Martin Hannan: Lay down the law on strikes

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Just when you think strikes are a thing of the past, along come two potential bouts of industrial action. One that will affect many people travelling over Christmas and another that will disrupt Scotland’s courts.

As someone who was a shop steward and union office bearer for half his working life, and who spent weeks on picket lines at Christmastime, I can tell you that no-one goes on strike for the fun of it, certainly not over Christmas.

I long ago concluded that striking should always be the very last resort of workers in an industrial dispute, and when appropriate – and that is most of the time – both parties should be compelled by law to go to binding arbitration.

There’s a good reason why I think most working people would accept that principle of binding arbitration – they know that striking very rarely works and that an intransigent management will always win, even if they destroy their business in the long run. Binding arbitration is also detested by management, which is a sure pointer in its favour.

The planned rail strike by members of the RMT union in support of their sacked colleague, Scott Lewis, is a classic old-style “blue collar versus white collar” dispute that binding arbitration could resolve.

Management at First ScotRail decided Mr Lewis had breached company policies in his treatment of a passenger, and the ticket examiner was dismissed, never to be employed by the company again, come what may.

The RMT, led by general secretary Bob Crow, perhaps the last of the old-school union leaders, has voted to strike in support of their colleague, though the ballot was ignored by some 65 per cent of the union’s membership.

There’s a possible solution to the impasse, but who will have the guts to do what is needful? According to Railnews magazine: “Excerpts of CCTV evidence seen by the union do not back the management case one iota and despite requests, the company have refused to release the full CCTV tapes to RMT or Scott Lewis.”

There you have it in a nutshell – the CCTV evidence exists to prove or disprove Mr Lewis’ innocence. Forget all that CCTV law and Data Protection stuff – when hundreds of thousands of people are going to have their lives disrupted, the only “law” that should matter is the court of public opinion.

So let the full unexpurgated CCTV evidence be made public. Mr Lewis and the union cannot object to that, surely, and then the full membership of the RMT, the public and an arbitration tribunal can decide on the sacked man’s innocence or otherwise.

The other strike is by Scotland’s lawyers, with the Edinburgh Bar Association to the fore in saying at the weekend that they will not provide duty cover at police stations from now until March.

The lawyers are objecting to planned cuts in legal aid while, at the same time, they are having to do more work at odd hours because of the Cadder ruling that means suspects have the right to have a lawyer present when being questioned by police.

Lawyers also do not want to be debt collectors, as the government wants them to collect cash from clients as a contribution to legal aid costs which, in case anyone has forgotten, were recently shown in an EU report to be the highest per head of population in any country in Europe.

The problem of lawyers having to be on-call round the clock could and should have been sorted years ago, just as it was in England in the early 1990s. But the arrogant Scottish legal establishment didn’t think basic human rights law applied here because our laws were “the best in the world”. Or not, as the case turned out.

There is a simple solution to the legal aid problem – nationalise it. Other countries operate true public defender services, so why can’t we? If we can nationalise the police force in double-quick time, why can’t we create a national independent public defender service staffed by lawyers who would be on call to go anywhere, any time, to ensure that a suspect’s rights are protected.

It could be put together for a lot less than the £150 million-plus per year cost of legal aid, but lawyers hate the idea of such a service because it would be the end of their legal aid meal ticket.

Both sets of strikers want sympathy for their cause – fat chance of that for the lawyers at any rate – but they have forgotten a pretty fundamental fact, which is that they derive a lot of their income from the public purse as the Scottish Government heavily subsidises First ScotRail and pays out legal aid. Tax-paying citizens and companies will be inconvenienced by the train strikes, while guilty people may even walk free from Scottish courts.

Both strikes are unacceptable. It is time for the Scottish Government formed by my party, the SNP, to step in.

The Government should challenge the striking lawyers by going for a national public defender service, and force First ScotRail to go to binding arbitration on the Lewis case.

Indeed, compulsory binding arbitration should be at the core of new Scottish employment laws, though of course we cannot get such Scottish laws until we’re independent. Now there’s a thought.