricia Hewitt: ... of course, but we govern for the whole country. And I think it's very important that unions get out, as many are doing, look at this new Community Union for instance, that's been formed from the old textile union and the old steel union.

Now, they're thinking about new ways of engaging with hard working families, and really offering them what they want because just as we cannot take it for granted that people are going to vote Labour, simply because their parents and grandparents did, unions can't take it for granted that people at work are going to join a union, just because their parents or grandparents did. It's about what the union actually has to offer.

I hope that's what we'll be hearing a lot of from the Trade Union leaders at TUC Congress this week.

Jeremy Vine: Watching that chicken processing plant in Sutton Benger, did you feel any sympathy for the activists who area stuck outside.

Patricia Hewitt: Well of course, you know, I've been a trade union activist myself and it is hard work recruiting, but it comes back to whether unions are seen as really being able to help workers within a factory like that, or any other work place, deal with the particular problems that they've got.

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) But it might the employers, the employers might just think well, we don't want them here. We don't like them.

Patricia Hewitt: Well, it is a matter for the employer obviously, to decide who is going to be allowed in to the work place, and under what conditions. Let me say that within my own organisation, within the Department of Trade and Industry, I have been talking recently to the TUC about a group of workers I'm very concerned about.

The, almost entirely women, who do the cleaning, on a contract, of course they're paid the minimum wage, but very few of them are in a trade union. So what I'm doing is saying to the Trade Unions, come in to the work place, it will often have to be in the middle of the night because of course that's when these shift workers are working, because these are low paid workers, the need help to get a better deal, they would certainly benefit I think, from Trade Union membership, but that's a decision that they can make.

And what I'm also doing, because I think a good employer should, is to make sure that they will all get a check on what their own individual skills are, and then we will help to make sure that they get some additional skills training, so that in future, they can apply for better jobs than they're doing at the moment.

Jeremy Vine: But what happens if an employer says, well all well and good, but we don't really want to see these union leaders, we've got better things to do. Kevin Curran of the GMB, said in the film, we want to be able to go in to work places, and ask people if they want us to represent them. It is ridiculous we can't walk in to work places.

Patricia Hewitt: Well, many employers are perfectly happy for that to happen. In other situations, unions have to find other ways of communicating and these days, particularly with the Internet, as well as with personal face-to-face communication, there's really no shortage of opportunities to communicate to people.

Jeremy Vine: They shouldn't be outside the gates, as we saw in the film.

Patricia Hewitt: Of course they can be outside the gates. Face-to-face communication is hugely important, I do it in my own constituency, when I go and knock on people's doors. I also telephone them, I also email them, I also use the local newspaper. I also drop leaflets round and so on.

There's a huge range of communication methods, they're all important. But what matters even more is the message and whether people feel that the union, and indeed the Government, is on their side.

And that's why I think the policy package that we were discussing with the unions, amongst others, at the Policy Forum in Warwick in July, was so important because it wasn't about that backward looking agenda that David Coates was quite rightly criticising. I've never had a constituent say to me, bring back 1970's industrial relations, bring back secondary picketing.

The new agenda, which is what we agreed at Warwick, is all about Government being on the side of hard working families. Making sure for instance that they're getting decent holidays, that they're getting flexible working. And they're getting the opportunities for skills.

Jeremy Vine: It brings us to an interesting point because if you are batting for those hard working families, as the Government. And if the EU has a whole new structure of laws as well, maybe there isn't a role for trade unions in the 21st century in this country.

Patricia Hewitt: I don't accept that for a minute. You know, if you look at the, the inequality in the modern economy, and at one end you've got wonderful employers, you know the hundred best companies to work for, for instance, some unionised, some not.

But all, one way or another, working in partnership with their employees and delivering jolly good standards at work, because they know, that's how they're going to be really successful companies.

But at the other end, you have got a minority of employers who are utterly exploitative. It ends up with the horrors if you like, of those cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay, and in the middle, you've got too many firms, who still aren't doing as well as they could be doing, and ought to be doing by their employees.

And as I said earlier, where you've got a trade union in the firm, you're much more likely to have good health and safety, good training, and if the unions can make that offer to potential members, then there's no reason at all why we shouldn't see union membership increasing again.

Jeremy Vine: But Digby Jones of the CBI says, "when there were millions of unskilled workers, vulnerable to exploitation, unions were essential. But when the labour market is stuffed full of people with a skill, even if not that advanced, unions stuck in the mid set of yesterday's ideology become less relevant." True?

Patricia Hewitt: Well I disagree. I think Digby Jones was wrong to say that unions are irrelevant in the modern work place.

And as I was saying earlier, on issues like health and safety, on training, on opportunities to get better skills, and now on flexible working, actually people at work want very often, a trade union that can help them, not just to get a better deal from the employer they're currently working for, but actually to open up bigger opportunities.

You know, people, well paid, highly skilled people, very often have careers consultants, or mentors, all these sources of support and advice.

Why on earth shouldn't the vast majority of working people have that kind of help and advice available to them?

Jeremy Vine: (overlaps) This is as close as you're going to get to saying workers join a union, isn't it?

Patricia Hewitt: And actually, the best way, the best way, one of the best ways they will get that help and advice, is by joining a trade union. If they're unemployed, they'll get it from the personal adviser we provide through Job Centre Plus.

But the unions, and unions like Community are doing this, can offer exactly that kind of career counselling if you like, as well as representation in the work place. And I think that's what millions of people at work really want, to help them get better jobs, and indeed get in to better work places.

Jeremy Vine: Okay, I just want to move if I can to events in the last week. You've all returned from your summer holidays and we have almost immediately had more evidence of trouble between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.

There's yet more in the Sunday Times today, with Gordon Brown's former aide, Derek Scott saying this, The Chancellor's team was far more likely to volunteer the contents of the Budget to journalists, than to their opposite numbers next door in Number 10. My goodness, you've only been back a week.

Patricia Hewitt: Well I think you'll find Jeremy that Derek was the Prime Minister's aide rather than Gordon Brown's, wasn't he?

But in any case, he's interested in selling a book, and the press have a perennial interest in this political soap opera, that just absorbs the Westminster Village.

All the people I've talked to in my own constituency in the last few days, not one of them has mentioned it.

And I think one reason why all this gossip and nonsense, dominates so much of the media is that there is no ideological divide.

Jeremy Vine: Well that's what I'm ...


Patricia Hewitt: ... no fundamental disagreement in the government.

Jeremy Vine: But isn't it the case that it's not actually personal bickering. There's something more serious there. There is a difference of opinion at least, over, let us say, issues to do with choice, and equality, and so on. There's something going on at the heart of Labour, which is genuinely interesting here.

Patricia Hewitt: Well Jeremy, I have sat, I've been involved in these Cabinet discussions for the last three or four years and in government for longer.

And I also remember, as a Labour Party activist, the days of earlier Labour governments, just look at the Barbara Castle diaries, where there were bitter, bitter divisions, ideological struggles, within government, just as there were in the Conservative governments, particularly over Europe.

And the truth of the matter is that that fundamental sort of ideological division simply doesn't exist within Tony Blair's Labour government, and of course, we all discuss and we all contribute our own ideas and perspective on priorities, and on timing and on emphasis. But the fundamental ideological division that people are trying to pretend is there, simply doesn't exist.

Jeremy Vine: But we know don't we from the Foundation Hospital debate that Alan Milburn was essentially saying, give people choice over which hospital they go to, and Gordon Brown was saying, well no, let's get all hospitals in all areas to be improved at an equal pace.

Now there's a difference there. It may not be a fundamental ideological division, but it's not harmful to the Government is it, for you to just acknowledge, that there are differences.

Patricia Hewitt: Well, of course, there were discussions about that. There were disagreements on the exact role of Foundation Hospitals and how rapidly you proceeded and how you dealt with, frankly, some very technical issues about borrowing and so on.

Jeremy Vine: Not just that, not just that.

Patricia Hewitt: But you'd expect that kind of discussion. But on the central issues, the need to reform and keep improving our public services, the need to give people much more personal choice and control in their lives, whether it's control over their working hours, whether it's eight days more holiday, as we're going to be offering.

Or whether it's a better choice of the public services, the health and the education services they get - everyone is agreed on that.

Jeremy Vine: So we're left then in a position when Ian McCartney, the Labour Chairman talks about poisonous briefings, it's nothing to do with policy that. It's to do with people actually not liking each other. It's as simple as that is it?

Patricia Hewitt: Well, I remember Jeremy, before the 1992 General Election, when we were in opposition, and there were friends of the late John Smith, there were friends of other people, going around playing this ridiculous game about who was going to be the future leader.

That kind of gossip is frankly a waste of time and a distraction from the central job of making sure that at the next election, we've got a really radical and exciting manifesto, that will engage people's enthusiasm, and give us that third term to deliver for them.

NB:This transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.

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