A Bill drafted and introduced by a Conservative lawyer and peer which proposes mandatory arbitration in the high court over proposed industrial disputes in public services was given an unopposed second reading in the lords.
Among those sympathetic to its aims was Lord McNally, who was Downing Street political adviser to prime minister James Callaghan during the 1978-79 'winter of discontent' and is now a Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman.
The mandatory arbitration would be applicable only to designated public services. The right to strike of unions designated by an order made by the secretary of state will be subject to the adjudication of the high court as to whether the proposed industrial action would be excessive or disproportionate as the means to resolve the dispute.
Unless sanction by the high court no designated public service could be disrupted. A prohibition reners unlawful any disruption by collective action at the behest of a trade union whether in contemplation or furtherance of a dispute with an employer or a political dispute with government on a matter of policy, explained Lord Campbell.
The Bill would permit 'proportionate' industrial action where, for example, a reduced or emergency service was left for the public, and substantial hardship or damage would not occur. The Bill would not affect the individual's right to strike or withhold labour.
Lord McNally said his time in Downing Street was probably the highwater mark of trade union power. The influence and access trade unions had in dialogue with government was probably greater than at any other time. Nor was it all bad or negative; Hugh Scalon and Jack Jones made a major contribution to seeing the country through economic crises that raised the question of whether Britain was governable.
The present danger was that the idea that strike action was acceptable in public services such as the Tube, railways, the fire service and schools was creeping back into discussions, said Lord McNally. However, if a teacher went on strike it was not the director of education who was inconvenienced but the working mum who does not know who is to look after her child if the school is closed.
There was a dilemma, he said. The right to strike was strong within our system and one of the bulwarks of democracy was a free trade union movement.
Lord McNally added: 'It would be prudent for the trade unions, particularly in the public services, to think of ways of building into our system a means of getting social justice for their members that does not involve punishing the public at large. There is a limit to the public's patience.
'The British public are slow to anger but they do not like to see power being abused. In some recent disputes, particularly that invoving the Tube, power has been abused. The idea that not liking a certain system of privatisation or code of safety allows one to bring the whole service to a halt and to hurt hundreds of thousands of people is simply not acceptable'.
For the government, Lord McIntosh of Haringey said that in accord with tradition the government would not oppose the Bill's progress in the lords.
He said that in 2001, 510,000 days were lost in industrial disputes. That was the seventh lowest figure since statistics started to be collected in 1891. There were 181 stoppages - the second lowest figure since those figures started to be collected in 1920.
'I must ask the question: what is the problem being indentified of industrial disputes in the public sector? Clearly, there are threats of disputes. There are new leaders of public sector trade unions who have been elected on the basis of threatening greater militancy.
'But the facts do not bear out the claim that there is a new problem of industrial disputes in the public sector', declared Lord McIntosh.
He said he thought the government's Employment Relations Act 1999 was working 'rather well'. It had undertaken to review the Act and that review would begin next month. The results of it would be made public and if any legislation was required as a result, the government intended to act during this parliament.
'So it cannot be said that the government are indifferent to the issue of industrial disputes in the public or in the private sector', added Lord McIntosh.
He commented that Lord Campbell's Bill was profoundly defective in its detail and profoundly wrong in its analysis of the problems and of the action that has been and is being taken to deal with the issues it raises.
Hansard 22 May 2002: Column 863-874