The Vice-President ( Mr John Edmonds ): I now call on your President, Hector
MacKenzie, to address Congress. Hector. ( Applause )
The President: Colleagues, this week marks the end of my year as your
President, and it has been a year that I have thoroughly enjoyed.
My personal journey from the Blackpool Winter Gardens to the Brighton Centre,
on your behalf, has taken in such locations as Helsinki, Killarney, Cairo and
even Bridlington. The geographically minded will have noticed that all of
them are beside the sea, a lake or a river and, as my colleagues in UNISON and
on the General Council will know, I am only ever completely at ease when I can
hear the sound of the ocean - so it is good to be here in Brighton.
I was brought up in a number of the Western Isles of Scotland where my father
was posted as a Principal Lighthouse Keeper. My dad was also Secretary of the
Scottish Lightkeepers Association (later to become part of the T G) and it was
from him that I absorbed trade union values as well as inheriting his loveof
the sea. I know he would be proud of me if he could see me today looking out
over this sea, albeit this morning it happens to be a sea of faces.
I spent some time in the lighthouse service myself before going into nursing,
so you can be assured that I am well enough trained in meteorology to spot any
potential storms that might be blowing up this week as I look out from my
Personally, my appointment to the House of Lords, along with Bill Brett and
David Lea, was a highlight, something that had never occurred to me at the
start of the year, nor indeed at any time in my career. As I said to the
Irish Congress of Trade Unions soon after my appointment, the Lords is a
peculiarly British contribution to democracy whose members are linked with
convicted criminals to be denied the right to vote in general elections. But,
nevertheless, it is an honour to be only the second member of the Lords in the
TUC's history to preside over Congress and I am sure my appointment reflects
credit on the trade union Movement as much as it does on me as an individual.
I have also reflected that it is somehow perhaps appropriate that a former
lighthouse keeper should end his career as a peer. ( Laughter ) Although I
hope at the start of this Congress week I am a little bit less dilapidated
than the peer along to the west of the sea front here, but we will see how I
feel by Thursday afternoon.
Congress, it is customary for Presidents in their opening address to review
the year, to reflect on our successes and areas where we have fallen short of
our ambitions, paying due regard to all areas of policy and to every special
interest. Equality invariably features on the checklist - and rightly so -
but to my mind equality is not just another issue. It must be central to all
that we do.
Last year the most emotional moment of Congress was when Neville Lawrence
spoke from the heart. Earlier this year, with his words still fresh in our
minds, we witnessed a horrificoutbreak of violence against vulnerable
communities in London. I was part of a General Council delegation that went
to visit Brixton and Brick Lane following the bomb attacks on those areas and
we demonstrated our solidarity with those communities, as we did with the
victims of the bomb in Soho. The TUC made absolutely clear where it stood.
We believe in a society that is strengthened by its diversity, that is proud
of the fact that we are all different but equal, and we say that the one thing
we will not tolerate is intolerance itself. I am sure that Congress would
endorse those sentiments today. ( Applause )
I joined the General Council in 1987 and soon won the reputation as a fully
paid-up member of the 'awkward squad', as I pressed the case for the
setting-up of an Equalities Department at Congress House, which was contrary
to the prevailing establishment view at that time. That case was won and I
firmly believe that the TUC is better off as a result. But, despite that
victory and all of the work on equality which has been undertaken in the
intervening years, there is still a long, long way to go.
Equality cannot just be an add-on, it must be a central part of our work,
because how can we appeal to that diverse mix of people that go to make up
today's workforce - men and women, old and young, the variety of access needs,
of every race, belonging to different communities and different sexual
orientations - when we ourselves appear to represent such a limited section of
Yes, we have made advances and, yes, we can set examples and we are doing so.
The proportion of women in the trade union Movement and here at Congress is
rising. We are undertaking race monitoring again this week to see what
progress we are making, if any, in ensuring that we more accurately reflect
the racial composition of trade unions and the workforce.
This week we will be making special efforts to give more of a voice to youth,
and I am pleased that amongst our guestspeakers will be Sir Herman Ouseley,
the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, and Baroness Jay, the
Minister for Women.
But, delegates, let us also ourselves set an example this week in this, our
showcase Conference. Let us see if we can do more to reflect that diversity
in the speakers from this rostrum, and not just in the equality debate but
throughout the week.
Amongst other things, as the first man to undertake general nurse training at
West Cumberland Hospital, and as the first practising general nurse to lead
COHSE, the Confederation of Health Service Employees, I have had a fair bit of
experience in breaking stereotypes and I will be looking to you to break some
stereotypes this week. I will be looking to unions to put forward more women
speakers, more members with disabilities, more black representatives, more
younger delegates, and I hope that by the end of the week we will have gone
some way towards demonstrating that equality and diversity are reality and not
just aspiration. ( Applause )
In emphasising equality, we also make the case for a system of work that
recognises that there is a life outside the factory gate, outside the office
door and beyond the demands of the job. The fact that the new Employment
Relations Act contains a section on family friendly policies sends out a
strong signal in that direction.
We hear a lot about the flexible labour market, but flexibility is not just
about bending over backwards to do what the employer wants. Flexibility is
about knowing that, yes, sometimes work has to come before other commitments,
but sometimes family and other commitments have to come before work. The best
employers recognise that already. The sooner that others do so the better,
and if that needs legal backing so be it. Let there be no complaints of red
tape and over-regulation from those employers who would sooner tie their
employees up in knots than allow them time away from the job to care for a
sick child or an ailing parent.
We know that the new law is not perfect. Some of you have expressed your
reservations in public and in no uncertain terms -and rightly so - but on
this, as on the rest of the Act, let us get the balance right. Let us express
our concerns and let us recognise what has been achieved. Let us say what we
have got falls short of our hopes and of our expectations, but let us also
acknowledge that it is far more than we had before. Let us continue to work
to improve the laws that we now have, but let us also put the law that we have
Above all else, let us use the new legislation to our best advantage and to
the best advantage of our members and our potential members. The new law is
the biggest advance for working people in our generation, but it will only
mean anything if we gear ourselves up to use its provisions. Getting
legislation onto the statute book is just a start; getting it put into
practice in the workplace is what really makes the difference.
There are good signs. We should be proud of the fact that this year, for the
first time in 19 years, there are more trade unionists represented at this
Congress than there were at the last. It is a small step forward, but it is a
step in the right direction and it is one on which we have the chance to
build. But trade union membership does not increase of its own accord. It will
only grow if we devote the energy and if we devote the resources to making it
The Organising Academy is one of our great successes of the past year. Unions
are working together to build organising skills. They are putting the good of
trade unionism above their own union's interests and, let us face it,
membership will not grow if potential members face a bewildering array of
initials and neither, Congress, will membership grow if there is a spectacle
of union officers and activists seeking to do each other down.
Later this morning we will debate the Millennial Challenge. We will look at
how we can create a new trade unionism in a newand warmer climate. We will
need to be realistic about the opportunities - yes, and be realistic about the
dangers too. Sometimes we need to take a courageous step into the unknown.
I was involved in one such step a few years ago when we created UNISON out of
three separate, three different, three very distinctive unions each with a
very proper pride in its own cultures, its own traditions and policies. It
was not easy but it was right that it be done and it has brought great
benefits. The gain is significantly greater than the pain.
I think the time is right for all of us, as a Movement, to take similar
courageous steps. I am not necessarily, Congress, talking about mergers.
What I am talking about is a change of culture, a change of attitude, a change
of approach, so that we will be relevant - relevant to the modern workplace
and relevant to young people.
This is the last Congress of the 20th century. We have a chance to make it
the first of a new and more positive era. Of course, our capacity to grow and
the strength of trade unionism depends to some considerable extent on the
strength of the economy. It is easier for us to recruit and to help our
members fulfil their aspirations for improvements in working conditions and
rising living standards when the economy is growing than when there is a
recession. On the face of it, we now live in what the economists call the
Goldilocks economy, where, like the porridge in the fairy story, growth is not
too hot and it is not too cold.
Inflation is at its lowest level for years and unemployment is at levels that
we have not known since the 1970s, but beneath that calm surface there is a
swirl of currents. We know that in some areas unemployment, and especially
youth and long-term unemployment, remains a problem despite all the best
efforts of the New Deal. We know that manufacturing industry is struggling
against the burden of an overvalued pound. We know that job insecurity is
endemic. We know that the long hours culture is hard to break, as well as
being hard to reconcile with the family friendly noises that we hear from all
So the need for unions to bring some sanity, some sense of order and
equality to this more fragmented, more uncertain world of work has never ever
Our Congress theme this week is partners at work. Trade unionism has always
been about partnership, about working together for the common good. Our
central message must be that if we stick together we are better off than if we
all go our own ways. But in this new and changing world of work, it is not
enough for people in one workplace and in one trade to stick together. We
need to build bigger, stronger partnerships -partnerships between unions,
partnerships with Government, partnerships with pressure groups and, indeed,
partnerships with employers too.
Let me make it clear, partnership with employers is not an easy option. It is
not saying that we are a soft touch, because that we must never be, but it is
a recognition that we have different interests, interests which are not
irreconcilable, and what we share in common is greater than what divides us.
What we share in common is the success of the place where we work, be it in
the public services or in private enterprise. For the simple truth is that we
cannot build a successful trade union Movement on the back of a failing
business. Where business fails then trade unionism will fail too; where
business succeeds then we too have a chance to grow. This is true in services
as much as it is true in manufacturing.
It is true as well, Congress, in the area in which I have been involved for a
great deal of my working life, the National Health Service, and as a Health
Service person allow me to reflect just a little on some of the changes that
have been taking place in that area of national life in which we all have an
interest, usually at the start and at the end of our lives, and in varying
degrees in the space in between.
There is much to be commended about the changes that have taken place in the
Health Service since May 1997: the NHS internal market has ended; thanks to
the hard work of NHS staff,waiting lists are coming down; more money is being
invested; there is a new atmosphere and dialogue at national level;
applications for nurse training are much better for the coming academic year;
there is a commitment to that concept of partnership; there is much good in
the Health of the Nation White papers, in Primary Care Groups, in the National
Institute for Clinical Excellence and in Health Action Zones; and a
successful booked appointments system will be a winner for patients and staff.
There are other great innovations, like the NHS Direct and walk-in clinics,
leading to a predictable, but disappointing, resistance from the British
Medical Association to these nurse-led initiatives.
But there are still areas in the Health Service of potential difficulty. Pay
and working conditions still need much attention. Pay is generally too low,
it is certainly not equitable and we cannot rebuild a quality Health Service
that is flexible and adaptable if porters are paid a pittance and junior
doctors are too exhausted from long hours of duty to give patients the care
that they need.
As for the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the Government has made a number
of changes, all of which I welcome, but more needs to be done and I cannot
help but make it clear that I regard PFI as bad public policy - a short-term
fix to get hospitals built which will add up to a long-term problem which
politicians of the future will have to pick up, and I don't want public
service workers picking up the pieces in the meantime.
But overall it has been a good beginning for the Government with real,
positive improvements as a start to repair the wreckage of 18 years of
neglect, and it is a similar picture elsewhere.
As a Scot I cannot but record my pride and joy at seeing the re-establishment
this year of the Scottish Parliament which I and my family had advocated for
as long as I can remember, even in the post-war days when devolution was
certainly not on anyone's agenda.
As a representative of UNISON, I cannot but record my satisfaction at seeing
the introduction of a national minimum wage, a policy which NUPE, one of
UNISON's constituent unions, had initiated and subsequently long campaigned.
Of course, there are reservations and qualifications about the detail of the
national minimum wage, of course there is scope for improvement, but on this,
as on all the other things I have spoken about, the establishment of a
national minimum wage is a solid achievement that must be acknowledged.
Congress, I began on a personal note and I want to finish here as well. One
of the high points of my year was my visit to the Irish Congress. As a
Highlander whose forebears were subjected to the forcible clearances, potato
famines and emigrant ships of the last century and, not least, because of
language, culture and of course my favourite sport shinty (which is a close
relative of the Irish hurling, for the uninitiated) it is not surprising that
I have got a Celtic affinity with Ireland and with the Irish Congress. The
warmth of their hospitality will stay with me for a very long time.
The commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland was total. The role
which the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress and trade unions in
the North have played for more than thirty years was an island of sanity in a
sea of sectarianism and violence, and their part in taking that peace process
forward seldom receives the recognition it deserves, though at last year's
Congress Mo Mowlam did so, and did so with her own unique sincerity.
The past year has been one in which the peace process has moved forward more
slowly, much more slowly than we had hoped at this time last year, but it is
still on the road and let us work to keep it moving forward. Let those on
this side of the water who dare to criticise the motives of the Prime Minister
and of Mo Mowlam look to the lessons of history, from which they must learn
that it is foolish in the extreme to play British political games about the
North of Ireland, and to do so plays with the lives of the people of Ireland.
A bipartisan political approach atWestminster is vital to a successful outcome
to the peace process.
Perhaps one of the more testing moments of my year as President came during my
visit to Cairo for the Egyptian trade unions national centre centenary. The
usually thorough Congress House briefing neglected to include military
intelligence which might have prepared me for the greeting on my landing in
Egypt, which was to be told that my Government had started bombing Baghdad a
mere one hour before. At that predominantly Arab gathering a broadening of my
Highland accent and an emphasis on the distance of the Western Isles from
London were quickly brought into play! ( Laughter ) Seriously though, the
hospitality and the kindness of the Egyptians was magnificent.
Congress, apart from that tiny lapse, the support I have received from all of
the staff at Congress House, and from my own staff at UNISON, has helped me no
end in seeing me through a very memorable year.
It is, indeed, a great privilege to chair Congress. I thank you for your
attention. I hope I have not pre-empted too many speeches and, more
importantly, I hope that not too many of you seek the right of reply to my
remarks. But my very best wishes to you all and thank you very much indeed.