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Lib Dem warning on unions inquiry

A Liberal Democrat cabinet minister has warned that a Government-backed inquiry into the conduct of industrial disputes must not be used as a vehicle for "union-bashing".

David Cameron ordered the review into the tactics used by the unions in the wake of the bitter dispute which almost led to the closure of the Grangemouth oil refinery, amid accusations of bullying and intimidation.

Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has already made clear he only assented to the inquiry, headed by the industrial relations lawyer Bruce Carr QC, on the basis that it would also examine the practices of employers.

In a further sign of coalition tensions, his party colleague Danny Alexander, the Treasury Chief Secretary, has now indicated that the Lib Dems will only agree to any recommendations to change the law if they were convinced they would lead to an improvement in industrial relations.

"If there are measured, sensible, prudent reforms that could help to improve the industrial relations landscape yet further, I'd be up for that. What I'm not up for is a bunch of union-bashing," he told Sky News's Murnaghan programme.

The review follows claims the Unite union adopted so-called "leveraged" tactics in an attempt to intimidate executives from Ineos, the refinery's owners, including sending "mobs" of demonstrators to protest outside their homes.

The Conservative Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude acknowledged that industrial relations in the UK were generally good, but said that key facilities like Grangemouth had to be protected.

"At Grangemouth we were talking about the energy supplies to much of Scotland. This is part of Britain's critical national infrastructure so we can't be relaxed about that," he told the Murnaghan programme.

"It is a balanced and impartial inquiry looking into what goes on in industrial disputes to see whether the law is adequate.

"This is not saying that everything is wrong. It is saying there's been some evidence provided, some allegations made and so-called leveraged practices which involve in some cases quite unpleasant examples of intimidation against fellow workers and against management. That's not acceptable.

"We need first of all to establish the facts and then to see whether the law needs changing."

TUC head of employment rights Sarah Veale dismissed the inquiry, insisting that it was clearly "politically driven".

"It is a completely disproportionate response to one or two instances. It is really quite disgraceful that the Government is pretending that there is a real public interest concern here. There isn't," she told the Murnaghan programme.

She also defended Unite's tactics in the Grangemouth dispute - including reportedly sending demonstrators brandishing a large inflatable rat to protest outside the home of one Ineos executive.

"There is a long established tradition in a civilised democracy like the UK that people can express their views in a peaceful, law-abiding way. That's what the union is doing," she said.

"They are simply disseminating information. Intimidation is a ridiculous word to use. I wouldn't be intimidated by being given a leaflet or by people standing with a large plastic rat near to my house."

Ministers have said they want Mr Carr - who will sit with two assessors, one representing the employers and one from the unions - to complete his report within six months of starting.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham said he wanted reassurances that the move was not a "political call".

He told BBC One's Sunday Politics show: "Of course if there's been intimidation it's unacceptable and that should apply to unions as well as employers.

" I think I need reassurance that this isn't a political call by Mr Cameron designed to report near the election, so you know we'll see how this develops."

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, criticised the the UK Government plan.

" The Scottish Government has not been consulted on this review and regret the way it has been announced by UK minister," he said.

"There are of course legitimate issues that should be addressed in relation to industrial relations and the operation of our key national infrastructure. However, to allow such an important matter to be presented as a political manoeuvre is foolish and irresponsible.

"There are also internal issues for the Labour party to sort out, with regard to how they allowed an internal selection battle in Falkirk to spill over into industrial relations in Grangemouth, to the great detriment of the workforce and potentially the entire Scottish economy.

"However, these are properly matters for the Labour party.

"The way UK ministers have approached this issue suggests that their interest is less about industrial relations and almost entirely about seeking electoral advantage.

He added: "Finally, on the remit of this review. Police Scotland is more than capable of administering the law. They act impartially and there must be no attempt to politicise their role. Indeed, the Scottish Government will not allow that to happen.

"The key to successful industrial relations is co-operation and understanding between employer and employee. The role of government is to foster that atmosphere which means that you have to be trusted by both. The Scottish Government is. The UK Government is not."


From Belfast Telegraph