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Damian Green MP: Olympic lessons for the Trade Unions

Green Damian NewDamian Green MP is Minister for Immigration. Follow Damian on Twitter.

We have all spent the last fortnight spreading deserved praise around for sportsmen and women, volunteers who made London a friendly and welcoming place during the Olympics, and those who kept the venues safe and secure. I would like to add to those receiving the praise the men and women who were manning the borders, making Heathrow and our other ports and airports secure while keeping any queues to a minimum. The pundits who predicted a national embarrassment were wrong.

This makes it all the more important that we differentiate the workers at the border from some of their union bosses. The euphoria of the last fortnight should not mean we forget the attempt by Mark Serwotka and the other PCS leaders to call a strike on the day before the Games started, designed to cause maximum chaos at Heathrow as the world arrived. This piece of destructive posturing failed for a number of reasons. The most important was that the members of the PCS were not remotely behind the union leadership. Only 20 per cent turned out in the strike ballot, and of that small minority only just over half voted for a strike.

Faced with that the union bosses backed down at the last moment, trying to hide behind a desperate smoke-screen of non-existent concessions at a meeting three days before the strike date. Mr Serwotka, whose leadership style is an eerie throw-back to the dark days of Arthur Scargill, claimed to have been told at that meeting of 800 new posts to be created in Border Force, and another 300 new posts in the Identity and Passport Service. These claims are false: there was no discussion of additional recruitment at the meeting. Recruitment for extra jobs (not 800) started last May. Nothing new happened as a result of the strike threat.

The hard-working members of the PCS who did not want to strike were no doubt grateful that their national leadership backed down at the last, but they should not be deceived into believing that the strike threat achieved anything in the short term other than public anxiety

In the longer term we should all consider whether this type of union leadership should continue to be allowed to create such anxiety. Over the past 30 years Britain’s private sector has been transformed from a sickly lack of competitiveness to a world class force in many industries. Part of this stems from the union reform of the 1980s. It is not a coincidence that the British car industry is now a net exporter for the first time since before those reforms. Tens of thousands of jobs have been created and preserved because of new flexibilities, and the private sector trade unions are notably more realistic and less ready to resort to strikes. Nothing acts as a spur to such realism more than global competition.

Successive Governments since John Major’s have wrestled with the problem of how to make Britain’s public sector more responsive to its users in the way the best of the private sector has managed. It can be done. The Passport Service used to be a bad joke. It is now award-winning, highly efficient, and has recently reduced the price of a passport by five pounds. Any private sector company would be pleased with that performance. The ideologues on both sides who claim that efficiency and good customer service can only be found on one side of the public/private divide are demonstrably wrong. We need to be as ambitious to improve the public sector as we are for the private sector.        

Which raises the question of whether the public sector unions are ready to move on in the same way. Nothing in the behaviour and rhetoric of the PCS leadership suggests any such ambition. They (and some other unions) appear to want to exploit the inevitable monopolies in the provision of public services to bully and cajole the public in the way that has thankfully disappeared from most areas of British life. If they will not change, then it is time to consider what action is needed to ensure that public services can be delivered well at all times. Compulsory minimum turn-outs in public sector strike ballots are just one idea worth discussing. Sorting out the public sector unions remains a significant challenge. A more reliable public sector would not only contribute to growth, it would significantly raise the quality of life for all of us.


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