Alex Salmond has branded the UK government “foolish and irresponsible” over its plans for a major inquiry into industrial disputes – and warned he will not allow the police in Scotland to become “politicised” in their handling of such conflicts.
David Cameron ordered the investigation of union tactics in the wake of the bitter dispute which almost led to the closure of the Grangemouth oil refinery, amid accusations of bullying and intimidation by the Unite union.
But the announcement has rapidly turned into a political row, with a Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister warning the inquiry must not be used as a vehicle for “union-bashing”.
Union chiefs have dismissed the probe as “politically” driven to attack Labour via its trade union links; Unite is the party’s biggest financial backer. Unions have
defended “leverage” tactics used against bosses during the Grangemouth dispute.
The investigation will report in six months and is being seen as attempt by the Prime Minister to take a strong line on the unions, after Labour leader Ed Miliband refused to reopen an inquiry into claims of vote-rigging in a Falkirk Westminster constituency, which prompted the Grangemouth dispute.
The review will be led by QC Bruce Carr, who represented British Airways in court when it blocked plans for a Christmas strike by Unite members in 2009.
The Scottish and UK governments came together in a rare show of unity to help save Grangemouth from closure last month.
But the First Minister said that Edinburgh was not consulted on Westminster’s plans for a review.
“To allow such an important matter to be presented as a political manoeuvre is foolish and irresponsible,” Mr Salmond said.
“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.
“The way UK ministers have approached this issue suggests that their interest is less about industrial relations and almost entirely about seeking electoral advantage.
“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.”
Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable has already made it clear he assented to the inquiry only on the basis that it would also examine the practices of “rogue employers” such as blacklisting.
In a further sign of coalition tensions, his party colleague Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has now indicated that the Lib Dems will agree to any recommendations to change the law only if they are convinced it will lead to improved 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 said.
Conservative Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude acknowledged that industrial relations in the UK were generally good, but said key facilities such as 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 added.
“It is a balanced and impartial inquiry looking into what goes on in industrial disputes to see whether the law is adequate.”
The review follows claims that Unite adopted “leverage” tactics in an attempt to “intimidate” executives from refinery owner Ineos, including sending “mobs” of demonstrators to protest outside their homes.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has denied any intimidation and said the union acted within the law.
A Unite spokesman said: “This review is nothing more than a Tory election stunt, which no trade unionist will collaborate with.”
The inquiry will make recommendations about the roles of ministers, bosses and workers in industrial relations and could call for changes in the law.
TUC head of employment rights Sarah Veale said it was clearly “politically driven”.
“It is a completely disproportionate response to one or two instances,” she said.
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: “I need reassurance that this isn’t a political call by Mr Cameron, designed to report near the election.”
The Grangemouth dispute began over the treatment of Unite official Stephen Deans, after allegations he was involved in trying to rig the selection of a Labour candidate in Falkirk West. It escalated to the point that Ineos announced plans to close the petrochemical plant, before a union climbdown saw it saved.